Donald Trump is facing a new dilemma in the expanding Ukraine probe: Whether to cement his bond with personal attorney Rudy Giuliani or distance himself from the confidant whose own legal peril threatens to ensnare the president.
As Trump’s personal emissary to Ukraine, Giuliani has been privy to the president’s thinking, strategy and behind-the-scenes efforts to push President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. That makes him a key potential witness in the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
With lawmakers returning to Washington from a two-week break on Tuesday — eager to lay out their next steps in the impeachment inquiry — Giuliani will face growing pressure to testify about his work for Trump.
As federal prosecutors dig into Giuliani’s activities, the president may try to edge away, as he did with another of his lawyers, Michael Cohen. Cohen is now in prison after pleading guilty to tax, bank and campaign-finance crimes.
“We’ve seen the president throw his own folks under the bus on more than one occasion, particularly when he senses or fears disloyalty,” said Jamil Jaffer, who served in the White House and Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration and is now an assistant professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.
“Giuliani knows that, and if he sees it coming, could act first,” Jaffer added. “There is some risk to the president in pushing Giuliani away because he knows a lot.”
So far, the president has kept Giuliani close, but there have been signs that he’s grappling with the decision. When asked Friday whether Giuliani was still his lawyer, Trump told reporters, “I don’t know, I haven’t spoken to Rudy.” He then added: “He’s a very good attorney, and he has been my attorney. Yeah, sure.”
By the next day, Trump had firmed up his support, telling Fox News host Jeanine Pirro that Giuliani is still his lawyer and that he’s a “great gentleman.” The president and Giuliani had lunch on Saturday at Trump’s private golf course in northern Virginia, according to the New York Times.
Trump is “doing a dance right now,” said Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor who is now an attorney at Lowenstein Sandler. “On the one hand, he’s trying to keep Rudy in the fold, prevent Rudy from becoming weak and flipping against him. And on the other hand, I think he’s trying to maintain some distance.”
The stakes for Trump in managing his relationship to Giuliani are high, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moves the impeachment inquiry forward. This week, the committees handling the inquiry are set to hold closed-door sessions with George Kent, the State Department official in Washington who oversees Ukraine policy, on Tuesday: and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, on Thursday.
Michael McKinley, who resigned last week as a senior adviser to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, is scheduled to speak with House impeachment investigators on Wednesday, according to multiple officials familiar with the plans.
McKinley’s testimony will be followed two days later, on Friday, with an appearance by Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Laura Cooper, the officials said.
It’s unclear how many of the witnesses will show up, given Trump’s decision not to cooperate with the probe. But, lawmakers have already questioned some key people, including former National Security Council Russia expert Fiona Hill, who gave hours of closed-door testimony on Monday.
Some Senate Republicans — including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas — have encouraged Giuliani to speak to them, a move Democrats see as an effort to circumvent the closed House hearings.
Giuliani has endeared himself to the president as one of his most vocal defenders on television, though he has not always been the most effective one. The former New York City mayor’s public comments have caused trouble for the president on a number of occasions.
More recently, Giuliani has acted both as Trump’s personal lawyer — and as a main source of the dubious allegations against the Bidens, which are at the heart of the Democrats’ impeachment investigation.
The legal problems for Giuliani — who was already under scrutiny for his work for Trump — deepened last week when two men who helped him seek political dirt in Ukraine were arrested on campaign-finance charges.
Asked if he is concerned about Trump abandoning him, Giuliani responded via text message: “I am not worried.”
The White House did not answer questions about the relationship between the two men.
Trump allies acknowledge it’s unlikely that the president would split with his legal pitbull — at least for now. They have taken to urging Giuliani to lay low for the sake of protecting Trump -- another improbable scenario given the former mayor’s appetite for the limelight.
“The president’s not going to dump him or anything like that. But I think that Rudy, in the interest of his client, should probably go on mute for the time being,” said former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg, who endured his own public break with the president.
Despite the problems Giuliani has caused for Trump, Nunberg said, he has built a reservoir of good will by acting as an “aggressive face” during former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
But Trump may opt to handle Giuliani differently than he did Cohen, who at dramatic, televised congressional hearing, accused the president of directing him to break the law, lying about his wealth and being a racist.
While Trump has expressed frustration with Giuliani in the past, he has always relished an ally who isn’t afraid to brawl with his political opponents.
“With the particular client and attorney involved, both think they’re their own best lawyers,” Jaffer said.