The impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump has brought a parade of once-faceless bureaucrats before the nation. You have your Davids and your Bills, your Maries and Jennifers. Appearing before the House Intelligence Committee, most wore a somber uniform of navy blue and gray, to the point that a bow tie briefly became the visual star of the day.
The night that the public impeachment hearings opened last month, two people more in line with the president, in thinking and in style, appeared on Fox News. Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova, two lawyers who informally advise Trump and helped Rudy Giuliani as he sought dirt on the president’s political rivals, sat side by side, as they have countless times, to defend the president and attack his enemies.
They have a routine down when they appear on TV — she sits on the left, he on the right, and they are so in sync after doing this for so many years that they even take turns blinking. Turn the sound off, and it’s not unlike watching owls. DiGenova, 74, and Toensing, 78, look younger than their years. He wears a dark turtleneck under a tweed blazer. Toensing wears a gold-accented throw over a black shirt, all of it working to highlight her deep red hair, parted to the side and hovering over bangs. They both sit back like they’re very comfortable, like they just want to invite you over to listen to some smooth jazz.
That night on Fox, Lou Dobbs opened his show by noting that the public impeachment hearings had begun, or as he called it, “the Adam Schiff phony-baloney, rollicking, frolicking, sanctimony and pomposity medicine show.” Toensing and diGenova were there to praise the Republican members of the committee (“terrific,” said Toensing) and to repeat the day’s talking point — that the opening hearing was a boring bust (“an embarrassment for the Democrats,” said diGenova).
Toensing and diGenova have been a fixture on TV for decades, and on Fox for years, because they deliver on a promise of impassioned commentary and sharp insults. They like to push at the edges of the permissible. In the Trump era, that’s meant wading into the realm of conspiracy.
A few minutes into Dobbs’ conversation with the couple that night, the host mentioned George Soros — and diGenova quickly seized the bait. “Well, there’s no doubt that George Soros controls a very large part of the career foreign service of the United States State Department. He also controls the activities of FBI agents oversees who work for NGOs, work with NGOs. That was very evident in Ukraine,” he said as Toensing nodded along. “He corrupted FBI officials, he corrupted foreign service officers, and the bottom line is this: George Soros wants to run Ukraine, and he’s doing everything he can — he used every lever of the United States government to make that happen.”
The response was swift. Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the Anti-Defamation League called on Fox to ban diGenova from appearing again, the former calling it “beyond ludicrous” and “McCarthyite,” the latter saying it was “trafficking in some of the worst anti-Semitic tropes.” The network refused to publicly comment, and a spokesperson pointed to the fact that diGenova was a guest, not a paid contributor, directing further questions to him.
That was far from the first time that Toensing and diGenova had dived headfirst into a Soros-accented conspiracy puddle. Over the past year, they have used their connections to help feed a number of Ukraine conspiracy theories — and bring them directly to the American people and Donald Trump.
You might not know them well, but without Toensing and diGenova, the most outlandish theories might not have found their way into the ether. Toensing’s client and longtime friend John Solomon is the one who spread the rumor that Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, hated Trump; so-called “documentary evidence” of Joe Biden firing a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect his son had emerged in a case that both Toensing and diGenova are working on; and the couple have also alluded to the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine — and not Russia — that meddled in the 2016 election by seeking to help Hillary Clinton. Often lording over the whole spectacle, in their telling, was Soros — the billionaire who has become a bogeyman for the right. (The line that he is seeking to run Ukraine, for one, could have come straight out of the mouth of Vladimir Putin.)
Just trying to make sense of the story of Trump and Ukraine can make your head spin. Identifying Toensing and diGenova’s roles in that story can make your head explode, especially without their input. They declined to be interviewed for this piece. So did Rudy Giuliani, who has known diGenova for decades. Nobody seems to know exactly when Toensing and diGenova first met Trump, and they declined, via a spokesperson, to say when they did.
What is clear, however, is that this summer, Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash hired Toensing and diGenova to fight his extradition on bribery charges to the US. Subsequently, in that case, an affidavit from Viktor Shokin appeared, in which the disgraced prosecutor alleged that his fate was the result of a personal vendetta carried out by former vice president Joe Biden. (The US government, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund all supported Shokin’s removal.) The affidavit has become central to Trump world’s argument that Biden had acted improperly in Ukraine while his son was on Burisma’s board. Toensing and diGenova have also helped question the motives of Crowdstrike, the US company that first detected the Russian government’s hack of the DNC. In the midst of all this misinformation gumbo, the president and certain members of Congress now believe Crowdstrike was owned by a Ukrainian. (It isn’t.)
