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Amid Ukraine swirl, Giuliani’s work for candidate in Dominican Republic caused unease

Rudolph W. Giuliani, right, greets Dominican presidential candidate Luis Abinader during a news conference in Santo Domingo in February 2016. (Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty Images)

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The politics of this Caribbean island nation do not frequently capture the attention of the stewards of America's foreign policy, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo phoned down last summer with a clear message.

Dominican President Danilo Medina’s supporters were pushing to change the country’s constitution to allow him to run for an unprecedented third term. In a call with the president, Pompeo emphasized the importance of “adherence to rule of law and the constitution,” according to a State Department readout.

That message was echoed a week later in person by President Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.

“If you want to change the constitution, change it for the future,” Giuliani told reporters during a July 2019 visit to Santo Domingo. “Don’t make it look like you’re changing it for you. Don’t change it for this election.”

Giuliani was not in the Dominican Republic as Trump’s representative. He was speaking as a paid consultant to an opposition presidential candidate, Luis Abinader, a businessman who had been protesting the possibility of a constitutional change allowing the incumbent to run again.

Days later, Medina announced that he would not seek reelection.

The overlapping interests of the U.S. administration and Giuliani’s paying client underscores how his decision to work as an international consultant while serving as Trump’s lawyer has caused disquiet, both among foreign leaders and U.S. administration officials.

Inside Giuliani’s dual roles: Power-broker-for-hire and shadow foreign policy adviser

Giuliani’s presence in Santo Domingo annoyed rival Dominican presidential candidates who felt Abinader was trying to buy his campaign an American seal of approval, according to candidates and their advisers. And it concerned officials in the presidential palace who scrutinized Giuliani’s comments for signs he was speaking for Trump, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal talks.

Giuliani’s visit to the Dominican Republic came around the same time that he — with Trump’s backing — had been pressing Pompeo and U.S. diplomats to push Ukraine to announce investigations into Trump’s political opponents, a gambit that led to the president’s impeachment.

The State Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Giuliani did not respond directly to a question about whether he met with anyone at the State Department about his client there.

“Why in the world would you care about my work in the DR except to once again try to suggest falsely that there is some question about it?” he asked in a text message. “Don’t you have anything better to do? Whatever I did in DR was perfectly lawful and appropriate.”

The full scope of Giuliani’s clientele is not known. The uncertainty about who he represents — and his willingness to take on foreign clients with interests before the U.S. government while working for the president — has alarmed senior administration officials, as The Washington Post has previously reported.

In his various meetings last year with foreign and U.S. officials, Giuliani toggled between serving as Trump’s emissary and representing other interests. During a sit-down in August with a top Ukrainian official to discuss the investigations Trump wanted, Giuliani advocated for a former client, the mayor of Kyiv. On that same trip, he stayed at a historic estate of a client, Venezuelan energy executive Alejandro Betancourt López — and later met with top Justice Department officials to urge them not to charge him in a money-laundering case.

Giuliani discussed interests of a former Ukrainian client during summer meeting with top Zelensky aide

Giuliani, who says he works for Trump free, has told The Post that he is always careful to make clear he is a private lawyer for the president, not a representative of the U.S. government.

Since 2015, Giuliani has been hired by Abinader as a security consultant two times, according to Samuel Pereyra, an official in the Abinader campaign who managed the contracts. His most recent contract, for $75,000, was secured last June, Pereyra said, more than a year after Giuliani joined Trump’s legal team.

For that sum, Giuliani made a two-day trip to the Dominican Republic in July, appearing with the candidate at a briefing for reporters and visiting a poor neighborhood in the capital, where he said people shouldn’t have to live behind bars like prisoners.

While he was there, Giuliani also puffed cigars at his favorite Dominican cigar club and dined at the residence of the U.S. ambassador, Robin Bernstein, one of Trump’s longtime Palm Beach, Fla., friends and an original member of Mar-a-Lago, according to people familiar with his activities.

Some members of Abinader’s campaign team felt it was a mistake to rehire Giuliani, saying he spoke in generalities and provided little of value, and worried that the candidate had brought him aboard to get access to the president.

“I think [Abinader] wanted a direct line to Trump,” said one adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions. “For me, that’s the principal reason he was hired: It’s a link to the White House and the State Department.”

Abinader denied that, telling The Post in an interview that he did not hire Giuliani to curry favor with the Trump administration. The two discussed only security issues, he said.

'Corruption no mas'

The campaign caravan inched through the narrow streets of Villa Altagracia, a working-class exurb north of Santo Domingo, blasting merengue and reggaeton basslines for the dancing crowds. Abinader stood up through the sunroof of his armored SUV and blew kisses to those below.

“Here he is, the next president of the republic!” the emcee called out last month.

With his composed, somewhat stiff persona, Abinader is not known for his charisma with the masses. But his pro-business, law-and-order message has resonated with voters who are tired of persistent crime and allegations of corruption in a ruling party that has been in power for 20 of the past 24 years. The Dominican Republic was ranked last year in the bottom quarter of Transparency International’s list of most corrupt countries in the world.

Abinader is a wealthy businessman of Lebanese descent whose father had been a cabinet minister, a presidential candidate and the founder of a private university. His family’s diverse holdings included hotels, cement plants and data processing centers, according to Abinader’s advisers.

Before Abinader’s first run for president in 2016, public opinion surveys showed that Dominicans’ most pressing concern was crime and violence, and his polling numbers on these topics trailed other candidates.

