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 biggest revelations from Andrew McCabe’s book, Bernie’s 2020 prospects, and what to make of Roger Stone’s latest antics.
In a series of interviews promoting his new book, former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe has said that Trump erroneously believed that North Korea did not have the capability to launch nuclear missiles “because Vladimir Putin had told him so,” and that senior congressional Republicans raised no objection when McCabe briefed them on an open FBI investigation into the president. Do McCabe’s revelations change the way you understand any of the major actors of Trump’s presidency?
The two major indictments McCabe is leveling against Trump — that he is out to sabotage the rule of law and shows every sign of being a Russian asset — are hardly news. But his memoir, The Threat, does shed harsh new light on two major actors in the Trump orbit. The first is the former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who is presented not only as a hotheaded mental midget and racist consistent with Kate McKinnon’s SNL impersonation but also as a national-security risk: McCabe offers compelling evidence that Sessions never could be bothered to read the daily intelligence briefs that might require him to mobilize his resources in his role as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer. (A side note: CNN announced yesterday that it had hired Sessions’s spokeswoman, Sarah Isgur Flores, to run its 2020 political coverage. Perhaps CNN should first have a prime-time town hall in which Flores is grilled by the network’s reporters on what she knew and when she knew it while serving in Sessions’s Justice Department.)
The Threat is also an implicit indictment of a Trump lackey whose name McCabe never cites: Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham has been trolling McCabe’s book tour this week threatening to hold hearings to expose the former acting FBI director as the ringleader of an alleged “coup” against the president. But the book’s most revealing passage offers further proof, if any were needed, that Graham’s intent in spinning such fictions is to whitewash Trump and Russia by portraying the FBI as the No. 1 threat to America. The passage in question is McCabe’s account of his detailed May 2017 briefing to the so-called congressional Gang of Eight on the fact that Trump had become the subject of a counterintelligence investigation less than four months after his inauguration. How did those at the meeting respond? “No one interrupted,” McCabe writes. “No one pushed back.” The investigation was free to proceed. Which means that if this was a coup, its participants included Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr — all of whom were members of the Gang of Eight, along with Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Adam Schiff, as the “coup” was given a green light. That Graham would so misrepresent the reality of what happened back then raises no questions about McCabe but leaves one wondering once more what Trump and/or Vladimir Putin have on Graham that would turn him almost overnight from a fierce Trump critic to a pawn in the White House cover-up of its Russian ties.
Even so, McCabe and his book are not the biggest news in Trumpland this week. That distinction goes to the Times, which yesterday reported the president’s failed attempt to use Sessions’s temporary successor, Matthew Whitaker, to muscle the Southern District of New York into curtailing its investigation of Michael Cohen. As Darren Samuelsohn wrote in an important Politico piece published just before the Times scoop, the SDNY poses at least as dangerous a threat to Trump as the Muller probe since it has jurisdiction over his businesses, his political apparatus, and the apparent money-laundering operation that he branded as his Inaugural Committee. Trump can’t try to evade its tentacles by citing executive privilege. And he has uncharacteristically failed to target the prosecutors leading the SDNY inquiry with the sort of smears he and his henchmen have used to try to discredit Robert Mueller and his team with the public.
Clearly Trump was tardy in realizing what may be the biggest legal threat to his bank account, his family, and himself — a slew of potential indictments in his hometown that do not require the political act of impeachment to be consummated. Is it any wonder that his Twitter finger has never left his phone since the weekend?
Bernie Sanders has announced another run for the White House. Will he be able to recapture his 2016 momentum in the more crowded 2020 field?
If measured by fund-raising from small donors, the answer would so far be yes. Fresh out of the gate, he dwarfs all his competitors in raking in non-PAC cash. But the most significant difference between 2020 and 2016 is not just that he is squaring off against a much larger field but that many in that field are running on the populist issues he championed last time, or at least marginal variations on them. And some of his competitors — notably Elizabeth Warren — make his arguments with greater specificity and more comprehensive plans for action. By contrast, Sanders’s sole serious opponent last time was a corporate Democrat who, among other things, had collected a fortune by speaking to Goldman Sachs. Arguably the only corporate Democrat this time is Cory Booker, unless you count Howard Schultz, whose independent run is hurtling toward oblivion.
I have to confess that if the Democrats want to run a septuagenarian for president in 2020, I wish it were Nancy Pelosi, not either Sanders or Joe Biden. She is at the peak of her powers as a master of governance and politics, not to mention a joy to watch as she brings Trump to his knees with her combination of legislative cunning and wit. Though there is zero chance she would run, she increasingly seems the gold standard against which all the other Democrats should be measured.
After an initial promise to “defeat” prosecutors in court, Roger Stone posted, then quickly removed, an Instagram photo of the judge presiding over his case with what was widely interpreted as crosshairs. Is this a sign that his confidence in his case is wavering?
Stone is both desperate and a clown. But a barely veiled call to assassinate a sitting federal judge in this political climate — only days after Trump brownshirts attacked a BBC cameraman at his last MAGA rally — is no joke. Nor, by the way, is Trump’s call for “retribution” against Alec Baldwin for committing comedy last weekend — or his repeated claims that McCabe and Rod Rosenstein are “treasonous,” a crime punishable by death. The former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah had it right when she tweeted that “all those claims that Roger Stone shouldn’t have been arrested like other people who commit crimes seem particularly ridiculous now that he publicly threatened a federal judge with violence.”
Stone’s barrage of lies about his Instagram post were desperate. He variously called the crosshairs a “celtic symbol,” “a random photo selected from the Internet,” an “occult symbol,” and the “logo” of some spurious “organization.” He claimed the post was put up by a “volunteer.” Finally he had to retreat behind a laughable court filing asserting that he “had no intention of disrespecting the court” and professing to “humbly apologize.”
The fact is that Stone has followed his arrest by doing everything he can to undermine the court and the Mueller investigation. He, like Manafort and every other member of this crime syndicate, follows the Don’s lead in treating lying like a sport. The crazy thing is that Stone thinks of himself as some kind of mad evil genius when in reality he’s just a third-tier con man whose luck has finally run out.