The Justice Department distanced itself Sunday from Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, declaring that department officials would not have met with Giuliani to discuss one of his clients had they known that federal prosecutors in New York were investigating two of his associates.
Several weeks ago, Brian A. Benczkowski, the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, and lawyers from the division’s Fraud Section met with Giuliani to discuss a bribery case in which he and other attorneys were representing the defendants.
That meeting took place before the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan publicly charged the two Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, with breaking campaign finance laws and trying to unlawfully influence politicians, including former Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas. Parnas and Fruman were part of Giuliani’s effort to push Ukraine for an inquiry into Democrats.
“When Mr. Benczkowski and fraud section lawyers met with Mr. Giuliani, they were not aware of any investigation of Mr. Giuliani’s associates in the Southern District of New York and would not have met with him had they known,” said Peter Carr, a department spokesman.
The Justice Department’s public statement Sunday illustrates the unusual and broad set of roles that the president’s personal lawyer has played in the scandal that has engulfed the White House and imperiled Trump’s presidency.
Even as Giuliani ran a shadow foreign policy campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate the president’s political enemies — which is now at the heart of an impeachment inquiry against Trump — he and his business associates were under criminal investigation for unlawfully wielding political influence. And while all of this was happening, Giuliani still served as a lawyer to clients with cases to plead before the Justice Department.
In distancing itself from Giuliani and trying to draw bright lines around how the Justice Department will and will not engage with him, the department has also undercut the perception that Giuliani can influence some of Washington’s most important lawyers and decision-makers. That could make it harder for Giuliani to represent clients who are under Justice Department scrutiny in the future.
“This is an incredibly unusual statement from the Justice Department, which does not comment on ongoing investigations or even acknowledge them, and it’s the kind of statement that would give clients pause about who is representing them,” said Joyce Vance, a former federal prosecutor.
Giuliani did not respond to a request for comment.
While the Southern District of New York has been investigating Giuliani’s associates — an inquiry that may be tied to a broader investigation of Giuliani himself — prosecutors there had not told Benczkowski of the Criminal Division of the case, as he does not oversee or supervise their work. The U.S. attorney’s offices report to the deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen.
Prosecutors in Manhattan informed Attorney General William Barr about the investigation of Parnas and Fruman soon after he was confirmed in February, according to a Justice Department official. They were required to do so under the department’s rule that requires prosecutors to notify the attorney general of any cases that could generate national news media or congressional attention.
When Giuliani and other lawyers requested the meeting with the Justice Department to discuss a foreign bribery case, Benczkowski and the lawyers in the Fraud Section had not been informed of the Manhattan case and agreed to meet.
Last week, Giuliani told The New York Times that he was being unfairly attacked by reporters and lawmakers and that questions about his behavior would “destroy” his business.
“I can’t publicly defend everything I do because I’m presumed guilty,” Giuliani said in a text message. “If I did, my business and firm would be unable to have any clients.”
Foreign business leaders and politicians have long hired those with ties to the White House as consultants, paid back channels to the administration who could plead their cases and present their interests to U.S. decision-makers.
Trump, however, was not connected to the usual array of Washington power brokers who had built lucrative businesses off their ties to U.S. leaders, and Giuliani was perceived as the rare figure who could provide a direct line to the president.
Now that tie to the Justice Department seems to be gone, and Giuliani himself is a person of interest in at least two federal investigations.
While The Times and other publications have reported that Giuliani is being investigated by prosecutors in Manhattan, the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York have declined to confirm or deny an investigation into him. But any such inquiry would make it difficult for the department to work with him on any of his clients’ cases.
“Giuliani can continue to represent clients before the department because people are innocent until proven guilty, but it’s unclear whether a client would want to have a lawyer who is being scrutinized in so many investigations,” Vance said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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