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 unusual silence on Nancy Pelosi’s call to reschedule the State of the Union, the GOP’s about-face on Steve King, and Democrats’ deliberations about the next attorney general.
Yesterday morning, Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Donald Trump to reschedule the upcoming State of the Union (or to submit it to Congress in writing), and Rudy Giuliani backed away from denials of collusion with Russia in the Trump campaign. How costly are these developments for Trump and the GOP?
I can’t resist saying it again: Pelosi is awesome. She knows how to push the levers of government. She knows how to push Trump’s buttons. This is an unbeatable combination. Twenty-four hours after she released her letter declining to play host to the State of the Union, Trump was so flummoxed he still hadn’t tweeted about it and his White House still had not responded. That’s because there is no response. It’s Pelosi’s House, and she’s under no obligation to let Trump commandeer it as a splashy backdrop for his propaganda. Even if there were a president of her own party in power, it would be ludicrous to stage this event, a superfluous (and tedious) political jamboree under the best of circumstances, during a government shutdown.
As the speaker also said, Trump can submit his speech in writing (ha!) or deliver it from the Oval Office. We know the latter isn’t happening because even he has reportedly figured out that his recent prime-time address was a flop and that he can’t read from a teleprompter — or at least one that isn’t on set at The Apprentice. So maybe he’ll hold a MAGA rally instead? If so, are the broadcast networks once again going to interrupt their prime-time schedules to air it unedited? We’ll see if they’ve learned a damn thing from their embarrassing enlistment in the White House’s fake news event of two weeks ago.
One more note about Pelosi. As Aaron Blake of the Washington Post has pointed out, the most brilliant passage of her letter to Trump was her reminder that last September Kirstjen Nielsen, in her capacity as secretary of Homeland Security, had officially “designated State of the Union Addresses as National Special Security Events (NSSEs),” a move requiring “the full resources of the Federal Government” to be employed when they occur. Those resources aren’t available during a shutdown. Hoisted by her own petard, Nielsen tried to recoup by tweeting yesterday that Homeland Security and the Secret Service are “fully prepared” to do the job. Even if Nielsen hadn’t previously destroyed her credibility with her litany of lies about the humanitarian crisis at the border, the fact remains that she can’t govern by Twitter and her tweet cannot override a policy she herself had set. Checkmate.
As for that other genius, Giuliani, he seems to be yanking back his and Trump’s repeated denials of any Russian collusion by Trump or his campaign in anticipation of Mueller dropping a new bombshell in court. What’s fascinating about his latest revisionist version, in which Trump’s campaign may well have colluded but Trump himself did not, is that it not only throws Paul Manafort and associates under the bus but also Donald Jr. and Jared.
And let us not forget that there was a third costly development for Trump and the GOP yesterday: the slaughter of four Americans in Syria a couple of hours before Mike Pence publicly repeated his boss’s claim that ISIS has been defeated. “We are bringing our troops home,” Pence said — which was technically true, but left out the detail that they were doing so in body bags.
After decades of support for white supremacy and a reelection victory last year, Iowa congressman Steve King has been removed from his committee assignments by House Republicans and major Iowan newspapers are calling for his resignation. What changed since the midterms?
What’s changed is that the GOP cynically wanted to keep King in place rather than lose his seat in the midterms. That mission was accomplished; King won after having been endorsed by Iowa’s senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst. Now GOP leaders can posture about their abhorrence of racism and throw King to the wolves. (Sort of: He is still in Congress.) Many have pointed out the hypocrisy of this. King has a history of racist statements and of palling around with white nationalists and neo-Nazis that dates back to nearly the turn of the century, yet no Republicans in power ever made any credible effort to drive him out of their party. It has also been widely noted that Trump is guilty of nearly every outrage committed by King. (Asked about King’s latest infractions last week, Trump said “I haven’t been following it” — a lie, of course, but doubly so since he has literally followed King’s nativist and racist playbook from the start of his presidential campaign.)
But another, greater hypocrisy is left unmentioned by the Republicans now turning on King: The GOP’s racism didn’t begin with King or Trump and likely won’t end with them either as long as their party’s base remains intact. From the moment Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to recruit the old Dixie states to the GOP in his presidential run through Chief Justice John Roberts’s disembowelment of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the GOP has been the party of what Richard Nixon codified as the “Southern strategy”: exploiting racial resentments for political gain. And so, to take one handy example of this denial, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, current NeverTrumper, and Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote a column this week excoriating King, Trump, Jefferson Davis, and Bull Connor — but never mentioned Strom Thurmond, George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton campaign, or Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign speech in favor of “states rights” in a Mississippi town adjacent to the site where three civil-rights workers had been murdered in 1964. In a similar vein, the House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy condemned King by saying, “That is not the party of Lincoln” — as if this were the first time the GOP had breached that sobriquet. For heaven’s sake, McCarthy’s own deputy, Steve Scalise, had to admit four years ago that as a Louisiana state representative he had given a 2002 speech before a convention held by a white-supremacist organization founded by David Duke. (Of course Scalise claimed he had no idea of what group he was speaking to.)
At his confirmation hearing this week, attorney general nominee William Barr testified that he would not end the Mueller investigation prematurely, despite a memo he wrote last year that raised questions about his intentions to interfere. Should Democrats vote to confirm him?
A conventional conservative Republican with a Bushie resume, Barr towers over the grifters and hacks in Trump’s cabinet. He has not credibly explained why he wrote an unsolicited memo challenging the Mueller investigation’s legality, and his blurriness about whether he’d release a Mueller report (if there is one) is unacceptable. You are not exactly the crème de la crème of the American bar if the most prominent testimonials to your character include an op-ed (in the Times) written by Kenneth Starr, whose most recent accomplishment was to ignore a culture of rape at Baylor University, which ousted him as its president and chancellor. So as a matter of principle, there’s good reason to vote against Barr. But there is no way he will not be confirmed.
That said, what is happening in Mueller’s investigation and elsewhere is bigger than Barr. He’s too late in the game to stop the legal avalanche that seems likely to rain down on the White House, and perhaps he’s not inclined to destroy his reputation by attempting to do so. One way or another Mueller’s findings will get out. Too many inquiring minds want to know, including in Congress. And meanwhile, thanks to another cunning move by the Pelosi-run House, Michael Cohen will be giving televised public testimony on February 7 before he goes to prison. There will be Mueller-imposed restrictions on what he can talk about, but he has a hell of a story to tell and just the right dems-and-dose voice to tell it in. It’s the perfect spinoff to the 20th-anniversary celebration of The Sopranos.