Friends in High Places

Bill Clinton golfing in 2000 with Vernon Jordan. They had a fondness for talking about women.

Credit…U.S. PGA Tour Archive, via Getty Images


WASHINGTON — When you are the president’s best friend, you may be called on for many services — some dicey, some soothing, some world-shaking, and some profoundly personal.

In his new book, First Friends,” Gary Ginsberg chronicles the unelected yet undeniably powerful people who shape presidencies.

We know too well how the advisers of presidents with all-access passes to the Oval can make or break legacies.

Look at how George W. Bush’s presidency was ruined when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld got him to invade Iraq.

And consider how Rudy Giuliani ginned up Donald Trump’s craziest impulsesleading to two impeachments, one insurrection and endless legal bills.

But there has been less focus on the often “unseen hands,” as Ginsberg calls them, the BFFs busy on the sidelines.

He became interested in the topic as a lawyer vetting vice-presidential candidates for Bill Clinton. He was joined in the last round by Harry McPherson, an old Washington hand who has been the White House lawyer for Lyndon Johnson.

McPherson believed that if L.B.J., a solitary man at heart, had had an intimate, he might have navigated Vietnam more adroitly. So McPherson wanted to know, “Does Al Gore have any friends?”

When Gore stumbled over the answer, McPherson wondered, “If he can’t develop or even claim one real friendship, how’s he going to lead a nation?”

But Clinton didn’t seem to care; he had enough friends for both of them.

Ginsberg examines First Friends in nine presidencies and the impact of the back-room counsel. His tales include:

Bill Clinton dispatching Vernon Jordan to talk Hillary Clinton out of leaving him after he publicly confessed to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

John F. Kennedy and David Ormsby-Gore at the White House in 1961.

Credit…Bob Schutz/Associated Press

David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador and an old friend of Jack Kennedy, helping to guide Kennedy through the Cuban Missile Crisis and signing a nuclear test ban treaty.

Bebe Rebozo relaxing the coiled and paranoid Richard Nixon by mixing martinis, making steak and Cuban black-bean dinners and paying to put a bowling alley in the White House basement.

Eddie Jacobson, an Army buddy and partner of Harry Truman in a Kansas City haberdashery, helping persuade Truman to recognize the state of Israel.

Edward House serving as a de facto chief diplomat for Woodrow Wilson, negotiating the World War I armistice and the doomed Treaty of Versailles, until Edith Wilson came along and dismissed him as “a perfect jellyfish.”

Presidents can put their friends in awkward circumstances. Nixon asked Rebozo to help him with a shadowy fund-raising scheme, and Clinton got Jordanthe two loved to talk about women — involved in trying to get Lewinsky a cushy job at Revlon in New York, before that scandal exploded.

Credit…Corbis, via Getty Images

And sometimes the friends put the presidents in a bad light. “By the late 1960s,” Ginsberg writes, “F.B.I. agents investigating criminal syndicates had identified Rebozo as a ‘nonmember associate of organized crime figures’ … The F.B.I. now had reason to believe the Key Biscayne lots Nixon had purchased were owned by a business associate of Rebozo’s connected to organized crime.”

First Friends trade interesting gifts. When Thomas Jefferson was in Paris, he kept in touch with James Madison with presents marking current obsessions.

“Jefferson mostly sent books about political philosophy, European governments, and failed democracies, as well as contraptions like a telescope that retracted into a cane, phosphoretic matches, a pedometer, and a box of chemicals to further indulge Madison’s growing interest in chemistry,” Ginsberg writes. Madison sent sugar maples, Pippin apples, and pecans, but was unable to procure a live opossum.

Abraham Lincoln and his friend Joshua Speed, a Springfield, Ill., shopkeeper, had a rare intimacy. The two shared Speed’s bed for years in Springfield after Lincoln told Speed he couldn’t afford a mattress. Historians still debate the nature of this relationship.

But when Speed moved back to the family farm in Kentucky and said he did not want to surrender his right to own human property, Lincoln wrote him bluntly about his disappointment.

“You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it,” Lincoln chided, urging Speed to think of those “poor creatures hunted down” and “carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils.”

Other friends specialized in sycophancy. As Pat Nixon said of Rebozo, “Bebe is like a sponge; he soaks up whatever Dick says and never makes any comments. Dick loves that.”

Citing the example of Donald Trump, “the friendless president,” Ginsberg told me that leaders need that emotional engagement of knowing that there is another soul who has their interest at heart.

