02:06 - Source: CNN
Rudy Giuliani now says he won't make Ukraine trip

Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Historically, foreign governments have had a pretty clear picture of who speaks for the American President. US government officials with the expertise, security clearances and commitment to national security engage with foreign counterparts on the President’s behalf. But because President Trump has a penchant for mixing business with pleasure – and for blurring the lines between what’s good for our country with what’s good for him – foreign officials can be forgiven if they have no clear sense of who the real Presidential envoys are.

 Samantha Vinograd

On Thursday, the President’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told CNN he was planning to travel to Ukraine in hopes of pressing the country to investigate matters surrounding the release of negative information about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is currently serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence on a number of charges, including failure to disclose a foreign bank account, tax evasion and bank fraud. Giuliani was also interested in pursuing questions about former Vice President Joe Biden, who pressured Kiev to remove a top prosecutor in Ukraine, who at one point was investigating a natural gas company linked to Biden’s son Hunter. There has never been any evidence Biden acted improperly.

By Friday, Giuliani reversed course and canceled the trip, claiming without evidence that the Ukrainians surrounding president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky are “enemies of the President … in some cases enemies of the United States” who have ties to Democrats.

The State Department has previously celebrated our bilateral relationship with Ukraine and applauded Zelensky’s victory in the recent Ukrainian elections. By proposing the trip and calling Ukrainians “enemies,” Giuliani has stoked confusion and fear among our allies. His efforts also open the door for foreign interference in the 2020 election, and jeopardize our relationship with Ukraine amid the ongoing conflict with Russia.

Blurred lines

Giuliani said he was planning to go to Ukraine in his capacity as the President’s personal lawyer. While he might look like a real Presidential envoy, he lacks the credentials and expertise to pursue official policy work. The trip may have been a freelance assignment, but it blurs the line between policy and politicking.

Ukrainian officials probably feared retribution if they didn’t meet and cooperate with Giuliani. The President has called for investigations into US law enforcement officials for engaging in the Special Counsel’s Russia probe, so it’s not a stretch to think he’d lash out at Ukrainian officials if they refused to play ball. These conflicts of interests create a culture of confusion and fear that is not conducive to US national security.

Plus, we have existing law enforcement relationships with Ukraine. The Department of Justice and other US government officials already work with the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice and Prosecutor General. By inserting himself, Giuliani tried to trump those pre-existing relationships, making it unclear who is really speaking on behalf of the US when it comes to law enforcement issues.

Setting the bar low

Giuliani has been consistent on one thing, and that’s his conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with taking information from a foreign government during a campaign, as long as it doesn’t hurt Trump. In what appears to be an attempt to cast off the lingering shadow of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Giuliani is now floating unsubstantiated claims that the Democratic National Convention, along with Hillary Clinton, colluded with Ukraine to sound the alarm on Manafort’s business in the country.

And by trying to get Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden – a 2020 frontrunner – Giuliani is trying to get another foreign government to help his candidate. He denied these accusations, telling CNN that it wasn’t meddling since the presidential election is a year and a half away.

This is setting a low bar for the 2020 election cycle. It’s alarming enough that the Trump administration has not taken the necessary steps to condemn Russian election interference and prevent it from happening again.

If Giuliani is our standard, who’s to say other candidates can’t dispatch members of their teams to foreign capitals in the name of opposition research?

Putin’s playground

The US relationship with Ukraine is particularly important right now. Putin illegally invaded and annexed part of Ukraine in 2015 and the two countries are still locked in an ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. The Trump administration did decide to provide lethal security assistance to Ukraine to help in the fight against Russia and the State Department’s statement congratulating Zelensky’s election victory in Ukraine acknowledged “five years of unrelenting Russian aggression” and pledged “steadfast support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The stakes are high — any friction between the US and Ukraine could have seriously adverse implications for the Ukrainian people. If Putin thinks the President is happy to throw Ukraine under the bus to advance his own personal politics, the Russian president will probably feel more emboldened to keep up his illegal activities there.

Double standard diet, again

Trump inaccurately accused former Secretary of State John Kerry of violating the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments or their representatives “in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States.” But Trump defended Michael Flynn when he was accused of violating the law when the former national security adviser discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the transition. (Flynn was never charged.)

The same day Trump’s launched the accusation against Kerry, Giuliani revealed his plans to press the Ukrainian president-elect to open investigations that could potentially benefit Trump’s re-election campaign, prompting critics to invoke the Logan Act once again.

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    The rest of the world may interpret Trump’s double standards on the Logan Act as a sign that this administration does what it wants, when it wants, even if it undermines US interests. This message was only supported by Trump’s claim that it would be “appropriate” for him to speak to Attorney General Bill Barr about investigating Biden.

    The law-and-order President wants to influence the Justice Department – and law enforcement agencies in other countries to advance his own political objectives.

    All of us should hope that Giuliani’s trip fell apart because someone actually representing the United States’ interests told him not to politicize diplomacy with Ukraine. It seems unlikely the President stepped in.

    Despite the cancellation, the damage is already done. Our friends in Ukraine – as well as other foreign officials around the world – understand what it takes to stay a friend of the United States today: supporting Trump’s 2020 campaign.