For those who have watched him over the years, it is now hard to find even a faint echo of the man Rudy Giuliani once was. But that man can be glimpsed in the men and women now daring to testify to congressional committees about presidential wrongdoing, both in their fierce defiance of their boss’s efforts to silence them and in their insistence on speaking truth to power.
The example that stands out came in the summer of 1988 in a federal courtroom in Manhattan where a long and complicated trial was coming to a close. In the dock sat a popular Democratic Congressman and several other men. All stood accused of using bribes and extortion to turn a Bronx defense contractor into an instrument for their own greed and profit. Those headline-grabbing charges had been brought by Giuliani, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. It was one of the many corruption cases he brought in that era, prosecutions that lanced the seamy side of New York’s political establishment and justly earned him his racket-busting reputation.
Making his charges stick, however, was sometimes an uphill battle. In the case of the Bronx contractor, the defendants’ canny lawyers were pounding away with an argument to the jury that Giuliani’s prosecutors struggled to refute. A key culprit in whatever schemes took place, the defense lawyers repeatedly insisted, wasn’t in the courtroom at all. He was in Washington, D.C. He was a Republican named Edwin Meese, and he was the Attorney General of the United States and Giuliani’s top boss. They laid out compelling evidence that Meese, who had also served as counselor to President Reagan, along with several of his friends, had been the real enablers of corruption at Wedtech, as the firm was called.
For the prosecution, the problem with this argument was that it appeared to be true. Meese had interceded with the Pentagon on Wedtech’s behalf, and he had also invested thousands of dollars with one of the company’s directors. An independent prosecutor was examining those actions. So how to persuade the jurors to separate their rightful resentment of that high-level finagling from the defendants’ own crimes? The prosecutors’ solution, with a thumbs-up from Giuliani, was to call out Meese, the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, in open court.
Meese, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ed Little told the jury, “was a sleaze.” To make sure they heard him the first time, he said it again: “Meese was a sleaze, too.”
In Washington, a spokesperson for the Justice Department responded with fury. The comments about the Attorney General were “inappropriate, unprofessional” and “flatly wrong.” Meese’s own lawyer called them “beneath contempt.”
But Giuliani proudly owned them. “All his arguments and comments were authorized and approved by me in advance,” he told a press conference after the jury convicted the Congressman and all but one defendant. “Any criticism,” he added, “should be directed against me.”
After Giuliani took office as mayor in 1994, that moment of courage soon seemed a distant memory. The changes were quickly apparent: Rudy the politician now made deals with those Rudy the prosecutor might once have investigated. The kind of crass political patronage and favor trading he had once viewed as telltale markers of corruption were now the coins of his realm. Rather than dishonest officials, his targets were as likely to be welfare recipients and the homeless, along with those who dissented from his often angry rhetoric. Even as he helped quell the city’s high crime rates, he seemed most concerned with making sure credit accrued to him alone. If the city grew increasingly divided along racial lines, he seemed not to notice or care. When an unarmed young black man who worked as a security guard was shot to death by an undercover cop, Giuliani released his juvenile record, stating he was “no altar boy.” Actually, he had been an altar boy.
Giuliani’s valiant efforts to rally a city staggered by 9/11 helped New Yorkers forget that sort of shrill bullying. Yet that two-fisted style is likely one of the things that attracted Donald Trump to hire him as his lawyer. He is the latest in a long line of attorneys who, in the best tradition of Trump mentor Roy Cohn, prefer pounding the table to making legal arguments and who are willing to push the envelope, in and out of court, to see what they can get away with. It’s a role Giuliani has taken to with alacrity.
On Oct. 9, two of Giuliani’s associates–men who were allegedly helping him in his effort to persuade Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden–were arrested at Dulles airport and charged with scheming to pump foreign money into domestic political campaigns. The charges were brought by his old office, the Southern District of New York. There, Giuliani is reportedly also under investigation.
That same week at the White House, Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to a man he called an “absolute titan of American law … an inspiration to liberty-loving citizens everywhere.” Edwin Meese, stooped and aging, smiled and thanked the President for the honor.
Robbins, who has covered Giuliani since the 1980s, teaches investigative reporting at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY
This appears in the November 11, 2019 issue of TIME.