The Giuliani factor

There’s nothing wrong with a U.S. official asking a foreign leader for help in investigating possible criminal acts by Americans committed in, or relating to, the foreign leader’s country. There’s nothing wrong with a U.S. president asking a foreign leader to speak to and work with a U.S. official conducting such an investigation.

This is true regardless of whether the person being investigated is a political opponent of the president. As long as the investigation is legitimate, there’s no problem. Opposing a president doesn’t shield one from being investigated.

But suppose the person doing the investigating is a lawyer for the campaign committee of the U.S. president. Nothing wrong yet. Campaigns do opposition research all the time.

But now, suppose the U.S. president asks a foreign leader for a favor. He asks that the foreign leader speak to and work with the lawyer for the president’s campaign committee regarding possible wrongdoing by the president’s campaign opponent (or potential opponent).

I think most objective observers (if any could be found) would say that this is improper. I think all hyper-partisan observers (who are easy to find) would scream bloody murder if the president seeking such foreign help were from the party they oppose.

Put simply, the president should not use his influence with foreign leaders to induce them to help with opposition research in support of the president’s campaign. If the researcher is a lawyer on the president’s campaign team, there is little doubt that this is what’s going on. If the researcher is a government official conducting a legitimate investigation of possible criminal conduct, there’s no reason to so suspect.

This brings us to Rudy Giuliani. He is not a U.S. official. He is also not a lawyer for the president’s reelection campaign. He was not investigating the Bidens dealings with Ukraine in either capacity.

In what capacity was he investigating the Bidens? Giuliani apparently has claimed that the State Department asked him to become involved in the investigation.

According to Giuliani, Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, helped secure his discussions with a Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Ukraine’s president. But according to the Washington Post, quoting a State Department official, Volker helped set up the meeting at Yermak’s request only after Trump had requested that the president of Ukraine speak with Giuliani (in the now famous July telephone call).

Assuming that the Post’s reporting is accurate, Giuliani was not injected into the Biden investigation by the State Department. Rather, he was injected into it by Trump. Indeed, the Post’s reporting aside, any other scenario seems highly implausible. And Giuliani’s relationship to Trump is that he’s Trump’s personal lawyer.

It appears, then, that Giuliani was investigating the Bidens in his capacity as Trump’s personal lawyer. To me, this seems a lot more like a quest for dirt by a lawyer for the president’s reelection campaign than an official investigation into possible criminal behavior.

As such, I believe it was improper for Trump to ask, as a favor, that Ukraine’s president speak with Giuliani. Again, there’s nothing wrong with Trump asking his personal lawyer to perform opposition research. The president can seek this kind of help from anyone he chooses. Thus, had Giuliani merely poked around on his own, that would have been fine, as I see it.

The problem arises because Trump used the power of the presidency to persuade Ukraine to cooperate with his private attorney in digging up dirt on a political opponent. When the president asks a foreign leader for a favor, the favor should be furtherance of American objectives, not the president’s personal (or political) ones. That’s why it’s easy to understand that the president shouldn’t ask foreign leaders to collaborate with an attorney from his reelection campaign.

Because Giuliani was acting as Trump’s private attorney, the strong presumption should be that he was representing Trump’s personal interests. Indeed, Giuliani’s attempt to characterize his work as at the behest of the State Department suggests that he understands this.

The presumption is reinforced by the fact that Trump’s personal interest in digging up dirt on the Bidens exceeds any national interest. From the standpoint of American interests, Hunter Biden is just another sleazy businessman using connections to get ahead. It’s only from the standpoint of Trump’s personal interest that Hunter Biden, by virtue of who his father is, becomes particularly important.

Joe Biden is another matter. He’s a major political figure and the former vice president. However, he had already admitted — indeed, bragged — that he conditioned U.S. aid to Ukraine on the firing of the Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating his son. How much more was there to investigate regarding Joe? The key for Trump was to keep the matter alive and to embarrass the Bidens as much as possible.

To say that it was improper for Trump to ask as a favor that Ukraine’s president talk with Giuliani about possible crimes by the Bidens is not to say that doing so comes close to being an impeachable offense. I don’t think it does — certainly not on the facts that have come to light so far.

However, Trump shouldn’t have done it. I’m not surprised that he did, though.

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