The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Andrew Giuliani, official sports guy of the White House, sees a score in Big Ten’s return

Andrew Giuliani is a special assistant to President Trump and the White House's sports liaison, which lately has meant spiking the football after the return of the Big Ten. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)
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About midway through the first presidential debate, President Trump reminded viewers of a recent accomplishment.

“I brought back Big Ten football,” Trump said as part of an answer about reopening businesses and schools amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. “It was me, and I’m very happy to do it.”

Earlier in the summer, one of college football’s most prestigious conferences had voted to postpone its fall season, endangering another major sport in an already chaotic year. Then, Trump kept saying, the White House got involved. The president spoke with Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren. Meanwhile, the story went, a cluster of emissaries worked tirelessly behind the scenes to broker the safe return of college football.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 college football season is still pressing on. Here's where we are. (Video: The Washington Post)

On the front lines was 34-year-old Andrew Giuliani. Officially, he’s the White House’s “sports liaison.” But his path to this political fight was unusual: He’s the son of “America’s Mayor,” a scratch golfer who played (until he didn’t) at Duke, a savvy and ambitious staffer who can navigate sports as a political measuring stick. Perhaps most important, he’s a Trump loyalist who has earned the president’s trust.

So when the presidents of the Big Ten schools reversed course last month and voted to play, targeting this weekend for a conference-wide kickoff, the White House put its sports expert on a conference call with reporters to explain. And Giuliani, still babyfaced nearly three decades after upstaging Rudolph W. Giuliani’s inauguration as New York’s mayor in 1994, was booked for interviews on right-leaning and local news shows. Again and again, he lauded the administration’s role in rescuing this important symbol of Americana.

“I was happy to play a small role in it,” a smiling Giuliani said after a Newsmax TV host called him “instrumental” to the effort. “And obviously I don’t think we’re celebrating today — I know we’re not celebrating today — if the president doesn’t call Commissioner Kevin Warren.”

Giuliani posted on Twitter that he was “in the room for these discussions” with the Big Ten. He said in a different interview that the White House was “in constant communication” with the conference and indeed leveraged football’s return with “hundreds of phone calls.”

It was quite a story, and the timing couldn’t be beat. Seven months after the coronavirus shut down the sports calendar, football would return to the Big Ten — and return a sense of normalcy to the Midwest, including four key swing states — just in time for Election Day.

There was only one problem: It wasn’t precisely true.

Listening to Giuliani’s Sept. 16 briefing call with reporters, a Big Ten official who was directly involved in discussions to resume play “was just rolling my eyes,” the official said. Though Trump and Warren had spoken for 20 minutes, there had been no follow-up with the White House. If anything, the official said, bringing politics into an already overheated negotiation threatened to scare away some members of the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, each of whom oversees an anxious — and highly polarized — community.

“The more that you grandstand,” the official said, “the more they’ll push back. They don’t want to be seen as bullied.”

Giuliani’s profile was nonetheless rising, compelling him to ponder his own political career. But it’s unclear what he actually did. In an email exchange with The Washington Post, Giuliani referred an interview request to a senior White House official. That official declined the request but provided statements of praise for Giuliani’s work ethic and a list of his accomplishments, including that he had engaged with Big Ten athletic directors, football coaches and players.

The Post contacted each of the Big Ten’s 14 schools to ask about Giuliani’s specific role in these discussions. Twelve representatives replied, and each offered a variation of the same response.

“We are not familiar with the individual you referenced,” one wrote.

“No contact with Athletics,” wrote another.

“I have confirmed we have no knowledge of this at all.”

Throughout the conference, there was a consistent theme when it came to Giuliani.

“From a Big Ten standpoint,” the official said, “we’ve never heard of him.”

‘A father figure’

When Brett Favre traveled to Bedminster, N.J., in July to play golf with the president, three others tagged along. Two were golf pros: Jim Herman and Jason Gore. The third, to Favre, was something of a mystery.

The legendary NFL quarterback recognized Giuliani’s last name and thought he was built like a former college football player. He could bomb it off the tee and proved capable of both amazing shots and unfortunate ones.

“Kind of like me playing football,” Favre said. “There’s a little bit of good, a little bit of bad. But the good is like: ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

What most struck Favre, though, was Giuliani’s willingness to needle Trump and their obvious comfort with each other. Giuliani knew Trump was joking when he suggested playing for $25 a hole, and he okayed the group to play on when Trump stepped aside for a phone call. It was clear the two had known each other a long time, Favre said, and had played a lot of golf together.

