Donald Trump is many things, but subtle is not one of them. So at at an event with the Veterans of Foreign Wars last month—just one of the many gatherings that he turns into a forum for partisan attacks, which no president before him would have considered—he gave a warning to his supporters. "Just remember," Trump said, "What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening."
To that bit of wisdom we can now add an extraordinary companion statement from the president's TV lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. On Sunday's Meet the Press, Giuliani had this incredible exchange with host Chuck Todd, who asked about the Trump legal team's unwillingness to allow the president to answer questions from Special Counsel Robert Mueller:
GIULIANI: Look, I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury. And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he's going to tell the truth and he shouldn't worry, well that's so silly because it's somebody's version of the truth. Not the truth. He didn't have a, a conversation—
TODD: Truth is truth. I don't mean to go like—
GIULIANI: No, it isn't truth. Truth isn't truth. The President of the United States says, "I didn't—"
TODD: Truth isn't truth? Mr. Mayor, do you realize what ... I ... This is going to become a bad meme.
Todd is right about that—I can already see the "Trump 2020: Truth Isn't Truth" bumper stickers. But what Giuliani was trying in his typically inarticulate way to express is that on at least one matter relating to obstruction of justice the president may have committed, there's a simple conflict between two stories. Former FBI Director James Comey says Trump leaned on him to go easy on Michael Flynn, who was under criminal investigation and had just been pushed out as national security adviser, while Trump claims that he didn't exert pressure on Comey. The problem is that as an excuse for refusing to answer questions, that doesn't hold water.
Giuliani has expressed many times his fear that any interview with Mueller could be a "perjury trap." But as I keep pointing out, you can't fall into a perjury trap unless you're willing to commit perjury. A perjury trap happens when investigators know that if they ask you about some specific thing you're going to lie about it, because you are unaware that they have evidence that what you'll say is false.
For instance, the most famous perjury trap in recent history was laid for Bill Clinton. He was asked in a deposition if he had sex with Monica Lewinsky, but what he didn't know was that Independent Counsel Ken Starr's investigators were already interrogating her and had the help of her "friend" Linda Tripp, to whom she had told everything. The trap was that he thought that he could deny the affair and be believed.
So if Giuliani is convinced that an interview with Mueller would be a perjury trap for President Trump, what exactly is the lie Giuliani knows Trump will tell? What is the question that, when Mueller asks it, Trump will respond by committing perjury?
It's possible that Giuliani isn't exactly sure; he just knows that if Trump has to answer questions about Russian collusion and obstruction of justice, he's bound to lie about something, if not many things. If that's his suspicion, he's probably right.
I suppose it's also possible that Giuliani believes that Trump could be charged with perjury simply because he and Comey have different accounts of their conversation. But that doesn't make much sense either. There are plenty of reasons to believe Comey: He took contemporaneous notes, and while he may be annoyingly sanctimonious, he's never been known as a liar. Donald Trump, in contrast, is not just easily the most dishonest person ever to occupy the Oval Office, he may be the most dishonest public figure in American history, if we're measuring by sheer volume of lies. None of that, however, would constitute airtight proof that when Trump denies that he pressured Comey he'll be lying. And he isn't going to be indicted anyway.
So if it's just about Trump's conversation with Comey, then it would seem that what Giuliani is worried about is less his client's legal exposure than his political exposure. And while Giuliani may not be much of a spokesperson, he's smart enough to know that any interview with Mueller would almost certainly wind up being a political disaster for Trump.
But even if Giuliani can keep that from happening, he can only delay the reckoning that the president faces. That doesn't mean that Trump getting impeached or beaten in 2020 is inevitable. But the truth has a force and a momentum. It can be resisted for a long time, but not forever.
And it works in both directions. When Barack Obama was president, Republicans tried desperately to turn a series of low-level controversies into Watergate-level scandals, but they were never able to succeed, for a simple reason: They couldn't come up with facts to justify their outrageous charges. Solyndra, the IRS, "Fast and Furious"—all were ultimately undone by the fact that there was either no wrongdoing at all, or no misconduct that got anywhere near the Oval Office (which is what is required for a scandal to become really significant). On Benghazi, they mounted an incredible seven separate congressional investigations desperately hoping to discover something criminal that Obama or Hillary Clinton had done, to no avail. Even with Congress in their hands and all the motivation in the world to conjure up an Obama administration scandal, they couldn't manage it, because the truth was that there was no major Obama scandal to be found.
That's a mirror image of what we face now, where not only has the scandal arrived at the Oval Office, it moved in there on January 20, 2017. Trump will keep denying that he and his campaign cooperated with Russia and that he obstructed justice, and he can refuse to answer Robert Mueller's questions. But we're going to learn what Mueller has discovered. Trump can tell his supporters not to believe their eyes all he wants, but one way or another the country will learn what he and those around him did.