The Media Today

Throwback Thursday with Rudy Giuliani

April 30, 2021

On Wednesday, the New York Times broke a story that was very 2019. FBI agents raided the New York City home and offices of Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s attorney, seizing computers and cellphones. Apparently, the feds aren’t investigating Giuliani’s history of butt-dialing journalists, but rather communications related to his anti-Biden escapades in Ukraine and his (successful) push to oust Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador there, in possible violation of foreign-lobbying laws. The raids quickly became a big story. CNN and MSNBC invited Michael Cohen—who knows a bit about working for Trump, getting raided by the FBI, and how that can end—to weigh in. “It may start with just the Ukraine, but that’s not where it’s gonna stop,” Cohen said, on MSNBC, “because Rudy is actually a stupid guy.” Reporters flocked to Giuliani’s building to gather eyewitness accounts. “I just saw people, and I saw all of you, and I said, What is going on?” Michele Herbert, Giuliani’s neighbor, told the press outside. “My ex-husband called me and said, ‘Have you seen what’s going on?’” (The ex-husband was Larry Herbert, a Pantone color-matching mogul about whom Michele once said, “I put my husband’s money where my mouth is.”) Her testimony was instantly iconic.

Then, yesterday, we heard from the principal eyewitness: Giuliani. It was predictably weird. Speaking on his radio show, he referred to officials in the US attorney’s office in Manhattan—which he used to lead, and is now investigating him—as “bullies” who are “jealous” of his past prosecutorial successes. Later, Giuliani appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show, on Fox News, where he alleged that the officers who raided his home had conspicuously declined to take away hard drives belonging to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, that Giuliani claims to have in his possession. “The subpoena required them to take all electronics, but they decided to leave that behind,” Giuliani said. “And they were also completely content to rely on my word that these were Hunter Biden’s hard drives. I mean, they could have been Donald Trump’s. They could have been Vladimir Putin’s. They could have been anybody’s.” Giuliani also took a shot at Joe Biden, who said he had no advance knowledge of the raids—“Maybe he doesn’t remember,” Giuliani said, “I’m not sure if he can retain anything for more than about the time it takes to read it”—and ended by arguing that the Justice Department officials probing him should themselves be under investigation. “We might as well be in, you know, East Berlin before the wall fell,” Giuliani said. “This is tactics only known in a dictatorship, where you seize a lawyer’s records right in the middle of his representation of his client.”

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Carlson backed Giuliani up: “I agree with that uncritically,” he said, of the East Berlin point. “It’s shocking.” Other Fox personalities came to Giuliani’s defense, too. “Sometimes you do have overzealous prosecutors you’ve got to be careful of,” Sean Hannity said, on his radio show. “You know, a lot of the legal system I don’t like.” On Fox’s The Five, Jesse Watters said, “I think I speak for everybody on the show when I say this: Rudy Giuliani is a national treasure.” And Trump called into Maria Bartiromo’s show, on Fox Business, to discuss the raids, among other matters. “Rudy Giuliani is a great patriot. He does these things—he just loves this country, and they raid his apartment,” Trump said. “It’s like, so unfair.”

The right-wing media landscape is a part of the Giuliani story in ways that go beyond interviews and on-air support. According to Giuliani’s attorney, the FBI’s search warrant sought communications between Giuliani and John Solomon, a former executive at The Hill and a Fox contributor who wrote a series of columns smearing the Bidens and career US diplomats in Ukraine, playing a central role in a scandal that would eventually get Trump impeached. (Giuliani has said that he turned his “stuff over to John Solomon” on Ukraine; Solomon has denied collaborating with Giuliani. After a review, The Hill sharply criticized Solomon’s work and pledged to reform its editorial processes.) And yesterday, the Washington Post reported that in 2019, the FBI warned Giuliani—along with members of Congress and One America News, a pro-Trump channel—that they risked being played as conduits for Russian disinformation ahead of the 2020 election. (After this newsletter was published, the Post effectively retracted its reporting that the FBI warned Giuliani and OAN; the paper now reports that FBI officials “planned to warn Giuliani as part of an extensive effort by the bureau to alert members of Congress and at least one conservative media outlet, One America News, that they faced a risk of being used to further Russia’s attempt to influence the election’s outcome.”) In December 2019, Giuliani and a team from OAN went to Ukraine to make a “documentary” about the Bidens, and spoke with Andriy Derkach, a former Ukrainian lawmaker whom the US Treasury Department subsequently identified as a longtime Russian agent.

