The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rudy Giuliani’s post-election meltdown starts to become literal

Trump campaign lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani claimed at a news conference on Nov. 19 that President Trump lost the election because of a baseless conspiracy. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s very simple, according to Rudolph W. Giuliani and the rest of President Trump’s legal posse, but also very vast. China is in on it. Cuba is in on it. Antifa and George Soros are in on it. At least two presidents of Venezuela, one dead and one living, are in on it. Big Tech is in on it; a Web server from Germany is involved. (There’s always a server involved.) Multiple major U.S. cities are in on it, as are decent American citizens who volunteer at polling precincts. Argentina is in on it, too, sort of. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was in on it back in 1960, when, according to an unproved conspiracy theory, he stole the presidency for John F. Kennedy, thereby launching an ongoing pattern of corrupt cities stuffing or scrapping ballots. The “it” is a massive, premeditated scheme to steal the election from Donald Trump, according to Giuliani, and it also involved corralling poll watchers at great distances from the ballot counting.

Perhaps a cinematic example would help explain.

“Did you all watch ‘My Cousin Vinny?’ You know, the movie?” Giuliani asked Thursday. He was sweating at a lectern in the small lobby of the Republican National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill. “It’s one of my favorite law movies, ’cause he comes from Brooklyn.”

About 100 journalists and hangers-on had crammed into this potential coronavirus incubator for a news conference on the perverse legal strategy of President Donald J. Trump’s failed reelection campaign, which Giuliani is trying to hustle toward a twist ending. As the former New York mayor digressed about votes that could’ve been cast by dead people and Mickey Mouse, Trump campaign officials were at their headquarters in nearby Rosslyn, Va., winding down operations and closing out the budget.

“How many finguhs do I got up?” Giuliani said at the lectern, doing a terrible Joe Pesci, from the scene where he cross-examines an elderly eyewitness with bad eyesight. Giuliani was trying to analogize the claims of Republican poll watchers, who say they were too far away from ballot counting to adequately observe it. Fifteen minutes later, as he was describing the election results as “a massive fraud,” black liquid began to slowly streak from each of his temples, down his cheeks. It might have been perspiration liquefying his hair dye, or sluicing the black polymer off his eyeglasses. One Manhattan stylist told the New York Times that it might’ve been running mascara; perhaps Giuliani had applied it to touch up the color of his sideburns.

One Trump campaign adviser texted a Washington Post journalist as the black streaks inched toward Rudy’s jowls: “Is he deteriorating in real time?”

If Rudy is deteriorating, then so is anyone who listens to him. For 90 minutes, an unmasked Rudy and four maskless colleagues — “an elite strike force team,” according to senior legal adviser Jenna Ellis — spun a confusing web of conspiracies that indicate Trump won the election that he lost. A revolution, they said, was at hand.

“It is the 1775 of our generation,” declared fellow strike force team member Sidney Powell, who once appeared on Fox Business to claim that an immigrant “invasion” is spreading “polio-like paralysis” among American children. She continued: “Globalists, dictators, corporations, you name it — everybody’s against us except President Trump.”

Brendan Buck, previously a top aide to Paul D. Ryan (R) when Ryan was House speaker, was streaming C-SPAN at his home in Northwest D.C.

“I picture Trump glued to this and just lapping it up,” Buck said.

“I love the president, I wanted him to win this election,” Geraldo Rivera would say later, on Fox News. “What I saw with Rudy Giuliani, who I’ve known for decades, was bizarre, was unfocused.”

Chris Krebs, erstwhile director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, took to Twitter.

“That press conference was the most dangerous 1hr 45 minutes of television in American history,” typed Krebs, who vouched for the integrity of the election and was subsequently fired by Trump this week. “And possibly the craziest.”

Things certainly are craziest right now. The president is refusing to concede. And Rudy has gone full Rudy.

Some people in the Trump campaign thought Thursday’s news conference was a bad idea, though they neither stopped it nor put their names on the record objecting to it. Other Trump officials have described Giuliani’s effort as unserious. Since becoming the president’s personal lawyer, Giuliani has clashed with White House chiefs of staff. Reince Priebus tried to block him from the Oval Office, John Kelly tried never to be in the room when Trump spoke with him, and former acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told others that Giuliani was an albatross during the impeachment process. But Mark Meadows, the current chief of staff, appreciates that Giuliani is willing to fight aggressively on television. Campaign officials said that they had a broader, strategic legal plan to fight in various states but that Giuliani convinced Trump that his advisers were misleading him. Trump also was livid, two campaign officials said, that his lawyers were not appearing on TV enough.