For four decades, if there’s been an outlandish story in Washington, there’s a good chance that Toensing and diGenova have played a part — prosecuting a crime, commenting on TV, or something in between. And as the more stable political balance of the 1980s and 1990s has given way to the chaos of now, the couple has drawn on the weirdest experiences of their past — the dabbling in conspiracy, the endless PR, connecting people from various parts of their lives. Only this time their work hasn’t landed them gushing profiles in the DC media — it’s helped contribute to the impending impeachment of a US president.
“They have not slowed down,” said Mark Corallo, who was the spokesperson for Trump’s legal team during the Mueller investigation and is now the spokesperson for the two as they work on Firtash’s legal case. “It's like, whoa — I have trouble keeping up with them, and everybody says I have a lot of energy. What I like about them now even more is that they have more fun. They still manage to find the fun and the joy in the work. There's no bitterness, there's no phoning it in, but they laugh more, they smile more. It's like, hey, this is really fun.”
Who are these people?
Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova met in 1980 at a rally in support of the Equal Rights Amendment held outside that year’s Republican National Convention in Detroit. Toensing was selling elephant pins and diGenova bought them all (30 in all for $3 a pop). “I thought it was an interesting way to get to meet someone whom I considered an extremely attractive woman,” he later said. On their second date, he proposed. They married the following year and held their reception inside the Senate Caucus Room. Toensing was chief counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee, and diGenova was chief legislative aide to Charles Mathias, a Republican senator from Maryland. Wrote the Washington Post, “Now they’re on their way to becoming the most powerful household in the U.S. Senate, on a staff level at least.”
For a pair who have come to exemplify the sort of renegade and very un–Deep State types to whom the president is drawn, Toensing and diGenova have a traditional, even impressive, background — and they’ve been at the center or periphery of many Washington events for almost 40 years.
In 1983, at 38, diGenova was nominated by Ronald Reagan to be the US attorney for Washington, DC, and “with the very gracious assistance of Joe Biden,” then senator from his home state of Delaware, he was confirmed in just nine days. “Biden decided he was going to take me under his wing and got me through along with the help of [then-Judiciary chair senator Strom Thurmond],” diGenova said in a series of interviews in 2003. Many heralded his appointment, with the Washington Post calling him “quick-witted and aggressive,” “nearly hyperactive,” “continually punching the buttons on his telephone to call his extensive network of Hill and administration contacts.” Mathias, who died in 2010, called him “extremely bright” and an “excellent, articulate speaker” and said he had a real ability to find “consensus among people with extremely different views.”
“It’s very difficult to intimidate Joe but a lot of people try,” said Charles Leeper, an assistant US attorney under diGenova who worked the high-profile case of Jonathan Pollard, the US intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel. “There was a lot of pushback for what we were trying to do. There was a lot of pressure brought to bear in that matter, not to be perhaps as aggressive as we would be in a case involving a non-ally — and Joe resisted that pressure, and I resisted, and Joe backed me up.”
Leeper added: “Joe is assertive and aggressive and he’s direct — above all, he is direct. And that doesn’t always square with the interests of, say, the diplomatic arena, political arena.”
With Toensing sworn in as deputy assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s criminal division in 1984, the first woman to hold the post, the two became known as a power duo committed to carrying out Reagan’s focus on “law and order.”
“Spies! Terrorists! Crooks! There’s hardly a crime, it seems, that doesn’t fall within the jurisdictions of Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova,” the Washington Post announced in yet another profile the following year. In 1984, Esquire named diGenova to its “register of baby boomers,” alongside people like Glenn Close and the Clintons. “Sometimes I carry my beeper and sometimes Joe carries his,” Toensing told the Post. “But for the most part, I’d say we were a two-beeper family.”
From the very beginning, Toensing and diGenova have excelled at a bipartisan Washington pursuit: delivering the sharp quote, being on the record in the good story, and understanding the optics and machinations that shape government decision-making. “Politics is not a dirty word or a dirty subject,” diGenova said in 1985. “I’m not ashamed of it. This is a town where politics is a craft, it’s a commodity, it’s part of the practice of law.”
He was part of a wave of young US attorneys like Giuliani and Bill Weld, who waged the drug war and went after municipal corruption, insider trading, and financial crimes. But diGenova’s relentless campaign against the late Marion Barry — a civil rights activist turned complicated Washington institution as mayor of DC — became nasty and fraught. “A lot of people have a bad taste in their mouths from it,” said Fred Cooke, his former lawyer. “People have a negative feeling — not just folks in the black community — of what went on.”
