In a recent interview with HuffPost, Giuliani initially disputed the notion that Trump’s daily citing, in the final month of his campaign, of Russian-aligned WikiLeaks and its release of Russian-stolen emails constituted “colluding” with Russia.
“It is not,” Giuliani said.
Then he switched tacks.
“OK, and if it is, it isn’t illegal... It was sort of like a gift,” he said. “And you’re not involved in the illegality of getting it.”
While much of the recent attention on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s efforts to elect Trump has focused on meetings between the Trump campaign and individuals linked to Russian officials, a big piece of “collusion” evidence has been in plain sight all along.
As the GOP nominee, Trump started receiving U.S. intelligence briefings on Aug. 17, 2016 ― at which time, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, Trump would have learned that analysts had concluded that Russia was behind the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee and was releasing them through WikiLeaks. That group, which bills itself as a “transparency” organization, has for years been considered an arm of Russian spy agencies by the U.S. intelligence community.
On Oct. 7, 2016, U.S. intelligence went public with their analysis about Russia and WikiLeaks. “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” said the statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“You say stolen. I say, emails that were put out in the public domain. You’d also have to believe that U.S. intelligence was correct. They’ve been right about a lot of things. They’ve been wrong about a lot of things. I certainly wouldn’t trust Clapper or Brennan as far as I could throw them.”
Trump, though, ignored all of that information. Instead, starting just three days later as WikiLeaks began releasing batches of emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, Trump began praising WikiLeaks in campaign speeches and interviews and urging Americans to read the emails for themselves.
“WikiLeaks! I love WikiLeaks,” Trump told an audience in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 10.
“It’s just the latest evidence of the hatred that the Clinton campaign really has for everyday Americans and you see, and you see so much from these WikiLeaks,” Trump said in Panama City, Florida, the following day.
“I’ll tell you, this WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable,” Trump said on Oct. 12 in Ocala, Florida. “It tells you the inner heart. You’ve got to read it and you’ve got to maybe get it, because they’re not putting it out.”
That was the same day the WikiLeaks Twitter account sent a direct message to Trump’s son Donald Jr., asking his father to highlight the stolen emails and offering a web link for Trump to advertise. Fifteen minutes after that direct message, candidate Trump sent out a tweet praising WikiLeaks. Two days later, Trump Jr. sent out the link WikiLeaks had provided.
Trump continued citing WikiLeaks and their stolen emails right through Election Day, as did others in his campaign. Giuliani, a campaign adviser who frequently appeared with Trump at rallies, himself cited WikiLeaks on Oct. 9 in a CBS News interview ― just two days after the intelligence community’s statement about Russia’s involvement.
HuffPost contacted more than half a dozen Trump campaign officials for this story. Not one was willing to explain why Trump knowingly and repeatedly ― more than 160 times, according to Politifact ― cited documents stolen by Russian intelligence agencies in the final month before the election. The White House did not respond to HuffPost’s queries on the matter.
Giuliani said he is still not convinced the emails were stolen by Russia, and that he is unwilling to accept the word of former CIA Director John Brennan or former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
“You say stolen. I say, emails that were put out in the public domain,” Giuliani said. “You’d also have to believe that U.S. intelligence was correct. They’ve been right about a lot of things. They’ve been wrong about a lot of things. I certainly wouldn’t trust Clapper or Brennan as far as I could throw them.”
Clapper on Wednesday defended the assessment he oversaw. “The intelligence community assessment on the Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election was prepared by about two dozen of the best analytic experts on Russia drawn from CIA, NSA, the FBI, and ODNI,” he told HuffPost. “It is regrettable that the president and his surrogates spend so much time attacking the messengers who were attempting to convey truth to power about the profound threat to our country by Russia, and spend virtually no time or display no sense of urgency about countering that threat.”
Attacking those messengers was something Trump began doing just two days after that Oct. 7, 2016 statement, after he was challenged about his continual praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the presidential debates.
On Oct. 9, at the second debate, Trump disputed the U.S. intelligence assessment. “She doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking,” Trump said of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia.”
Eleven days later, at the third and final debate: “She has no idea whether it’s Russia, China or anybody else,” Trump repeated. “And our country has no idea.”
Since the election, the U.S. intelligence community and the Senate intelligence committee have both released reports stating what intelligence analysts concluded in the summer of 2016: Not only was Russia interfering in the election in coordination with WikiLeaks, but it was doing so with the goal of electing Trump.
“Those are simply the facts,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking member of that committee. “So Mr. Giuliani could not be more wrong. Make no mistake, these are dangerous efforts aimed at distracting us from the truth and they have the chilling effect of dismissing the seriousness of the Russian threat.”
Former acting CIA Director John McLaughlin agreed. “Giuliani is just wrong on that point,” he said. “Either Trump simply didn’t care that this material came from the Russians, or was so foolish and naïve to think that it was OK to use it, or, and it’s a big ‘or,’ that he did so knowing full well that he was cooperating with the Russians.”
One former Trump campaign staffer said he believes he understands exactly why Trump and his team used the Russian-provided material: They were desperate and decided they would use it and worry about consequences later.
“I don’t think they were working with them. I think they were willing to take advantage of it. It’s about winning,” said Sam Nunberg, who had been fired by Trump more than a year before the election. “You’re supposed to win. That’s just the reality of it.”
This has been updated to include Clapper’s comment.