Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the saga of former NSA Michael Flynn, President Trump and the press, and SNL’s surge.
On Friday, asked about reports that now-former national security adviser Michael Flynn had discussed sanctions with Russian officials, Donald Trump said, “I don’t know about that …I’ll look into that.” Since Flynn’s resignation Monday night, the White House line has been that Trump had been “looking into it” for weeks, and last night the New York Times and CNN revealed that Trump aides had spoken with Russian intelligence before the election, which the administration had also denied. With calls for a formal investigation only growing louder, how long until the official explanation of this scandal changes again?
I suspect the official explanation will change four times even while I write the answer to your question. When you create a White House of Lies from the Oval Office, as Trump has, and grant a license to your entire administration to lie with impunity, it soon becomes impossible for all the players to keep their stories straight whether they are talking to the press, or to federal or congressional investigators, or to each other. God knows Richard Nixon tried his considerable best to keep the lid on the rampant culture of lying that he erected in the White House; he was able to prevent the dam from breaking for well over a year after the Watergate break-in. But Trump is no Nixon: He doesn’t possess the brains, the discipline, the decades of experience of political and governmental combat, or the laser-focused Machiavellian cunning to sustain a Watergate-style cover-up. By the standards of our impeachment-worthy presidents, Trump is a rank amateur. Even the small-time grifter Warren Harding was able to keep the Teapot Dome scandals at bay for his entire presidency; the sordid news didn’t emerge until after he died in office. By contrast, the web of lies surrounding Michael Flynn started to unravel less than a month after Inauguration Day.
The lies, “alternative facts,” and “incomplete information” that Trump and his cadre have fed to the press and the public about Flynn are but the leading indicators of the depth of their mendacity. We now know that not only was Flynn lying to Mike Pence and the White House, but that Trump was also in essence lying to Pence by keeping him in the dark for weeks about what he knew about Flynn. Did Flynn lie to the FBI? Have others in the Trump orbit also lied to the feds to try to foil their investigation of Russian interference in our presidential election? We’ll get a sense of the scale of this cover-up before long, once all the president’s men are forced to lawyer up. Which in turn will lead to a further collapse of an underpopulated and overmatched Executive branch that already is essentially nonfunctional beyond its premature ejaculation of legally challenged presidential executive orders.
Yet Trump seems incredibly clueless about the gravity of the situation. His attempt to change the subject yesterday — the “real story” of the Flynn resignation, he tweeted, is “illegal leaks” — is self-impeaching. The president sees no problem in his national security adviser having done backdoor dealings with Russia; the only crime in Trump’s eyes is that Flynn got caught. It also doesn’t seem to have occurred to Trump that his White House is itself birthing many, if not most, of the leakers now dogging him. Those leakers are highly motivated both by a desire to save their own skins and by their internal power struggles within the isolated Trump bunker. Other leakers can be found at the intelligence agencies Trump managed to turn into enemies by trashing them before he was even sworn in. Such is Trump’s ego that he actually believed he was cleverer than they are; how quickly he is discovering that the reverse is true, by a landslide.
It will be fascinating to see if GOP leaders finally revolt to save their own skins. The same politicians who wanted to lock Hillary Clinton up for her private email server and who turned the Benghazi investigation into a fruitless two-year sinkhole of government waste are so far doing little to counter a president who (a) may be a wholly owned mole of the nation his own Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, declared the No. 1 foreign threat during his confirmation hearing; (b) ordered a botched raid in Yemen for which there has been no accountability; (c) invited fellow diners at Mar-a-Lago to eavesdrop on a confidential crisis meeting with a foreign leader; (d) fired the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, who had warned him about Flynn’s lies; and (e) hired Flynn in the first place. (I know that this national-security thread is merely a short list of the administration’s indignities.) Flynn! This is a guy whose first acts after being named national security adviser included obtaining a security clearance for his son, a mad conspiracy theorist who used social media to promote, among other hoaxes, the scenario that Clinton was masterminding a child sex ring from a pizza parlor in Northwest Washington. Flynn was a security adviser so cavalier about his own security that it seems not to have occurred to him that his communications with a Russian ambassador would be intercepted by American intelligence services.