During his tenure, diGenova’s office convicted 12 officials in Barry’s administration — but never Barry himself, who would later be convicted on one count of drug possession after the infamous undercover FBI sting ordered by diGenova’s successor. Barry contended that diGenova’s campaign against him — and the contracting system in Washington, a city that was then about 70% black but had only recently brought black business owners into the fold — was racist. The media accused diGenova of waging “a political war with the city administration.”
The DC attorney’s office is the only one in the country that tries both federal and local cases, because of the unique nature of the jurisdiction. Decades later, Cooke still feels that diGenova could have done it differently. “Be part of the community — say ‘I’m here to be your prosecutor. I’m here for you. I know the president put me here, but I’m here for you,’” Cooke said. “Joe didn’t try to do that.”
Cooke was loath to get into the details.
“I am so done with Joe,” he said, exasperated. “It doesn’t seem unusual to me that Joe is doing this. I’m done with Joe and Vicky.”
Toensing, meanwhile, was working her way up through the Reagan Justice Department — with a committed feminist streak at odds with even the latter-day conservative repositioning of those principles. Toensing was an old-school feminist; in the 1970s, she’d told women that the expectation they bring perfect cookies to school events was a standard meant to keep women down. (“You know why they taught us that?” she was quoted as saying in 1976, well before “smash the patriarchy” became a meme. “Because they knew if women spent all that energy out there participating in the system, we’d be dangerous. We might even be victorious.”)
She led groups that worked with the National Organization for Women, and has been staunchly pro–abortion rights. In the early ’80s, she brought an official complaint against a bankruptcy court judge who had approached her as she was having a drink with friends; the judge, she said, told her that women should be kept “barefoot, pregnant or in the kitchen” and issued what appeared to be a threat: “You appear in my court sometime and see what you get.” That helped start a federal investigation into the court, and the judge was eventually forced out. “My first thought was self-protection, the survival instinct,” Toensing told the Washington Post in 1985. “I thought if I ever have to appear before this person, I’m not going to be treated very well...And I wanted it on the record because he could have done it to other women, too.” She once refused to attend a dinner hosted by the American Bar Association until the organization had sent her an invite in her own name, rather than her husband’s. A former (male) coworker once remarked on how she refused to make coffee for the office. She gave “kind of knee-jerk responses to things,” he said. “Like, ‘My job is not to make the coffee. I did that for 15 years and I’ll never do it again.’”
Their careers changed in the late ’80s. DiGenova joined a private law firm in 1988, and Toensing followed soon after. At the end of 1995, Toensing and diGenova announced they would be founding their own eponymous law firm, and that Brady Toensing, one of three children from her first marriage, would join when he finished law school. Then they turned to becoming stars.
On the heels of the O.J. Simpson trial, Toensing and diGenova became part of the first generation of celebrity lawyers called on to feed the 24-hour cycle on cable news. “I never did this to get clients,” Toensing said at the time, a line she has stuck to over the years. “It’s something that gets the body juices going.” DiGenova has been more sanguine. “You do get business from it,” he has said. “In addition, your existing clients like it. They like seeing their lawyers commenting intelligently on TV. We get calls: ‘Saw you on This Week, Face the Nation, thought you did a great job.’”
He added: “Dozens of Washington lawyers are trying to get on these shows. I think it’s very healthy. We can destroy myths and shoot down misunderstandings.”
If before, Toensing and diGenova were inside the prosecutions of spies and terrorists, now they were intersecting with major political news in less traditional ways. In the weeks following revelations that Bill Clinton had had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, they flooded the airwaves — by one count they had appeared in print or on television more than 300 times by late February 1998, less than six weeks after the story broke.
They were quickly catapulted to the heart of the drama.
On Feb. 18, 1998, none other than John Solomon, then at the Associated Press, revealed that Linda Tripp had via an intermediary approached Toensing to represent her, fearing that secret recordings Tripp had made of Lewinsky discussing her affair with the president were illegal. Toensing didn’t take the case — at the time, she and diGenova were advising a Republican-led investigation into totally unrelated matter and thought it would be a conflict of interest. But their role in the story was just beginning.
