You don’t need to be a lawyer to know that when federal agents knock on your door with a search warrant and seize your electronic devices, you’re in big trouble. Ever since that happened to former Donald Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Wednesday, he has tried to downplay the peril he is in, saying whatever evidence is on his phones proves that “the president and I…are innocent.”
But it sure looks like he has a long legal battle ahead of him, and his best defense will likely put him at odds with his former boss. If Trump doesn’t voluntarily protect his one-time counsel, Giuliani may have no choice but to point the finger at his former client. (Their relationship was tested in January when Trump reportedly refused to pay Giuliani for his unsuccessful work trying to overturn the November election results.)
The saga of one-time Trump legal fixer Michael Cohen, who turned on his boss after he pleaded guilty for election finance violations and fraud, is instructive here. Despite Cohen’s assertion that Trump knew of the violations, the president was protected from prosecution while he was in office under Department of Justice guidelines. Now that Trump is a civilian, those guidelines do not protect him, and he has to be concerned about his own liability going forward.
There can be no question that the execution of a search warrant at Giuliani’s residence is a serious step that indicates the criminal investigation against him is far along. Federal prosecutors can’t obtain a search warrant based on a hunch or mere suspicion. They had to present substantial evidence to a federal judge that there is good reason to believe that a federal crime was committed and that evidence of that federal crime was located in Giuliani’s apartment and his electronic devices. It’s significant a judge was persuaded they met that standard.
For that reason, prosecutors likely have a lot of the evidence they need already. During my time as a federal prosecutor, when I sought a search warrant for a subject’s electronic devices, typically I had already obtained some of the subject’s communications or electronic documents from other sources such as cooperators, subpoenas or prior search warrants. I used that evidence to persuade a judge that those communications would also be found on the devices. Even though prosecutors have some communications prior to obtaining electronic devices, the devices can contain more data, including deleted messages, metadata and location information.
In this particular case, one can trust the the evidence was solid and substantial given the significant internal scrutiny that this case would receive within the Justice Department. The criminal investigation of any lawyer is a sensitive matter due to the complexities caused by attorney-client privilege, and the DOJ takes special care when investigating a criminal defense attorney, to ensure that the Department does not appear to be targeting opponents. Obviously, obtaining a search warrant for the residence and devices of the personal lawyer of the former president would receive even more scrutiny from senior department leadership.
Curiously, the crime for which Giuliani is under investigation — violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires agents of foreign governments who lobby U.S. officials to disclose their relationship with the foreign government — has been prosecuted only rarely over the decades. But FARA prosecutions spiked during the Trump Administration, including the high-profile conviction of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and former Republican finance chair Elliott Broidy. (An associate of former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was also indicted for a FARA violation, but the conviction was later overturned.) That group of FARA prosecutions led President Joe Biden to vow on the campaign trail to increase the use of FARA if he were elected, saying there should be no lobbying on behalf of foreign governments outside regular diplomatic channels.
The investigation reportedly centers around Giuliani’s efforts to lobby the Trump administration on behalf of Ukrainian officials and oligarchs who were also helping him dig up dirt on then-candidate Biden and his family during the campaign. At issue, as well, are Giuliani’s efforts to persuade Trump to oust the ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, whose anti-corruption work was viewed hostilely by those same Ukrainian officials. If Giuliani’s efforts to push Trump to fire Yovanovitch were done on behalf of Ukrainian officials, that could be the sort of foreign lobbying activity that he should have disclosed.
Thus far, Giuliani has tried to hide behind mere technicalities, arguing that he didn’t have a written contract with a foreign official or oligarch. He won’t get away with that in court. What matters is whether he was an agent of a foreign government, not whether his relationship with that foreign government was memorialized in writing. You can’t avoid FARA requirements by failing to write down the details of your arrangement with a foreign government.
Giuliani’s work in Ukraine has been the subject of controversy for two years and was central to the first impeachment probe of Trump’s pressure on the new Ukrainian president. But, according to The New York Times, senior DOJ political appointees in the Justice Department repeatedly tried to block the search warrants, which suggests that the Department has had the evidence it needs against Giuliani for some time.
Those prior efforts to slow down the investigation won’t help Giuliani now. If anything, they may eventually work against Giuliani if it is shown that they were done at his urging. Giuliani’s foolish public statements (he claimed erroneously that search warrants can only be issued if there is a fear the evidence will be destroyed) won’t help him either if he is ultimately indicted. At that point, he will need to adopt a defense strategy that may put him at odds with his former client.
Giuliani’s defense will likely be that he was acting completely at Trump’s direction and that his efforts on behalf of the officials and oligarchs was done to curry favor with them on Trump’s behalf, and was done at Trump’s behest and his knowledge. Purely from a perspective of trial strategy, Giuliani’s best defense would include testimony from the former president that he knew everything Giuliani was doing and approved of every action he took. That would permit Giuliani’s defense team to argue that since he was ultimately advancing Trump’s interests, he was actually working on behalf of the United States, not Ukrainian oligarchs.
Unfortunately for Giuliani, Trump is not known for sticking his neck out for disgraced former aides, particularly if doing so would involve personal embarrassment or potential liability. Given how Trump distanced himself from former lawyer Michael Cohen when he faced similar peril, it is hard to imagine the former president taking an oath to tell the truth and subjecting himself to withering cross-examination that could embarrass him at best or expose him to potential liability at worst. (Trump’s record of lying under oath in civil suit depositions is well documented.)
The only surefire way for Trump to avoid testimony in the trial of Giuliani would be to take the Fifth, but Trump has repeatedly noted that taking the Fifth makes you look guilty. The only way for him to get out of testifying is for him to suggest that he didn’t really know what Giuliani was doing and didn’t approve of his activities. That would make him worthless for Giuliani as a witness and force Giuliani to point the finger at Trump to save himself. The five-year sentence Manafort received for conspiring to violate FARA gives Giuliani ample incentive to do so, especially since he knows Trump cannot pardon him any longer.
When a lawyer, particularly a famous former federal prosecutor like Giuliani, faces time in prison, the incentive to reduce that sentence is significant. Just like Michael Cohen, Giuliani will have every incentive to help federal prosecutors if it could potentially reduce his prison sentence. That could make the Giuliani prosecution far more consequential than it appears at first glance, given his role in everything from the defense of Trump’s impeachment to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Without Trump’s protection or financial support, Giuliani’s loyalty would seem to have a limited shelf life.