How long will Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and their peers continue to slow-walk or kill any investigations into this morass? Will it take an international crisis involving Russia, Iran, North Korea, ISIS, or who knows who else, as America’s enemies seize their opening to capitalize on the chaos in Washington? Given the GOP leaders’ collaboration with Trump over the past year, we already know they care about party more than country. But circumstances beyond America’s borders may soon force them either to take action or go down with Trump’s ship.
Meanwhile, it looks like Trump is structuring his official press appearances to filter out the toughest questions. Can members of the press oppose this strategy effectively?
Unsurprisingly, Trump favors taking questions from right-wing outlets, most notably Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post and Wall Street Journal. (The latter’s editor had to hold a town hall meeting this week to address his own staff’s unhappiness with the Trump-coddling reputation their paper has earned under his partisan leadership.) But I don’t think Trump’s preference for softball questioners should or will make any difference in terms of press coverage of Trump. The real story, as Trump might put it, is not what he or Sean Spicer or Kellyanne Conway or Stephen Miller or any of the others say in their mostly fictitious public utterances, whether in the White House press room or on Sunday-morning talk shows, but what happens behind closed doors. And there are many first-rate reporters working in real news, as opposed to the Murdoch-Breitbart state press, competing for those scoops. Let’s not forget that Pence learned that Flynn lied to him not from any of his colleagues in the Trump White House but from a report in the Washington Post.
This administration promises to be one long night of the long knives, as the various courtiers competing for their mercurial boss’s favor sell out their rivals to anyone with a notebook. Trump could eliminate press conferences altogether, or have all the questions asked by the extras he hired for his campaign’s initial Trump Tower coming-out party, and the major real-news organizations would still not lack for compelling stories of Trumpian calamity.
After taking criticism for its role in Trump’s run to the White House, Saturday Night Live spent the postelection period extracting its revenge, and is seeing its highest ratings since 2011. All’s well that ends well?
This is truly a special moment for SNL. To be sure, there is if anything a surplus of smart anti-Trump comedy in late-night television right now. But Trump no doubt dismisses Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Seth Meyers, and Stephen Colbert — if they are even on his very limited radar screen — as niche TV. When he’s not watching CNN or Fox News, Trump is mainly a consumer of mainstream broadcast entertainment television. SNL is at once a product of the network that made him a star, a fabled brand in its own right, and a show on which he has happily appeared. So he takes it seriously, much as he does “the failing New York Times,” no matter how often he derides it in 140 characters. SNL has the power to reach him and hit him where he lives.
It must have infuriated Trump, who has been mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger’s poor ratings on Celebrity Apprentice, when he learned that last Saturday’s SNL, with Alec Baldwin as guest host, drew higher ratings than Trump’s own SNL hosting gig during the presidential campaign. But as much as Trump may be affronted by the popularity of Baldwin’s devastating faux Trump, we’ve learned (from still more White House leakers) that he was even more enraged by Melissa McCarthy’s rollicking impersonation of Sean Spicer. Trump, as I don’t need to remind anyone, has a contemptuous view of women, particularly women who don’t resemble any of his wives. A brilliant female comedian playing his male press secretary is, for him, the ultimate emasculating indignity. So much so that when McCarthy revived her Spicer for a second appearance last weekend, Trump’s Twitter feed fell silent. That he did not attack SNL despite that provocation is a sign that the show really is getting to him. We know damn well he is watching.
We must hope that SNL keeps expanding its gender-flipping stunts. In McCarthy’s wake, Rosie O’Donnell has informally lobbied to play Steve Bannon. How about Kristin Wiig as Jared Kushner, Leslie Jones as Ben Carson, and Meryl Streep going public with the Trump impersonation she performed to much acclaim at a gala in New York last year? Trump is driving many Americans mad. SNL has the power to inflict damage of its own on what may be the most fragile psyche to find its way into the presidency since a Scotch-lubricated Nixon could be found late at night talking to portraits on the White House walls.