Giuliani Defamation Trial Keeps Getting Worse for Him (and Trump)
Five big things to know about the case against the disgraced mayor.
THE DEFAMATION TRIAL AGAINST RUDY GIULIANI wrapped up its second day in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, with Judge Beryl Howell presiding. Howell is a serious judge who is buying none of Giuliani’s shenanigans. When she stepped down as chief judge of that court in May, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson quipped, “She’s like that steel beam in a construction project that holds everything else up.” The same can be said about the court system itself these days: It’s bearing much of the weight of our federal constitutional system, as our legislature is dysfunctional and the presidency is at risk of recapture by someone whose disregard for the Constitution is total.
This particular case was brought by Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss. In a prior ruling, when Giuliani sought to get the case dismissed, Judge Howell wrote that Giuliani had “made a litany of statements and accusations” against Freeman and Moss “concerning their activities as election workers,” and that the accusations “had consequences.” Jury selection was on Monday, and on Tuesday, Moss testified and answered questions on cross examination for several hours—through tears.
Here are five things to understand about this case.
1. This trial is only about the amount of money Giuliani must pay the plaintiffs for defaming them (the women are seeking between $15.5 and $43 million).
The narrow scope of the trial is the result of the judge’s issuance of what’s called a default judgment in August holding Giuliani liable on the underlying legal claims of defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, civil conspiracy, and punitive damages. Howell invoked a rare sanction authorized under Rule 37 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which is how federal judges police litigants who blow off or play games with their obligations to comply with discovery requests—that is, the process by which each side in a civil lawsuit gets information from the other side in order to support their claims and defenses.
To issue a default judgment is a huge deal under Rule 37, but as Howell explained in her August written decision, the result of the plaintiffs’ “efforts to obtain discovery from Giuliani . . . is largely a single page of communications, blobs of indecipherable data, a sliver of the financial documents required to be produced, and a declaration and two stipulations from Giuliani.”
She went on to shoot down Giuliani’s excuse for thwarting the rules of the court:
Rather than simply play by the rules designed to promote a discovery process necessary to reach a fair decision on the merits of plaintiffs’ claims, Giuliani has bemoaned plaintiffs’ efforts to secure his compliance as “punishment by process.” . . . Donning a cloak of victimization may play well on a public stage to certain audiences, but in a court of law this performance has served only to subvert the normal process of discovery in a straight-forward defamation case, with the concomitant necessity of repeated court intervention.
The judge noted that he probably did this to avoid the expense and burden of discovery given that he’s facing multiple other lawsuits, including criminal ones. The default judgment came after Howell already ordered him to pay over $200,000 in sanctions for ignoring discovery requests and as reimbursement for legal fees incurred by the plaintiffs because of his failure to comply. Giuliani’s behavior is an insult to the federal judicial system.
2. Giuliani continued pushing his lies about Freeman and Moss to reporters on Monday, despite already stipulating to liability in July.
Giuliani’s statement to ABC News reporter Terry Moran outside the courthouse on Monday that “everything I said about them is true” and that Freeman and Moss “were engaged in changing votes” drew a sharp rebuke from Howell, who called his statements “additional defamatory comments.” His own lawyer told Howell, “I don’t know how” his comments “are reconcilable.”
In July, Giuliani stipulated in writing that “for the purpose of deciding the case on the legal issues, he does not contest” that the statements in the plaintiffs’ amended complaint are “defamatory per se,” and that he “published those statements to third parties.” By conceding the key facts, Giuliani bypassed his discovery obligations; the plaintiffs no longer needed complete information to prove the facts of the underlying claims.
To nonetheless continue to lie in public is stunningly unethical—even for Giuliani. In June, an official state report in Georgia cleared Freeman and Moss of any wrongdoing.
His lawyer’s excuse for Giuliani’s conduct was that “he’s 80 years old” and the trial has “taken a toll on him,” to which Howell asked, “Can he follow instructions?” On Tuesday, Giuliani declined to talk to reporters, saying that “it seemed to get the judge annoyed.”
3. Moss’s Tuesday testimony was heart-wrenching.
This trial is exclusively about damages (lost wages, compensation for the pain and suffering Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss endured) and punitive damages (which are not designed to compensate the plaintiffs but specifically to punish).
According to the complaint, strangers camped out near Freeman’s home, harassing her; cards were mailed to her saying she should go to jail, and lodging obscenities; she had to flee her home at the FBI’s recommendation; police received over twenty harassing calls when monitoring her phone; and she had to stop her online business.
What’s really disturbing is the abject and vile racism the women have endured. Moss’s lawyer showed the jury emails and messages she received on social media in 2020, including one that read, “Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920.” On Monday, an expert witness who is a retired Chicago Police Department official and security and risk analyst, testified about reviewing an avalanche of “racist and graphic material” targeting the mother and daughter after Giuliani accused them of election fraud by name, “on a level we don’t see at all in our work.” From November 2020 to May 2023, there were over 710,000 online mentions of Freeman and Moss.
On cross examination, the defense team asked Moss what she’d done to rehabilitate her own reputation (she pays a service $140 per year to monitor her online identity), and asked how she’s sure that Giuliani’s remarks caused the racist threats, versus something else. The online strangers “were parroting his exact words,” she said.
Although Giuliani’s lawyer has very little to work with, this is tricky stuff, as these tactics could be perceived as bullying by the jury.
4. This trial is as much about Donald Trump as it is about Giuliani.
Giuliani has to somehow make the case that the suffering these women continue to endure is not his fault. But other than pointing to online racism and vitriol in general, the obvious alternative culprit is former President Donald Trump, who named Freeman one of the “monsters” who stole the 2020 election from him. In January 2021, Trump identified Freeman eighteen times in a phone call to Georgia officials asking that they “find” enough votes to swing the state’s Electoral College votes in his favor. He called her a “professional vote scammer,” “hustler,” and “known political operative” who “stuffed the ballot boxes.” These actions gave rise to the sweeping racketeering and conspiracy indictment pending against Trump and numerous others in Fulton County, Georgia.
In the federal January 6th case, Special Counsel Jack Smith’s team recently alerted Howell’s colleague, Judge Tanya Chutkan, to Trump’s ongoing abuse of Freeman and Moss in a filing relating to the admissibility of “bad acts” evidence at trial: “Long after the charged conduct, [Trump] continued to falsely attack [them], despite being on notice that his claims about them in 2020 were false and had subjected them to vile, racist, and violent threats and harassment.”
Trump and Giuliani destroyed these women’s lives because they did the sacred and vital public service of counting ballots in an American election. Their story should shame anyone who would even consider voting for Trump in 2024.
5. Giuliani will lose bigly, but that doesn’t mean he will pay up.
The case for awarding these women serious damages is exceedingly obvious. If Giuliani’s refusal to comply with discovery is any indication, however, he is unlikely to pay up. Giuliani is notoriously broke and has multiple other, much more serious, legal problems—including the Georgia racketeering case, in which he is a defendant. Chasing down debtors costs money and takes time. It’s unlikely these two women will receive justice, while the damage to their lives is ongoing.
Nonetheless, this case should send a message to high-profile people to think twice before spreading lies and racial hatred online. And it means the courts still exist as a functioning mechanism of accountability in the United States. Let’s hope they stay that way.