Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Donald Trump’s shocking reaction to Charlottesville and the likely fallout from it, and whether Hope Hicks can succeed where Anthony Scaramucci failed in running the White House’s communications shop.
President Trump’s “both sides” press conference about Charlottesville has been perhaps the most shocking moment in an administration already suffering from many self-inflicted wounds. Will it be the most damaging to his presidency?
I guess we now have to officially retire “most shocking” and “most damaging” as modifiers for anything Donald Trump does, because he will always find a way to up the ante. My own theory remains that this administration’s downfall began with the firing of James Comey, an unabashed attempt to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation. (Remember when that seemed shocking?) His downfall will culminate only when the GOP, in existential extremis, realizes that its choices are to leap from the Titanic or go down with the ship. As far as Republicans are concerned, the iceberg is not yet fully in view. Yes, the confirmation that an American president is a racist bully whose empathy is mainly reserved for either neo-Nazis or neo-Stalinists has prompted an uptick in public expressions of outrage by some GOP politicians, but words are toothless. These few rhetorical defections are not enough of a revolt to get us to the endgame — the endgame not being impeachment (never going to happen) but Trump’s implosion. No one is shrewder about Trump than his Art of the Deal co-author Tony Schwartz, and his summation after the Charlottesville events rings true to me: “The circle is closing at blinding speed. Trump is going to declare victory before Mueller and Congress leave him no choice.”
That could still be a year away. It may take that long (or possibly longer) before we know Robert Mueller’s findings. The firepower of the legal talent he’s recruited suggests that there is much to investigate. It’s possible to imagine that both Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort will flip, if they haven’t already, to try to save their own skins; Flynn has vanished from view, and Manafort was the subject of a pre-dawn FBI raid the day after his behind-closed-door appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee. The closer the circle tightens not just on Trump but his family — most particularly Jared Kushner — the more panic we will see from a president who otherwise is walled off from reality by a palace guard of low-life sycophants and fellow conspirators. The day will come when he can’t get all his news from Fox and Breitbart.
Republicans in Congress will be moved to mutiny not by Trump’s affection for white supremacists and Vladimir Putin but by polls that will hit new record lows as the midterms, now less than 15 months away, draw closer. In keeping with Schwartz’s prognostication, the blinding speed may be hastened by other developments: a Trump effort to fire Mueller (inevitable, I think, no matter what a Lindsey Graham or Orrin Hatch may have to say about it); the spike in health-care premiums because of the Trump administration’s sabotaging of Obamacare; and the potential collapse of governance altogether as a divided GOP fails to raise the debt ceiling or pass a budget, let alone deliver on promises of dramatic tax cuts and a trillion-dollar infrastructure push.
Congress will soon return from a recess spent listening to constituent complaints. It will have to deal with a chief executive who is popular only with his hard-core base and who has castrated and insulted Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader he needs as a legislative partner.
Little will get done, and Trump will continue to fill that void with evermore shocking tantrums in an effort to distract from his non-record of achievement.
Keep in mind that he managed to both threaten nuclear war and embrace neo-Nazis while on vacation. Wait until he gets “back to work.”
The broader fallout has brought resignations from his now-defunct business councils, but so far only lukewarm statements of dissent — some not even on the record — from GOP leaders and White House staff. Why aren’t we seeing a stronger response?
With few exceptions, so-called GOP leaders are the same Vichy collaborators they’ve been since Trump seized the party’s presidential nomination. Notably pathetic, as always, is Paul Ryan, who tweeted that “there can be no moral ambiguity” about white supremacy, but then advertised his own craven moral ambiguity yet again by refusing to criticize Trump by name for his response to Charlottesville. That “moral ambiguity,” it’s necessary to recall, has been part and parcel of the GOP for decades. In its news story about Trump’s Charlottesville press conference this week, the Times misleadingly wrote that past Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, had “roundly condemned white supremacists.” (Even Trump has paid lip service to doing the same.) But the fact is that Reagan kicked off his first presidential campaign by giving a speech in favor of “states rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the notorious site of the murder of three civil-rights workers, and Bush was elected president with the help of the notoriously racist Willie Horton ad. This stain on the GOP can’t be eradicated overnight, as Ryan and other Republican leaders have consistently shown in their tepid, ineffectual responses to Trump’s bigotry. That Trump’s approval rating among Republicans remains at nearly 80 percent is a testament to the party’s enduring “Southern strategy.”
What we’re seeing now is the stain spreading to administration personnel who were supposed to be better than this. John Kelly, the retired Marine general charged with bringing order to the White House in his new role as chief of staff, has proved himself both incompetent and a coward in less than three weeks: His idea of protesting Trump is to allow himself to be photographed wincing as the president of the United States praised the “very fine people” among neo-Nazis during his public rant. Even a nominal Democrat in this White House, Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive serving as economic counselor, has succumbed: While he let it be known to the press that he was “disgusted” by Trump’s words, he has not resigned. He and Steven Mnuchin, the most powerful Jews in this White House after Jared Kushner, don’t seem to realize that by enabling a president who embraces neo-Nazi bigotry they are not only destroying their own reputations but furthering Trump’s own anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews — typified by the late campaign ad in which a dire warning about “those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests” was illustrated by photos of the Jews George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein, and Janet Yellen. Are tax cuts for their own bracket so valuable to Mnuchin and Cohn that they’d trade their souls in exchange for them? Apparently. You don’t have to be Jewish, as I am, to find their voluntary servitude to this White House morally repellent.
The White House also announced Hope Hicks as the new interim White House director of communications, amid reports that allies like Rupert Murdoch continue to push Trump for a staff shakeup. Will she fare better than her four predecessors?
It goes without saying that Hicks — and whoever they find to replace her — will make no difference any more than it made any difference that the Mooch was tossed out in 11 days, or that Sean Spicer was canned, or that John Kelly arrived. What’s most interesting about Murdoch’s behind-the-scenes alliance with Trump, as reported by the Times, is not that it exists — that has long been self-evident in the skewed coverage and editorial praise Trump receives from the Murdoch organs Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post — but that Murdoch is advising Trump to fire Steve Bannon.
#FireBannon, of course, is a liberal crusade as well, but we should be careful what we wish for. If Bannon is gone, Fox News and its allies will have a fresh line of spin to sell any wavering Republican voters: The president wasn’t really a white nationalist and alt-right champion, after all — it was mainly Bannon’s malign influence, and, with his departure, that distasteful cancer has been excised from this presidency. But Bannon is not the cancer. Trump is. The bigotry of this White House — in its rhetoric, its actions, and its racist, homophobic, and xenophobic policies — will continue to metastasize until he is ejected.