Inside the Myth Machine

Myth Machine

Last December, The New Yorker ran an astonishing piece by Patrick Radden Keefe called “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success.”

In it, Keefe described in great and cringeworthy detail how, in 2001, in search of a “tycoon” character to topline his new unscripted series, the English reality TV impresario cast Donald Trump, ignoring his ignominious history of failure, bankruptcy, and general malfeasance. At the time, Trump’s reputation within the legitimate business community was a joke. But the fictional narrative created by Burnett’s show blew that well-deserved reputation away, creating in its place an enduring—if utterly false—image of Trump as self-made man and business mastermind.

Just how enduring no one knew at the time, least of all Burnett or Trump.

“The Apprentice” marked the creation of a stunning fiction about a man whose actual business acumen was, to be polite, rather less impressive.

Last month, in a blockbuster story by Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner, the New York Times reported that Trump lost over a billion dollars between 1985 and 1994, the biggest loss by any individual American over that period. Trump immediately tried to spin that colossal embarrassment as a triumph, much as he did during the debates when it was suggested that he paid no taxes—“That makes me smart”—which amounts to saying, “I’m not the worst businessman in America—I’m just a tax cheat!”

(He might be both. Craig and Buettner, along with David Barstow, also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of last October on the outrageous, long-running fraud engaged in by the entire Trump family, including the dodges—some illegal, some merely disgusting—they used to avoid paying taxes on the billion dollar inheritance Fred Trump passed on to his children, including not only Donald but also his sister Maryanne, who until very recently was a federal judge.)

But facts, shmacts. None of that was known to the general public in 2001. And as “The Apprentice” became a runaway hit, Trump was given a new lease on celebrity—the latest in the long string of undeserved lucky breaks that this miserable cretin has gotten since birth.

I think we all know what happened from there. It was like something out of A Face in the Crowd.

(Listen to Mr. Keefe discussing the piece with David Remnick on The New Yorker Radio Hour.)

On the heels of that New Yorker piece, I reached out to three individuals with firsthand knowledge of how that particular rancid sausage got made: a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” a business owner whose company was featured in one of the show’s competitions, and a producer who has worked with Burnett over many years. As they all understandably wish to remain anonymous, I’ll gender-ambiguously call them Mx Red, Mx White, and Mx Blue….


THE KING’S NECKTIE: What did you think of The New Yorker piece about Burnett and the genesis of “The Apprentice”? Was it an accurate depiction?

MX RED: Oh, very much so. I wasn’t surprised by anything in there.

TKN: What struck me as truly amazing was how it pulled back the curtain on this charade. Trump was a punchline, a joke on Page Six, a guy that Spy Magazine used to take down regularly, and now that’s all been completely obliterated by this new vision of him that Mark Burnett created.

RED: Exactly. I remember having a quick conversation with Burnett during the filming. I don’t remember the specifics, but I must have been disputing something that Trump said, and Burnett was very quick to say, “Well, if Trump says it then it’s true.”

TKN: Yikes. Talk about a harbinger of things to come.

RED: Yeah. Sort of acknowledging that, well maybe it’s not actually true, but the reality is that this is “alternate reality.”

TKN: I mean, when the show first aired, nobody thought that this was gonna turn out to be such an insidious and destructive thing—I don’t know of anybody who thought that, anyway. It just seemed like television.

RED: I’m certain this has been written about, but in the past when Trump had entertained the possibility of a presidential run, by and large people didn’t take it seriously. They thought he was just going for publicity and trying to get in the news. I’m a deeply cynical person, so my guess is that his primary motivation for running for president was to enrich himself, or more accurately, to pay off his debts. That would be front and center and nothing else would even matter. But in retrospect, his time on NBC increased his visibility to such an extent that it was the set-up for a real presidential run. Many, if not most of us, associated with the show were shocked when he actually won.

TKN: I couldn’t agree more. To me as just an ordinary American watching this, it seemed like even he never thought it was a real possibility that he could win the presidency. I think he thought it was just a branding opportunity.  

RED: Right. But one thing that guy clearly knows is how to do, maybe better than anyone else, is how to get media coverage. The best charlatans do, going back to PT Barnum.

TKN: It’s kind of mind-blowing to think that Burnett was just looking for a frontman, a figurehead, and if he’d picked someone else, the entire course of American history would be different. I mean, that’s the “butterfly effect”—that could be said of anything—but in this case, it’s really remarkable to ponder.  

RED: Oh yeah. Trump and Burnett were mutual opportunists feeding off of each other. But one of the other important players, as I’m sure you know, is Jeff Zucker. He was at NBC then and had a major role in the success of the show. I don’t know that it would have been so successful without him. And now, of course, being at CNN, Zucker represents the very essence of “fake news” in the eyes of the president. So it’s kind of funny to see them as enemies now.

TKN: What was Trump like personally?

RED: Well, as one would expect, in individual or small group encounters he was very personable and outgoing and ostensibly interested and caring, but it was obvious that it was all in an effort to get something out of you. I didn’t detect anything genuine about the man. But again, I’m a cynical person.

TKN: One of the things I thought was fascinating in The New Yorker piece were the descriptions of how much the show’s editors had to craft his “character” to make him appear smarter than he was, and making more informed decisions than he did, and so forth. They needed to present him as a tycoon, even if that was at odds with his actual business history. Did that TV persona—the “character” he played on “The Apprentice”—jive with the person that you encountered in real life?

RED: Not very much. I mean, there was very little talk or thought of serious business or operational matters. Certainly he can command a room or a conversation in an absolutely domineering and attention-getting way—that’s without dispute. But he’s clearly not, and perhaps has never been, a serious or thoughtful man. He’s just a complete and utter charlatan and huckster which at least a third of the country doesn’t seem to understand or care about.

TKN: How does one deal on a face-to-face basis with somebody who’s so pathological?

RED: It’s extremely challenging. I don’t know if anybody’s getting it right. I did see a suggestion that the only way to deal with someone like Trump is what someone called a “truth sandwich,” where you point out the truth, then you point out what he has said and how it’s in conflict with the truth, and then you end by again restating the truth and forcing him to respond. But the way that news is constructed, in sound bites, nobody forces those conversations. So if conversations like that are happening, they don’t see the light of day.

TKN: Having had this firsthand encounter with him so many years ago and looking at him now, do you see any change in him?

RED: Oh, absolutely. If you look at CNN footage from thirty years ago, clearly he had a higher IQ back then. He’s probably well into dementia now. It’s quite clear, no question.

TKN: Yeah, I hate to give him any kind of “out,” but when you look at those old clips from the ‘80s or ‘90s he could at least put a coherent sentence together. I think he was still a vile human being, and a racist, and all that other stuff, but it does make you think that he’s now got some sort of age-related neurological problem, because today he just seems—on top of all those other things—also incoherent. (laughs) Not a great combination.

RED: (laughs) Definitely not.

TKN: Were his kids on the show when you were on it?

RED: That came a little bit later, so not while I was on it. But I was in Junior’s bedroom in Bedford, New York while he wasn’t there. (laughs) Part of what they did for the contestants to keep them happy during the quarantine time was to bring them around to various Trump properties and try to impress them. A little bit of wining and dining.

TKN: What was it like being in that quarantine situation?

RED: It wasn’t so bad. For the most part you’re left alone if you wanted to be. Most people on shows like that are in some sort of transition. That’s pretty much the common thread. So at the time I wasn’t missing work or school, so it was an extremely unusual opportunity to have unstructured time.

TKN: What about your relationships with the other contestants?

RED: We were actually quite friendly. The majority of us were in touch regularly for at least a year, and then for some of us longer than a year, although I’m not in regular contact with any of them today. I was even friendly with Omarosa; she actually called me right before the election and I just pressed “send to voicemail” because I suspect she was asking me to show up to some event and show some support, which I would not have done.

TKN: She’s been such an interesting figure, because she was completely villainous—both on the show and as a member of the White House—and then she had a falling-out with Trump as so many people do, and now she’s kind of on the side of the angels, but we’re still a little suspicious of her. But I saw her on TV recently and she was fantastic: just completely eloquent and clear-eyed in her commentary on the current situation. You know, you couldn’t make up that character.

Do you have any sense of what the cast’s thoughts are on Trump’s eventual rise to power?

RED: Certainly at least some of them were opposed. The African-American cast members banded together in protest, and actually asked me to join them in publicly denouncing the candidacy. And I politely declined not due to any views I might have but just because there’s downside to having publicity.

TKN: Did you watch the show after you were on it?

RED: Oh, of course. And a couple of additional seasons as well. I mean, it’s not particularly entertaining or well-done television, but I sort of felt compelled to watch it, having been involved with it.

TKN: How truthful were the storylines as edited and aired, compared to what really happened?

RED: Most if not all storylines are really crafted. They leave a hundred or a thousand or whatever number of hours of footage on the cutting room floor. The editors have full discretion and they can take any element of any discussion or any scene and come up with anything they want. So there’s very little that’s legitimate. As opposed to other shows like “Survivor” where at least you know there’s some transparency in the voting. Regardless of what else may be portrayed, the vote is the vote.

TKN: But as we know, actual vote counts don’t really apply in Trumpworld.

RED: Right. On “The Apprentice” everything occurs behind closed doors in terms of decisionmaking. And again, as you would expect, everything is ratings-driven anyway.

TKN: Did you have any kind of editorial input? Could you dispute anything that you thought had been displayed inaccurately?

RED: Not at all. Absolutely no opportunity for input whatsoever. I maintain even now that the application video which I submitted is far more entertaining than anything I did on that show. And that’s because of the editing choices that were made.

I was naive so I actually believed that there was some meritocratic element to this entire competition. For example, there was one member of our team who was completely abysmal, and everybody could see that, and any camera could see that as well, so I thought it was a given that this was gonna be the person eliminated from the team. But I didn’t count on this person actually being a bit of a ratings juggernaut because he was such a comical guy and could really play to the camera, and was such an oddball that he absolutely didn’t mind being the butt of the humor. And that was attractive to the network, so they wanted to hold him on as long as they could. But that didn’t even occur to me at the time.

TKN: I watched a few seasons of it too, and it seemed to me that, not just on that show but on a lot of reality shows, the casts got geometrically savvier and more strategic from watching previous seasons. It’s almost innocent the first season or two.

RED: I would agree with that. I was just very naive about the whole thing. Most people on shows like this ultimately just want to be on TV, perhaps even for a living if they’re not doing that already, but that hadn’t even occurred to me.

TKN: Needless to say, “reality TV,” as many people have pointed out, is an absolute misnomer. Because they’re really game shows, and mostly rigged ones at that.

RED: Yes. I genuinely believed going into that show, “Well, of course I’ll do well because I have experience developing real estate and that’s what this guy does, so how could that not give me an advantage?” But nothing could be further from the truth.

TKN: Right—because you think you’re in a legitimate competition, when in fact you’re a cast member on a television show that someone is puppeteering.

RED: Exactly. Whereas any show that had ballots cast out in the open would be far more real. So actually, the very essence of the competition itself on “The Apprentice” was not legitimate from the get-go, in my opinion.

TKN: You really see that on dating shows. There’s always a contestant who’s an obvious trainwreck and by all rights should be kicked off immediately, but they aren’t because those people make for good television. So the producers string the audience along for a while before they finally get rid of that person.

RED: I would add one more thing, and maybe this is just a quirk with my attention to language, but even the catch phrase or the tagline for the show, “You’re fired,” is factually incorrect. None of the cast members are “hired” in the first place. So it’s just a lie. You actually never were hired, so you can’t be “fired.”

TKN: Much worse tag line, though: “We’re not going to hire you.”

RED: And, of course, the job itself—as you can read in any number of articles—is not even a real job, it’s just basically to be a brand ambassador for one of his latest midlevel buildings.

TKN: What advice would you give people who have to deal with Trump today?

RED: Well, in a business context, my advice would be “don’t.” Just walk away. At a minimum you’ll be unpaid or screwed in some manner. His real estate—the little of it that he actually owns—is so obscenely overpriced that it attracts only stupid money.

For people that might entertain the idea of working for him politically, I would just think about the long-term consequences of your career versus any short-term boost or notoriety it might give you. I’d be a little wary of this administration closing doors for you versus opening them.

TKN: Do you have a guess about how the rest of his tenure in office is going to play out?

RED: I have no particular insight into that other than the dominos keep falling and I just wonder how many more people can be taken down, indicted, or jailed. Sooner or later it’s got to come down to Trump himself, even if it’s not until his four years are done. Let’s hope it’s only four.

It’s an interesting and terrible time to be alive.

TKN: If you could talk to Trump now, what would you say to him? 

RED: I just wouldn’t even want to have the conversation.


TKN: How did the producers of “The Apprentice” find you?

MX WHITE: Through a consultant who represented my business. They’d gotten a call from one of the “Apprentice” producers, and they told me about the idea, and I said, “OK, I’m interested—send them my way.” (laughs) I wasn’t in any position to say no..…why would I? And lo and behold, what door did it open?

TKN: How did you figure in the show?

WHITE: It was just one episode. The contestants are divided into two teams and my business was featured in one of the competitions between them. And the team that worked with me won.

TKN: So that exposure boosted your career?

WHITE: I don’t know about my career, but it did end up being very lucrative. A hundred million people saw it. People were buying all my stuff the very next day. Customers converged on my shop; I had people lining up. I mean, I was a big winner in the eyes of America, right? (laughs) I got 5000 emails the first week after the episode aired. In fact, my email crashed. I had people trying to reach me four times before they finally got through. I couldn’t believe the response. I was making like ten, twenty grand a week for a while.

TKN: And that wasn’t something that you expected?

WHITE: I didn’t know how it was going to turn out until the night before it aired. I was sitting with a bunch of friends, watching this thing, not knowing the outcome. I really didn’t. My mind was blown; I kept pinching myself every day after, just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming all this. My business was doing fine before, I was making a living at it, but then I began making a much better living at it. Much much much better.

