So when Trump sat down that month for an interview with ABC News's George Stephanopoulos, he made an unusual admission.
“Your campaign this time around, if foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on an opponent,” Stephanopoulos asked, “should they accept it or should they call the FBI?”
“Maybe you do both,” Trump responded. “I think you might want to listen. There’s nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country — Norway — ‘we have information on your opponent,’ oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
This take-what-you're-offered approach was the one employed by his son, Donald Trump Jr., when a Russia-connected acquaintance offered dirt on Hillary Clinton three years prior. That preceded all of the scrutiny paid to the issue, of course, and could be excused (as it was by the special counsel) as a function of the younger Trump not understanding laws prohibiting such information. But here was Trump in 2019, shrugging at that same prohibition.
As the country soon learned, there was a likely reason for it. For months, his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani had been actively soliciting negative information about Joe Biden, Trump’s most likely and eventual opponent in the 2020 election. Trump hired Giuliani in 2018 and, by the end of that year, the former New York mayor was actively engaged in conversations with Ukrainian officials offering derogatory information about Biden and his son, Hunter.
One of those officials, Viktor Shokin, was marked for ouster by Biden due to corruption concerns — but he offered Giuliani a narrative about being targeted because of his own investigation into Hunter Biden. (This claim has been debunked.)
Another official, the man who replaced Shokin as Ukraine’s prosecutor general, promised similarly damning information about Biden. But, according to text messages made public by Giuliani’s colleague Lev Parnas, that official wanted something in exchange: the removal of the American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. She was actively supporting an anti-corruption agency in Ukraine that was at odds with the official, Yuri Lutsenko. So Lutsenko repeatedly dangled the promise of information related to the Bidens as he lamented that Giuliani “can’t even get rid of one fool” — an apparent reference to Yovanovitch. At one point, Lutsenko and Giuliani apparently discussed a direct financial relationship, but that seems to have been tabled.
Yovanovitch was eventually removed from her position as Trump's efforts to wring a Biden scandal out of Ukraine accelerated. Even after the House began investigating Trump's interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the scale of the pressure campaign was made public, Giuliani kept at it, scrambling to find something from somewhere that would disadvantage Biden.
In late 2019, a few things happened. Giuliani went back to Ukraine, this time in the company of the right-wing cable channel One America News, to interview various individuals making claims about the Bidens. It was a rogue’s gallery, as independent observers could (and did) determine even in real-time, including obviously biased and dubious figures. He met, for example, with a guy named Andriy Derkach, a member of Ukraine’s parliament whom an expert interviewed by NBC News described as a “professional disinformer.”
It was at about this time that the FBI became aware that Giuliani was putting himself at risk of being used by Russia to spread disinformation as that country renewed its efforts to shape the outcome of the 2020 race. As The Post reported, the FBI planned to warn several parties, including both Giuliani and One America News, that “they faced a risk of being used to further Russia’s attempt to influence the election’s outcome.”
Giuliani was already under investigation by the Justice Department, a probe that exploded into public view this week with the seizure of phones and computers from his home and office. In early 2019, Giuliani's attorney claimed on Thursday, the feds had used a warrant to probe personal information of Giuliani's stored in Apple's online iCloud service.
This has an interesting parallel to a report last October from Time. The magazine’s Simon Shuster found that, in the months before Giuliani’s trip to Ukraine, emails and other material purporting to be from Hunter Biden had been offered to multiple individuals. There was some later speculation that perhaps the younger Biden had himself had someone access his cloud-stored information without his knowledge.
So we have Giuliani in Ukraine explicitly seeking out election-related information as Russia allegedly sought to pollute the election by providing him with misinformation. One America later released a series centered around his interviews explicitly aimed at undercutting the impeachment inquiry by attacking Biden.
That included an interview with the “misinformer” Derkach. In September 2020, he was sanctioned by the Treasury Department for being “an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services.” A report released by the director of national intelligence in March described how he likely fit into the Russian disinformation effort in 2020, an effort directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“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,” the report said, “some of whom were close to former President Trump and his administration.”
That's fairly obviously Derkach, Giuliani and One America.
If Giuliani was concerned about the risks he was taking, like Trump speaking to Stephanopoulos he seemed not to have cared very much. Nor did he apparently care about the accuracy of the information he received or how he received it.
That became apparent with an October 2020 story in the New York Post centered on emails related to Hunter Biden. The Post obtained a laptop — from Giuliani — that had purportedly once belonged to Hunter Biden. It included material that, according to Time, was similar to the material circulating in Ukraine the prior year.
The Wall Street Journal asked Giuliani if he might have provided the tabloid with hacked material — the implication being that it would likely have been stolen by Russia.
“Could it be hacked? I don’t know. I don’t think so,” Giuliani said. “If it was hacked, it’s for real. If it was hacked. I didn’t hack it. I have every right to use it.”
“Either nobody else would take it,” he said, “or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.”
In media circles, this process of double-checking the validity of information before sharing it is called “vetting” and is generally considered an important step for not providing false information to the public. For Giuliani, it was an encumbrance, a roadblock to his actual goal: undercutting Joe Biden by any means possible.
“Rudy Giuliani is a great patriot,” Trump said to Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo the day after Giuliani’s home and office were searched. “He does these things — he just loves this country, and they raid his apartment. It’s, like, so unfair and such a double — it’s like a double standard like I don’t think anybody’s ever seen before.”
All Giuliani was trying to do was help Trump win the election, after all. That he got dubiously sourced information on multiple occasions? Well, there’s nothing wrong with listening, right?