Congress

The Vicki & Joe Show: D.C. power couple hit airwaves as impeachment inquiry moves forward

DiGenova and Toensing are go-to pundits and lawyers when scandals emerge

When scandals hit the nation’s capital, Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing are ready and willing to share their thoughts on air. The impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump is just the latest. (Photo illustration by Jason Mann/CQ Roll Call)

 

 

Updated 6:08 p.m. Tuesday |The list of people linked to the impeachment investigation grows ever more convoluted. They are like characters in a tawdry political soap opera that features intrigue, betrayal, surprise reveals, shifting alliances, potential opportunities and reversals of fortune — and for some, even the possibility of a prison term.

Most have well-defined roles: Politician. President. Donor. Newsmaker. Lawyer. Political operative. Commentator.

But two of the dramatis personae seem to shift effortlessly from one role to another, as they have done for decades during previous scandals inside the Beltway.

Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing were in the news in early October, when Lev Parnas was arrested while trying to leave the country. Parnas reportedly helped President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, try to dig up dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in Ukraine. He also worked as a translator for Toensing and diGenova, and one news report — denied by Toensing in a tweet — claimed the husband-and-wife lawyers were involved in Giuliani’s Ukraine project.

Just over a month earlier, diGenova and Toensing were in a Fox studio — one of their more than 90 appearances on the network this year, according to the left-leaning group Media Matters — with diGenova calling attacks by Democratic lawmakers on the Trump administration “abusive, vindictive and retributive” and “unconstitutional.”

And several months before that, diGenova and Toensing reportedly were considered for positions on Trump’s legal defense team, but that fell through because of conflicts of interest related to clients they represented.

Toensing and diGenova are well-accustomed to the spotlight of D.C. politics and scandal. Take a look back at some of the highest profile cases of the past three decades — the prosecution of accused spy Jonathan Pollard, the pardon of former George W. Bush administration aide Scooter Libby and the various Clinton scandals. They appear time and time again.

The two both spent time as Republican Hill staffers and as federal prosecutors — consummate insiders with a law-and-order bent. Now, they regularly take to Fox News to rail against what they say is a deep-state conspiracy at the FBI and the Justice Department to bring down the president.

It’s a story arc written for the Trump era. And with the impeachment inquiry heating up, it doesn’t look like the last chapter for diGenova and Toensing will be written anytime soon.

Both declined to speak with CQ Roll Call for this story. Giuliani did not return voicemails and text messages requesting comment.

Slamming the inquiry

As diGenova sat next to Giuliani on a Fox News set in October, he had harsh words for two career intelligence officials who filed whistleblower complaints about a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“These two nonentities are suicide bombers that the Democrats have unleashed on the democratic process,” diGenova said. “They actually think that the American people are going to accept having people testify secretly without anyone knowing who they are, where they worked, what their party affiliation was, who they conspired with.”

News had broken the previous month about a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump pushed Zelenskiy to pursue an investigation into whether Biden used his position as vice president during the Obama administration to stop an investigation into a Ukrainian company where his son Hunter was a board member. Trump also wanted Zelenskiy to look into a discredited theory that hackers in Ukraine, not Russia, were behind a campaign to meddle in the 2016 election. The president may even have conditioned the release of security aid to Ukraine on whether Zelenskiy complied with those requests, the complaint said.

As diGenova spoke about the complaint on Fox that day, an on-screen graphic identified him as a “former U.S. attorney.” But a report by Fox days earlier suggested that Toensing and diGenova were much more than just casual observers. Fox reported that they had helped Giuliani try to dig up dirt on the Bidens. Toensing asserted in a tweet that the story was “categorically false.”

Trump had considered diGenova and Toensing for a spot on his personal legal team in late March 2018, when Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III was still investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the pair was conflicted out. Toensing’s clients had included former Trump campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis, informal campaign adviser Erik Prince and former Trump legal team spokesman Mark Corallo.

“However, those conflicts do not prevent them from assisting the president in other legal matters,” Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said when he announced that Toensing and diGenova would not represent Trump in the Mueller probe. “The president looks forward to working with them.”

Parnas also reportedly aided Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine. And Parnas had worked as a translator for diGenova and Toensing as they represented pro-Russia Ukrainian gas tycoon Dmytro Firtash, who is fighting extradition to the U.S. on bribery charges.

Firtash has done business with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted last year on federal charges alleging he made false statements and committed a host of financial crimes. Before he joined the Trump campaign, Manafort made millions consulting for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine that was supported by Firtash.

Toensing and diGenova set up the first formal meeting between Parnas and another client, conservative columnist John Solomon. Parnas reportedly helped Solomon push Giuliani’s narrative about Joe and Hunter Biden at The Hill, where Solomon worked at the time. In March 2019, Solomon included Toensing and diGenova in an email to Parnas with an advance copy of an article he wrote about Ukraine for The Hill. That email, in turn, found its way into a packet of information that Giuliani provided to the State Department in order to discredit the Bidens as part of his campaign.

