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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, August 21, 2018 2:30 pm

Fact check: Giuliani's Pinocchio-laden interview on 'Meet the Press'

GLENN KESSLER | Washington Post

"The meeting [at the Trump Tower in 2016] was originally for the purpose of getting information about Clinton. . . .That was the original intention of the meeting. It turned out to be a meeting about another subject and it was not pursued at all."

"Any meeting with regard to getting information on your opponent is something any candidate's staff would take. If someone said, 'I have information about your opponent,' you would take that meeting."

"She didn't represent the Russian government. She's a private citizen. I don't even know if they knew she was Russian at the time. All they had was her name. . . . They didn't know she was a representative of the Russian government." -- Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, appearing on NBC's " Meet the Press ," Aug. 19, 2018

Giuliani, who is a lawyer for President Donald Trump, asserted at one point in this TV appearance that "truth isn't truth." He later explained he was referring to "the situation where two people make precisely contradictory statements, the classic 'he said, she said' puzzle."

OK. But there were three other key points he made in that interview that are worth exploring. It's not a question of he said, she said, but actually how the Trump administration has mangled the truth, repeatedly, about a meeting at Trump Tower in 2016.

The facts

* The purpose of the meeting was 'getting information on Clinton'

Giuliani said that the original purpose of the meeting was to get information on Trump's opponent, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, but that it turned out not to be the case. Attendees at the meeting with a Russian lawyer included key members of Trump's inner circle, including then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr.

Readers should not forget that this is not what the Trump White House originally said. Instead, in a statement, Trump Jr. insisted that "it was not a campaign issue at the time."

He said that "we primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government."

Now, however, Giuliani has turned that original explanation on its head. He claims the original purpose was a campaign issue -- getting dirt on Clinton -- and then it ended up being about adoptions.

We know this only because, under pressure, Trump Jr. was forced to release the emails regarding the meeting.

The first email, on June 3, 2016, via British citizen and music publicist Rob Goldstone, said: "The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."

Within 20 minutes, Trump Jr. responded: "If it's what you say, I love it."

(Note: "Aras" refers to Aras Agalarov, the father of Russian pop star Emin Agalarov and a real estate developer who worked with Trump on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.)

Recall also that the Trump campaign's initial statement about Russian contacts, via then-spokeswoman Hope Hicks, was a flat denial after a Russian government official was quoted as saying the Russians had contact with members of Trump's entourage before the election: "It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign."

So, apparently to preserve the original denial of any contacts with Russians, administration officials first misled Americans about the purpose of the meeting.

* 'Something any candidate's staff would take'

Even if administration officials initially misled about the purpose of the meeting, Giuliani then asserts this was the normal type of meeting that any campaign would have. Campaigns certainly look for opposition research on their rivals, but accepting help from a foreign government appears to cross a line.

The legal ramifications are in dispute. Some experts argue it is a crime for any person in a campaign to "solicit" the contribution of "anything of value" from a foreign citizen, while others insist the laws are not that clear-cut. We will leave that for the special prosecutor to sort out.

But in any case, it is disingenuous to claim this is standard campaign behavior. Stuart Stevens, chief strategist for the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign (and now a Trump critic), said if he had gotten a message that a foreign government had dirt on a former secretary of state, "I would have told a campaign lawyer, and the campaign lawyer would have called the FBI."

Stevens pointed to an incident during the 2000 campaign, when he was part of George W. Bush's media team, as the appropriate response by a campaign.

The Bush campaign had a tightly held briefing book to prep Bush for his debates with then-Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee. There were only seven or eight debate books, each with a specific typo on the opening page so a leak could be traced, he said.

Someone associated with the campaign anonymously shipped a copy of the 120-page book, along with a 60-minute videotape of mock debate sessions, to Tom Downey, then a congressman from Long Island who was assisting Gore with the debates and playing the role of Bush in mock debates.

Downey said he quickly realized what the materials were and contacted a lawyer, who called the FBI so it could take possession of the materials. Downey then recused himself from any further debate prep -- a move that Stevens said probably hurt the Gore campaign because Downey was so central to the preparation.

A woman who worked for media consultant Mark McKinnon, a colleague of Stevens', was eventually charged and sentenced to a year in jail.

"It's not a close call" about how a campaign should react, Stevens said.

* 'They didn't know she was a representative of the Russian government'

Here's where Giuliani's spin goes off the rails -- and is self-contradictory. While he says the meeting was to get dirt on Clinton, and it was perfectly fine to do so, he then tries to claim that the link to the Russian government was not clear.

But emails are clear.

On June 7, Goldstone wrote in an email to Trump Jr.: "Emin [the pop star] asked that I schedule a meeting with you and The Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow for this Thursday."

Recall that the first email, on June 3, referred to "Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." And then on June 8, Goldstone asked Trump Jr. to move the scheduled meeting by an hour because "the Russian attorney is in court until 3."

The lawyer was Natalia Veselnitskaya. She has insisted that she was not representing the Russian government in the meeting, but what's important is what Trump Jr. was told -- that she was working on behalf of the Russian government.

Moreover, it later emerged that she worked closely with a top Kremlin official, Yuri Y. Chaika, the prosecutor general, to block a Justice Department fraud case against a Russian company. The Associated Press reported she was "a ghostwriter for top Russian government lawyers."

The talking points she brought were found to match a document that Chaika's office had given to a U.S. member of Congress two months earlier, the New York Times reported. Adding to the intrigue, the U.S. research firm that hired former British spy Christopher Steele to compile a "dossier" on Trump's ties to Russia also assisted the U.S. law firm that defended the Russian company.

In any case, it's false to claim the Trump campaign aides had no idea Veselnitskaya was representing the Russian government. The emails made that point repeatedly.

The Pinocchio test

Giuliani's efforts at subterfuge fall flat. The Trump campaign originally said there were no contacts with Russians. When contacts were found, officials said it was not about the campaign. When that talking point was proven wrong, the story changed yet again.

Now Giuliani tries to claim that any campaign would have taken such a meeting. But that's legally dubious -- and contrary to the way modern-day presidential campaigns should conduct themselves.

Finally, there's no way to spin the fact that Trump Jr. was told repeatedly he was meeting with a representative of the Russian government. Giuliani earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios