Rudy Giuliani’s revelation Sunday that he expects President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen to cooperate with prosecutors challenged the axiom that when you’re in a hole, stop digging.
Giuliani already had been forced to clarify an earlier interview in which he conceded that Trump reimbursed Cohen for the payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, contradicting repeated denials from the White House.
Still, he kept talking on Sunday, saying it was possible Cohen’s 2016 payment to Daniels wasn’t the only hush money paid out during the presidential campaign.
Legal experts say the decision by Trump’s chatty counsel to keep publicly chewing over Cohen’s situation risks drawing the president into more courtroom drama. But Giuliani seems content to keep the attention focused on that tabloid-friendly fight, as the White House appears to count on Trump’s base continuing to forgive his alleged moral lapses — and as his team seems to bet that GOP voters will turn out in November if they believe it’s the only way to save the president’s political skin.
Trump has increasingly cautioned his party against allowing the House, and even the Senate, to fall into Democratic control, voicing fears about his certain impeachment if that happens.
“We have to keep the House because if we listen to Maxine Waters, she’s going around saying, ‘We will impeach him,’” Trump said at a recent rally in Michigan, referring to the Democratic congresswoman from California.
“We gotta go out and we gotta fight like hell and we gotta win the House and we gotta win the Senate,” he added.
One person who has worked on strategy with the president’s team told POLITICO that the midterms pose more risk to Trump than his many outstanding legal quandaries, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“I think where there are plenty of Americans who are sympathetic [to Mueller’s investigation], there are also plenty of Americans who will think this is just a witch hunt,” the person said, using a favorite phrase of Trump’s. “This is not a legal problem for the president...It may be a legal problem for other members in his orbit. But it’s not a legal problem for the president. Never has been.
“It’s always been about a potential impeachment.”
Trump appears to believe victory in the November midterms depends on turning the contests into a referendum on his leadership, rather than risking a district-by-district slog over conventional messaging about the Republican tax overhaul and the upbeat economy.
It’s an approach favored by an architect of his 2016 victory.
Steve Bannon, the former Trump campaign chairman and White House chief strategist, told POLITICO that to retain Congress, Republicans need to make 2018 about keeping Trump in office. It’ll turn out the base, he argued, in a way tax reform or parochial issues simply can’t do.
“You’ve got to make it an up or down vote Nov. 6. I want Trump on the ticket in every district,” Bannon said in an interview. “You have to put Donald Trump on the ticket. You’re not voting for Congress. You’re voting for Donald Trump.”
Democratic leaders have sought to tamp down talk of impeachment to manage expectations and keep Trump from using it as a GOP rallying cry.
Democrats must pick up 24 seats to regain control of the House, and they are fielding candidates in dozens more competitive races across the country. At stake in the Senate are 10 Democratic-held seats in states Trump won in 2016, with few opportunities for the party to win two more seats and capture the majority.
The White House has stepped up its engagement in states held by endangered Democrats, with Trump recently accusing Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) of being soft on immigration.
The president’s political operation in recent weeks pelted Tester over the airwaves in a TV ad labeling him as “disgraceful” and “dishonest” for helping sideline Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In another race likely to be tough for Democrats, Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, sent out a tweet last week asking “the people of West Virginia to make a wise decision and reject (Don) Blankenship,” the Republican coal baron who spent a year in jail following the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers. Republicans view him as the weakest of three candidates vying to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November.
At a speech before the National Rifle Association in Dallas on Friday, Trump more generally warned Republicans about becoming complacent, offering that “like 90 percent of the time you win the presidency and for whatever reason you lose the midterm. We can't let that happen.”
Whether Trump is his party’s best messenger remains an open question.
While 62 percent of voters said they believe the Trump administration is running somewhat or very chaotically, a 4-point rise from March, according to the POLITICO-Morning Consult poll, Republicans still believe his administration is doing well.
Still, Giuliani continued to make the president the center of attention Sunday, as he downplayed the significance of the $130,000 payment from Cohen to Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford.
“I know this sounds funny to people there at home, I never thought $130,000 was a real payment,” he said. “It’s a nuisance payment. When I settle — when it’s a real possibility — it’s a couple million dollars, not $130,000. People don’t go away for $130,000 with a meritorious claim.”
Daniels, who alleged in a March interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that she was threatened to keep quiet about her relationship with Trump, also seems happy to keep her battle with the president in the headlines.
On “Saturday Night Live” this week, she called on the president to resign.
Victoria Guida contributed to this report.