Former National Security Adviser John Bolton repeatedly told his staff to actively remove themselves from conversations and meetings with Rudy Giuliani after Bolton received warnings from intelligence officials that the president’s personal lawyer was propagating conspiracy theories that aligned with a Russian operation to undermine the 2020 presidential election.
Bolton even warned his subordinates to avoid meetings in which Giuliani or his agenda might be raised. According to three sources with direct knowledge of the situation, Bolton told his team not to attend an Oval Office meeting May 23, 2019 with President Donald Trump following the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The meeting, over Bolton’s objections, included former European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and ex-Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. In the meeting, Trump told the group to “talk to Rudy,” who did not attend, about setting up a White House visit with Zelensky. Two sources said that the May directive from Bolton followed a series of warnings not to participate in meetings where Giuliani may attend.
The reluctance of Bolton’s NSC team to engage with Giuliani shows that as early as the spring of 2019, the former New York mayor was seen as a conduit for Russia’s evolving efforts to manipulate the forthcoming election. One former senior White House official recalled a series of discussions in the early days of 2019 that Russia was working on a scheme to leak “forged” or “fake” emails through intermediaries in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election. Officials viewed Giuliani as a possible target for such a leak, that person said. Another former official said Russia’s penetration of the servers of Ukranian energy company Burisma—where Hunter Biden once sat on the board—prompted “informed speculation among professionals that this would be the entree to fabricate material connecting Hunter Biden to corruption inside Burisma, and it wouldn’t take more than 10 percent truth.”
The Washington Post reported Thursday that in December 2019 Bolton’s successor Robert O’Brien warned the White House that Giuliani was a target of Russian intelligence operation to feed disinformation to Trump. But according to three individuals familiar with the matter, including two in the intelligence space, the warnings began in January 2019 about Giuliani’s possible links to Ukrainian officials with close ties to Russia and active in the spreading of disinformation.
Bolton was aware of those concerns when he directed his team to avoid Giuliani. Officials said the warnings about Giuliani intensified in the spring and summer of 2019 as the president’s personal attorney appeared on television propagating disinformation about the Bidens and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Masha Yovanovitch. One ex-NSC official said that Giuliani, as a U.S. citizen, was neither named nor referenced in contemporaneous intelligence reports about Russian disinformation efforts. But Giuliani’s alarming role was the subject of informal discussions between White House and intelligence officials.
This account is based on interviews with 11 knowledgeable sources, including eight current and former U.S. officials. Reached for comment on Friday, Bolton spokeswoman Sarah Tinsley replied, “No comment.”
Reached by phone on Friday evening, Giuliani said that “I didn’t find out that John was unhappy with me or opposed to me until he left [the administration]…I’ve known him for ten years,” and claimed that “when I was being considered for Secretary of State, I told him I’d consider him for deputy.” The Trump attorney added that by the end of Bolton’s time in the Trump administration, he had little direct contact with him because “he was very much by himself.”
According to two knowledgeable sources, the intelligence community delivered warnings to Capitol Hill as well as the White House about Guiliani’s dalliance with Russian disinformation peddlers. The intelligence community briefed the Hill about Giuliani’s disinformation ventures as far back as summer 2019, one of the two sources said. The Daily Beast previously reported that intelligence agencies, starting in the spring of 2019, repeatedly warned about Russian-backed Ukrainian efforts to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. Those warnings singled out Andrii Derkach, a Kiev parliamentarian, who worked closely with Giuliani in his attempts to uncover wrongdoing by the Bidens. Derkach was later declared an “active Russian agent” by the U.S. Treasury Department.
“Rudy’s been the topic of conversation a lot,” said the other source, a Democratic member of the House intelligence committee. “Wittingly or unwittingly, Rudy seems to care more about what he can gain politically from his relationship and discussions with Russian assets than he does about how he might be being used.”
National Security Council officials were also warned not to share their work with Patel. Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) on the House intelligence committee who helped Nunes attack the Trump-Russia investigations, joined the NSC in 2019 and is currently senior director for counterterrorism. He also advised Richard Grenell during his brief tenure as Acting Director of National Intelligence. Sources said NSC officials grew concerned about Patel having a direct line to Trump and his involvement with Ukraine matters, which fell outside of his counterterrorism duties. One knowledgeable former NSC official described attempts at excluding Patel from distribution of Ukraine-relevant reports.
“Wittingly or unwittingly, Rudy seems to care more about what he can gain politically from his relationship and discussions with Russian assets than he does about how he might be being used.”
— Democratic member of the House intelligence committee
“We were set up for a collision course. Many of us didn’t realize the full implications of what was going on because we only got bits and pieces. It was impossible to know exactly who was pursuing what improvised sideshow policy, who had spoken to the president, and who was going around whom,” said Julia Friedlander, who worked as senior director for Europe at the NSC until 2019. “It turned out no one was entirely in the loop. It was chaos theory—and Ukraine policy was just one example.”
White House officials told The Daily Beast they felt powerless to stop Giuliani. “He had a direct line to the president,” recalled Alexander Vindman, the NSC Ukraine director whom Trump fired and arranged to cashier from the Army as retaliation for his impeachment testimony. “We were operating within our channels, which are far more bureaucratic than Giuliani’s direct lines to the decision maker and his inner circle.”
Another former senior White House official said it was clear from the summer of 2019 that “no one was going to stop Rudy.” “What are you doing to do? He is the president’s lawyer?” that person said.
