Frank Rich: What Jeff Flake Couldn’t Bring Himself to Say About Donald Trump

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Still not talking about what Trump’s true objective is. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Jeff Flake’s revolt, what the latest Bill O’Reilly revelations mean for Fox News, and the ineffectiveness of John Kelly.

With yesterday’s speech on the Senate floor, Jeff Flake becomes the third Establishment conservative, after Bob Corker and John McCain, to begin attacking the direction of the GOP in general terms — and just as the party puts its fundraising muscle behind Alabama’s Roy Moore. Will this trio’s rebellion have any impact?Flake’s powerful indictment of Trump has been viewed by many as a “Have you no sense of decency?” tipping point in fond memory of that moment when the lawyer Joseph Welch’s challenge to Joe McCarthy in a Senate hearing room sped McCarthy’s demise. Yesterday was the day when you could see “the ice beginning to crack,” in the widely repeated words of Peter Wehner, a longtime adviser to Republican presidents who’s a leading Never Trump-er.

But the notion that Flake’s words — or Corker’s or McCain’s — are going to change the mind of a single member of the Trump base, or that lame-duck senators might at last encourage an anti-Trump outpouring among their GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill, is preposterous. They can read polls. Some 80 percent of Republicans still support Trump. If those voters didn’t get off the reservation after “grab ’em by the pussy” or the health-care debacle (to take two of countless examples), the scales will not fall from their eyes now because of the jeremiads of a pair of retiring senators. These loyalists will react to Flake’s speech much as they react to any liberal pundit’s attack on Trump: They love to hear us squeal! Trump’s loyal base knows that all these critics are elitist pawns of the “fake news” network. Their own “news” sources, led by Steve Bannon’s Breitbart and Fox News’ Sean Hannity, tell them so every day.

Sitting Republicans remain as terrified of this base as ever. After all, Flake and Corker are retiring in part because that base was threatening to vote them out in favor of true Trumpists in the 2018 primaries.

The Vichy leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will remain as supine as ever, hoping they land their beloved deep tax cuts in the bargain. Yet even that aim is in jeopardy now that Trump seems determined to alienate some of the 50 senators he needs to get a bill to his desk. It looks like “repeal and replace” déjà vu all over again. But McConnell and Ryan are in too deep, too compromised morally, and too in hock to their donors to bolt now.

They still fail to concede that legislation is not Trump’s aim, not even classic conservative GOP legislation like tax cuts. We have a president who doesn’t know how a bill becomes a law and doesn’t give a damn. With Bannon as his wingman, his aim is to blow up the Republican Party, purge it of a feckless and tired Establishment, and remake it with his own shock troops into a nativist and nationalist regime.

The departure of Corker and Flake, like Roy Moore’s primary victory in Alabama and like the other announced retirements of Republicans in the House, all suggest that the purge is well underway.

Every congressional incumbent who steps down, of course, is a potential gain for the opposition party. What remains to be seen is if the Democrats will find new ways to screw it up.

On her NBC morning show on Monday, Megyn Kelly shared part of an email she had sent to Fox News executives about Bill O’Reilly’s behavior when they both worked at the network, rebutting O’Reilly’s constant refrain that there had been no internal complaints about him. What does news of the $32 million sexual-harassment settlement, or the revelation that Fox increased O’Reilly’s salary afterward, mean for Fox News?
What it means is that the Murdochs, despite their pious public protestations to the contrary, have not cleaned out the putrid culture of sexual harassment and assault that they allowed to metastasize under Roger Ailes for decades. Instead they keep trying to cover it up. The PR
release given to the Times in response to the latest O’Reilly exposé claimed that “21st Century Fox has taken concerted action to transform Fox News including installing new leaders, overhauling management and on-air talent, expanding training, and increasing the channels through which employees can report harassment or discrimination.” The release added that “these changes come from the top.” But one of the two executives Kelly said had ignored her own complaints about sexual harassment, Jack Abernethy, remains in place. So does the notorious Fox News media relations enforcer Irena Briganti, whom Kelly says even now “pushes negative articles on certain Ailes accusers.” And, as the Times reported, it was all three Murdochs who signed off on a $100 million contract extension for O’Reilly the month after he settled with Lis Wiehl for $32 million. That’s all you need to know about what’s going on at “the top” of 21st Century Fox.

The Murdochs survived the News Corporation phone-hacking scandal in the U.K. by denying, stonewalling, pleading ignorance and amnesia, and simply powering through. Maybe they will escape again. One of the more astonishing examples of how much they force their executives to tow the company line took place last week at a Wall Street Journal conference in California. Gerard Baker, the WSJ editor best known for his obsequious interview of Donald Trump earlier this year, conducted an onstage conversation with the Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg during which Katzenberg implausibly claimed to be one of the few executives in Hollywood who never heard about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual history. Baker was incredulous. “How on Earth could powerful people, yourself included, not have known that he was behaving like this?” he asked.
When Katzenberg held firm, Baker wouldn’t let it go: “You say in all your encounters with Mr. Weinstein directly, you’ve never seen behavior like this. But you must have heard about it?” Which leads to the obvious question: Are we really to believe that Baker, as a top Murdoch executive and powerful journalist, never heard about the behavior of Ailes and O’Reilly? The Journal’s offices are in the same building as the Fox News studios. For years, the Journal has even had its own weekly show on Fox News, The Journal Editorial Report. Katzenberg didn’t have the presence of mind, unfortunately, to turn the tables on Baker.

For all the new revelations of sexual harassment that have cascaded into view since the Fox News and Weinstein revelations — from Hollywood to Wall Street to Congress to previous management of The New Republic to an esteemed restaurant empire in New Orleans — this much is clear: We’re not even close to unmasking and eradicating a misogynistic outlaw culture of sexual harassment and violence that has blighted America from the highest levels of society on down since the days of the Salem witch trials.

Donald Trump’s clumsy condolence call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of one of the four soldiers recently killed in Niger, has become a weeklong slog of White House accusations and outright lies against Gold Star families, a slog that roped in John Kelly. Does Kelly’s inability to contain this feud change your idea of how he manages the White House?
I never believed that Kelly would have any impact on Trump or his White House. Nobody can put that big baby in a corner. The speed with which Kelly has debased himself is impressive even when compared to the likes of a Steven Mnuchin. His lies about Congresswoman Frederica Wilson still remain uncorrected. And that he would even think of casting himself as a noble defender of female virtue and military sacrifice while standing on a podium in Donald Trump’s White House suggests, quite honestly, that he has completely lost touch with reality. He is no more to be trusted with the nuclear codes than the president whose trigger finger he is supposed to be holding in check.

Frank Rich: What Jeff Flake Couldn’t Bring Himself to Say