As the Ukraine investigation moves toward a House floor vote on articles of impeachment, the most intriguing personality may be the man who arguably set this bizarre chain of events in motion — Rudolph W. Giuliani, President’s Trump’s personal lawyer and global fixer.
Giuliani occupies a unique perch: He’s the president’s advocate, but he is snared in probes of his own actions, including reported federal grand jury subpoenas requesting information about Giuliani and his consulting firm, Giuliani Partners. He’s the man who seeks to protect Trump but sometimes seems to be digging the president deeper in a hole with his own public actions and comments.
Consequential moments such as a presidential impeachment sometimes begin with small, almost random events. That seems true of Giuliani’s entanglement with Ukraine. He had legal clients and contacts there he thought could help him and the president; month by month, Trump followed Giuliani toward the vortex of what will likely be the third impeachment of a commander in chief in American history.
Unlike some figures in the Trump narrative, Giuliani had an indisputably great moment in the past, when as New York’s mayor he helped the city and the nation recover from the horror of Sept. 11, 2001. Now “America’s mayor,” himself once a prospective president, he has become almost as controversial as his client, the president. Giuliani’s conduct is at the center of the impeachment proceeding and the potential subject of an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office he once headed.
“Rudy Inc.” has flourished in the age of Trump. In the three years since Trump was elected president, Giuliani has had unique access to the White House as the president’s friend and unpaid lawyer. This insider status has provided new cachet, and with that, new business opportunities. As Giuliani has traveled the world, he has promoted his relationship to the president and ability to make deals. Several of his clients have been wealthy foreigners facing legal problems in the United States.
In Trump’s Washington and Kyiv, Giuliani became “the man to see,” in the parlance of political fixers around the world. The president himself made that clear. “Go talk to Rudy,” Trump instructed European Union envoy Gordon Sondland and other aides in May when they were seeking guidance for Ukraine policy. “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call,” Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in their now-famous July 25 phone conversation.
Amazingly, even as the House prepared to pass articles of impeachment growing out of the Trump-Giuliani fixation on Ukraine, Giuliani persisted in his role as the president’s personal investigator on Ukraine, when he traveled there recently to collect information that he apparently thinks will help Trump and damage his enemies. “He says he has a lot of good information,” Trump told reporters on Dec. 7. “I hear he has found plenty.”
This public-private straddle is part of “Rudy Inc.” Giuliani himself bristles at the notion that there is anything improper about his activities, and whether he had blurred the lines between his work for the president and his private law practice and business endeavors. “Not even close,” he wrote in a text. “It’s left wing attack … based on no evidence, just assuming I’m unethical like they are. I’ve been a lawyer for 50 years without even a phony complaint. I value ethics and I am outraged at this attack on my reputation based on smoke and mirrors and Trump hatred.”
Three Giuliani legal matters that have nothing to do with Ukraine illustrate how he became involved in disputes that combined big political stakes with the prospect of hefty legal fees.
In 2017, Giuliani sought to mediate a U.S.-Turkey deal that might have freed an Iranian-born alleged Turkish swindler imprisoned in New York who was friendly with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to court records. This year, Giuliani offered to represent a Venezuelan contending with a Justice Department investigation into alleged money laundering and bribery, The Post reported, at a time when Trump was seeking to force a change of government in Caracas.
And in late 2017 or 2018, in a matter that has not been previously reported, two attorneys say that Giuliani talked with Justice Department lawyers about Low Taek Jho, a Malaysian who allegedly ran an $8 billion scheme known as 1MDB. (Giuliani texted that he was asked to represent Low “but we turned it down.” Asked if he might have spoken with Justice Department attorneys about the case, Giuliani initially texted, “I don’t recall it,” and a few minutes later added: “If they talked to me I told them he tried to retain us and my partners [at Greenberg Traurig] turned him dow[n].” In October, the Justice Department reached a deal in which Low agreed to forfeit $700 million in assets; among Low’s attorneys was Giuliani’s friend Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey. Greenberg Traurig declined to comment. A source close to the firm said it wasn’t aware of any request to represent Low.
The Post this month identified two other countries — Qatar and Romania — where Giuliani’s private legal work seemed to intersect with government business.
In evaluating Giuliani’s activities, Ukraine is ground zero, for this is where his efforts were most intense and, according to his critics, most toxic. Ukraine was political terrain for Giuliani, as a potential source of dirt about former vice president Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. But it was also about legal business.
The former mayor first traveled to Ukraine in 2004, and over the next 15 years he met some of the country’s leading tycoons. One oligarch named Pavel Fuks financed consulting work Giuliani did for the city of Kharkiv in 2017. Another named Victor Pinchuk invited him to give a speech and meet top leaders in Kyiv in June 2017, according to a press release issued at the time by Pinchuk’s foundation. (Giuliani said in the text message that in his Kharkiv contract, there was “a specific no-lobbying clause because of this ridiculous harassment.”)
