Editor’s Note: James A. Gagliano is a CNN law enforcement analyst and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He also is an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesAGagliano. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
In his now famous, wide-ranging interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Wednesday night, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani did the unthinkable.
He went there.
Giuliani certainly seemed to relish the spotlight in his second act as political surrogate and legal counselor to President Donald Trump. And recognizing the friendly venue, he attacked the usual suspects – “criminal” Hillary Clinton and “very perverted man” James Comey. He even made an odd, easily disproven pronouncement – as in no US president had ever been subpoenaed.
In one particularly loopy sequence, he described Jared Kushner as a “fine man” but “disposable.” Regarding the President’s daughter Ivanka Trump – “a fine woman” – he warned special counsel Robert Mueller that investigating her would turn the country against him.
He also drew sharp criticism for recklessly referring to FBI agents executing warrants signed by a federal judge as “stormtroopers” – reminiscent of Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy’s infamous comparison of Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents to “brutal thugs” in 1995. Which the National Rifle Association phrase-tweaked in a fundraising mailing to “jack-booted government thugs.”
But what truly stunned viewers’ senses was the open discussion of Trump’s apparent payment of “hush money” to an adult film star through another Trump attorney, Michael Cohen.
Giuliani only recently joined the President’s legal team. And in his tête-à-tête with Hannity, he appeared to riff casually about the Stormy Daniels matter, and contradict the President in the process. He was adamant that Trump had violated no campaign finance laws and that he had repaid Cohen’s payment to Daniels as part of a nondisclosure agreement executed in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
Trump, recognizing he may be subpoenaed to testify in the Daniels action, immediately set to cleaning up the potentially conflicting stories Thursday morning in a three-part Twitter thread, where he made his first public denial of an affair with Daniels.
And on Friday, Trump said of Giuliani: “He’s learning the subject matter,” and, “He started yesterday. He’ll get his facts straight.”
Some in Giuliani’s fan club – in which this author once claimed association – have ludicrously attempted to spin his kooky Trump defense appearance as “method in the madness.”
And, yes, if we’re to make a comparison via whataboutism, Bill Clinton certainly possessed an overactive libido and yes, Richard Nixon was a crook. But the Trump presidency seemingly combines the worst proclivities inherent in the men who led what were thought to be two of the previous most scandal-plagued administrations.
While we assess leaders for their character and moral foundation, their decision-making ability – as in whom they choose for their Cabinet or to be part of their White House staff – is no less important.
And make no mistake about it – Trump has admired Giuliani for decades. They both possess outsize egos and are charter members of a Big Apple mutual admiration society. Giuliani was part of Trump’s team almost from the beginning of his candidacy. And during the campaign, he was dutifully trotted out to spread the Trump message of populism and bite the ankles of Trump’s detractors.
But somewhere along the road to becoming Trump’s “attack dog,” he lost a bit of his humanity.
Giuliani was, after all, America’s mayor. He had been fairly lionized for his heroic efforts on 9/11, leading New York in the wake of the most devastating terror attack on US soil.
His courage and stalwart leadership in those first few uncertain hours after the planes struck the towers became his legacy. And there were also wild successes on the criminal justice front as well. In a prior life, he was a flashy, media-hungry, mob-busting US attorney for the legendary Southern District of New York. And in 1994, when he unseated David Dinkins – considered by many to be one of New York’s most hapless and ineffective mayors – he immediately launched a crusade to clean up the crime-ridden city, transforming it into one of the world’s safest large metropolises.
By every conceivable metric he succeeded in that endeavor. I served most of my FBI special agent career in the New York office. When I arrived as a rookie in 1991, the city had just closed out the earlier year with a staggering 2,245 homicides.
Last year, New York City suffered a total of 290 homicides. This is a 70-year low that takes us back to the Eisenhower era.
And though partisans may be grudging in their praise, unwilling to give Giuliani, and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, the lion’s share of the credit for the city’s turnaround, they both deserve it.
Yet somewhere along the road to critical acclaim, the legendary lawman known as America’s mayor – a man who exemplified leadership in time of crisis – lost his way.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Giuliani recklessly teased of a “revolution” going on at the FBI’s New York office in regard to the Clinton private email server investigation. This certainly ingratiated him to Trump. Yet, even if this were true, what former lawman would irresponsibly make that public pronouncement?
His imbecilic public statement – rooted in fact or not – leaves all of us associated with the FBI’s New York office suspect and guilty by association. It makes me angry now just to revisit it.
He has become a caricature of the articulate, stolid, immutable visionary he once was. He’s become a paradox. We want to believe he’s still the wickedly intelligent conservative crusader he once appeared to be, but are we to believe our lying eyes?
Some will argue that this happened early in his mayoral tenure. Giuliani was responsible for alienating some of his constituents – in particular, black New Yorkers – who felt he was an antagonist. He famously refused to meet with some of their leaders.
In this way, Trump has mirrored the Giuliani template. Law enforcement certainly appreciates the outspoken support from public officials. But some minority communities currently feel assailed. And the toughness, indifference and callousness that Trump appears to exhibit toward those who disagree with his positions were hallmarks of Giuliani’s administrations in late ‘90s New York.
At the height of Giuliani’s acclaim in 2002, he wrote a book simply titled “Leadership,” which helps us understand his relationship with the current President.
In a chapter called “Loyalty: The Vital Virtue,” he instructs his leader-acolytes to “embrace those who are attacked.” He speaks glowingly of Ronald Reagan’s resistance to outside pressure to fire staffers for some miscue. Giuliani fondly recalls working within the Reagan Justice Department and recalls that “(Reagan) will take political heat for us, so we’ll take political heat for him.”
And therein lies the crux behind the Trump-Giuliani political marriage.
Giuliani appears to have become a supplicant, desperately desirous of remaining in good favor with Trump. We know that this President rewards unquestioned loyalty, even when grievous tactical mistakes appear to have been made. Kellyanne Conway, anyone?
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Giuliani is simply performing a redux of that “Happy Days” episode in 1977 when Fonzie, adorned in swim trunks and leather biker jacket, donned water skies to jump the shark.
The phrase “jump the shark” has become ubiquitous in American pop culture, referring to something once great that declines in quality and popularity.
That beloved ABC sitcom never survived the jump.
And neither will the once-stellar reputation of America’s mayor.