This week, making another stop on his “Dementia: Race for the Cure” consciousness-raising tour, former New York City mayor and failed GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani did something few people thought possible: he topped himself. (Not in the British way, sadly.) Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press to discuss why Trump is reluctant to testify before special counsel Robert Mueller, Giuliani told host Chuck Todd that “Truth isn’t truth!”
This is a level of post-modernism well beyond even Kellyanne’s “alternative facts,” or Jay Sekulow’s assertion that “over time, facts develop,” not to mention a previous champ, Nixon press secretary and doublespeak master Ron Ziegler’s infamous excusal of one of his boss’s lies about Watergate: “That statement is no longer operative.” These days that looks kind of cute.
(Actually, it was New York Times reporter R.W. Apple Jr. who used that formulation in a question to Ziegler over his repeated use of the term “operative statement.” Ron’s reply was even more tortured.)
But the bald-faced denial that there is such a thing as objective truth full stop is uncharted territory, even for Rudy and Donny.
Here’s the full exchange between Giuliani and Todd:
GIULIANI: When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well, that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth. He didn’t have a conversation—
TODD: (interrupting) Truth is truth. I don’t mean to go like—
GIULIANI: (interrupting) No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth! The President of the United States says, “I didn’t”—
TODD: (interrupting) Truth isn’t truth? Mr. Mayor, do you realize what you….. (stammering, at a loss)….
GIULIANI: (over) No, no!
TODD: (over) This is going to become a bad meme.
Pretty astute, Chuck, for a sleepy-eyed sonofabitch.
RASHOMON ON THE POTOMAC
I will confess that I have an iota of sympathy for Rudy on this point. It’s almost as if he was trying to make a sophisticated, post-modern, deconstructionist point worthy of a critical theory professor…..something to do with the validity of competing perspectives, the malleability of “reality” itself, and the constructed narratives with which we delude ourselves and internalize as capital T “Truth.”
Except he wasn’t, of course.
He was engaging in the same jawdroppingly shameless, transparently dishonest defense of our Criminal-in-Chief that he has been perpetrating since he came onboard the Trump train last April. (The addition of Giuliani to the legal team was reportedly a key factor in the angry departure of John Dowd , leaving Rudy as Trump’s “lead lawyer.”)
That Giuliani is Trump’s lawyer, let alone his “lead lawyer,” is a joke, of course, every bit as much as the idea that Michael Cohen was. As John Heilemann has opined, Rudy Giuliani serves mostly as Trump’s media surrogate and emotional support rodent, who can go on Fox News to soothe the jittery nerves of his thin-skinned and TV-obsessed master and play to his credulous neo-fascist base, while Jay Sekulow and—especially—Emmett Flood quietly do the real lawyering. (Trump seems just now to be realizing, to his horror, that the official White House counsel Don McGahn is not one of his personal attorneys, and to his credit, is not behaving like one.)
In any event, it has been astonishing to watch this former federal prosecutor—once the US Attorney for the fabled Southern District, which is much in the news these days in l‘affairs Trump, Cohen, et al—attacking that very office, attempting to smear a man like Robert Mueller, actively undermining the rule of law, and saying things on national television that would sound about right coming from a Molotov cocktail-throwing Black Bloc anarchist, but are, uh, eyebrow-raising coming from a former US Attorney, big city mayor, and Republican presidential candidate.
In the past four months Giuliani has said lots of outrageous things, most of them blatant falsehoods operating as wishful thinking, in hopes that the electorate will eventually succumb like a brainwashed POW or a hypnosis subject instructed to squawk like a chicken.
Among Rudy’s howlers: that he would wrap up the Mueller investigation within two weeks (that was last April); that James Comey is “a deeply perverted man”; that the FBI agents who raided Michael Cohen’s offices were “stormtroopers”; that paying bribes and hush money is normal political practice; that the special counsel’s investigation is “illegitimate,” a “witch hunt” and a “hoax”; that it has gone on far too long and he should wrap it up (laughable in light of how long the Watergate, Whitewater, and Benghazi inquires lasted, to name just a few); that Mueller will be in violation of DOJ rules if he doesn’t do so by September (there is no rule to that effect), and that the White House will “unload on him like a ton of bricks.” And above all, that old chestnut, that there’s “no collusion.”
