As the Russia scandal unfolded, Donald Trump and his allies had plenty to say on the subject, but they went out of their way to avoid criticizing Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation directly. The president would throw around phrases such as "witch hunt" and "no collusion" like they were nervous tics, but targeting Mueller was a line he was reluctant to cross.
In mid-March, as part of a strategy that appeared deliberate, Trump World's posture changed. As we discussed a while back, it was at this point when the president started publishing tweets referencing Mueller by name, and Trump's defense attorneys started making public calls for the end of the special counsel's probe.
The pushback reached a new level over the holiday weekend when Rudy Giuliani, one of the president's lawyers, questioned the legitimacy of the investigation itself during an interview with CNN's Dana Bash.
BASH: So you think that the Mueller probe is legitimate?GIULIANI: Not anymore. I don't. I did when I came in. But now I see Spygate....
To the extent that reality still matters, "Spygate" is a nonsensical conspiracy theory about events that allegedly occurred in 2016, long before Mueller was appointed to oversee the investigation. Questioning the legitimacy of the special counsel's investigation is a bad idea; questioning its legitimacy because of a silly conspiracy theory is worse; and questioning its legitimacy because of a silly conspiracy theory that Mueller had literally nothing to do with is even worse still.
But Giuliani's salvo was just part of a larger offensive against the investigation, which Donald Trump described this morning as "rigged."
None of this has anything to do with the law or the investigatory process. The president and his team have simply decided that it's time for a political campaign in which Bob Mueller is their opponent.
Giuliani, who has an interesting habit of saying the quiet part loud, hasn't exactly been subtle on this point. In his CNN interview, the former mayor said his pushback "is for public opinion, because eventually the decision here is going to be 'impeach' [or] 'not impeach.'"
In other words, Trump World is working from the assumption that Mueller will not indict a sitting president, and as such, the only debate that matters is the one that unfolds in Congress, where members are sometimes sensitive to public attitudes.
In practical terms, it means Giuliani isn't even trying to play the role of a defense attorney, so much as he's become a media spokesperson participating in a public-relations campaign.
It's why, instead of eagerly cooperating with Mueller, the president and his team are scrambling to undermine public confidence in the investigation. It's likely to get worse before it gets better.
Postscript: Later in the CNN interview, Giuliani described Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, as being in the president's "outer orbit." I don't think Giuliani was kidding, but I laughed all the same.