The news cycle whirling around Rudy Giuliani, personal attorney to former President Donald Trump, can be hard to keep up with at times. In the span of 48 hours, The Washington Post reported — then retracted — that Giuliani had received a defensive briefing from the FBI in 2019, when he was immersed in digging up dirt from Ukraine on Joe Biden and his son Hunter as part of Trump’s re-election campaign.
Soon after the Post’s correction, The New York Times and NBC News similarly walked back articles asserting that the FBI had briefed Giuliani. While the former New York mayor is trying to spin this reporting snafu to paint himself as a political victim of fake news, the decision not to brief him actually might mean he’s in more trouble than he realizes.
Predictably, Giuliani’s gloating was joined by polarized posturing from right-wing media relishing the retraction by news outlets they perceive as favoring the left. Journalism pundits likewise pondered how such reputable reporters could have gotten this story wrong. Yet, a more interesting issue received little attention — why would the feds plan, and then cancel, a defensive briefing for Rudy?
In its correction, The Washington Post clarified that the Department of Justice and FBI counterintelligence division had prepared a briefing designed to explain to Giuliani how the conspiracy theories fed to him by Ukrainians might be part of a Russian intelligence operation. That briefing was just never delivered:
Officials planned to warn Giuliani as part of an extensive effort by the bureau to alert members of Congress and at least one conservative media outlet, One America News, that they faced a risk of being used to further Russia’s attempt to influence the election’s outcome, said several current and former U.S. officials.All spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains highly sensitive.
Significantly, even in its corrected version, The Washington Post explained what it knew about why the FBI was even contemplating a visit to Giuliani in the first place:
The FBI became aware in late 2019 that Rudolph W. Giuliani was the target of a Russian influence operation aimed at circulating falsehoods intended to damage President Biden politically ahead of last year’s election, according to people familiar with the matter.
What no outlet examined in detail, though, was the question of why the FBI — knowing that someone was the target of a Russian intelligence operation — would decide to not sit down with that person.
During my 25-year FBI career, and as head of counterintelligence, I’ve given hundreds of defensive briefings to thousands of people. The vast majority of these briefings were routine “don’t let this happen to you” presentations on how foreign intelligence services work to recruit Americans and steal our secrets. At times, I would brief auditoriums filled with defense contractor employees. One time, I preached my security sermon back-to-back, all day, until I had briefed an entire submarine base. As I said, these briefings were routine — until they weren’t.
As described in my book, "The FBI Way: Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence," I’ve had to sit down with a minor presidential candidate and carefully let them know that the FBI was aware they had been quietly meeting with officers from an adversarial intelligence service. In another instance, I confronted a sitting member of Congress about their relationship with another adversary’s intelligence operatives. Those defensive briefings were anything but routine — nor were those contemplated for Rudy Giuliani or the one ultimately provided to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.
After the Washington Post’s article was published, Johnson publicly acknowledged his visit from FBI counterintelligence agents, while still downplaying the significance of the briefing. The fact that Johnson — who as chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee at the time continued to lead an investigation into Biden that was based on disinformation from Moscow — received a briefing and Giuliani did not speaks volumes about the degree of trouble Rudy is in.
While the New York Times’s version stated simply that the FBI briefing had never happened, NBC’s correction hinted at the problems inherent in briefing an investigative subject about the very allegations for which he’s under inquiry. Specifically, that the briefing wasn’t given “in part over concerns it might complicate the criminal investigation of Giuliani.”
In other words, the FBI, and their bosses at DOJ, determined that in continuing the work in Ukraine they were investigating, and spreading Russian disinformation in the process, Giuliani had already crossed the line in terms of wittingly cooperating with a foreign intelligence operation to undermine the election. Telling someone who is already indictable that they might be in over their heads would be like telling a bank robber that they might have been recorded by a security camera. That would be too little, too late. The bank robber already weighed that risk when he decided to keep robbing banks.
Telling Giuliani, a former associate attorney general at the Justice Department, and former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was already immersed in Trump re-election shenanigans and recklessly trying to damage Biden’s campaign, that he should be careful about Russian disinformation would have undermined the ongoing investigation and risked a misperception that he could avoid legal trouble by simply stopping what he was doing. If I’m right, prosecutors had already made up their minds that America’s Mayor was beyond the legal point of no return.