This post has been updated with the news that Giuliani has canceled the trip.
President Trump asked for and received help from the Russian government in his 2016 election victory. And despite all that has followed, his lawyer planned to head to neighboring Ukraine for more potential political assistance.
That was the almost impossible-to-ignore takeaway from former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s remarkable interview with the New York Times’s Kenneth P. Vogel. Giuliani was going to Ukraine to pressure the government to investigate cases that Giuliani himself admitted have bearing on Trump’s political fate. And he didn’t even really trying to disguise the purpose.
But now, after a backlash, he’s canceled the whole thing.
“So I’ve decided ... I’m not going to go to the Ukraine,” Giuliani said. “I’m not going to go because I think I’m walking into a group of people that are enemies of the president, in some cases, enemies of the United States."
In the earlier interviews, Giuliani made clear he was going to Ukraine to press them on whether the Ukrainian government assisted Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign by disseminating documents about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s work in the country. Giuliani said he would also inquire about the “collateral” matter of a Ukrainian energy company that employed and handsomely compensated one of Joe Biden’s sons. The elder Biden, as Barack Obama’s vice president, pushed for and secured the removal of a prosecutor who had authority to investigate the oligarch who ran the company.
Giuliani admitted he was going to Ukraine in his capacity as Trump’s personal lawyer to push for investigations that could help Trump.
"We’re not meddling in an election; we’re meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do,” Giuliani told Vogel.
But then he acknowledged the very real electoral and political benefit that could arise.
“This isn’t foreign policy; I’m asking them to do an investigation that they’re doing already and that other people are telling them to stop,” Giuliani said. “And I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it, because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
Just before the quote above, Giuliani acknowledged the potential ethical and appearance problems.
“There’s nothing illegal about it,” he said. “Somebody could say it’s improper.”
Legal experts said it could well be the latter and, depending on Giuliani’s actions, possibly even the former.
“This is the first instance of which I am aware in which a private lawyer for the president of the United States has, in his own words, ‘meddled’ in a foreign criminal investigation of a third party in order to politically benefit the president,” said Tim Meyer, an international law expert at Vanderbilt University. “Mr. Giuliani’s actions undermine the long-standing U.S. foreign policy of promoting the rule of law in Ukraine generally and in the Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office specifically.”
The U.S. government often takes an interest in foreign investigations and prosecutions — and has done so several times in matters involving Ukraine. Biden did so himself as vice president when he traveled to Kiev in 2016 and threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees from the Ukrainian government if it didn’t remove its prosecutor general, whom the United States accused of turning a blind eye to corruption in a key region. As was reported at the time and has since been expanded upon, the removal of that prosecutor could be seen as a boon to Hunter Biden, who was making as much as $50,000 per month to serve on the board of the energy company, Burisma Holdings.
Bloomberg News has since added to the reporting, though, saying the investigation of the oligarch had been tabled long before Biden’s trips. It also noted that the Obama administration previously pressured the Ukrainian government to cooperate in a British investigation into the same oligarch — a decision that wouldn’t seem to have benefited Biden’s family.
What makes Giuliani’s now-canceled trip different is the capacity in which he planned to take it and the more personal aims he appears to have had. While the U.S. government gets involved in justice matters in other countries, Giuliani does not represent the U.S. government, but rather his client. That client happens to be the U.S. president. He was also seeking to fuel specific investigations that he acknowledged carry political benefits for that client. (He then added as an aside that maybe they might benefit the U.S. government, too.)
There is also the matter of leverage. Although Biden’s threat was clearly stated, Giuliani’s ability to secure outcomes may be more about implied leverage. He would have been there as the personal lawyer of the president of the United States, a country with which Ukraine would very much like to remain in good relations. It’s difficult to believe that doesn’t ratchet up the political pressure Ukraine might feel to strongly pursue very specific investigations.
Meyer said there is also a legal question for Giuliani here, as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it illegal for a U.S. citizen to corruptly offer “anything of value” to a foreign official to retain business or influence an official decision. There is no evidence that has taken place or would have, Meyer emphasized, “but given the breadth of the statute, any quid pro quo Mr. Giuliani offers from which he profits in his representation of the president could be illegal.”
Fox News’s Laura Ingraham asked Giuliani about the Times article on Thursday night, and Giuliani again suggested there was nothing wrong with what he was doing. But he again acknowledged the potential political benefit — by invoking the very specific political cutoff of Election Day 2020.
“I guarantee you: Joe Biden will not get to Election Day without this being investigated,” Giuliani said.
Giuliani on Friday night was singing a different tune, saying this wasn’t politically oriented and that it had nothing to do with the 2020 election he had invoked just the night before.
“The reality is this has nothing to do with the election of 2020,” Giuliani said. “The election of 2020 is a long time from now, and if I wanted to meddle in that election, which I don’t, I could have held this for a year and dropped it before the convention."