Rudy Giuliani is not the secretary of state. In fact, he has no official position in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet or administration. Yet he is traveling the world holding himself out as a U.S. government operative, engaging in some unknown amount of “unofficial” diplomacy and insisting his work is not only officially sanctioned by the president but also assisted by the State Department. The president’s “private lawyer” is not charging Trump for his services, but he and his law firm are known to have dozens of clients – including foreign entities – who are paying for whatever services they think Giuliani can provide for them.
That is a very convenient setup for Giuliani – but it leaves the public in the dark about the wealthy special interests who might be subsidizing his gratis work for Trump – or for whom he might actually be working while invoking Trump’s name and that of the State Department. Because Giuliani is not officially a federal employee, he can sidestep ethics obligations that would require transparency behind the foreign or domestic interests who are paying him.
Giuliani appears to have spearheaded Trump’s efforts to convince the Ukrainian president to open an investigation into Trump’s political rivals. Text messages released by Congress also show he was steering U.S. policy in Ukraine in a direction that alarmed career State Department officials, who thought it harmed U.S. interests there. Giuliani himself has boasted that he effectively had official imprimatur for what might appear to have been freelance diplomacy with Kiev: Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sept. 29, Giuliani said about his outreach to Ukraine: “I did not do this on my own. I did it at the request of the State Department, and I have all of the text messages to prove it.”
Despite playing such an important role in U.S. foreign policy, Giuliani – who is named in the whistleblower complaint that touched off an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives – claims not to be bound by ethics rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest and provide transparency into the financial interests that might influence public officials.
“My other clients are paying me for the work I do for them. Nobody is paying me for a single thing I’m doing for Donald J. Trump,” he told The Washington Post earlier this month.
Executive branch officials – even temporary or part-time ones, and including unpaid ones – must file regular financial disclosure reports. For senior officials such as those who meet with foreign leaders and make high-level foreign policy decisions, these reports are public record: Anyone can go to the Office of Government Ethics website and see who used to pay appointees’ salary before they went into government, who they might owe money to, their current sources of income and other financial details that can help the public uncover conflicts of interest. The regular disclosure of this information allows the public to see whether an official has a private financial interest they could advance through their public position and hold them accountable.
We do not have any of that financial information for Giuliani. But someone is writing Giuliani’s checks. As he engages in unofficial diplomacy in Ukraine to hamstring the president’s political rivals, the public has no clue whose money is funding the effort.
In addition to disclosure of financial interests, federal employees are forbidden from participating in certain matters that would affect those interests. The criminal conflict of interest law, for example, bars government employees – including even temporary or part-time employees – from using the levers of government power for their own personal financial gain (or for the benefit of their private clients).
Again, because he claims to represent the president but not work for the federal government, Giuliani claims he does not have that legal duty to act in the public’s interest. He is seemingly free to hold himself out as someone acting on behalf of the U.S. government, but without the legal obligations that would prevent him from using that authority to line his pockets, perform political favors and advance the interests of himself or his unknown clients. He claims the State Department “knew everything he was doing” – but the public knows nothing about potential conflicts of interest. And the text messages released reveal he was influencing official U.S. policy.
Financial disclosure and the criminal conflict of interest law are just two tools in the ethics toolbox that hold federal employees accountable. The Standards of Conduct, the ethics pledge and the impartiality regulation work together to ensure government business is being done with the best interests of the public in mind. All these rules exist for the same reason: to ensure public service remains a public trust. Giuliani, the person whom foreign operatives flock to for advice or for access to the president, claims to be bound by none of them while negotiating with foreign countries on behalf of the president of the United States.
When nongovernment actors such as Giuliani conduct shadow diplomacy with the support of the president and State Department, the public is left in the dark about who might be bankrolling the effort. The public should not have to wait for an impeachment inquiry to get answers, but that might be what it takes to get a more complete picture of any moneyed interests behind these influence efforts.