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 Brett Kavanaugh’s presence on the Supreme Court and the New York Times’ reporting on apparent tax fraud by the Trump family.
Brett Kavanaugh is hearing his first cases as a Supreme Court justice this week. Has the bitter fight brought out by his confirmation ended?The bloody Kavanaugh fight was not the beginning, middle, or the end of this bitter fight. It was just the latest battle in a culture war that pits one of America’s two major political parties against the nation’s women. The Republican war against women began well before Donald Trump ran for president — at least as far back as 1992, when, in the aftermath of the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas debacle, the likes of Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and Phyllis Schlafly jawboned the GOP into adopting a misogynistic religious-right policy agenda at the Republican National Convention in Houston. The perhaps inevitable byproduct, a quarter-century later, was Trump, who as a candidate was fully embraced by his party despite having mocked a female primary rival for her looks, ridiculed a network news anchor for her presumed menstrual bleeding, and bragged on tape about his serial sexual assaults. No one should be surprised that, once elected, Trump would nominate a likely sex offender to the Supreme Court, where Kavanaugh will help fulfill the long-held GOP dream of rolling back Roe v. Wade, among other egregious ideological goals that will chip away at the rights of all Americans except white men.
Right up to the moment that narcissistic moral fraud Susan Collins gave her foreordained oration sealing Kavanaugh’s confirmation, many of those in opposition were holding out hope against hope that a silver bullet would yet emerge to doom his ascent: further confirmation of what happened that night to Christine Blasey Ford during high school, or perhaps another witness to Kavanaugh’s alleged terrorization of Deborah Ramirez at Yale. To me such hopes underestimated the gravity of the Republican Party’s misogynist mission. Let’s face it: even if someone had unearthed a crystal-clear photo or video of Kavanaugh exposing himself to Ramirez, the Senators of the “grab ’em by the pussy” party, Collins included, would still have voted to confirm him. For his part, Trump would have dismissed such visual evidence as “fake news” — just as he has the Access Hollywood tape — and would still have proclaimed Kavanaugh innocent of any charges. Had the FBI actually conducted a thorough investigation of Kavanaugh turning up still further evidence to back up Ford’s testimony, Trump would have attacked it too, dismissing the agency and its findings as a hoax much as he has every federal law-enforcement investigation of the apparently bottomless illegalities committed by the Trump campaign and administration.
So let’s stop pretending that there is another GOP than the Trump GOP. Let’s stop declaring that Trump is suddenly sounding “presidential” just because he waits a few days before publicly trashing Blasey Ford. Let’s stop maintaining the fiction that Collins, Jeff Flake, Ben Sasse, Bob Corker, and their fellow Vichy Republicans, including Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin, are not onboard with what’s going on. And let’s not give credit to Republican politicians when they pay lip service to treating sexual-assault victims with “respect” or when they say, as the epically disingenuous Collins did, that they believe both Ford and Kavanaugh. When Collins says that she believes that the perpetrator of the attempted rape of Christine Blasey Ford was someone other than the man she elevated to the Supreme Court, she sounds like O.J. in search of the real killer of Nicole Brown Simpson.
As we try to look forward after this sordid episode — no easy task — we can perhaps take a little comfort in the fact that Trump didn’t yank Kavanaugh for an alternative nominee like Amy Coney Barrett, who is just as far to the right, if not more so, and who would have been carrying far less baggage (if any) to her seat on the Court. Kavanaugh has been delegitimized to a clear majority of America over the past month — by his partisan ravings and unchecked rage at the final hearing as much as by his unpersuasive denials of his past behavior toward women. No less delegitimized is the Supreme Court, whose already eroded image as a sanctuary of nonpartisan justice has now reached a nadir where Judge Judy may by default be the new gold standard of unbiased American jurisprudence. With such diminished moral authority, and with an unceasing run of 5–4 verdicts likely in major cases to come, the Court’s voyage to the right may well be buffeted by civic and political unrest that, as in other eras of American disunion, ultimately vacates those rulings out of sync with the majority of the nation’s citizens.
How will the Kavanaugh nomination affect the midterms, which are in less than four weeks?
It would be foolhardy to guess. Certainly the failure of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee to come up with a coherent strategy for questioning Kavanaugh hardly fills one with hope about the party’s management of the midterms. When you read simultaneous post-Kavanaugh columns in the Times headlined “Get Angry, and Get Involved” and “Liberals, This Is War,” you feel further frissons of anxiety. Such columns are right on, but they are preaching to a choir that is already registered to vote and will. The turnout the Democrats need for a blue wave — from voters under 30 and minorities — tend to skip non-presidential elections and don’t read newspaper op-ed columns.
Much has been made of a NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll released midway during the Kavanaugh endgame that showed a rise in fervor among GOP voters, who now were only two points behind Democrats in their enthusiasm for the midterms — a narrowing of a gap that had been ten points in July. But this poll was taken before Kavanaugh had won his fight, at the peak of Republican rage. The victors might be less charged-up after getting their poor victimized white guy on the Court, and Democrats might be angrier and more motivated to show up at the polls than ever. But the screenwriter William Goldman’s undying adage about Hollywood remains applicable to politics: “Nobody knows anything.”
A single-minded focus on Kavanaugh drowned out other major stories, most notably the New York Times investigation into the sources of Trump’s money, which the paper felt the need to reprint. Times reporters, after digging for a year and a half, uncovered that Trump’s fortune comes almost entirely from his father, and found what it called “instances of outright fraud” on taxes. Did this story miss its window?David Axelrod tweeted that it is “kind of remarkable that this story made nary a ripple in a week dominated by the Kavanaugh wars.” None of the Sunday-morning network political talk shows mentioned it. Even the Times’ own White House chief correspondent, Peter Baker, failed to mention his paper’s investigative effort in a front-page Trump news analysis arguing that the low unemployment rate, the successful negotiation of a (quasi-)new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, and the confirmation of Kavanaugh produced what may be “the best week of his presidency so far.”
Given that the Times investigation was a fascinating and wildly impressive feat of forensic journalism that read almost like a novel of gangsterism at times, why did it not land as much as one might have hoped? I don’t agree with those who argue that the Times made a mistake by publishing it during such a big news week. It’s always a big news week during the Trump presidency, and Trump, who is nothing if not an expert reality-television producer, is a master at drowning out news he doesn’t sanction. (The apocalyptic report from the United Nations’ panel on climate change didn’t stand a chance.) If Kavanaugh didn’t distract enough from the Times story then surely a Rod Rosenstein firing would have been plan B.
There are other explanations for the piece’s shortfall in public attention. Those who loathe Trump have long assumed he is a tax cheat of possibly felonious proportions; savory as the details are in the Times investigation, the bottom line of its findings is not news. The article might have gained more traction as news if the Times had been more hard-hitting about its own collusion in creating the Trump myth. The article does contain a fleeting mea culpa on that score, but stops short of excavating the full story of how Trump and his fixer, Roy Cohn, manipulated the Times throughout Trump’s rise in New York.
But the biggest reason why a Trump investigation as strong as this one fails to cause a huge stir may be cultural. As we all know, real news as practiced by real news organizations has been discredited by Trump among his base. But his constant effusions of fiction have also over time increasingly blurred reality and basic facts among Americans who are not dedicated political partisans or news junkies. Much as we revere the memory of how Woodward and Bernstein helped bring down Richard Nixon, there is no such thing as a universally admired national news source like the Washington Post or the Times or CBS News in any medium in 2018. We must reckon with the real possibility that investigative journalism, no matter how thorough and brilliant, cannot bring down a criminal president in our era as it did nearly a half-century ago.