President Donald Trump’s combative rhetoric at a recent White House news conference reminded me of Rudy Giuliani’s in his days as mayor of New York City. When CNN reporter Abby Phillip asked if he wanted Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, an outspoken opponent of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, to rein in Mueller, he answered: “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question.” He then added ominously, “But I watch you a lot. You ask a lot of stupid questions.”
Phillip had asked a fair and obvious question, one that gave Trump the opportunity to respond to the concerns many Americans have about this suspicious appointment.
In the case of Giuliani, whose mayoral media relations seem to have inspired Trump’s, the subject matter was more mundane. During a press conference at City Hall in Lower Manhattan back in 1996, I asked if he still planned to follow through on an announcement to put more cops on patrol, given that newly released city data showed a 5 percent drop in the NYPD’s patrol strength. His answer: “Let’s stop really being stupid, okay? I mean really. I mean it really is really stupid! The level of questions is, like, at the point of idiocy.”
Outraged, I began to stand up to respond. Reporters sat in the front row in a large chamber, with about three hundred people—all the top officials in city government—behind us. The crowd was on hand to applaud their boss as he spun a report that compiled data on the performance of city government. (It seems no coincidence that the television show Spin City, with Michael J. Fox as a spin-minded New York deputy mayor, aired in this period.)
Fortunately for me, a reporter from another newspaper sitting beside me tactfully grabbed my belt from the back and yanked me down to my seat before I could stand or get more than a word or two out of my mouth. He was right; that’s not how we reporters did things.
I fumed in silence. But then I got to work reporting a detailed story on the issue. Giuliani insisted the decline in officers on patrol didn’t matter since crime was dropping, but I found that the shortage of cops in precincts was indeed disturbing to many community activists, especially in middle-class neighborhoods that the mayor relied on for political support.
Giuliani’s response to this reporter’s question, however, developed a shelf life; it appeared in the New York Observer, and from there in various books to illustrate his relationship with the media. My name was never attached, since it didn’t matter. And I think it’s better that way. I’m glad a fellow reporter shut me up.