Trump’s corruption of U.S. foreign policy to strong-arm an ally into helping his reelection is almost like the forgotten stepchild of Trump scandals, even though it got him impeached (the first time).
But the news that federal investigators have executed a search warrant against Rudolph W. Giuliani is a reminder of just how crowning a betrayal Trump’s subversion of the national interest in that scandal truly was. It’s also a reminder that the full puzzle of that complex tale is still being filled in.
Giuliani, of course, was the chief orchestrator of Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine, including withholding military aid when it was under extreme duress, to pressure its president into manufacturing dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
According to multiple reports, the search warrant served against Giuliani suggests investigators are zeroing in on whether Giuliani broke laws when he engineered the firing of Marie Yovanovitch as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Giuliani reportedly saw Yovanovitch as an obstacle to his and Trump’s scheme.
But the key question is whether Giuliani was doing this not just on behalf of Trump, but also on behalf of Ukrainians. As the New York Times reports:
As part of the investigation into Mr. Giuliani, prosecutors have explored whether he was working not only for Mr. Trump, but also for Ukrainian officials or businesses who wanted the ambassador to be dismissed for their own reasons, according to people briefed on the matter.Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, it is a federal crime to try to influence or lobby the United States government at the request or direction of a foreign official without disclosing it to the Justice Department.Prosecutors have scrutinized Mr. Giuliani’s dealings with Yuriy Lutsenko, one of the officials who helped Mr. Giuliani and his associates in their efforts to tar Mr. Biden while also urging them to work to get the ambassador removed.
The Times frames the key legal question as whether “Giuliani illegally lobbied the Trump administration in 2019 on behalf of Ukrainian officials and oligarchs.”
To unpack this, we talked to Daniel Goldman, the lead counsel for the majority during the first impeachment. Goldman pointed out that all this raises another question: Whether Giuliani was taking money from Ukrainians for the express purpose of influencing Trump in this regard.
“I expect that a big part of this investigation relates to whether any Ukrainian paid Giuliani to use his relationship with Trump to influence the U.S. government,” Goldman told us.
In this scenario, Giuliani would have been trading on his influence with Trump — who did end up removing Yovanovitch, as Giuliani wanted — to personally profit while carrying out Trump’s corrupt reelection scheme, without notifying the Justice Department of his lobbying.
In addition to questions around Lutsenko and Ukrainian oligarchs, two other shadowy figures who worked with Giuliani and Trump on the reelection scheme — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, Soviet-born U.S. citizens who are still under indictment — also wanted Yovanovitch gone. They tried to manipulate Trump into removing her.
In January 2020, a tape of a private dinner became public in which Parnas and Fruman told Trump that Yovanovich has been bad-mouthing him. The president replied: “Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. Okay? Do it.”
Parnas and Fruman also paid Giuliani some $500,000 through their company, Fraud Guarantee, but Giuliani has said this was for legal fees.
It’s hard to know what this tells us about what Trump knew on this particular front. But as Goldman pointed out, by enlisting Giuliani to carry out his own corrupt scheme, the now-former president may have also been facilitating Giuliani’s potential corruption of U.S. policy for personal profit.
“We have no indication that Trump had any knowledge of any payment that Giuliani received relating to Ukraine,” Goldman cautioned.
But Goldman added that this may be “yet another way Trump enabled those around him to grift. At some point, Trump has to be on notice that people around him are using him for corrupt purposes.”
In other words, Giuliani may have been the nexus where a corrupt president’s attempt to twist U.S. policy for his personal ends met the efforts of foreign officials to twist U.S. policy for theirs.
Whatever the truth of this turns out to be, the ongoing investigation into Giuliani will help us learn more about what really happened with this whole scandal, and how deep a betrayal it really represented.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, pointed out that this offers reasons for both optimism and caution.
On the one hand, Swalwell noted, it’s a good sign that the Justice Department does not appear to be letting fears of appearing to rehash old political battles impede allowing justice to proceed. On the other, the department will have to take extra care to reassure the public that politics isn’t creeping into the investigation of Giuliani.
The ideal, Swalwell told us, is to “give the Department of Justice the ability to follow the evidence."
“Don’t treat him any more harshly because he’s a political opponent of Joe Biden,” said Swalwell. “And don’t give him any favors because of some sense of wanting to move past 2020. People need to be held accountable.”