“Human hand grenade” of the year: Rudy Giuliani
In 1998, The New York Times described Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York City at the time, as a “human hand grenade” because of his aggressive grip over the city government. Former national security adviser John Bolton used the same description during President Donald Trump’s impeachment. Today, I would like to add my name to this list, one that may extend beyond those enumerated here.
The year 2020 was a disaster for Giuliani. He repeatedly used the media, to varying degrees of success, to expose his own close contacts with foreign agents of disinformation and to create and spread baseless conspiracy theories. He also pushed coronavirus misinformation so outrageous that Twitter actually took it down, single-handedly shut down Arizona’s and Michigan’s legislatures, and tried and failed to start a coup. This is the part where I should mention his dripping hair dye, but I also want to remind you that he farted into a microphone at a meeting of Michigan Republicans seeking to overturn the election.
Here’s just a few milestones in a year in the life of a human hand grenade.
Giuliani was not chosen to be a part of Trump’s legal defense team during the impeachment trial. Instead, he started a podcast. On Fox News, Giuliani promised he would deliver an “introduction” to his evidence of corruption by the Biden family in Ukraine. When it came time to deliver, he told his audience on the first episode that it’s an “unfolding story [and] we will follow it in more detail” in the future.
On the second episode, he eventually got around to keeping his promise -- but his “evidence” was the same debunked conspiracy theories he had peddled in 2019. As Media Matters extensively documented, Giuliani was the driving force behind former Fox News contributor John Solomon’s laundered Ukranian disinformation that infected right-wing media and prompted Trump’s actions that led to his impeachment. Giuliani has been under investigation for these associations.
Also in January, the House intelligence committee released a trove of documents related to the impeachment inquiry. Among them was a letter from Giuliani to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky requesting that he take a meeting with Trump and saying he was doing so with the president’s “knowledge and consent,” essentially blowing up Trump’s defense that he was unaware of Giuliani’s actions in the region.
In February, The Daily Beast published a report on a Fox News internal briefing book from the network’s research department — or “Brain Room” — that identified Giuliani, Solomon, and others as conduits for a Ukranian disinformation campaign. The briefing book acknowledged the two figures' roles and media appearances as an “unrelenting disinformation campaign originating from Ukraine” to smear former Vice President Joe Biden and discredit any future political campaigns.
The document described Giuliani as having a “high susceptibility to disinformation” spread by corrupt Ukranian government insiders like Yuriy Lutsenko and Dmytro Firtash. It also noted the “strong reported financial links” between Firtash and two indicted Giuliani associates who were central figures in Trump’s impeachment. Fox News’ brain room described Giuliani’s big-picture role in laundering Ukranian disinformation onto Fox News, concluding that the document “makes clear the extensive role played by Rudy Giuliani and his associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, in spreading disinformation.” But Fox continued to host Giuliani to push disinformation on Biden’s purported connections to Ukraine.
In March, Giuliani was asking reporters to help him hire a chef because he was worried he'd starve to death if required to cook for himself for an extended period of time during the pandemic. In a March 16 interview with BuzzFeed, Giuliani said COVID-19 is unlikely to impact Trump’s reelection chances because he believed the pandemic would “be over with by June or July, by nature of science,” and “by mid-July, given the human memory, you're not gonna remember it. The only people [who] remembered West Nile in the off-season was me and my Department of Health.” Giuliani’s Twitter account suggests he was largely unconcerned about the virus beyond the possibility he’d have to boil his own pasta.
As the virus spread, so too did concern over coronavirus misinformation on social media. Giuliani became part of the problem early on. In late March, Twitter removed a tweet by Giuliani quoting Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, which falsely claimed that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which at the time was emerging in right-wing media as Trump’s silver bullet for the pandemic despite a lack of evidence, “has been shown to have a 100% effective rate treating COVID-19.” It also incorrectly stated that Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer “is threatening doctors who prescribe it.”
The Washington Post reported in April that Giuliani was talking up the “benefits” of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 to the president in concert with the efforts of his right-wing media colleagues, who were doing the same.