In fact, they have been golf buddies for decades. Rudy Giuliani was friendly with Trump when Andrew was a kid, but father and son were estranged for much of Andrew’s youth. Andrew and Trump both like golf and bonded on the course. During one round several years ago, according to Newsday, they were on the course when Andrew wanted to call figure skater Sarah Hughes to ask her to the movies. But he lost his nerve and instead had Trump ask Hughes out.

“I find him to be similar to an uncle,” Andrew said of Trump in a 2018 interview with The Post.

Others saw a different dynamic.

“A father figure,” Herschel Walker, the former football star who has known Trump for four decades, said in an interview.

If that’s the origin story, it helps explain why Giuliani, who had no government experience, now has a $95,000-a-year job in the White House’s Office of Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs. It also suggests a reason, in an administration defined by frequent turnover — unless you’re a member of the family — Giuliani still has it. He even had West Wing access, unusual for a mid-level staffer, until then-chief of staff John F. Kelly revoked it. Then Trump ordered that access restored and Giuliani promoted to special assistant to the president.

“One of the hardest-working, respected, and well-liked members of President Trump’s team at the White House,” deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern wrote of Giuliani in an email.

His job is ostensibly to act as a go-between when politics and sports collide, though for the first three years that didn’t give him much to do. He set up calls between the White House and professional sports executives, but, according to a senior staffer in a major league office, Giuliani doesn’t participate. He occasionally helps coordinate championship teams’ visits to the White House. But those have become increasingly rare during Trump’s presidency, and Giuliani is often one of several staffers copied on correspondence. When North Dakota State’s football team visited the White House in 2019, Athletic Director Matt Larsen never met or spoke directly with Giuliani.

If Walker wants to speak to Trump about the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, which Walker co-chairs, he calls Giuliani.

“I don’t just call the president like it used to be,” said Walker, who once bypassed the NFL to play for Trump’s ill-fated New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. “Andrew is the one who can get me in whenever I need him.”

Giuliani also tags along when Trump golfs with senators, world leaders and sports luminaries: John Daly, Peyton Manning, Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley. Unlike Favre, Giuliani is used to it when Trump wants to switch partners after a few holes — as he did when Gore went birdie-eagle to start their round at Bedminster.

“It seemed like every time somebody made a birdie,” Favre said, “he somehow fell onto the president’s team.”

Some suspect Giuliani’s ability on the course is the real reason he was hired.

“He’s obviously an amazing golfer, and you have a president who loves to golf,” said a former senior White House official who, like several people interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk honestly about a staffer’s role. “I don’t think this is shocking.”

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But then the virus hit, sports ground to a halt, and the nation was divided on when and how games should come back. With sides being taken, that meant there were votes to be won. According to the White House, Giuliani hosted calls with pro sports leagues, commissioners and medical staffs. He worked with the U.S. Tennis Association before the U.S. Open in New York to help override quarantine guidelines for international players.

“He treated it like it was a big thing to him,” said Daniel Zausner, the USTA National Tennis Center’s chief operating officer. Was it partly related to Giuliani being a native New Yorker? Or because his father actually detested the U.S. Open, refusing to attend during his eight years as mayor?

Amid a rise in virus cases this summer, alongside nationwide protests and the removal of outdated statues and problematic symbols, Giuliani went on the radio to accept credit for bringing back major league baseball — and to extol its return as a sign that the nation’s problems were dissolving.

“As we see our America’s history being questioned,” he said, “to see baseball, America’s pastime, being back out there, I think that’s going to be a big boost to the psyche of all Americans.”

Favre said his round at Bedminster was casual, fun, apolitical. It was also two weeks after SEC athletic directors met to discuss whether its schools should press forward. So, at one point, Trump gathered the fivesome, Favre said, and polled them: What did they think? Should there be college football in 2020?

A Blue Devil sees red

Fifteen years ago, the newest member of the Duke golf team didn’t introduce himself as Andrew Giuliani. He was “G.” He didn’t say much about his past. And he never talked about his dad.

Still, he made a strong first impression. “A brat,” former teammate Brian Kim said.

Now he feels guilty about that. He had no idea then how broken Giuliani’s relationship was with his father. He couldn’t have known that the elder Giuliani had blown off Andrew’s high school graduation and never attended younger sister Caroline’s plays. He would never visit Andrew at Duke, and Rudy learned Caroline was accepted to Harvard by reading about it in the newspaper.

Caroline rejected her dad’s politics, supporting Barack Obama over her father in 2008 and recently endorsing Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Andrew seemed intent on making his own name.

At Duke, he became known as quiet, sullen, occasionally explosive. In February 2008, he attacked his golf bag with a putter, destroying his driver. He replaced it during an event, breaking the rules, but lied about it to Duke’s coach, O.D. Vincent.