In Ukraine, as in many other countries, the most lucrative and corrupt area of the economy has been the energy sector. In this swamp of energy politics, Giuliani became entangled with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Soviet-born Americans who were indicted in October on charges of making false statements and conspiracy to funnel illegal contributions to Republicans, including a Trump-supporting super PAC. Parnas had hired Giuliani in 2018 on behalf of his firm, Fraud Guarantee. Giuliani doesn’t represent the two in their New York criminal case.
Through their lawyers, Parnas and Fruman have both denied any wrongdoing.
This business nexus is an important strand of the Ukraine story. It helps us understand one of the riddles of the impeachment narrative: Why did Giuliani lobby so hard for Trump to fire Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine? What triggered the smear campaign against her, which came long before Trump’s haggling over a political “favor” in exchange for military aid to Kyiv?
A chillingly simple answer emerges in interviews with Ukrainian business and political leaders and a review of thousands of pages of testimony and dozens of news reports: Giuliani was feuding with Yovanovitch partly because she was blocking efforts by his clients, Parnas and Fruman, to pursue deals with Naftogaz, the Ukrainian natural gas company, that could have made millions for Giuliani’s friends.
Naftogaz was probably Ukraine’s greatest success in fighting corruption, led by its chief executive, Andriy Kobolyev, according to two Americans and a European who have worked closely with the company but asked to remain anonymous.
The Naftogaz website notes that before Kobolyev’s arrival as chief executive in 2014, the company was a “black hole” for the state budget, losing what a company source told me was about $6.5 billion annually. By 2017, it was contributing about 15 percent of the state budget, the website noted, and last year it was close to 18 percent, the company source noted.
One of the biggest defenders of the old order, before Kobolyev’s reforms, was a Ukrainian oligarch named Dmytro Firtash. His supporters were laced through the Ukrainian government. This year, Firtash’s American lawyers hired Parnas to do translation work.
After Trump won the presidency in 2016, Giuliani developed a close relationship with Parnas, an Odessa-born businessman who had settled in Florida and was seeking to use his political connections with the new administration to bootstrap an energy business in Ukraine. As Parnas explained to Adam Entous of the New Yorker: “Because of my Ukrainian background and my contacts there, I became like Rudy’s assistant, his investigator.”
Giuliani had a political agenda in this relationship. As he focused in late 2018 on obtaining Ukrainian political information that might help Trump, he was aided by Parnas, who introduced him to Viktor Shokin and Yuri Lutsenko, two Ukrainian former prosecutors-general who would attempt to bolster Giuliani’s allegations that Joe Biden’s son Hunter played a corrupt role as a director on the board of the natural gas company Burisma.
At the same time, Giuliani hoped to make money from Lutsenko. The Post reported last month that Giuliani negotiated to be paid at least $200,000 to represent Lutsenko in helping him recover funds he said had been stolen in Ukraine and routed through U.S. institutions. (The arrangement was never executed, according to The Post.)
It was the energy deals, though, that would have been the real money-makers for Parnas and Fruman. Under a 2018 agreement, Parnas paid Giuliani $500,000 for his legal services, according to Reuters.
Here’s where the U.S. ambassador, Yovanovitch, was a problem. She had been counseling Naftogaz CEO Kobolyev to resist natural gas projects that might bring Naftogaz back into the corrupt, money-losing days that preceded him. That made her a potential target.
Yovanovitch told House investigators on Oct. 11 that Parnas and Fruman, working with Giuliani and then-prosecutor general Lutsenko, “were interested in having a different ambassador at post … because they wanted to have business dealings in Ukraine, or additional business dealings.” Specifically, she said, they “had energy interests, selling LNG to Ukraine. … They needed a better ambassador to sort of facilitate their business’s efforts here.”
What specific gas deals did Parnas and Fruman hope to negotiate? According to a Ukrainian energy expert with detailed knowledge of Naftogaz’s operations, the goals included gaining licensing rights for promising oil and gas blocks, importing liquefied natural gas from the United States and building a gas pipeline from Poland.
An American who’s familiar with Naftogaz and has talked extensively with company officials agreed about these three items and added more detail: Parnas and Fruman "wanted a sole-source contract or some guarantee they would have a contract to supply LNG to Ukraine through Naftogaz,” using the company’s infrastructure such as pipelines and storage tanks.
Standing in the way of these projects were Yovanovitch, Kobolyev and the Naftogaz supervisory board. Giuliani’s clients, with an array of influential helpers, appear to have tried to replace all three.
The American ambassador was the first roadblock.
