It is bad enough that the President of the United States is breaking long-standing ethical standards in US government, but when President Donald Trump's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, stepped into the contentious battle over corruption in another country, Romania, he embarrassed the United States by speaking out against clean government; he made the uphill battle for democracy advocates in Romania even steeper; and he muddied US foreign policy, taking a stand directly contrary to that of the US State Department.
Romanians have been fighting what may be a losing battle to uproot corruption in their country. The tens of thousands who have taken to the streets to defend the rule of law had until now seen the United States as an ally. That's why, when a local news site published a letter from Giuliani to Romania's President, it detonated a bombshell of disbelief.
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Incredibly, Giuliani's letter to the country's largely-ceremonial President urged Romania to throttle the National Anticorruption Directorate, known as DNA, claiming that anti-corruption efforts were causing "damage to the rule of law ... under the guise of effective law enforcement." Giuliani proposed that "amnesty should be given to those who have been prosecuted and convicted through the excesses of the DNA." And he warned that the anti-graft drive risks driving away foreign investment.
Giuliani is an independent lawyer and businessman. He is free to defend criminals and crooks. But he is also a very high-profile lawyer for President Trump. People around the world see him on television speaking on Trump's behalf. So, his words, even if he maintains they have no connection with the US government, carry special resonance.
Romanian citizens and the country's opposition have fought valiantly to stop the ruling party's campaign to defang the DNA in a battle for the future of a country in a region where authoritarian governments have been steadily dismantling democratic practices. Half a million people took to the streets last year to protest a bill that decriminalized certain forms of corruption. And when the ruling party fired the head of the DNA, Laura Codruta Kovesi, the late Republican Sen. John McCain, along with Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, wrote Romania's Prime Minister to express America's concerns.
The State Department, the European Union, and other prominent organizations have spoken up in favor of the besieged anti-corruption campaign that Giuliani denigrated. Romanians have come to expect support for democracy from the United States, so Giuliani's letter came not only as a shock, but also as a deep disappointment.
The prominent entrepreneur and activist Sebastian Burduja published an open message to Giuliani, saying, "Your letter, Mr. Giuliani, is far from what we would expect from a fighter for democracy, freedom and the rule of law." He demanded to know if Giuliani was speaking for the President. "Is this your letter," he asked, "or is it a message that represents the position and official policy of the US government?" He went on to explain the disastrous consequences that entrenched corruption has had for his country.
By now you've probably guessed why Giuliani is suddenly so interested in the intricacies of Romanian justice: It's about money. Giuliani acknowledged he sent the letter on behalf of his company, Giuliani Security & Safety, which had been retained by another firm with an unsettling pedigree, Freeh Group International Solutions, a company owned by former FBI director Louis Freeh -- who counts among his clients Gabriel Popoviciu, a Romanian sentenced to seven years in prison for corruption in a fraud and corruption case, and Alexander Adamescu, another Romanian under investigation by DNA for bribery.
The common practice of former US government officials selling their services and using their contacts in part to benefit the highest bidder is a disturbing facet of US public life. One would hope that, at the very least, they would screen their customers for ethical behavior and perhaps avoid clients who pay him to push against an entity whose purpose is to clean up pervasive corruption. That may be legal, but when the advocacy that runs contrary to US policy is being carried out by a man who is so closely associated with the President, the problem is not just optics. It may directly undercut US interests.
Notably, not everyone was displeased with Giuliani's letter. The letter received high praise from the leader of Romania's ruling party, Liviu Dragnea, of the Social Democratic Party, the party that has been trying to blunt the DNA's powers. It is he who spearheaded the push to fire the DNA's Kovesi. Dragnea noted approvingly in a Facebook post that Giuliani "puts his finger on the wound."
As it happens, Dragnea would benefit from Giuliani's proposed amnesty. One of the country's most powerful politicians, he's barred from serving as prime minister because of a 2015 conviction for election fraud, for which he was given a suspended sentence. He is expected to appeal a guilty verdict and a prison sentence on another case of abuse of office.
It is that concerted attack on efforts to restore faith in Romania's institutions that has produced massive demonstrations by people trying to salvage the democracy they built after breaking the shackles of one of the most repressive communist regimes of the Cold War era. They had dreamed of a Western-style democracy, and viewed the United States as a source of inspiration and support.
It's a sign of our times that now the same lawyer who is defending the embattled President of the United States is selling his services to those trying to roll back the rule of law in Romania. If Giuliani values what's left of his reputation, he should screen his client list while he serves as Trump's lawyer. And he should keep quiet on issues related to foreign policy as long as his name is associated with the US presidency.