Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, new revelations about Jared Kushner’s security clearance, the fallout from the Michael Cohen hearing, and Mark Meadows’s birtherism.
According to a report in the New York Times, Jared Kushner received his top-secret security clearance because of an “order” by Donald Trump, spurring the White House counsel and chief of staff to compose memos at the time outlining their concerns. In previous interviews with the press where they had been asked about this directly, Trump and Ivanka both seem to have lied. Should Kushner be forced to resign?
Surely you are not suggesting that Jared resign before he unveils his Middle East peace plan! In any case, there may be no way to force any of these grifters out of the White House short of handcuffs. It has long been my contention that Jared’s subconscious ambition is to follow his father, Charles, into prison. Every revelation brings him closer to his goal, starting as far back as his attempt to set up a secret communications back channel between the Trump transition and the Russians to circumvent America’s intelligence agencies. His and the Kushner family’s international dealings to secure financing for their struggling real-estate ventures since Inauguration Day have repeatedly raised the question of which country he is actually serving from his perch in the White House. Russia? Saudi Arabia? Qatar? China? Certainly there is nothing in Kushner’s record to suggest that he is loyal to the United States of America.
This latest bombshell raises a whole bunch of ancillary questions. Indeed, why did Ivanka and Jared’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, appear to lie about his devious path to his security clearance? And what about John Kelly, that good soldier who was widely praised in Washington as the “adult” in the Trump circle? We’ve already learned that he is a racist and a nativist from various incidents during his craven tenure in the administration, but now we have to wonder if he, Michael Flynn–style, betrayed his country by facilitating Jared’s access to intelligence at Trump’s insistence. He could have protested more forcibly at the time, and even now, in disgrace and retirement, he still remains silent. If Jared is a mole for a foreign power who damaged American interests, Kelly will bear partial responsibility for activating him. A plea that he was just following the boss’s orders will not get him off the hook.
But let’s not let this episode distract from the bigger picture of what Jared has been doing while armed with classified secrets and his White House role as de facto chief of staff. The three most bizarre and mysterious man-crushes in American history may be his for Mohammed bin Salman, and his father-in-law’s for Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin. We don’t know if MBS has written Jared love letters as Kim has Trump (or vice versa), but this week he had another furtive assignation with the Saudi prince, as if the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi never happened. Exactly what business — whether Kushner’s or America’s — is on the table when they canoodle? In a similar vein, the president, despite being embarrassed by the collapse of the Hanoi nuclear talks that were supposed to secure his Nobel Peace Prize, still went weirdly out his way to clear Kim of any responsibility for the brutal murder of the American student Otto Warmbier, who had been imprisoned and tortured in North Korea. Along with the other ways that the Trump operation resembles a gangster enterprise, we must always include the reality that its criminal allies are piling up corpses as surely as associates of the Gotti family once did.
Michael Cohen’s hearing before the House Oversight Committee this week provided new details on Donald Trump’s involvement in what might be a criminal conspiracy, while also changing the way we understand some things that have already been reported. Will his testimony be a turning point for the Trump investigations?
Perhaps because the hearings blanketed television — broadcast networks as well as cable — the Cohen show moved the needle a bit in terms of reengaging the public in a saga that has numbed out many over two exhausting years. There is zero chance, though, that it or anything else will ease Trump’s grip on his base. Now, as always, it must be Republicans in Congress who determine when the turning point comes. They will do so not out of conscience — it’s not clear that more than a half dozen of them have one — but out of fear of losing their own races in purple districts or states. You’ll notice that the likes of Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado are stepping up their “concern” about Trump in direct proportion to the proximity of November 3, 2020, when both are up for reelection.
As many have noted, what may have been most striking about the hearings (aside from that incriminating 2017 Trump-signed check reimbursing Cohen for porn-star hush money) was that not a single GOP inquisitor would be caught on camera praising or defending Trump, as opposed to trashing Cohen. They may have moved into a mode where they want to protect themselves on camera more than their dear leader. Also notable was Cohen’s name-checking of other witnesses (in part thanks to the stiletto questioning of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) to Trump Organization wrongdoing who may soon be brought before Congress in so public a setting: Allen Weisselberg, Alan Garten, Ron Lieberman, and the evocatively named Matthew Calamari. This drama was needing some fresh characters, so bring them on. Also nailed by Cohen of course was Donald Jr., whom Cohen said signed one of the hush-money reimbursements — an act of stupidity that again reminds those of us who likened him to Fredo that we were way too kind. While Cohen’s testimony wasn’t high on laughs, let’s be grateful for this line, which he delivered with exquisite deadpan: “Mr. Trump had frequently told me and others that his son Donald Jr. had the worst judgment of anyone in the world.”
Within a day of Representative Mark Meadows sidetracking the end of the Cohen hearing to argue that he was not a racist, at least three videos have surfaced of him pushing birtherism on the campaign trail, promising to send President Obama “back home, to Kenya or wherever it is.” Will there be a political price for those comments now?
There will be no political price for Meadows among his voters any more than for any other racists harbored by the Republican Party, whose voters are almost entirely loyal to a president who did far more to promote birtherism than a Meadows or Steve King could ever do. Let’s never forget the fact that the GOP has tolerated and exploited racism since its 1964 presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, voted against the Civil Rights Act. In recent years, especially in the aftermath of America electing its first black president, the party has been pursuing wholesale minority-voter suppression efforts, including phony campaigns against nonexistent election fraud. (The only proven case of major fraud, we now know, was undertaken on behalf of a Republican congressional candidate, Mark Harris, in Meadows’s own state of North Carolina.) This toxicity poisoned the GOP well before Trump became a Republican, and unless and until the party starts exorcising it instead of denying it, it will remain in place after he’s gone.