the national circus

The Senate’s Vote Against Trump Exposes the Fault Lines for 2020

Trump declaring an emergency at the southern border. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Republican senators standing up to Trump, Beto O’Rourke’s presidential announcement, and the national fascination with the college admissions scandal.

The struggle between the White House and an empowered Congress has spread to the Senate — and to congressional Republicans — who have voted down Trump’s national emergency declaration and U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen. Is this about Congress trying to reclaim its position as a coequal branch of government, as some Republicans claim, or is the party turning against Trump? 

Republicans in general, who continue to give Trump a 90 percent approval rating, and the Vichy Republicans in Congress in particular, have not remotely turned against their dear leader. Yes, a dozen GOP senators voted to express disapproval of Trump’s faux declaration of a national emergency, but almost all of them are in locked-down Republican seats or retiring. Even Ben Sasse, the Nebraska senator who has marketed himself as something of a principled conservative Trump critic, capitulated, coming up with a Rube Goldberg-esque argument that blamed his pro-Trump vote on Nancy Pelosi. If nothing else, he’s now certified his status as a successor to the insufferable, now mercifully departed, Jeff Flake. What’s most telling is that of the half dozen senators up for reelection in 2020 in states that are purple or purple-ish — that is, the endangered Republican incumbents who could benefit by dissing Trump on what was fated to be only a symbolic vote — only one defied him: Susan Collins of Maine. If Collins is the party’s sole profile in courage, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

The most notorious among Collins’s Trump-bootlicking colleagues is by default Thom Tillis of North Carolina. He took the trouble to publish a Washington Post op-ed declaration that he would sacrifice his “intellectual honesty” if he voted to ratify an Executive branch power grab like Trump’s, then flipped and voted to uphold Trump’s power grab anyway. Why? He is terrified of a possible primary challenge by a far-right loon back home. That could be Mark Meadows, whom many will recall from his indignant performance in the Michael Cohen hearing, where he proved he was not a racist by having a silent black woman, Lynne Patton, pose wordlessly and inanimately behind him. Truly, the term “intellectual honesty” and “Republican member of Congress” should never be used in the same sentence.

No doubt some Democrats will inflate this very mild GOP expression of cajones — soon to be neutered by a Trump veto — into a sign that impeachment might now be in the cards. Not happening. The GOP controls the Senate by a 53-47 majority. The vote against Trump on the resolution disapproving of the national emergency, with those 12 GOP defections, was 59-41. The vote required to impeach Trump in a Senate trial: 67-33. Pelosi was completely correct when she said it’s not worth expending energy on an impeachment push that is doomed to defeat. Of course the Democrats must (and will) investigate Trump’s high crimes to the fullest under the excellent auspices of House committee chairmen like Elijah Cummings, Adam Schiff, and Jerrold Nadler. But if Trump vacates the presidency before he finishes his term, it’s not going to be because he’s impeached by the Republican majority in the Senate. It’ll be because, like Nixon and Agnew before him, he’ll feel compelled to make a deal to escape the criminal penalties that imperil his resumption of a post-Washington private life.

Among those flogging Pelosi for tabling impeachment, there may be no more destructive Democrat than the deep-pocketed donor Tom Steyer, the impresario of the Need to Impeach PAC. He is attacking Pelosi (among other Democrats) for somehow being squishy. Hard as it is to fathom, Steyer may well surpass Howard Schultz as the most clueless billionaire in American politics today — assuming we leave out Trump, whose professed billionaire status has never been verified.

After weeks of speculation, Beto O’Rourke has officially opened his 2020 campaign. How will his entrance change the race for the other Democrats?

God knows. It remains way too early for prognostications. The race is a scramble with a vast cast of characters and no clear narrative. It’s so wide-open that a candidate like Kirsten Gillibrand, already polling near zero in Iowa, can stay in the race even after she’s been exposed harboring a sexual harasser on her staff while portraying herself as a crusader for sexual-harassment reform in Congress. There’s also a big missing piece of the puzzle, Joe Biden, whose preening, buck-raking public vacillation about his intentions is eroding his credibility as a chief executive by the day.

As for O’Rourke, I was struck by the negative editorializing in the Times’ news story on his announcement of his candidacy. The paper pointed out he had “few notable legislative accomplishments,” was “without a signature proposal that might serve as the ideological anchor of his bid,” and only offered a “broad message of national unity and generational change.” Wasn’t every word of this true about Barack Obama? It made me wonder if O’Rourke might actually have a shot. (True, he is white, but nobody’s perfect.)

As Democrats look at the campaign ahead, it’s important they heed the lessons of Trump’s victory. “Few notable legislative accomplishments” is not an impediment to winning. Oversharing on social media — whether on Facebook Live (in O’Rourke’s case) or Twitter — is not an impediment. And O’Rourke’s youthful DWI arrest is not disqualifying — least of all in the context of our current president’s ever-expanding rap sheet.

O’Rourke’s political skills will be tested soon enough in the caucus and primary states that favor his brand of retail politics. His ability to attract small donors is not to be sniffed at, and his race against Ted Cruz was impressive, if a defeat. Another good sign for O’Rourke was Trump’s first volley in response to his entrance into the race: “I’ve never seen so much hand movement. I said, ‘Is he crazy or is that just the way he acts?’” Two things Trump should never be talking about are (a) hands, and (b) insanity. He’s rattled by the guy.

The so-called “Varsity Blues” prosecution continues to provide a cast of grifters and clowns, but also points to the quieter, completely legal ways that college admissions can exacerbate social inequities. Why are onlookers so drawn to one scandal, and not the other?

There has been an enormous amount of good journalism about the inequities of college admissions, especially at elite schools, in recent years, and I do think many Americans have been rightfully angry. But those most affected — especially the nonaffluent Americans at the bottom of the heap — have been powerless to do anything about it. What’s more, the grotesque inequality built into the system is usually legal, with exhibit A being Charles Kushner’s donation of $2.5 million to speed his son Jared into Harvard in the 1990s. (Charles Kushner, a felon, did go to prison, but not for this.)

What put this prosecution to the top of public awareness is, first of all, that it actually is a prosecution, and one that triggered the kind of flashy multiple arrests one associates with the smashing of a drug ring. The other contributing factor, of course, is celebrity, although until now I did not know that the former Full House star Lori Loughlin’s daughter was a beauty vlogger who publicly mocked the school that admitted her, USC, even as she used her dorm room to hawk products for Amazon Prime and Sephora. Still another factor in this scandal’s wide appeal, as others have noted, is that it’s refreshing, if only for a few days, to have a scandal involving a fresh cast of entitled rich assholes who are not Trumps.

Of all the outrages in this story, the ultimate may be the revelation that the front to which Felicity Huffman wrote her check to fix her daughter’s test scores, the so-called Key Worldwide Foundation, purported to be a charity providing “guidance, encouragement, and opportunity to disadvantaged students around the world.” This is literally the reverse of the Robin Hood Foundation. It’s just the sort of collision of scam and hypocrisy that would make a great Mamet play were it not for the fact that the only celebrity in Hollywood publicly defending Huffman is David Mamet.

Frank Rich: Senate Rebuke of Trump Isn’t a GOP Rebellion