Four days later, diGenova went on Meet the Press to say that he and his wife “were being investigated by a private investigator with links to the White House and the attorneys representing the president” because of their comments on the impeachment inquiry. “If the White House is condoning the investigation of private citizens, looking into their lives … that is truly a frightening, frightening development,” he said. He brought no evidence (something he later admitted), but his comments dominated the news cycle for an entire day. This was a big deal, back in that halcyon pre-2010s period when each day had a single comprehensible narrative. Hours later, the White House press secretary called his accusations “blatant lies.” It turns out there was a small, even minuscule, kernel of truth in what diGenova was saying — but he had spun it to a degree of conspiracy that didn’t conform with reality. Two members of Clinton’s outside legal team said the following day that they had hired investigators “to perform legal and appropriate tasks” and look at “public information.”
“We have not investigated, and are not investigating, the personal lives of Ms. Toensing, Mr. diGenova, prosecutors, investigators, or members of the press,” they said.
Toensing and diGenova fortified their conservative bonafides throughout the Bush and Obama years, with Toensing particularly active. She penned op-eds in favor of the Patriot Act and in defense of the reporter who outed CIA agent Valerie Plame. She lobbied for the MEK, a violent fringe Iranian group, just as Giuliani has, as it sought to get off the US list of terrorist groups. She represented “whistleblowers” in the Benghazi hearings who accused Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, of refusing to let them testify, as well as an informant who claimed to have information that Clinton had orchestrated the sale of part of Uranium One to a Russian company in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation (she didn’t). She picked up Erik Prince as a client and took part in numerous Judicial Watch panels devoted to the subject of Clinton’s missing emails. As the Trump era approached, both Toensing and diGenova found themselves more and more on Fox News, regulars on Sean Hannity (another Toensing and diGenova client) and Lou Dobbs.
They built a reputation for playing tough. Corallo, previously the public affairs director at the Justice Department, described being called for deposition and deciding to hire Toensing to represent him, after finding department lawyers too meek: “I told the department I’m gonna get my own lawyer this time, so I call Victoria, send her the letter, give her the background, and she literally picks up the phone and calls the Justice Department — has it out with them over the phone — and they say, ‘OK, OK. Mr. Corallo will not be needed.’”
“They wanted no part of her,” he said. “She just picked up the phone and was like, ‘Are you people serious?’ I think the next day we got a letter from the department saying I was excused. And I just laughed.”
Two months after he was inaugurated, Trump was set to hire the duo as part of his legal team as the Mueller investigation got underway. Just days later, Jay Sekulow, a lawyer working for the president, announced he wouldn’t be going forward with the move, citing Toensing and diGenova’s old bugbear, conflicts of interest. “However, those conflicts do not prevent them from assisting the president in other legal matters,” Sekulow told the New York Times. “The president looks forward to working with them.”
In TV appearances, Giuliani and diGenova reference each other repeatedly, like old buddies. Nearly 40 years ago, the pair led an insider trading investigation into a Reagan administration official. Back in 2001, before the attacks that would catapult him to national icon status, Giuliani was on The News With Brian Williams urging the host to “say hello to Joe diGenova,” who was up next. “An old friend.”
You can see why the three would get along, flamboyant avid cigar smokers who enjoy their eccentricities. Stories abound of diGenova breaking into song — during nights out at the Palm, at the annual Gridiron dinner (where he once dressed as an ear of corn and belted out “The Impossible Dream”), at his own birthday party (where, Corallo said, he got the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia to join in). He played lead baritone, at least once, in an amateur production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. “Music is as much a part of my life as the law is,” he has said, pointing to his father, a professional opera singer, as inspiration.
“If you have performed in front of an audience as I did starting in high school,” he has said, “audiences of 12 and 1500 people and for singing in theaters where you are responsible for moving from A to Z in a production and selling something musically and dramatically and theatrically — that that is a great training certainly for people who do advocacy work of any kind, whether it’s in the courtroom, up in Congress, on a stage, whatever it would be, or in politics.”
Nearly everyone who speaks positively of Toensing and diGenova uses the same words to describe them: loyal, good, fun.
“They’re good friends, good people,” Andrii Telizhenko, a former employee of the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, who became a major source for the flawed story that the president’s defenders now rely on as proof of Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election. Last week, he was alongside Giuliani as they continued their search for dirt on Ukraine and Biden.
Telizhenko met Toensing in March 2016 at an event in DC (he says he doesn’t remember exactly which) and kept in touch with her here and there. In May 2019, he asked her to connect him to Giuliani once he saw that the former mayor “was researching the issue on Ukraine. She replied, and he replied back, and that's it,” Telizhenko said. “I reached out to him with evidence — we’re talking about the evidence that nobody has.” Telizhenko would not provide the alleged evidence, saying, “It is for the investigation and authorities.”
