Self-styled anti-Trump gladiator.
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/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, the Trump and Biden’s Iowa face-off, Democrats’ failed hearing on the Mueller report, and how to moderate the first DNC debate.
After weeks of sniping at each other from long distance, both Donald Trump and Joe Biden spent yesterday going head-to-head in Iowa, providing the framing that each of them seems to prefer on the road to 2020. Is it a mistake for either of them to look past a challenge from the rest of the Democratic field?
Yes, for both. I have no idea who is going to be the Democratic nominee, but I don’t think it’s going to be Biden. One of the several reasons is that by focusing solely on Trump 17 months before Election Day and refusing to engage with any of his Democratic opponents, he is disrespecting not just those opponents but the majority of voters in his own party. He looked presumptuous when he blew off an Iowa event with 19 other Democratic candidates over the weekend, no matter how commendable his excuse (a grandchild’s high-school graduation). In a party where every major politician (and presidential candidate) is fiercely anti-Trump, Biden isn’t even the most clever at goading him. Nancy Pelosi is the gold standard, with Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren coming up strong.
Biden leads in the polls but not by so much so that he can act like Trump’s anointed opponent. As James Hohmann of the Washington Post pointed out, in the new Des Moines Register poll, where Biden’s trajectory has started to drop, he leads the Democratic field by being the first choice of 24 percent of Iowa’s likely Democratic caucusgoers — as opposed to 57 percent for Clinton in the same poll four years ago. Only 29 percent of his supporters are “extremely enthusiastic” about him. Biden’s recent whiplash reversal on his decades-long support for the Hyde Amendment restricting abortion rights suggests that there will be further hits on that enthusiasm to come. It wasn’t just the politically clumsy flip-flopping that was the problem, but the lack of transparency about how it happened. His stance is “I am anti-Trump gladiator No. 1, so what else do you need to know?”
As for Trump, he is making the mistake of refighting the last war. He is lazy, and by assuming that he’ll face Biden, an Establishment party figure, he’s betting that he can recycle his Jeb Bush–Hillary Clinton playbook from four years ago. Indeed, he’s already smearing Biden’s energy (“he’s even slower than he used to be”) and health (also a big Fox News smear campaign), as he did, respectively, with those 2016 opponents. That he was so at a loss for a nickname for Buttigieg that he likened him to Alfred E. Neuman is an indicator of how his cultural antennae have atrophied with age since his prime-time heyday in The Apprentice. Unless he’s facing a fellow septuagenarian he’s likely to be off his very limited game. Presidents are always isolated from reality in the White House bubble but none ever to the degree of Trump. Mar-a-Lago is his idea of getting out among the folks.
My favorite news story of the past week is the Times’ report that Trump refuses to believe the polls of his own internal pollster, the Republican veteran Tony Fabrizio, because they are downbeat, and is instructing his toadies to ignore or lie about them. He’s adding “fake polls” to his “fake news” repertoire. Trump is no Hitler but his determined ignorance of reality is good news for Democrats, much as Hitler’s ignorance of setbacks in the war was good news for the Allies.
This week, the new Quinnipiac poll shows Trump losing not only to Biden but every other Democrat selected for a matchup, down to Cory Booker. No matter who the opponent, and no matter how wide the gap with a Democrat, the Trump result remains the same: He never rises above 42 percent, which is the exact average of his approval ratings in all legitimate polls according to FiveThirtyEight. In a new Morning Consult survey, Trump is frozen at 32–33 percent, essentially the GOP base, no matter what Democrat is test-matched against him.
Meanwhile the Trump–Biden split-screen duel in Iowa is fun in its way, given that Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon are unavailable to make any more sequels to Grumpy Old Men. But will we remember any of it, even a month from now? It’s a measure of how early we are in the electoral calendar that, except when the most familiar Democratic candidates, Biden and Bernie Sanders, are pitted against Trump in the Morning Consult poll, Trump and the Democratic competitor alike lose to “Don’t know.”
As John Dean’s Monday testimony on the Mueller report has failed to make a splash, a rift in the Democratic Party has begun to emerge between Jerry Nadler, who is pushing for a formal impeachment inquiry, and Nancy Pelosi, who says the effort lacks broader party support. Is a formal inquiry the only way to get America’s attention?
