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 value of the Senate impeachment trial, the Democrats’ response to an impeachment “witness trade,” and the New York Times’ televised dual endorsement.
Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial has so far proceeded along party lines, with Democrats’ requests for additional evidence blocked by Mitch McConnell’s Republicans. Assuming that partisanship continues and the outcome is locked in, does this trial still have any value?
The prospect that the Senate’s Vichy Republicans will convict Trump is as remote as the zombies in the Charles Manson cult bolting from their dear leader’s compound in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Sure, one might hope for more: The facts are utterly damning, even without an infusion of new witnesses and documents, and Adam Schiff’s prosecutorial skills may join Clarence Darrow’s in American history books. As the honorable Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks idealistically put it this week, “Facts should persuade the Republicans who have so far resisted hearing the truth.” Should, but won’t. Not in a caucus that has previously failed to challenge Trump or his administration on any of its lies or crimes.
But there is much good that can still come out of this seemingly open-and-shut exercise. Perhaps the single most important point Schiff has made thus far was his impassioned end-of-day reality check for the Senate: “More emails are going to come out. More witnesses are going to come forward. They’re going to have more relevant information to share. And the only question is, do you want to hear it now? Do you want to know the full truth?” Translation: This trial may be over in two weeks, but there are another nine months until Election Day during which more White House rocks will be turned over and more rot will be revealed. If you are a Republican up for reelection in a tight race, are you ready to be held accountable for your passivity, inaction, and cowardice in these proceedings? Your behavior, much of it captured on camera, will be sliced and diced in campaign ads paid for by the bottomless bank account of Michael Bloomberg.
Even now new Pew and CNN polls show that for the first time a slim national majority supports removing Trump from office. One imagines that majority is not so slim in the suburban districts that will determine the fates of such embattled incumbents as Maine’s Susan Collins, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, and Arizona’s loathsome Martha McSally. If things really go downhill, the reelection campaigns of Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Georgia’s David Perdue, and even Texas’s John Cornyn could be rattled, too. And by downhill, I don’t mean further revelations about what happened with Ukraine — that story is already fully known — but fresh crimes that will stalk senators who played possum this month. For starters, let’s keep an eye on where Trump or his son-in-law fit into the chain that connects the hacking of Jeff Bezos’s phone by the Saudis to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Mohammad bin Salman’s minions to the role played by one of Trump’s house organs, his pal David Pecker’s National Enquirer, in the Bezos blackmail scheme.
Soon after reports surfaced that the Democrats were considering a “witness trade” that could have brought testimony from both Hunter Biden and John Bolton, party leaders took the idea “off the table,” leaving themselves again facing the prospect of no additional witnesses. Did they make the right decision?
If facts or logic mattered in this trial, of course the Democrats should shun any deal that might lead to the Bidens testifying. They have nothing to do with the case against Trump. But facts and logic don’t matter in this political circus, and there’s a case to be made for a witness trade. For starters, adding any new witness will slow up the proceedings — he or she would have to lawyer up and be deposed before appearing — and that will foil one of Trump’s fondest political schemes. He wants an acquittal by February 4, when he hopes to use the State of the Union address to tell the world that he has been completely exonerated by the impeachment trial.
Why not have Joe Biden testify? Though one can never underestimate his ability to screw up a public appearance, presumably he can be coached into turning his performance into a Joseph Welch “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” moment — or, ironically enough, a grandstanding Clarence Thomas “high-tech lynching” tirade — that rallies public support and backfires on the Republicans. From what we’ve seen of Hunter Biden, he’s enough of a cipher that it is unlikely to make a difference what he testifies (politely and apologetically, as in his October interview on ABC) about his time on the board at Burisma.
In exchange the Democrats could request Mick Mulvaney and Rick Perry, both of whom risk grave criminal jeopardy if they lie to Congress as they have to the press and public. I would be cautious, however, about calling John Bolton. Bolton has only one mission before him: to make sure that his forthcoming book is a best seller. If he were to publicly say anything that truly laid a hand on Trump, he would blow up that possibility by chasing away the MAGA hordes that constitute 95 percent of his customer base. He could, of course, replace that base with the book buyers now pushing A Very Stable Genius to the top of the best-seller list, but to do so he’d have to go full rogue, outdoing even Omarosa and “Anonymous” in about-facing on Trump. Does anyone seriously believe Bolton would?
In what the paper called “a break with convention,” the New York Times has endorsed both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar in the Democratic primary, and made the announcement on television before doing so in print. What does, or doesn’t, the endorsement change for the primary campaigns?
Even if the Times had endorsed a single candidate, I doubt it would have had a discernible effect on the Democratic primary. The day of omniscient editorial-page endorsements moving the public has passed, and packaging them in a reality-television format that is less effective than The Apprentice, let alone The Bachelorette, is not going to restore them to their former clout.
Of all the criticism that has been leveled at the Times for its failure to make a choice, perhaps the most trenchant, if ominous, was tweeted by the Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch: “On one hand, the hot mess of the #nytimesendorsement is trivial as this may not change a single vote. On the other hand, we may look at this as THE moment it was clear the opposition to Trump lost its mind and couldn’t get its act together.” The crux of the matter, in my view, can be found in this sentence in the Times editorial justifying the double endorsement: “Both the radical and the realist models warrant serious consideration.” It’s safe to say most Democrats and Times readers knew that truism before they read the editorial and that many have been wrestling with it for months. They may well have been looking to the Times to take its own stand on that question as Iowa approached, to focus and clarify the crucial political debate that transcends all the individual candidates. As Bunch says, by failing to do so, the Times reflects the Democrats’ disarray rather than making a contribution to its amelioration.
The Times endorsement was not the only sign in recent days that the opposition to Trump may be losing its mind. There were the days lost on the contretemps about what Bernie Sanders did or did not say to Elizabeth Warren in 2018 about the electability of female presidential candidates. Whomever you believe, the spat reduced the stature of both candidates (though possibly Warren more than Sanders, given the new CNN poll) and the Democrats in general.
Then came Hillary Clinton’s gratuitous declaration, during the final Iowa push no less, that she might withhold support from Sanders if he got the nomination. I am no Sanders partisan, but really, would you not support whomever your party nominated to defeat a president who is posing an existential threat to America? Her statement stood in striking contrast to Bloomberg’s earlier vow to spend a fortune to support the nominee, including his ideological opposites Warren and Sanders, if he loses the nomination himself. Clinton, to her credit, rescinded her statement — but not before reminding us that both Clintons have the capacity to dampen moderate Democratic and independent turnout with ill-timed and tone-deaf intrusions into the 2020 arena.