Also this month, Giuliani mocked New York City’s plan to do contact tracing to slow the spread of COVID-19 by telling Fox News host Laura Ingraham, “That’s totally ridiculous.Then we should trace everybody for cancer … and heart disease and obesity.” (The diseases mentioned by Giuliani do not spread person to person because they are not viruses.)
After charges against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn were dropped — a decision by Attorney General Bill Barr that experts decried — Giuliani went on a media tour to defend Flynn, who had lied to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian diplomat.
On the May 7 edition of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, Giuliani suggested Flynn was prosecuted at the direction of former President Barack Obama, whose administration had wanted Flynn “out of the way” because he knows “where the bodies were buried.”
On his radio show on New York City’s WABC, Giuliani said, “Flynn didn’t do anything wrong until the FBI lured him into a crime,” which is a lie. In a May 19 appearance on former Fox host Eric Bolling’s Sinclair show America This Week, Giuliani argued that the prosecution of Flynn itself may be a crime and should be investigated as such. And on Fox’s weekend show Watters’ World, Giuliani started off by defending Flynn, then pivoted to claiming Biden’s nonexistent crimes in Ukraine are worse.
In June, Barr fired Geoffrey Berman, the top federal prosecutor for the southern district of New York, who was investigating Giuliani for his association with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. Berman's office had indicted Parnas and Fruman for alleged campaign finance crimes in October 2019. Berman’s interest in Giuliani’s connections to this case was reported at that same time. Although Barr specifically said in a letter to Berman that the firing came from the president, Trump denied he was involved.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, Giuliani suggested Berman was fired because he was conducting “bullshit” investigations. Giuliani also said he is “offended” when people say he’s under investigation, because “if they’re investigating me, they’re doing it in the most surreptitious way possible. It’s the strangest investigation I’ve ever heard of.” Giuliani promised to provide documents that he said “show I never acted as a foreign agent.”
As Trump helped Giuliani evade responsibility for his collusion with corrupt foreign agents of disinformation like Parnas and Fruman, a wave of civil unrest erupted across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was killed after a police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Giuliani, whom The Washington Post once described as a “stalwart defender of abusive cops,” activated to push conspiracy theories and anti-Black racism and to defend the president’s divisive and incendiary words and actions.
- On June 2, Giuliani praised the president after he tear-gassed protesters in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., for a photo-op, saying it was “the kind of action, symbolic but dangerous, that great leaders take.” He also agreed with host Maria Bartiromo’s conspiracy theory that Black Lives Matter protesters are paid.
- On June 4, Giuliani got into a yelling match with Piers Morgan on itv’s Good Morning Britain over Trump’s tweet in which he declared “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” -- a violent statement that can be traced back to a racist Miami police chief in the late 1960s. Giuliani defended his friend, saying, “He may have picked a quote that comes 30 years ago from some nutty, horrible racist, but that is not what he did on purpose. That’s what you attributed to him because you’re prejudiced against him.”
- In another appearance hosted by Maria Bartiromo, Giuliani said, “Police brutality when it happens is shocking and terrible but it’s not at all -- it’s not even close to systemic. It’s very rare actually and that’s just the truth. It’s not racist.”
- On The Ingraham Angle, Giuliani said, “Black Lives Matter wants to come and take your house away from you.”
- Giuliani told his podcast audience that the current wave of protests “clearly was orchestrated” by some shadowy cabal and that antifa and Black Lives Matter have a “treasury” filled with money made from selling stolen watches, describing a crime that never happened.
- Giuliani implored Twitter users to “WAKE UP” because “Black Lives Matter wants to destroy law enforcement, end bail, empty the prisons (including drug dealers as well as users), provide themselves with reparations, AND a full-time government income without the necessity of work.” In response, Black Twitter came together to collectively clown on his racist stereotypes and hysteria.
Giuliani hit the ground running in July: On the first day of the month, he held an impromptu press conference on the White House driveway where he addressed a wide variety of topics. He said Trump calling the recent New York Times story about Russian bounties on American soldiers a “hoax” was “exactly the right messaging” because the story was sourced by a “deep state criminal” who “committed a very serious crime” and should “go to jail for 20 or 30 years.” He also inexplicably made the story about Joe Biden, saying Biden would have acted on the intelligence (unlike Trump) because he “isn’t all there. He’s not working with a full deck” and told reporters if they don’t agree, “there’s something wrong with you.” He also attacked Black Lives Matter as a “Marxist organization” that has “been planning to destroy the police for three years.”
