Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s panic over Mueller, Mike Espy’s loss in Mississippi, and the deal Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta negotiated for multimillionaire and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
The flurry of Mueller-related headlines this week have led some observers to speculate that the investigation’s “endgame may be in sight,” but news of Paul Manafort’s continued communications with the White House, Jerome Corsi’s leak of a Mueller draft document, and changes to Roger Stone’s story have muddied the waters. If Mueller is close to issuing a report, how will he cut through the noise?
The whole point of the incessant lying by Donald Trump and Manafort — and the apparent lying of Stone and Corsi as well — is exactly that: to muddy as many waters as possible so any Mueller report will be drowned out by what Kellyanne Conway once labeled “alternative facts.” Right now we only know bits and pieces of Mueller’s findings. (Nor do we know whether he is close to issuing a report or not.) But the thing about stories built on actual facts, as Mueller’s will be, is that they tend to be powerful and command attention because they add up. People like solid crime stories. And so even now, even amid all the current racket, at least one such story is emerging loud and clear: the bridge that connects the Trump campaign to the trove of Democratic emails stolen by the Russians and publicized by WikiLeaks to sabotage the Clinton campaign. Two of the biggest sources for this story are Stone and Corsi themselves. The more they try to portray their WikiLeaks ties as innocent — Corsi even gave a blabby interview to the less-than-friendly outlet of MSNBC on Wednesday — the more they poke holes in their own flimsy cover stories and incriminate the president. Not for nothing did Trump promote WikiLeaks’ email cache at least 164 times in the last month of the 2016 campaign, in the calculation of the journalist Judd Legum. Everything adds up.
It also adds up that Trump remains in the panic that has consumed him since he returned from his calamitous trip to rainy Paris nearly three weeks ago. He just keeps tweeting maniacally about his innocence and Mueller’s “witch hunt” even as heads to the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, Mueller’s tale of his collusion with Russia gains traction by the moment. A Washington Post scoop overnight detailing profuse late-night phone calls between Stone and Trump at crucial junctures in 2016 suggests that it was Trump himself, not merely “the Trump campaign,” who had direct knowledge of Russia’s conspiracy to tip the election in his favor. Today has brought Michael Cohen’s surprise guilty plea in a Manhattan court, where he conceded he was lying to Congress when he claimed that Trump had stopped pursuing business deals in Russia in early 2016. Given that Trump has vehemently denied such dealings, Cohen’s revelation is another big chapter of the story. Who knows what additional plot twists will arrive tomorrow when Mueller’s prosecutors face off against Manafort’s lawyers in a federal courtroom — as ordered by a judge this week after Manafort broke his plea deal.
Mueller likely has many other stories to tell. As they become clearer, they are making Trump so nuts that he has given new meaning to the concept of protesting one’s innocence too much. First among them, no doubt, is the Trump Tower meeting with Jared, Donald Jr., Manafort, and Russians who apparently had nothing to do with the WikiLeaks story line. For those who are wondering why Trump doesn’t just go ahead and pardon Manafort and the rest, or have his new thug Attorney General Matthew Whitaker shut down Mueller, I suggest the answer is simple: Someone has gotten it through Trump’s head that such blatant moves will not prevent Mueller’s stories from getting out, not successfully protect all the president’s guilty men (and possibly women) from criminal exposure, and not necessarily be constitutional if the aim is to exchange pardons for silence. What Trump would succeed in doing instead is adding another chapter or two to still another Mueller true-crime tale, the one about obstruction of justice.
With his loss to Cindy Hyde-Smith in the runoff Senate election in Mississippi, Mike Espy joins Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams, and others in a wave of high-profile black candidates who lost closer-than-expected elections for major office in the South. Will their campaigns be a turning point for the region?
Closer than expected is a good thing, but the fact remains: Gillum, Abrams, and Espy all lost to white Republicans who played the race card with a vengeance. Ron DeSantis, who beat Gillum for the Florida governorship, said his opponent would “monkey this up” at the start of his campaign. Abrams lost her Georgia gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp, the state’s secretary of state, who literally had charge of an electoral process notorious for throwing impediments in the path of minority voters. Hyde-Smith not only cracked a joke about a public hanging but had a well-documented history of endorsing her state’s Confederate legacy.