Cue Rudy.

“I know crimes,” he said at the lectern Thursday. “I can smell ’em.”

RNC officials were not involved in setting up the event and wanted to distance themselves from it. Many stayed away from their own headquarters; the committee’s chief of staff was infected with the novel coronavirus and quarantining at home. Sean Spicer, a former RNC official and White House press secretary, was there, but only to gather material for his 6 p.m. show on the conservative website Newsmax. Trump has told his people, including RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, to take their cues from Rudy.

“It’s Rudy’s show,” one senior campaign official said, describing why other party and campaign officials were not present.

Thursday’s setting in the lobby of the RNC — with its bust of Eisenhower and framed photographs of Trump — was a bit more formal than Rudy’s last show, a news conference held behind a landscaping company in an industrial stretch of Northeast Philadelphia, near an adult-video store and a crematorium. When asked why Giuliani was permitted to use the RNC lobby — and whether the RNC agreed with the former mayor’s wild claims — party spokesman Mike Reed demurred, though the GOP Twitter account disseminated, during the news conference, video of Powell fantasizing that Trump “won by a landslide.”

“There have been hundreds of reports of election irregularities across the country, and the American people deserve to have them examined,” Reed said without specifying any (though last week, 16 assistant U.S. attorneys said that they searched for and found no evidence of substantial anomalies). “We will continue to shine light on these with the Trump campaign so Americans can have confidence in the outcome of a free and fair election, which we think would be the same hope of the Democrats and media.”

After the sad spectacle at the landscaping company, many of Trump’s legal advisers backed away; Corey Lewandowski contracted the coronavirus, and Pam Bondi went back to Florida. That left a handful of strike force teammates, including Giuliani, Powell and Ellis, who has booked her TV hits without the campaign’s permission and told others that being on TV is key to success. Ellis has completed little actual legal work for the campaign but often speaks to the president, particularly on voter-fraud issues — though her opinion of Trump was very different in 2016, according to social media posts collected by CNN.

Trump’s “supporters DON’T CARE about facts or logic,” Ellis posted on Facebook in March of that year. “They aren’t seeking truth.”

But Thursday, she described herself as standing between law and lawlessness while “defending President Trump.” She defined the news conference as merely an “opening statement” in the court of public opinion, to be followed by additional legal action in courts around the country, and possible remedy in the electoral college.

“I would encourage all of you to go home and actually read Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 68,” Ellis said at the lectern. The United States selects a president “through the electoral college not because it disenfranchises voters, but because it is a security mechanism for exactly the type of corruption that we are uncovering.”

Federalist No. 68, though, predated the emergence of political parties and did not envision state legislatures that certify electors on the basis of the results of a popular statewide vote, according to John Greabe, a professor at the Franklin Pierce School of Law at the University of New Hampshire. Nothing in No. 68 justifies a state legislature, for partisan reasons, certifying a different slate of electors from the slate chosen by the people.

Giuliani’s strategy isn’t geared toward winning legal arguments, Greabe theorizes. Rather, the goal is to lay the groundwork for political intervention.

Giuliani has indeed told the president that his goal is to disrupt next month’s meeting of the electoral college, The Washington Post reported this week.

“It’s a threat to our constitutional order that’s unfolding right now,” Greabe said by phone Thursday.

Few Republican senators objected to this threat publicly. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) released a statement on Trump’s pressuring of state and local officials “to subvert the will of the people,” saying: “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President.” Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said: “What matters most at this stage is not the latest press conference or tweet, but what the President’s lawyers are actually saying in court,” where “they have repeatedly refused to actually allege grand fraud.” On Fox Radio, Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said that Sidney Powell’s claim of a rigged election was “an offensive comment” that was trying to “confuse the voters of the United States.”

After the news conference, Giuliani emerged from the RNC headquarters carrying a briefcase and wearing a trench coat and a “MAGA” face mask. As he tottered to a waiting SUV, the former mayor was asked whether his stunts are undermining an election that, by all serious accounts, was fair and accurate.

“Just the opposite,” he said, guided by the elbow by Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who was pardoned by Trump in February for eight felony convictions, including tax fraud and lying to White House officials.

As Giuliani was ushered away, he made yet another claim with no supporting evidence: “We’re saving our democracy.”