Their personal ties to the impeachment controversy haven’t kept diGenova and Toensing from commenting on it in their frequent cable news hits. During one appearance on Fox News in September, Toensing told host Sean Hannity that billionaire philanthropist George Soros was behind the impeachment inquiry.

Soros, a Holocaust survivor who is a longtime donor to liberal causes, has long been a target for conspiracy theories. His Open Society Foundations and the U.S. State Department are among several public and private grantmakers that fund the independent Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which one of the whistleblower complaints cites.

Soros and the State Department “were in bed with each other during that time, in the name of anti-corruption, and it really means that Soros goes after his competitors,” Toensing told Hannity.

“Soros’s dirty money is all over this story from Day One,” diGenova added.

Open Society Foundations and OCCRP both disputed those claims.

“The two lawyers in question are seeking to undermine the whistleblower for whatever reason and this is a convenient argument,” OCCRP’s editor, Drew Sullivan, told CQ Roll Call via email.

“Regrettably, Mr. diGenova and Ms. Toensing seem intent on spinning conspiracy theories to distract people from their client’s mounting legal concerns,” the Open Society Foundations said in a statement.

“Any suggestion that the foundations or Mr. Soros has ‘embedded people at the State Department’ is absurd,” the statement added.

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Moderate beginnings

DiGenova has spent his career in the Washington area, but his roots are a couple hours and a universe away near Wilmington, Del. His father was an opera singer, and diGenova inherited some of that talent. In a 2003 oral history for The Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit, he said he credited the professional and semi-professional singing he did growing up with helping him throughout his career.

“Convincing people that they should agree with you, or at least not oppose you, is all about the art of advocacy, and that type of training in theater and music is absolutely indispensable,” diGenova said.

Theirs was an Italian Catholic family of moderate politics. DiGenova’s brother, Ennio diGenova, described the family as “sensibly liberal” and recalls friendly political debates over dinner with priests from their church and school. The priests leaned conservative while the brothers leaned liberal, sometimes arguing their convictions, other times playing devil’s advocate.

About the time Toensing and diGenova were being considered for positions on Trump’s legal team, Ennio skewered his brother’s politics in a letter he wrote to The News Journal, Wilmington’s local paper.

“He and his wife have taken their usual classless Fox News, conspiracy theory behaviors to a whole new level in their search for power and attention,” he wrote. “Sorry brother, but you backed the wrong team, and to you and your wife, all that is left to say is: shame on you.”

In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Ennio diGenova was a bit more reflective.

“It surprised me that he went so far right,” Ennio diGenova said. “But that’s the way life is.”

Bonding over the ERA

Toensing spent her formative years in the Midwest. She grew up in Indiana and earned her bachelor’s degree from Indiana University in 1962. Over the next 10 years, she married, taught English and raised three kids. She enrolled in law school at the University of Detroit, graduating cum laude in 1975. She joined the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit and prosecuted narcotics cases.

She attended the 1980 Republican Party convention in Detroit as a pro-Equal Rights Amendment activist. By that time, she was divorced. DiGenova was there too, working as a legislative director for Maryland Republican Sen. Charles Mathias.

DiGenova told Washington Lawyer in 2013 that he went to a pro-Equal Rights Amendment march at a downtown Detroit square and saw Toensing, dressed in a Susan B. Anthony outfit, selling pins emblazoned with an elephant and the initials “ERA-GOP.” DiGenova bought all of her pins. He also got her name and phone number. The next year, they married.

Toensing moved to Washington and worked for Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, an iconic conservative — he was the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 1964 — who increasingly became identified with libertarian views after his retirement. She also served as the Justice Department’s deputy assistant attorney general in the 1980s. There, her push to aggressively pursue terrorism cases garnered a New York Times Magazine profile.

DiGenova earned a law degree at Georgetown Law. He clerked for a judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals and spent three years as an assistant U.S. attorney.

He also spent time in the 1970s on the staff of the Senate Rules and Intelligence committees and worked on the “Church Committee,” a Senate select committee that investigated alleged abuses in the intelligence agencies, the FBI and the IRS. And he served as an aide to Mathias.

He became D.C.’s U.S. attorney in 1982.

During diGenova’s tenure, the office prosecuted many high-profile defendants, including Jonathan Jay Pollard, the former Navy counterintelligence analyst who passed massive amounts of classified material to Israel, and local soft-drink executives accused of price-fixing.

But perhaps diGenova’s most contentious target was corruption in city government. His office got criminal convictions against subordinates of legendary — and controversial — D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, whose animus toward diGenova was extreme. Barry even unsuccessfully sued diGenova, alleging misconduct.

