Giuliani, Ukraine, and back-channel diplomacy. Three precedents.

Why We Wrote This

Donald Trump is both lauded and criticized for defying presidential precedent. His reliance on close friends and back channels often falls into this category. But is it really all that unique?

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks in New York City, Sept. 24, 2019.

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Many presidents have used close aides or friends to handle crucial international assignments, particularly at times of national stress.

Some of these low-profile envoys had official roles. President Richard Nixon was close to national security adviser Henry Kissinger, using him for back-channel negotiations on Chinese and Soviet relations that excluded State Department experts.

Others, like Rudy Giuliani, have had flexible or unofficial positions. President Woodrow Wilson leaned heavily on Edward House, nicknamed Colonel House, a Texas backroom politician, for political and foreign policy advice. Prior to World War I, Wilson sent House to Europe to try and prevent hostilities. After the war, House was sent back to push armistice terms.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was, if anything, even more reliant on Harry Hopkins, a social program administrator whom FDR met when he was governor of New York. Hopkins held a number of government positions, but after 1940 his chief role was arguably to serve as Roosevelt’s alter ego, sounding board, and unofficial envoy to the leaders of allied powers.

The difference with Mr. Giuliani may be in what he’s done in Ukraine – push for investigations that might help President Trump politically. Critics say that means he’s pursuing personal rather than national interests.

Rudy Giuliani was running a back-channel foreign policy on Ukraine separate from the normal processes of U.S. diplomacy. That’s a common point many witnesses have made to the House impeachment inquiry, according to transcripts released in recent days.

“It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president’s mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani,” Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, testified on Oct. 17, for example.

In its basic structure, that’s not unprecedented. Many presidents have used close aides, friends, or other insiders to handle crucial international assignments, particularly at times of national stress.

Some of these low-profile envoys had official roles. President Richard Nixon was close to national security adviser Henry Kissinger, using him for back-channel negotiations on Chinese and Soviet relations that excluded State Department experts.

Others, like Mr. Giuliani, have had flexible or unofficial positions. President Woodrow Wilson leaned heavily on Edward House, nicknamed Colonel House, a Texas backroom politician and early Wilson supporter, for political and foreign policy advice. Prior to World War I, Wilson sent House to Europe to try and prevent hostilities. After the war ended, House was quickly sent back to push armistice terms.

“I have not given you any instructions, because I feel that you will know what to do,” Wilson told him.

What does history say?

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was, if anything, even more reliant on Harry Hopkins, a social program administrator whom FDR met when he was governor of New York. Hopkins held a number of government positions, including secretary of commerce. But after 1940 his chief role was arguably to serve as Roosevelt’s alter ego, sounding board, and unofficial envoy to the leaders of allied powers.

FDR sent Hopkins to Britain in 1941 to judge the nation’s capacity for resistance to Hitler. (His report was favorable.) Hopkins was present at all the major wartime conferences, from Cairo to Yalta. He even moved into the White House. When Hopkins remarried in 1942 the president – who served as best man at the ceremony – just gave him a bigger suite of rooms.

What ties these examples together? It may be that the presidents involved had what journalist and historian Joseph Lelyveld, in his book on FDR’s final months, terms a “highly personalized style of policy-making.”

Wilson and Roosevelt both operated as their own secretaries of State, Mr. Lelyveld writes. They depended on key aides operating outside, and around, normal bureaucratic channels. Nixon arguably dealt with many major foreign policies the same way.

President Donald Trump’s defenders might put Mr. Giuliani’s back-channel actions in this context. The president has his own way of doing things, and distrusts a bureaucracy he considers full of “deep state” proponents. Mr. Giuliani is just implementing presidential priorities with which career State Department diplomats simply disagree, in this view.

What’s different this time?

This is where historical analogy frays, and the Ukraine example veers into unprecedented territory, critics say. It’s not so much the existence of a special channel, as what the special channel was used to do.

Like Harry Hopkins, Rudy Giuliani has no official position in the White House, but does have the president’s trust, says James Goldgeier, a professor in the School of International Service at American University and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

“The difference is that while F.D.R. used Hopkins to advance the country’s national interest during World War II, Trump used Giuliani not on behalf of America but for his own personal political gain and invited foreign interference in the American presidential election,” says Dr. Goldgeier in an email.

Ironically it is the day-to-day work of normal diplomacy that has exposed Mr. Giuliani’s abuse of the process, according to Dr. Goldgeier. A string of experienced diplomats and government foreign policy analysts have acted as they normally do, keeping records, communicating with colleagues, and ultimately testifying to Congress, despite the objections of the White House.

“In this case, what may matter in the end is something that has plenty of precedent: the regular diplomatic channel,” write Dr. Goldgeier and Brookings colleague Elizabeth Saunders in an analysis of how much President Trump’s actions in Ukraine have deviated from presidential norms.

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