Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s trade war with China, what Jeffrey Epstein’s death means for his accomplices, and Elizabeth Warren’s rise in the polls.
Economists and investors are growing increasingly wary that Donald Trump’s push for tariffs on China could lead the U.S. into a recession. Will the markets force Trump to back down from his trade war?
Trump has already started to back down, abruptly postponing tariffs on China until at least mid-December, lest American consumers and merchants be stuck with the bill during Christmas shopping season. Given that he had repeatedly claimed that China would pay for the tariffs, this about-face is of course nonsensical. Then again, maybe he had meant to say that Mexico would pay for the tariffs and that China would pay for his “Great Wall.” As last night’s rambling, repetitive, and often incoherent 90-minute rant at a rally in New Hampshire indicated, Trump is in full panic that a recession may be coming.
It’s not markets that are forcing him into his latest retreat; it’s sheer politics. Though Trump reads nothing as a rule, he does make an exception for polls. There is a sizable group of voters who came to him for tax cuts and his theoretical economic prowess as a supposedly genius businessman, then stayed for the racism and all the other White House horrors. If the economy tanks, those voters will flee and his already precarious election prospects will tank, too. And he knows it. Hence this bit of bluster last night: “The bottom line is, I know you like me, this is a lovefest, but you have no choice but to vote for me because your 401(k)’s down the tubes. Everything is going to be down the tubes. So whether you love me or hate me, you’ve got to vote for me.” As threats go, this one has about as much force and credibility as the legendary National Lampoon cover in which a photo of a gun pointed at a puppy’s head was headlined: “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”
No one knows when a recession will hit. No one can control it. But an American president can aggravate it and compound it, and Trump seems to be doing everything possible to do so. John McCain, whose deer-in-the-headlights cluelessness during the 2008 economic meltdown sealed his defeat by Barack Obama, looks like FDR next to Trump. For that matter, Herbert Hoover looks like FDR next to Trump. We now have a president whose economic “team” consists of Fox News talking heads like Larry Kudlow, sycophants like Steve Mnuchin, and nutjobs like Peter Navarro, the White House trade-war guru who this week could be found on television likening the right-wing editorial page of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal to the Chinese Communist organ, the People’s Daily. In an apparent response, the Journal has since pointed out that “incumbent Presidents who preside over recessions within two years of an election rarely get a second term.”
The only strategy Trump’s team of bozos has for dealing with a possible recession is to pretend that it isn’t happening by keeping their boss as much in the dark as possible, issuing upbeat economic forecasts unsupported by any actual economists, and joining the president in trash-talking the Federal Reserve. That Trump seriously thinks he can blame any economic debacle on Jerome Powell, the Fed chair — the Fed chair he appointed — is further proof, if any were needed, that even his crudest moves aren’t what they used to be. No one in America knows who the faceless and voiceless Powell is and few know what a Fed chair is. Unlike Jeff Sessions, Powell is not ready for a not-ready-for-prime-time impersonation on Saturday Night Live. He can’t even rise to the level of farcical scapegoat. When the American buck is faltering, the buck always stops with the president.
Jeffrey Epstein’s death means the formal end of his prosecution, and complications for the investigation of his accomplices. How will this change the chances of Epstein co-conspirators being brought to justice?
Justice is going to be far from swift for the victims in this case: The girls assaulted and raped by Epstein are going to be in a long line of litigants hoping to get some kind of financial restitution from America’s second-most-heinous fake billionaire. But we are certain to learn more about his co-conspirators, whether alleged accomplices like Ghislaine Maxwell, or alleged fellow pedophiles among the bold-faced names who swarmed his mansions and flew to his island and beyond on the “Lolita Express.”
Journalists are on the case. Feds are on the case. The Southern District of New York is on the case. Since Epstein’s arrest, voluminous evidentiary records have been seized from both his Upper East Side mansion and his private Caribbean island. Epstein’s pilots, who have nothing to gain by remaining silent, have been subpoenaed to tell what they saw firsthand. Maxwell, to save herself, may have further information to serve up in pursuit of a deal with prosecutors. And conspiracy theorists, led by the president, are turning Epstein’s death into a full-fledged true-crime mystery that will stoke the public’s hunger for answers for some time to come.
There are so many unanswered questions beyond those centering on the bone structure of Epstein’s neck. Why did two of America’s wealthiest and most successful tycoons, the retail magnate Leslie Wexner and the private equity titan Leon Black, entrust so much of their and their families’ fortunes, not to mention their charitable endeavors, to a guy with such scant credentials in finance? Why and how did Epstein enjoy easy entrée to the Clinton Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations? What’s the full story of how the jettisoned Trump Cabinet member Alex Acosta was muscled into giving Epstein his ludicrously light plea deal in Florida? Why did Kenneth Starr, following his pursuit of Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, become a serial participant in sexual-assault cover-ups? (As president of Baylor University, he disregarded charges against football players; as a defense attorney, he tried to pull strings with Republican Justice Department officials to shut down an Epstein investigation.) Why did William Barr’s father, Donald Barr, the headmaster of New York’s Dalton School in the early 1970s, hire Epstein to teach teenagers, even though Epstein had no college degree? Did William Barr, who would have then been in his early 20s, ever meet Epstein through his father?
Elizabeth Warren’s early investment in key primary and caucus states has begun to bring results, and this week she jumped into the lead in polls from Iowa and Wisconsin. Are we seeing her emergence as the main challenger to Joe Biden?
As we know, it’s still early. The Iowa caucuses aren’t until February. But Warren’s surge is impressive. And I agree with my colleague Ed Kilgore that this flurry of articles about Democrats fretting about Warren’s electability despite her rising numbers reflects to some extent the undying trauma of 2016: fear of Trump’s misogyny as a political weapon and the parallel worry that nominating any woman will invite a replay of Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
But you can’t refight the last war. And for the moment there’s a new Fox News poll (published yesterday) that shows Trump losing to all the Democratic front-runners — Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Harris — by margins ranging from 12 points for Biden to six points for Warren. Polls are just snapshots, needless to say. But if one wants to play fantasy politics, and imagine the 2020 campaign taking place against the backdrop of a recession, who would you rather see challenge Trump over America’s economic present and future on a debate stage: Biden or Warren?