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The New York Times

Firing of U.S. Ambassador Is at Center of Giuliani Investigation

Two years ago, Rudy Giuliani finally got one thing he had been seeking in Ukraine: The Trump administration removed the U.S. ambassador there, a woman Giuliani believed had been obstructing his efforts to dig up dirt on the Biden family. It was a Pyrrhic victory. Giuliani’s push to oust the ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, not only became a focus of President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, but it has now landed Giuliani in the cross hairs of a federal criminal investigation into whether he broke lobbying laws, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The long-running inquiry reached a turning point this week when FBI agents seized telephones and computers from Giuliani’s home and office in Manhattan, the people said. At least one of the warrants was seeking evidence related to Yovanovitch and her role as ambassador, the people said. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times In particular, the federal authorities were expected to scour the electronic devices for communications between Giuliani and Trump administration officials about the ambassador before she was recalled in April 2019, one of the people added. The warrant also sought his communications with Ukrainian officials who had butted heads with Yovanovitch, including some of the same people who at the time were helping Giuliani seek damaging information about President Joe Biden, who was then a candidate, and his family, the people said. At issue for investigators is a key question: Did Giuliani go after Yovanovitch solely on behalf of Trump, who was his client at the time? Or was he also doing so on behalf of the Ukrainian officials, who wanted her removed for their own reasons? It is a violation of federal law to lobby the United States government on behalf of foreign officials without registering with the Justice Department, and Giuliani never did so. Even if the Ukrainians did not pay Giuliani, prosecutors could pursue the theory that they provided assistance by collecting information on the Bidens in exchange for her removal. One of the search warrants for Giuliani’s phones and computers explicitly stated that the possible crimes under investigation included violations of the law, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, according to the people with knowledge of the matter. Giuliani has long denied that he did work at the behest of the Ukrainians, or that he accepted any money from them, and he has said that he did not expressly urge Trump to fire the ambassador. Giuliani’s work to oust Yovanovitch was part of a larger effort to attack Joe Biden and tie him to corruption in Ukraine, much of which played out in public. But intelligence officials have long warned that Giuliani’s work in Ukraine had become ensnared with Russia’s efforts to spread disinformation about the Biden family to weaken Trump’s election rival. The FBI stepped up its warnings about Russian disinformation before the 2020 election, including giving a defensive briefing to Giuliani, cautioning him that some of the information he was pushing on the Biden family was tainted by Russian intelligence’s efforts to spread disinformation, according to a person briefed on the matter. The FBI’s defensive briefings are given by its counterintelligence officials and are separate from the criminal inquiry of Giuliani’s activities. The defensive briefing was reported Thursday by The Washington Post. But the warnings to Giuliani are not surprising. Senior officials had warned Trump in late 2019 that Giuliani was pushing Russian disinformation, and the intelligence community had warned the American public that Moscow’s intelligence services were trying to hurt Biden’s election chances by spreading information about his family’s work in Ukraine. On Wednesday, after FBI agents seized his devices, Giuliani again denied any wrongdoing. He said the search warrants demonstrated a “corrupt double standard” on the part of the Justice Department, which he accused of ignoring “blatant crimes” by Democrats, including Biden. Asked about the search warrants Thursday, Biden told NBC’s “Today” show that he “had no idea this was underway.” He said he had pledged not to interfere in any investigation by the Justice Department. Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert Costello, said his client had twice offered to answer prosecutors’ questions, except those regarding Giuliani’s privileged communications with the former president. The warrants do not accuse Giuliani of wrongdoing, but they underscore his legal peril: They indicate a judge has found that investigators have probable cause to believe that a crime was committed and that the search would turn up evidence of that crime. The investigation grew out of a case against two Soviet-born businessmen, who had helped Giuliani search for damaging information about Biden and his son, Hunter. At the time, Hunter Biden served on the board of an energy company that did business in Ukraine. In 2019, the businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were charged in Manhattan, along with two others, with unrelated campaign finance crimes. A trial is scheduled for October. In the Giuliani investigation, the federal prosecutors have focused on the steps he took against Yovanovitch. Giuliani has acknowledged that he provided Trump with detailed information about his claim that she was impeding investigations that could benefit Trump, and that Trump put him in touch with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. After a few aborted attempts to remove her, Yovanovitch was ultimately recalled as ambassador in late April 2019 and was told that the White House had lost trust in her. Giuliani said in an interview in late 2019 that he believed the information he had provided the Trump administration did contribute to Yovanovitch’s dismissal. “You’d have to ask them,” he said of the Trump officials. “But they relied on it.” He added he never explicitly requested that she be fired. The prosecutors have also examined Giuliani’s relationship with the Ukrainians who had conflicts with Yovanovitch, according to the people with knowledge of the matter. While ambassador, Yovanovitch had taken aim at corruption in Ukraine, earning her quite a few enemies. The investigation has zeroed in on one of her opponents, Yuriy Lutsenko, the top prosecutor in Ukraine at the time, the people said. At least one of the search warrants for Giuliani’s devices mentioned Lutsenko and some of his associates, including one who helped introduce him to Giuliani. The relationship had the potential to become symbiotic. Lutsenko wanted Yovanovitch removed, and as the personal lawyer to the president, Giuliani was positioned to help. Giuliani wanted negative information about the Bidens, and as the top prosecutor in Ukraine, Lutsenko would have had the authority to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden’s dealings with the energy company. Giuliani also saw Yovanovitch as insufficiently loyal to the president, and as an impediment to the investigations. Lutsenko hinted at a potential quid pro quo in text messages that became public during the impeachment trial. In March 2019, Lutsenko wrote in a Russian language text message to Parnas that he had found evidence that could be damaging to the Bidens. Then he added, “And you can’t even bring down one idiot,” in an apparent reference to Yovanovitch, followed by a frowny-face emoji. Around that same time, Giuliani was in negotiations to also represent Lutsenko or his agency, The New York Times has previously reported. Draft retainer agreements called for Giuliani to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the Ukrainian government recover money it believed had been stolen and stashed overseas. Giuliani signed one of the retainer agreements, but he said he ultimately did not take on the work, because his representation of Trump at the same time could constitute a conflict of interest. When Yovanovitch testified during Trump’s impeachment hearings in late 2019, she told lawmakers that she had only minimal contact with Giuliani during her tenure as ambassador. “I do not know Mr. Giuliani’s motives for attacking me,” she said. “But individuals who have been named in the press who have contact with Mr. Giuliani may well have believed that their personal and financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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