Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Bill Barr’s cover-up in plain sight, Joe Biden’s fitness for office, and Pete Buttigieg’s sprint up the polls.
Bill Barr’s assertion that “spying did occur” against the Trump campaign has brought condemnations of impropriety from congressional Democrats and career intelligence officials, and raised suspicion that the attorney general is covering for Trump. Has Trump, at long last, finally found his Roy Cohn?
When you invoke Roy Cohn, you have to specify which Roy Cohn. There’s the New York Cohn of the 1970s and ’80s, the Mob-connected fixer who enabled Trump’s rise, of course. But there’s also the earlier, Washington Cohn: the smear artist who abetted Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt to expose supposed Commies in the United States Army during the 1950s. The brilliantly perverse achievement of Barr is that he combines both Roy Cohns in a single package. He’s a fixer for Trump, as evidenced by his unsupported conclusion that the Mueller report lets the president off the legal hook for his manifold efforts to obstruct justice. But Barr is also the McCarthy-era Cohn, sliming a “group of leaders there at the upper echelon” of government agencies for spying without offering any specifics or evidence.
That said, Barr is more insidious than either Roy Cohn. The Cohn of the McCarthy era was the chief counsel to a Senate committee; the New York Cohn was a lawyer in private practice. William Barr is the attorney general — the chief law-enforcement officer of the United States. And he is just getting started in his career in nonenforcement. He is poised to bowdlerize the Mueller report with redactions whose legitimacy cannot be verified and is stonewalling congressional efforts to read the report in full. He is in position to assist Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, as he buries documents whose exposure Trump may fear more than Mueller’s evidence — his tax returns. And, as the GOP operative turned Never Trumper Rick Wilson has pointed out, Barr’s accusations of “spying” are designed not only to feed right-wing conspiracy theories about a “deep state” plotting to subvert Trump but also to sully “the future public, private, and legal testimony of members of the DOJ, FBI, and intelligence community who have seen the damning data on Trump and his claque.” The goal? “To intimidate anyone who would investigate Trump’s vast portfolio of corruption and obstruction of justice, both before and after he took office.”
Barr, let’s recall, was more highly-thought-of only a few weeks ago. As the successor to Matthew Whitaker, a low-rent scam artist with not even minimal qualifications to serve as acting attorney general, he didn’t have a tough act to follow. He was routinely praised as an “institutionalist” who would protect the Justice Department — though his advocates never explained why any true institutionalist would enlist in an administration that above all is devoted to the destruction of governmental institutions and defiance of the rule of law. In this sense, Barr was initially welcomed as another iteration of those previous “adults in the room” who would protect America from their boss’s worst instincts: John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser who sold his soul for a tax cut rather than publicly break with a president who gave a pass to neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville.
In the end, no Trump Cabinet member ever rises above the common denominator of his or her peers, a perpetual rogue’s gallery that, from Mnuchin to Wilbur Ross to Betsy DeVos to (RIP) Kirstjen Nielsen, makes the bar in Star Wars look like King Arthur’s court.
After addressing comments from several women who said he touched them inappropriately or made them uncomfortable, Joe Biden joked about their complaints during a conference appearance and told reporters “I’m not sorry for anything I’ve ever done.” Is he showing himself unfit to be a Democratic candidate in 2020?
Biden’s unchecked, apparently lifelong habit of handsy behavior as well as his clueless explanations and pseudo-apologies for it are lamentable, but they don’t disqualify him from seeking the nomination. What does make him a subpar choice for the presidency is his record in public life. It’s not only that he behaved atrociously during the Clarence Thomas hearings but that he still refuses to take any responsibility for that behavior. Speaking of Anita Hill, he recently said that “she was abused through the hearing … taken advantage of … attacked.” All true. And his own role in this travesty? “I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved.” He was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee presiding over that hearing, for heaven’s sake, not an impotent bystander. This mealymouthed excuse of the “mistakes were made (but not by me)” genre suggests that Biden has not gained the wisdom you might expect at the age of 76. Nor is it an anomaly in a career that has been adorably avuncular (though not to those women he touched inappropriately) but wrong-headed on major issues, including the struggle for racial desegregation, reproductive rights, and the Iraq war.
What’s been most instructive about the Biden controversy is how it is spun and weaponized by Republicans. With predictable shamelessness Trump didn’t let his record of serial sexual assault stand in his way as he mocked Biden for relative misdemeanors, but he did so even as he floated the appointment of another practitioner of serious sexual misconduct, Herman Cain, to the Federal Reserve. Other conservatives cried crocodile tears for poor, put-upon Biden so they could wield him as a club to portray Democrats as narrow-minded elitists: “Don’t do it, Joe,” counseled Peggy Noonan, asserting that the “bitter, resentful, divisive” Democratic Party is against “white people in general, and white males in particular.” Is there anything more disingenuous than whiny white writers playing the victim card on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal? If Noonan’s caricature of Democrats were true, Biden would not still be well ahead in every poll of Democratic primary voters.
What will do Biden in, I imagine, will not be his promiscuous touching of women but his general political doofus-ness. His past presidential campaigns, or near-campaigns, now dating back to 1980, have been fiascoes, right through his 2008 candidacy, which folded after he drew less than one percent in the Iowa caucuses. (The best portrait of Biden as presidential candidate is in Richard Ben Cramer’s classic campaign book, What It Takes, on the 1988 race.) The Biden whose advisers recently floated the patronizing idea of recruiting Stacey Abrams as his vice-presidential nominee — an idea quickly shot down by Abrams (“you don’t run for second”) — is of a piece with his hailing of Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean.” People don’t change.
On the heels of impressive fundraising and polling that puts him third among Democratic contenders, Pete Buttigieg seems to have launched himself into the top tier of candidates for the White House. How has he come so far so fast?
You don’t have to hear from me all that is appealing about this guy; the hagiographies are coming by the day. The biggest immediate threat to his candidacy may be overexposure too soon. His rise in the polls — he’s now No. 3 among Democrats, behind Biden and Bernie Sanders, in both Iowa and New Hampshire — is remarkable. His rising popularity may also express a dissatisfaction with the existing candidates, numerous and various as they are, and a certain press synergy with reporters who are products, as he is, of the well-educated upper-middle class. (That would include me.) That he is only 37 and the mayor of a (to be charitable) medium-sized city are not disqualifying in a country that has elevated a reality-television star known for fraud and bankruptcies to the Oval Office.
That he is gay is also a plus, I’d argue. Any American who refuses to consider a gay candidate for office is a locked-in Republican voter anyway. And not the least of Buttigieg’s skills is his ability to call out pious Republican bigots like Mike Pence, whom he branded the “cheerleader of the porn star presidency” for practicing a hypocritical bastardization of Christianity that aspires to relegate LGBTQ Americans to second-class citizenry. As both openly gay and openly Christian — and as a veteran of military service in Afghanistan — Buttigieg speaks with rare authority when he calls out the Taliban tendencies of Pence, who championed a Draconian “Religious Freedom” law as governor of Indiana and whose wife even now teaches at a school that bars gay students.
If there’s one thing that’s missing from our politics at this moment, it’s joy, and Buttigieg so far is offering that, along with his smarts and progressive convictions. He markets his views with wit and without rancor. His candidacy hasn’t even been officially declared yet — that may happen this weekend — and anything can and will happen. But for the moment let’s not look a gift dark horse in the mouth.