The president’s personal lawyer is at the center of the House impeachment probe—perhaps too close to risk setting free.
Over the past week, I asked multiple GOP officials when, if ever, they thought President Donald Trump would publicly distance himself from his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who is at the center of the House impeachment inquiry. Their responses were eerily similar: “Can it be two years ago?” asked one White House official who, like others, requested anonymity in order to be candid. “Ideally three years ago,” responded a senior House GOP aide. Finally, a senior Senate GOP aide: “Can he do it yesterday?”
The Trump era has been rife with stories about the crack-up of the GOP—the tensions between the establishment and populist wings of the party, coupled with the surrender, more or less, to the blurry contours of Trumpism. But if the past two months of impeachment proceedings have revealed anything, it’s that Republicans—whether stationed in the White House or Congress, whether sympathetic to Reagan-era conservatism or its present-day iteration—agree on one thing: Giuliani has got to go.
Giuliani’s attempts to trigger an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter have complicated Trump’s denial of a quid pro quo with Ukraine. At each Trump insistence that he had no interest in withholding military aid on condition of an investigation into his political rival, there was Giuliani, according to congressional testimonies last week, seemingly suggesting otherwise. As a former senior White House official told me in September, the “entire” situation in which the administration currently finds itself is the result of “Rudy putting shit in Trump’s head.” That view, according to the officials I spoke with, has only become more widespread in the months since.
So yes, Republicans largely agree that Trump would be better served sans Giuliani (who told me last Wednesday evening that he is in fact still the president’s personal attorney). But they also agree on something else: Giuliani isn’t going anywhere. According to another senior House GOP aide, “We’re so far beyond that at this point.”
Giuliani himself also seems to agree. He told me in a text message that Trump “knows that every one of the stories are false and defamatory and intended to remove me as a defense lawyer for him.” He added: “If I was less effective they would have left me alone. But they, including unethical law enforcement sources, are swinging from their shoe tips and missing … The scandal is not with me or Trump but how the Corrupt Press and their leakers in law enforcement can cover it up for so long.”
It’s rare that any of Trump’s associates seems “safe” in his or her standing with the president. (Trump, of course, fired his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, via a tweet from the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base after just six months on the job, while an unsuspecting Priebus sat in a black SUV nearby.) But current and former White House officials and lawmakers close to Trump told me that Giuliani is uniquely positioned in this moment. He is in many ways Trump’s closest ally apart from his family, having cultivated a mutual affection and trust over several decades. But if scorned, he could also prove to be Trump’s worst enemy—a dynamic that Giuliani himself has been happy to tout in recent media interviews, joking, essentially, that he knows too much for Trump to risk axing him. Added to that, the sources said, is the fact that Trump has dug in his heels on impeachment: To condemn Giuliani, they said, would be to concede that this administration’s dealings with Ukraine were short of, in the president’s words, “perfect”—something Trump and his allies are not at all willing to do.
“That line of thinking—that throwing a team member under the bus [will] ‘make the media go away’—is not only foolish, it’s idiotic,” Jason Miller, a former Trump-campaign communications adviser, told me. “All it will do is convince Democrats and certain members of the media that they’re onto something, and the intensity will increase tenfold.”
“The damage is done,” added a Republican National Committee official. “Rudy’s been like this forever, and Trump has never wanted to dump him. Plus at this point, it’s like, doesn’t he know too much?”
In Giuliani’s eyes, at least, that may well be his saving grace. So far, he’s refused to comply with a congressional subpoena to testify about his dealings in Ukraine and answer questions about what Trump did or didn’t know. In recent days he’s suggested that his testimony would be just as revelatory as Democrats assume. On November 14, in an interview with The Guardian, Giuliani said he wasn’t worried that Trump would “throw him under a bus” as impeachment proceedings move forward. “But I do have very, very good insurance, so if he does, all my hospital bills will be paid,” Giuliani added. (His lawyer quickly interjected that he was “joking.”) Giuliani referenced his “insurance” against Trump again in a Fox News interview last weekend. “You can assume that I talk with him early and often,” he said of his relationship with the president. “I’ve seen things written like he’s gonna throw me under the bus … When they say that, I say, ‘He isn’t, but I have insurance.’”
That journalists keep asking the question is understandable. For Trump, loyalty almost always seems to be a one-way street. The former White House official Cliff Sims concluded as much at the end of his memoir recounting his time in the West Wing, Team of Vipers, writing: “I had let my personal relationship with the President blind me to the one unfailing truth that applied to anyone with whom he didn’t share a last name: we were all disposable.”
And yet people close to Trump insist his relationship with Giuliani is different. One Republican lawmaker told me that for “several weeks” he has advised Trump that Giuliani’s ouster is past due. “He listens but … one of the real things about him is that he is very loyal” to Giuliani, the lawmaker said. Senator Lindsey Graham told me he’s advised Trump only “to stand down and quit commenting on the day-to-day events,” and hasn’t bothered to bring up Giuliani. “I know he thinks Rudy is the best crime fighter in the history of the world,” Graham said.
Trump’s affection for Giuliani is not so much rooted in their shared history—both men are prominent New Yorkers and are close with each other’s family—as it is something more recent. Two former senior White House officials told me that Trump has never forgotten Giuliani’s outspoken loyalty in the fallout of the Access Hollywood tape scandal, in which Trump bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy.”
“He was willing to go out there and fight it out when no one else would,” of the former officials said. “Rudy Giuliani is one of the few and rare politicians who genuinely—and I say genuinely—worked his ass off for the president in 2016,” echoed the other. “All those ‘party’ guys, they all abandoned Trump after Access Hollywood … Rudy gets a long leash because he’s been a loyal guy when it’s counted.”
One of those former officials added that Giuliani also fulfills a need that might seem foreign to this president: friendship. This person told me that Trump “craves normal conversation,” and that oftentimes Giuliani’s visits to the Oval Office or the residence are not necessarily work-related; rather, the two men will catch up on a personal level, perhaps talking through, as they have recently, Giuliani’s ongoing divorce from his third wife.
“I think you’ve gotta look past all the strategy and other bullshit” when trying to understand Giuliani’s staying power, another former White House official told me. “Because the reality is that Donald Trump only has, like, six or seven friends in his life. And Rudy is one of them.”