Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Comey gets ready to testify before the Senate, Trump pulls out of Paris, and Sean Hannity finds a substitute host.
Former FBI director James Comey is scheduled to testify before a public Senate hearing next week, where he will reportedly speak about President Trump’s attempts to end the Russia investigation. How damning do you expect his testimony to be?
Donald Trump may be ignorant about virtually every topic that reaches the desk of an American president, but there is one area of expertise where even his foes concede his mastery: show business. It’s a measure of how fast even that skill set is eroding under pressure that he doesn’t recognize he’s now starring in a gripping espionage thriller he cannot control. Comey’s testimony, besides being quite damning, will step up the narrative pace. He is a seasoned, unflappable performer before Congressional panels. He has a story to tell featuring Russian spymasters and moles, not to mention possible obstruction of justice in the Oval Office. Americans love the Bourne movies. They love House of Cards. They love 007. Should the White House try to thwart Comey’s appearance with bogus claims of Executive Privilege, that will only add to the intrigue and suspense.
As I wrote at the time, Comey’s firing may possibly have marked the beginning of the end of the Trump administration. That prospect has only increased since. Trump’s dwindling and bickering White House coterie hoped his trip abroad would change the subject from Russian collusion — a false high that was sustained for nine days by the president’s ostensible new “discipline” in reading from TelePrompters and abstaining from Twitter. Once he was back home, that bubble burst faster than you can say “covfefe.”
It’s clear that neither Trump nor anyone around him has a clue about how to stanch the bleeding. Out of the misguided belief that his Russian headaches have more to do with failed p.r. strategies than the law, Trump has ousted his communications director, Michael Dubke, after only three months, and keeps sending signals that Sean Spicer is on the way out. But top-tier Republican press strategists, recognizing the hopelessness of the assignment, are not lining up to take either job. There is also talk of setting up a White House “War Room” to battle the daily rounds of incoming scandal with a key role for Corey Lewandowski, the pugnacious former Trump campaign manager with a greater flair for creating scandals than extinguishing them. For legal representation, Trump has brought in his long-time personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz, a litigator most recently known for representing Bill O’Reilly as he fended off sexual harassment charges. Kasowitz was expert at helping Trump evade creditors when his Atlantic City casinos went bankrupt but has no experience with Washington’s ways. Indeed, he has had more dealings with Russia (his clients include the country’s No. 1 financial institution, Sberbank) than wily federal legal hounds like Andrew Weissmann, the Department of Justice fraud section chief whom the special counsel Robert Mueller has now recruited for his investigation.
Many others around Trump will soon be hiring their own criminal attorneys, if they haven’t already, to protect themselves from perjury charges and other legal traps that always befall those in cover-ups. This will add a supporting cast worthy of The People vs. OJ Simpson. Particularly needy of ace representation among current administration employees, it would seem, are Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner. Michael Flynn no doubt knows plenty about what they knew and when they knew it, not least because he seems to have been either a facilitator or eyewitness (or both) to their back-channel Russian contacts. Eager to save his own skin, Flynn is perfectly situated to be the John Dean of Russiagate, but a loonier one — all the better for entertainment value.
For the large part of the public that is just beginning to tune into this drama, Kushner will also be a riveting player. Everyone resents a young, entitled multimillionaire power broker who has achieved his status and wealth entirely because of nepotism. But most Americans know little more about him — they’ve never even heard his speaking voice. The character of Jared Kushner will be filled in by the media soon enough, and not in a good way.
Whatever Comey says or does not say next week, this show, with its buried trove of mysterious evidence (Trump’s tax returns) and interludes of farcical relief (the repeated leaks from the Mike Pence camp trying to portray him as completely out of the Russian loop), is only just getting started. The star of Celebrity Apprentice is about to learn what it means to appear in a prime-time hit when the writers and producers are out to sabotage the star.
After Trump announced his plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, President Obama released a statement saying that the jobs and innovation needed for a low-carbon future will now largely grow elsewhere. Will this decision come back to get in Trump’s way?
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump declared when he marked his reckless decision with a bizarre Rose Garden celebration (complete with a military band playing jazz). It’s not certain that he even understood that the pact was no more a Parisian invention than Freedom Fries. But facts were always beside the point in making this move: his only goal was to pander to a political base that buys Steve Bannon’s brand of America First populism. In the process Trump alienated virtually the entire world, all of America’s key allies included; the majority of Americans who (polls show) support the Paris accord; corporate leaders from nearly every sector of American business (from Google to Goldman Sachs to GE); and the governmental and civic leaders of every state and municipality eager to protect the citizenry from climate change and/or to cash in on the expanding green economy. What could possibly go wrong?
Not to minimize Trump’s threat to the planet but leadership outside of Washington is now finally energized to fill the vacuum he’s left behind, and the elections of 2018 and 2020 are likely to further hinder this administration’s assault on environmental regulation. Meanwhile, the Trump base is once again being played for the patsies they are. As Richard Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, tweeted last night: “This White House is creating more jobs for criminal defense lawyers in Washington than it will ever create for steelworkers in Pittsburgh.”
Sean Hannity has offered a spot guest-hosting his radio show to Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, who is considering it. What do you make of the weird bond developing between these two?
It’s a happy development. Hannity is the last on-air personality propping up Fox News’s cratering prime-time ratings, and he now appears well on his way to following O’Reilly and Roger Ailes on the path to career self-immolation.