DiGenova had no love for Barry, either.

“The mayor actually created an atmosphere in town which was regrettable because he used the only tactic he knew how to use at the time, which was he claimed racism and abuse of power,” diGenova said in his oral history.

DiGenova is sometimes credited with convicting Barry on a drug charge, but that happened during the tenure of Jay B. Stephens, diGenova’s successor — a man who avoided publicity as much as diGenova embraced it.

Many years after he was no longer U.S. attorney, DiGenova would explain what he needed — and didn’t have — to prosecute Barry.

When a federal prosecutor brings a case against a public official, diGenova said, it is very important that it is based on “overwhelming evidence,” and “that you are convinced that a jury will convict.”

In December 1992,  William Barr, the current attorney general, sought an independent investigation into allegations that some of President George Bush’s officials improperly searched for embarrassing information in Bill Clinton’s passport files while he was a presidential candidate. DiGenova was appointed. At the time, Barr was attorney general in a lame-duck administration after Bush’s defeat.

Michael Zeldin, who served in the criminal division of the Justice Department and is currently a legal analyst for CNN, was on the team of lawyers that helped DiGenova with the investigation. 

“It was important to Joe that the team he assembled was balanced, and that we pursued the facts, wherever they required us to go, and we issued a report based on what the facts and law required,” Zeldin told CQ Roll Call.

In a report issued in 1995, diGenova concluded that the search through Clinton’s passport records by Bush administration officials was “stupid, dumb and partisan” — but not criminal.

Striking out on their own

DiGenova and Toensing ultimately started their own law firm in January 1996. Shortly after that, Toensing began investigating allegations of misconduct in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union on behalf of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and diGenova joined her in that effort. It was a politically fractious time, and the couple came under fire from Democrats for the amount of time they spent on TV opining about President Clinton’s misconduct with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“Put more bluntly, the couple’s relentless self promotion and nonstop mugging for the likes of Geraldo Rivera — however good for business and their egos — is unseemly, undignified, unworthy of this Committee, and generally detrimental to important congressional functions,” former Rep. William Clay Sr., D-Mo., wrote in February 1998.

The Clinton-Lewinsky affair indeed put Toensing and diGenova in front of the cameras on a regular basis, with diGenova even claiming at one point that the Clintons had hired private investigators to target him for his negative public comments.

Toensing also was a go-to source for commentary after CIA officer Valerie Plame was outed — shortly after Plame’s husband, longtime diplomat Joseph Wilson, alleged in a 2003 New York Times op-ed that the George W. Bush administration had manipulated intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs. In 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was convicted of perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice for lying to a grand jury and FBI agents investigating the leak that outed Plame.

In a Feb. 18, 2007, op-ed in The Washington Post, Toensing said that it was Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, not Libby, who should really be indicted. “If we accept Fitzgerald’s low threshold for bringing a criminal case, then why stop at Libby?,” she asked.

When Trump pardoned Libby last year, Toensing was his lawyer.

In his 2003 oral history, diGenova talked about how the couple copes with their media presence, law practice and forays into the political arena. He said he didn’t have any regrets about his public persona.

“To me, engaging in the public discourse of a democracy — whether it’s law or politics or public affairs — is one of the great treats of living in America,” he said. “And I think not to participate in it if you have a desire to is crazy.”

‘In the middle of it’

Toensing and diGenova stand out among participants in that discourse, having made hundreds of media appearances on air over the years as well as penning a sheaf of op-eds. Their provocative statements drive entire segments of conservative talk shows.

This commentary has come as a surprise to at least one former employer. It was Toensing’s reputation as an experienced, if conservative, federal prosecutor that led Philip Allen Lacovara, a former partner at the law firm Hughes, Hubbard & Reed, to hire her for the firm’s Washington office in 1988.

“I saw no hint of the present behavior,” Lacovara told CQ Roll Call in an email. “Indeed, I brought Victoria into my law firm shortly before I left for a position in the corporate world. Perhaps the notoriety offered by Fox News has induced them to stake out ever more extreme positions.”

In the current political climate, with impeachment proceedings dominating airtime and other scandals just a headline away, Toensing and diGenova are likely to express their positions with great enthusiasm in media appearances for the foreseeable future. It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see them performing in the other arenas they know so well — as lawyers and political players.

“The cross-section of law and politics in Washington, D.C., is the lifeblood of this city,” diGenova said in a May 2013 Fox News segment on the couple. “To be in the middle of it is absolutely spectacular.”

Their commentary continues to shape the conservative perspective on the events of the day, a fact they recognize and which diGenova summed up in the same news segment.

“It’s fun, but beyond that, it’s professionally rewarding, because these things matter,” he said. “This is part of history.”

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