Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: why there’s no such thing as a post-Scaramucci era in White House communications, Trump helping Don Jr., and Republican senator Jeff Flake critiquing his own party.
After an adventurous 11 days, Anthony Scaramucci followed Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus out of the White House, with General John Kelly — and possibly former Fox News executive Bill Shine — on the way in. How will this change the way the White House communicates?
Here’s one thing I can say without fear of contradiction: The removal of Scaramucci, like that of Spicer before him, will have no impact at all on White House “communications.” The default setting will still be All Lying All the Time. It says all you need to know that Trump’s leakers floated the notion that the ousted Fox News executive Bill Shine, the former Roger Ailes deputy, might be the Mooch’s successor even as he is busy fending off lawsuits alleging that he was an enabler of his late boss’s serial sexual harassments. Billy Bush would be a better choice.
Whoever is in charge, it’s safe to say that nothing will be too small to lie about at this White House. Even as the latest chaotic organizational-chart shake-up was in full swing in the West Wing, the communicator-in-chief was on Twitter declaring “No WH chaos!” Nothing has changed since Inauguration Day, which, as many will recall, had the biggest crowd turnout in the history of Western civilization.
One of the things I was reminded of when taking a recent deep wallow in Watergate history was how much fun that scandal was at the time, even as a grave constitutional crisis loomed. The incessant drip-drip-drip of White House horrors made one feel “like being drunk,” as Elizabeth Drew quoted one Washingtonian in The New Yorker back then. Certainly the rise and fall of the Mooch had that effect. Everything about it was deeply entertaining, from the dime-store Goodfellas swagger so pricelessly parodied by Mario Cantone to the earnest discussions at high-end publications about the propriety of publishing the phrase “suck my own cock.”
Scaramucci’s mandate to stamp out all leaks and fire any culprits will fare no better with his successor. No sooner had Kelly shown him the door than there was a major leak about Kelly himself, with CNN reporting that the new chief of staff had almost quit his previous cabinet job at Homeland Security in protest of Trump’s firing of James Comey. Hardly had that news broken than we also learned that congressional interns — interns! — had leaked (complete with audio recording) the rambling hour-long address they received from Jared Kushner, arguably the most powerful intern in White House history. Kushner bragged about his prowess as a Middle East negotiator, attributing his imaginary success in part (as he bragged at least three times) to the fact that “nothing has leaked.”
You have to feel a bit sorry for Kelly, though surely he knew what he was getting into when he undertook a role most likely to end with his humiliating banishment from the island on Pennsylvania Avenue. Yes, he is a much-admired Marine — one of what Trump calls “my generals.” But I doubt that even Hermann Goering could impose discipline on this White House.
Some hope has been invested in Kelly’s decisive canning of the Mooch on his first day of work. But that was low-hanging fruit. Kelly lacks the power to fire the president’s son-in-law or daughter, both of whom were behind the brilliant idea of Scaramucci’s appointment in the first place and both of whom had pushed another candidate, the Goldman Sachs alum Dina Powell, over Kelly as his replacement once the Mooch was caught sucking his own cock. To paraphrase a joke about nepotism from the old show How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, blood is thicker than water in this White House, and Jared Kushner is thicker than anything. He is lying in wait for Kelly, and you can bet everything will leak along the way as Kushner administers the shiv.
The Washington Post reported this week that Donald Trump Jr.’s first response to the Russia meeting — the short statement describing it as “primarily … about the adoption of Russian children” — was “personally dictated” by the president himself. Is there a way to explain this other than as a cover-up attempt?
This lie was so big that one Republican in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, was actually moved to call it “a lie,” of all things. I’ve lost count of how many lies have been told about this Trump Tower meeting by Trump, his son-in-law, his son, and their various lawyers and flacks. And even as this new Post scoop landed, the collusion plot thickened with the revelation of a new lawsuit, first reported by David Folkenflik of NPR, brought by a Fox News contributor and private investigator named Rod Wheeler. The suit alleges that the Trump White House, with Sean Spicer as point man, collaborated on a cover-up story that was aired by Fox in May: a supposed exposé (later retracted), hyped by Sean Hannity, that tried to whitewash Russian culpability in the hack of DNC emails by blaming the hack instead on a bogus conspiracy allegedly implicating Hillary Clinton and a murdered 27-year-old DNC data worker named Seth Rich.
Yesterday Sarah Huckabee Sanders dismissed the allegations in this lawsuit, saying “the president had no knowledge” of the Fox story and that it was “completely untrue” that the White House had any involvement in Fox’s muscular effort to shift the blame from Russia to the Democrats for the publication of DNC emails by WikiLeaks. This is essentially the same denial Sanders issued to knock down speculation that Trump had any involvement in Donald Jr.’s initial “adoption of Russian children” explanation for the Trump Tower meeting. We can safely assume that her new lie is at least as big as the last.
In a new book, Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona has written that his party, in a “Faustian bargain” with Trump, has made “the government of the United States … dysfunctional at the highest levels.” He encouraged his colleagues to end their “unnerving silence in the face of an erratic Executive branch.” Are we seeing the start of Congress genuinely pulling away from Trump’s agenda?
Flake, a NeverTrumper from the start, has written by far the toughest anti-Trump critique yet to be delivered by a Republican politician currently holding high office. But as Jennifer Senior pointed out in her review of his book for the Times, Flake likes saying Republicans should do something to counter Trump but is short of battle plans for realizing that goal. Flake did not even have the guts to join Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and his fellow Arizona senator John McCain in voting down the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare last week. (Nor, by the way, did Lindsey Graham.)
We are seeing some small, if as yet inconclusive, signs that GOP senators, notably Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, are pulling away from Trump’s entreaties to vote on repealing Obamacare yet again and will instead try to join with Democrats on bipartisan efforts to shore up the law against the administration’s attempts to sabotage it. It’s an open question whether this is anything more than political posturing to provide fodder for those pundits who are always spotting the dawn of bipartisanship on the Hill just before it evaporates in the cold light of day.
The biggest motivating factor for the GOP to pull away from Trump, I’ll say yet again, is the ever-approaching 2018 midterms and the punishment that is likely to be inflicted on Republicans for their unblemished record of legislative failure. Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, has urged Congress to raise the debt ceiling by the deadline of September 29 and vowed that a tax bill is “going to get done this year.” Neither is likely to happen, nor is anything else, thanks in no small part to a White House paralyzed by scandal, consumed with intrigue, and run by a sociopath. Yet this is what the party in power will have to run on a mere 15 months from now.
Trump has one tweet right when he declared after the health-care debacle that Republicans in Congress “look like fools.” But most of them still seem to be afraid of him — or if not him, his hard-core supporters. Those supporters are a loyal cohort: Polls found that 25 percent supported Trumpcare until the bitter end and 26 percent wanted Scaramucci to stay on the job even after his rant to The New Yorker. That’s the base, and it is never going to defect from Trump. Unless and until Republicans in Washington are willing to cross those voters, the status quo in Washington will remain as is. For another 15 months, anyway.