Here’s all you need to know about getting America’s attention for the Mueller report. The experts called upon by the Democrats to educate the public about the report and its Watergate antecedents on Monday are under contract as commentators to CNN (Dean) and MSNBC (the former prosecutors Joyce Vance and Barbara McQuade). And yet even CNN and MSNBC didn’t bother to air the hearing, choosing instead to chase at length the bright object of the moment, the helicopter that crash-landed in the fog on a Manhattan office tower. If you wanted to hear from Dean, et al., you had to find it on C-Span 3. To quote the president of the United States: Sad!
Also factor into the general apathy the reality that few Americans (and apparently not that many members of Congress) have read the Mueller report, that Robert Mueller’s odd press appearance did nothing to whip up a public hunger for it, and that William Barr’s Department of Justice is sinisterly gifted at throwing monkey wrenches in the congressional investigative process. All of this argues that the only way that Americans will focus on Trump’s bottomless corruption and countless transgressions against the law is if there are hearings given the marquee imprimatur of Impeachment.
Fair enough, but to what end? As long as the Vichy Republicans hold firm — and, I’m sorry, the anti-Trump rebellion of a single iconoclastic GOP house member, Justin Amash, is a one-off, not a harbinger of a larger revolt — an impeached Trump will be acquitted in the Senate. And acquitted on the eve of the 2020 Election, handing him another bogus badge of “exoneration.” Or how about this for a nightmare scenario: Mitch McConnell will so successfully gum up and otherwise manipulate an impeachment trial in the Senate that it will still be going on, sucking up oxygen from the Democratic ticket (and Democratic congressional candidates) and churning up Trump’s base, when Americans go to the polls. I am still with Pelosi on this: Let all the Trump investigations roll forward, including those in non-congressional venues like the Southern District of New York. Keep digging for new evidence. Know that there are non-impeachment remedies under the law, including those that might satisfy Pelosi’s wish of seeing Trump “in prison,” that will come into play the moment Trump no longer enjoys the Oval Office immunity that Mueller invoked in punting on the obstruction charges in his report.
NBC has announced that the first Democratic debate, scheduled for two nights later this month, will have five moderators — Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, José Diaz-Balart, Chuck Todd, and Rachel Maddow — and as many as 20 candidates. What can they do to help sort out the huge Democratic field?
Nothing. Do the math. Each candidate will get 12 minutes — but really not that much when you factor in breaks all the “production” that will be ladled on top each night, from fulsome introductions of each of the 20 to lengthy explanations of the arbitrary, ever-shifting, Rube Goldberg–esque Democratic National Committee rules that govern this spectacle. One might argue that the old Miss America pageant’s recitation of the competitors’ public-service “platforms” would have greater substance than this lightning round of over-rehearsed soundbites.
Meanwhile, what exactly is NBC adding to the mix? The network’s goal seems to be branding — not only are the moderators scrupulously chosen for racial and gender diversity but also to give equal play to the Today show, the network’s Nightly News, and its cable outlet, MSNBC. Surely we’d get more of the candidates and less show-business marketing if there were a single well-versed moderator each night, chosen for his or her ability to move things along, rather than for showing off the network’s wares. I nominate Alex Trebek. What candidate would say no to him, and what viewer wouldn’t tune in for him? A Canadian-born game-show host may be just the ticket to make American political debates great again.
Frank Rich: Trump and Biden Are Just Grumpy Old Men
So that’s what Howard Schultz has been up to lately
A page right out of the FDR manual
Ah, that old chestnut
Trump Can’t Stop Lying About His Unpopularity
By Ed Kilgore
His latest assault on unwelcome poll numbers — including data from his own campaign — shows he’s compelled to deny reality and make up his own.
the national circus
the national circus
Frank Rich: Trump and Biden Are Just Grumpy Old Men
By Frank Rich
The split-screen duel between the septuagenarians has been fun in its way — but also kind of pathetic.
There you have it
“Ultimately, I’m always right,” Trump tells reporters in the Oval Office.