I asked Ted Kaufman, the longtime loyal pal of Joe Biden, who nursed him through Beau’s passing, what it means to be a First Friend.

“I’d walk across cut glass for him,” he replied, “and I think he’d do the same for me.”

Trump Wants Impeachment Defense Based on Substance, Not Process

President also backs Giuliani ahead of new week of depositions in probe

President Trump said he has encouraged his Republican allies to defend him on the substance of the impeachment probe, instead of focusing on criticizing the process, ahead of another week of scheduled testimony from administration officials.

“I’d rather go into the details of the case rather than the process,” he told reporters on Monday morning before flying to Chicago, reiterating his stance that Democrats had no evidence of wrongdoing. “Process is wonderful.…But I think you ought to look at the case.”


What lessons do you think the White House learned from the way it handled the Mueller investigation?

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House impeachment investigators have maintained a rapid clip of depositions in recent weeks as they investigate efforts by Mr. Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Democrat Joe Biden and alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election just as aid to Ukraine was being held up.

Republicans last week escalated their complaints about the closed-door nature of the House’s impeachment inquiry, when GOP lawmakers—including many not on the investigating committees—stormed into a secure meeting room and delayed testimony for several hours. Democrats point to previous House investigations that used closed-door depositions and have said they intend to make transcripts of the testimony public. Multiple Republican lawmakers are part of the committees conducting the closed-door interviews.

Top Democrats have said they hope to hold impeachment proceedings in public before Thanksgiving and that they hope to conclude the investigations before presidential primaries begin in January.

On Monday, Mr. Trump also defended Mr. Giuliani, whose business dealings in Ukraine are being investigated by federal prosecutors in New York, according to people familiar with the matter. Asked if he thought Mr. Giuliani was in trouble over his Ukraine efforts, Mr. Trump said of the former New York City mayor and federal prosecutor: “No, I think Rudy Giuliani is a great crime fighter.…He’s always looking for corruption, which is what more people should be doing. He’s a good man.”

Mr. Giuliani has denied wrongdoing.

Some of Mr. Trump’s allies have grown frustrated with Mr. Giuliani, warning the president that his public comments about Ukraine are complicating efforts to defend the president.

Timeline: Interactions Between Trump’s Camp and Ukraine

Timeline: Interactions Between Trump's Camp and Ukraine

Timeline: Interactions Between Trump’s Camp and Ukraine
President Trump’s efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, have set off an impeachment inquiry by House Democrats. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday lays out a timeline of interactions between the president’s inner circle and Ukrainian officials. Photo Composite: Laura Kammermann/The Wall Street Journal

The House committees had scheduled a deposition on Monday for Charles Kupperman, Mr. Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, who listened in on the July 25 call between Mr. Trump and Ukraine’s President  Volodymyr Zelensky that sparked the impeachment inquiry. Mr. Kupperman late Friday asked a federal judge to rule on whether he must testify, after the White House has instructed him not to appear in response to a House subpoena. That ruling hasn’t yet been issued, and Mr. Kupperman didn’t testify Monday.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that in instructing him not to appear, the White House “obstructed the work of a coequal branch of government.”

“If this witness had something to say that would be helpful to the White House, they would want him to come and testify,” Mr. Schiff told reporters Monday. “They plainly don’t.”

House panels are expected to hear from about a half dozen more witnesses in their inquiry this week, including a top White House official who has been mentioned in testimony linking a hold on aid to Ukraine to investigations Mr. Trump and his allies pressured the country to pursue.

Tim Morrison, the National Security Council’s Russia and Europe director, is to testify behind closed doors on Thursday, an official working on the impeachment inquiry said. The committees are also expected to hear this week from Alexander Vindman, the director of European affairs at the National Security Council who attended the Ukrainian president’s inauguration in May, and Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Former Pentagon officials said she would have likely been involved in discussions about the freeze on security assistance to Ukraine this summer.

Two State Department officials are also set to testify this week: Catherine Croft, who served as special adviser for Ukraine, and Christopher Anderson, who was a special adviser to Kurt Volker, the former U.S. envoy for Ukraine negotiations who testified earlier this month.

Democrats say the president’s pressuring of a foreign leader to undertake a probe that would benefit him politically amounts to an abuse of power. Mr. Trump has said he acted appropriately.

Investigators have now heard from two current U.S. diplomats who say they understood there to be a quid pro quo related to the investigations Mr. Trump wanted Ukraine to pursue.