The whole experience led me to meet very interesting people from all over the world: England, Hong Kong, Sweden, you name it—people I’m still in touch with. Some of them were very famous or successful, but I didn’t really know who they were until I took the time to look. I was too busy working! But then these people come to my office…..coming from Los Angeles, Texas, Cincinnati—everywhere. People in nineteen piece suits waiting for me. And it was funny—I thought, “Wow, you’re groveling for me for a change.” It was a real turning of the tables; I never thought it would happen like that. And my stuff wasn’t even on the screen that long—maybe a minute or two in total. I was on camera too, maybe that helped. I don’t know. But it was a mind-boggling experience.

TKN: How long did that effect last? Or is it ongoing?

WHITE: It lasted longer than me or my friends or my family ever thought. I still don’t believe it, but the checks did clear so I guess I do! (laughs)

I would say it lasted for eight or nine years. For the first three or four years it was very strong and then it began to taper off. And then of course in ‘08 the crash happened, and people who would normally buy my products now were wondering if they had enough money to retire on. Their priorities shifted. Luckily, I’d saved enough for that kind of situation, so I wasn’t shaking a cup on the street.

TKN: Did you meet Trump in the course of being on the show?

WHITE: Yeah, he came by for a meet-and-greet. Nobody had any idea of where this thing was going to go, of course.

TKN: I don’t think even he did. So what did you think when, all these years later, this thing that started as a TV game show wound up shaking the whole world?

WHITE: I still don’t believe it’s real. It feels like this is all some kind of Truman Show. Are there words in the English language to express this kind of disbelief? I’ll use all of them for 50 points.

There are no words, really. The guy who should be separated from society, who should be put on an island all his own, in a cage, instead is in the most important job in the world—the exact opposite of where you want him.

I try not to think about it, to be honest….even though I subscribe to the Times online, and I keep one eye open just to see what he’s done next.

TKN: You have to, just in self-defense.

WHITE: Correcto. Everything he does is just to drive the price of his properties up, whatever they might be, to artificially inflate them so the value is raised and make it look worth more than it is.

TKN: No doubt. I’m not shocked he does that, but it’s still despicable.

WHITE: I’d be shocked if he didn’t do that! (laughs)

TKN: It’s an unfair question, but where do you see us going from here, politically?

WHITE: Well, I think the blue team has a chance if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. I’d like to think they’ll unite instead of divide, like always seems to happen. What do you think?

TKN: I agree with you 100%. I’d vote for a tree stump over Trump, because I genuinely believe the stump would make a better president. Some of the Democratic candidates that have announced so far I like better than others, but ANY of them would be fine with me, and preferable to Trump.

But it’s worrying that we might eat our own instead of coming together. Obama just warned about the dangers of this obsession with purity; like they say, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”

WHITE: For sure. People like Bernie, they like Buttigieg….but it’s kind of early. Bottom line is, somebody’s got to beat his guy. If it’s someone we really like that’s even better, but we just need the most viable candidate to beat this sonofabitch. But it’s so early.

TKN: The Truman Show that you mentioned before is an apt analogy, because that’s what it feels like we’re in. It’s fitting that Trump got a second act on a so-called “reality” TV show—or a third, or a fourth, or whatever it was after all his bankruptcies—and of course he’s obsessed with TV and the entertainment industry, and ratings. And now we’re all living in this nightmare reality TV show.

WHITE: The Real World of Make-Believe.


TKN: Trump gets all the attention, for obvious reasons, but in his own way Mark Burnett is the accidental Mephistopheles behind all this.

MX BLUE: I find it really interesting to think about Mark in terms of where he came from. He told me—and I have no reason to disbelieve him—that he came from a very working-class background. He went into the army. He was a paratrooper. And Trump of course evaded serving in the military, so there’s an irony there (laughs). But there’s a connection in that Trump never felt that he was part of the New York society either. Not really.

TKN: Except Trump was born into wealth and luxury. His “self-made man” narrative is total bullshit. It’s true that he’s always had a chip on his shoulder because he was from Queens and never felt accepted by the Manhattan elite he so desperately wanted to be part of, so I agree with you there. But he wasn’t an up-from-nothing bootstraps type like Burnett.

BLUE: Right. But both of these guys are outsiders that have that same sense of, “I’m a bit of a fake. I’m not really supposed to be here, but look: I’ve managed to pull it off.”

I think where Mark was at his best was when he came up with the idea for the Eco-Challenge. That was something that was truly authentic to his experience, because he’d done all that kind of survival training, and he knew all about the Raid Gauloises, and he realized there was an opportunity there. But the Raid Gauloises was such an inside-baseball race. His vision was for something bigger. Eco-Challenge may not have evolved into something that was so huge, but it spawned “Survivor,” which is his biggest success. And that really is to do with him being his authentic self. Can you tell me anything that Mark’s done since then that was such a big success?

TKN: Well, “The Voice,” but he didn’t invent “The Voice,” he just brought it over from Holland. And even “The Apprentice” I don’t think was ever as big as “Survivor.

BLUE: No. It’s kind of interesting, because I feel like when he was more true to himself and what he really knew how to do, he really did his best.

But look what Mark has achieved. He is a talented guy. He’s a bit of an “It Guy.” You know how you talk about an “It Girl”? He’s an “It Guy” because if you are with him he’s so charming. He really has these eyes that are just are so captivating. His enthusiasm really comes through. He has an ability to seduce people. He’s so convincing. You want to be in his orbit. And I think he’s obviously talented at recognizing things in people that he can exploit.

TKN: In a way Burnett himself would have been a better choice to be the tycoon on “The Apprentice” because he was all the things they were claiming Trump was: self-made man, a salesman who has that charisma, that ability to size you up, built an empire from nothing, really came from the working class, etc. Whereas Trump is a complete fraud in all those ways.

BLUE: It’s almost like Mark’s own lack of experience about the world of business that “The Apprentice” portrayed made him choose someone like Trump for it. It was Trump’s vanity and narcissism and deluded self-confidence that perhaps Mark saw as a hit. He recognized the appeal of the Barnum & Bailey persona. But really, how could he have thought that a show featuring this sort of vulgar, New York Post-obsessed, failed real estate guy, that’s gonna be a television hit?

TKN: But it did become a hit. Because Burnett created the illusion of Trump as a genuine tycoon and business genius, which was a complete crock. The truth was he was a spoiled little rich kid who had everything handed to him, and still managed to fuck it up. But Trump eagerly bought into that fake image because that was and is the exact image he wants to project.

BLUE: True. Mark told me how when he first came to the States, he worked as a nanny. He knew that that was very unconventional. You had a man being a nanny—but he brought so much more to it because he’s this ex-paratrooper, so your children were gonna be safe with him. But I feel like working as a nanny somehow informed him dealing with Trump on TV, because he behaved like a babysitter with him.

TKN: Apparently.

BLUE: Mark has great people skills. So in dealing with Trump and sort of letting him have the lead all the time, he had all of this in his background and part of that was his training in the British army.

TKN: But do you think Burnett had any inkling that “The Apprentice” would lead to anything other than a hit TV show? Nobody really thought Trump had any potential beyond that….if even that, as you say.

BLUE: No. I don’t think he had any vision of Trump being president. I probably think he’s a bit shocked by how things turned out.

I do have a soft spot for Mark, though. I admire what he did, coming from the kind of background he did. I just think he overcame so much that could have constrained him. From what I’ve seen he seems pretty mercurial, but you can’t change your core values.

From what I’ve read, he did become very religious, though. I never discussed religion with him, and I’m not an authority on Mark Burnett at all, but I’m assuming that coming from the UK he wouldn’t be that religious, so I wonder about that. I just find it a little bit strange.

TKN: Maybe it’s the wife. I’ve heard that. Though she’s British as well—for those of you who still consider Northern Ireland part of Britain.

BLUE: I read something from somebody who knows him better than me saying that he tends to adapt to who he’s with.

TKN: Like Zelig. If Zelig were a British paratrooper.

BLUE: Which again speaks to his great survival instincts. He adapts constantly to the situation.

TKN: You’ve interviewed Trump yourself, yes?

BLUE: I did. It was so easy to get an interview with Trump at that time: he’d do anything to be on TV. I’d been told he was a germaphobe, so the first thing I did of course was put out my hand just to see if he would shake it. He spent quite a lot of time checking how he looked. He was quite particular about that.

And then the interview was not long at all. By that time he was already quite a professional inteviewee and he understood how the game worked. He wouldn’t answer any questions he didn’t like; he had a script in his head for what his comments would be and he wasn’t going to change that. In the end he was like, “All right, are you done?” I wound up not using any of it.

TKN: Why’d he do the interview then, if he had no intention of answering?

BLUE: Because it got him in the paper. Anything that’s going to get him in the news, or on television…. you know, all publicity is good publicity.

TKN: I think that prior to Trump the average American had no problem with Mark Burnett. They admired all those things you said: came from nothing, immigrant story—which we’re supposed to be all about, right?—built this empire, very smart, etc. Regardless of whether you think “Survivor” is a highpoint of Western culture or not, it was a success. I don’t think people even blame him for Trump per se, because like you said, it was such a fluke.

But what I think people do blame him for, people on the left anyway, is how he’s dealt with it since then. He didn’t say, “Oh my God, I’m horrified at what I unleashed.” He didn’t even hint at that. He continued to be close with Trump. He helped with the inauguration. He’s kind of tried to have it both ways, and I think that really rubs people the wrong way.

BLUE: He hasn’t spoken out, that’s true. I remember seeing something where his wife Roma had said that Trump had always been very nice to them, and very polite. I think this was after the “pussy grab” tapes came out. They’ve defended the indefensible. But I think that Mark would say he’s not a political animal.

TKN: But that’s such an incredible cop-out. We’re all in this thing, and “Which side are you on?” is the question that he has to answer. Especially because he’s at least partially culpable.

BLUE: I know….

TKN: If you ask the man on the street, “What do you think of Trump?” and that guy says, “I’m not a political animal,” fair enough. But if you were in business with him, if you built him up into the thing that enabled him to launch his political career, you do have something to answer for. And by not saying anything negative, by trying to have it both ways, Mark appears to be endorsing it or condoning it.

BLUE: Part of that is his working class roots. “Serve the establishment.” Those kinds of political things are for those people “up there” who get to decide that stuff.

TKN: But let me play devil’s advocate. I think it’s the opposite. He is that guy “up there” now. Now he’s this super-successful, ultra-rich guy and it’s really hard for those people to throw a wrench into the system. He’s not gonna shit on the President of the United States, even if he doesn’t like him. Or maybe he does like him; we can’t tell. That’s the problem.

And then conversely, people are still doing business with Mark Burnett. This is like the old joke that Hollywood would do business with Hitler if there were money to be made. Not comparing Mark to Hitler by any stretch, of course, but just to take it to the extreme. As much as some people in showbiz don’t like Trump, or Burnett because of his association with Trump, they’re not turning down his shows. And they won’t until they stop making money.    

BLUE: Of course not.

TKN: And it’s also true that there are more Trump supporters in Hollywood than the general public realizes. Closeted maybe, but still.

BLUE: (groans with weltschmerz)

(long pause)

I do think maybe you’re saying that he is that guy. He is that really successful guy. But I wonder if, at some level, Mark doesn’t really see himself that way, even now, with all his success.

TKN: Yeah, I’m sure he doesn’t see himself that way. I’m sure he sees himself as this regular lad still. But he’s not.

BLUE: I’m a sentimental kind of person. I’m just finding him a sympathetic character. Many years later, I happened to be at a meeting and Mark saw my name on the list and came by to say hello. I have the impression he is tremendously loyal to friends and colleagues. So I respect that. He is a mensch in that sense.

TKN: Fair enough. I don’t know him at all, of course, but what makes him interesting to me is that he doesn’t appear to be a pure villain. There are plenty of pure villains in Trump’s orbit that are just so over-the-top evil you could never dream them up, even if you were writing a Disney cartoon. But Burnett has all these positive attributes that you’re talking about, and that’s what’s maddening and frustrating and sad.

I do think he must have some soul or he would just be a flatout Trump supporter, right? It would do him better with a certain segment. Or maybe he’s trying to play both sides. I don’t want to say he’s tortured, but I suspect in the dead of night, he feels some responsibility, and it appears that he’s wrestling with that.

BLUE: I don’t know. I don’t know how much he’s wrestling with it, but I think that he’s not all villain. Far from it. I think he has a lot of very good qualities. 

TKN: (surprised) Now I’m giving him more credit than you are, in terms of his introspectiveness. Why don’t you think he’s wrestling with it?

BLUE: I think he’s an incredibly disciplined person and that probably allows him to compartmentalize things in such a way that he might not be tossing and turning trying to go to sleep at night. And that discipline in so many other situations is a real asset.

TKN: But in this situation it’s a massive rationalization that allows him to let himself off the hook.

BLUE: It’s an amazing quality. Who knows what’s going on in his mind?

TKN: We’ll see how this all shakes out. I heard a podcast with the author of that New Yorker piece, Patrick Radden Keefe, who said that the first line of Burnett’s obituary is certainly gonna be, “This man helped get Donald Trump elected president.” And that’s a hard thing to live with, unless you like Donald Trump.

BLUE: True. I don’t think that’s what Mark would want as the first line of his obituary.

TKN: The irony is, if it wasn’t for that, he would be celebrated as this success story that we were talking about—this Horatio Alger figure. He might be blamed in part for the rise of reality TV and the toxic dumbing-down effect it’s had on Western society, but he wouldn’t be held significantly responsible for the total collapse of American democracy.

BLUE: Yeah, although again, if you put that question to Mark, “How responsible are you for Trump?”, I think he would say that he’s responsible for making Trump into this star of a reality show, but ultimately the people of America are responsible for having elected him.

TKN: Well I don’t disagree with that. It’s just like the Russian interference: the fact of that does not relieve the America people of our own responsibility. I’m not looking to lay it all on Mark Burnett or Vladimir Putin or anybody else except the American public. The only people we can really blame are ourselves.