“People are trying to get to the truth, and people do care a lot about Ukraine — Mr. Giuliani, and so does Victoria and Mr. diGenova,” Telizhenko said. “They’re good people. They’re patriots of the United States, and they’re good friends of Ukraine.”
Because Toensing and diGenova have their fingers in so many pies, it can be hard to keep track of what exactly they’ve done. Toensing was one of the first in the president’s close cohort to publicly talk about the Ukraine meddling conspiracy, writing in a February 2019 tweet that mentioned George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state who would go on to testify in the House impeachment hearings, by name: “The @Ukraine connection will gradually be revealed.”
The columns in the Hill that spread the theory further — relying on a duo of disgraced prosecutors and a campaign against Yovanovitch, then the ambassador to Ukraine — were written by Toensing’s client John Solomon. The impeachment report released by the House Intelligence Committee last week revealed that Toensing and diGenova signed retainer agreements with both those men, Yuriy Lutsenko and Viktor Shokin, as well as another prosecutor, Kostiantyn Kulyk. For Lutsenko and Kulyk, the agreement said the couple would represent them “in meetings with U.S. officials regarding alleged ‘evidence’ of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.” For Shokin, their representation would center on “collecting evidence regarding his March 2016 firing as Prosecutor General of Ukraine and the role of Vice President Biden in such firing, and presenting such evidence to U.S. and foreign authorities.” As journalist Casey Michel has noted, the two never filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for their work in Ukraine. Corallo said the agreements with the three Ukrainians were never executed.
The real centerpiece for the duo is their work for Dmytro Firtash, the oligarch who has privately boasted of his ties to the Russian mob, something he now denies. Firtash told the New York Times he hired Toensing and diGenova on Lev Parnas’s urging, for $300,000 a month on a four-month contract, and had recently extended it through the end of the year. Giuliani, via Parnas and Igor Fruman, had urged the oligarch to hire the pair. In late August, Toensing and diGenova met with Attorney General Bill Barr, but the meeting came to nothing.
After Firtash hired them, they took Parnas on as a translator and fixer, reportedly paying him $200,000.
“It wasn’t just language — [Parnas] knows the terrain; he knows Ukraine and all of that,” said Corallo, who serves as spokesperson for Toensing and diGenova on the Firtash case. “One of the things that, particularly in this environment right now, what they didn’t want was to have was some third party, former State Department translator who would have to travel and sit in on privileged meetings with the client and all that. You want to make sure you have somebody that you feel you can trust, right?”
And that’s what it comes down to, for Trump especially, but also for the other characters in the central drama of his presidency: somebody you can trust. Impeachment has revved up Trump’s rhetorical hatred for the “Deep State,” which he has deployed so often throughout his presidency, laying the blame for all ills on these mysterious bureaucrats.
Trump, instead, turns toward the Giulianis, Toensings, diGenovas, the Roger Stones. He’s been known to ask “Where is my Roy Cohn?” — referring to the ruthless lawyer and McCarthy aide who was also his friend. All are flashy and brash, loud and public. They stand out in a crowd, and never met a television studio they did not like. They like to act rich in an ’80s kind of way, showing off fancy cigar accessories before they’d ever talk about wellness or put on a power vest. All are of a certain generation.
Trump likes to present his defenders as outsiders, executing a vast cleanup act on a system that calcified without them, but they are actually anything but. Nearly all have served in the government in one way or another and have been scraping at the barriers to entry since. Now they are here, not as purifiers or fumigants but as emblems of an era of winner-take-all at any cost.
The question invariably arises: What happened? How do you go from being America’s Mayor to a “chronic butt-dialer” accused of running a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine at the heart of the fourth-ever impeachment inquiry brought against a president of the United States? How do you go from being hailed as a man whose “prosecutorial decisions were based on evidence, not politics” and a woman hailed, back in 1991, as leading the “most important counterterrorist offensive in American history” to slouching side by side, on Fox News, to spread the message that George Soros runs the world?
Two camps offer theories about why these figures, once top officials in the government, have muddled fact and fiction into a swamp that ends with Donald Trump asking the Ukrainian president for a favor. One theory argues that they’ve lost a step and ceded to the Facebook conspiracies. The other is that it’s all just another big legal project. Do they really believe what they are saying, or is it just a useful strategy to win their ultimate case — defending the president, and their proximity to power, at all costs? But the real question is: Does it even matter? ●