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How America’s mayor became America’s State Department

As Trump’s de facto secretary of State, Rudy Giuliani makes a mockery of the Senate Foreign Relations panel

He was neither nominated nor appointed to the job, but that hasn’t stopped Rudy Giuliani from acting as de facto secretary of State since Donald Trump’s election, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
He was neither nominated nor appointed to the job, but that hasn’t stopped Rudy Giuliani from acting as de facto secretary of State since Donald Trump’s election, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — With friends like Rudy Giuliani, who needs the State Department? Not Donald Trump. And as long as we’re on the subject, who needs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee? Or the full Senate? Or any of the other pillars of the U.S. government that were created to both support and oversee the executive branch.

The Senate Foreign Relations panel alone is made up of 22 senators and 75 professional staff. As one of the 10 original standing committees of the Senate, its job literally spans the globe, with jurisdiction over international treaties, U.S. foreign policy and all diplomatic nominations. All ambassador appointments are supposed to go through the committee for debate and approval, as are international treaties, declarations of war, State Department oversight and changes to official U.S. foreign policy.

But since the moment Donald Trump was elected in 2016, the once-powerful Foreign Relations Committee has been almost entirely sidelined by the president and a single man with no security clearance, no Senate committee approval, multiple known financial conflicts of interest and an unknowable number of additional conflicts that he has refused to disclose. That man, of course, is Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and lately, overseas task rabbit and de facto secretary of State for the president.

Despite the fact that the Constitution explicitly gives the Senate the role to advise and consent on key executive appointments, including ambassadors, we learned through multiple interviews with State Department employees last week that it was Giuliani, not the appointed U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who acted as the point person between Trump and the Ukrainian president last spring and summer as they negotiated the release of defense funds in exchange for a public statement that the country would open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The Senate confirmed the actual ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, 100-0 in 2016, but State Department witnesses have testified that she was sidelined after Giuliani told Ukrainian and U.S. officials she was disloyal to the president. We also learned from George Kent last week that Giuliani’s role didn’t stop as a negotiator for the president. He lobbied the White House to reverse State Department decisions, spoke with Ukrainian journalists to explain U.S. policy, and eventually became such a presence Ukraine officials understood him to be the direct route to Trump. In essence, he acted as the ambassador, if not the secretary of State. Except that he was never approved by the Senate for either role.

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It’s not that Giuliani didn’t want to be secretary of State, because he made it clear in the days after Trump won the presidency that he did. After years of heading an international security and public affairs firm, he argued, there was no one as prepared or skilled to be America’s top diplomat as he. In one of multiple media interviews, he told The Wall Street Journal, “My knowledge of foreign policy is as good, or better, than anybody they’re talking to.”

But those same business deals that Giuliani felt qualified him for the job were disqualifying in the eyes of many. A filing with the Federal Election Commission in 2007 showed that he had made millions in speaking fees, sometimes at $300,000 each, often from dubious foreign sources. More reporting revealed a roster of international clients from an Iranian opposition group to a Venezuelan oil company to Qatar, Ukraine and Russian oligarchs with Kremlin connections. Giuliani declined to name others, citing confidentiality agreements.

“You think the Steve Bannon appointment got negative press? You think that’s bad?” Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC. “Pick Rudy Giuliani as your secretary of state … and watch everything melt down internationally.”

Quickly, support from the Senate Foreign Relations came into question when Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, a key vote, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer it would take “a stiff uphill climb” for him to support Giuliani for secretary of State. “You want to have a diplomat in charge of diplomacy,” he said of both Giuliani and foreign policy hawk John Bolton. “You don’t want a bomb thrower.”

Giuliani was neither nominated nor appointed to the job, but that hasn’t stopped him from working overseas, representing the president abroad and occasionally representing foreign national clients in front of the White House.

Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez recently asked Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, about two meetings he had with Giuliani about securing the release of Reza Zarrab, a foreign national who was arrested by the United States for evading U.S. sanctions against Tehran and then hired the former New York mayor to represent him. 

Menendez has also been outspoken, along with other Democrats and Republicans, in demanding answers about the delay of funds for Ukraine that Congress appropriated nearly a year ago as a part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative to help Kyiv fight pro-Russian forces.

Why the president held up the funds was a mystery to anxious lawmakers, who had worked for years to fortify anti-Russian forces in the country. The real reason Trump halted U.S. policy, as we now know, was to demand the public statement from Ukraine about investigating the Bidens before the money would be released. It was a scheme with Giuliani at the center.

Of all of the issues at stake in this week’s impeachment inquiry hearings, the one with the most long-term consequences for Congress is the question of who is in charge around here. Who decides U.S. policy? Who gets to choose the men and women who represent us abroad? Who gets to control this government? Is it the president with the input and oversight of Congress — or is it the president, and the president alone?

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.