But If Burnett had come out during the campaign and said, “This is a joke; this guy was a clown. We made him what he is, or what he wants you to think he is,” it might have had an effect. I’m not saying Mark would have ever done that, for many reasons; it would have been extraordinary for him to do that. I wouldn’t have expected that of anyone, really. But it would have had an effect.

BLUE: In some ways it’s sort of like working on a documentary, because you spend a lot of time with a given person, cultivating them, their family, you’re involved in that kind of way, and to then turn around and do that would sort of say, “Everything about me is fake.” It’s not just about betraying Trump and his family, it’s about betraying the whole illusion of what Mark makes his money from.

Maybe it’s going to be one of those end-of-life things, much later from now, when ol’ Mark Burnett’s time as a TV movie mogul is done and all he’ll have is his memoirs. 

TKN: But then it’s like McNamara, and then people really get angry when twenty years go by and there’s nothing at stake anymore, and you say, “Yeah, you know what? I kind of made a mistake.” That really pisses people off.

BLUE: But I also think that his intense sense of loyalty to people, as I mentioned, comes into play. He’s been in the trenches with Trump and I don’t think he’s gonna turn on him. Even if he thought he was an asshole, I think that would be overridden by his sense of their shared experience.

TKN: But at a certain point—and I’m not saying where that point is—but no matter how close you were with somebody or what you went through together, if that person became, say, a serial killer, I might say “Yeah, my friend Blue’s great, but I don’t support that ‘killing people’ thing they do.”

BLUE: Exactly. In the end that’s something only Mark Burnett can answer for himself.


Photo: Allocca/StarPix/Rex Features/Shutterstock. ©2004

Transcription: Sherry Alwell,


Garbo Speaks: Will Congress Listen?

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 11.50.42 AM

OK, we clear now?

Bob Mueller just said that Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted left him and his team without even the option of charging Donald J. Trump with a crime.

In other words, he wouldn’t—and couldn’t, according to his interpretation of the law—charge Trump with anything, no matter what he found.

He pointedly said that, under the Constitution, a president’s misdeeds—both ordinary criminal behavior and “high crimes and misdemeanors” as defined politically, not legally—are a matter for Congress, if it so decides.

He also explicitly said that his office would have exonerated Trump if they thought he was guiltless, but they didn’t do that because they didn’t think he was. I believe his exact words were that “if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” a sound bite that ought to ring in America’s ears for years to come. Indeed, his written report lists in granular detail ten different instances in which Trump arguably did obstruct justice in ways that rise to the level of a federal crime…..and close to a thousand former federal prosecutors have signed a letter stating that, in their collective professional opinion, Trump would have been indicted on that charge if not for the office he holds. (The written report also specifically notes that Trump can be indicted once he leaves office.)

And lastly, at the very beginning and end of his remarks—which PS, storytelling-wise, is where the bottom line usually goes—Mr. Mueller reminded us that arching over and above all this is the fact that the government of Russia engaged in “a concerted attack on our political system” consisting of “multiple systemic efforts to interfere in our election,” all designed to benefit Donald Trump and damage Hillary Clinton. Unspoken was the implication that Moscow—and perhaps others—will surely will continue to do so, which ought to be of grave concern to each and every American. (Unless you’re the folks Russia is interfering to help.)

So all in all, that was a pretty instructive nine minutes, wouldn’t you say?


In my own solipsistic world, that the sphinx should speak at last this very week was fitting, on the heels of a four-part series in these pages on the impact of the special counsel report and the prospects for Trump’s removal from office, either by impeachment, resignation, or defeat at the polls in 2020.

Mueller’s unexpected silence-breaking made for a resounding coda, and did several things to alter the landscape going forward.

It destroyed Bill Barr’s brazen lie that the OLC opinion wasn’t the pivotal issue in Mueller’s decision not to indict on obstruction.

It exploded the notion that Russian interference was a hoax—an idea propagated most prominently by two world leaders, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Not a coincidence.

It obliterated Trump’s fiction that the SCO found “no collusion” between his campaign and Russian actors. Mueller very pointedly did NOT say there was no collusion. He did not even use the word “collusion,” as well he shouldn’t, as it is legally meaningless. What Mueller said, in fluent legalese, was that “there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy,” which is far from the same thing. We know very well that there were many many illicit contacts between Trump associates and various foreign players,  which the Trump team was desperate to keep hidden and about which it repeatedly lied. Whether those contacts rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy that is likely to lead to a conviction is a wholly different matter….but that in no way constitutes the clean bill of health that Trump ludicrously claims.

And lastly, it made it very clear that Mueller intended his report to be an impeachment referral, since he explicitly said that he did not believe that he and his team had the authority to indict NO MATTER WHAT THEY FOUND, and that under the Constitution, Congress is the proper venue to handle these issues.

As the British say, must I paint you a picture?

One can only hope that this press conference will encourage Congress to do its constitutional duty and hold this criminal president to account for his actions, or suffer the withering judgment of history for its unwillingness to do so. And I use the word “encourage” in its most literal sense:

To. Give. Courage.


To no one’s surprise, the White House immediately tried to spin Mueller’s remarks—like his report itself—as yet another demonstration of absolute exoneration. But by now we are hip to that game…..or at least 60 percent of us are.

The evidence that the White House really did not see Mueller’s statement as helpful to them was that within minutes Rudy Giuliani was attacking It on Fox News, and in his usual hysterical fashion, comparing Mueller’s press conference to something that would have occurred in the USSR. Mueller has “lost his notion of American fairness,” Giuliani added with no discernible irony, defending a president and administration who have been the greatest and most undeserving beneficiaries of the integrity and fairness of others since OJ.

And Team Trump is right to be unhappy, as even Fox anchor Bret Baier said that Mueller’s statement was the “exact opposite” of the spin Bill Barr put on the SCO report. Also on Fox, former judge Andrew Napolitano said it exposed Barr’s summary as a “whitewash.” Trump himself was reduced from crowing about “complete and total exoneration” two months ago to feebly mumbling about “insufficient evidence” today.

Some have said that Mueller did throw cold water on the left’s scathing attacks on Barr’s integrity, in which I have been a very eager participant. But the fact is, he did not really defend Barr. He did not, for instance, say “I don’t question the attorney general’s good faith,” as some have reported. Speaking very narrowly of Barr’s decision to release the redacted report rather than the summaries the SCO team had prepared, Mueller said, “I certainly do not question the attorney general’s good faith in that decision” (italics mine). It was that action and that action only that Mueller was referring to. Left open: whether the AG acted in good faith in his other actions. Mueller’s personal letter to Barr of March 27 complaining that Barr was misrepresenting the SCO’s conclusions to the public suggests otherwise.

In short, what we saw today, after two years of silence, was an astounding rebuke of how the president and his minions—including the man who is allegedly the country’s chief law enforcement officer—have tried to distort the results of the SCO investigation. It was a blunt explanation that the special counsel was never going to bring any charges of any kind, as he considered that beyond his purview, giving the lie to Trump’s bluff assertion that no charges meant no wrongdoing, and a stark clarification that the vast array of damning evidence in the 448 page report was intended as a roadmap for Congressional action.

If Mueller’s remarks did not go as far as some would have liked, or in sufficiently dramatic fashion, they were nonetheless a serious body blow to the administration, no matter how much it wants to deny it.


I’d like to turn now to a related matter, which is the next phase of the campaign by Trump/Barr to obfuscate and cover up Donald’s misdeeds, because it’s ramping up, and in the most alarming way.

From the very beginning of Russiagate, and particularly since the release of the special counsel report put him out of immediate legal jeopardy, Trump has promised to “investigate the investigators,” and punish those who had the unmitigated gall to dare look into whether or not he had done anything wrong in the 2016 campaign. Because, ya know, he’s above the law……we all agree on that, right?

Trump has long been throwing around accusations of treason, promising prison terms, and generally behaving like the tinhorn despot of a Third World backwater banana republic. Now he is making good on his threats, and putting teeth in them by giving his shameless lackey Bill Barr the authority to declassify intelligence—including sources and methods—in order to cherrypick info that can be used to craft their disinformation narrative. Barr’s spin on the SCO report offered a preview of how he will do this; the coming effort promises to be infinitely greater in scope and utter dishonesty, and in the potential threat it poses to the republic.

Evidence of Trump’s crimes—obstruction, acts of conspiracy with Russia, financial misdeeds, fraud, etc etc—will be omitted. Random bits of information will be plucked out of context to bolster a mythical plotline in which the Deep State conspired to overthrow him. It is an article of faith in MAGA Nation that indictments are coming down any day now, and Hillary, Comey, Strzok, et al are all getting fitted for orange jumpsuits. Maybe Barack too!

In other words, Trump is weaponizing the DOJ and the investigative process as a cannon he can fire at his political enemies. That process is already underway, with the revocation of security clearances as a personal vendetta (against John Brennan, for example), and with Barr’s unconscionably blithe and dangerous use of the term “spying” to describe FISA-authorized government surveillance, which he has already pre-judged.

It should not surprise anyone that this is the very thing that he and Barr have howled in faux outrage that others are doing: politicizing the investigative apparatus to persecute and punish one’s foes. That, as we all know, is Fascism 101: accuse others of your own crimes.

Shall we discuss just how dangerous and alarming this development is?

There are of course grave national security considerations in this move to give Barr power over the intelligence community. As the Washington Post’s Max Boot pithily observed: “So Trump’s position is that his tax returns should remain private but the CIA’s ‘sources and methods’ should become public.” In terms of the venal, indefensible compromise and exposure of US intelligence officers and assets for partisan political gain—literally putting lives at risk in some cases—the outing of Valerie Plame pales in comparison.

Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff for both the DOD and CIA, has noted that such actions also make it harder for the US to recruit agents going forward and to get foreign intelligence services to share intel with us….and with good reason. Why should anyone trust us, knowing that at some unknown future date the American president might casually decide to betray their secrets for his own ends?

All true. But it is the domestic impact that is more chilling to me.

Boot again:

When Trump said Hillary Clinton should be locked up, he meant it; the Mueller report documents Trump’s repeated demands that the Justice Department investigate his 2016 opponent. Having paid no price for what should be an impeachable offense, Trump let it be known this week that former FBI director James B. Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe—along with “people probably higher than that”— deserved to be executed for treason. Is Trump insinuating that President Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, to whom the FBI reported in 2016, were guilty of treason? Sure sounds like it.

I don’t expect Jim Comey to be clapped in irons. I’m not saying it COULDN’T happen—who knows how far Trump will go, and the GOP-controlled Senate will let him go? But for now the mere idea that a Roy Cohn-like AG has been let off the leash to pursue politically motivated prosecutions is worrying enough. It is precisely the sort of imperial behavior that the Founders feared and the system they constructed was designed to prevent. But that system only works when its players act in good faith.

Michael Steele, the former RNC chairman turned Trump critic, has said that this is the realization of the dream that Trump and Bannon announced when they arrived in Washington: the destruction of the administrative state. And as Steele as says, it is happening without consequences, and will continue to do so until Congress reaches down and discovers its testicles (to traffic in a sexist trope).

For Trump, of course, it’s a three-fer: he is at once indulging his innate sadism and desire for revenge, while creating a circus that assists him in the coming presidential campaign, and suppressing any meaningful further investigation of his crimes.

People wonder guilelessly how William Barr could become a bagman for this regime and active accomplice in this travesty. I have written about that at length, but it’s easy to understand, even without looking at his sordid history in Iran/contra. Like many plutocrats, Barr believes in the unitary executive theory, and he believes in that because an autocracy with no parliamentary or judicial or any other kind of oversight offers him and his kind the most freedom and impunity from justice as they pursue their hateful agenda.

For his part, Comey himself has pooh poohed these investigations, arguing that they are bad theater and will come up with nothing. He may be right on both counts, but the charade is still deeply worrying, as the investigations will form a false, toxic narrative that Trump and the GOP will relentlessly promote and many gullible Americans will accept. And the underlying danger of the precedent set by such a shameless perversion of the justice system of course remains.

Writing recently in Salon, Chauncey DeVega gave a bravura survey of the state of authoritarianism in America today, all pegged to the events of a single day last week, May 23. It bears quoting at length:

During a press conference (that day), Trump was asked by NBC reporter Peter Alexander to name the people he believes are guilty of “treason.” Trump responded by mentioning former FBI director James Comey, former acting director Andrew McCabe, former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former Justice Department official Lisa Page. Treason is a high crime punishable by execution. In essence, President Trump publicly threatened to have those four former public servants executed.

What did the four do to warrant a potential death penalty? Comey, McCabe, Strzok and Page followed through on their professional responsibilities to hold a president and his inner circle accountable for their behavior in accordance with the nation’s laws. Their other “crime” in the eyes of Trump and his regime? Protecting the United States from a hostile foreign power that successfully subverted American democracy in 2016 (and continues to do so). It would seem that Donald Trump’s foreign patrons are not to be interfered with.

Also on May 23, Trump gave Attorney General William Barr, his handpicked insurance policy, the power to unilaterally declassify secret intelligence information in his search for evidence that the Mueller investigation was an attempted “coup” and an effort to overthrow his presidency…..

On Thursday evening, both the president and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, circulated a heavily edited video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, purporting to show that she was “drunk” or “not of her right mind”….

In total, Thursday’s events were a grand tour of the authoritarian’s playbook: The Leader is the State; the Leader is above the rule of law; the Leader is the law; reality is to be twisted and bent to serve the Leader; there is no accountability or transparency in government; fealty and loyalty to the Leader and his Party are all that matters; violence, threats and intimidation replace democratic norms, principles, consensus and accountability.

DeVega also notes that this trifecta comes atop an already appalling pattern: the threats not to respect the outcome of elections; the encouragement of politically and racially motivated violence; the concerted effort to usurp women’s rights to control their own bodies; the emboldening of foreign dictators; the disregard for democratic norms; and the denial of civil rights to those “who are not white, male, Christian, rich and heterosexual.”

The authoritarian’s playbook indeed.