Giuliani has also repeatedly used the term “perjury trap” to describe a potential Trump interview with Mueller, a bizarre and unsolicited admission that his own client is a pathological liar who physically cannot restrain himself from lying. (Indeed, he used the phrase with Chuck Todd right before he uttered his Derridian denial of objective reality.) But what, exactly, is a “perjury trap” anyway? How can a person be trapped into not telling the truth, except of his or her own insidious and self-destructive accord? The term is destined to go into the lexicon the way “smoking gun” and “unindicted co-conspirator” did as a result of Watergate.
Yet sometimes Rudy does tell the truth (if one believes in that quaint concept). Unfortunately for Trump, that often does as much damage as the lies and the missteps, since the whole problem is that the truth does not help his cause.
For example, Giuliani blithely admitted that Trump paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money, that the infamous Trump Tower meeting of June 2016 was indeed to get dirt on Hillary—an admission that Trump himself, guilelessly, later echoed on Twitter—and that Trump fired Comey over his refusal to shut down the Russiagate investigation, an admission Trump had already made to NBC’s Lester Holt, unbidden, on national television.
Maybe the most honest thing Rudy ever said was when he remarked that Jared Kushner was “disposable.”
In keeping with this apparent policy of suicidal candor, Giuliani has openly admitted (bragged even) that the overall purpose of this propaganda blitz is not to make a cogent legal argument but simply to sway public opinion. Given that qualifier, the resort to blatant falsehoods makes perfect sense…..especially for a side that has no legitimate arguments in its quiver. To that end, his twin deployment of a blizzard of lies and an avalanche of self-incriminating truths is a headspinning strategy that does indeed leave one wondering what’s real and what ain’t, which seems to be the intent.
No wonder he thinks “the truth isn’t the truth.”
RUDY CAN’T FAIL
Among New Yorkers like myself, Rudy had a very mixed reputation even before he threw his lot in with the most appalling presidency in US history: as a grandstanding US Attorney; as a mayor who—depending who you ask—either cleaned up the city (along with Bill Bratton) or turned it into a police state as run by the Disney corporation (ask Fran Lebowitz); as a serial philandering, cousin-marrying, annulment-getting Roman Catholic hypocrite (ah, that’s why he and Trump are kindred spirits) who used public funds for his mistress and informed his second wife that he was leaving her by means of a press conference.
His one shining moment, in case you hadn’t heard, was 9/11. I was living in lower Manhattan when it happened and for all his faults, I must say that Rudy undeniably served as a solid, reassuring presence in the city’s (and country’s) time of need. All praises due. I guess even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then.
But since then he has squandered all that goodwill by dining out on 9/11 to the point where it has become a national joke. In 2007, when Rudy was contemplating his run for the presidency, Joe Biden dropped the mic when he told a crowd that there were only three things Giuliani needed to form a sentence: “a noun, a verb, and 9/11.”
Weirdly for a man with such proclivities, his memory of the day is rather selective. Famously, while stumping for Trump in August 2016, he told a crowd: “Under those eight years before Obama came along, we didn’t have any successful radical Islamic terrorist attack in the United States. They all started when Clinton and Obama got into office.”
That wasn’t his first or by far his worst attack on Obama, of course. Let us not forget Rudy’s sub-schoolboy-level snickering at Obama for having been a “community organizer,” and far worse, his dogwhistling speech at a 2015 Republican fundraiser in which he declared, “I do not believe that the President (Obama) loves America…..He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”
I’ll leave it to history as to how Rudy and Barack will be respectively remembered.
But Giuliani reached his nadir when he took on his current role as a rabid weasel-for-hire on behalf of Team Trump.
Every reputable lawyer on both sides of the aisle who has been asked has expressed astonishment at the things Giuliani has been saying putatively on behalf of Trump (many of which seem to catch even the White House off guard). I say “putatively” because the value Rudy is bringing is highly debatable. “The world’s worst lawyer” is a phrase that keeps popping up.
It is often remarked upon that the uncontrollable and infantile Donald J. Trump is a nightmare client for a lawyer, so it is fitting that he should wind up with a nightmare lawyer who regularly seems to do him more harm than good. It is almost amusing to picture these two septuagenarian New Yorkers huddling together inside their right wing fantasy world, plotting their strategy, two arguably deranged, combative, egomaniacal fame whores , the mad leading the mad, as Rudy gives his client possibly the worst legal advice this side of Oscar Zeta Acosta.
Unless it turns out to the best.
