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Rudy Giuliani’s Past Explains His More Recent Behavior With Trump, Documentary Argues

6 minute read

More than two decades ago, he was hailed as “Mayor of the World.” Now Rudy Guiliani’s image is entwined with Donald Trump’s presidency, particularly his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

The transformation can seem jarring to those who first became aware of Giuliani as New York City’s sober leader in the wake of the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. But Giuliani’s actions as a federal prosecutor in the 1980s and in New York mayoral politics in the 1990s show traces of the same tactics he used to help Trump spread lies about fraud in the 2020 election, according to a TIME Studios documentary airing on MSNBC on Sunday.

Giuliani has “used demagoguery, half-truths and provocations all of his career,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, the long-time civil rights activist and the founder of the National Action Network, says in the documentary. “The way you do politics is find an enemy, beat up on them, play on people’s fears and prejudices. He needs an enemy.”

Giuliani was at the forefront of Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. While votes were still being counted on election night in 2020, Giuliani told President Trump to “go and say that we won,” according to testimony to the House Jan. 6 Committee by senior Trump campaign advisor Jason Miller. Trump did just that, saying “frankly, we did win this election” early in the morning of Nov. 4, before the election had been called. For the next two months, Giuliani played a public and central role in spreading false claims of election fraud. Speaking at the Stop the Steal rally on the Ellipse in front of the White House on Jan. 6, Giuliani told the crowd of Trump supporters, “Let’s have trial by combat.” In a court filing in May 2021, Giuliani said he was speaking “hyperbolically” at the Jan. 6 rally. About his repeated claims of election fraud, Giuliani told the DC Bar’s board on professional responsibility in December, “I was responsibly alleging, based on the things that were told to me by other people. I wasn’t proving – I had a long way to go to prove,” according to CNN.

In the early 1980s, when Giuliani was appointed by Ronald Reagan as associate attorney general in the headquarters of the Justice Department in Washington, that enemy was Haitian refugees seeking protection in the United States. Giuliani gave interviews at the time defending the mass detention of Haitian immigrants who had arrived in Florida and were being held in a detention center outside Miami at the edge of the Everglades. “Any one of those persons that is in detention is not in jail because any one of them can easily leave and go back to Haiti,” Rudy said in interview footage at the time.

Peter Noel, Author of Why Blacks Fear ‘America’s Mayor’, says that Rudy’s actions in the Justice Department were early echoes of his roll out of harsh New York City policing tactics in the 1990s that disproportionately targeted Black and brown citizens. “He saw Black people as offenders. His attitude toward the Haitians, what he did to them, people remember. The whole idea of corralling people, putting them together in the Krome Detention Center down in the Florida Everglades,” Noel says.

Giuliani brought to his public life a nostalgia for an earlier time. It was a rhetorical device he used as recently as last year, while he was stumping for his son Andrew’s failed bid to be New York State Governor in 2022. “Andrew Giuliani is the guy to vote for if you want to see the kind of changes that Donald Trump brought about for the country, that I brought about for the City of New York and that Ronald Reagan, who was my boss, brought about for the country,” Giuliani said during a campaign stop for Andrew. “Like it used to be. I remember because I was part of that.”

Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney who attended New York University School of Law with Giuliani in the late 1960s, says the tumult of that decade was transformative for many, but not for Giuliani. “I changed because America is going through a transformation to create inclusion, equality, freedom, justice for all,” Siegel said. “But I don’t think Rudy changed very much during those three years. And when I look back on it, that was a missed opportunity.”

During Giuliani’s first, unsuccessful run for mayor in the 1990s, he brought in the mud-slinging Republican campaign Roger Ailes who would later go on to run Fox News. Ailes designed campaign ads that ramped up fears of street crime and violence to try to turn voters against the Democratic in the race, David Dinkins. “Roger Ailes was brought in at the middle of the campaign when we were floundering, we had no messaging, we weren’t doing much TV advertising if any,” said Charlie Perkins, former Giuliani press secretary. “At first I think there was a horror among those on the campaign.” Dinkins went on to win the race and become the first Black mayor of New York City.

But Giuliani embraced that divisive approach as he became a vocal critic of Dinkins during his term, siding with white police officers who violently protested Dinkins’s efforts to bring more accountability to the New York Police Department. “The reason the morale of the police department of the city of New York is so low is one reason and one reason alone, David Dinkins,” Giuliani said at the time. Giuliani would end up defeating Dinkins in 1993 and becoming mayor.

“If you’re surprised by the decline and fall—or really crash and burn—of Rudy Giuliani,” says Kevin Baker, author of America the Ingenious: How a Nation of Dreamers, Immigrants, and Tinkerers Changed the World, ”you haven’t been paying attention.”

When Truth Isn’t Truth: The Rudy Giuliani Story is a new four-part series from TIME Studios and MSNBC Films. The series explores the former prosecutor and mayor’s rise to power, his fall from grace, and how little he changed in between. Watch Sunday, February 19th at 10 pm ET on MSNBC and streaming on Peacock TV.

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