Mr. Boot one more time:

I refrain from saying that Trump has hit a “new low” because the phrase is meaningless; next week he is practically guaranteed to bore even deeper into substrata of immorality and vileness that no previous president has ever penetrated. The only thing that can stop him before November 2020 is impeachment. But Pelosi’s caution is understandable: The House can impeach, but the Senate will never convict, allowing Trump to claim unearned exoneration. The result is that Trump’s abuses of power are practically guaranteed to get worse as he fights for his political survival.


Here is the ultimate irony of the twinned events of Trump’s weaponization of the DOJ and Mueller’s startling press conference.

Trump’s willingness—eagerness even—to pervert the justice system and intelligence community for the most despicable, venal, anti-democratic, and self-aggrandizing ends stands in stark contrast to the meticulous, principled, painstaking-almost-to-a-fault integrity of Robert Swan Mueller III. Jesus, even a Marvel superhero movie doesn’t offer such a blunt dichotomy between good and evil. (DC maybe.)

Indeed, some have suggested that Mueller’s commitment to principle is actually hurting us in this steel cage match, that he should have spoken up sooner, or been more aggressive in his interpretation of his remit. On MSNBC, former DOJ spokesman Matt Miller mused how different things would be if this press conference, rather than Barr’s smoke-and-mirrors display, had been the way the American people were introduced to the SCO report. Many others noted that Mueller, for better or worse, appears to be a creature of a different media age, and did not think in those terms. Given how many people (even on the left) initially presumed that Bill Barr would behave in a principled manner, perhaps it was too much to expect that Mueller—his longtime friend and associate, and fellow Republican—could have anticipated his antics.

I am sympathetic to these arguments. But those who are frustrated with Bob Mueller for not being Tom Steyer have not been paying attention to who Bob Mueller is. I say this with love, because many of those people are my dear friends, and I could not feel their pain any more if I tried. But that is asking a bird to be a fish.

As with Nancy Pelosi, who gives the Democratic Party camouflage and cover by representing the slow-and–cautious approach on impeachment, even if it’s only tactical (see Who’s Afraid of the Big I?, May 15, 2019), Mueller has had an important role to play in this drama too…..a starring one, in fact. But it is not the role of Javert pointing his finger and shouting “J’accuse!”

Mueller is perfectly cast as a sober, by-the-book, honest broker. He provided a towering public service with the SCO inquiry and the report it produced. Only a non-partisan figure of immense credibility who commanded deep respect across the ideological divide could fill that role (at least until Fox News’s poison did its work—see the turnabouts by Graham, Gingrich, et al). For him to turn into a firebrand now would undo all that good.

Would I have liked to have see Bob Mueller stand up there and proclaim that Donald Trump is a lying sack of shit who ought to go to the Supermax federal pen in Florence, Colorado along with Ted Kaczynski, Robert Hanssen, and Zacarias Moussaoui? Sure. But I would also like it if I could get in a time machine and emerge in 1973 for a dream date with Pam Grier, and I don’t expect that either. (Don’t worry, it’s cool—Ferne is onboard, and might come along, although she also has her sights set on 1951-vintage Marlon Brando.)

Mueller likewise provided another valuable service with his nine-minute statement of May 29th. If it was not the mic drop that some would have liked, that expectation was always unrealistic. What Mueller did, very clearly, was say to the American people, “There was never going to be a criminal indictment no matter what I found, so stop buying Trump’s bullshit that no indictment equals exoneration,” and to Congress: “Hey dummies: Read the report. It is an impeachment referral. Now do your job.”

Mueller put the tennis ball squarely in Congress’s court. Far from “penning Democrats in,” as some pundits claim, he actually bolstered the case for impeachment. In direct contravention of the conventional wisdom, some have even begun to say that not impeaching will actually hurt the Democrats in 2020 and hand a second term to Donald J. Trump, to say nothing of the damage such inaction would do to the integrity of the republic. I suspect they are right. Ignoring Trump’s wrongdoing is the far greater danger than holding him to account for it, regardless of the political costs.

I do believe that if we survive this administration, Mueller’s commitment to fairness will be a great gift to America. If he had been more aggressive in his inquiry and his statement—much as I would have liked that on a visceral level—I fear the precedent for a less scrupulous special counsel working for the other side in the future. One has only to look at how Trump and Barr are abusing their power to see how that might play out. It is precisely this kind of integrity that we are fighting for, and that we can’t sacrifice.

Mueller’s presser provided yet another study in contrasts—perhaps the starkest yet—between this man and the one he was investigating. Bob Mueller earned his golden years well before he came out of retirement to become the special counsel: in Vietnam, as a US Attorney and acting US Deputy Attorney General, as a homicide prosecutor, and as director of the FBI during one of the most trying times in modern American history. When the smoke clears from the current battle, I suspect that posterity will look back and recall that, in the twilight of his lifetime of public service, he once again answered the call.


How to Tell Elections Matter

How to Tell Elections

Is it really be necessary to state that elections matter? Really—you needed that reminder? After November 8, 2016?

We need not reiterate (nor debate) how or why a washed-up game show host and degenerate grifter wound up in the White House. Historians will mull it for generations to come, while satirists will bow down before its tragicomic majesty and their own abject inability to match it with fiction. We can talk about the antiquated, anti-democratic institution of the Electoral College. We can talk about Russian interference (yes, Virginia, it’s real), or the far less discussed and never properly investigated issue of actual vote tampering. We can talk about economic discontent and about the roles of racism and misogyny. We can talk about how Hillary didn’t visit Michigan, Wisconsin, or Ohio enough, or how WikiLeaks dumped a ton of stolen emails the day the Access Hollywood “pussygrabber” tape dropped, or how Comey decided, gee whiz, I’m gonna come out with a statement announcing the re-opening of the investigation into Hillary’s email server just days before Americans go to the polls.

That’s about a thousand doctoral dissertations right there.

But at the end of the day, Donald J. Trump did get in, to almost everyone’s surprise (his included) and everyone who voted for Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or thought Hillary was a shoo-in and stayed home played a part in putting him there, not to mention those who went ahead and actually voted for the Con Man from Queens.

But there was another national election since then, the 2018 midterms, and that one was just as instructive.

So in the final essay in this four-part survey of the post-Mueller landscape, let us examine whether the coming presidential election can get us out of the fine mess that the last one got us into.


At the risk of sounding pedantic, let me recount what the midterms did for us. (Get it?)

Without a Democratic majority in the House, the delivery of the Mueller report would have been exactly what Mitch McConnell wants to pretend it is—“Case closed”—notwithstanding its underlying damnations that Bill Barr tried to spin away. There would be no ongoing Congressional investigations of Trump, no subpoenas, no court fight over his tax returns, no possibility of Barr being held in contempt of Congress, or of Don McGahn or Robert Mueller testifying on national television, no chance of us seeing any of the unredacted report.

We would still be in a constitutional crisis—and make no mistake, we’re in one—but it would be a one-sided fight with not much we could do about it.

But luckily, the resistance got its shit together sufficiently last November, which is the only reason that Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff, Maxine Waters, Elijah Cummings, and the rest are able to do the things they’re doing. True, Trump is still running roughshod over the rule of law, but it would be much much worse if Nancy Pelosi didn’t own the gavel. As Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times:

The handling of the (Mueller) report underscored once again the consequences of the last election in delivering control of the House to the Democrats. Were Republicans in charge of both the House and the Senate, the findings could have been the end of the matter. But with Democrats holding House committee chairmanships, they do not seem at all willing to let the issue go. They were further motivated by what they saw as an egregious attempt by Attorney General William P. Barr to run political interference for the president.

I can think of no more powerful positive example in modern American politics of how much elections matter.

For negative examples, we have an embarrassment of riches.

For one especially inverted view we need only look to Georgia, which under Republican Governor Brian Kemp recently passed abortion laws straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale—laws which a Governor Stacey Abrams could have vetoed even if the state legislature was comprised of misogynistic monsters, which apparently it is.

Blessed be the fruit indeed, if the fruit is a fucking peach.

I cite Georgia rather than Alabama or Missouri or Ohio or any of the other states trying to take us back to the Age of Coat Hanger because, as you may recall, Kemp slid into office under the most outrageous of circumstances, to wit:

In the gubernatorial race last fall, he was not only the Republican candidate but also the state official IN CHARGE OF THE ELECTION, which would have already been howlingly outrageous even if he didn’t have a history of voter suppression and fraud, which he did. (And sure enough there was widespread evidence of voter suppression in that race, and even outright tampering with the vote.)

No self-respecting banana republic would dare try to get away with a shameless farce like that. But having spent a good hunk of my childhood there, I can tell you that the state of Georgia can only aspire to the status of a banana republic.

Prior to 2016 itself, surely the most infamous example of electoral consequences was 2000, when a razor thin margin and polling place chaos allowed the GOP to grab the White House via a party-line vote in the Supreme Court (dealing a blow to the Court’s credibility from which it has never quite recovered). It does not require a deep dive into counterfactual alternative history to wonder how different the modern world would be if Al Gore had taken the oath of office in January 2001 instead of George Dubya Bush.

There are myriad more examples of course; the value of the vote is painfully self-evident. Which is why perhaps the single most worrying threat to our democracy is the current right wing campaign to undermine the electoral process by multiple means: by hyper-gerrymandering at a level far worse than the routine map-fucking in which both parties traditionally engaged; by partisan-driven suppression of the vote; by fearmongering over nonexistent “voter fraud” and the concomitant cry for voter ID laws that are nothing but a smokescreen for mass disenfranchisement; even by the willful acceptance of foreign interference. (What??? No, you say!)

So to the point raised in the title of this essay, how do you tell that elections matter?

Because the bastards are doing everything they can to sabotage them.


In 2006 I made a feature film called Land of the Blind, a political satire starring Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland. At one point, their two characters contemplate the merits of democratic reform versus violent revolution, prompting Sutherland’s character to quip, “If voting could really change anything it would be illegal.”

It’s a cynical line, and an old one (I don’t know where I first heard it), but it reflects a justifiable pessimism about how much the powers-that-be are truly committed to democracy in almost any society that you care to name. And the modern GOP is doing its level best to be a living embodiment of that dynamic.

Faced with unresponsive, unacceptable, or even openly tyrannical leaders, the American people have two chief avenues of recourse: the courts and the ballot. It is therefore no coincidence that both are the targets of intense Republican efforts to lock down control, even in defiance of the public will. (The other avenues of public recourse—like peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and in the most extreme circumstances, revolution—exist outside the formal parameters of the law, rather than codified in the Constitution, except under the umbrella of freedom of expression. Which PS is also under attack.)

At least since the time of the Bork debacle, the Republican Party has been trying—pretty successfully— to pack the courts at every level with hardline right wing judges, an effort masterminded by people like Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society. Under Trump (in a discreet under-the-radar campaign engineered by Don McGahn, for you fans of irony), it has ramped up that effort to a record pace. The GOP’s attempts to neuter the vote have been even more outrageous, and among the scariest of all its myriad crimes against the republic, which is saying something. The Republican Party has done lots of terrible things, but to screw with the ability of the electorate to express its will at the ballot box strikes at the very heart of representative democracy.

An out-and-out autocracy is one thing, but at least it’s honest about its tyranny; the illusion of free elections is worse in its way, and certainly more insidious. But that has become the fig leaf of choice for the modern police state. (Looking at you, Vlad.)

Are we in the good ol’ USA that far off from the transparent sham of a cult-of-personality regime where the despot in question is habitually reelected with 99.9% of the vote? You scoff, but the net effect is not really different when the loser of the popular vote somehow wins the race—which has happened twice in the past 16 years, not coincidentally, both times with Republican candidates.

The GOP hypocrisy on this issue is breathtaking. Don’t talk to me about how scrapping the Electoral College would be so unfair to the citizens of Wyoming (all seven of them). I’m sure Fox Nation would be totally cool with it if the EC continually put Democrats in the White House even though they lost the popular vote. Which may be why Barack Obama, in collaboration with Eric Holder, has made a piece of that issue—an anti-gerrymandering campaign—the centerpiece of his post-presidential mission.

But trying to undermine the vote makes perfect strategic sense for the Republicans, of course, as their electoral power is dwindling, demographically speaking, not to mention their fetish for authoritarianism and unfettered plutocracy, and the fact that they really have no interest in principle, or democracy, or equality, or justice in the first place.


I say all this not just to vent about the crime syndicate that the GOP has become (not just), but to make the point that fair elections are one of the things autocrats fear most. Therefore, they are also one of the most powerful weapons we have, if we can maintain their integrity.

Short of Russo-Republican ratfucking, Trump is eminently beatable in 2020. Hell, he lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost three million votes, and only won the Electoral College because of some 10,000 votes in Michigan (out of 4.5 million cast) that could very easily have gone the other way, to cite just one scenario. And he is far less popular now than he was then. His approval ratings have been historically abysmal and never broken 50%……and this with a soaring economy. (Which he rightly gets no credit for, not matter how much he tries to grab it, as the boom began under Obama. If anything, Trump has done his level best to wreck it with things like trade wars, a ballooning deficit, and general global panic-making.)

Even accounting for the usual statistical weirdness, head-to-head matchups show Trump losing to almost every Democratic nominee, which ought motivate everyone to get behind whoever the nominee is, even if it’s your not personal favorite (he said pointedly).

That fact also ought to help dissuade us from risky assumptions about who is or isn’t “electable,” a beartrap which several smart observers have recently addressed.

Writing in The New Republic, Alex Pareene had a thoughtful piece about that myth and the pitfalls it presents as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pareene points out that after Barry Goldwater got crushed by LBJ in 1964, the Republican Party didn’t run from right wing extremism, it doubled down on it, nominating Nixon four years later and eventually moving both the party and the whole country hard to starboard, going on to win not only with Tricky Dick but with Reagan, Dubya/Cheney, and Trump as well. They only lost when they played it safe with “mainstream” nominees who promised broader appeal, like Dole, McCain, or Romney.