Later in July, Giuliani continued his tirade against Black Lives Matter while falsely claiming that protests are “funded by [George] Soros to the tune of $30 to $40 million” and the organization wants to take away “your property” and give it to Black people.
As the president’s personal attorney, Giuliani also completely botched Trump’s claim that he cannot release his tax returns because they are under audit by the IRS. On Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures, Giuliani contradicted the Trump administration's flimsy excuse for not releasing his tax returns, claiming, “All these tax returns have by and large — maybe not the last one — but all of them have been audited, all of them have either been passed on or settled.”
In August, Giuliani continued his campaign against Black Lives Matter with appearances on Fox News. On Fox & Friends he said the movement’s supporters are “terrorist” “killers” who “hate white people, ... white men in particular.” And on The Story with Martha MacCallum, he claimed billionaire philanthropist George Soros is “intent on destroying our government” because of his “sick background.”
Giuliani also spoke at the Republican National Convention, calling Biden a “Trojan horse” and saying that his party's “entire left wing [is] just waiting to execute their pro-criminal, anti-police socialist policies.”
Giuliani was sued in August by his former “art advisor,” who said she had not been paid for services rendered appraising his art collection during his divorce proceedings. A few days later his daughter Caroline publicly endorsed Biden and Kamala Harris for president and vice president.
In September, the Treasury Department identified a Giuliani collaborator as “an active Russian agent for over a decade.” Andrii Derkach, a member of the Ukranian parliament who had appeared alongside the former mayor in a One America News documentary, was sanctioned as part of the Treasury Department’s action. The department also said he was responsible for spreading “false and unsubstantiated narratives'' about Biden as a part of an effort to interfere in the upcoming presidential election. According to ABC News, the Treasury Department sanctions mean “Americans are prohibited from engaging in transactions with Derkach, and any property he has that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction is blocked.”
In December 2019, Giuliani had traveled to Ukraine and Budapest with OAN’s Chanel Rion to dig up dirt on the Bidens and film a documentary about the process, which was widely criticized in the media as propaganda. According to the ABC News report, “The OAN documentary said that Derkach provided Giuliani and OAN with access to hundreds of pages of documents related to the former vice president, his son, Hunter Biden, and allegations about Burisma, the energy company that Hunter Biden served as a board member.” Giuliani told ABC that Derkcach gave him information about “unaccounted-for foreign aid.”
Giuliani tried to distance himself from the fallout. He told The New York Times he had “no reason to believe he is a Russian agent. There is nothing I saw that said he was a Russian agent. There is nothing he gave me that seemed to come from Russia at all.” Then Giuliani said even if Derkach was a Russian agent, “how the hell would I know?” In a text message to NPR, he said, “I never tried to influence the election, and my work with him was over months ago well before the election. ... He had no unique information that wasn't already known except the $5.3 billion and that is being investigated in UKRAINE."
For Giuliani, October was both a marathon and a sprint. After his attempt to distance himself from Derkach, he took a run at an October surprise. The New York Post -- in concert with Giuliani and former White House chief strategist and Media Matters fan Steve Bannon -- published an incoherent bombshell about a dubiously sourced hard drive purported to belong to Hunter Biden.
The New York Times described Giuliani and friends’ efforts as “a mix of unsubstantiated assertions about the former vice president, innuendo and salacious material about his son” to smear Joe Biden. The trick didn’t work -- right-wing outlets took it in “bits and pieces,” mainstream outlets didn’t cover the smear, and ultimately the entire thing just raised further questions about Giuliani’s credibility. The important exception was Fox News, which ran with it even though Giuliani had reportedly first approached Fox with the story and the purported “news division” had passed on it.