This doesn’t look to be dying down anytime soon
A case that outraged the country four years ago
The North Carolina man charged with killing three much-admired Muslim university students pleaded guilty Wednesday, four years after the slayings.
Craig Stephen Hicks, 50, entered the plea to three counts of first-degree murder in a Durham courtroom packed with dozens of the victims’ family and friends. It came two months after the new district attorney dropped plans to seek the death penalty in hopes of concluding a case that she said had languished too long.
“I’ve wanted to plead guilty since day one,” Hicks told Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson. The judge said Hicks had agreed as part of his plea bargain to accept three consecutive life sentences without parole.
Police say that in February 2015, Hicks burst into a condo in Chapel Hill owned by 23-year-old Deah Barakat and fatally shot Barakat, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21; and her 19-year-old sister Razan Abu-Salha.
Biden apparently running to be a small-town mayor in 1953
Joe Biden meets a voter’s granddaughter in an Iowa coffee shop and asks her age. She says she’s 13. He addresses her brothers. “You’ve got one job here, keep the guys away from your sister.”
Hong Kong Protests: Photos and Videos of Massive Crowds and Police Clashes
By Adam K. Raymond
Demonstrations over an extradition bill turned violent in Hong Kong Wednesday.
The stonewalling continues apace
JUST IN: President Trump has asserted executive privilege over subpoenaed documents relating to the House Oversight Cmte.’s investigation into the Trump admin.’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, according to a letter sent by DOJ to Chairman Cummings. pic.twitter.com/BwvNMF04G4
Yet another poll shows an uptick for Warren
The corruption’s right out in the open
Representatives of at least 22 foreign governments appear to have spent money at Trump Organization properties, an NBC News review has found, hinting at a significant foreign cash flow to the American president that critics say violates the U.S. Constitution.
The extent and amount of foreign spending at Trump’s hotels, golf clubs and restaurants is not known, because the Trump Organization is a private company and declines to disclose that information. Trump promised to donate any profits from foreign governments, and the Trump Organization has sent $343,000 to the U.S. Treasury for 2017 and 2018. The company did not release underlying numbers to support that figure.
Amid two lawsuits accusing Trump of accepting illegal foreign payments, NBC News sought to compile the most comprehensive possible list of foreign spending at Trump properties based on information in the public record. In June 2018, a report by the watchdog group Public Citizen came up with 10 foreign governments that had spent money at Trump venues. More information has since become public.
the top line
Kudos to the States Suing to Block Sprint/T-Mobile Merger
By Josh Barro
As the state attorneys general suing on antitrust grounds know, competition among four national cellular providers serves Americans well.
the tweet beat
Trump’s First Twitter Like in Years Is About … Rihanna?
By Madison Malone Kircher
The “Executive Time” president salutes another work-life balance queen.
Trump fans: there’s no reason to vote, the president’s got this thing in the bag
The Fake News has never been more dishonest than it is today. Thank goodness we can fight back on Social Media. Their new weapon of choice is Fake Polling, sometimes referred to as Suppression Polls (they suppress the numbers). Had it in 2016, but this is worse…..
Democrats Need Brains As Well As Spine
By Ed Kilgore
The problem that Joe Biden exhibits in praising bipartisanship is one of understanding, not of will.
Is promising the prosecution of your political adversary really the way to go here?
The worst Ebola outbreak since 2014 continues to pick up steam
The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo made the long-feared jump across borders with three cases confirmed Wednesday in Uganda, including the death of a 5-year-old boy who had the virus.
The World Health Organization and Ugandan health authorities said Tuesday that the Congolese boy had traveled from Congo on Sunday and entered Uganda with his family and sought medical care.
In a tweet Wednesday, WHO said the boy had died Tuesday night.
“The young patient – 5- year-old index case of #Ebola died last night.
Two more samples were sent to UVRI and have tested positive. We, therefore, have three confirmed cases of #Ebola in #Uganda,” the tweet said, referring to the Uganda Virus Research Institute.
