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 Bob Woodward’s new book and the New York Times op-ed by an anonymous administration official, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and John McCain’s legacy.
Despite the depiction of a “nervous breakdown” of the American presidency — senior aides interfering with presidential duties and ignoring direct orders, claiming to protect Donald Trump from himself — in Bob Woodward’s new book and yesterday’s anonymous Times op-ed, the wider GOP has been slow to push back against either the claims or the president. Is the party betting that these revelations will blow over?
For once Trump is right: the “anonymous” Times op-ed is “gutless.” The anonymity allows its author to do what every other cowering administration figure and Republican leader has done since Inauguration Day — duck any responsibility for what is happening and retreat from any real pushback against Trump. If we are to believe Mr. (or Ms.) Anonymous, he and his fellow in-house Trump resisters are the “adults in the room” and “unsung heroes” who are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” This is no doubt how Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and all the rest of the president’s Vichy Republicans see themselves too. It’s also how the departed economic adviser Gary Cohn — clearly a major source for Woodward — saw himself. But which of Trump’s “worst inclinations” have any of them frustrated? The ripping apart of immigrant families? The nonstop race-baiting and the condoning of white neo-Nazis at Charlottesville? The assaults on Americans’ health care, on LGBT rights, on the press? The nonstop ethical abuses and kleptomania of the Trump family and Cabinet members? The wholesale effort to sabotage the rule of law? The anonymous author, like every other Trump enabler, essentially says don’t worry, we have the country’s back, and any White House horror is worth it in exchange for “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.”
At least when those like Lindsey Graham espouse such a rationale they attach their names to it. Mr. Anonymous is a coward so lacking a moral compass that he doesn’t realize that the best way to “preserve our democratic institutions” (as he claims to be doing) is to identify himself, resign, and report any criminal activity he has witnessed by the president or his colleagues. The Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple has a point when he dismisses the op-ed as “a P.R. stunt” for the Times, since it adds an intriguing guessing game but no news to what we already know about this White House from Woodward and even Omarosa, not to mention the stalwart work of reporters at the Times and Post since Inauguration Day.
But the piece could also be viewed as a P.R. strategy for its author. It reads like a defense document that’s being put on the record should that rainy day come when Mr. Anonymous, no longer anonymous, will have to defend his own actions in a Nuremberg-like legal reckoning once the king of Crazytown has been carted off. As any student of Vichy knows, there was no shortage of French collaborators who falsely claimed to have been secretly part of the underground Resistance to the Pétain regime once the war was over.
Many people have been following Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings to learn more about the nominee’s views on two topics that may, in the near future, be before the court: abortion rights and the legal limits of the presidency. Have any of Kavanaugh’s answers tipped his hand?
The hearings have done nothing to contradict what we knew before they began. Of course Kavanaugh is going to do his part to restrict abortion rights, no matter what his evasive double talk about “precedent upon precedent.” The only person in America on either side of the question who thinks he favors upholding Roe v. Wade is Senator Susan Collins of Maine. And, as his refusal to answer particular “hypothetical” questions indicate, Kavanaugh also stands ready to help Trump evade the law. He refused to say whether he believes the president can defy a subpoena or pardon himself, and he refused to recuse himself from any forthcoming cases which might involve Trump. He even refused to condemn Trump’s tweet attacking the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, Jeff Sessions, for permitting the indictments of two Republican congressmen accused of wholesale financial theft.
“What kind of country have we become?” whined Lindsey Graham, appalled that Kavanaugh’s daughters had to witness rude protesters in the hearing room on opening day. Thanks to Graham and his cohort, we have become Trump country. In keeping with that, the hearings are a clown show, a bare simulation of democratic procedure, with withheld evidence, unexamined evidence delivered in a last-minute document dump, and a foregone conclusion. In that spirit, here’s what I would ask Kavanaugh if I were a Democratic senator on the Judiciary Committee: “Explain your thinking when you wrote a legal memo to the independent counsel Kenneth Starr proposing that President Clinton be asked this question and nine others like it: ‘If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions in the Oval Office area, you used your fingers to stimulate her vagina and bring her to orgasm, would she be lying?’” And in further keeping with the ethos set by the “grab ’em by the pussy” president who nominated Kavanaugh, I would ask that question aloud before the nominee’s family. The answer might well illuminate the future justice’s view of women and their right to govern their own bodies with a specificity missing in his obfuscating filibusters about Roe.
John McCain’s memorial proceedings proved to be something of a Washington Rorschach test, where members of the political elite saw everything from the end of Washington civility to a meeting of the resistance to the precursor of Trumpian politics. What will be McCain’s legacy?
Outside the Trump White House, it hardly needs to be said that McCain’s self-sacrifice as a prisoner of war and his unwavering dedication to principled public service afterward is one of the most heroic tales in the American canon. He never stopped trying to do the right thing as he saw it, and if most of the time that was the conservative thing, he came by his Arizona brand of Goldwaterism honestly. His memorable thumbs-down to the repeal of Obamacare was something of an anomaly in that regard — a brave vote of conscience under horrific medical circumstances. It’s a moment that may be savored by students of politics for decades to come.
He made two major errors of judgment that history is unlikely to forgive. The first was his unalloyed cheerleading for the post-9/11 Iraq War, one of the biggest foreign policy fiascoes in our history. The second was putting Sarah Palin on the 2008 Republican ticket. McCain deserves full credit for talking down that voter who characterized Barack Obama as a malevolent “Arab.” But in picking Palin, he did give his valuable imprimatur to what we now know as Trumpism, an ugly amalgam of race-based nationalism and corrupt, incompetent governance.
Look at the Palin rallies during the McCain campaign and you’ll see the dry run of Trump’s MAGA hatefests. In the anonymous Times op-ed, the author uses McCain as a beard, calling him a “lodestar” and citing his powerful farewell letter as an expression of his own beliefs. But Mr. Anonymous’s enlistment in the Trump White House mitigates his self-aggrandizing appropriation of McCain’s final message much as McCain’s empowering of Palin in 2008, which he never fully disowned, casts a shadow over his subsequent anti-Trumpism.
The memorials to McCain were fascinating. The outpouring of affection for him was genuine, to be sure — including from the press. McCain joked that journalists were his “base,” and with good reason. He was an utterly charming, forthright, and disarming guy when he wanted to be, with a sense of humor very rare among politicians of any stripe. But even without Meghan McCain making it explicit, the memorial proceedings were as much about Trump as John McCain, in part by McCain’s design.
My favorite take on it all was from Tim Miller, a Never-Trump Republican political operator who’d worked for Jeb Bush in 2016. “Here’s my problem with saying a eulogy is an ‘implicit critique of the president,’” he wrote on Twitter. “It is impossible to praise someone’s commitment to American values or highlight admirable character traits without implicitly criticizing Trump bc he doesn’t believe in them and he has none.”