Rudy Giuliani’s interview on CNN last night, in which the president’s personal lawyer thundered about a supposedly corrupt bargain former Vice President Joe Biden struck in Ukraine, was a master-class in far-right pathology. There were the claims that American media was the “enemy,” and that the supposed conspiracy involving Biden and Ukraine also extended to right-wing bogeymen like George Soros. There was the notion that a “deep state” had roped in its allies in the media to stifle the news about the billions of dollars supposedly flowing directly into Biden’s coffers, all while the Obama administration threatened Ukraine with retribution if they didn’t investigate Donald Trump himself.
In a bizarre year, this one was an exceptionally bizarre moment.
Buried within Giuliani’s claims, though, was a new reality with which Americans on both sides of the political aisle will have to contend moving forward. All of us—in the U.S., in Kyiv, in Moscow and Beijing and elsewhere—watched the president’s personal lawyer go on television, admit that he pressured another government to open an investigation into a presidential rival, and did so with the effective blessing of the sitting president himself.
All of this while reports and theories continue to tumble out linking a recent whistleblower complaint to U.S. policy toward Ukraine—specifically, to the White House’s efforts to withhold much-needed aid to a new Ukrainian government picking up the mantle of a war in eastern Ukraine against Russian proxies. Trump’s allies have denied any linkage between the aid package delay and the efforts to open the Biden investigation, but Ukraine’s government admitted that Trump himself encouraged them to pursue supposed corruption investigations that had “held back U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation.” There’s so much smoke at this point—especially with the recent whistleblower complaint—that you could choke on it.
Kyiv, as it is, balked at Giuliani’s demands. And rightly. After all, Giuliani’s entire narrative is based on faulty assumptions, which we’ve known for months. As Oliver Bullough pointed out in the Washington Post in May, Giuliani’s claims that Biden pressured Ukraine’s former president to sack a prosecutor supposedly investigating Biden’s son fell apart under basic scrutiny. And Bullough’s right: Not only was the prosecutor not investigating Biden’s son when Biden père pushed to have the prosecutor ousted, but Biden was joining an already extant chorus of civil society actors, pro-democracy politicos, and pro-transparency advocates already calling for the ineffective prosecutor’s dismissal.
Little matter to Giuliani and his allies, though. To Giuliani, the scheme was obvious, point-blank, prima facie. And there was no need for proof. As the president’s lawyer said to CNN’s Chris Cuomo last night, “I don’t have to give you the proof! Go read it! It’s written in books! You just won’t read it! It’s all over the internet! Go read it! I have the proof.”
The supposed proof wasn’t enough to cajole the new Ukrainian government into revisiting the non-investigation. Giuliani has previously admitted that he was “not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation.” (Last night, Giuliani even said he was “proud” of his efforts.) But Kyiv, even with the recent aid package held up, didn’t bite. Not only because the government’s post-2014 democratic transition has extended to things like basic separation of powers, but because the new government can read the polling tea-leaves, and realize that it’s probably not in their best interest to openly side with an unpopular president gearing up to a re-election campaign.
But that’s only one foreign government, and only one potential case. Other governments have far fewer scruples about opening potential investigations into any and all rivals they may so please. It doesn’t matter if the investigations have any merit; clearly, to the current administration in Washington, facts can wait.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, the floodgates are now open. And Giuliani’s efforts—which he willingly broadcast to all watching last night—act as a complement to Trump’s willingness to take foreign dirt. As Trump already said, he’d be willing to take any and all damaging information on political enemies from foreign sources, a move no American executive has ever taken prior.
And while Kyiv has passed on following Giuliani’s and Trump’s lead, other governments will only be too happy to do the president’s bidding in spinning out investigations into presidential rivals, or in concocting dirt and controversy in the hopes of sinking Democrats and getting in Trump’s good graces.
Pick any government you’d like that doesn’t enjoy the protection of the separations of power that we see out of Kyiv. Take China, for instance. Giuliani has already claimed that Biden and his family struck a corrupt bargain with Beijing. Like the supposed deal with Kyiv, there’s little evidence any financial ties played a role in Biden’s policy regarding Beijing. But what’s to stop Trump from explicitly linking a Chinese investigation into Biden to, say, an easing of American tariffs? What’s to stop Beijing from opening an investigation if Trump offers to recognize Chinese sovereignty across the entirety of the South China Sea?
Or what about Iran? What if the White House offers to ease military pressures on Tehran if the Iranian government manufactures evidence that, say, Elizabeth Warren had investments in Iranian government-controlled entities?
And then there’s Russia. The entire affair with Ukraine can’t be extricated from concerns about the Kremlin, of course. But what if Giuliani decided to flip the tables and make an offer to Moscow for the easing of sanctions in return for fabricated evidence of Kamala Harris’ or Bernie Sanders’ corruption? What if it was for the creation of fabricated audio, or photos, or videos of them supposedly romping around a Moscow hotel bedroom? And what if, in all of these offers to Trump and his allies, the foreign government decided to turn around and try to blackmail the White House with evidence of its perfidy? How would we know?
The entire affair is, of course, unprecedented. At no point in American history has a sitting president’s lawyer, presumably with the president’s blessing, pressured a friendly government to ram through a faulty investigation into an American president’s political rival. At no point has a sitting president wielded aid packages as a cudgel if another government doesn’t pursue said investigations. At no point has an administration wielded the full levers of American power in order to squelch the campaign of a potential rival—as impeachable an offense as any we’ve seen thus far, from the most authoritarian president the U.S. has seen in decades, if not longer.
And at no point have we seen all of this broadcast, right in our faces, to allies and adversaries and all others along the way. The Giuliani interview last night was breathtaking in its willingness to denigrate basic decency, and basic democracy. All those opposed to these democratic experiments—in Ukraine, and even in the U.S.—received an unprecedented boost last night. And they’re going to run with it, as far as they can, with the illiberals running the White House encouraging them along, every step of the way.