Rare find: there’s a White House employee Trump actually likes, and doesn’t appear to be plotting against
In six months on the job, [White House counsel Pat] Cipollone has turned the White House Counsel’s Office into a central hub of activity and made himself a constant presence in the Oval Office. A 53-year-old former corporate lawyer with an affable style, he has also made enough of an impression on Trump that the president has begun asking aides for their assessment of the White House’s top lawyer — a sign that, at the least, Cipollone has his client’s attention.
“He has the president’s ear, he’s earned the president’s respect and that allows people in this building not just to survive but to succeed in doing their jobs,” said Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to the president.
A tragic development: the Senate may cut its vacation short
The lack of a spending deal with fewer than 20 legislative days remaining until the August recess is prompting some GOP senators to discuss the possibility of cutting short the Senate’s August break.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who is up for reelection next year, said he will ask Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to consider trimming the annual recess in order to tackle government spending bills.
The effort to shorten the recess was successful in 2018 after Perdue and other lawmakers sounded the alarm on a pileup of spending measures. This year, the Senate is even further behind schedule on its to-do list.
Senators have done little legislating this year and still have on their agenda a border supplemental spending bill, defense authorization, a highway reauthorization and the annual appropriations bills.
Another crack in Trump’s strategy of stonewalling Congress
Donald Trump Jr. is returning to the Senate Intelligence Committee to be interviewed behind closed doors on Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The appearance of the President’s eldest son Wednesday comes after a lengthy and contentious fight that spilled into public view after the committee issued a subpoena to Trump Jr. and he initially balked at testifying for a second time.
Trump Jr.’s allies mounted an aggressive campaign targeting Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr for the subpoena, accusing the North Carolina Republican of helping the Democrats by continuing his committee’s investigation even after special counsel Robert Mueller had wrapped up his probe. Many of those criticizing Burr included his own Senate Republican colleagues.
But Burr did not back down from the subpoena, and the committee and Trump Jr. struck a deal for him to testify for two-to-four hours on roughly a half dozen topics, including the key questions the committee has for the President’s eldest son about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and the Trump Tower Moscow project.
A History of the Long Fight to Secure Funding for 9/11 First Responders
By Matt Stieb
Why Jon Stewart was so frustrated on Tuesday when he lobbied lawmakers, once again, over the treatment of emergency workers at Ground Zero.
A rare climate realist within the Trump administration
A top financial regulator is opening a public effort to highlight the risk that climate change poses to the nation’s financial markets, setting up a clash with a president who has mocked global warming and whose administration has sought to suppress climate science.
Rostin Behnam, who sits on the federal government’s five-member Commodities Futures Trading Commission, a powerful agency overseeing major financial markets including grain futures, oil trading and complex derivatives, said in an interview on Monday that the financial risks from climate change were comparable to those posed by the mortgage meltdown that triggered the 2008 financial crisis.
Mr. Behnam was appointed by President Trump to a seat on the commission that, by law, must be filled by a Democrat. He said that unusual status gave him a measure of political protection that other appointees within the administration might not benefit from.
The commission is designed to operate more independently from the White House than many federal agencies, and legal experts said it would be difficult, though not impossible, for Mr. Behnam’s boss to fire or demote him.
Reagan’s chief economic adviser Martin Feldstein has died
Feldstein died on Tuesday morning, according to his assistant, Norma McEvoy. She did not provide further details.
Nearly two years into Reagan’s first term, Feldstein became chairman of the CEA and the president’s top economic adviser, at a time when the administration’s economic policies were under attack by deficit hawks.
Tax revenue was falling short of projections as inflation slowed, putting the budget in the red. Feldstein’s advice was to raise taxes – the opposite of what Reagan had promised voters in the 1980 presidential campaign.
Reagan, who was trying to increase military outlays while reducing overall government spending and taxes, sided with Feldstein over political aides. He approved revenue-raising levies on corporations, though he stuck with his promise not to raise taxes on working families.
Your iPhone Is Listening to You (If You’re a Spanish Soccer Fan)
By Max Read
Facebook isn’t spying on you. Spain’s top professional soccer league is, though.
Scientists Find Mystery Mass Under Moon’s Surface
By Matt Stieb
Baylor scientists estimate that the big metal chunk below a lunar crater weighs 4.8 quintillion pounds, and may be left over from an ancient impactor.