Parnas and Fruman began working to replace Yovanovitch in April 2018, more than a year before her ouster. They lobbied Trump himself that month at a dinner at his Washington hotel for fellow contributors to the Trump-supporting America First super PAC. Parnas and Fruman told Trump “that they thought the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was unfriendly to the president and his interests,” according to The Post.
The pair continued its campaign to remove Yovanovitch and open the way for business deals. Around May 2018, they created a company called Global Energy Producers to export LNG, according to the October indictment. The indictment alleges that Parnas pledged to raise campaign money for “Congressman-1” (now acknowledged to be Texas Republican Rep. Pete Sessions) and then sought Sessions’s “assistance in causing the U.S. Government to remove or recall” Yovanovitch. Sessions has denied any wrongdoing and has said through a spokesman that he is cooperating with the Parnas-Fruman criminal investigation.
Sessions on May 9, 2018, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claiming that Yovanovitch “has spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current administration in a way that might call for [her] expulsion,” according to State Department documents revealed in November by American Oversight, which sued to obtain them. Yovanovitch denied such allegations under oath, but they were amplified by Giuliani’s friend and potential client, Lutsenko, and eventually by Trump himself.
A year later, the drive to sack Yovanovitch succeeded. She was suddenly recalled in late April 2019 and then fired the next month.
Kobolyev was a second impediment.
According to a groundbreaking Oct. 7 article by the Associated Press, Parnas and Fruman met with Andrew Favorov, another senior Naftogaz executive, at an industry gathering in Texas in March 2019. They talked about the plan to export LNG to Ukraine and encouraged Favorov to try to replace Kobolyev as CEO. (Kobolyev, contacted by The Post for a lengthy article last month, declined to comment on issues touching on the impeachment probe or on Parnas and Fruman.)
The American who’s familiar with Naftogaz and spoke extensively with its executives said that Favorov was surprised by this approach from Parnas and Fruman — and especially by their claim that Yovanovitch, the pro-reform ambassador, would soon be replaced.
Early 2019, when Parnas and Fruman made their pitch, was a time of “desperation” for Naftogaz, the American said. The government of President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman was squeezing the company. Naftogaz was having trouble obtaining government-backed financing for its imports. And a new decree allowed the government to fire Kobolyev without approval of the international supervisory board.
The supervisory board got new life when a higher court voided the decree. And the election of Zelensky, with strong support in parliament, was a public mandate to fight corruption. That meant the supervisory board remained an obstacle for Parnas and Fruman, and the continuing target of their efforts.
A warning flag was raised in May by Amos Hochstein, a member of the supervisory board and a former Obama administration energy expert.
Hochstein had been worried about efforts by Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman to pressure Naftogaz, according to testimony last month from Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia. She testified that Hochstein came to see her in May and said “it had come to his attention that there was a lot of pressure being put on the officials of Naftogaz ... to have other board members put in place, and this seemed to be at the direction of Giuliani … He also mentioned the names of Mr. Parnas and Fruman.”
A bizarre aspect of Parnas and Fruman’s involvement, Hill testified, was that the two also appeared to have connections with Ukrainians who invested in the Venezuelan energy sector. At that time, Hill said, Russia was “signaling very strongly that they wanted to somehow make some very strange swap agreement between Venezuela and Ukraine” — evidently, that Russia would recognize American interests in controlling Caracas if the United States would do the same for Russia in Kyiv. Hill said she rushed to Moscow to quash this idea.
In seeking to alter the board’s composition, Giuliani’s associates had a perhaps unwitting ally in Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a member of the so-called three amigos who were trying to implement the Trump-Giuliani agenda for Ukraine.
When Perry attended the May inauguration of Zelensky, the energy secretary urged Ukraine’s new leader to find new people who could help “reform the energy sector in Ukraine,” according to Energy Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes. The list included two Texans named Michael Bleyzer and Robert Bensh, both well known in Ukraine.
Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy for Ukraine and another “amigo,” told me he remembers hearing Perry give his energy pitch to Zelensky at the May inauguration in Kyiv. Volker said in an interview that Perry pressed Zelensky to open markets, allow more foreign investment in “upstream” projects, create “a higher-level international board” and encourage imports of American LNG.
This agenda was hardly secret; Perry has touted it on Twitter as a way of giving Ukraine greater energy independence from Russia, a sensible goal. But if the deals were approved, the intermediaries stood to make a lot of money.
When Giuliani was asked by Politico in October whether he had been aware of the campaign to install new board members at Naftogaz, he answered: “I may or may not know anything about it.”
Who were the two Texans whom Perry suggested might assist Naftogaz? Bleyzer, born in Kharkiv, was a wealthy investor who had contributed $30,000 to Perry’s 2010 race for governor in Texas. Bleyzer made investments in Ukraine through a private equity firm called SigmaBleyzer, which helped create a Ukrainian cable-television company called Voila Cable and did other deals.