In testimony last week, Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in Kyiv, said Mr. Morrison relayed to him conversations that suggested there was a link between the $400 million in Ukraine aid that was being held over the summer and the announcements of investigations.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified earlier this month about a separate quid pro quo, telling House committees he believed Ukraine agreeing to open investigations into a company where Mr. Biden’s son served on the board and into election interference was a condition for a White House meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Sondland’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, said.

Mr. Trump’s ouster of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, has also come under heightened scrutiny in recent weeks. On Saturday, a senior State Department official told House investigators that top officials stymied a show of solidarity for Ms. Yovanovitch after Mr. Trump had her removed, according to a person familiar with his closed-door testimony.

Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, was named to the job in March, around the time Mr. Trump ordered the removal of Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Mr. Giuliani and others had said Ms. Yovanovitch was obstructing efforts to persuade Kyiv to investigate Mr. Biden, which the envoy characterized as a “concerted campaign” against her in testimony this month.


Scheduled to Testify:

  • Oct. 29: Alexander Vindman, the director of European affairs at the National Security Council who attended the Ukrainian president’s inauguration in May
  • Oct. 30: Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs; Catherine Croft, who served at the State Department as special adviser for Ukraine; Christopher Anderson, who was a special adviser to Kurt Volker, the former U.S. envoy for Ukraine negotiations
  • Oct. 31: Tim Morrison, the National Security Council’s Russia and Europe director

‘Stop talking’: Trump advisers want Giuliani dumped

Trump allies felt Giuliani’s free-wheeling monologues were hurting the president. And that was before the ex-New York mayor’s business associates got arrested.

For weeks, prominent Republican advisers have been privately imploring President Donald Trump to sideline Rudy Giuliani after a barrage of inconsistent, combative and occasionally cringe-inducing media interviews, according to three people familiar with the conversations.

And that was before the arrest of two foreign-born businessmen who reportedly helped Giuliani try to discredit former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democrat to take on Trump in next year’s election. Several reports have indicated Giuliani himself may be caught up in the probe.

Yet Trump remains linked to Giuliani, who was initially hired to help fend of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigators, but who now may have pulled the president into another investigation — one that might lead to impeachment. While the president has long appreciated Giuliani’s pugnacious and never-back-down attitude, Trump allies fear Giuliani will damage Trump with his long-winded monologues and free-wheeling accusations.

The constant sniping from staff could ultimately force Trump to dump his long-valued fixer, as he has done with former personal lawyer Michael Cohen and countless other ousted officials, like ex-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

“Rudy Giuliani needs to stop talking,” said a former campaign official who remains close to Trump’s team.

Giuliani has been Trump’s attack dog since he was hired as an unpaid personal attorney April 2018. But the president’s personal lawyer has now found himself at the center of an unfolding controversy over the president’s attempts to get the Ukrainian president to open an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter.

To numerous Trump advisers, though, the appearances have hurt more than they’ve helped the president.

Rudy right now needs to focus on himself and not Ukraine,” said an outside Trump adviser.

For now, Trump is sticking with Giuliani, or “My Rudy,” as Giuliani said the president sometimes calls him. “Nothing has changed on that,” said Giuliani’s own attorney, Jon Sale. Trump plans to keep using Giuliani on everything but Ukraine matters because they know he’s a witness if this goes to impeachment, according to a source familiar with the legal team’s strategy.

Trump said late Friday he didn’t know if Giuliani was still his attorney. “I haven’t spoken to Rudy,” he said. “I spoke to him yesterday, briefly. He’s a very good attorney and he has been my attorney.”

That’s good for Trump, Giuliani argued.

“I’m not a puppy — I know what I’m doing,” he said. If he didn’t represent Trump, Giuliani added, “they would let him be a punching bag.”

In a text on Saturday morning, Giuliani replied to the two most pressing questions he’s facing. “No knowledge of any probe. Still President’s counsel in same way as before…no change,” he wrote.

In a Saturday morning tweet, Trump wrote: “So now they are after the legendary “crime buster” and greatest Mayor in the history of NYC, Rudy Giuliani. He may seem a little rough around the edges sometimes, but he is also a great guy and wonderful lawyer.”

At least one Republican suggested Giuliani would not leave even if Trump wanted him to. Either way, Giuliani is not going away, given his central role in the budding Ukraine controversy.

Giuliani fed Trump the information that largely led the president in a phone call to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The former New York mayor had spent months trying to make contact with Ukrainian officials to collect evidence and convince them that they should be looking at Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian gas company and Joe Biden’s Obama-era efforts to have a Ukrainian prosecutor removed over corruption concerns. There is no public evidence that either Joe or Hunter Biden broke any laws.

