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 meaning of the Sean Hannity–Michael Cohen revelation, James Comey’s new book, and the evolution of Nikki Haley.
Now that he’s been named as a client of Trump fixer Michael Cohen, we know that Sean Hannity’s pro-Trump agenda is inseparable from his closeness to Cohen, at least two other Trump-connected lawyers, and Trump himself. Fox News, betting that its viewers won’t care, has agreed with its star that no disclosure was needed. Are they right?
If there turns out to be a Michael Cohen dossier proving that it was Hannity and Trump who had urinated on each other in that Moscow Ritz-Carlton bedroom, Hannity’s audience would still remain loyal to him, and Fox News would still remain loyal to its biggest star. The notion that journalistic rules or ethics have any meaning at a Murdoch outfit, or that its audience wants them to apply, is a fantasy. Fox News doesn’t give a damn about press watchdogs and Pulitzers. It cares about money and power. That’s all Hannity cares about too, and, as the Washington Post reported this week, he is delighted to function as Trump’s shadow chief of staff even while posing as an honest broker on television: “Basically he has a desk” in the White House, according to one presidential adviser.
But please, let’s pause a moment to appreciate the sheer farce — and sheer joy — of Monday’s moment in Judge Kimba Wood’s New York courtroom when, to audible gasps, it was revealed that Hannity was Cohen’s mystery client No. 3. Since then, in an apparent desire to convince his family that he is the only Cohen client not involved in paying off a porn star or Playboy model, Hannity has changed his story so many times it’s head-spinning. He has claimed that Cohen has never represented him as a lawyer, and yet argues that he is still entitled to attorney-client privilege because they have occasionally chatted about some legal matters. What legal matters? Not any involving a “third party,” says Hannity. Which in turn gives rise to Jimmy Kimmel’s perfectly logical question, “Maybe Sean Hannity was thinking about suing himself?”
Meanwhile, what kind of lawyer has only three clients, at least one of whom doesn’t pay him? (And given Trump’s long history of stiffing vendors, it’s entirely possible two of the three don’t pay.) Maybe Cohen’s law degree is from Trump University. Clearly there’s much more to learn about this theoretical legal eagle thanks to the files, emails, recordings, and who knows what now in law enforcement’s hands. Which brings me to another rare source of joy in this whole rancid affair: the sheer delight of Stormy Daniels’s lawyer Michael Avenatti as he squares off against an adversary as stupid and incompetent as Cohen. “Bad things happen when you don’t surround yourself with competent, intelligent, battle-tested counsel” as he put it in one of the more polite blasts in his essential Twitter feed trolling Trump’s “fixer.” Avenatti sent this tweet around the time Cohen failed to show up at Judge Wood’s first hearing and was found instead playing hooky outside the Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue smoking cigars with a posse of unidentified bros. The scene begged to be outfitted with the Sopranos theme song and online soon was.
Last night both The Wall Street Journal and Politico posted stories suggesting that Cohen is a worm who, to save himself from prison, will turn on Trump as fast as you can say “Michael Flynn.” The threat he represents to the White House is clear from its scramble to portray him as a minor figure in the Trump cosmography. Much as Sean Spicer tried to rewrite history by purporting that Paul Manafort, Trump’s indicted campaign manager, had only a “very limited role for a very limited amount of time,” so Sarah Huckabee Sanders is now claiming that Cohen, whom Trump has frequently and recently described as “my attorney,” is only one of “a large number of attorneys” in his employ. One thing that’s certain: Sanders is only one of a large number of liars in this White House.
James Comey’s long-awaited book (and its relentless media tour) has sparked something of an unexpected backlash, with critics drawing attention to Comey’s spotty self-examination and the admission that, despite previous denials, his preelection announcement of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails was made with political implications in mind. What should we take from Comey’s anti-Trump campaign?
I have to confess that I wish Comey were as entertaining as Avenatti. My only concern about him is that nothing he says in any way will damage his standing or credibility as a crucial witness in Robert Mueller’s case for obstruction of justice. Otherwise his media blitz is best described by the Washington Post television critic Hank Stuever as an object lesson in “just how quickly the 21st century can make work of a 15th-century piece of technology — a book” — as “it chews it down, extracts whatever news and protein it needs from it, and then excretes it out the other end in a matter of days.” I doubt that Comey’s book or interviews are going to change any minds among either his liberal or Trumpist critics, but this marathon excretion is worth it if only because he truly drives Trump nuts.
After Trump walked back Russia sanctions that she had just announced, Nikki Haley didn’t hide her feelings about being hung out to dry, and the New York Times reports that unnamed “Republicans close to the White House” have begun to speculate about a Pence/Haley GOP ticket in 2020. Are we watching Haley grow into Trump’s most powerful Republican foreign-policy critic?
No. And while Haley’s political ambitions have long been apparent, it’s highly unlikely she’d hitch her star to Pence, who is the least likely sitting vice-president to be elected president since Spiro Agnew — even if he should inherit the job temporarily via the 25th amendment.
The sanctions flip-flop and Haley’s public displeasure about it do confirm a few things we already know. First, Trump has no intention of punishing Russia in any sustained or tough way for the simple obvious reason that Putin has something on him and possibly his son, his son-in-law, and others in his orbit. Second, no matter who the players, Trump’s foreign policy remains in complete disarray. He announced we were leaving Syria. Then he launched air strikes on Syria. He let Haley signal more Russian sanctions. Then he called them off. And now what? He’ll go back to figuring out how to bomb Rod Rosenstein.
At the same time he has chosen a new national security adviser and secretary of State — John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, respectively — who, like Haley, are hard-line hawks and neocons with views antithetical to Trump’s (and much of his base’s) America First push toward nationalism and isolationism. He’s come down on this new team’s side with his pardon of a criminal architect of the Iraq War, Scooter Libby, and his bizarre (or is it just clueless?) attempt to rehabilitate “Mission Accomplished” as a presidential brand for “winning.” But will Trump go along with his hawks on challenging Russia and pursuing further action in Syria (or any other battleground)? I doubt it. There will be only incoherent, improvised, from-the-gut policy on any of it; witness how his message about his goals for talks with “little rocket man” seems to change by the hour. This slapstick isn’t even worthy of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup — it’s vintage Three Stooges.
One further indicator of the chaos is that it was Larry Kudlow, the newly appointed Trump economic adviser, who slapped down and insulted Haley, accusing her of “some momentary confusion” when she announced new sanctions on Russia last Sunday. That Kudlow, who has nothing to do with foreign policy, was assigned or took on this task himself is what’s truly confusing. If we can be grateful for small favors, at least neither Ben Carson nor Betsy DeVos has yet to weigh in on Kim Jong-un.