Was Rudy Giuliani drunk on election night? Maybe so — but that's not why he's dangerous

The seeds of Rudy's humiliating implosion were present the whole time. But why does anyone still listen to him?

Published June 21, 2022 5:30AM (EDT)

Rudy Giuliani (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Rudy Giuliani (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The notion that an "apparently inebriated" Rudy Giuliani gave Donald Trump a decisive reason to ignore other advisers and declare victory on election night 2020 has been hyped ever since House select committee vice-chair Liz Cheney mentioned it last week during a hearing on the Jan. 6 insurrection. But as I showed in the New Republic last week and will now amplify here, Cheney and the committee's many witnesses, as well as some terrific journalism from the past 20 years, have demonstrated that Giuliani and Trump were working together long before 2020 — with more than a little "help" from millions of us — to turn the rule of law into a shield and sword for their distortions of the rule of law itself. They've been doing it together since at least 1989, although not as nakedly and brutally as since Trump became president.

In 2007, as Giuliani prepared to run his own (losing) presidential race in 2008, I warned in the Philadelphia Inquirer and other venues that anyone who'd pushed the limits of his mayoral prerogatives as fanatically as Rudy had done would be an imperious, overreaching president. Even in the 1980s, when he was the leading federal prosecutor in New York, some of his prosecutions had been overzealous and vengeful, and had failed. But at least he'd had to obey juries and federal judges back then. Had he been elected president in 2008, he would have appointed many of those very judges and U.S. attorneys.

RELATED: Rudy Giuliani's emails reveal scheme to push Mike Pence out on Jan. 6

But it wasn't until Giuliani took up the cudgels for his old frenemy Trump's presidential campaign in 2016 that I began to worry seriously that the rule of law might give way to the rage and myopia that the demagoguery of Giuliani, Trump and Rupert Murdoch was pumping into the hearts and minds of tens of millions of the rest of us. 

Even now, Giuliani's wild charges about a "rigged" 2020 election — one that he himself has tried to rig retroactively — still grip millions of Americans. So does his raging about "the Biden crime family," and so have his apparently drunken rants, including one at a 9/11 memorial dinner last year about Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, whom he assailed for closing the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan: "I wanted to grab his stars and shove it down his throat and say, 'It's 400 miles from China, a–hole!'" No wonder Rudy's now the butt of barbs by late-night comedians.

All this has gone on in the face of terrific investigative journalism that must be credited for holding the line against Giuliani and Trump: "A Tale of Two Giulianis" by Michael Shnayerson for Vanity Fair in 2008; "Giuliani's Love for His Country is Equal to the Money He Makes," by Tim Shorrock for The Nation in 2015; a magnificent 2019 New York Times profile by the late Jim Dwyer and colleagues; "What Happened to America's Mayor?" by Seth Hettena for Rolling Stone in 2020; and a far-ranging NPR interview of Giuliani by Steve Inskeep and Ryan Lucas. Barton Gellman's devastating pieces for the Atlantic anticipated and analyzed Trump's attempted coup as it was unfolding. Gellman has warned that, indeed, it isn't over.

As revelatory and powerful as the earliest of these pieces were, it wasn't until 2000, when Giuliani neared the end of his tenure as mayor, that the late Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett publicized two discoveries that illuminated Giuliani's earliest misdeeds and uncovered a primal wound that had remained secret even as it was driving his prosecutorial and mayoral excesses.

Giuliani spent much of his public life trying to defeat criminality and chaos — but he could never escape them.


The first discovery, a 1993 "vulnerabilities" report on Giuliani's campaign weaknesses that he'd commissioned for his second run for mayor that year, is summarized in Barrett's book "Rudy!" But not until 2000 was that report, which no one outside Giuliani's inner circle had seen, published in the journal City Limits. It shows that, as an associate attorney general in 1982, Giuliani handled Haitian refugees as cruelly as Trump's anti-immigration scourge Stephen Miller did more recently with other refugees. The report also describes Giuliani's inflammatory rhetoric at an openly racist rally by police officers against then-Mayor David Dinkins outside City Hall in 1993. And it details Giuliani's maniacal overreaching in prosecutions that failed, in one case because jurors were appalled by his "gutter tactics."

On 9/11, Giuliani sublimated all this darkness into his calm, firm defiance of terror from the skies. But his earlier (and later) methods are explained by Barrett's and his research assistant Adam Fifield's discovery of a family secret that you can read about in my recent New Republic article. It suggests that Rudy has spent his public life chasing criminality and chaos because he's still trying to escape their influence on his own past, even as he's intimately entangled in them and therefore, in some ways, "at home" in them.

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Giuliani's post-9/11 ventures in "security" consulting and business improvement — described by the journalists whose articles I've credited above — have been awash in corrupt associates and sleazy clients, from pushers of opioids in America to business elites in El Salvador whose predecessors encouraged mass executions of insurgents.

Given the toxic results of Giuliani's alliance, it's time to stop Giuliani as decisively as it is time to stop the Proud Boys or other overt anti-government rebels. But it's also time to ask what happened to the American people that made it possible for so many to believe everything Giuliani and Trump tell them.

In 2020, Giuliani told NPR, "A lot of the information I originally got about Ukraine" came from John McCain, who remained a close friend "even after I ran against him," referring to the 2008 Republican primaries. But Giuliani still hasn't learned what McCain told Senate colleagues while voting courageously (and, in that instance, decisively) against the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act: "Considering the injustice and cruelties inflicted by autocratic governments, and how corruptible human nature can be, the problem solving our system does make possible … and the liberty and justice it preserves, is a magnificent achievement. It doesn't depend on our nobility. It accounts for our imperfections and gives an order to our individual strivings. It is our responsibility to preserve that, even when it requires us to do something less satisfying than 'winning.'"

Such is the temper of our times and our condition that Giuliani's love-hate pathologies have melded with those of Trump and millions of stressed, stupefied Americans to foment the kind of crusade whose vengeance sometimes achieves a fleeting brilliance before imploding on its own obsessions and lies, as Joseph McCarthy's, Sarah Palin's or Glenn Beck's crusades did before them. Such crusades won't be so fleeting if they become a stampede of stressed, dispossessed and enraged people willing to trample on what remains of liberal democracy

I have previously argued in Salon that corporate commercial speech has been doing more damage to our private and public lives than we've acknowledged. I've also argued, as Chris Hedges did better than anyone in his takedown of the late Michael Jackson's public persona, that commercial speech endangers us not because it's malevolent or conspiratorial but because it's civically mindless. 

How can we mobilize democratic antibodies against this? That requires answers I will be struggling to present. But first we need to acknowledge that Giuliani and Trump and people like them are important symptoms and carriers of this disorder, but not its cause. 

Read more on "America's mayor" and his strange alliance with Trump:

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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Commentary Donald Trump Jan. 6 Committee Rudy Giuliani