By contrast, in Pareene’s view, the Democratic Party is still traumatized to this day by McGovern’s landslide defeat in ’72, which led to such timid and allegedly acceptable to the mainstream choices as Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and the not so-safe but supposedly inevitable Mrs. Clinton.

In the Times, Michelle Goldberg recently had a similar column about Joe Biden, and whether he would be a reprise of such previous “safe bets,” or if we might be better off with a less orthodox candidate who inspires more passion. On that front, Rebecca Solnit has a tour de force piece about the brilliant and brave Elizabeth Warren, and the way misogyny and anti-intellectualism have conspired to create the canard of her as “unlikable.” (Hey, she drank a beer, right? That was enough to get a dolt like George Bush elected. But he had a penis.)

In other words, electability is as electability does. Cravenly discounting candidates because we’re worried they’re too bold for the middle-of-the-road voter is a Christmas present to the other side, when we can just as easily create our own political reality, in the words of conservative writer David Priess, whom I quoted at length last week. Who initially thought a biracial center-left first term senator named Barack Hussein Obama was “electable”? Or a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy? Or an obscure, saxophone playing Arkansas hillbilly (smooth and fantastic though he was, in the words of John Mulaney). For that matter, who thought Donald fucking Trump was electable, marking perhaps the only thing 44 and 45 have in common, polar opposites that they are?

So who’s to say then that Elizabeth Warren, or Mayor Pete, or Kamala aren’t be “electable”?

I get the “comfort food” aspect of Biden, and I’m as susceptible to it as anyone. Sure, I’d like a more progressive candidate, and a fresher face—and how about a woman, and a person of color, to really put a knife in Trump’s heart, not to mention, oh yeah, making a statement about what this country stands for. But I will enthusiastically support Joe if at the end of the primaries he turns out to be the candidate best positioned to beat Trump like a conga. Like Ricky Ricardo pounding out “Babalú.” Like Keith Moon on Live at Leeds. Like Gene Krupa on crystal meth.

The same goes for the whole slate of Democratic presidential aspirants. A year ahead of the midterms, we saw a preview of our ability to motivate the progressive electorate and carry the day in the special elections in Virginia and Alabama, which were both inspirational and a roadmap to November 2018, where we did it again. (See Sic Semper Tyrannis: The Lessons [and Limits] of Virginia, November 10, 2017). Let’s stay the course, to coin a phrase.

Let’s not give the GOP a gift by eating our young. Call me a pollyanna, but I believe the Democratic primaries can be a constructive and civilized process, not a self-destructive one, and reveal who is best equipped to take on Trump: in other words, where that aforementioned passion really lies…..and it may be Biden after all, or it may be Bernie, or Klobuchar, or whoever. (All we know is that it won’t be the Blaz.)

Whoever emerges from that process, can we all please pledge to put aside our intramural differences and support whomever the blue team nominee proves to be? As Diana Kane of Persisticon pointed out in these pages a few weeks ago, the differences in their policy positions are not even that extreme, and certainly not compared with what the current administration is pursuing. Let us remember that “Perfect is the enemy of the good”…….that ANY ONE of the approximately 2,457 current Democratic candidates would be infinitely better than Trump….that a rotten, two-week-old hardboiled egg would be better.

As I’ve said before, in order to beat Hitler the US had to ally itself with Stalin. So I think all of us in the so-called resistance ought to be able to find common ground.

(Note to Republicans: Yeah, that’s right, I made a casual comparison between Adolf and Donald. You got something to say about it? If so, put down your tiki torch and send me an email.)

Trump can absolutely be beaten in November 2020, but only if we all pull together and make it happen. The other side has shown that it will turn out in droves, and they fight dirty. So let’s put everything we have into stomping this mofo and leave it all on the field with nothing left to give, shall we?


All of which brings us back to the topic we discussed in this space last week: the Big I.

In case it wasn’t clear, I am of the opinion that the US Congress has a moral and constitutional responsibility to impeach Donald Trump or else torch its own credibility and open the door to even worse neo-authoritarianism, wanton criminality, and contempt for the rule of law. The potential damage to the republic by not doing so is terrifying to contemplate.

Commenting on last week’s blog post, a savvy reader with the handle of snowinla wrote:

One thing we have seen with Trump is that he continues to amp things up. If he gets away with something once, he is sure to do it many more times. If the Dems just let his infractions go and think that they will “let the voter decide,” they are assuming that he will not do something more egregious to ensure his win in 2020, even if it involves open fraud. If they don’t try to take action, they will have no one to blame but themselves, will have no moral standing or, arguably, no Constitutional standing since they abdicated their role….

While it seems like there is a choice, there really is not.

Well said. Our system is not built for someone who openly flouts the rule of law, especially when the courts refuse to enforce it and one of the two political parties abets him. Even Nixon wasn’t this brazen. Until the American people stand up and express outrage—or in some cases, even experience outrage—we’re not going to be able to get out of this nightmare.

But regardless of whether one thinks impeachment is a viable means of removing Trump or not, no sane person would pursue it at the exclusion of trying to defeat him at the polls. And there’s no reason even to contemplate such a strategy, as it’s not by any means a binary choice, as Bill Barr likes to say.

As I wrote last week, pursuing impeachment and mounting the most formidable possible electoral campaign for 2020 are not mutually exclusive paths to evicting Donald Trump from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We can walk and chew gum at the same time, right? Indeed, I believe that even beyond the reasons of pragmatism that militate for it, and the reasons of principle that demand it, impeachment will profoundly benefit the Democratic cause in the 2020 election. The mere fact that the GOP keeps insisting otherwise ought to clue you in that that is so.

As many pundits have noted, Nixon’s approval ratings were not bad (higher than Trump’s) and public support for his impeachment very low before the nationally televised Watergate hearings began. But when they were done, Dick’s goose was cooked. We Americans are a nation of anti-intellectual illiterates (I say that with love); the arcane 448 pages of the Mueller report will never have the same impact as the TV miniseries adaptation.

So bring it on—I need something new to binge now that “Veep” is over.

In terms of the looming legal battles over Trump’s stonewalling, we are told that an active impeachment will prompt the courts to look more kindly on Congress’s demands for testimony and documents. As Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post, Trump’s own flagrant obstructionism on these investigations is all but forcing an impeachment, which would compel him and his administration to cooperate, and load the Democratic nominee up with ammo going into the general election.

Seen in that light, far from being an either/or choice, impeachment and the election are inextricably intertwined.

Many have noted that an electoral defeat would be a more resounding and definitive rejection of Trump than impeachment, which would further divide the country and invite tinfoil hat grumbling about a Deep State conspiracy, and pedophile pizza parlors, and maybe even violent right wing insurgency. (Don’t we have that already?)

True enough. But it’s still the right thing to do. And does anyone doubt that MAGA Nation is going to go that route no matter when or how Trump leaves office, even if it’s in 2024 when he’s unable to repeal the 22nd Amendment and run for a third term?

To that end, several bright sparks have correctly noted that the real constitutional crisis still awaits us if Trump loses his bid for re-election and decides not to surrender power. And I am not of the school that thinks he will only make that stand if the count is close, or that a resounding loss would dissuade him from doing so. Not in a million years. Are you kidding? (See WIll Trump Ever Leave Office [Even If He Loses in 2020]?, July 23, 2018.)

We saw in 2016, when he expected to lose, that Trump is prepared to challenge any loss……and now he REALLY has a reason to do so, given that the presidency is the only thing keeping him out of jail. In his report, Mueller pointedly noted that Trump can absolutely be indicted for obstruction after he leaves office, not to mention a whole slew of other charges currently in the works in the SDNY and elsewhere, including bank, tax, and real estate fraud, and another one, felony campaign finance violations, for which his former lawyer just went to prison and in which Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator (“Individual 1”).

To avoid this kind of post-presidential prosecution, our insane clown president is therefore more incentivized than ever to stay in office at all costs. Already he is talking about Jerry Falwell Jr.’s call for injury time—“reparations” for the unconscionable pain and legislative inertia he suffered as a result of the special counsel probe. (“Two more years! Two more years!”) Wait till he is looking down the barrel of a couple dozen criminal and civil indictments that will eviscerate his phony business empire, leave him broke, disgraced, and possibly being fitted for matching orange jumpsuits alongside his children.

But just to get to the point of that particular bunker situation, we first have to vote him out, or impeach him, or both. I don’t really care which.


In announcing his campaign, Joe Biden framed the 2020 election as a historic decision point, with one fork leading to a narrative in which Trump is an aberration, the other to the end of the American experiment as we know it. Whether you think Uncle Joe ought to be the Democratic nominee or not, he’s slam on target about that. The institutions that distinguish American democracy are barely hanging on going into the back half of four years under Trump; we may not survive eight.

From the start of Trump’s rise some have ridiculed this kind of thinking as alarmism, a critique that has come both from the right and the left. In its first show after the 2016 election, “Saturday Night Live” memorably had Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock lampooning white people’s angst that this was the worst thing that ever happened in America. The most painful—and worrying—part of that sketch wasn’t being called out for white privilege, but the idea that anti-Trump resistance might be riven along racial or other lines, rather than focused on a common goal.

But times have changed. Trump has been a lot worse even than most people imagined back then. Chappelle has since recanted his call to give they guy a chance (which he made in the monologue immediately preceding that sketch), concluding that we did and he failed.

In this blog I have often cited the great Rev. William Barber II to the effect that, as bad as Trump is, his regime is not the worst thing the United States has ever suffered, that we can get through this, and emerge stronger. We don’t need to get into an atrocity competition; comparing Trump to Jim Crow, let alone slavery, is apples and carburetors. But no serious person can doubt the uniquely dangerous threat that this administration poses to the future of American representative democracy, one that requires a concerted, united effort to defeat.

The damage Trump & Co. can do in a second term will be exponentially worse and more longlasting than if he is one-and-done, and in every category—from the environment, to the economy, to foreign affairs, to the judiciary, to a free press, to the rule of law itself. Imagine a SCOTUS with three or four Trump appointees on it.

Why do I bother even saying this? Is an argument why we need to defeat Trump even necessary? Undoubtedly not, unless you think Tucker Carlson is the second coming of Edward R. Murrow. But I want to stress the stakes, and just how bad it would be.

Apart from the terrible practical consequences, re-election would also make a profound statement about who we are as a people, which is a big part of Biden’s point. Electing this monster not once but twice would make it impossible to say that it was a fluke, or the result of temporary insanity, or that the Russians made us do it. It would say that, even if a majority of Americans actually oppose Trump, our system is so broken and dysfunctional and fundamentally anti-democratic, and that the resistance so disorganized and the forces of white supremacy and neo-authoritarianism so strong even if they are a minority, that we are not sufficiently competent as a nation to chuck this jackass out of office.

It would say that Trump is not an aberration but the very soul of America.

(Many on the far left have been saying that for years, of course, and take issue with the whole Bidenist premise.)

Any way you look at it, I don’t think Americans traveling abroad will still be able to count on the goodwill and sympathy of the rest of the world, who so far seem to feel bad for us and largely assume that we got screwed. That will no longer be so if we give Trump a second term.

As if getting sneered at by taxi drivers in Spain is our biggest worry.

And as we have noted over and over in this blog, even the end of Trump will not mean the end of the scourge which has afflicted our body politic—not by a longshot, for he is but a symptom and not the cause. That scourge will only be eradicated when we address the toxic brew of white supremacy, misogyny, nativism, pluto-kleptocracy, and Orwellian contempt for truth that the contemporary Republican Party embodies.

Anyone with good ideas for how to do that, please feel free to speak up.


Thus concludes our four-part opus on the state of play in the immediate post-Mueller world. To sum up: we have a demonstrably criminal president flouting every attempt to hold him accountable, a Republican Party shamelessly protecting him, an opposition party trying to use constitutional mechanisms that the president and his accomplices are working furiously to undermine, and a looming election that Trump and the Republicans are brazenly trying to fix via voter suppression and an open invitation to foreign meddling, and oh yes, show every sign of defying if it doesn’t go their way.

So there’s that.

The next seventeen months ought to be pretty interesting. We’re about to see whether the American people have the kind of integrity and backbone that we flatter ourselves to think we have, and whether or not we can stand up and—one way or another—rid ourselves of the worst and most destructive presidential administration since 1865.

Fire up your office pools, my friends.


The King’s Necktie will (probably) be on hiatus next week, letting the laptop keys cool off. Unless Trump pardons a bunch of accused war criminals on Memorial Day.

See you in June.

Photo from Politico.

Who’s Afraid of the Big I?

Screen Shot 2019-04-22 at 8.24.31 PM

Over the past two weeks we have examined the reasons why Donald Trump richly deserves to be impeached (Reading Mr. Mueller, May 2, 2019) and the appalling Republican rank-closing to protect him (A Plague Among Us, May 7, 2019) a die-in-place effort that makes the fanatical deadenders of Imperial Japan look like wishy-wishy dilettantes.

But the question of whether impeachment makes strategic sense for the Democratic Party is a very different one, as are the related matters of whether there is a reasonable chance of success, and the wisdom or folly—or necessity—of pursuing it regardless .

That is the thicket of thorns into which we will delve this week.

But be advised: unlike Hirohito’s suicidal loyalists, the GOP is less likely to use its swords for hara-kiri than to julienne American democracy into beef tartare.


People were talking about impeaching Donald Trump from the moment it became clear he was headed to the White House. If that seemed to some like a rush to judgment (“Give the guy a chance!”—remember that?), Trump wasted little time in proving his critics prescient and giving them good reason to follow through. The question was largely abstract while the special counsel carried out his work. But with the submission of the Mueller report, it’s unavoidably now on the front burner.

That is a problem for the Democratic Party not because there is any question that Trump has committed the kind of high crimes and misdemeanors that justify ejection from office—there ain’t—but because impeachment, being a political process and not a legal one, is debilitated by the same right wing monkeywrenching that has afflicted every other aspect of governance under this kakistocracy.

