The Democrats’ impeachment inquiry has raised many questions. Did President Trump withhold military aid to Ukraine because he wanted the country’s new president to investigate possible 2020 rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter? Was the whistleblower who alerted the country to the phone call between the two TV star presidents politically motivated? And what is it like to be Rudy Giuliani, the man outside the administration at the center of it all?
I can offer some insight into that last one. The day after House speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry, I sat across from Giuliani on a train from New York City to Washington. The three-hour ride was a rollicking one, with the former mayor of NYC indicating he was more than ready to rumble. Besides Ukraine, we talked about everything from Stormy Daniels to Peter Sellers — in between Giuliani calling and texting reporters whose stories he didn’t like.
Amtrak doesn’t normally check seat numbers before you board the Acela First Class car. (This wasn’t the first time I’d used a free upgrade.) Everyone else got to go on ahead while I apparently had drawn the lucky number, because the conductor had me wait. ‘I think someone is already in your seat,’ she told me. When we boarded and approached my seat, I realized what the fuss was about. ‘What are the odds?’ Giuliani’s assistant said to me with a laugh. I’d interviewed the president’s personal lawyer the day before, across the street from the United Nations General Assembly, where he spoke at a rally of thousands of Iranian Americans in support of uprisings in Iran for regime change. Giuliani remembered me too: when I joked that he had probably forgotten my name with all that had happened in the last 36 hours, he repeated ‘Kelly’ in different tones of voice, quite comedically.
He warned that he might ask me to leave when he needed to talk privately with his assistant, a 20-year-old drop-dead-gorgeous college dropout who has the poise needed to field inquiries for one of the most talked about men on the East Coast. He never did, however; I kept my front-row seat to the wonder on wheels.
It wasn’t three hours of discussion about impeachment and Ukraine. I did mention the day’s big news pretty immediately, of course, and got Giuliani’s mocking impersonation of Pelosi. (He had a similar one of Biden and mused of the Democratic field, ‘are we going to have a socialist or are we going to have a mentally challenged individual who’s possibly ethically challenged as well?’) But we spent some time talking about other things as well: Iranian dissidents. Ilhan Omar — he jokingly compared her marriage license to Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Peter Sellers — he’s a huge fan of Being There and Dr Strangelove and at one point asked me to pull up on YouTube the war room scene from the Stanley Kubrick movie that might be the only thing stranger than reality right now.
Some of the other topics did come out of us talking about impeachment. Democrats and other critics of the president contend that he violated campaign finance law by asking a foreign government to help with his re-election. Giuliani pointed out that Robert Mueller’s Russia report noted that ‘no judicial decision has treated the voluntary provision of uncompensated opposition research or similar information as a thing of value that could amount to a contribution under campaign-finance law.’
It came up again in the context of the Stormy Daniels payout. ‘It was a private matter,’ Giuliani said. ‘If that were a campaign expense, I should run for office, raise $10 million, and settle all my private lawsuits with campaign money. Great way to do it.’
But I didn’t get to talk to Giuliani for the full three-hour ride. He had a lot of texts to send and calls to make. I confess I might have inadvertently contributed to a few of these. I showed him a few articles on my phone to get his thoughts. ‘Trump won’t be prosecuted for Ukraine call about Biden. But Rudy Giuliani can’ was the headline of an article in NBC News THINK. He didn’t like that piece very much. Or the Newsweek one titled ‘Rudy Giuliani may have just confessed to a criminal conspiracy to receive classified information without authorization, says national security lawyer.’ (‘You have something online where some hysterical reporter’s saying I may be in grave trouble,’ he said on the phone to one reporter.) And he really wasn’t fond of a New York Times piece published that day headlined ‘Phone Call Showed Only a Slice of Trump’s Obsession With Ukraine.’ He texted one of the authors, Maggie Haberman, immediately, and talked to her by phone soon after.
He left a voicemail for one journalist who didn’t pick up. ‘Hi, it’s Rudy Giuliani calling to point out that if I am prohibited from doing what I was doing, it is impossible then to defend anyone,’ he began. ‘It can’t possibly be a campaign finance violation,’ he said, pointing to the Mueller report. He ended the call with ‘Thank you, bye. And if there are any more allegations of criminality, just call me because this is the expected response of people who are cornered. The only possible criminality here is all the money the Biden family got for the sale of the vice presidency. And I should be congratulated for uncovering it.’ He added — it wasn’t clear if he was still speaking to voicemail — ‘I’m going to give myself an award.’ Throughout the message, he was quiet and respectful. (I should mention that Giuliani drank only diet soda on the train, not taking advantage of the unlimited free alcohol available in Acela First Class.)
That last bit was something of a theme. ‘Does anybody congratulate me for undercovering, uncovering this substantial evidence of possible criminal activity?’ he asked one reporter. ‘Not many people uncover a possible scandal of this dimension. This is a lot of money that was being thrown around.’
He continued, ‘I did it to develop the evidence to exonerate my client. [If] there’s something wrong with that, then you can’t practice law, you can’t defend somebody.’ He then argued that the real issue is that no one is allowed to defend Donald Trump. ‘If I did this for a Democrat, they’d probably give me a Nobel Peace Prize,’ he said. ‘And I also think I played some role in helping the United States and the Ukraine get over some problems that they might have had because I think the two men have a good relationship.’
One outlet whose reporters he didn’t call? CNN. ‘I have a ban right now on CNN,’ he said. ‘They banned you?’ I asked incredulously. ‘I’m banning myself,’ he replied. His last appearance on the network was last month with Chris Cuomo, and Giuliani told me that he said so much in that much-talked-about half-hour interview (some call it a shouting match) because he thought he might never appear on the network again. ‘Now Cuomo’s begging me to come back,’ Giuliani said, adding proudly, ‘I didn’t call him Fredo.’
Last year, on his 74th birthday, Giuliani was booed by fans at Yankee Stadium. TIME’s Man of the Year for 2001, when he was America’s mayor, was treated very differently on the Acela. A few people came up to him over the course of the ride and thanked him for things he’d done while he was in Gracie Mansion. He talked for quite a few minutes with a woman of Indian background who works with abused children and lauded him for his work on child welfare — he created a new agency and made protecting children a priority in 1996.
The train pulled into Washington’s Union Station around midnight. Giuliani’s energy hadn’t once flagged. Some of us read the headlines, and some of us write them. Rudy Giuliani, with much gusto, lives them.