Bensh was an energy consultant who, through his company Cardinal Resources, invested in the Ukrainian energy sector.
Bensh surfaced as an informal U.S. Energy Department contact on Ukraine this year, perhaps because of the Texas connection, the U.S. expert said in an interview. Hynes, the Energy Department spokeswoman, said Bensh met department staff but was “not an adviser of any kind.”
Bensh explained in a recent interview that he had talked with the energy secretary in January about the Ukrainian energy situation. “Perry came to me and said, how do we get LNG into the country, how do we get [U.S. investment] upstream, what do we do about Naftogaz?” Bensh said he described the range of options.
Bensh had also managed to befriend Volker. Volker recalled in the interview that the two met at an office of Arizona State University, where Bensh was an alumnus and Volker headed the McCain Institute. “He wanted me to know him,” Volker recalled. Bensh confirmed the ASU tie and their meeting.
Both Bleyzer and Bensh soon found favor in Ukraine.
On July 1, Bleyzer and a partner named Alex Cranberg won rights to explore for oil and gas at a promising government-controlled site called Varvynska. Bleyzer told me in an email that the bid took a year to prepare, and “was judged superior in all aspects, including financial.”
As for Bensh, he managed to leverage his various connections to become an informal adviser to the team of the new president, Zelensky. Bensh told me that when Zelensky’s top aide, Andriy Yermak, visited Washington in mid-July, Bensh accompanied him to meetings on Capitol Hill with staffs of key members of Congress. With them was a Naftogaz representative.
The main topic of discussion on the Hill, Bensh said, was the need for Congress to adopt sanctions against a Russian pipeline known as Nordstream 2 that would bypass Ukraine and weaken the government there. The House on Wednesday approved just such sanctions.
Also joining in the campaign to reshape Naftogaz was Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and the third “amigo” who managed Trump’s back channel with Ukraine. NBC News cited a source familiar with Sondland’s views who said that he “was generally unhappy with their governance [at Naftogaz], and encouraged them to shake up the board but not necessarily replace specific individuals.”
One of the few roadblocks that Parnas and Fruman couldn’t surmount was a Ukrainian oligarch named Ihor Kolomoisky, who had been a major financial backer of Zelensky. Hoping to ingratiate themselves with this key supporter of the new president, Parnas and Fruman flew to Israel in April 2019 to meet Kolomoisky, apparently on the pretext of talking about LNG.
Kolomoisky told a Ukrainian journalist when he returned to Kyiv in May that the two had come to him in Israel “demanding that I arrange for them to meet Zelensky,” and said they had been talking with Lutsenko about “Burisma, Biden, interference in the American elections and so on.” Kolomoisky sent them packing, and he told the interviewer that he saw in the meeting a “clear conspiracy” to frame Biden. He called Parnas and Fruman “clowns.”
Giuliani was livid when the Kolomoisky interview surfaced. He tweeted on May 18 that Kolomoisky was a “notorious oligarch” who should be arrested for defaming Parnas and Fruman. “They are my clients and I have advised them to press charges,” Giuliani tweeted.
The Giuliani team knocked on one last oligarch’s door in this Ukraine saga — that of Firtash, who has been one of the most powerful players in the Ukrainian natural gas business over the past 20 years. Firtash, who is facing extradition to the United States on bribery charges, now lives in Vienna.
According to the New York Times, Parnas and Fruman offered Firtash help with his extradition problems, if he would hire Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, two lawyers close to Trump and Giuliani. Firtash would agree to help find incriminating material on Biden, “as part of any potential resolution to his extradition matter,” Parnas’s lawyer Joseph Bondy told the Times.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for diGenova and Toensing, contested the Times account. “Neither Joe nor Victoria nor Mr. Firtash was ever asked by Mr. Giuliani to get dirt on anybody. That’s just false,” he said.
Firtash paid the diGenova-Toensing team $1.2 million, according to the Times, and the American lawyers secured a meeting with Attorney General William P. Barr to discuss Firtash’s case. But Barr “declined to intercede,” The Post reported.
Many presidents have had someone like Giuliani — a personal friend, often a lawyer, who built a private business or legal practice around White House access. What’s striking about Giuliani is the breadth of his influence and the degree to which his public policy and private business roles overlapped.
As the president’s friend, lawyer and back-channel policy advocate, Giuliani crossed lines that most White House insiders avoid. He pressed for an ambassador to be fired. He seemingly encouraged delay of a congressionally mandated military-aid program to an embattled ally. He blurred the usual conflict-of-interest norms in dealing with clients whose matters overlapped with foreign-policy issues where he was advising Trump.
For those who remember Giuliani amid the rubble of the fallen twin towers, summoning his city and nation to work together for a great cause, it’s a sad story of how big people can shrink before our eyes — and of the persistence of the public-private swamp that many voters thought they were rejecting in 2016.