The FBI warned Rudolph W. Giuliani in late 2019 that he 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, The Washington Post reports.
The warning was 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.
Giuliani received the FBI’s warning while deeply involved with former president Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign and related activities in Ukraine to surface unflattering or incriminating information about the Biden family.
The revelation comes as the FBI this week seized Giuliani’s cellphone and other electronic devices as part of a long-running criminal investigation into whether the onetime New York mayor and personal attorney for Trump acted as an unregistered foreign agent.
The warning, made by counterintelligence agents, was separate from the Justice Department’s ongoing criminal probe, but it reflects a broader concern by U.S. intelligence and federal investigators that Giuliani — among other influential Americans and U.S. institutions — was being manipulated by the Russian government to promote its interests and that he appears to have brazenly disregarded such fears.
Despite the alert, Giuliani went forward in December 2019 with a planned trip to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, where he met with a Ukrainian lawmaker whom the U.S. government later labeled “an active Russian agent” and sanctioned on grounds he was running an “influence campaign” against Biden. That operation, officials said, involved Ukrainian officials and political consultants who the U.S. intelligence community has since concluded were acting as Russian proxies not only to smear Biden and derail his candidacy but also to curtail U.S. support for Ukraine.
Giuliani’s lawyer, Robert J. Costello, did not respond to requests for comment. An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.
The FBI last summer also gave what is known as a defensive briefing to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who ahead of the election used his perch as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to investigate Biden’s dealings with Ukraine while he was vice president and his son Hunter Biden held a lucrative seat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Johnson, a staunch Trump ally, recalled receiving a vague warning from FBI briefers in August, but he said Thursday that there was no substance to their cautionary message and that he did not view the meeting as a “defensive briefing” on his oversight of the Biden family’s foreign business ventures.
“I asked the briefers what specific evidence they had regarding this warning, and they could not provide me anything other than the generalized warning. Without specific information, I felt the briefing was completely useless and unnecessary (since I was fully aware of the dangers of Russian disinformation).
“Because there was no substance to the briefing, and because it followed the production and leaking of a false intelligence product by Democrat leaders, I suspected that the briefing was being given to be used at some future date for the purpose that it is now being used: to offer the biased media an opportunity to falsely accuse me of being a tool of Russia despite warnings,” he said.
Johnson and staffers to Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), another Trump ally in the Senate who aided Johnson with his probe, said that in separate briefings earlier in 2020, FBI officials assured them there was no reason to discontinue their inquiry into Hunter Biden’s work in Ukraine.
The senators suspected that the younger Biden’s position with the Ukrainian firm posed a conflict of interest to his father’s role shaping U.S. policy toward Ukraine and created impediments for U.S.-backed anti-corruption efforts in that country. Their investigation ended last fall with a report concluding that Hunter Biden’s position with Burisma was “problematic” but did not influence his father’s work or Obama administration policy toward Ukraine.
Defensive briefings are given to people to alert them that they are being targeted by foreign governments for malign purposes, former officials said. But they’re also used “to see how they respond to that,” said Frank Figliuzzi, a former senior FBI counterintelligence official.
“They’re now on notice.”
Since Biden’s victory, the National Intelligence Council, an analytic arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials in Moscow sought to influence the 2020 election. They did so by spreading misleading information about Biden through prominent individuals, “including some” who were “close to former President Trump,” according to an ODNI report issued in March.
The report did not identify the individuals by name, but several current and former officials confirmed at the time that Giuliani was among them. The primary narrative that the Kremlin sought to promote — alleging corrupt ties between the Bidens and Ukraine — dated back to at least 2014, the intelligence report said.
This month, the Biden administration imposed economic sanctions on 32 entities and individuals for Russian government attempts to influence November’s election.