How Democrats guaranteed Rudy Giuliani's 'October surprise' would backfire spectacularly
The case of Rudy Giuliani will go down as one of the more perplexing mysteries of our time. Even though the man was a terrible mayor of New York City, he was likely going to be remembered fondly as the guy who actually stepped up and did his job on 9/11. But instead of spending his retirement years sipping martinis and resting on that particular laurel, Giuliani has apparently decided that being a basement-level launderer of Russian disinformation is the best use of his dotage. And all on behalf of Donald Trump, whose guaranteed role in American history will be, at best, as our nation's greatest embarrassment.
I'm reminded of the words of wisdom dropped at the the end of every beer commercial: Drink responsibly.
But Giuliani is failing. Hard. His latest apparent effort to smear former Vice President Joe Biden with false accusations of Ukrainian corruption has imploded, as the narrative has morphed into questions about what kinds of shenanigans Giuliani might be involved with and the legalities thereof rather than anything Biden has done. On the contrary, the story ends up painting Biden in a glowing light, making the current Democratic presidential nominee look incorruptible.
For that, thank the House Democrats for impeaching Trump back in December. If it weren't for the impeachment trial, there's a very good chance that Giuliani's efforts to get the mainstream media to elevate baseless smears against Biden would have worked.
To quickly recap the latest in Giuliani's impotent machinations: Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist currently indicted on federal money laundering and obstruction charges, tips off the New York Post that the former NYC mayor has had in his possession what they claim are emails from Biden's son, Hunter Biden. Giuliani's story of how he got these emails is, to put it charitably, implausible. He says they were obtained from a computer supposedly left at a Delaware repair shop which the owner then turned over to him, for some reason. Perhaps a likelier explanation, as New York magazine's Jonathan Chait suggests, is that the emails may have been sourced from Russian agents that Giuliani knows.
The emails, which have not been independently verified, purport to show the younger Biden trying to set up a meeting between his father, who was vice president at the time, and executives at a corrupt Ukrainian energy firm, Burisma, where he served on the board of directors. Joe Biden's schedule shows he did not attend such a meeting, and the campaign says the Post didn't ask for comment on that allegation. But this is supposed to be evidence that Joe Biden is corrupt.
There's every reason to be suspicious of this weak attempt at an October surprise. It's important to remember that Trump got impeached because he tried to conjure up false evidence for these same bogus accusations by blackmailing the Ukrainian president into announcing a fraudulent "investigation" into Biden.
Moreover, it's a matter of record that Joe Biden's only involvement with Burisma was working with international authorities to fire a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor who had failed to investigate Burisma. So even if there was an effort made by Burisma to corrupt Joe Biden, it failed. The emails, even if they're real, just prove he refused to get involved.
And so the efforts to pump this up into a big deal are failing. But without impeachment, there's a very good chance that Giuliani's gambit would have worked as intended, which is to flood baseless insinuations across the mainstream news media, including the New York Times.
These tactics worked in 2016, when Julian Assange and the Russian intelligence community — working with other Trump associates, many of whom were later convicted of crimes — were able to steer endless media attention toward Hillary Clinton's emails. Clinton's emails had nothing of note in them — we did learn she likes "The Good Wife" — but the constant repetition of the words "Clinton" and "emails" by the gullible news media lulled voters into seeing a scandal where none existed.
Giuliani appears to have been laying similar groundwork to smear Biden, starting in May 2019, when he spoke to the New York Times for a widely-criticized article about Biden and Ukraine.
We can see how Giuliani and Trump might have seen this playing out. As I wrote yesterday for Salon, these fake scandals Republicans concoct to smear Democrats work by being too complicated for anyone to follow. Instead, there's a drip-drip-drip of confusing stories filled with buzzwords and noise, all working together to build the illusion of scandal where none exists. The goal is to keep the words "Biden," "Burisma" and "Ukraine" in the headlines so people start to assume there must be something shady going on, even if there's nothing there.
But Trump got outed for his involvement in this conspiracy by a whistleblower who was, rightfully, concerned when he heard Trump blackmailing the Ukranian president into getting involved in the plot, and the impeachment trial followed. Impeachment derailed the scheme by refocusing press attention away from the smears against Biden and towards the real story, which is Trump's corruption. It was a clarifying moment, one that showed the extent of Trump's malicious intentions and exposed the workings of the machinery that exists to inject specious right wing narratives into the mainstream press.
Now every journalist knows that trying to make hay out of this latest stunt only makes you look like a stooge of Trump and Russian intelligence, and so they're staying away. The only outlet that would touch it was the New York Post. Even social media corporations, which have a terrible track record of letting Russian disinformation ops run rampant on their platforms, have gone to great lengths to push back against its spread.
There's a moral here for Democrats: It's worth it to fight back hard, even if there's no immediate payoff.
A lot of folks wonder if impeachment was worth the time and energy because, in the end, the corrupt Republicans who controlled the Senate refused to remove Trump, despite his obvious guilt. But the long-term effects of impeachment have been largely positive for Democrats. Impeachment made it toxic for even the most shameless mainstream journalists to pretend there is any legitimacy to Trump's lies. It made it so that, in these final weeks before the election, the focus is where it belongs: On Trump's corruption and failures, not on some made-up nonsense about his opponent.
There are a lot of difficult fights ahead for Democrats, starting with the fight to keep Amy Coney Barrett off the Supreme Court, but also future ones like the fight to save the economy if Biden is elected and the fight to rebalance the courts after years of Republican court-packing. Some of those fights will be hard, if not impossible, to win. But, as impeachment shows, it's worth having the fight anyway, because it often pays off in the long run. Just look at the current headlines at the New York Times.