Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Trump’s media dodging, the fight over Obamacare, and Megyn Kelly’s move from Fox News to NBC.
Last weekend, despite the U.S. intelligence community having already weighed in on Russian election interference, Donald Trump promised that he would reveal “things that other people don’t know” by “Tuesday or Wednesday.” After tweeting some support for Julian Assange, it now looks like — just as with earlier promises to address his business conflicts and clarify Melania’s immigration status — Trump will be delaying again. How much longer will he be able to outrun these questions?
I’d say about three more weeks. Of course he’ll always be able to outrun some questions. We are never going to see Trump’s tax returns. We are never going to know the new First Lady’s immigration history. (Or we won’t unless and until someone in the federal bureaucracy is sufficiently provoked to leak.) But once he’s in the White House, he will no longer be able to punt by making the empty promise that “I’ll get back to you by Tuesday” on his plans to, say, address the next Hurricane Katrina or government shutdown or economic cataclysm or foreign threat. He actually will be held accountable by voters, including maybe even the minority of Americans who voted for him on Election Day. Bluffing won’t do in a crisis, tweets won’t do — only action will do. And it seems that he has no idea that producing concrete action in Washington is not as simple as picking up the phone and browbeating a frightened corporate wuss at Carrier, Boeing, or Ford to save a pittance of American jobs.
But let’s not forget the other issue here: Of all Trump’s idle promises thus far, surely the most bizarre and potentially dangerous is his claim that he will reveal “things that other people don’t know” about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Who told him these “things”? His national-security adviser, the world-class conspiracy-monger Mike Flynn? Rudy Giuliani? Steve Bannon? His marvelous personal physician? Most likely, Julian Assange and/or Vladimir Putin, both of whom Trump trusts more than America’s intelligence agencies.
It’s no secret that America’s intelligence agencies are quite fallible — in part thanks to a fiasco Trump cites, their imaginary sightings of WMDs in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But for their current findings to be dismissed so cavalierly and publicly breaks new ground for a president-elect. Trump essentially dismisses the intelligence services as incompetent liars — even accusing them of malevolently delaying a briefing this week, which they deny and for which he offers no proof. When George W. Bush disregarded an intel report in August 2001, that Al Qaeda planned an imminent attack on America, at least he listened to it before he rejected it, resumed his idyll on his Texas ranch, and let 9/11 unfold unimpeded. Trump is topping the disastrous Bush example by blowing off his own government’s intelligence findings sight unseen in favor of those unidentified other sources telling him “things.” According to The Wall Street Journal, he will soon be manipulating the intel Establishment to conform with his own theories, just as Dick Cheney did. As was the case last time, this isn’t going to end well for the country.
It will be fascinating to see if John McCain, who always talks a good game of battling Trump’s outrages only to wimp out when it counts most, really steps up to pursue the Trump–Putin axis as he has promised to do in the hearings that began today.
House Republicans opened the new term on Capitol Hill with a secret vote to kill the Office of Congressional Ethics, only to walk it back the next day after thousands of phone calls from outraged constituents. What lessons can both sides take from this debacle as the fight over Obamacare heats up?
The key element in this story is that it wasn’t necessarily just outraged constituents who forced House Republicans to retreat. Trump as well may deserve modest credit for his condemnation of the GOP vote to castrate the ethics office. Trump could not care less about ethics enforcement, but even he recognized what a public-relations fiasco it was for a new Congress to make as its first priority the enhancement of its ability to sexually harass pages and gobble up pay-for-play special-interest money.
The lessons of this opening-day debacle are several. First, it’s clear that Paul Ryan and his deputy, Kevin McCarthy, have scant control over their own caucus: Despite the fact that both leaders argued against the harebrained scheme to gut the ethics office in the dead of night, the vote among GOP House members was 119 to 74 to do so. Second, it’s clear that Trump and Trump’s voters have more power than either the Republican Congress or its leadership: Hardly had the president-elect sounded off in a couple of bursts of 140 characters, then his party’s caucus reversed itself completely, scrapping the scheme it had endorsed by a large majority only hours earlier. Third, this farce is potentially good news for Democrats. From all accounts, it’s clear that the Republican Congress is going to carry through on its plan to repeal Obamacare without having devised the essential legislative endgame, a replacement health-care plan through which, as Trump promised on 60 Minutes last year, “everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.” As I’ve said before, let’s see what happens when Obamacare unravels for some 22 million clients, many of them Trump voters in red states, and the GOP has to plead for patience while Congress tries (and likely fails) to get its act together. As we saw this week, the ensuing chaos may resemble the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, but with more tears than laughter.
Megyn Kelly announced a move from Fox News to NBC, raising questions about the direction of Fox News and Kelly’s ability to connect with a broader audience. Will NBC also have to change for her to succeed there?
Fox News, now fully behind Trump, will not miss Megyn Kelly. Fox’s real fears in terms of losing audience should be directed at competitors from its right, including the expanding alt-right media universe of Breitbart. Even by cable-news standards, Fox’s audience is exceptionally elderly, and ripe for a challenge from an angry new generation of media-savvy conservative bomb-throwers.
What Kelly adds to NBC, meanwhile, is unclear. She is a celebrity, and the author of a best-selling book celebrating her celebrityhood. But if anyone can cite a news story she’s broken or an interview that was a must-see, please raise your hand. She is mainly famous for taking on powerful Republican men: Karl Rove (whom she humiliated on camera for his fantasy sightings of a Romney victory on Election Night 2012); the alleged sexual predator Roger Ailes (whose fate was sealed when she added her voice to the chorus of complaints from the female work force at Fox News); fellow Fox star Bill O’Reilly, whose rating supremacy she threatened; and, needless to say, Trump. How she can stretch this admirable niche into what NBC has promised her, a daily daytime show and a new prime-time program to compete with 60 Minutes on Sunday night, is a mystery. Her one attempt to show a wider, broadcast-network range — a Fox prime-time special where she interviewed a Barbara Walters–esque smorgasbord of Trump, Robert Shapiro, and Laverne Cox — was an awkward bore that drew so-what reviews and a small audience despite the come-on of another round with her No. 1 nemesis. Nor does NBC need her to woo the right. Matt Lauer did a good job of that during the campaign. The Morning Joe hosts are now so associated with carrying water for Trump that Joe Scarborough was moved to write an angry column this week defending his appearance at Trump’s New Year’s Eve bash at Mar-a-Lago, where prominent revelers included the Gambino family–linked mobster (and convicted felon) Joseph Cinque. (The Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan’s takedown of Scarborough on this matter makes for hilarious reading.)
For those who care about network news antics, the Kelly move does at least add a new sideshow to follow: the fate of Greta Van Susteren, the former Fox News anchor who is repeatedly rumored to be on a path to land at MSNBC. Van Susteren was conspicuous in defending Roger Ailes right until she left Fox; she disparaged the most prominent anti-Ailes whistleblower, Gretchen Carlson, as a disgruntled former employee. Hard to picture Kelly cheerleading for Van Susteren to now join her as a colleague at NBC News — though an on-camera reunion for the two of them might make for more entertaining television than Kelly doing sloppy-seconds interviews with various Kardashians and the replacement cast of Hamilton.