In October 2019, Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were arrested by federal agents. Giuliani’s relationship with the two came under federal investigation in the Southern District of New York. A person familiar with the situation says that an investigation is ongoing. NBC News reported Thursday that the FBI is investigating whether the materials leaked to the Post on Hunter Biden are the subject of a foreign intelligence operation; the AP corroborated that account on Friday. The Daily Beast has not been able to independently confirm such an investigation.
Bolton’s desire to keep his team away from Giuliani became clear in the summer of 2019. Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top Russia adviser, testified during the House impeachment of Donald Trump that Bolton had described Giuliani as “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up”. Bolton detailed his concerns about Giuliani in his book, The Room Where it Happened. “Giuliani was delivering what was all third-or-fourth degree hearsay; he offered no evidence on the call for his allegations,” Bolton wrote about an April 23, 2019 call with Trump and Mulvaney in the Oval Office. Bolton also said he warned Attorney General Bill Barr that someone “rein Giuliani in before he got completely out of control.”
However, none of these pleas to the White House and Trump actually worked in freezing out Giuliani, and President Trump continues to this day to actively encourage, as well as personally greenlight from behind the scenes, Giuliani-led projects to peddle questionable or suspiciously obtained documents and salacious dirt—even though Trump’s participation in such efforts is what got him impeached in the first place.
Giuliani met with Derkach in Kiev in December 2019, while Congress was considering Trump’s impeachment and while Derkach was accusing Hunter Biden of corruption. Months later, on Aug. 7, 2020, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center stated that Derkach, as part of Russian electoral interference efforts, “is spreading claims about corruption—including through publicizing leaked phone calls—to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.”
A source who has spoken to Trump repeatedly about Giuliani and his dirt-digging efforts against the Bidens explained to The Daily Beast that the president has said on multiple occasions that he views a lot of the intra-administration concerns about his lawyer’s activities as a mere whining or lies from the supposed anti-Trump “Deep State” who want to undermine him and make everything about Russia.
“That is one of the reasons the warnings don’t work,” this person said. “The president is not going to take the [side] of intel that he is convinced is made to make him look bad over the word of Rudy Giuliani, who is doing exactly what [Trump] wants him to do.”
Just this week, Giuliani is again appearing on television and through his YouTube channel in a renewed attempt to publish dirt, including text messages from and nefarious photos of Hunter Biden. It started Wednesday with the publishing of a New York Post report which claimed photos and emails from Hunter’s laptop had been confiscated by the FBI—materials which, the Post claimed, showed how he worked to arrange a meeting between his then vice president father and an adviser to the board of Burisma. The Biden campaign has categorically denied the report.
To Trumpworld, the former New York City mayor is just putting on a heightened performance of his chief role: as a willing Trump operative, enthusiastically willing to hurl invective and innuendo, and revel in sexually explicit, ethically dubious dirt, in ways that other lieutenants of the president can’t get away with, or simply aren’t willing to do.
“He’s not officially part of the campaign,” said a senior Team Trump official. “It’s useful to have Rudy out there just not giving a fuck and sticking it to the Bidens every day. I know it pleases the president and I know a lot of people [on the reelection effort] think it’s helpful.”
Another source who has known the former New York mayor for years said that Giuliani will often comment on how much “fun” it is to wage these kinds of campaigns on behalf of “my client,” especially when the topic turns to controversy and scandal, real or manufactured. “The dirtier the better for Rudy,” this person described.
“Giuliani will often comment on how much ‘fun’ it is to wage these kinds of campaigns on behalf of ‘my client,’ especially when the topic turns to controversy and scandal. ‘The dirtier the better for Rudy,’ this person described.”
The Trump attorney and confidant will often take existing pro-Trump talking points and insults, including those flung around frequently by the president, and turbo-charge them; where President Trump had dialed it up to 11, Giuliani will try to kick it up to a 12. This has been especially true of Joe and Hunter Biden, where Giuliani has taken the “dementia” attack line against the former VP to even darker, more graphic territory than even the president has, and the personal-life issues and past drug addiction of the Biden son, which the Trump lawyer has gleefully promoted in ways that outpace nearly everybody else, if not everybody else, in the upper ranks of Trumpland.
Intelligence veterans view the willingness of a figure like Giuliani—a politician who once enjoyed widespread but undeserved national respect—to spread foreign disinformation to be an unqualified Russian success.
“Russia doesn’t even need to do anything,” one former senior official said. “Trump and Giuliani just did it for them.”
Former officials also consider Giuliani’s openness to disinformation a marked evolution in Russian intrusion into American politics. In 2016, Russian intelligence used cutouts like WikiLeaks to launder hacked Democratic emails into the American information ecosystem. They also used social-media accounts that posed as Americans to spread their messages. This time, they can rely on one of the president’s closest confidants.
“Rudy is beyond an intelligence service’s wildest dreams,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, who until July 2019 oversaw CIA clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia. “He’s actively spreading disinformation, they’re feeding him this stuff and it works.”
Polymeropoulos believes his former Russian counterparts are “astounded at their success” in finding an audience for disinformation on the American right. “The idea that they have a willing participant in the president’s lawyer is what’s really astounding,” he continued. “The amazing part about it is it’s not done in secret. It’s done openly and brazenly, because the president doesn’t care.”