Giuliani also ventured into the arts in October. Not a lot of movies came out this year -- but he starred in one of the few that did. Amazon’s comedic feature Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, the sequel to 2006’s Borat, includes a scene in which Giuliani gives an interview in a hotel room to the protagonist's daughter, played by Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, who poses as a journalist from a (fake) conservative news outlet. After the “interview,” the pair go into a bedroom, where Giuliani lays back onto a bed and reaches into his pants as Bakalova hovers nearby. Immediately afterward, Borat, played by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, bursts in, screaming, “She’s 15. She’s too old for you.” After this, Giuliani flees.
During an appearance on Good Morning America to promote the movie, Cohen stated that he was “quite concerned” while filming the scene, and Bakalova said she was confident in the situation because she was “sure” Cohen would “save” her “from everything” happening in the hotel room.
The American right’s effort to disenfranchise its opponents through spurious claims of voter fraud is nothing new. But after Trump was clearly defeated in the presidential election, things got a little wacky. Giuliani, in concert with Fox News and other anti-democracy interlopers, pivoted his unrelenting media tour away from Hunter Biden and toward more direct forms of sabotaging the electoral process through pushing a string of clownishly doomed legal challenges.
Giuliani backed a diverse cornucopia of conspiracy theories after Election Day. There was one about the late Hugo Chavez stealing the election for Biden, another about Republican poll watchers being discriminated against, the one about George Soros, yet another one about a county where voter turnout purportedly exceeded the number of registered voters, and many, many, others. These conspiracy theories were rolled out in a seemingly endless string of press conferences and publicly held meetings with Republican legislators, which Giuliani billed as “hearings” on voter fraud.
On November 7, Giuliani held a press conference, the location of which -- Four Seasons Total Landscaping -- was a surprise to the president. It was there that Giuliani went on the record regarding Biden’s victory:
On November 18, Giuliani represented the president in federal court in Pennsylvania, his first appearance before the bench since the early 1990s. During this appearance, he confused basic elements of the judicial process and misremembered the content of his own complaint for an older version that had since been amended:
On November 19, Giuliani appeared at a press conference with Trump lawyers Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell. Powell’s claims about the Dominion Voting Systems were so outrageous that the appearance triggered a right-wing media civil war over her conspiracy theories. The Washington Post made a video fact-checking Giuliani’s claims:
On November 22, Giuliani announced Sidney Powell was not a part of the Trump legal team in what appeared to be a fallout from the press conference, despite Trump tweeting days earlier that she was.
In November, Giuliani held multiple public events with Republican state legislators in battleground states pushing evidence-free claims of voter fraud impacting the outcome of the election, including one in a hotel ballroom in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Trump was previously scheduled to attend the hearing, but he canceled after it was revealed that Trump lawyer Boris Epshteyn and Giuliani’s son Andrew had tested positive for the coronavirus. Just days later, Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who organized the hearing, revealed he had tested positive for the coronavirus. (The Associated Press reported that Mastriano found out the result while he was at the White House for a meeting with Trump.) On November 30, Giuliani held another sham hearing in Arizona, on the same day and just down the street from where the governor certified Biden’s win in the state.
At a December 2 hearing on baseless voter fraud allegations in Michigan, Giuliani audibly farted into a microphone.
A few days later, Trump tweeted that Giuliani had contracted COVID-19. After a stay at the hospital, Giuliani has since been released after Trump personally intervened to get him the highest quality medical care for the virus, which is unavailable to people who are not friends with the president.
After Giuliani’s positive diagnosis was reported, his mostly maskless tour of hotel ballrooms with state Republican legislators forced the Arizona state legislature to close for a week. In Michigan, the legislature canceled three days of the current lame duck session, and the state House of Representatives is being investigated “by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration over violations to COVID-19 workplace regulations following an employee complaint.”
There is significant speculation in the media about what happens next in the inimitable story of Rudy Giuliani and his 2020 self-immolation. As Trump’s final days in office tick away, The New York Times is reporting that the president “has discussed with advisers whether to grant preemptive pardons to his children, to his son-in-law and to his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani,” with two sources saying the pair discussed the possibility toward the end of November. (Giuliani has denied this.) The Times described Giuliani’s “potential criminal exposure” as “unclear,” but connected a potential need for a pardon to the southern district of New York's investigation reported in June.