Rudy Giuliani sued President Joe Biden in New Hampshire on Wednesday, alleging that Biden had defamed him by calling Giuliani a “Russian pawn” during a 2020 presidential debate in Nashville. Suing the president under any circumstances is hard. And Giuliani faces another problem: There’s a lot of evidence that appears to support Biden’s claim.
The suit, almost certain to be stayed as long as Biden is in the White House, might be aimed more at protecting Giuliani’s plummeting reputation than at actually recovering damages.
The former New York mayor filed his complaint—probably by coincidence—on the same day that the New York Times reported on sordid details of the former mayor’s alleged alcoholism. Giuliani was indicted in August in Georgia for his role in trying to subvert election results there. He was recently sued by Hunter Biden for violating his privacy, by his own former lawyer for $1.4 million in unpaid fees, and by a former assistant who says he raped her. And Giuliani’s defamation allegation comes as he braces to pay damages to two Georgia election workers he was already found to have defamed.
(Giuliani denies being an alcoholic, has pleaded not guilty in Georgia, disputes Hunter Biden’s claims, says his former lawyer over-billed him, and claims his relationship with the former assistant was consensual. He has admitted that his statements about the Georgia election workers were defamatory.)
But the details of Rudy’s new suit warrant some attention. Giuliani says that Biden defamed him by making two statements during the October 22, 2020, presidential debate. (The suit was filed in New Hampshire because it has a three-year statute of limitations for defamation and a rule that allows successful plaintiffs in the state to also collect money for damages that occurred elsewhere.)
In the first relevant statement from the debate, Biden spoke broadly about allegations dredged up by Giuliani in Ukraine, which Donald Trump had worked to exploit. Trump’s “own national security advisor told him that what is happening with his buddy…Rudy Giuliani,” Biden said. “He’s being used as a Russian pawn. He’s being fed information that is Russian, that is not true.”
“The Plaintiff was never used as a Russian pawn,” Giuliani’s suit asserts. “He has never been ‘fed’ untrue information that was Russian, that he knew as false, and that he used while asserting or implying its truth.”
The suit also cites a statement Biden made about allegations stemming from material on his son Hunter’s laptop. “There are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what this, he’s accusing me of is a Russian plant,” Biden said, adding: “Nobody believes it except him and his good friend Rudy Giuliani.”
Rudy’s on stronger ground when it comes to Biden’s second statement. That’s because Biden was wrong. He was referring to an October 19, 2020, letter from various former national security officials that said that the emergence of “emails purportedly belonging to Vice President Biden’s son Hunter, much of it related to his time serving on the Board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.”
Notably, the letter did not claim, as Biden said, that the laptop material was a Russian plant. It just said it looked like it could be. In addition, the letter has since been substantially undercut, in part by evidence that Anthony Blinken—who at the time was a Biden adviser and is now the secretary of State—had a hand in organizing it. And multiple media outlets have validated emails on the device as real.
But was Biden’s mischaracterization actually defamatory? That seems tough to argue. It’s hard to say whether Biden was deliberately lying or just happened to get the facts wrong. And political speech regarding a public figure like Giuliani, at a presidential debate, is about as protected as it gets.
The first statement cited in the lawsuit poses an even bigger challenge for Rudy. Biden’s allegation that Giuliani was being “fed information” by Russia came just a week after the Washington Post reported that US intelligence agencies had warned Trump in 2019 that “Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence.” That’s apparently what Biden meant when he cited Trump’s “own national security advisor.”
And in September 2020, Trump’s own Treasury Department sanctioned Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian Ukrainian legislator who Giuliani met with in Ukraine while seeking dirt on Hunter Biden. Derkach “has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services,” the department said. (Giuliani at the time downplayed the importance of information he’d received from Derkach.)
Treasury later sanctioned several other Ukrainians who also provided information on the Bidens to Giuliani. The department, which didn’t mention Rudy, said that these Ukrainian individuals had advanced “disinformation narratives that U.S. government officials have engaged in corrupt dealings in Ukraine” as part of “Derkach’s efforts, acting as an agent of the Russian intelligence services, to influence the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.”
More recently, Mother Jones has reported on additional allegations regarding possible Russian influence over Giuliani. Johnathan Buma, an FBI agent, told Congress this year that Giuliani “may have been compromised” by Russian intelligence during the 2020 campaign. Buma cited $300,000 in payments to Giuliani by a Ukrainian oligarch, Pavel Fuks, who Buma said the FBI suspected was a “co-opted asset” of Russian intelligence services. (Fuks has denied working for Russia.)
All of this gets at a distinction that Giuliani and various Trump defenders miss or ignore. They are correct that the material on Hunter Biden’s laptop was not a Russian plant. Hunter did use his name and perceived access to his father to get millions of dollars in sketchy payments from a Ukrainian energy company and other foreign clients.
But there is also evidence suggesting that Russian agents looking to help Trump pushed still-unsubstantiated allegations that Joe Biden interceded in Ukraine in an effort to help his son’s business interests. Giuliani, who has admitted he “didn’t do much investigation” of Derkach before meeting with him, seems to have knowingly left himself open to those Russian influence efforts. He appeared indifferent to whether the allegations about the Bidens he passed on were true—or where they came from.
You can argue about how to characterize Giuliani’s efforts. One of his lawyers, William O’Brien, a former New Hampshire House speaker, said in an interview Wednesday that Giuliani had vetted information he got from Derkach and others. Giuliani did not, as Biden claimed, advance claims he knew were false, O’Brien said. Biden and Democrats’ claims about Giuliani “wrecked his law practice, his consulting practice,” O’Brien said.
But given the documented suspicions of various US officials, “pawn” seems like a defensible word choice. And it is not Biden’s statements, but Giuliani’s own decisions, that appear responsible for his downfall.