Rudy Giuliani sent an unmistakable message Wednesday night: It’s everyone for themselves.
During a CNN interview, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer blurted out that the only person he knows about who didn’t collude with Russia was Trump himself. Although Giuliani tried to walk back his comments on Thursday, the remarks put the sprawling web of people caught up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe on notice: no one is coming to save you.
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“Ya think!!!” one former Trump campaign official wrote to POLITICO when asked if Giuliani was trying to protect the president at the expense of everyone who worked for him.
The Team Trump infighting has been a prosecutor’s dream for Mueller, opening up an ever-widening window into the behind-the-scenes workings of a rookie politician whose campaign has been under investigation for years. The special counsel and federal prosecutors have already benefited from the internal sniping, flipping Trump’s former lawyer, national security adviser and campaign chairman.
Bickering and backstabbing were Trump world trade marks long before the former businessman launched his White House bid, from the real estate mogul’s decades of private business dealings to his years as a reality television star.
But the attitude has taken on a completely new life as Mueller’s 20-month-old probe creeps increasingly closer to the president. Now the sniping can have long-term legal consequences, and the president and his former aides have used press interviews, social media posts and court filings to take shots at each other in the interest of protecting themselves and their reputations.
“Nobody is really on the same team anymore when you’ve worked with Donald Trump,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump 2016 campaign aide who has been questioned multiple times by Mueller and congressional investigators.
“Trump puts everyone against each other when you work for him,” he added. “While he demands loyalty, he doesn’t return it. Loyalty is not a two-way street, especially when you’ve got special counsel involved in it.”
Michael Zeldin, a former Mueller DOJ aide, likened the current divisions inside Trump world to the mafia.
“Even Whitey Bulger gets beaten to death for having squealed. That always made it hard for prosecutors because it was very hard to break someone out of the organization,” Zeldin said, referencing the famous Boston mobster. “Here, everyone is saying, ‘I can cooperate.’ Whether they are fully truthful, they all seem to be available.”
The latest example is Michael Cohen, the former Trump personal lawyer who appears to be sparing few in his bid to shorten his prison sentence and resurrect his image after being swept up in multiple investigations.
Cohen turned publicly against Trump last summer and even urged voters headed into the 2018 midterms to elect Democrats so that Congress could rein in his former boss’s presidency. Next month, Cohen is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee in a high-profile hearing expected to draw gavel-to-gavel media coverage.
He’s already spent months blaming the president for any suspect behavior during the campaign, saying his “weakness” was a “blind loyalty” to Trump. Hush payments that Cohen made to women alleging affairs with Trump? Made at Trump’s direction, Cohen said. Paying people a bag of cash to rig online polls in Trump’s favor? Done because Trump made the request — and it was a check, not a bag — Cohen claimed.
In the courtroom, Cohen’s legal team has also indirectly swiped at others in Trump’s orbit. Last month, Cohen attorney Guy Petrillo argued in court that his client’s cooperation with prosecutors “should substantially mitigate his sentence, and his action stands in profound contrast to the decision of some others not to cooperate and allegedly to double deal while pretending to cooperate.”
While Petrillo didn’t mention former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort by name, the reference was almost unmistakable. A source with knowledge of Cohen’s case confirmed that the passage was meant to invoke Manafort’s behavior.
The missives from Cohen and his legal team haven’t gone unnoticed. Trump himself struck back at his former fixer on Saturday night during a Fox News interview with a perplexing call for investigators to investigate Cohen’s father-in-law’s finances. “I guess he didn’t want to talk about his father-in-law. He’s trying to get his sentence reduced,” the president said.
Several other ex-Trump aides have turned on their former colleagues.
Rick Gates, who served under Manafort as deputy campaign chairman and then played a prominent role organizing Trump’s inauguration, has been cooperating with Mueller since pleading guilty last February. He served as a star witness against Manafort during his former boss’s trial in Alexandria, Va., where the longtime GOP operative was convicted on several charges of bank and tax fraud.
Gates is still spilling his ex-colleagues’ secrets to the special counsel. In a court filing earlier this week, an FBI agent recounted how Gates snitched on Manafort’s clandestine effort to get people appointed to Trump’s new administration in January 2017.
Attorneys for Michael Flynn have taken a more subtle approach.
His lawyers tried to compare the former Trump national security adviser favorably to other Mueller targets when making the argument that Flynn didn’t deserve jail time for lying to the FBI. In doing so, they essentially called out two people: former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and Dutch attorney Alex Van Der Zwaan.
In a court filing, Flynn’s lawyers insinuated that Papadopoulos, who served a 14-day sentence last year for also lying to the FBI, was more mendacious than Flynn because he had been “specifically notified of the seriousness of the investigation” into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The FBI also warned Papadopoulos that lying to investigators was a federal offense, it said. Flynn had received neither warnings, the filing pointedly noted.
As for Van Der Zwaan, who spent 30 days in prison before being deported, Flynn’s attorneys argued that he was a “trained attorney who was represented by counsel” during his FBI interview — again, unlike Flynn.
For now, Flynn’s fate remains in the air. His sentencing has been postponed so he can continue cooperating in the Mueller probe.
The feuding among Trump associates isn’t just happening among people who have already been charged.
Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone — a Mueller target because of suspicions he had privileged knowledge that WikiLeaks was sitting on a stolen cache of Hillary Clinton campaign emails — has been on a PR blitz to tarnish several former friends as liars.
Stone has repeatedly derided New York-based liberal talk show host Randy Credico, placing the blame for any WikiLeaks backchannel communication on his ex-pal. Similarly, Stone has lobbed effusive insults at Jerome Corsi, the right-wing author and conspiracy theorist who has also drawn Mueller’s interest because of possible links to WikiLeaks. In an Instagram post last month, Stone accused Corsi of “working with Mueller to sandbag me on a fabricated perjury charge.”
They all have good reason to point the finger at each other. Stone has long said he expects to be indicted for lying to Mueller — a charge he denies. And Corsi’s lawyers have circulated a draft court document showing Mueller wanted their client to plead guilty to a false statement charge they say is bunk.
Open warfare in Trump’s orbit has produced its share of schadenfreude, as well.
“Justice was well served today,” former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said in an NPR interview last August after Cohen pleaded guilty and Manafort was convicted on the same day.
Steve Bannon, the former Trump White House senior strategist, was ousted from Trump’s circle after he almost gleefully predicted trouble for the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., who is in Mueller’s crosshairs for an election-year meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Clinton.
“They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV,” he said in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury.”
Annemarie McAvoy, a defense attorney and media consultant who previously represented Gates, said she wasn’t surprised by all of the discord. It starts with the president and trickles down to all the people who have worked for him, she said.
“Of course every attorney is going to try to represent his or her client as zealously as possible and make them look the best and make everyone around them, who might say anything bad about them, look worse,” McAvoy said.
Typically in cases dealing with a large number of people from the same side of an organization, co-defendants will demonstrate some collegiality with each other. But, McAvoy said, there’s a different dynamic at play when none of the people who have been caught in the Mueller probe are on the same team anymore.
“All of these people have to try to, assuming they’re not going to jail, to make a living, deal with their neighbors, try to have some sort of normal life after this,” she said.
To Democrats, the infighting has occasionally prompted new legal concerns. Several House chairmen issued a warning to the president on Sunday after he went after Cohen’s father-in-law, saying Trump appeared to be obstructing Congress’s oversight functions.
“Organized crime and international money laundering are a dirty business,” former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told POLITICO. “It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest as the ship is sinking the rats are jumping out.”