Sometimes the biggest news items on a given day aren’t the most telling ones.
Consider three stories on Thursday about President Trump’s legal issues. First, Bloomberg reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the president last week that he is not a target of either Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation nor of a separate investigation in Manhattan that produced a raid on his longtime fixer, Michael Cohen.
A few hours later, Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, U.S. Attorney, and presidential candidate, said he was joining Trump’s legal team, telling The Washington Post, “I’m doing it because I hope we can negotiate an end to this for the good of the country and because I have high regard for the president and for Bob Mueller.”
Both of these stories were flashy, especially the Giuliani hire. More interesting and relevant, perhaps, was an announcement that Jay Sekulow, who heads Trump’s personal legal team, made at the same time he announced the Giuliani hire. Sekulow said that Marty Raskin and Jane Raskin, a husband-and-wife team of criminal-defense lawyers, would also be added to the president’s team.
The first two stories both suggest swagger on Trump’s part. The White House has far more interest in leaking the story about Rosenstein than the Justice Department, which has in the past been reluctant to publicly say Trump is not a subject, lest it have to correct that publicly. Giuliani is a high-profile name and he’s talking about bringing about an end to Mueller’s probe, even if he offers no plan other than the vague “negotiations.” (Where have we heard that before?)
There is perhaps less than meets the eye on both fronts, however. Earlier this month, my colleague Adam Serwer explained why it’s not all that meaningful to say that Trump is not currently the subject or target of an investigation, nor should that be reassuring to the president. (That said, Trump clearly values this sort of assurance highly: James Comey’s refusal to say so publicly was a major point of friction before his firing.)
As for Giuliani, the choice is peculiar. Trump has shown a penchant, especially lately, for hiring people more for their ability to advocate for him on television than for their experience. Unlike some of the other attorneys who have circulated through Trump’s team or been rumored as possible additions, Giuliani has legitimate criminal-law experience, most prominently as a U.S. Attorney. But he left that job in 1989 to run for mayor. Over the years since, he has practiced law, but most often has served as a consultant or an executive, not as a litigator. These days he is most often known for his outspoken and sometimes outlandish opinions.
He is also awkwardly tied to the Russia investigation. In July 2016, Giuliani asserted that Russia had possessed Hillary Clinton’s emails for some time. In November, he boasted that FBI officials were leaking to him about the Clinton investigation, and that he had known about Comey’s decision to reopen the probe before it was announced. National-security lawyer Bradley Moss tweeted that the government is due in June to file an affidavit in a case over whether Giuliani received FBI leaks during the campaign.
Indeed, Giuliani told CNN later on Thursday that his involvement in the Trump team would be limited in both scope and timeframe. The last time Trump announced a big addition to the team, the former U.S. Attorney and current conspiracy theorist Joseph diGenova, Sekulow had to quietly announce a few days later that the new hire wouldn’t actually be coming on due to conflict-of-interest issues with another client.
Raskin and Raskin might be a more important hire in the broad scope. Unlike Sekulow, a First Amendment specialist, they are experienced white-collar criminal-defense lawyers. While Ty Cobb, the White House special counsel working on Russia, has criminal-law experience, the president hasn’t had a real criminal-defense lawyer working on his personal legal team since John Dowd’s exit in March, at least as far as is publicly known. Moreover, the Raskins are not famous partners at a big firm, but litigators who spend a great deal of time in a courtroom. While there’s no first-call attorney for defending a sitting president, they have a record of defending public officials.
Giuliani’s brash promise of a negotiated settlement, and the leak about Rosenstein, both telegraph a president feeling increasingly confident about the Russia investigation. Hiring Raskin and Raskin sends a different message: that Trump is moving toward getting serious about a very serious investigation.