The two basic schools of thought are these:

1. THE BR’ER RABBIT SCHOOL: Impeachment plays right into Trump’s hands. There is absolutely zero chance of getting a conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate, and no reason to think that will change, so it’s all for naught…… indeed, worse than naught in that Trump will use that acquittal as (another) chance to declare his innocence and exoneration, while the GOP will use the whole process to animate its base and drive right wing voter turnout in 2020.

As evidence, proponents of this school point to how the impeachment of (but failure to convict) Bill Clinton in 1998 wound up helping the Democrats and damaging the Republicans. More on that, and whether it is in fact so, in a bit.

2. THE CONSTITUTIONAL PURIST SCHOOL: Trump’s actions demand impeachment regardless of whether the Senate will convict him. For the House to ignore the appalling array of high crimes and misdemeanors laid out in the Mueller report would be to shirk its constitutional duty, and set a terrifying precedent for future demagogues, proto-authoritarians, and simple crooks who might likewise find their way into the White House.

According to this line, impeachment is the strongest form of condemnation the House can impose, even if the Senate won’t convict, and in and of itself is damning. Censure is far too mild—pathetic even—in light of what Trump has done. The mere fact of an impeachment—not to mention the televised hearings, public airing of the granular details of Trump’s sins, and the Watergate-like parade of witnesses—will inflict tremendous damage on an executive who richly deserves it, and hurt him badly through much of the 2020 campaign. (More on that, and whether it is in fact so, in a bit as well.) But even if it won’t do that, we still have to impeach just on principle, for the long term good of the country.

So let’s take these schools of thought in turn.


Advocates of school #1 see themselves as the pragmatists, and with some justification. Writing in the conservative but anti-Trump online magazine The Bulwark, David Priess sums the realpolitik position up quite well:

Democrats are confident that Trump is beatable in 2020. Why risk even the possibility of an electoral backlash for a Senate acquittal, when the better bet appears to be removing a vulnerable, unpopular president through a vigorous 2020 campaign?

The idea here is that Trump is so bad that we need to maximize our chances of beating him at the polls, no matter how much he deserves early removal and no matter how risky the precedent in not pursuing that. This school sees his electoral defeat—not abstract long term constitutional considerations—as the greater good that must take priority. As Eric Levitz put it in New York magazine:

…..the Democrats’ overriding civic obligation is to maximize the probability of their victory in 2020. All else being equal, it is more important to actually remove a would-be autocrat from office than to formally demonstrate one’s commitment to doing so.

To be fair, Levitz frames this in terms of “if” Democrats believe this about Trump’s criminality and the GOP’s intransigence, not as a call to arms per se. But he makes it clear that Republicans’ refusal to do jackshit about Trump’s self-evident unfitness for office leaves the Democrats with a stark mandate.

I’m sympathetic on a purely intellectual basis, but there are two problems that jump out at me.

The first is that this theory presumes that impeachment by the House without a conviction in the Senate will hurt Democratic chances in the election. But we don’t know that that is so; in fact, as we will shortly see, it might be quite the opposite. In any case, it’s not at all clear that pursuing impeachment and winning the next election are mutually exclusive choices that require a binary calculation.

We know that many Republicans think that impeachment is a winner for them, a chance to motivate their base and portray Democrats as radicals who just hate Trump blindly. Sometimes it feels like Trump himself is trying to goad us into it. (“Oh no! Don’t throw me into the briar patch!”) I’m not suggesting that is his sole reason for behaving like a cornered sewer rat, as that’s his nature regardless. But it may be a bonus in his mind.

Proof of the GOP belief that impeachment would actually help them is to be found in the fact that Republicans raise the specter of it as much or more than Democrats do. But that belief is not proof that they are correct in their assumptions.

The second problem is that this utilitarianism, even if correct, creates an immense moral hazard. It is Congress’s sworn duty to hold a criminal president accountable, and failure to do so would be an egregious act of negligence and a terrible portent for the future, no matter what the electoral impact. This is the crux of the argument from school #2.

That said, I think we ought to make a distinction between those who are simply chickenshit about impeachment and those who are merely being tactical—for now.

Nancy Pelosi has been very canny about the Big I, which she says she does not favor at this point, much to the consternation of the hardcore anti-Trump left within her own party. But her job is to be a savvy inside-the-Beltway tactician, and she is demonstrably freaking excellent at that. She is clearly playing the long game, and it suits us on the anti-Trump team to have her in that role.

Even though the GOP’s depiction of a mindlessly bloodthirsty Democratic Party and Trump-as-martyr is a hyperbolic and dishonest portrait, I don’t think they’re wrong about its tactical advantages—and Nancy knows that very well. She is cleverly denying them that terrain, and even though they’ll try to take it anyway, she’s making it harder for them to do so.

So speaking as someone who’s been wearing an ITMFA button for two years, let’s give her a break, OK fellow firebreathers? There are plenty of ferocious would-be Trumpslayers available to lead the pro-impeachment faction in the Democratic Party; let’s be grateful that we have such a smart and seasoned resource to fight a different kind of battle on another front. Indeed, I don’t know that the Speaker truly buys into the impeachment-will only-hurt-us mindset; I suspect she is merely keeping her powder dry until the big fat orange target is in her sights at point blank range.


In a recent New York Times op-ed, former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart offered a variation on the impeachment-is-Democratic-suicide school of thought, arguing that leaving Trump in office for the rest of his term would actually do the Republican Party much more harm by letting him continue to ruin their “brand.”

Much as I share Mr. Lockhart’s desire to see the GOP go the way of Radio Shack, I have two big problems with this argument as well that bear going into.

First, it blithely ignores the massive damage being done by Trump in mean time. In that regard it feels like something that could only have been written by a privileged member of the professional political class, one consumed with 202 area code gamesmanship, and not personally threatened by things like loss of health care, or clean water, or deportation to Guatemala. (The even broader matter of long-term damage to our democracy goes without saying.) Lockhart’s argument prizes partisanship over the public interest, treating the red-blue pachyderm/donkey competition like a sport, and not the existential national emergency it is.

Secondly, in my view, this argument vastly underestimates the resilience of reactionaryism. Yeah, the old white male demographic is dwindling in its political power, but to imagine that five and a half more years of Trump is going to destroy the Republican Party from within is the worst kind of naiveté. It is more likely to destroy American democracy as we know it but leave the Republican Party intact, cockroach-like, and indeed more far-right wing than ever, blaming Democrats, immigrants, women, and people of color for the mess that the country is in.

And plenty of people tuned to Fox will believe that and still pull the GOP lever.


So let’s move on to school of thought #2. A number of pundits have laid this out better than I can, so let’s hear from them.

Writing in The Atlantic, Lawfare editor-in-chief Ben Wittes describes Trump’s actions on obstruction—his repeated public appeals for witnesses to defy the special counsel and Congress, his talk of “rats” and exhortations to people like Cohen, Manafort, and Stone to “stay strong”—as “a grotesque abuse of power” that demands impeachment, irrespective of other political considerations:

The spectacle of the president of the United States publicly and repeatedly urging witnesses not to cooperate with federal law enforcement and entertaining the notion of using his Article II powers to relieve them of criminal jeopardy or consequences if they do not cooperate is one of the most singular abuses of the entire Trump presidency. Again, one has to ask of Congress what is unacceptable in a president’s interaction with an investigation if this conduct is tolerable? 

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg seconds his argument:

Whether or not this is politically wise, failing to impeach would be a grave abdication. If you want people to believe that the misdeeds enumerated in the Mueller report are serious, you have to act like it. To not even try to impeach Trump is to collaborate in the Trumpian fiction that he has done nothing impeachable.

But what of the fact that Mitch McConnell’s clown car of a GOP-controlled Senate is almost sure to acquit? Well, Goldberg’s fellow Times columnist Charles Blow makes a passionate case for impeachment as a worthwhile end in itself:

I say that there is no such thing as a failed impeachment. Impeachment exists separately from removal. Impeachment in the House is akin to an indictment, with the trial, which could convict and remove, taking place in the Senate. The Senate has never once voted to convict. So, an impeachment vote in the House has, to this point, been the strongest rebuke America is willing to give a president. I can think of no president who has earned this rebuke more than the current one. And, once a president is impeached, he is forever marked. It is a chastisement unto itself. It is the People’s House making a stand for its people.

But what if it costs us the election in 2020? The veteran reporter Elizabeth Drew, whose career includes covering Watergate, wrote in the Times:

Madison and Hamilton didn’t say anything about holding off on impeachment because it would be politically risky. It’s hard to imagine they’d put political convenience on the same footing as the security of the Constitution. And the Democrats who prefer to substitute the 2020 election for an impeachment fight don’t appear to have considered the implications if Mr. Trump were to win: Would that not condone his constitutional abuses and encourage his authoritarian instincts?

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson is even more succinct:

(Democrats’) focus has to be on their constitutional duty—and nowhere in the Constitution does it say “never mind about presidential obstruction of justice or abuse of power if there’s an election next year.”

It must also be asked if the received wisdom that pursuing impeachment will hurt the odds of unseating Trump at the polls in 2020 is even true.

Although David Priess laid out that position very well in The Bulwark (see above), he was not in fact endorsing it. For starters, he argues that the punishment meted out to Republicans for impeaching Clinton was less than is conventionally assumed, especially since they won the White House in the next presidential election. Robinson makes that same point, noting that “If impeachment was a mistake, it wasn’t a very costly one.”

Will Trump fans see him as a martyr and turn out to vote for him because of it? Of course.  But they’re going to do that regardless.

Priess even questions the presumption that, for all its venality, the Senate will never vote to convict. Unlikely as it seems right now, he argues that, in essence, fortune favors the bold, as “political actors make their own reality.”

Think about Barack Obama in 2008: A first-term senator just four years removed from the Illinois Senate not only defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries but won the presidency. Think about Pete Buttigieg now: A 37 year old mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana has surged into the top tier of a crowded Democratic field. Think, of course, about Trump himself. Political reality is made by action, not by saying what can’t be done.

Likewise, it’s true that right now polls don’t show support for impeachment among a majority of Americans…..but neither did polls in early 1974. It was a different story by August, after months of televised hearings laying bare Nixon’s misdeeds. Priess again:

Public hearings are powerful tools to move public opinion. The majority of Americans haven’t read the nearly 500-page redacted Mueller report and haven’t seen the bulk of the revelations within it. Putting people in televised hearings to answer questions about what happened could create iconic moments, such as those that emerged during Watergate. It’s worth remembering that those hearings, which started under an overwhelming consensus that the Senate would never convict Richard Nixon, led to the president’s resignation.


A variation on the aggressively pro-impeachment position is the idea of investigating Trump seven ways to Sunday without yet drawing up actual articles impeachment that might invite a bigger backlash. Hillary, who knows a thing or two about impeachment, wrote a widely read and very savvy op-ed about that very idea, and how to pursue right and proper investigations of Trump that might or might not lead to impeachment without sacrificing political capital in what looks like a rush to judgment. Very Clintonian—and more than a little ironic.

But as someone who was highly critical of the partisanship of the Republicans’ endless Benghazi investigations, I am loath to think about an investigation of Trump in those kind of tactical terms. Yes, we might be able to inflict maximum damage by trying to drag out these House investigations without bringing articles of impeachment until the matter is forced. But I would feel like a hypocrite suggesting that after repeatedly raking people like Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) over the coals for admitting—in a slip-of-the tongue—what was patently obvious: that the whole point of the Benghazi hearings was to inflict political damage on Hillary.

Is that a matter of our side foolishly playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules while our opponent operates under the ROE of a Panzer division rolling into Poland? Or is that the kind of adherence to principle that prevents us from becoming no better than them?

Frankly, I’m not sure.

What it comes down to is whether this “slowwalking” strategy, or Clinton’s measured approach, or whatever you want to call it, is really just a synonym for the timid belief that pursuing impeachment will hurt us, or whether it’s a version of Pelosi’s long game. If the latter, I am more open to it. The New York Times’ Carl Hulse writes:

For the moment, Democrats will try to finesse the matter. They will push for the evidence underlying the report and demand that Mr. Mueller and others central to his inquiry appear on Capitol Hill while stopping short of any impeachment discussion. That strategy has the advantage of keeping the inquiry and Mr. Trump’s conduct in the spotlight without getting into the charged impeachment talk. But Republicans will do whatever they can to portray Democrats as overreaching and maliciously harassing Mr. Trump out of political spite, riling up Republican voters in the process.

In other words, the GOP is going to cry “overreach!” regardless, so why employ half-measures? Again Eugene Robinson hits the nail even more directly on the head:

Here is the important thing: Trump will mount this attack no matter what Democrats do. And strictly as a matter of practical politics, the best defense against Trump has to be a powerful offense. I fail to see the benefit for Democrats, heading into the 2020 election, of being seen as such fraidy-cats that they shirk their constitutional duty.

Right on, as the kids say. (Well, they used to say it, around the time the Doors’ first album came out.) Who exactly are we afraid of pissing off anyway? The battle lines in American life are so hardened at the moment that there is little “undecided” middle to worry about losing. Witness the negligible movement in the polls even after the Mueller report dropped.

Let’s motivate our base. Let’s get them energized and out to the polls in November 2020. Likewise, maybe the way to win that small but crucial segment of “undecideds” is to bank on boldness and show the courage of our convictions rather than making namby pamby calculations about how it will play. Let’s embrace impeachment with both arms and shout, “Hell yeah we’re gonna impeach this miserable bastard. He deserves it and here’s why.” That might actually help, not hurt. (I’m sure someone like Nate Silver—or Kent Davison—could help us track that.)

Robinson yet again:

Does it “play into Trump’s hands” to speak of impeachment? I think it plays into the president’s hands to disappoint the Democratic base and come across as weak and frightened. Voters who saw the need to hold Trump accountable decided to give Democrats some power—and now expect them to use it.


All that said, the events of the past few weeks have dramatically changed the context in which we consider the very idea of impeachment.

As noted in the last several posts in this blog, Bill Barr’s initial summary/non-summary on March 24 sure made it feel—to Republicans and Democrats alike—that the peril of Russiagate to the Trump presidency was over. Barr and his tangerine-hued boss and the rest of the GOP gangsterocracy obviously want us to think so. “Case closed,” as Mitch McConnell said firmly before the Senate the other day, adding: “Case closed.”

