The GOP’s new brand messenger.
Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Roy Moore’s recalcitrance, Jeff Sessions’s evolving story on Russia meetings, and Donald Trump Jr.’s Twitter correspondence with WikiLeaks.
As more and more women come forward with allegations of Roy Moore’s sexual pursuit of teenagers, the GOP Senate candidate refuses to concede the race, even after having lost the support of nearly every Republican currently serving in the Senate. At this point, what is the GOP’s best course of action?
They do purport to believe in prayer (as does Roy “Mr. Ten Commandments” Moore, of course), so that’s one option. Actually, that may be the only option. By getting into bed with a sexual predator — as Mitch McConnell, his colleagues, and the GOP base all did with Donald Trump — the Republicans asked for the catastrophe that is now befalling them. And for all the horror of Moore’s underlying career as a serial pedophile in Alabama, we must take a moment to savor the priceless political farce it has triggered in Washington. The harebrained schemes of hypocritical GOP leaders trying to jettison Moore are worthy of the Three Stooges, except in this case the number of stooges is far greater than three.
Among the risible ideas thus far: postponing Alabama’s special election from December 12 to a date TBD next year; encouraging a write-in campaign for another Republican candidate (name TBD); persuading Luther Strange, the sitting GOP senator who lost to Moore in the primary, to resign and be replaced through a new special election (date and legality TBD); expelling Moore from the Senate if he wins (no senator has been expelled by his peers since the Civil War). None of these fanciful notions is supported by either the Republican governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, or the Republican party of Alabama. All of them would lead to one or all of several undesirable outcomes for the GOP: a split Republican vote in Alabama’s December election, all but guaranteeing victory to Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones; a further reduction of the two-seat GOP majority in the Senate; an even bloodier internecine battle between the McConnell-Ryan Establishment and the Trump base that could spill onto the Senate floor for much of next year and further dampen Republican turnout in the 2018 midterms. (The cumbersome process to expel a senator is of impeachment length.)
No less entertaining is the pipe dream of McConnell and company that somehow Trump, newly returned from his spectacularly counterproductive tour of Asia, would ride to their rescue. Do they not remember that their president has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by more women than even Moore has, dating from the early 1980s until at least 2007? Do they not know that some of these allegations are the subject of ongoing legal action and civil suits? Have they forgotten their own endorsements of Trump’s candidacy despite his confession of sexual assault in the 2005 Access Hollywood tape? And how can they pretend to be shocked by the brazen dissembling of Moore’s denials of wrongdoing? Moore is following Trump’s playbook to the letter: As a candidate, Trump threatened lawsuits (never filed) against his female accusers and promised to produce “substantial evidence” (never provided) to prove his contention that all the claims were “pure fiction” and “totally fake news.”
As Moore has nothing to gain by dropping out of his Senate race, so Trump has nothing to gain by intervening; to do so would both shine a fresh spotlight on his own sordid history and rile his own base. Anyone who doubts the continuing power of that base over the GOP need only look to Sean Hannity of Fox News this week. Facing sponsor defections and having himself conducted a Moore interview that yielded non-denial denials, he gave Moore a 24-hour ultimatum to prove his innocence or get out of the race on Tuesday. Last night, he said Never Mind, deciding instead to leave Moore’s fate to “the people of Alabama.”
The First Daughter, meanwhile, has stepped into this moral vacuum with a statement of her own (that stops short of asking Moore to step aside): “There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children.” This seems to be a White House–scripted talking point; nearly identical language was used by the Trump administration’s legislative director, Marc Short, when appearing on Meet the Press three days earlier. But as Elizabeth Spiers asked Ivanka Trump on Twitter, does this judgment apply to “your dad, who walked in on Miss Teen USA contestants while they [were] changing and bragged about it?” At this rate, Hell may yet get its own Trump Hotel.
Last month, Jeff Sessions testified that he was not aware of anyone in the Trump campaign who had been in contact with Russia. Though press accounts have appeared to prove him wrong, yesterday he told the House Judiciary Committee that he “had no recollection” of the meeting, and has “always told the truth.” Will he face consequences for changing his story?
The second most-scandal-ridden presidency in American history, Richard Nixon’s, also had an attorney general, John Mitchell, who had played a major role in his boss’s presidential campaign. He ended up in prison. Sessions seems determined to head to the same destination. He has been repeatedly caught lying to Congress about his and others’ contacts with the Russians, and his only defense has been to strike a sanctimonious tone of self-martyrdom, to repeat or enhance the original lies, and to accuse his inquisitors of rank injustice. He’s an awful attorney general but he’s arguably an even worse liar. It was especially choice to hear him testify last week that he had completely forgotten about attending a meeting with Trump where George Papadopoulos talked about his Russian connections; he just couldn’t stop himself from embroidering the lie further by adding he did remember a single aspect of it after all — a supposedly exculpatory moment when he pushed back on Papadopoulos’s suggestion of a Trump-Putin meeting. This stuff is not going to go over well with the special counsel.
The most unexpected twist in last week’s hearing, by the way, came when Sessions, for the moment at least, firmly shut down Trump’s idea of appointing a new special counsel to investigate the Clintons. What brought that on? A cynic might ask if he is already trying to butter up the jury pool in Washington.
We now know that Donald Trump Jr. maintained a brief Twitter correspondence with WikiLeaks during last year’s presidential campaign, and seems to have acted on some of WikiLeaks’ requests. Are these messages evidence of collusion, or of two parties who barely know what each other are up to?
At the very least they indicate a desire to collude, and the dots connecting these exchanges to subsequent actions by Trump Sr. suggest more than that. Trump Jr.’s efforts to collude with the Russians have been an open book since we first learned of the fateful June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and the emails surrounding it. One can only imagine how much more Robert Mueller knows about all of it. The president’s son did so little to cover up his tracks that he gives Fredos everywhere a bad name.
But every time there’s a Trump Jr. revelation, I find it impossible not to view him through the lens of his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner. Unlike little Donald, Kushner is clever, and because Kushner’s real-estate-tycoon father, unlike Donald Jr.’s, has done prison time for criminality, you have to figure Kushner would be very careful about avoiding legal culpability whenever he has played fast and loose with the law. So imagine how he must feel to be saddled by marriage with this idiot who included him in incriminating emails and meetings and who knows what else that may surface in the Mueller investigation. For those of us who were counting on Kushner to solve the Middle East, it is sad that he must turn away from peacemaking to deal with this distraction.