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 constitutional crisis brought on by Trump’s opposition to Congress, the Trump tax exposé, and Michael Cohen’s dirty work for Jerry Falwell Jr.
With the decision to assert executive privilege to keep the unredacted Mueller report away from the House Judiciary Committee, Donald Trump continues to treat Congress, in the words of John Yoo, “like they’re the Chinese or a local labor union working on a Trump building.” Will his stonewalling work?
Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that we’ve hit a moral bottom where John Yoo is aghast at Trump. John Yoo! For those with short memories, Yoo was the Bush-Cheney deputy assistant attorney general who endorsed uninhibited presidential power grabs and drafted the so-called Bybee memo green-lighting “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a.k.a. torture). Even Yoo, it turns out, must draw a line when a Republican president waterboards the Constitution.
In any case, Trump’s stonewalling will “work” in the sense that the ensuing court battles over the wholesale White House effort to bury the unredacted Mueller report, resist subpoenas, and shut down all testimony by administration officials could drag on for months, if not years. But in a way this may be the least of the country’s problems, as Trump stops at nothing to hold on to power. As Jerry Nadler and Nancy Pelosi have said, we are in “a constitutional crisis.” But even constitutional crises are relative. The ultimate crisis may arrive, as Pelosi has been warning, when Trump, if defeated, attacks the legitimacy of the 2020 election. If his loss is narrow (and perhaps even if it isn’t), the imagination reels at picturing what havoc he and his riled-up base, a third of the country, might sow to extend his rule.
A comparable constitutional crisis could also be triggered if the Supreme Court does rule against Trump’s wanton invocation of executive privilege before Election Day arrives. Do we really believe that Trump and Bill Barr would obey that ruling? Would they actually release the evidence such a ruling would make public? Richard Nixon seriously considered burning the White House tapes before the Court mandated their release during Watergate. The comparable records of this White House include the copious notes taken by Donald McGahn’s chief of staff Annie Donaldson, described by the Washington Post as a daily “running account of the president’s actions” documenting “conversations and meetings.” Trump is already on record asserting that McGahn’s “notes never existed until needed.” It’s not beyond him or his attorney general to find a way to ensure that they keep never existing.
The easiest break in this stonewall could be accomplished by Robert Mueller. If Trump can’t prevent Congress from calling him to testify, testify he must. Alternatively, if Mueller can’t testify before Congress, then he must exercise his First Amendment rights and tell what he knows to the public in the forum of his choice. For a public servant who sees himself as a patriot and a tribune of the rule of law, shirking that duty is not an option.
Examining ten years of Trump’s tax transcripts, the New York Times reports that from 1985 to 1994 Trump was not only a massive business failure, but “appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer” during the period. Will their findings put to rest the strangely persistent mythology of Trump’s self-made success?
No, it won’t. Which is not to say that this latest investigative report by the Times is anything less than conclusive and devastating in its exposure of the lies that have abetted Trump’s self-portrait as a business genius.
But how one wishes this and other exposés like it had appeared in 2016 or before. As I wrote in my piece about Roy Cohn last year, the Times executive editor from 1977 to 1986, Abe Rosenthal, was a social crony of Cohn, Trump’s fixer and promoter, and the paper’s failure to seriously scrutinize Trump during his rise to fame and power was a consequence of that relationship. It’s during that period, just before the publication of The Art of the Deal and long preceding both Trump’s Apprentice franchise and presidential run, when the myth of Trump’s self-made business success was firmly cemented in the public mind. The laxness of the Trump coverage then — not just by the Times but by most major news organizations — helps account for the strange persistence of that mythology despite all the evidence to the contrary uncovered by the Times, the Post, and other outstanding organs of investigative journalism over the past few years.
That said, it is impossible to imagine any information that could be reported about Trump at this point that would cause his hard-core supporters, including the Vichy Republicans in Congress, to abandon him. This includes any facts that may emerge if we see Trump tax returns for the quarter-century following those revealed by this week’s Times article. Trump could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot the commissioner of the IRS and he’d still be Making America Great Again.
In a recorded conversation reported by Reuters, Michael Cohen spoke of helping Jerry Falwell Jr. destroy “a bunch of … personal photographs” in 2015, possibly shedding new light on the reasons for Falwell’s influential endorsement of Trump. Should the new developments in the Falwell story line force a reconsideration of what we know about Trump’s Evangelical support?
No further reconsideration is required. To borrow Pete Buttigieg’s coinage, Trump’s Evangelical supporters long ago swallowed whatever moral, religious, and ethical scruples they had and enlisted as cheerleaders for “the porn star presidency.” Falwell, who endorsed Trump because he would bring his “business acumen” to a country “so deep in debt,” has been a particularly embarrassing example. He praised him for his “life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.” (The Times found not a single itemized charitable deduction in Trump’s 1985–1994 tax documents.) Falwell defended the Access Hollywood tape as a possible “conspiracy among Establishment Republicans” to benefit Paul Ryan. He has compared Trump to Churchill and declared that he “cannot be bought.”
Evangelical voters’ unwavering support of Trump is historically consistent with their support of preachers who turn out to be either financial scam artists, closet cases, or sexual offenders when they are taking a break from preaching against LGBT civil rights and women’s abortion rights. Falwell wraps up all the hypocrisy in one execrable package. His denial of Michael Cohen’s claim that he helped him and his wife destroy “personal” photographs is every bit as convincing as Trump’s past claims that he knew nothing about Cohen’s hush payments to Stormy Daniels. And what are we to make of the seemingly synergistic news, broken by the same reporter, Aram Roston, when he was at BuzzFeed News last year, that Falwell and his wife put up $1.8 million to support a business managed by a 21-year-old pool attendant with no business experience whom they had met at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach? No doubt another example of “loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.” Amen.