He said it twice, so I guess that’s that.

Oh, wait: we’re not all fucking simpletons.

Nevertheless this is the mantra the GOP intends to use, and it’s a powerful one, despite being a big fat lie, particularly if they’re willing to dissemble about the underlying truth. And—spoiler alert—they are.

But recent events have proven quite the opposite, in part because the actual facts that emerged from the report itself painted a portrait very much to the contrary, and in part because Trump has gone even more full bull goose loony than usual. If anything Trump’s behavior since the release of the Mueller report has become even more fuel to the impeachment fire, which is odd for a document that in his telling “completely and totally” exonerates him.

Gee, it’s almost as if that wasn’t true.

Trump has in effect declared all-out war on Congressional oversight. He has said his administration will fight every attempt to hold it to account, “ordered” Don McGahn not to testify before Congress or turn over his notes (NB: he can’t order a private citizen to do shit), instructed White House staffers to defy subpoenas, filed suit to stop Deutsche Bank from turning over banking records and the IRS and Treasury Department from releasing his tax returns as demanded by the House Ways and Means Committee, not to mention the usual batshit all caps tweets, rambling speeches to red-hatted mobs, and attendant propaganda campaign on Fox and the rest of the right wing alternative universe.

That behavior in itself militates for impeachment even as it impedes it… fact, precisely because it impedes it. In any reasonable country with a citizenry that is not comatose, such behavior alone would be sufficient to bring down the government. We ought to be out in the streets in outrage . But I guess a nous la liberté. We Americans tend to be happy puppets who love our strings.

But the bunker mentality madness described above makes it plain that the Trump administration is in a tailspin. The House is about to hold the Attorney General of the United States in contempt of Congress for only the second time in history, the Secretary of the Treasury is in danger of being arrested and thrown in Congress-jail for refusing to release the president’s tax returns, and Donald Trump Jr. has been subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee (and remember, that’s a Republican-controlled body, proving that at least one GOP senator not running for re-election in 2020, Richard Burr of North Carolina, has at least a modicum of integrity). On top of that, North Korea is testing missiles again, Iran announced that it’s resuming its quest for the atomic bomb, and we’re in a trade war with China that has the stock market making like Greg Louganis.

But topping them all last week was Trump’s worst nightmare: the New York Times’ blockbuster story by Susanne Craig and Russ Buettner about his taxes, which suggests that he is the worst businessman in modern American history. Fox & Friends, of course, were quick to announce that this was actually proof that Trump is the best businessman ever. (Also, that the Buffalo Bills meant to lose four Super Bowls, OJ wanted to go to prison, and Spike Lee was thrilled to lose to Driving Miss Daisy twice.)

Not that I think that Times story will sway even one guy in a red hat to reconsider his support for Donald. But I do think that, as the revelation of his darkest secret, it is the ultimate public humiliation that Trump fears above all things. (Craig and Buettner, along with David Barstow, also wrote the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning story of last October on the outrageous and long-running tax fraud engaged in by the entire Trump family.)

Trump appears to be in a dead panic, and rightly so. This week Speaker Pelosi memorably said that he is becoming “self-impeachable,” which is a lovely turn of phrase even if—or perhaps precisely because—it is poetic but vague. (Kind of like “collusion.”) What we can infer it to mean, of course, is that he is behaving in such an erratic, alarming, and blatantly unconstitutional way that he is forcing the issue of his removal from office, even if the GOP remains inexcusably unwilling to act on the matter.

Herein we see Nancy’s genius. By refusing to go to eleven right out of the gate, Pelosi has created room to maneuver and build toward the moment of impeachment, (rightly) seeming reasonable all along the way. If and when the time comes when even the most patient voices in the Democratic Party like Pelosi and Nadler say,” OK, America, there’s no avoiding it now,” the impact will be all the more powerful for her current cautiousness, and the careful cultivation of a (quite correct) image as a cool head who was reluctant to go that route but finally had no choice.

Because Donald played right into her hands.


Some of the approximately 2,457 Democratic presidential candidates have already overtly come out in favor of impeachment: the always brave Elizabeth Warren was first out of the gate, with Kamala Harris shortly behind her. Others are more squeamish about being subjected to this litmus test, preferring a Pelosian approach. But what’s appropriate for the Speaker of the House, in whose realm impeachment would occur, is not necessarily appropriate for the person who wants to be the party’s standard bearer and go toe to toe with the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief in the general election.

But it is worth noting how the entire responsibility for saving the republic is being laid at the door of the Democrats, because not a single sentient American that I know of believes that the Republicans will lift even a pinkie finger to do the right thing.

Of course, some on the right side of the aisle argue that there is no problem that needs addressing at all. The speciousness of that claim speaks for itself, in obscenities mostly. Even more contemptible are the cynics and opportunists in the GOP who know how bad Trump is but are willing to profit from it anyway, making them even more culpable than the dummies and the winguts because they are smart enough to know better, yet still do nothing. And of course, in their charade they risk beginning to believe their own bullshit, if only so they can sleep at night, until they are just as deep in the Kool-Aid as the rest.

But they might come to their senses, right?


Blow again:

Democrats are operating from the Richard Nixon impeachment playbook, only this isn’t the 1970s, before cable news, the internet and social media. They think it’s somehow possible to overwhelm the public with evidence, to turn Trump’s devout base against him, to pressure the president himself into submission.

On that point, let’s simply dispense with the fantasy that the calculus on Republican loyalty to Trump is ever going to change.

For three years, going all the way back to the campaign, we have been hearing that Trump would finally cross a line that would alienate sufficient numbers of GOP leaders or voters. But nothing he has done has yet constituted that line, including the most outrageous revelations of entanglements with foreign powers, national security nightmares, hush money payments to porn stars, tariffs that violate what was once sacrosanct conservative dogma, outrageous attacks on our NATO allies and shoulder-shrugging over state-sponsored murders by Middle Eastern theocracies, the surgical attachment of his lips to Vladimir Putin’s white Russian butt……and on and on.


The only thing that would plausibly do it is if Trump suddenly proposed a return to an Eisenhower era 90% tax rate on the rich.

Don’t hold your breath on that.

It’s worth remembering that Richard Nixon was not in fact impeached: he was forced to resign because of the imminent threat of impeachment….that is, when senior GOP leaders finally went to him and said, “It’s over, Dick.” That is never going to happen with Mitch McConnell, the living embodiment of the spinelessness, venality, and utter lack of integrity that distinguishes the Republican Party of 2019 from that of 1974.

Trump also benefits from a vastly different media environment. It’s become trite to observe that Nixon might well have survived if he’d had Fox News back in his day, but that doesn’t make it any less true. (Indeed, in her towering New Yorker piece on Fox, Jane Mayer observes that the creation of that kind of force field around a Republican president was a specific goal of Roger Ailes when he founded the network.) Needless to say, Trump also has the toxic bullhorn of Twitter, a medium tailor-made for the kind of low-information, nuance-free schoolyard insults that are his stock-in-trade.

Paul Krugman recently wrote about the moral self-destruction of American conservatism in an epic column called “The Great Republican Abdication,” a phrase taken from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book How Democracies Die:

The truth is that the GOP faced its decisive test in 2016, when almost everyone in the Republican establishment lined up behind a man fully known to be a would-be authoritarian who was unfit morally, temperamentally and intellectually for high office….The party’s willingness to back behavior it would have called treasonous if a Democrat did it is just more of the same.

That column was so scorching that Trump went nuts and tweeted all about it, sending it viral. So there, don’t say I never said he did anything good.


Ultimately, this Republican abdication is central to the whole discussion of impeachment and of how to deal with Trump full stop.

Eric Levitz’s aforementioned piece for New York magazine is called “If Impeaching Trump Is Pointless, Then Bipartisanship Is Worthless.” Setting aside electoral gamesmanship, his main point amounts to a radical proposal in which “commitment to small-r republican values requires prioritizing the GOP’s disempowerment over the preservation of institutional norms.”

If the Republican Party can’t be trusted to even consider putting its allegiance to lawfulness above its fealty to Donald Trump, then the GOP is a cancer on the body politic. And if our Constitution has brought us to the point where a non-democratically elected president can promise “Get Out of Jail Free” cards to anyone who violates laws he does not like—without facing any serious threat of removal from office—then our Constitution is obsolete and there is no cause for treating that document, or the established norms of our institutions, with reflexive reverence…..

That is a bold conclusion, but it’s getting increasingly hard to dispute.

The Republican Party is broken. You can’t have a functioning democracy when one of the two political parties refuses to act in good faith, and barring a sudden burst of integrity (ha ha just kidding), it’s hard to imagine the GOP returning to anything resembling principled participation in the American political process anytime soon. Two years ago Noam Chomsky called it “the most dangerous organization in human history,” which might seem like a stretch (and a real insult to the Nazis) until you think about the Republican stance on climate change.

So I must say that I am with Mr. Levitz in supporting a no-holds-barred campaign to destroy the Republican Party by any peaceful and principled means necessary and salt the ground from which it sprang.

But there are heavy moral risks associated with the endeavor Levitz proposes.

Obviously, one could employ that same “they’re so bad” logic to any foe, making this a very slippery slope. As soon as we decide that the other side is so bad that anything and everything is justified in order to defeat it, we will have entered a dark, dark place. What’s to stop the Republicans from concluding that the Democrats are such a threat to the American experiment that anything and everything is justified in order to eradicate them as a substantive political entity?

As it happens, the GOP decided that long ago. (I’ll peg it to 1994. Thanks Newt Gingrich!)

But not every demonization of the enemy is equally valid. Sometimes you really are fighting the devil, and when you are, the facts are there to support it. In this case, they’re in black & white running to over 448 pages.

Another way to look at is that the impeachment process itself has been rendered useless because the Republican Party is valuing its own chokehold on power over the Constitution that it claims to honor—a prospect that the Founders never imagined or planned for. As Jeffrey Toobin wrote this week in The New Yorker, “The Constitutional system is not built to resist Trump’s defiance of Congress”…….and I would add that he is only able to carry out that defiance because the Republican half of Congress is acting as his accomplice.

Which brings us back to Levitz’s original point. If the GOP is no longer a good faith partner willing to participate in a legitimate representative democracy, the Democrats’ path forward is a fait accompli. It’s not a matter of whether we are in a streetfight with a neo-autocratic white nationalist crime syndicate. That battle is already joined. The only question is how best to win it.

Krugman one more time:

First, anyone expecting bipartisanship in dealing with the aftermath of the Mueller report—in particular, anyone suggesting that Democrats should wait for GOP support before proceeding with investigations that might lead to impeachment—is being deluded. Trump is giving the Republican establishment what it wants, and it will stick with him no matter what.

Second, it’s later than you think for American democracy. Before 2016 you could have wondered whether Republicans would, in extremis, be willing to take a stand in defense of freedom and rule of law. At this point, however, they’ve already taken that test, and failed with flying colors.

The simple fact is that one of our two major parties—the one that likes to wrap itself in the flag—no longer believes in American values. And it’s very much up in the air whether America as we know it will survive.

To that end, next week we conclude this four-part opus with another interesting idea for removing Trump from office:

What are the odds we can just vote the motherfucker out?



A Plague Among Us


Last week I offered a cursory summary of what strikes me as the bottom line in the Mueller report, to wit: we have a president who by any reasonable measure ought to be chucked out of office like yesterday’s fish.

If you don’t agree, you’re in the wrong blog.

The litany of Trump’s sins is too long and mind-numbing to repeat. (For newcomers, you can review it here, if you wish.) But the heart of the matter is that we are enduring the most corrupt, anti-democratic, and proto-authoritarian American presidency in modern times, and possibly ever.

Yet still—and this is the part that makes me feel like a stroke is coming on—the Republican Party stands by him.

That’s right: a party that wanted the drag out the guillotine when Barack Obama wore a khaki colored suit is now perfectly fine with a president hiding his tax returns, paying hush money to a porn star, wantonly profiting from the presidency, defying Congress, obstructing federal investigations, and playing footsie (at the very least) with the Kremlin and kowtowing to them at every turn. They are fine with a president who routinely orders his subordinates to lie to Congress and to create fake paper trails to cover their tracks, who sees the Department of Justice as his personal Cosa Nostra and pictures Roy Cohn as the perfect Attorney General. And I’m confining myself here to bipartisan outrages, leaving aside the numerous policy-based crimes against humanity—like caging babies or undermining our NATO allies or destroying the planet—that many on the right actually agree with.

It’s one thing for Trump and his inner circle to be shameless con men and criminals. It’s another for the entire GOP to go along as his enablers and protectors.

The steady parade of conservatives cravenly selling their souls to Trump has been underway for more than three years, but it is reaching a critical mass now that the special counsel’s report is complete and the country is faced with the question of how to respond. In the Washington Post, Paul Waldman writes:

(Republicans) aren’t arguing that Trump’s behavior was reprehensible but doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. Instead, their position is that Trump didn’t do a single thing wrong. Inviting a hostile foreign power to hack his opponent’s emails? He was kidding around! Accepting the help of that hostile power for his campaign? What any candidate would do! Seeking a multimillion-dollar deal in a hostile foreign country while running for president and lying about it to the public? Just a shrewd businessman! Firing the FBI director to shut down an investigation into his campaign, and admitting it on TV? His absolute right as president! Trying in multiple different ways to obstruct justice? He was just fighting back against a deep-state conspiracy!

I’ve never been a fan, but to his credit, Mitt Romney has been one of the few prominent Republicans even to say boo. Then again, he has yet to substantively opposing the administration in any significant way, so I’m not sure whether to be amazed that he spoke up at all, or disgusted by his dead-on impression of Jeff Flake.

