By early May 2019, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani must have looked like the international espionage equivalent of a wide-eyed tourist walking around with his wallet hanging out his back pocket. He’d announced his intention to travel to Ukraine to seek out derogatory information about Joe Biden, then a newly announced presidential candidate and someone well positioned to face President Donald Trump, then Giuliani’s boss, in the 2020 election. For any Russian officials interested in finding a conduit for misinformation that both cast their geopolitical rival Ukraine as corrupt and bolstered Trump’s chances of reelection, Giuliani must have been an irresistible target.
A report released by the Director of National Intelligence on Tuesday strongly suggests that this is exactly what happened.
Giuliani spent months explicitly arguing that Biden’s son Hunter had engaged in dubious activity while serving on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. This claim was fact-checked over and over again, particularly as Trump faced impeachment for his efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation of the Bidens. At no point did credible evidence emerge to suggest that the core claims being rigorously promoted by Giuliani and Trump were accurate. Giuliani nonetheless continued to hammer on the allegations, repeatedly insisting that he had provided or would provide evidence to prove wrongdoing.
At one point, as the second impeachment investigation of Trump was underway, Giuliani returned to Ukraine with credulous employees of the pro-Trump network One America News in tow to interview those he claimed had evidence of Biden’s malfeasance. One of those sources was Andriy Derkach, a member of Ukraine’s parliament who had been a member of a Pro-Russia political party for which Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort once worked.
Derkach posted photos of his meetings with Giuliani on social media, reporting that the two had discussed an effort to address purported “corruption” in Ukraine. He also later appeared in that One America News series purporting to prove Biden’s culpability. The network promoted the series by showing a picture of Giuliani sitting down with Derkach.
Both Giuliani and OAN should have known that Derkach wasn’t a reliable source. At the time, The Washington Post reported on his ties to Russia and his lack of credibility. His official biography identifies links to the KGB, Russia’s former intelligence agency. But he continued to provide dubious information that was picked up by conservative media and promoted by Giuliani as the election unfolded.
In September, while Trump was still president, the Treasury Department sanctioned Derkach — an “active Russian agent” — for attempting to influence the 2020 presidential election. The DNI report released this week is focused on ways in which foreign countries, chief among them Russia, sought to reshape the election and articulates Derkach’s alleged role to that end.
“A key element of Moscow's strategy this election cycle was its use of people linked to Russian intelligence to launder influence narratives — including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden — through US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, some of whom were close to former President Trump and his administration,” the report reads. This effort was directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, it continues, who “had purview over the activities of Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian legislator who played a prominent role in Russia's election influence activities.”
The main thrust of the interference, the report continues, was to imply wrongdoing by Biden, the administration of Barack Obama and Ukraine. It involved not only Derkach but Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Manafort employee who was charged by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for his role in Russia’s 2016 interference efforts. (Trump pardoned Manafort shortly before Christmas.)
“Derkach, Kilimnik, and their associates sought to use prominent US persons and media conduits to launder their narratives to US officials and audiences,” the report states. “These Russian proxies met with and provided materials to Trump administration-linked US persons to advocate for formal investigations; hired a US firm to petition US officials; and attempted to make contact with several senior US officials. They also made contact with established US media figures and helped produce a documentary that aired on a US television network in late January 2020.”
There’s no reading of that last paragraph that doesn’t obviously implicate Giuliani as an unwitting part of the effort.
The report is a declassified version of a longer, classified assessment of foreign interference efforts. As such, it’s necessarily vague, aiming not to reveal the sources and systems used for its assessment. This also reinforces that it should be treated for what it is: a necessarily geopolitical document that is part of a broader international tug-of-war.
There’s no suggestion from the report that Giuliani or other Americans were wittingly aiding a Russian interference effort. Instead, the report contributes to a sense that Giuliani’s eagerness to aid Trump’s reelection effort blinded him to the sketchiness of his sources. The Justice Department was eventually tasked with running down the leads Giuliani provided, but Trump’s attorney himself seemed uninterested in doing so.
What also isn’t clear from the report is one of 2020′s biggest mysteries: whether Giuliani’s sudden discovery last year of a laptop purportedly belonging to Hunter Biden is thought to have been part of the Russian effort. Because of the unusual provenance of the device and the inability of outlets to assess its authenticity, stories about the laptop were blocked on social media platforms during last year’s presidential election out of concern that it, too, was a function of Russian interference efforts. (Giuliani says he was contacted by the owner of a Delaware computer repair shop who gave him the device. He declined to make it available to most media outlets, telling the New York Times at one point that he originally shared it with the New York Post out of concern that other outlets would “spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out,” a process generally known as “vetting.”)
Later reports, including from Time, indicated that some of the material attributed to Biden’s laptop was circulating in Ukraine before Giuliani visited in late 2019. If true, that suggests the possibility that the material was hacked from an Internet-accessible source such as an Apple iCloud account.
There’s an obvious murkiness about all of this, including the identities of others who had roles in the interference effort articulated in the DNI report. It’s also not clear how involved Kilimnik was in the push. But the report makes one obvious point without ever using Giuliani’s name: Trump’s personal attorney was allegedly a conduit for an effort by Russia to affect the results of the 2020 presidential election to Trump’s benefit.
When Giuliani returned to the United States from his trip to Ukraine in late 2019 after meeting with Derkach and others, he called Trump. The president asked his attorney what he’d found, prompting Giuliani to reportedly answer, “More than you can imagine.”