the national circus

Republicans Are Excusing a Criminal Conspiracy

Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Devin Nunes, and minority counsel Steve Castor confer during the impeachment hearing on November 13, 2019. Photo: Drew Angerer/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, E.U. ambassador Gordon Sondland’s impeachment testimony, last night’s Democratic debate, and Prince Andrew’s disastrous interview. 

In yesterday’s impeachment testimony, Ambassador Gordon Sondland revised his earlier statements, saying that he “followed the president’s orders” and summing up, simply, “Was there a ‘quid pro quo’? … The answer is yes.” How damaging is Sondland’s testimony for the Republicans’ defense of Trump?

If the Republicans cared about the facts or the gravity of the crime being investigated, the answer would be apocalyptically damaging. But they don’t care, and they will continue to defend Trump even if those testifying under oath include an eyewitness to a criminal conspiracy hatched in the White House like Sondland, or patriots like Fiona Hill, Alexander Vindman, and Marie Yovanovitch, who not only provided irrefutable evidence of the crime but detailed the existential threat that crime poses to America.

Had Trump pulled out that (so far) proverbial gun and shot someone on Fifth Avenue, Republicans would trot out the exact same defense they have this week: The shot was fired at 2 a.m. and there were no eyewitnesses. Those nearby who claimed to have heard the shot had actually heard a car backfiring. The closed-circuit video capturing the incident is, as the president says, a hoax concocted by the same Fake News outlets that manufactured the Access Hollywood video. The confession released by the White House was “perfect” evidence of Trump’s innocence. Election records show that the cops who arrived on the scene were registered Democrats and therefore part of a deep-state conspiracy to frame the president for a crime he didn’t commit but that the Democrats did. The victim was not killed and will make a complete recovery, so no crime was committed anyway. And even if Trump had killed the young woman he gunned down, the argument advanced by Trump’s lawyer last month would apply: “The person who serves as president, while in office, enjoys absolute immunity from criminal process of any kind.” Next case!

The crime Trump actually is accused of is far more severe than that imaginary shooting in any event. He and his co-conspirators, including the vice-president and secretary of State, were guilty of aiding Vladimir Putin’s plan to bludgeon Ukraine, an American ally, and, in Fiona Hill’s language, “to weaken our country” as well. That Putin’s foremost goal is to sabotage the electoral process that is the beating heart of our democracy doesn’t seem to matter a whit to Vichy Republicans. If the devastating facts unfurled with great clarity by Adam Schiff’s committee has failed to move them, what would? History — particularly the history of the prominent political figures in England, France, and the United States who appeased and collaborated with Germany during the Nazis rise to power — suggests that they will only be moved to speak up when it’s too late.

Last night’s Democratic debate was the first held since Pete Buttigieg has climbed into the top tier of candidates, and attempted to weather the level of scrutiny that comes with that position. How did he do?

The proof that no one knows what the hell is happening at this point in the Democratic primary was the nearly uniform pre-debate prediction by journalists and politicians that the evening’s main event would be Buttigieg takedowns. Eyeing Mayor Pete’s rise in polling in his state, the former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack put it this way earlier this week: “He may be able to take a punch. He may not. We just don’t know.” And we still don’t. Except for a scuffle with the soon-to-depart Tulsi Gabbard in the final moments, Buttigieg received at most light taps from his actual rivals and deflected them with ease. That said, to me his easy-listening unflappability still seems to be the voice of a McKinsey consultant, which he once was.

One thing we can all agree on is that the Democrats will not win if they bore the electorate to tears. Yes, many voters may be looking to swing the pendulum away from a president whose style is to compulsively provide entertainment (or at least his brand of it) 24/7. But the overall inability of the candidates to engage with each other passionately before a national television audience last night leaves you wondering how much they are engaging even with the core audience tuning into a debate broadcast on MSNBC.

Did anyone learn anything new last night? Bernie Sanders continues to bounce back impressively from his heart attack. The debate did not illuminate where Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All plan stands after the seeming hedging of recent days. Joe Biden still cannot get through an unrehearsed answer without slipping into incoherence, irrelevance, or both. Amy Klochubar still can’t quit making scripted quips that she delivers as if to emphasize how canned they are (last night’s: “I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends”). While Cory Booker declared that he is not looking for “a kumbaya moment” as president, he still conveys the sunny, broad good will of kumbaya more successfully than any compelling policy ideas. Kamala Harris’s tough prosecutorial intelligence continues to lack a third dimension onstage. The best to be said about Tom Steyer is that he’s not Howard Schultz. In the novelty spot, Andrew Yang is not nearly as fascinating as Marianne Williamson.

Even though Michael Bloomberg has scant chance of winning the Democratic nomination, he couldn’t jump in soon enough. He’s a billionaire who has actually done things in public life — good, bad, and indifferent. His long record and his money will shake things up. The Democratic field needs a jolt. To use a Biden metaphor from a previous debate, watching this one was like listening to a record player when the needle is stuck.

In the wake of a disastrous BBC interview about his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, Prince Andrew has announced that he will “step back from public duties” for the near future. Will this decision shield him from further repercussions?

A British friend of mine observes that Prince Andrew’s BBC interview has united her country for the first time since Brexit. No one believed him, and no viewer was left unappalled. I don’t know what “further repercussions” could befall him even if there was evidence that he raped a girl in Epstein’s Manhattan mansion. I’m no lawyer, but wouldn’t this require the Palace to allow his extradition to the United States? In any case, as a public figure, the prince is done, except as a possible role for Ricky Gervais in season five of The Crown.

I’m much more interested in the repercussions for the various see-no-evil, hear-no-evil American Establishment figures who hung out with Epstein, in some cases took his money and favors or gave him money and favors, and are skating away (or trying to): Alan Dershowitz, Leslie Wexner, and Leon Black most of all in terms of documented interaction with Epstein, but also such hangers-on as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, not to mention the Harvard retinue led by Larry Summers and Steven Pinker. Go to YouTube, watch the roughly 50-minute Prince Andrew interview in its entirety, and imagine all these American Establishment men being subjected to a similarly rigorous inquiry. It will chill the blood.

Frank Rich: Republicans Are Excusing a Criminal Conspiracy