This is my nightmare.
YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH
Rudy did subsequently try to walk back his Meet the Press remarks—or more charitably, clarify them—explaining that he was merely describing a “he said/she said” situation.
But even that is a farce. Facts are facts, and when facts are available—as they are in Russiagate—it is not simply a matter of one person’s word against the other’s. But Giuliani and Trump would dearly love for us to believe that it is. For ultimately Giuliani’s late life descent into a non-stop game of Knights and Knaves is only a reflection of his boss’s lifelong MO.
I have written in the past that this Orwellian obliteration of truth is perhaps the single most disturbing aspect of the unlikely rise of our Insane Clown President. (See The Nature of the Person and the Nature of the Threat, September 20, 2017.) Short of the concomitant destruction of the planet, it is also likely to be the aspect that is doing the most long term damage. Quoting myself:
Trump’s contempt for the truth not only goes above and beyond the garden variety dishonesty of ordinary politicians and their courtiers, but even beyond the deceitfulness of grand champions like Nixon, Lee Atwater, and (Lyin’) Ted Cruz. To call it mere “dishonesty” feels inadequate. It’s more like a wanton destruction of objective reality as a universally accepted metric….
This then is the ur-travesty of the Man from Queens. towering over (and encompassing) his many other horrors; it is the toxic well from which all these other tributaries spring. This president’s pathological dishonesty is so extreme it seems to exist in a realm of its own beyond ordinary deceit. In the Bush years, Karl Rove famously scorned the “reality-based community.” But that was child’s play compared to what we are facing now. (Pausing now for a deep, cleansing breath as I contemplate the fact that, not ten years after leaving public life, Karl Rove has already been made to seem not that bad.)
It’s one thing for Trump to be out of his tree. It’s quite another for that disease to spread to the body politic at large. This is the even greater danger of Trumpism: not only that he’s a lying sack of feces himself, but that he will do irreparable damage to the common standard of demonstrable reality to which we all theoretically subscribe. Trump may have already permanently poisoned American politics.
IS YOU IS OR IS YOU AIN’T?
As we consider Giuliani’s existentialist musings on the Sunday morning talk circuit, it’s important to remember that conservatives are of traditionally merciless in their snide ridicule of relativism, except when it benefits them. In this case they have been predictably quick to dismiss Giuliani’s gaffe as a mere grammatical stumble blown out of proportion by the typically hysterical press corps. (Notice how the right has taken Trump’s lead and ceased referring to the “liberal” media, or even the MSM? Now it is simply assumed that all media are left-leaning “enemies of the people.”)
But can you imagine what Fox Nation would have said if, in an effort to excuse something President Obama or Clinton had done, a Democratic apologist had tried to elide the facts the way Rudy did, particularly if the executive in question was under potentially presidency-ending investigation?
But you don’t have to imagine: you can just think back to the contempt heaped upon Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair in 1998, after he told PBS’s Jim Lehrer that “There is no improper relationship,” then stated in a videotaped deposition that the veracity of the statement “depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
The line is far less absurd when you read what Clinton went on to explain:
“If ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not—that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. … Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true.”
You may recall that Clinton submitted to being deposed before a grand jury because he was about to be subpoenaed to answer questions from a special prosecutor. He did so because the Supreme Court had already ruled unanimously that a sitting president could not use executive privilege to refuse to testify in a criminal matter. Ahem.
And it was perjuring himself before that grand jury that ultimately led to his impeachment. Just something to keep in mind for the future.
Clinton can be faulted for parsing his words in a disingenuous way—and worse in the eyes of many, for employing the sort of Ivy League/Rhodes Scholar smarty-pantsness that our anti-intellectualist culture abhors. Admittedly, it did smack of a kid trying to get away with having raided the cookie jar. But he can’t be accused of a lack of intellectual rigor. I’m not sure Rudy and Donny are being quite as semantically clever, but in the end, dishonesty is dishonesty.
That said, there is a massive chasm in scale and scope and gravity between the respective crimes that these two Presidents were covering up. We would do well to remember that in the coming months. Donald and Rudy can spin and lie and venture into epistemology all they want, but the truth will out, whether they believe in “truth” or not. Given Rudy’s newfound interest in philosophy, it’s fitting that Sartre has already chosen a title for this tragedy with his play, Huis Clos.
Or as we say in English, “No Exit.”
Photo: Mike Segar/Reuters