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 ongoing campaign against his attorney general, the question of “Spygate,” and the cancellation of Roseanne.
Following a New York Times report that Trump had asked Sessions to “unrecuse” himself from the Russia investigation, Trump tweeted that he wishes he’d picked someone else as his attorney general, whom he accused of “betrayal.” Is his response to the story an admission of obstruction of justice?
So you’d think. If Trump is innocent of all potential charges in the Russia probe, why would he want a loyal puppet in charge of the Mueller investigation except to obstruct it? His continued wail about Sessions, not just on Twitter but to anyone in earshot, is so patently self-incriminating that it’s laughable. Not to mention over-the-top. Look at our president’s priorities: He is now spending more time vilifying Sessions (and Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller) than he is on his putative summit with Kim Jong-un, in which America’s national security is at stake. He now professes a far lower opinion of Sessions, his own choice for our country’s chief law-enforcement officer, than he does of North Korea’s murderous dictator.
Yet Sessions is in every substantive way the ultimate Trump loyalist. A xenophobic, anti-immigration hardliner with a racist past, he was the first GOP senator to endorse Trump during the campaign and even remained onboard after the Access Hollywood video. He is to this day pursuing the White House’s hard-right agenda more effectively than any other member of the administration. How do you parse that record with Trump’s relentless, even farcical vitriol? There are only two possible answers: Trump is so anxious about his legal exposure as Mueller closes in that he just can’t help betraying his guilt in public like a bargain-basement Macbeth. Or he’s batshit crazy. Or both.
An ancillary question: Why doesn’t Trump just go ahead and fire Sessions? Republican senators have made noises to the effect that they would not confirm a successor. Even if we believed that they would actually do as they say — they often talk a good game of rebellion only to cower in the crunch — why would Trump even care? He’s never shown any previous concern about leaving major administration jobs unfilled. He could then fire Rosenstein, too. A leaderless Department of Justice may not serve the nation, but it certainly is in Trump’s best interest in terms of stalling or derailing Mueller. And there’s nothing to stop Trump from doing any of this except unsubstantiated Beltway murmurs that such actions would finally drive Republicans in Congress to wake up to a “Constitutional crisis.” It would be a Constitutional crisis indeed, but I remain skeptical that any GOP leaders would assert the rule of law in that instance any more than they have during all of the other extralegal outrages of this White House. The only credible explanation I can see for Trump prolonging Sessions’s agony is its usefulness as a plot arc in his ongoing reality show. He never wants to give us a reason to change the channel.
Republican congressman Trey Gowdy, after attending a classified Justice Department briefing, went on Fox News to defend the FBI’s use of an informant to gather information on the Trump campaign in 2016. Does this take the air out of Trump’s continued “Spygate” attacks on the Mueller investigation?
Gowdy isn’t the only Trump supporter who has dismissed the president and Rudy Giuliani’s ostensibly exculpatory conspiracy theory of “Spygate.” Fox News has also expressed skepticism: Even the hard-right, Trumpist talking head Andrew Napolitano — who had endorsed a previous presidential conspiracy theory that had Obama seeking British assistance to wiretap Trump — has called “Spygate” baseless. But it doesn’t matter. Gowdy is retiring from Congress and Napolitano is merely a cable commentator. Their talk will have zero effect on the “Spygate” propaganda campaign when it’s not matched by similarly strong words by Republicans actually in power. It says all you need to know about the backbone of supposed Trump critics in the GOP that Mitt Romney, now campaigning for the Senate in Utah, announced that he wrote in his wife’s name in 2016 rather than vote for a Trump opponent.
Giuliani has said that the White House’s “Spygate” smokescreen is “working” in the sense that it’s denting public confidence in the Mueller investigation and further confusing low-information voters who don’t really know what the whole collusion story is about anyway. He’s not wrong. The fact that “Spygate” is built on lies, like the (literally) thousands of other lies previously disseminated by this presidency, makes no difference to Trump voters. They either refuse to believe that he is lying, don’t care that he is lying, or love that he’s lying. Those of us in the fake-news business should continue to document those lies, but we should have the modesty to realize that the Trump base is either tuning out all of it or laughing it off. It’s a conversation we’re having among ourselves.
What could change this equation are two potential developments. (1) The release of a Mueller report, presumably accompanied by further indictments of those in the president’s circle (and possibly his family), that is so solid in its evidence and vivid in its arguments that it will upstage fictions like “Spygate” in the public arena not necessarily because it is factual but because it simply is fresh and more dramatic than the White House’s bogus narrative. We can’t count out the possibility that even in this post-fact Trumpian haze, an avalanche of gripping facts can be more exciting than Trump’s crude and repetitive pulp fictions. (2) The Democrats win back either chamber of Congress in November. Whether they are called “impeachment” hearings or not, there will be round-the-clock congressional inquiries, no doubt televised, that will reduce “Spygate” to a Jeopardy question. Those fireworks will not be easily deflected by more MAGA rallies in Ohio.
Hours after Roseanne Barr sent a racist tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, ABC canceled her show’s reboot, which the network had showcased to advertisers barely two weeks ago. Even before her new show’s season began, Roseanne had become notorious for racist statements on social media, with few real consequences — why was this time different?
ABC and Disney deserve full credit for pulling the plug promptly in the face of Barr’s outrage. But what made this provocation different from Roseanne’s previous Twitter firebombs was their scale and toxicity — and the reality that this time, as opposed to her antics predating the Roseanne reboot, Disney and ABC owned Barr. They had no choice but capital punishment. ABC would have faced a wholesale revolt within its own workplace, not to mention among viewers and advertisers. I’d also suggest that Barr’s Twitter soliloquy, as manic as it was hateful, suggests that she was in no shape to continue meeting the demands of starring in a network television series that was just about to reconvene for its second season. Even if ABC had done nothing, this is a problem that likely would have taken care of itself fairly promptly. It was good business management to take the lead in bringing about Roseanne’s inevitable demise rather than respond to the inexorable events that would have led to that same denouement.
Already at least one Trump crony is talking about bringing Roseanne back in some form or another, perhaps to the same digital black hole where Bill O’Reilly is now holding forth. It’s worth making some distinctions here. Of course television’s diversity should include programming created by Trump voters and with Trump voters as characters. It’s arguable that Roseanne — which dealt with Trumpism gingerly and, as its star has noted, was largely the work of liberals (including Whitney Cummings and Wanda Sykes) — was such a show. Its demise was brought about not by an excess of political correctness on the part of ABC or anyone else; it was brought about by its titular figure’s public displays of racism and anti-Semitism. That Barr thought she could spew them with impunity says much about how much Trump has lowered the bar of our culture in general. In that context, both she and Roseanne are the least of our problems.