Parents teach their children not to lie, but many children only heed this guidance when they get caught covering up one lie with another, or telling different people different lies. Donald Trump’s experiences in life have taught him that getting caught doesn’t matter when you can surround yourself with individuals who believe that lying to build and preserve tribal power is a higher virtue than truth.
In the presidency, this value system has begun to fail him. While many of Trump’s supporters have embraced his ethic, most people despise it, and the justice system doesn’t tolerate it. His habit of telling new lies when old ones fall apart has, in critical venues, left him few avenues of escape, and he now seems poised for the reckoning most people learn before adulthood, when they aren’t under federal investigation.
In an interview with Sean Hannity on Wednesday night, Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani made two fateful claims: first, he acknowledged that Trump knew Michael Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 before the election to buy her silence about their 2006 affair, and reimbursed him. Second, he devised a new cover story to justify Trump’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey. Each claim is incompatible with representations Trump has made publicly, and may even contradict evidence in the possession of law enforcement officials.
For nearly a year now, Trump has struggled to stick to his official explanation for firing Comey: that Comey had violated Justice Department guidelines by making public statements about Hillary Clinton’s investigative status in 2016. Famously, days after the firing, he told Lester Holt that he made the decision because “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.” We later learned that the same week, during an Oval Office meeting, he confided in Russia’s top diplomat and its then-ambassador to the U.S., that firing Comey had “taken off” the “great pressure” he faced because of the Russia investigation.
To all but the most willfully obtuse, Trump appeared to have created a false pretense to obscure his corrupt motive for firing Comey: to alter the course of the Russia investigation in some beneficial way. Giuliani ignored this backstory on Wednesday night when he invented a completely new cover story.
“He fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation,” Giuliani told Hannity. “He’s entitled to that. Hillary Clinton got that, and he couldn’t get that. So he fired him.”
If you pretend that this excuse is true, it would have been a bizarre and misinformed reason for firing Comey, but it wouldn’t have been obviously corrupt per se. We know from Comey’s subsequent testimony and memoranda that Trump repeatedly pressed Comey to publicly declare that he was not a target of the investigation. Comey refused not because it would have compromised the investigation, but because it would create a “duty to correct” the public record if and when the investigation ultimately did reach Trump. In the termination letter he sent to Comey, Trump even thanked him for “informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
But if Giuliani’s excuse were true, it would have been Trump’s explanation all along. Trump would’ve never had to release a memo arguing that it was about Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation. He would’ve never told Lester Holt or the Russian officials in the Oval that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. Instead, Trump’s new cover story is evidence that Trump is trying to retreat to new legal ground because the old ground is no longer firm.
Amazingly, Trump’s position in the Stormy Daniels matter is even more untenable.
When the news about the hush money payment first broke, Cohen suggested (but did not actually assert) that he paid Daniels out of his own pocket. Campaign finance law experts immediately recognized that such a payment could amount to an illegal in-kind contribution. Trump initially hung Cohen out to dry, telling reporters aboard Air Force One that he knew nothing about the payment or where it came from. Giuliani conceded the lie to Hannity to reduce Trump’s legal exposure, on the grounds that candidates can donate unlimited sums of money to their own campaigns. The problem is even those donations must be disclosed to the Federal Elections Commission. Trump’s reimbursements to Cohen weren’t disclosed, and campaign finance lawyers believe the reporting violation could constitute a felony. Giuliani didn’t limit Trump’s jeopardy, he just shifted it.
In both the Comey and Cohen cases, Trump’s troubles stem from the crimes, but the constant lying has compounded those difficulties in both the political and the legal realms. His lawyers have told multiple reporters that they dread the thought of him submitting to an interview with Robert Mueller, because they fear he won’t be able to track of what lies he’s told whom, and may concoct new ones on the spot. The fact that neither Trump nor Cohen will level with them about what kinds of incriminating materials the FBI likely seized when it executed its search warrant on Cohen last month only compounds their concern that they only know a fraction of his exposure.
Trump spun a web of lies so vast, it seemed at times as if it would sustain ever more tangles without becoming a hopeless trap. In the course of one interview Giuliani found the limit.