Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Trumpcare, the Comey hearing, and the legacy of Robert Silvers.
With a combination of targeted perks and not-so-veiled threats, President Trump has aligned himself with Paul Ryan and leaders of the House GOP behind the health-care overhaul. Who gets the blame if it fails?
There are so many possibilities for an epic fail built into Trump’s promise to simultaneously repeal Obamacare and replace it with better “insurance for everybody” that it’s hard to know where to begin. But here’s the one thing every scenario has in common: The blame will belong entirely to Trump and the Republicans, who now have exclusive ownership of the federal government.
As of Wednesday morning, no one knows if Ryan can even get the ever-changing bill through the House, thanks to potential Republican defections from the party’s right flank. After Trump’s Tuesday meeting with recalcitrant members of his caucus, the speaker slobbered over the president in his best collaborationist manner, claiming that he not only “knocked the ball of the park” but “knocked the cover off the ball.” Hard to know what that means exactly, since there’s no evidence that Trump knows what’s in the bill as he tries to strong-arm the resisters — he just makes threats of retribution to the naysayers (“I’m gonna come after you!”) and bloviates about winning (“Honestly, a loss is not acceptable, folks”), as if realizing complex legislation in the capital was tantamount to a ribbon cutting for an Atlantic City casino.
We have now learned, from the Times’ Margot Sanger-Katz, that the ramshackle, fast-tracked Ryan bill replacing Obamacare will throw even more Americans off health insurance (24 million, in the Congressional Budget Office estimate) than simply repealing Obamacare (23 million). This is legislative slapstick worthy of the Three Stooges. In any case, if Ryan doesn’t deliver in the House, you can bet that Trump, who always blames others for his failures, will knock the cover off Ryan’s own balls (such as they are), rhetorically at least.
But let’s say this bill does limp its way to the Senate. There, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz are lying in wait to trash it as Obamacare Lite and to beat back any attempts by anxious Republican senators in purplish states to moderate its impact on the millions of voters who will lose their health care if it’s enacted. If anything resembling the House bill does make it through the Senate and on to Trump’s desk to be signed into law, it’s a public-health disaster for America, and most especially for the lower-income and older Americans who voted for Donald J. Trump, whose health care will be disproportionately disrupted compared to Clinton voters.
The other route to catastrophe is happier, in that it won’t have the real-life outcome of throwing patients out on the street: If “repeal and replace” dies after seven years of relentless GOP promises that it was a done deal as soon as the party gained power, so does the credibility of the president and the congressional leadership alike. Forget about Trump’s grand plans (actually more boasts than plans) to rebuild America’s infrastructure while rewarding the rich with tax cuts. If a president with a 37 percent Gallup approval rating fails to win his first major legislative test, the blood is in the water. We’re in for months of gridlock — perhaps stretching to the 2018 midterms — a miracle in its way for those who want Trump governance (or non-governance) stopped in its tracks. The possibility that Trump might yet strangle his own presidency in its crib is enough to get one out of bed these days.
In his congressional testimony this week, FBI director James Comey confirmed that, despite Trump’s repeated claims otherwise, the Bureau is investigating Russian interference in last year’s election, as well as contact between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. How does this public disclosure affect the power of the Trump White House going forward?
If a health-care defeat doesn’t paralyze the Trump White House, this will. Already it’s clear, as the Watergate survivor John Dean has observed, that Trump’s inner circle (or former inner circle) is engaged in a cover-up. That the president is panicked was confirmed when he live-tweeted fictional rebuttals during Comey’s televised testimony.
The drip-drip-drip of revelations may well be daily: Witness this morning’s AP report that Paul Manafort had been working on Putin’s behalf as early as 2005, a fact that “appears to contradict assertions by the Trump administration and Manafort himself that he never worked for Russian interests.” It also helps explain why on the day of Comey’s testimony Sean Spicer was reduced to lying that Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman over a crucial five months in 2016, “played a very limited role” for “a very limited amount of time” that year. And it explains Spicer’s statement today that “it would be inappropriate for us to comment on a person who is not a White House employee.”
But for me anyway, the single biggest news break of the Russia-Trump story this week came from Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, who reported that one of Trump’s “closest White House advisers” flatly predicted that Comey would testify on Monday that “there absolutely was no contact, collusion or anything like that” between Russia and the Trump campaign. That Comey testified exactly the opposite suggests that the White House isn’t only out of touch with reality but is no longer in a position to keep its false narrative (a.k.a., cover-up) straight as it confronts the revelations to come.
Robert Silvers, co-founder and longtime editor of the New York Review of Books, died on Monday. As a contributor to the Review, what are your memories of working with him?
I encourage readers to go to the Review’s site, where many writers of all types and ages, most of them with histories far longer and deeper than mine, have written of what made Silvers an extraordinary figure in both their work and their lives. First-timers will also discover the breadth of the Review, which, with its infinite variety of subjects and multitude of distinctive voices, has long spoken for itself. With all due respect to Spotify and Netflix, I’d say there is probably no better use of $69 in discretionary spending than for a digital subscription, which provides access to the entire archive of work published by Bob and, until her death a little more than a decade ago, his partner in editorial brilliance, Barbara Epstein. It’s a sweeping history of the past half century, built for permanence.
Over at The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson has perfectly described my own experience of the Silvers editorial process. It sometimes began with the out-of-the-blue delivery of a box of books on a subject, accompanied by a courtly note suggesting a roomy (and flexible) length for the piece, a fee (highish by the standards of its tier of publications), a few thoughts that might be considered in the essay (but could also, like some of the books, be discarded), and a deadline that was more of a polite suggestion than an edict. Once you turned in a manuscript, he did something almost no editors of his stature ever do: He read it immediately, or close to it, and found you on the phone from his office even if it was, say, ten p.m. on a Saturday night. His simple joy at receiving a piece was cheering, and his suggestions for improvements were so gently and charmingly (and often humorously) delivered that you would want to drop everything and execute them on the spot.
As the contents of the Review demonstrated every two weeks, Bob was interested in just about everything and would induce his writers to stretch as he did. I wrote for him about subjects as far afield as Elia Kazan and Bob Hope (both at his instigation) as well as politics. My last conversations with him were prompted by his fascination with Megyn Kelly. But there was beyond all that a loveliness and generosity about him as a person. This was most evident to me in his relationship with the young people who cycled through his office as assistants early in their careers, several generations of writers and editors on whom Bob bestowed rigorous intellectual standards, confidence, and the sense of how one might achieve a career in letters. They can be found in nearly every corner of literature and journalism. For this, too, countless readers who have never picked up the Review or heard of Robert Silvers owe him immeasurable thanks. For those of us lucky enough to cross his path, whether as writers or simply as devoted Review readers, it’s impossible to imagine our lives and the cultural life of modern America without him.