the national circus

Frank Rich: The Intelligence Community’s Bill Barr Moment

That invincible feeling. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

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 start of Russia’s interference in the 2020 campaign, the prospects of Michael Bloomberg’s post-debate recovery, and Trump’s pardon spree.

The House Intelligence Committee was recently briefed that Russia has already begun interfering in the 2020 campaign “to try to get President Trump re-elected,” according to a report in the New York Times. In response, Trump apparently replaced the acting director of national intelligence with a loyalist. Is this the intelligence community’s Bill Barr moment?

It has not even been three weeks since the Republican Senate acquitted Trump, ratifying his belief that he is above the law. In that brief time, he has conducted a political purge in the White House, let felons with personal connections to him out of jail, and now this: squelching his intelligence chiefs’ warnings of Russia’s efforts to further his reelection campaign, a de facto collusion with Vladimir Putin to betray American democracy.

Of course this is another Barr moment, with the new acting intelligence director, the utterly unqualified loyalist hack Richard Grenell, serving as a placeholder in that job, much as the utterly unqualified loyalist hack Matthew Whitaker did as acting attorney general until Trump recruited Barr. Whoever the new intel director proves to be, we can be assured that they will do Trump’s political bidding. Nothing will be done to combat Russian efforts to fix the election. Congressional watchdogs and all other relevant officials will be kept in the dark about the nature of attacks. Should any news of Russian cyberwarfare somehow seep into the public sphere anyway, no doubt Trump and his lackeys will declare that the real culprit is Ukraine, with the aid of Hillary Clinton’s vintage server.

Trump’s breaches of the rule of law, all of them aided by the Vichy Republicans, are so profuse and so deleterious to the very idea of America that it’s getting hard to imagine how he could top himself. But surely the willful castration of national security when a foreign adversary seeks to sabotage an American election is his gravest act of lawlessness yet.

In the 24 hours or so since the all-out assault on Michael Bloomberg at the Nevada Democratic debate, the billionaire’s campaign manager has tried to argue that being the biggest target simply meant Bloomberg was the biggest threat to the field. Can Bloomberg defend himself well enough to stay in the running?

The Bloomberg debate debacle is reminiscent of what happened in Hollywood when sound movies arrived: Some suddenly sexy movie stars of the silent era lost their entire careers when audiences discovered what squeaky, low-powered voices they had. It’s not that dire for Bloomberg. He can stay in as long as he’s willing to spend. But to what end, beyond continuing to fracture the non-Bernie Sanders field, is unclear.

Bloomberg did accomplish two remarkable things on Wednesday night. He made Joe Biden look on top of it (sort of), and made one think nostalgically, if only for a millisecond, of Tom Steyer, a billionaire with far less reason to run for president than Bloomberg — but at least a guy who can speak in paragraphs. But the issue with Bloomberg is not simply a matter of performance. The truth is that the two issues for which he didn’t have answers — the treatment of women at his company and the treatment of black and Hispanic New Yorkers during his mayoralty — are the very two issues that stand in the way of his getting the Democratic nomination.

Bloomberg is not stupid. There’s no way he didn’t see these attacks coming. By all accounts he went through serious debate preparation — presumably the best that money could buy. That he failed to respond may have partially been a consequence of rhetorical rustiness, but was mainly a matter of bedrock substance. He revealed to the audience that he does patronize women even now — not just with lines like “Maybe they didn’t like a joke I told” but in his dismissive demeanor toward Elizabeth Warren, whom he refused to address by name. (For an incisive breakdown of the gender politics of this debate, including Buttigieg versus Klobuchar, do read Monica Hesse in the Washington Post.) Bloomberg also revealed that he still doesn’t understand the racism and cruelty of stop and frisk. Warren had it exactly right in her takedown when she said the problem isn’t how the policy “turned out” but “what it was designed to do to begin with” — targeting “black and brown men.”

It’s a measure of the power of Bloomberg’s unlimited campaign budget that despite all this, he’s drawn more African-American support in some polls than every Democrat except Biden. It would be crazy to count him out. Politico reports that his fallback strategy for seizing the nomination is to exploit a contested convention to become the standard-bearer of the anti-Bernie forces. Should he succeed, would the alienation of the Sanders base over such a last-minute power grab in a smoke-filled room (or smoke-free, in Bloomberg’s case) make the victory Pyrrhic? A fractured party cannot beat Putin and his American stooge.

At the end of a week in which Trump granted clemency to 11 people whose crimes bear close resemblance to the major accusations against himself and his aides — selling political favors, concealing extortion, tax fraud — Roger Stone was handed a prison sentence much shorter than federal prosecutors had initially suggested. Should Trump accomplices take this as a message that he will protect them or is this simply, as the Times put it, another “ad hoc scramble”?

Of course Trump will protect any criminals in his administration or in his circle, especially (if not exclusively) those whose criminal activity mirrors his own both at the Trump Organization and in the White House. If there was any ambiguity about that intention, it was vitiated by the GOP Senate’s protection of Trump in the impeachment trial. A reelected Trump will not only continue to pardon past and present criminals — surely Jared Kushner’s felonious father, Charles, will be first in line — but he will green-light further White House criminality by implicitly signaling to his entire cohort that they can break any laws they want with the certitude that no crime will lead to punishment.

Of all this week’s unpardonable pardons, perhaps special attention must be paid to Bernard Kerik’s. In addition to his crimes, this lowlife Giuliani police commissioner — “an American hero” in the recent words of the Fox News shill Geraldo Rivera — took advantage of the horror of 9/11 to conduct an extramarital affair in an apartment that (as the Times put it) had been “donated for the use of weary police and rescue workers who were helping at ground zero.” Next time around, no doubt, Kerik will be able to get a friends-and-family discount at the Trump hotel of his choice.

Frank Rich: The Intelligence Community’s Bill Barr Moment