For the reality-based press, the Giuliani raids echo what feels like an ancient storyline. Mar-a-Lago tittle-tattle aside, media coverage of Trump has plummeted to a surprising degree since he left office. To the extent he’s stayed in the news, we’ve mostly talked about the insurrection he incited in January, which led to his second impeachment. Giuliani, despite prominently stoking Trump’s election lies, has played only a supporting role, tied mostly to his appearance in libel suits filed by voting-tech companies that he smeared on TV. (Speaking of supporting roles, Giuliani was also recently in the news after he won a Razzie, for his unwitting “shirt-tucking” cameo in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.) The raids this week have retrained media attention on the clownish, convoluted sleaze that dominated so much coverage of Trump’s presidency—until it was overshadowed, in our collective memory, by a frightening denouement. (As I’ve written before, the Ukraine scandal was actually a crucial precursor to the insurrection, though it’s rarely been framed that way, and most outlets scarcely mentioned Trump’s first impeachment in coverage of his second.)

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As well as being a throwback, the Giuliani story feels like an omen of news cycles yet to come. Since Trump left office, investigations targeting him and his inner circle—which were predicted to be a major post-presidency story—have mostly failed to dominate our attention; a Supreme Court ruling, in February, forcing Trump to hand his financial records to prosecutors, was a brief exception, but no new information has yet come to light as a result. The outlook has now started to change. The Giuliani story made for a jarring split screen this week, with President Biden’s policy-packed address to Congress, and assessments of his first hundred days in office that have often emphasized his “boringness,” light media touch, and aversion to the tawdry drama of his predecessor. As that tawdry drama makes a comeback, the press should take care that it doesn’t drown out coverage of the serious challenges Biden faces in addressing the everyday problems of American families. For most people, that’s what’s going on.

Below, more echoes of the Trump presidency:

  • Grievance politics: This month, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and thirty-two news organizations—including the Times, the Post, and the Associated Press—called on the New York Supreme Court’s Attorney Grievance Committee to publish records relating to any disciplinary proceedings that may be pending against Giuliani in connection with his role in spreading Trump’s election lies. RCFP and the outlets argued that typical confidentiality concerns don’t apply in Giuliani’s case because he pushed the lies in public, and because “any potential harm to Mr. Giuliani’s professional reputation has already been done.”
  • A different investigation: The Justice Department is also investigating Rep. Matt Gaetz, a pro-Trump Congressman from Florida who faces a litany of allegations, including that he had sex with an underage girl and paid her to travel with him. (He denies wrongdoing.) Yesterday, the Daily Beast moved the Gaetz story forward, reporting on a letter in which Joel Greenberg, an indicted Gaetz associate, claims that both he and Gaetz paid multiple people, including the underage girl, for sex. Per the Beast, Greenberg wrote the letter after asking Roger Stone to help him secure a pardon from Trump, who was still president at the time.
  • “Beyond the L-word”: For CJR, Michael Schudson and Jueni Duyen Tran, of Columbia Journalism School, reflect on “four years of covering Trumpian defiance of fact,” and the need for journalists to develop a new vocabulary around dishonesty. “In the context of conspiracists like Trump, reporters should thus not simply call out statements that are manifestly lies—they must also lay out just how dangerous this type of indifference to the truth can be,” Schudson and Tran write. “Trump’s relationship to the truth has been wildly inconsistent—one day he may, indeed, simply lie; on other days, Trump may even rely on established facts; sometimes he may, in turn, make up his own facts. To call him a liar whenever he lies is not enough.”
  • A controversial hire: Fox News announced that Kerri Kupec, who served as a Justice Department spokesperson under William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, will be joining the network—not as a pundit, but as Washington editor. According to a press release, Kupec will “participate in story selection” under the oversight of Doug Rohrbeck, whom Fox is promoting to senior vice president of DC news. Jeremy Barr, a media reporter at the Post, writes that Kupec “does not appear to have any journalism experience.”

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The AP and the latest style

Update: This post has been updated to reflect changes that the Washington Post made to its story on Rudy Giuliani, One America News, and the FBI.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.