Like many Dominicans, Abinader had relatives in New York City, with particularly strong connections to Queens: His grandfather ran Corona Hardware in the borough. One of his cousins, Rodolfo Fuertes, was the president of the National Supermarket Association at the time, and suggested in 2015 that Abinader’s campaign might benefit from Giuliani’s help, Abinader said in an interview.

The former New York mayor was famous for reducing crime during his tenure. After leaving office, Giuliani sought to capi­tal­ize on that reputation, offering consulting services on security and police reform to countries around the world.

“You have to see Giuliani, he can clean up Santo Domingo,” Abinader recalled being told in a meeting with Fuertes and others.

After being hired on a $100,000 contract, Giuliani Security and Safety produced a 38-page report for the campaign in April 2016 that discussed crime trends and recommended several reforms of the Dominican police, Pereyra said.

That year, during a visit to Santo Domingo, Giuliani told an audience that the solution to the country’s crime problems boiled down to one thing: eliminating corruption.

“No tolerance. Not allowed. It has to end,” Giuliani told the crowd. “Corruption no mas.”

Abinader lost that bid. After Trump won his White House race later that year, Giuliani invited Abinader to the inauguration, where he attended a Latino gala at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington and met with Giuliani and others, Abinader said.

Abinader decided to rehire Giuliani last June, Pereyra said. Abinader said in an interview that he valued Giuliani’s counsel on security matters and the firm’s advice helped him generate a security plan for the country.

“It was a very important campaign issue,” Abinader said. “I ended up highest in the polls in terms of fighting criminality.”

A visit from the president's lawyer

By last summer, with Giuliani’s Ukrainian efforts at full steam, he made a return trip to Santo Domingo. At that point, Giuliani had been Trump’s personal lawyer for nearly a year and a half.

He also had been in contact with the secretary of state. In late March, Giuliani spoke to Pompeo by phone at least twice, according to State Department emails. In May, he sent Pompeo a packet of materials about his Ukraine research in a Manila envelope with “The White House” written as the return address, according to documents released during the impeachment probe.

Giuliani has said repeatedly that he did not do any lobbying related to his consulting in the Dominican Republic. In a previous interview with The Post, he described his work there and in other countries as focused only on security services.

Given his prominence, the Abinader campaign asked the U.S. Embassy if it wanted to provide security for Giuliani’s visit in July. Embassy officials declined, as Giuliani was not a U.S. government employee, according to Abinader advisers.

The embassy referred questions about Giuliani’s visit to the State Department, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Abinader’s team picked Giuliani up from the airport on July 16. The candidate and his aides met with Giuliani in a JW Marriott conference room for a couple of hours to discuss what Giuliani would tell the press the following day.

“Giuliani was the frontman, the personality,” said Roberto Álvarez, a former Dominican ambassador to the Organization of American States and a foreign policy adviser to Abinader who met with Giuliani that day. “He knows nothing about the cultural context.”

During his visit, Giuliani had dinner with Bernstein, the U.S. ambassador, and her husband, Richard, who were Republican donors and had both sold insurance to Trump while in Palm Beach.

One person who attended the embassy dinner with Giuliani described it as a social call, not a political gathering. The only topic of conversation this person recalled was the recent deaths of tourists at Dominican resorts, an image crisis for the government at the time.

The morning after his arrival, Giuliani had a breakfast meeting with Dominican journalists and then gave a news conference at the JW Marriott, according to the campaign.

At that time, the constitutional question had seized Dominican politics. Critics of the proposal, including Abinader and other opponents, had staged protests and rallies to demand that the pro-Medina legislature not move forward with allowing a third term.

“Keep the rules the way they are. Respect democracy,” Giuliani told reporters that day. He mentioned he was speaking as a “private citizen.”

A story in the Diario Libre newspaper about his visit referred to him as “the lawyer for the president of the United States.” A headline that day on Dominican Today, an online news site, read: “Giuliani jumps into Dominican Republic’s reelection fray.”

A wealthy Venezuelan hosted Giuliani as he pursued Ukraine campaign. Then Giuliani lobbied the Justice Department on his behalf.

His visit was closely monitored by aides to Medina, the current president, who scrutinized Giuliani’s remarks to see if he was speaking on behalf of Trump.

Abinader wanted “to associate himself with the Trump administration and show that he is America’s man,” said one senior Dominican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Abinader’s rival candidates also saw Giuliani’s presence as an attempt to signal an endorsement from the U.S. president.

“It’s a game of perception; they’re trying to leave the impression” that “the government of the United States favors them,” said Leonel Fernández, a former president who is running again this year. “In the end, the Dominican voters are going to decide. They don’t care whether President Trump is in favor or against.”

Álvarez, the adviser to Abinader, denied that, saying the relationship with Giuliani was only about advice on security matters.

“Never did we use his contact in order to move U.S. policy,” he said.

After two days, Giuliani jetted out of Santo Domingo.

The Abinader campaign is now getting consulting advice on security issues from a former Giuliani partner, John Huvane, who left Giuliani’s firm in October, officials said. Huvane did not respond to a request for comment.

In recent polls, Abinader has held a strong lead — more than 10 points — over his two main rivals, including Medina’s handpicked successor. The election will be held in May.

Anthony Faiola, Tom Hamburger and Alice Crites contributed to this report.