Trump conspirators beware: Rudy Giuliani's loss is a reminder that the courtroom is MAGA kryptonite

MAGA losses pile up: As with the Fox defamation loss, Trumpists may want to rethink the "never surrender" strategy

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 31, 2023 6:01AM (EDT)

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, lawyer for U.S. President Donald Trump (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, lawyer for U.S. President Donald Trump (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Good news, New York apartment hunters! There's at least one motivated seller who may be ready to unload a Manhattan pre-war beauty for below market value. Former New York City mob prosecutor and current recipient of 13 felony charges, Rudy Giuliani, had already put his Upper East Side home on the market for $6.5 million, because, as his lawyer explained, he's "close to broke." His legal fees have been mounting rapidly, due to his central role in Donald Trump's attempted coup after losing the 2020 election. He has already gone to Mar-a-Lago to beg Trump for money, but of course, got the blow-off from the coup leader. Trump did offer to host a $100,000-a-head legal fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago for Giuliani, but once the former reality TV host is done taking his cut for food, service, and other expenses, one can guess there won't be much left for ol' Rudy. 

So that apartment better be priced to sell, because another big bill is coming Giuliani's way.

On Wednesday, federal judge Beryl A. Howell ruled that Giuliani is liable for defamation against two Georgia election workers, Wandrea "Shaye" Moss and Ruby Freeman. In the aftermath of Trump's election loss, Giuliani falsely accused these two election workers of stealing votes for President Joe Biden. He shared a video of Freeman giving Moss, who is her daugher, a piece of candy. But in Giuliani's telling, the women were "quite obviously surreptitiously passing around USB ports, as if they're vials of heroin or cocaine." The lie turned the lives of the two women upside down. They were relentlessly harassed. Trump himself amplified the lie. They were targed by a conspiracy to force them to "confess" to stealing votes. 

This federal decision is good news for these two women, who definitely deserve a break. It's very bad news, however, for the 19 people charged for a "criminal enterprise" to steal the state's 2020 presidential election, a group that includes Giuliani and Trump himself. 

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Right now, the Georgia 19 are following Trump's lead of striking a pose of defiance, even going so far as to strut dramatically for their mug shots. Trump is selling merchandise with his mug shot photo, complete with a "Never Surrender" caption. The alleged conspiracists appear to believe they can beat the rap, despite the already overwhelming amount of evidence Willis provided of their guilt in her 98-page indictment. 

Giuliani's lies about Moss and Freeman, which were so popular among the MAGA right, were too stupid to even bother arguing about it at trial.

Wednesday's decision, however, should give the coup plotters pause. It's not just that Giuliani lost. It's that his arguments in his defense, in the words of the judge, "hold more holes than Swiss cheese." Giuliani had slow-walked the requests for documents. Unsurprising, as we keep seeing from various people attached to this conspiracy, that many of them put their criminal thoughts in writing. But it meant the judge was empowered to rule for Moss and Freeman outright, leaving the jury only necessary to determine the size of the award. It's a strong sign that other alleged members of Trump's "criminal enterprise" should be very worried about their own inability to mount a real defense. They should, if they're smart, be moving as quickly as possible to asking Willis for a plea bargain. 

From the moment Trump's coup failed, he's maintained the view that, as long as he can maintain the GOP base's buy-in on his many lies, that should protect him. Trump's self-regard has spread to his cronies, many of whom keep repeating the Big Lie and insisting they're the innocent victims of a grand conspiracy. But Trump's view of his own untouchability has always been deeply flawed. Even when it comes to the political arena, which has a lot more space for outright lying, Trump's strategy has been ineffectual. He lost in 2020 and Republican candidates often fair more poorly in elections by associating with him and especially with the Big Lie. 

But in court is where it's especially ineffectual to leverage the "lie a lot, with confidence" tactics. That was true during Trump's coup, where he lost every single one of the dozens of lawsuits he brought, falsely claiming "voter fraud" was responsible for his loss. It's been even more true since then, as Trump and his cronies discover that the legal system, for all its flaws, is a less welcoming space for their bullshit than their preferred spaces of Fox News and social media. 

The most famous example, of course, is Fox News taking a $787.5 million loss after being sued for defamation by Dominion Voting Systems. The network was forced to settle, after fighting for months, because it turns out that fooling judges and juries is much harder than bamboozling the Fox News audience. Another precursor was the Alex Jones lawsuits, in which he repeatedly lost to people he falsely accused of faking their grief from gun violence. And, of course, there was the recent defamation and rape trial against Trump, in which journalist E. Jean Carroll successfully proved in court he sexually assaulted her and lied about it afterwards. 

Those are civil trials, but when we look at how that Trumpian pugnacity fares in criminal court, we see the same pattern: Belligerence may sell well on right wing social media, but it is no substitute for facts and reasoned argument in a courtroom. Most January 6 defendants tend to plea out, but when they go to trial, it rarely works out. In no small part, it's because the insurrectionists who take it to trial bring with them this Trumpian hubris and disdain for the truth, which isn't as endearing in a legal space as it is to their Twitter followers. 

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The most recent and striking example is the trial of five Proud Boys that resulted in guilty convictions, most for seditious conspiracy. The defense of the Proud Boys was chaotic. Sometimes they pointed the finger at Trump, and sometimes they unconvincingly espoused sincere belief in the Big Lie. As the Washington Post reported Wednesday, the Proud Boys appealed the decision with "claims that the riot was instigated by government informants or left-wing agitators." The judge is a Trump appointee, but even he couldn't play along with this silliness, calling their claims "speculative and fantastical."

Trump and at least one of his co-defendants, John Eastman, have been doubling down on the Big Lie since indictments came down, suggesting that they think "we really believe this crap" is a useful defense. This growing pile of losses in both defamation and criminal cases should cause them to think twice. After all, "I really believed it" is usually an effective defense in defamation lawsuits, since it's hard to prove what's in someone's head. But not around this Big Lie stuff, where the lies are so outrageous that judges and juries aren't confused. Same with the criminal cases, where the "gosh, I was just deluded" arguments aren't provoking the merciful reaction the Trumpists hope. 

The arrogance that Trump and his acolytes bring to lying to the public is not the superpower they think it is. Trump fanboys like "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams may call him a "Master Persuader," but in reality, a majority of Americans have always disliked Trump and his overall popularity has declined over time. And that's in the world of politics, where lies have more power and "debate" is an unstructured mess that often privileges disinformation. In court, the rules of evidence and argument restrain Trump and other Big Liars more. So much so that Giuliani's lies about Moss and Freeman, which were so popular among the MAGA right, were too stupid to even bother arguing about it at trial. The only question left is how much money the two will get from the sale of that Manhattan apartment. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Ruby Freeman Rudy Giuliani Shaye Moss