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The Justice Department’s long-running investigation into Rudy Giuliani is creating problems for lobbyists with foreign clients and other political consultants suspected of working with the former New York mayor.
On Wednesday, federal investigators executed search warrants at Giuliani’s office and residence in Manhattan, escalating a probe into his dealings in Ukraine during his time as President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer.
In the months leading up to the search, the Justice Department had sent a “blizzard” of requests for information from lobbying and public affairs firms that questioned whether they had failed to address Giuliani’s activities in disclosures of their own foreign influence work, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
The questioning came in the form of “letters of inquiry,” which the Justice Department regularly sends when it believes a person or firm might be required to register as a foreign agent in connection with influence activities.
DOJ’s flurry of inquiries — Insider could not confirm the precise number or the recipients — came as it approached an aggressive step in its investigation into whether Giuliani illegally lobbied the Trump administration in 2019 on behalf of Ukrainian oligarchs and officials.
While DOJ officials have declined to confirm or even clarify the scope of their interests with Giuliani, making a move like the one made Wednesday on someone of Giuliani’s stature struck a nerve among longtime DC insiders.
“I think people should raise their eyebrows and recognize this could be much more serious than has been advertised so far,” a former senior Trump White House official told Insider.
A ‘very tricky, very suspicious soup’
The time period DOJ investigators appear to be examining coincides with Giuliani’s search for information damaging to Trump’s political rivals leading up to the 2020 presidential election, including the eventual Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.
House Democrats impeached Trump in December 2019 over the Ukraine scandal, charging the president with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress as it tried to dig into the removal of the US ambassador to Ukraine. The Senate acquitted Trump after a nearly three-week trial, falling well short of the two-thirds vote required for conviction.
As part of the DOJ investigation into Giuliani, federal prosecutors in Manhattan are examining whether Trump’s personal lawyer was working not only for the president but also for Ukrainian interests when he pushed for the ouster of US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. That conduct could violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, a decades-old law requiring the disclosure of political influence work conducted in the US for overseas powers.
The once obscure law returned to prominence during the Russia investigation as the special counsel Robert Mueller’s team brought high-profile prosecutions against Trump associates related to their past lobbying for foreign clients, as well as former President Barack Obama’s first White House counsel.
Giuliani’s dealings with Ukraine were part of a broader slate of conduct that raised suspicions, not just within the Justice Department but also among legal observers about whether he was flouting FARA’s disclosure requirements.
During the Trump administration, Giuliani was linked to the Iranian dissident group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and to an effort to extradite a Turkish cleric living in exile in the US. Giuliani privately urged Trump to eject the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who has long been wanted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Rudy has been flirting with FARA violations for a long time, if not potentially crossing over the line,” said Matthew Sanderson, a partner at the law firm Caplin & Drysdale and cochair of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on FARA.
“You have this very tricky, very suspicious soup,” Sanderson added.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment. Giuliani’s lawyer Robert Costello did not respond to Insider’s requests for comment. The New York Times, which first reported the FBI raid on Giuliani, quoted Costello as saying his client had offered to answer questions posed by prosecutors except ones that are privileged because they involve Trump.
“What they did today was legal thuggery,” Costello said, according to The Times. “Why would you do this to anyone, let alone someone who was the associate attorney general, United States attorney, the mayor of New York City and the personal lawyer to the 45th president of the United States.”
‘A very serious, sensitive matter’
The Times’ report described the execution of search warrants at Giuliani’s home and office, which involved the seizure of his electronic devices. It also reported that the federal investigators seized a cellphone from Victoria Toensing, a lawyer associated with Giuliani who also had dealings with several Ukrainians involved in the search for damaging information about Biden and his son Hunter.
Toensing and her husband, former US Attorney Joe DiGenova, served as legal advisors to Trump during his presidency.
On one occasion, in mid-November, they joined Giuliani at a press conference at Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington to make unfounded claims of election fraud during the presidential election. The couple previously had been announced as the president’s personal attorneys in March 2018 amid the Mueller probe, but then they backed out over “conflicts,” with Giuliani instead taking on the role.
DOJ’s investigation into Giuliani emanated from a case against two Soviet-born men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who supported his efforts to dig up dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine. Parnas and Fruman are scheduled to stand trial in October on unrelated campaign-finance charges.
The timing of Wednesday’s searches suggests that the Justice Department might have waited for the arrival of its Biden-appointed leaders before executing the warrants, an extraordinary step to take against a lawyer, much less one who worked for a president. Last week, the Senate voted 98-2 to confirm Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, who as the second-ranking Justice Department official runs the department’s day-to-day operations.
For such a sensitive search warrant, the approval process almost assuredly extended up to Attorney General Merrick Garland, according to former Justice Department officials and other legal observers.
“This certainly had to have Garland’s approval or affirmation,” said former US Rep. David Jolly, a Florida Republican turned independent who once predicted that Giuliani would end up “in jail for FARA violations or some other type of violation related to disclosure and receiving foreign money.”
“Any time you’re talking about the former counselor to a former president, you’re talking about a very serious, sensitive matter,” Jolly told Insider on Wednesday.
The Justice Department unit tasked with enforcing FARA did not similarly wait before sending letters of inquiry to political consulting firms regarding past work with Giuliani. In the letters, the Justice Department unit said it had reason to believe the firms worked with Giuliani on behalf of foreign clients and asked them to explain why his activities were not revealed in disclosures.
Under FARA, firms and consultants registered as foreign agents are required to detail their work and expenditures and also identify subcontractors. In recent years, the Justice Department has been flooded with new registrations as it has intensified FARA enforcement.
If suspected FARA violations are at the core of the Giuliani investigation, “it fits into a pattern of heightened enforcement,” said Trevor Potter, the president of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center and a former Federal Election Commission chairman who served as general counsel for Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
FARA was passed in 1938 as a reaction to Nazi Germany’s attempts to secretly propagandize Americans, but the law “is equally applicable today because there are plenty of countries that want to influence US public policy in a way that benefits them without disclosing they’re doing it,” Potter said.
The Justice Department in recent years has also more aggressively scrutinized existing foreign agents to examine the fulsomeness of their disclosure filings.
“Once the department starts to pull the thread on the sweater, it really involves a number of different people. That may or may not be the case” with the Giuliani investigation, Sanderson said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if this expands to other individuals, other firms, other businesses.”