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Rudy Giuliani made not one — but two giant unforced errors

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Rudy Giuliani
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani talks with reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Jan. 12, 2017.Evan Vucci / AP file

WASHINGTON — Rudy Giuliani’s disclosure on Fox News last night that President Trump repaid personal lawyer Michael Cohen for his $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels was an extraordinary admission.

Not only did it contradict Trump’s previous denial about the payment — “No,” Trump said on April 5 when asked if he knew about the $130,000 — it also puts the president in potential legal jeopardy. Paul S. Ryan at the government watchdog group Common Cause tells the New York Times that Giuliani’s admission “could allow prosecutors to make the case that Mr. Trump ‘knowingly caused his campaign committee to file an incomplete disclosure report with the F.E.C.’” More from Ryan: “‘Until [last night], it would have been tough to prove that because Donald Trump had denied knowing about the payment,’ Mr. Ryan said. ‘But his reimbursement amounts to knowledge.’”

But that wasn’t the only unforced error that Giuliani made last night. He also claimed that Trump fired James Comey because the former FBI director refused to say that Trump wasn’t a target of the investigation — not because of Russia (as Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt) or because of Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation (as the Justice Department explained).

“He fired Comey because Comey would not, among to other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation,” Giuliani said on Fox last night. “He’s entitled to that. Hillary Clinton got that. And he couldn’t get that. So he fired him. And then he said, ‘I’m free of this guys.’”

So Trump’s new attorney — Giuliani — is saying that the president fired Comey because he wanted the FBI to clear him when in fact the president is a “subject” of the Russia probe even if he’s not currently a target?

Putting the $130,000 payment in the context of the final days of the ’16 campaign

On Fox last night, Giuliani argued that the $130,000 payment to Daniels wasn’t a campaign-finance violation. "That money was not campaign money," he said of Trump's reimbursement, per NBC News. "Sorry — I'm giving you a fact that you don't know. It's not campaign money — no campaign finance violation."

Giuliani repeated that argument in a follow-up interview with Fox. “It wasn't for the campaign — it was to save their marriage — not so much their marriage so much as their reputation.”

And in tweets this morning (that didn’t sound like his own voice), Trump said that the money he gave to Cohen had “nothing to do with the campaign.” “Mr. Cohen, an attorney, received a monthly retainer, not from the campaign and having nothing to do with the campaign, from which he entered into, through reimbursement, a private contract between two parties, known as a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA.”

But what has gotten lost in the coverage of Giuliani’s admitting that Cohen was reimbursed for the $130,000 payment is the TIMING of the payment — Oct. 27, 2016, which was less than two weeks before the election.

Oct. 27, 2016: $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels is made.

Oct. 28, 2016: FBI Director Comey informs Congress that his agency found emails that appeared “pertinent” to the Clinton email investigation.

Oct. 29, 2016: Trump continues to campaign on Comey news: “This is the biggest political scandal since Watergate… Hillary should have been convicted long ago.”

Oct. 30, 2016: More Trump: “They found 650,000 emails on the current investigation of somebody else… This could be the mother lode. You know? This could be the 33,000 that are missing.”

Oct. 31, 2016: The news media continue to report on Comey’s revelations. “Clinton Works to Keep Trump and Emails at Bay,” says the New York Times; “Email Review Underway” is the lead story on NBC’s “Nightly News”; “FBI Searches Emails” is the top story that night on ABC.

Nov. 1, 2016: Trump seizes on the Podesta emails disclosed by WikiLeaks: “In a newly released email, John Podesta's been caught saying, we have to dump all of those emails. Can you believe this? That's WikiLeaks.”

Nov. 2, 2016: Trump continues to stay on message: “We are going to win the White House, gonna win it. It's feeling like it already it's it. Just we've gotta be nice and cool, nice and cool. Right, stay on point Donald, stay on point. No sidetracks Donald, nice and easy, nice — ‘cause I've been watching Hillary the last few days. She's totally unhinged. We don't want any of that. She has become unhinged.”

Nov. 4, 2016: Trump keeps on campaigning on the Comey revelations: “She'll be under investigation for years. She'll be with trials. Our country, we have to get back to work.”

Nov. 5, 2016: More Trump: “As you know, the FBI has reopened its criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton.” (Crowd chants, “Lock her up!”)

Nov. 6, 2016: Comey informs Congress that those additional emails didn’t uncover anything new in the Clinton investigation. And Trump campaigns that Clinton “is being protected by a rigged system.”

Nov. 7, 2016: Trump continues, “Hillary Clinton is being protected by a totally rigged system. And now it’s up to the American people to deliver justice at the ballot box tomorrow. That’s what’s gonna happen.”

Nov. 8, 2016: Election Day.

Here’s what Giuliani said on Fox this morning:

DOOCY: So you’re saying that Stephanie Clifford, made these allegations, told Donald trump’s lawyer—GUILIANI: And denied them. And then said it wasn’t true. However, imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016 in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton.DOOCY: So to make it go away, they made this—GUILIANI: Cohen didn’t even ask. Cohen didn’t ask. Cohen made it go away. He did his job.

Indeed he did.

Team Trump is gearing up for a political fight — more than a legal one

“The gloves may be coming off”: That’s perhaps the best way to look at the changes in Trump’s legal team. “White House lawyer Ty Cobb, who repeatedly urged cooperation with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and assured the president such a strategy could shorten the investigation, announced he would leave his post at the end of the month,” the Washington Post writes. “In his place, Trump tapped Republican defense attorney Emmet Flood, who brings experience wrangling with investigators when he represented President Bill Clinton during House proceedings to impeach him.”

“‘This signals a new phase,’ said one senior Trump adviser who was granted anonymity to describe private conversations. ‘We are looking at all the options now. Nothing’s off the table. ... But the gloves may be coming off.’”

Trump hints at release of American detained in North Korea

NBC News: “President Donald Trump hinted late Wednesday that three Americans detained in North Korea could soon be released as he prepares for a potential summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. ‘As everybody is aware,’ Trump tweeted, ‘the past Administration has long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Korean Labor camp, but to no avail. Stay tuned!’”

“Trump's prospective meeting with Kim comes after last week's historic meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.”