Continuing demographic shifts may well make a difference in elections to come in Florida and Georgia. But not in Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, where the white majority is large, entrenched, and not likely to be challenged by an influx of new industry and its more diverse workforce anytime soon. But the bigger issue is how these races confirm the reality that the Republican Party has proudly and uninhibitedly come out of the closet as the standard-bearer for white supremacy in the Trump era.
This racial animus has deep roots, after all, in a GOP that first employed its race-baiting “southern strategy” a half-century ago under the aegis of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. In 1980, just 16 years after three civil-rights workers were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi, Ronald Reagan chose that spot to deliver a “states rights” speech right after sewing up the presidential nomination. (Hyde-Smith took nearly 71 percent of the vote in Neshoba County, where Philadelphia is located.) George H.W. Bush ran as much against a previously obscure black criminal, Willie Horton, as he did against Michael Dukakis, and George W. Bush appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, who castrated the Voting Rights Act. Even now, the Republican-majority Senate is on the verge of confirming Thomas Farr as a federal judge in North Carolina. Farr was a protégé of the unabashedly racist Senator Jesse Helms, and an author of the 2013 North Carolina law so restrictive of minority voting rights that the federal court which overruled it three years later declared that it had targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
Trump has made Jim Crow great again for his nearly all-white party. This is a banner it will likely fight under for years to come, no matter what Trump’s fate, as it tries to ward off its demographic fate.
A Miami Herald investigation into the 2007 “sweetheart plea deal” given to multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein found more than 80 women who say they were molested or abused by Epstein, many while in their teens, though Epstein was allowed to plead guilty to just two charges and “any potential co-conspirators” were granted immunity. The deal was negotiated with Trump’s current secretary of Labor, who was then a federal prosecutor in Florida; Epstein’s lawyers included Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr, and his friends famously included Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. What does the Herald report add to what we already know about Epstein and his circle?
This is an astonishing if stomach-churning feat of investigative reporting by the Herald. If you read it in conjunction with the new Times investigation of Leslie Moonves, you will be sickened all over again by the quantity of sexual assault that not only took place in the highest echelons of American society but that was then successfully covered up by corporations, lawyers, and supposed law-enforcement authorities. In Epstein’s case, the Herald located not just forgotten victims among “a large, cult-like network of underage girls” but also uncovered, among other evidence, the full unredacted police investigation conducted in Palm Beach, where most (but not all) of Epstein’s crimes were carried out in a waterfront mansion.
What stands out is how Alexander Acosta, then Miami’s top federal prosecutor and now Trump’s secretary of Labor, presided over a sweetheart plea deal that both allowed Epstein to escape serious punishment and shut down an FBI investigation of additional crimes. (Epstein also was let off the hook in New York by the office of the DA Cyrus Vance.) The Herald presents a sordid picture of the powerful lawyers who ran Epstein’s defense, including Dershowitz and Starr. “Irony” is too weak a word to wield in talking about Starr, the pious Clinton pursuer who, in addition to fiercely advocating for the sex-criminal Epstein, looked the other way when a sexual-assault scandal unfolded at Baylor University while he was its president. In the Times’ new story, there is a comparable narrative about the high-powered lawyers CBS employed to investigate Moonves and ended up protecting him. It leaves you wondering what might have been covered up in CBS “investigations” of Charlie Rose and Jeff Fager as well.
Clinton and Trump’s see-no-evil friendships with Epstein are appalling. Surely one of the most chilling sentences in the Herald account is its reminder of how in 2002 Epstein flew Clinton and Kevin Spacey, among others, on a private jet as part of “a fact-finding AIDS mission in support of the Clinton Foundation.” As for Trump, you have to wonder if Acosta is Labor secretary — as well as a potential choice for attorney general — because of what he might know about what went on at Mar-a-Lago, from whose workers’ ranks, the Herald reports, Epstein plucked at least one victim.