At first glance, Rudy Giuliani and Mark Sanchez might not seem to have a lot in common. Sure, they both played on the biggest stage in New York, leading to fascinating moments of Big Apple pride. You can’t tell the recent history of NYC without either of them. Giuliani was an autocratic mayor who cleaned up the streets and then rallied the citizenry after 9/11. Sanchez was the quarterback of the Jets from 2009 to 2013, leading the team to back-to-back AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons.
However, Sanchez isn’t best known for those AFC Championship Games. He is much better known for one single Thanksgiving play vs. the New England Patriots. That play—in which an improvising Sanchez careens directly into the backside of his lineman Brandon Moore, loses the ball as he is sat on by 250 pounds of man, and watches helplessly as the ball is run back for one of three Patriot touchdowns in 52 seconds—is now hilariously known as the Butt Fumble. Gaze upon its magnificence.
Now, Giuliani—who parlayed that mayoral career into a sycophantic role as President Trump’s personal attorney—can join Sanchez in the pantheon of New Yorkers having legendary butt problems. On Friday, it was revealed that Giuliani butt-dialed an NBC reporter twice, leaving accidental voice mails in which he alleged crimes by the Bidens and shook down the Crown Prince of Bahrain for half a mil.
Here is a transcript of a dialogue that I did not make up.
Giuliani: “Tomorrow I gotta get you to get on Bahrain. You gotta call. You gotta call Robert again tomorrow. Is Robert around?”
Some Guy: “He’s in Turkey.”
Giuliani: “The problem is we need money. We need a few hundred thousand.”
Guy: “I’d say even if Bahrain could get, I’m not sure how good [unintelligible words] with his people.”
Giuliani: “Yeah, okay.”
Guy: “You want options? I got options.”
Giuliani: “Yeah, give me options.”
Wowsers. Just for entertainment, let’s run down some of the preposterous things Giuliani has done in “service” of his client, Mr. Trump.
- Revealed that Trump asked him how to implement a ban on Muslims, which the president had denied.
- Admitted that Trump’s legal team had a witness-tampering backchannel to Paul Manafort, which the president had denied.
- Admitted Trump paid $130,000 in hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels, which the president had denied.
- Said the attack on Robert Mueller’s team was a PR strategy to sway opinion rather than based on facts, which the president had denied
- Denied and then admitted pressuring Ukraine for dirt on the Bidens, which the president had denied.
- Showed texts on his iPad that proved the State Department was involved in his schemes, which the president had denied.
I’m only waterlining the iceberg here. There’s so much more insanity you can discover just by Googling “Rudy Giuliani admits.” His incompetence is legendary. It’s baffling how Trump, who only hires the best people, lets him go out there and babble for him.
Now the Department of Justice and the Southern District of New York are investigating Giuliani for criminal conspiracy, along with his two central-casting Ukrainian associates. Rudy’s legacy as mayor might now be the second thing mentioned after “jailed Trump crony” in his eventual obituary.
Which made me wonder: Could all this be intentional? Is issuing stupid, unhinged, self-incriminating public statements a strategy? After all, I am a firm believer in Hanlon’s razor, which is “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I couldn’t comprehend how it could be more malicious to be more stupid.
Turns out I’m not the first person to imagine incompetence as a potentially effective game theory strategy. The great analysis on this comes from Russia, a country that hobbled itself through decades—maybe centuries—of self-inflicted wounds. The world’s second most powerful dictator, Vladimir Putin, never made it beyond lieutenant colonel in a military state, and was noted for his petty and corrupt businesses. Putin is no genius. But he’s effective at being awful and some of his people love him for it. Others don’t. In an environment where occasionally people just disappear for totally inexplicable reasons, Putin has survived a very long time. But how?
If you listen to people like advertising wizard David Ogilvy, the way to survive in business is to surround yourself with people smarter than you. In 1968, Ogilvy wrote to executives, “If you ever find a man who is better than you are — hire him. If necessary, pay him more than you would pay yourself.” He once presented his board of directors with Russian nesting dolls, each of which had deep inside a folded paper which said
“If you always hire people who are smaller than you, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you, we shall become a company of giants.”
But that’s not how Putin does it. The way he does it is by removing anyone smart enough to overtake him. This is a process called negative selection. In a totalitarian bureaucracy, when you cull the competent because they are a threat, the people below them fill their roles. Since they are less experienced than those that came before, the entire organization gets dumber. Negative selection works for the selectors, but when they are removed—and they always are—what remains is staggeringly incompetent. It’s a combo of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (everybody thinks they’re more competent than they are) and the Peter Principle (everybody rises to their level of incompetence), but with a side of dictatorial murder-purging thrown in.
Donald Trump has not proven many things, but one is that he is definitely less competent than Vladimir Putin. So the people he puts in his kakistocracy—government by the very worst people—have to be really bad at their jobs. Some do so by pure mendacity and corruption; I don’t think Steve Mnuchin’s an idiot, just a liar and a thief. But many do so by being capable of being manipulated by an incompetent president—so by definition they are even less capable than Trump. Since the career federal bureaucracy is not staffed by idiots, Trump’s set out from the beginning to marginalize and intimidate them. The officials at State and the EPA and the CIA and so many other places have been quitting in droves, and not being replaced. That permits Trump’s band of looters and reprobates to ride herd, far less impeded by competent and experienced experts.
This tactic allows two divergent views of the Ukraine scandal. (Warning: I Googled to see if anyone agreed with me on this conclusion. I was horrified to learn that someone did, just yesterday … and it was Ben Shapiro. I’m going to make an argument much like Shapiro’s, so plan accordingly.)
View one is that Trump wanted to get Biden through any means necessary, so those means included diverting Congressionally mandated foreign aid unless the Ukrainians did his bidding. That fits with Trump’s M.O., from “Russia, if you’re listening” to “China should start an investigation.” This is unassailably impeachable conduct.
View two is a bit different. That view says Trump is obsessed with the 2016 election and believes every rock-dumb conspiracy theory about it. He is too stupid to realize when he is being conned, and too egotistical to hire people who tell him he’s being conned. So he casts about for proof that confirms his idiotic beliefs. He gets told about Ukraine having the Crowdstrike server, so he asks for it. Also maybe the Bidens did something? Gimme that too while I get you those Javelins. He’s bumbling in the darkness hoping to hit something that confirms his priors. That’s awful—it’s probably 25th Amendment stuff—but maybe not clearly impeachable.
That “maybe” is Ben’s, not mine. Crimes are crimes regardless of rationale; you might get manslaughter rather than murder, but it’s still illegal to shoot someone. This is a desperate defense, but might be the only one left after Trump admitted to the crime, then gave Congress a transcript of the crime, then obstructed investigation of the crime. You can’t deny the act, but you can paint it as idiocy rather than malice. You can Hanlon’s razor Trump into keeping his job until Biden or someone else takes it from him.
To make this defense, you have to surround yourself with idiots. Run your crime through an Energy Secretary who couldn’t remember that he wanted to eliminate the department he now heads. Get your crime justified by a White House attorney who writes letters like a child throws tantrums. Send out a chief of staff to say you do that crime pretty much every day. Have your toadies in Congress storm a hearing many of them were already attending.
This is a level of stupid that is hard to ignore. So maybe, just maybe, you get away with stupid rather than going to jail for evil.
Might work, might not. A famous legal mind once said
“A lot of alleged criminals are not that smart. That’s how we catch them.”
That was Rudy Giuliani, amid a torrent of lies on September 25, just before the White House released the Ukraine transcript.
I guess we’ll see if he’s right about that one.
This is the 46th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, and political outsiders. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.