Hey, remember Rudy Giuliani? The former mayor of New York City? The guy who spent the last two years acting as Donald Trump’s lawyer, first by trying to wrap up the Russia investigation and then by igniting the Ukraine scandal? Remember when he tried to persuade the courts to nullify the 2020 election results on Trump’s behalf and failed? Or those weird press conferences he would hold, including the bizarre appearance at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia or the one where an unidentified brown fluid dripped down his head?
Well, he’s back. Federal agents executed a search warrant at Giuliani’s Manhattan apartment on Wednesday morning, seizing documents and electronic devices as part of an investigation into his Ukraine-related lobbying efforts. They also reportedly searched the home of Victoria Toensing, another lawyer who worked with Trump and Giuliani. The raid is the most aggressive move by the Justice Department to investigate some of Trump’s top allies since the inauguration. Though the Giuliani inquiry began under the Trump administration, its progress was reportedly stymied by Justice Department appointees until recently.
Legal experts have noted that it’s no small thing for federal prosecutors to obtain a search warrant against a lawyer. In normal cases, those prosecutors would have to obtain approval from the Justice Department’s criminal division in Washington, D.C., to move forward. Giuliani’s national prominence and client list, which infamously includes a former president, means that the Justice Department’s highest ranks likely had to sign off on the plan. And that does not bode well for Giuliani.
Robert Costello, Giuliani’s lawyer, criticized the search on Wednesday and claimed his client would have been willing to cooperate. “What they did today was legal thuggery,” he told The New York 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?” As Costello is likely aware, federal agents routinely carry out search warrants to look for criminal evidence.
What’s publicly known about the search itself also comes from Costello. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, he claimed the warrant was for evidence related to possible violations of foreign-lobbying laws. Agents reportedly sought communications between Giuliani and other individuals, including John Solomon, a former columnist for The Hill, who helped craft a misleading narrative about President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s business relationships, with the help of Ukrainian contacts.
Federal prosecutors don’t tell the public about their ongoing investigations, so the exact scope and focus of the Giuliani inquiry isn’t clear. But some aspects have been widely reported. Giuliani spent the last half of 2018 and most of 2019 traveling back and forth to Ukraine, where he worked with local oligarchs and officials to dig up dirt on then-candidate Joe Biden. Biden’s son, Hunter, had worked in the country for Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, while Biden was pressuring the Ukrainian government to ramp up its anti-corruption efforts.*
Giuliani’s schemes eventually morphed into a plot to coerce the Ukrainian government into falsely smearing Biden with public corruption allegations, thereby damaging his prospects in the 2020 election. When the plot became public and unraveled in September 2019, the House launched an investigation that culminated in Trump’s first impeachment. That October, federal prosecutors in Manhattan also reportedly began scrutinizing Giuliani’s work and business dealings in Ukraine. Part of their interest was in whether Giuliani had violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
The law, more commonly known as FARA, requires people who lobby the U.S. government on behalf of foreign governments or interests to register with the Justice Department. The law is designed to ensure that foreign lobbying efforts aren’t carried out in secret; failure to register is a federal crime. FARA was rarely invoked until Special Counsel Robert Mueller revived it to bring charges against multiple Trump associates, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, during the Russia investigation.
Giuliani himself has long drawn scrutiny for potential FARA violations related to his Ukraine work. Two of his associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were indicted in 2019 for violating campaign-finance laws as part of a lobbying campaign to oust Marie Yovanovich, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time. Soon thereafter, the Times reported that Giuliani had previously met with top officials in the Justice Department’s criminal division about a foreign bribery case involving an unidentified client overseas. Giuliani told the Times that he had done nothing wrong. “I really try very hard to be super-ethical and always legal,” he said in a text message to one of the Times reporters.
Wednesday’s search also comes as Giuliani’s legal troubles are mounting elsewhere. In January, Dominion Voting Systems sued him for defamation for the false allegations he made against the company while trying to overturn Biden’s victory. His conspiracy theory involved a dizzying array of characters—antifa, George Soros, the Chinese government, deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, and more—who owned or used Dominion’s voting machines to change Trump supporters’ votes. This narrative was resoundingly rejected by federal courts, which found no evidence to support Trump’s claims of electoral fraud. Georgia prosecutors have also reportedly considered false-statement charges against Giuliani for his role in spreading disinformation about the election.
There are few indications so far, however, that Giuliani’s current legal woes will ensnare the former president himself. Trump’s conversations with Giuliani would generally be protected from prosecutors by attorney-client privilege, a core feature of the American legal system that courts do not lightly breach. What’s more, FARA only applies to the person lobbying the federal government, not to the government official being lobbied. There are also no indications that federal prosecutors are scrutinizing Trump himself for involvement in this matter. (A separate ongoing inquiry into the Trump Organization by the same office appears to be unrelated.)
Either way, the Giuliani raid is an ignominious sign of Trump’s poor choices in legal representation over the years. Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal legal fixer for almost two decades, found his home and office suddenly raided by federal agents in April 2018. After his indictment on fraud and campaign-finance charges, he began cooperating with federal investigators later that year and effectively turned on his former boss. Cohen reacted to Wednesday’s news with apparent amusement. “Here we go folks!!!” he wrote on Twitter after the news broke, then added, “Amazing that [Giuliani’s] home and office gets raided by law enforcement and I start #trending on @Twitter!” If there’s one thing that Trump’s motley band of legal eagles did well, it was to draw an endless amount of attention to themselves.
* A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Hunter Biden as the president’s elder son.