What price will Rudy Giuliani pay for smearing Georgia election workers?

<span>Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP</span>
Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP

Rudy Giuliani, the politician who was once lauded as “America’s mayor” but descended into the rabbit hole of Donald Trump’s election denial lies, will face a Washington DC jury on Monday in a landmark case which could see him saddled with millions of dollars in damages.

For the first time at trial, Giuliani will be confronted in a federal district court with the consequences of the conspiracy theories he disseminated as Trump’s 2020 election lawyer. He will come eye-to-eye with the mother and daughter poll workers from Georgia who claim that he destroyed their lives and caused them ongoing emotional distress by maliciously accusing them of election fraud.

The stakes of the civil trial are exceptionally high. The plaintiffs are asking the jury to set damages of up to $43m as punishment for Giuliani’s “outrageous conduct”.

Legal experts and democracy advocates will also be watching closely to see whether a rarely used complaint of defamation can act as a deterrent on anyone contemplating another round of election denial in next year’s presidential election and beyond. There could also be ramifications for the Rico organised crime prosecution that Giuliani is facing in Fulton county, Georgia, that also relates to his actions in the 2020 election.

After jury selection and opening statements on Monday, there will be three days of testimony in the DC trial. Headlining the witness list are the poll workers themselves, Ruby Freeman and her daughter, Shaye Moss.

“While nothing will fully repair all of the damages that Giuliani and his allies wreaked on our clients’ lives, livelihoods and security, they are eager and ready for their day in court to continue their fight for accountability,” said the women’s legal representatives at Protect Democracy, a non-partisan advocacy group.

Freeman and Moss became household names after they gave a moving televised account to the House investigation into the 6 January 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol. They recounted how their lives had been turned upside down by Giuliani’s relentless attacks.

“Be glad it’s 2020 and not 1920,” Moss, who is African American, told the hearing, invoking the history of lynching in the deep south.

Giuliani has already been found liable by the judge presiding in the case, Beryl Howell, for smearing the poll workers, intentionally inflicting emotional distress on them, and engaging in a conspiracy with at least two others to defame them. It now falls to the jury to decide the scale of damages.

Giuliani defamed the poll workers by accusing them falsely of criminal misdeeds during the critical count of presidential election votes in the State Farm Arena in Atlanta. As one of the key swing states in the 2020 race, Georgia’s 16 electoral college votes had the potential to determine whether Trump or Joe Biden would be the next occupant of the White House.

As part of the Trump team’s extensive efforts to undermine the election count and thereby foil Biden’s victory, Giuliani bore down on Freeman and Moss. He helped circulate a misleadingly edited tape of security footage from the arena which he inaccurately claimed showed them stealing votes for Biden.

He propagated the “Suitcase Gate” conspiracy theory – a video that falsely claimed to show the poll workers removing phoney ballots from suitcases stored under their table, then counting them “three, four, five, six, seven times …” The court will be shown a sample of the ginger mint that Freeman passed to Moss during the counting process – Giuliani claimed it was a USB drive used to change the vote count on electronic tabulation devices.

His wild claims were fully debunked by Georgia officials at the time he was making them. In June a full investigation by the state’s election board cleared Freeman and Moss of any wrongdoing and dismissed Giuliani’s fraud claims as “unsubstantiated”.

Despite the official pushback, Giuliani continued to attack the pair. In several hours of scheduled testimony, mother and daughter are expected to describe to the jury the storm of death threats and harassment they and their families suffered – and continue to suffer – in the wake of the smear campaign.

In the fallout, they were forced to flee their homes, go into hiding and change their appearance. Moss quit her job as a poll worker.

Giuliani’s lawyers have indicated that he may testify in person at the trial. If he does so he will not be allowed to repeat any of the defamatory slurs about the plaintiffs, as he has already accepted that he defamed them.

His lawyers have indicated that he will, though, attempt to show that his actions had minimal connection to the blizzard of violent threats and harassment that the women have endured. That way he will hope to minimize the damages awarded by the jury.

Several other former members of the legal team in Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign are also likely to be called upon during the trial, with their testimony drawn from depositions. They include the former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, Jenna Ellis, who has been charged alongside Giuliani in the Fulton county Rico case, and Christina Bobb.

Court documents show that Ellis refused to answer questions from Freeman and Moss’s lawyers during her deposition. She pleaded the fifth amendment right to remain silent 448 times.