the national circus

Frank Rich: The Folly of Trump’s Bolton Lawsuit

Is he really worth the trouble? Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via 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, John Bolton’s memoir, Neil Gorsuch’s surprise decision, and #Rampgate at West Point.

The Trump administration has sued John Bolton in an attempt to stop his upcoming memoir, despite its publisher having already printed and distributed copies. If the book is, effectively, already out, what is the point of the lawsuit?

This is something of a mystery. While the White House staff is down to C- and D-list toadies in year four, surely at least some of them knew that this lawsuit was a terrible idea for Trump, just on selfish political grounds. Bolton’s book was past the point of being recalled when Bill Barr’s Justice Department made its doomed move, Bolton had already taped an ABC interview about the juicy parts, and the Wall Street Journal was publishing an excerpt. Whether as a matter of First Amendment law or just plain common sense, there was no way Trump could suppress this book. So what was the point? The only visible result has been to give Bolton an even larger megaphone.

The wise move for Trump, of course, would have been to simply ignore the book altogether. But clearly he didn’t listen to any such counsel, even if one of his bunker mates had the guts to offer it to him. As a consequence, Bolton has a huge audience for a key revelation that destroys one of the central planks of Trump’s reelection campaign — that China foisted the coronavirus on America and that Joe Biden is somehow China’s corrupt accomplice in evil, #BeijingBiden. It’s hard to keep making that case — which was preposterous to start with — when Bolton has revealed in graphic detail that Trump was kissing President Xi Jinping’s ass, “pleading” with him for a trade deal in a quid pro quo intended to boost Trump’s reelection prospects.

One other possible result of Trump’s legal action may also be salutary — the potential for his suit to claw back Bolton’s royalties even while failing to kill the book itself. An author who chose the title The Room Where It Happened was clearly counting on a Hamilton-scale payday. But a man who has betrayed his country on Bolton’s scale — from hawking the fictional Bush administration intelligence to justify the disastrous invasion of Iraq to staying silent about presidential criminality during impeachment — deserves nothing but contempt.

In any event, most of the reported contents of his book either confirm or fill in additional details of what we already know. We certainly don’t need Bolton to tell us that Mike Pompeo thinks Trump is “so full of shit,” which is not only self-evidently true but also a naked instance of psychological projection by Pompeo, who is doing his best to go down in history as America’s worst secretary of State. So familiar is much of Bolton’s brief against Trump that it’s amazing Trump still thinks he can cover it up — whether with lawsuits, lies, Twitter trolling, or counterprogramming.

Which leads me to wonder if the pointless but rowdy legal action against Bolton may have another purpose entirely: to distract from and drown out an arguably more pressing reality that Trump wants to cover up — the surge of COVID-19 cases in (mostly) red states. On a parallel track to the Bolton fracas, both Trump and Mike Pence have been engaged in a campaign to falsify and downplay news of the pandemic, as if they were locked in a primary race to be the mayor from Jaws. Though in this case the jurisdiction is not Martha’s Vineyard but Tulsa, where 19,000 Trumpists have already started lining up to pack into a hall for Saturday night’s rally.

So what if these MAGA-ites have to agree to a waiver relieving the Trump campaign of liability should they get ill? So what if Tulsa’s own chief health official has said there’s a “huge risk factor” in attending? So what if masks aren’t required? No worries. This week Trump has said the coronavirus will go away without a vaccine (even as he falsely promises a vaccine imminently). Pence has said projections of a “second wave” of the coronavirus are “overblown” by the media. (The sidelined Anthony Fauci says we’re still in the first wave.) Both men, as well as their political and media allies, are dismissing the rise in cases as simply the result of the rise in testing (false) and attributing the new outbreaks mainly to nursing homes, prisons, and meat-packing plants (tell that to the infected barflies of Florida). When Tulsa reported its highest number of new COVID cases to date yesterday, the White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, took it as her cue to say the rally offered “a safe opportunity to congregate” and Trump went on Hannity to declare that the virus is “fading away.”

Though the White House doesn’t seem to know or care, there is one crucial distinction between lying about the revelations in John Bolton’s book and lying about a pandemic. With the pandemic, all Americans are in the room where it happens and will see for themselves if it does. Either those 19,000 rally attendees in Tulsa will remain healthy in the weeks to come — or they will get sick and in some cases die. Period.

In the wake of this week’s Supreme Court decision expanding federal workplace protections to gay and transgender people, some conservatives and Evangelicals have come to criticize its lead author, Neil Gorsuch, and argue that his turn away from conservative orthodoxy will keep Trump voters home in 2020. Are they right?

If Evangelical voters and their leaders had the humanity and Christian values they claim, you’d think that today’s surprise Roberts Court decision, protecting some 700,000 young immigrants from Trump and Stephen Miller’s cruel scheme to deport them en masse, would balance out their rage at the long-overdue decision upholding LGBTQ rights. But you would be wrong. Now, as always, these voters threaten to quit the GOP whenever they find Republicans’ actions insufficiently homophobic or misogynistic for their tastes, and always try to cloak their protest as a battle for “religious freedom.” (“Religious freedom” was the same dodge adopted by an earlier generation of right-wing religious and political demagogues who argued against desegregation.)

But the threats are empty. As recently as 2015, Franklin Graham was thundering about leaving the GOP in protest over the funding of Planned Parenthood and “wasteful spending.” Today, he’s among the most vocal of Trump backers in the land, even endorsing the sacrilegious Bible photo op in front of St. John’s Church.

According to Henry Olsen of the Washington Post, it wouldn’t take many defections to put Trump in jeopardy. “Even a small reduction in the Republican margin among the devout will destroy any hope Trump will be reelected,” he writes. In Olsen’s number crunching of 2016 and 2018 voting patterns, Trump’s margin among Evangelical voters would need to fall only ten points in November for him to lose Florida and North Carolina and possibly Georgia and Texas.

But I wouldn’t waste any prayers on that. I’d guess that if Trump does lose, it won’t be because these voters bolt. All you need to know about this constituency is that Roy Moore, an accused serial pedophile, received more than 80 percent of the Christian conservative vote in the 2017 Alabama Senate race — almost identical to Trump’s share of the white Evangelical vote, the Access Hollywood tape notwithstanding, in 2016.

President Trump seemed to have trouble bringing a glass to his mouth and walking down a ramp during a visit to West Point last weekend, drawing attention to his health. What do you think is going on?

You don’t have to be a doctor, or know the specific diagnosis, to recognize Trump’s continued physical and mental decline. About the only people who don’t seem to know are his own handlers, who did nothing to protect him from the spectacle of his doddering down the ramp on-camera at West Point.

Once again, much as with his hyping of the Bolton book, Trump went out of his way to advertise his own scandal — this time, by sending forth another one of those ludicrous tweets claiming that what you can see with your own eyes on video isn’t what actually happened. And once again, he dismantled a pillar of his own reelection campaign. You can’t go around calling your opponent “Sleepy Joe” and smearing his mental and physical capabilities when you lack the ability to pick up a glass of water with one hand.

Frank Rich: The Folly of Trump’s Bolton Lawsuit