How Trump Allies Shifted Their Defense as Evidence of Contacts With Russians Grew

Rudolph W. Giuliani, a lawyer for President Trump, said in interviews on Monday that even if President Trump colluded with the Russians, he committed no crime.

WASHINGTON — In the days after the 2016 presidential election, Donald J. Trump’s advisers had an unequivocal message about contacts between Russians and members of the campaign team: There were none.

In the ensuing months, as numerous such communications were revealed, the message changed: There was no collusion with Russia’s effort to disrupt the election.

On Monday, President Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani consistently presented a third line of defense: Even if Mr. Trump did collude with the Russians, he committed no crime.

Mr. Giuliani insisted during numerous television interviews that no evidence of collusion existed, but the evolving narrative is a sign of how much Mr. Trump and his aides have had to recalibrate their public message in the face of considerable evidence of contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, and with the special counsel investigating what — if anything — Mr. Trump knew about them.

It is unclear whether Mr. Giuliani’s television musings amount to the beginnings of a new strategy, and it is not the first time Mr. Trump’s allies have pointed out that there is no specific crime of “collusion.” But Mr. Giuliani repeated the defense throughout the day.

“My client didn’t do it. And even if he did it, it’s not a crime,” he said on Fox News.

“Hacking is the crime. The president didn’t hack. He didn’t pay for the hacking,” Mr. Giuliani said on CNN.

The president appeared to take the same tack on Tuesday.

“Collusion is not a crime, but that doesn’t matter because there was No Collusion,” Mr. Trump said in a tweet, and added a dig at his former Democratic political rival, Hillary Clinton.

This defense follows similar comments from several of Mr. Trump’s allies during interviews over the weekend.

“Collusion is not a crime,” said Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor, on ABC’s “This Week.”

Legal experts agree that is at least technically correct, as the federal criminal code does not detail a crime of “collusion.” Any possible crime, they said, would be a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russians to break laws regulating elections.

But some experts said the difference between “collusion” and “conspiracy” is semantic.

“It’s just a word choice,” said Julie O’Sullivan, a criminal law professor at Georgetown University. “I’m sure nobody in the Justice Department has ever investigated collusion, but they’ve certainly investigated conspiracy.

“And Rudy,” she said of Mr. Trump’s lawyer, a former associate attorney general and United States attorney in Manhattan, “knows better.”

The question of what Mr. Trump knew of the Russian campaign to disrupt the 2016 election has come up most recently after reports that Michael D. Cohen, his former lawyer, was willing to tell the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, that Mr. Trump knew in advance of a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that was set up for campaign officials to get dirt about Hillary Clinton from Russians. It is not clear whether Mr. Cohen has firsthand knowledge of what or when Mr. Trump was told about the meeting.

Mr. Trump and his lawyers have said repeatedly that he knew nothing about the meeting until last July, when The New York Times was preparing an article revealing its existence.

One of Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters in Congress said over the weekend that, even if Mr. Trump did know about that meeting and has been lying about it all along, it hardly matters.

“If he’s proven to have not told the whole truth about the fact that campaigns look for dirt, and if someone offers it, you listen to them, nobody’s going to be surprised,” said Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California. “There are some things in politics that you just take for granted.”

The president’s supporters are mounting a defense on significantly different turf than they did in the days immediately after the November 2016 election. Shortly after Mr. Trump’s surprising victory, Sergei A. Ryabkov, the deputy Russian foreign minister, said the Russian government had contacts with the president-elect’s “immediate entourage” during the campaign. Hope Hicks, a campaign spokeswoman, offered a swift denial that the campaign had any contacts with Russians.

That proved to be untrue, and in the months that followed, both the news media and the special counsel’s investigators revealed numerous instances of contacts between Russians and campaign aides.

The 2016 Trump Tower meeting is the most significant of the contacts revealed to date, as it showed that the upper echelon of the Trump campaign was eager to meet with Kremlin-connected Russians based on a promise of damaging information about Mrs. Clinton.

Donald Trump Jr., who arranged the meeting on behalf of the campaign, has insisted for a year that he never informed his father about the meeting. Congressional investigators and Mr. Mueller’s team have scoured documents and interviewed witnesses in an effort to validate the claims of the president’s son.

During numerous interviews after the Trump Tower meeting was revealed, Donald Trump Jr. seemed to lament that the meeting turned out to be a bust. The Trump campaign was eager for the Russian help, he indicated, but the Russians did not deliver the promised dirt.

“It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame,” he told Sean Hannity on Fox News.

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