House Democrats launched their impeachment inquiry after Trump’s request was revealed, spurring Giuliani to blanket the airwaves with his bulldog defenses of the president. Democrats have also subpoenaed Giuliani for documents and testimony related to his Ukraine activities, setting off a battle that’s likely to drag on for weeks.

Don Goldberg, who helped respond to congressional investigations in the Clinton White House, said Giuliani shouldn’t be helping Trump when he’s facing his own problems.

“It’s so messed up,” he said. “You’d think a president would want to have competent counsel if you’re talking about fighting for your political life. We’re so far not seeing that with the caliber he’s been using.”

Giuliani suggested in an interview this week that his television appearances could be reduced now that Trump’s legal team is expanding.

Some also speculated that the recent addition of former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to the Trump impeachment legal team was an attempt to reduce Giuliani’s appearances on the airwaves.

Although Gowdy — who led the congressional investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s response to in the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks — won’t start as a Trump attorney until January, he could appear as a surrogate on television in the meantime.

Democrats initially launched an investigation into Trump on Sept. 24 after learning about his call with Zelensky.

And Giuliani has been talking — a lot.

On Sept. 19, he denied he asked Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, only to admit it 30 seconds later.

On Sept. 24, he blew up at radio host Christopher Hahn during a joint television appearance, calling him a “moron” and an “idiot.”

On Oct. 6, he yelled at TV host Howard Kurtz, putting his fingers to his lips to shush him in the middle of the interview.

And in a series of phone interviews, Giuliani described himself both as a “hero” and the real “whistleblower” in the Ukraine saga, questioning why anyone would praise the person who initially raised concerns about Trump’s call.

“If I get killed now, you won’t get the rest of the story,” he warned POLITICOlast month.

Michael Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor who has written books on impeachment, said Giuliani’s primary legal role is to appear on television.

“That’s helping facilitate the political arguments the president is making,” he said. “But at some point, if impeachment gets any traction, you’re going to need somebody that can speak more clearly and more powerfully with respect to the different points of the impeachment articles that may be drafted and ratified.”

Giuliani said he and Jay Sekulow, another Trump attorney, are still working for Trump because they successfully represented Trump during Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.

“Jay and I got us through the last one, not the peanut gallery,” Giuliani said. “The president has made his views quite well known.”

It’s not the first time prominent Republicans have complained to Trump about Giuliani. But those same allies say the situation has grown dire since the House opened its impeachment inquiry.

“I think he’s massively hurting,” said a person close to the Trump campaign. “His TV appearances are so confused and contradictory, he’s creating an impression of internal chaos.”

“He’s inarticulate,” said a Republican who speaks to the president. “Rudy hurts the president with inconsistent, confusing messages.”

One former senior administration official described it this way when asked what Trump’s strategy against impeachment should be: “Hopefully Rudy will be on the space shuttle.”

So far, Trump has not heeded the advice.

“As long as Giuliani is doing battle with the president’s perceived critics and opponents, that’s what matters to the president,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, who worked for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “The efficiency of the performance isn’t as important as the willingness to do battle.”

Trump admires Giuliani’s brand, his loyalty and his Trump-like style, according to people familiar with their relationship. He has both political and legal experience at the national level, and has known the president for decades.

“They have a brotherly relationship,” said a second Republican who speaks to the president. “He likes his combative style.”

Giuliani’s reputation soared after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when he was dubbed “America’s Mayor.” These days, he’s regularly mocked on late-night shows and “Saturday Night Live.” His favorable ratings dipped to their lowest point in 2018 since Gallup began their polling on him in 2004.

Still, Trump supporters credit him with helping the president survive the Mueller investigation — and now exposing the Biden allegations.

At the White House Friday, senior aide Stephen Miller forcefully defended Giuliani. “You should all be grateful Rudy Giuliani is helping to shine a light on the endemic corruption that occurred while Joe Biden was vice president,” he told reporters, alluding to unsubstantiated claims that Biden got a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son.

Republican strategist John Feehery said Trump loves what he is doing. “If this were any other president, Rudy would be a disaster,” he said. “There is a method to the madness. The goal is to always stay on offense and not be defensive.”

But there was at least one sign that Trump might be tiring of Giuliani.

On Thursday, the president told reporters he didn’t know the two Giuliani associates — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — charged with sending foreign money to U.S. political campaigns. Then, he turned the attention squarely back to Giuliani.

“You’d have to ask Rudy,” he said.