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 threat of government shutdown following Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Democratic leaders, the president’s search for a new chief of staff, and thoughts on who should host the Oscars.
With funding for some federal agencies set to expire in less than two weeks, President Trump turned his Oval Office meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer into a reality-TV standoff over his border wall. Did their exchange increase or decrease the chance of a shutdown?
My profound hope is that Trump makes good on his threat and shuts down the government right before Christmas. He will set his party back even further than he already has, and do so at a time when congressional Republicans are going to be trapped with angry constituents back home during the holiday break. I still can’t get over that Trump actually declared on camera that he was “proud to shut down the government” and then addressed these immortal words to Chuck Schumer: “I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it.” Polls consistently show that few events in American politics are more toxic with a broad public than government shutdowns. Voters logically blame Republicans for them because their party is the anti-government party, yet the GOP always tries to wriggle out of culpability, however unsuccessfully. Now Trump has taken away that argument by owning (as he put it) the “mantle” of a government shutdown in a vivid Oval Office performance that will be a staple of Democratic campaign ads for as long as he is in Washington.
This is not all Trump accomplished in his 17 minutes of sparring with the Democratic leaders. He revealed that he really has no idea what divided government means and is in denial about just how devastating the blue wave was in the House. He gave Nancy Pelosi an opportunity to show off her toughness and smarts, both during the meeting and after, when she mocked the president for linking his “manhood,” such as it is, to a wall that he keeps claiming is already under construction when in fact the huge erection he describes is wholly imaginary.
Let it be noted that there was also a significant sideshow in Washington yesterday: The Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s appearance before a congressional committee. At one point during the questioning, Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said to him: “If you Google the word ‘idiot’ under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. How would that happen?” Conveniently enough, Trump provided the answer himself at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. (Though in fairness to Trump, it should be said that images of Donald Jr. and Eric also pop up when conducting an “idiot” image search.)
Donald Trump claims that “a lot of friends of mine” want to be his next chief of staff, despite widespread reporting that candidates are ducking the offer. What will it take to convince his next choice to sign on?
A fervent desire to commit career suicide? A membership at Mar-a-Lago? A set of steak knives? In a week in which we learned that Trump directed Michael Cohen to violate federal campaign-finance laws, the decision of Nick Ayers, Mike Pence’s chief of staff, to turn down this job was nearly as telling a development in terms of charting the decline and fall of this presidency. Ayers is a super-ambitious and super-successful political operative. He was the hand-picked candidate of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump for the job. He is 36 years old with a huge potential political future ahead of him in the GOP. That he turned down the job at the last minute — after a press release announcing his appointment had already been drafted by the White House — says just one thing: The best way to preserve that future right now is to get as far away from Donald Trump, and for that matter, Pence, as possible. It is, I suspect, the same impulse for self-preservation that animated another young, super-ambitious, and rising Republican star, Nikki Haley, when she abruptly decided to end her tenure as ambassador to the United Nations. It’s also the explanation for why Trump cannot attract anything resembling a top-tier legal team to defend him against a growing array of grave charges and instead must rely on a clown car populated by the likes of Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani.
Haley, we’ve since learned, is being succeeded at the UN by a former Fox News “personality” who is on the record as not knowing that America fought Germany in World War II. Clearly the most efficient choice for Chief of Staff would be Sean Hannity, who is already the middle man between Trump and the rest of his administration. Or if not him, Steve Doocy. Or Geraldo Rivera.
At some level I must say I just don’t care. Old media, especially print media, still think the Oscars are a big deal and cover them as if they matter culturally and commercially. But it’s not clear the public cares much anymore. The precipitous decline in Oscar ratings says as much about the decline of Hollywood movies as a centerpiece of American pop culture in the digital age as it does about the tedium generated by the awards show itself.
It certainly doesn’t help the cause that the Academy is about as well run as the Trump White House most Academy members despise. A particularly bizarre move was the attempt — now rescinded — to create a new category for “popular” movies that would have had the effect of segregating a blockbuster like Black Panther from the other contenders at the very time the industry is trying to address its many shortfalls in racial and gender diversity. No wonder it is as hard for the Oscars to recruit a host as it is for Trump to find a chief of staff.
Given that a campaign has been brewing on Twitter for a Muppets-hosted Oscars, I would propose as an alternative Triumph the Insult Dog, whose riotous, Joan Rivers-esque appearance as a commentator on the red carpet at the Tony Awards a decade or so back was as enjoyable an awards-show entertainment as I can recall. Meanwhile, the deposed Kevin Hart might yet be a candidate to succeed John Kelly in the White House. With his history of homophobic tweets, he would fit right in.