WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors in New York City are investigating whether President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani broke lobbying laws in his dealings in Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the inquiry.
The investigators are examining Giuliani’s efforts to undermine the US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch, one of the people said. She was recalled in the spring as part of Trump’s broader campaign to pressure Ukraine into helping his political prospects.
The investigation into Giuliani is tied to the case against two of his associates who were arrested this week on campaign finance-related charges, the people familiar with the inquiry said. The associates were charged with funneling illegal contributions to a congressman whose help they sought in removing Yovanovitch.
Giuliani has denied wrongdoing, but he acknowledged that he and the associates worked with Ukrainian prosecutors to collect potentially damaging information about Yovanovitch and other targets of Trump and his allies, including former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Giuliani shared that material this year with US government officials and a Trump-friendly columnist in an effort to undermine the ambassador and other Trump targets.
Yovanovitch testified to impeachment investigators Friday that a top State Department official told her that Trump had pushed for her removal for months even though the department believed she had “done nothing wrong.”
In a closed-door deposition that could further fuel calls for Trump’s impeachment, Yovanovitch delivered a scathing indictment of how his administration conducts foreign policy.
She warned that private influence and personal gain have usurped diplomats’ judgment, threatening to undermine the nation’s interests and drive talented professionals out of public service. And she said that diplomats no longer have confidence that their government “will have our backs and protect us if we come under attack from foreign interests.”
According to a copy of her opening statement obtained by The New York Times, Yovanovitch said she was “incredulous” that she was removed as ambassador “based, as far as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
Yovanovitch, a 33-year veteran of the foreign service and three-time ambassador, spoke to investigators on Capitol Hill even though the State Department had directed her not to late Thursday and in defiance of the White House’s declaration that administration officials would not cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry. Democrats leading the inquiry said that order amounted to obstruction of their inquiry and quietly issued a subpoena Thursday morning with the understanding that Yovanovitch would then cooperate.
Her searing account, delivered at the risk of losing her job, could lend new momentum to the impeachment inquiry that imperils Trump. The inquiry centers on the president’s attempts to use his power and the foreign policy apparatus to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, an endeavor in which Giuliani was a central player. The shadowy effort by Giuliani grew to drive US policy toward Ukraine, at times appearing to sideline the State Department in the process.
A criminal investigation of Giuliani raises the stakes of the Ukraine scandal for the president. It is also a stark turn for Giuliani, who now finds himself under scrutiny from the same US attorney’s office he led in the 1980s, when he first rose to prominence as a tough-on-crime prosecutor and later ascended to two terms as mayor of New York.
It was unclear how far the investigation has progressed, and there was no indication that prosecutors in Manhattan have decided to file additional charges in the case. A spokeswoman for the US attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey S. Berman, declined to comment.
Giuliani said that federal prosecutors had no grounds to charge him with foreign lobbying disclosure violations because he said he was acting on behalf of Trump, not the Ukrainian prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, when he collected the information on Yovanovitch and the others and relayed it to the US government and the news media.
“Look, you can try to contort anything into anything, but if they have any degree of objectivity or fairness, it would be kind of ridiculous to say I was doing it on Lutsenko’s behalf when I was representing the president of the United States,” Giuliani said. Lutsenko had chafed at Yovanovitch’s anti-corruption efforts and wanted her recalled from Kyiv.
Giuliani also said he was unaware of any investigation into him, and he defended the pressure campaign on Ukrainians, which he led, as legal and above board.
Yovanovitch said in her deposition that the undermining of loyal diplomats at the State Department would embolden “bad actors” who would “see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system” and serve the interests of adversaries of the United States, including Russia.
“Today we see the State Department attacked and hollowed out from within,” she said.
Yovanovitch dismissed as “fictitious” the allegations that she had been disloyal to Trump, which were circulated by allies of Giuliani.
“I do not know Mr. Giuliani’s motives for attacking me,” she said, adding that people associated with him “may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
The president sought to distance himself earlier Friday from Giuliani, saying he was uncertain when asked whether Giuliani still represented him. “I haven’t spoken to Rudy,” Trump told reporters. “I spoke to him yesterday quickly. He is a very good attorney, and he has been my attorney.”
Giuliani later said that he still represented Trump.