According to a legal document filed later on Duke’s behalf, Giuliani “consistently violated the rules and integrity of the game of golf.” He tackled a teammate during a flag football game meant to promote team-building, became confrontational with one of Duke’s coaches, peeled out of a crowded parking lot in his car. After a particularly windy day on the course, Giuliani snapped at Kim, and the two brawled in the locker room. Andrew picked up an apple and hurled it at Kim’s face, causing the apple to explode.

“He’s got a pretty good arm,” Kim said. “I’ll give him that.”

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Vincent, who declined an interview request, kicked Giuliani off the team. Giuliani sued the school, asking for reinstatement or, failing that, lifetime access to the school’s golf facilities. In the suit, Giuliani suggested Vincent conspired to “secretly expel” him and compared the program to “Lord of the Flies.” A U.S. magistrate judge didn’t just recommend the suit be dismissed, which would happen in March 2010; he ridiculed it, peppering his opinion with golf references — “Plaintiff attempts to take a mulligan with this argument; however, this shot also lands in the drink” — and at one point quoting “Caddyshack.”

Giuliani turned pro and won the Metropolitan Open championship, pocketing $27,500 and “a step onto even greater things in the future,” he said then. But again and again, he missed advancing to the PGA Tour’s qualifying school. He appeared on “Big Break,” a Golf Channel show in which the winner receives exemptions to certain tour events, leaning into the character of a spoiled, rich New York snob.

“I can be one of the best players in the world,” Giuliani told the New York Post in 2009, during an interview conducted on the condition he not be asked about his father.

Years passed, and Giuliani found himself toiling in golf’s minor leagues. He represented Trump National Westchester, where he was a member and wore hats with “TRUMP” on them. Eventually, he seemed to grow up. Acquaintances describe the Giuliani they know not as the pretentious competitor from “Big Break” or the golfer who threw tantrums at Duke or the cherubic kid who repeated his father’s words as he was sworn in 26 years ago. In fact, they say, he’s intelligent, savvy, outgoing.

“I don’t think it’s a fair characterization to say he’s the same kid he always was,” said someone who has known Giuliani for more than a decade.

But when he turned 30, he was just another golfer without a plan. In August 2016, with only a handful of career victories, Giuliani announced he was giving up the dream and applying to regain his amateur status. He had a wedding to plan and a future to figure out. Though he had a marketing degree and had applied for jobs in real estate and finance, Giuliani told a reporter he had no idea what to do with the rest of his life.

Three months later, his old golf buddy got elected president.

Giuliani’s next swing

This is a White House where the survivors are convincing avatars of the president. After three years, there may be no one more committed to his role than Andrew Giuliani. He plays Trump’s game, literally and figuratively, from willing golf partner to breathless hype man.

“An incredibly clutch putter,” Giuliani said during a July radio appearance when asked to analyze the president’s solid-if-self-inflated golf game. “He lets his clubs do the work.”

Giuliani is also a prolific user of Twitter, Trump’s favorite medium, and has posted more than 1,100 times since April. At times he seems to be directly impersonating the words and style of his boss: criticizing the media, bringing up Hillary Clinton’s emails, praising allies such as Walker and Lou Holtz but suggesting that LeBron James, in winning his fourth NBA championship, “DID IT FOR CHINA!”

It has given Giuliani job security and relevance. It also seems to have helped him patch things up with his dad. Rudy Giuliani, now Trump’s personal attorney, did not reply to messages requesting an interview. Last year he told the Washington Examiner that he’s “very close” with his kids.

“And I’m going to tell you one of the people that helped me with that: the president of the United States,” the elder Giuliani said then. “He became very close with my son. He played golf with him all the time.”

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The two won a father-son golf championship in New Jersey in July, and a few days later Rudy invited his son to appear on his radio show. They talked about the New York Yankees, whose players — along with those from the Washington Nationals — took a knee during a moment of silence before MLB’s season opener as part of a pregame ceremony against racial injustice.

“Americans don’t kneel down,” Rudy said.

“Very disappointing,” Andrew said, pointing out that Trump’s edict is to kneel only before God.

A few days after that, Favre flew to New Jersey and Trump made college football his next crusade. Andrew Giuliani was supportive, of course, and he retweeted players who indicated a desire to play on. Beyond that, there’s not a lot of evidence Giuliani did much.

But he and his boss said they did, and it gave the Trump campaign one more thing to pitch.

It also gave Giuliani a hit of publicity he will need in his apparent next career. Recently he started hinting that he had finally decided what to do with his life. Whenever Trump’s presidency ended, Giuliani was thinking of going home to New York to run for mayor.