At the other side of the spectrum there is Lindsey Graham, perhaps the most extreme and repulsive example of a former Trump critic turned servile bootlicker. In a WaPo piece bluntly titled “How Conservatives Rationalize Their Surrender to Trump,” Max Boot writes of the spectacle of watching Graham “spout pro-Trump conspiracy theories from his perch as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and berate FBI agents for expressing opposition to Trump in 2016—while conveniently forgetting that he himself called Trump a ‘kook,’ a ‘bigot,’ ‘crazy’ and ‘unfit for office.’”

This abdication of civic duty goes beyond simple partisanship. Trump’s actions are not trivial matters that can be ignored or recast as something benign, at least not without a massive deployment of epic hypocrisy and deceit…..a task at which, admittedly, the GOP excels.

Indeed, part of the explanation is that MAGA Nation is in such denial that its members refuse even to acknowledge that anything is amiss.


Here’s a brief survey of what they do believe:

In right wing world, the Mueller probe “totally and completely” exonerated Trump on both collusion and obstruction, even though it was a witchhunt conducted by a bunch of angry Democrats (led by an establishment Republican, true, but hey, those people also hate Trump!). They simultaneously cite the SCO report as proof of Trump’s lilywhite innocence while condemning it as part of an attempted coup d’etat. Ignoring its actual content, they insist it contains no evidence of the slightest wrongdoing.

And why didn’t the perpetrators such a nefarious plot just manufacture evidence? Because Trump is so squeaky clean that they couldn’t—that’s how awesome he is!

The right wing is also convinced to its dying breath that this will all eventually lead to the prosecution and imprisonment of the people who initiated the special counsel investigation in the first place and most loudly cheered it on—like Schiff, Schumer, and Swalwell—and who conducted it—like Mueller himself, and I guess Rosenstein (hence his fawning resignation letter)—and oh yes, also Hillary Clinton.


If you don’t believe me, dip into the right wing media for a while and you will hear this precise narrative being hammered home over and over again. I engage with ordinary, rank-and-file Trump supporters all the time; confronted with any kind of effort at serious debate, they reflexively chant, “No collusion, no obstruction!” Asked to defend Trump’s actions, they insist that the lack of a criminal indictment is all that matters, per Waldman. Indeed, many on the right seem to revel in Trump’s behavior precisely because of its norm-busting, rule-breaking nature, like malevolent toddlers. Pressed on whether they would be OK with a Democratic president doing the same things, they never respond. Instead—yawn—they go directly to the same old tired refrain that Obama was infinitely worse, rants about Hillary’s emails (STILL!), Uranium One, Susan Rice, Seth Rich, Benghazi, and zzzzzzzzz…..

Sorry, I dropped off there for a second.

(Sidenote, and a personal pet peeve. Almost de rigueur in every exchange, these folks habitually claim the Mueller probe cost the taxpayers $30 million—and lately Trump has been reflexively inflating it to $35M—ignoring the fact the seizure of Paul Manafort’s assets alone mean the probe actually turned a profit for the American taxpayer. I cite this petty point as just one example of the willful denial of objective reality, and to stress the utter irrationality and dishonesty of Trump’s defenders…. not to mention the hypocrisy after the millions spent—and never recouped—on Whitewater, Benghazi et al.)

Needless to say, there is no reasoning with the literal cult that the modern Republican Party has become. And by that I don’t mean there is no broaching the political divide in how the report should be interpreted (although there isn’t); I mean they stubbornly ignore the most basic facts in the report, which of course, almost none of them have read.

To that point, I’d like to thank the numerous Trump supporters who liked—and even shared—Employee of the Month, my post of April 19th slamming Bill Barr, apparently not realizing the title was sarcastic, and clearly not having read even the first sentence, which makes that plain. (Who says we can’t get along?) That comic misunderstanding is telling about the level of intellectual acuity on the American right, but also about the Rorschach test nature of our current political moment. Clearly, those Trump fans saw that title—illustrated with an official government portrait of the smiling AG—and took it at face value. They might even have taken the lead-in that introduced that post as endorsing their position: “The truth begins to come out….despite some people’s best efforts.”

But OK, fine. That’s the Fox-watching, “lock her up”-chanting, MAGA hat-wearing Trump base. But Republican Congressmembers are supposed to be different, right? They’re supposed to be dutiful, informed public servants charged with protecting the national welfare, and—when fundamental democratic principles are at risk—capable of looking beyond the fog of politics and making honest judgments that rise above petty partisanship.

That is precisely what makes their craven silence even more contemptible.


Much as we loathe them, most Republican lawmakers are not idiots. They may be cynical opportunists with the morals of a rattlesnake, but they are not idiots. With the exception of the true wingnuts (the Nuneses, Kings, Scalises, and other Tea Party alumni), even the most venal (the McConnells, Grahams, Jordans) know that the facts contained in the Mueller report and elsewhere represent a damning portrait of criminality, corruption, and threats to national security that all but insist on impeachment. But they refuse to admit it, much less act.

True, there has been some speculation that even the most cynical of these men, such as McConnell and Graham, have actually begun to believe the Fox News counternarrative. Maybe so, and maybe we’ll never know—and I’m not sure if that’s better or worse, in terms of their culpability or descent into delusion. But the net effect on their behavior is non-existent.

Graham, of course, is burdened with the words about unfit presidential behavior that issued from his facehole in 1998 when he acted as one of the prosecutors during Bill Clinton’s impeachment for high crimes far less than Trump’s. I quoted them last week, but they bear repeating, as rarely does life provide such a glowing example of utter hypocrisy:

The point I am trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic, if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role. Thank God you did that, because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.

But that was then and this is now.

In Graham’s telling, this is not blatant hypocrisy because, unlike Bill Clinton, Trump has done nothing wrong. That might as well be Lindsey’s epitaph. Per Max Boot, for this man—once the friend and ally of the late John McCain, but now among Trump’s most consistently red-faced defenders and golfing buddies—to make such as defense is the embodiment of how much the leaders of the Republican Party are willing to debase themselves. Waldman again:

This is the logical and perhaps inevitable endpoint of the decision they made in 2016. Republicans chose as their leader the single most loathsome figure in American public life, a man possessed of not a single human virtue. He would inevitably call them to descend to the moral void where he resides. And when they did—enthusiastically—they showed us not just who he is, but who they are as well.

When it comes to Trump’s skullduggery as outlined by the SCO, there is less than zero chance that the GOP will even acknowledge it, much less hold him to account the way Mssrs. Clinton or Nixon were. The Republican position is exemplified by Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, who in an appalling interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd last week, stubbornly stuck to the right wing mantra that the whole matter is “done,” there’s nothing left to discuss, and we should move on.

Wishful thinking, John. At least the originators of the phrase MoveOn acknowledged Clinton’s misdeeds and called for his censure, which is what they proposed “moving on” after. By contrast, today’s Republicans refuse to find any fault with Trump whatsoever, marching in lockstep, covering their ears and shouting “la la la la la” to drown out the Ring Cycle-long recitation of Trump’s sins.

Needless to say, the right wing’s impatience with lengthy investigations is a new phenomenon, post Benghazi. (Perhaps they are just plum tuckered out.) But I hasten to predict that video clips of these shameless clowns absurdly bleating, “Nothing to see here!” like Leslie Nielsen will not age well, and will leave an black black legacy.

Far from the end of the Russia scandal, as it briefly seemed on March 24 when we had nothing but Bill Barr’s lies to go on, the delivery of the SCO report now feels like only the beginning of a whole new and even more intense chapter. As it should be. Now armed with that report, the Democratic leadership looks poised to be like a dog with bone, which I mean as a compliment.


Setting aside the folks for whom political debate begins and ends with the word “libtard,” the so-called serious defense of Donald Trump has been most aggressively put forward by Attorney General William Barr, and amounts to this:

By definition, the president can’t ever obstruct justice because he is the country’s chief law enforcement officer. He can shut down any investigation, even into his own actions, for any reason he wants…..for example, because his feelings are hurt. Also by definition, he can have no such thing as corrupt intent. The president can’t be indicted while in office, and therefore it’s not even permissible to investigate potential presidential misconduct. And if for some reason a president is accused of crimes despite all that, he would be within his rights to pardon himself.

In other words, the president is above the law.

And that is not a gross oversimplification of Barr’s position. It may be gross, but it’s not an oversimplification.

What it is, in fact, is the definition of a king.

In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick puts it in perspective:

(Barr) seemed to have explicitly adopted and accepted the Trumpist worldview that holds any attempt at oversight or investigation deemed by the president to be unjustified harassment is illegitimate….

This is an astonishing claim—that if the president feels that the investigation is unnecessary and is resulting in him being harassed or misrepresented in the media, then the president is justified in taking any action he sees fit to stop it.

Needless to say, this assertion is deeply disturbing, leapfrogging far past anything even Nixon dared. But as we’ve seen, some sixty million Americans seem perfectly fine with that sort of authoritarian philosophy….so long as the authority is wielded by a Republican administration. Those same people are furious—furious!—if anyone else, say, a Democratic administration, ever tried to do anything that could remotely be characterized (even dishonestly) as that imperial. That is beyond tribalism, my friends and into the realm of psychosis.

To that point, I will never understand why people like Bill Barr, Dick Cheney, and other conservatives are so enamored of the unitary executive. Why do these people crave being ruled by a monarch? Is it a pathological, masochistic need to be dominated? Must be something Freudian, deep seated in their need for a commanding father figure (mothers need not apply). But even so, is it so deeply ingrained that they even welcome a monarch as godawful, bumbling, and ignorant as Donald Trump?

Of course, their preference for autocracy may have a more prosaic motive, which has to do with seeking a system that favors the rich, dispenses with oversight, and provides cover to all manner of pillage and plunder. On that front, Barr has practical reasons for defending this particular despot manqué. Shall we get into his connections to Russia’s Alfa Bank, Och-Ziff, Deutsche Bank, and the Vector Group, which are variously tied up in everything from the Trump Tower Moscow to the pushback against the Magnitsky Act?

As the Never Trump GOP strategist Rick Wilson recently wrote, our current Attorney General may well be the most dangerous man in America right now. But I did relish watching Kamala reduce him to a blithering Ralph Kramden impression on national television last week.


If you think that’s bad, let’s move on to how Barr’s royalist philosophy plays out in the specifics of the Mueller probe. Fair warning: it is the legal equivalent of a Zen koan so inscrutable that it would give even the Buddha a headache.

Try to follow this:

Barr argues that Robert Mueller ought to have come to a “binary” decision, either recommending indictment or not… other words, that the special counsel’s only duty was to decide whether to charge the president with a crime, and nothing more.

But at the same time he also insists that it is DOJ policy that a sitting president can never be charged with a crime, and to that end, as we saw above, shouldn’t ever even be investigated for one. Indeed, that was the gist of his 19-page audition tape for the AG job, in which he called the entire SCO probe fundamentally flawed and illegitimate.

As a result, in Barr’s view, the only conclusion to which Mueller should be allowed to come is to exonerate.

Got that?

That is a straightfaced display of diabolically circular logic that would make Orwell blanch. As with McConnell and Graham, we must ask if Barr really believes this bullshit or is just brazenly trying to buffalo us. (Last week I made the argument that it’s the former. Barr himself told Peter Baker of the New York Times in November 2017 that he thought there was more reason to investigate the Uranium One non-scandal than collusion with Russia. Yet people persisted in describing him as a respectable “institutionalist.”)

But does it really matter? For whatever reason lurks in his cold, dark heart, Barr has given us a reprehensible ouroboros of a legal theory (thank you, Rebecca Solnit) by which president can never be held to account criminally by anyone, for any reason. (Former DOJ spokesman Matt Miller has made this same point.) What an utterly dishonest, shameful tautology.

Goddamn, it is good to be king!


That policy against indicting a sitting president is not law, by the by, only the prevailing opinion of the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, and has never been tested. The question of whether it is ought to be is a separate one—one that many had hoped Mueller might take on.

But he didn’t…..and here’s where it gets even trickier.

Mueller declined to indict on the charge of obstruction because of the DOJ policy, but explicitly refused to exonerate either. One way to look at that is that Mueller would have exonerated Trump if the evidence supported that conclusion, as he makes clear in his report. But it didn’t and therefore he didn’t.

By extension, the only reason he didn’t induct Trump is because he accepts the idea that DOJ policy forbids it. Apparently two of the prosecutors on Mueller’s team privately told the Justice Department officials as much, and since then, hundreds of former federal prosecutors—veterans of both Republican and Democratic administrations—have concurred in writing, stating that, but for the office he holds, Donald Trump would certainly be indicted on that charge.

That seems to have made Barr irate, since his view was that Mueller’s only option was to be a rubber stamp on Trump’s innocence. So he went ahead and pronounced Trump clean as a whistle himself.

Apparently it also infuriated Emmet Flood, formerly the acting White House Counsel, who now holds the weird title of “Special Counsel to the President.” (I guess Trump was mad that the Democrats had their own Special Counsel, so he wanted one too. Also: a new Playstation.)

We learned this past week that Flood sent an angry letter to Mueller after his report was released, berating him for not exonerating Trump outright.

Man, are these guys greedy or what? Not satisfied that Bob Mueller chose not to indict Trump, Flood now has the huevos to howl in outrage that Mueller didn’t make a definitive exoneration. “Indict or don’t indict!”

Don’t tempt him, dude.

Of course, if the Robert Mueller had broken with policy and indicted Trump, you can be sure that the GOP would be screaming about the illegality of that. (It’s a coup d’etat!!!!) It is ironic, of course, that the most unprincipled and outright criminal administration in modern American history is so keen to hide behind and exploit the noble efforts of those who do believe in the rule of law. But I suppose that’s what criminals do.

(As an aside, the language in Flood’s letter sounded like it was dictated by Trump himself, not unlike his personal physician’s laughably over-the-top testament to Donald’s superhuman health, or a similar statement by then-White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson, or Sean Spicer’s sputtering claims about the biggest crowd at an inauguration ever, or Rod Rosenstein’s resignation letter. For a functional illiterate, Trump sure does have a lot of literary influence.)

Flood, we are told, is justifiably worried about the door that Mueller left wide open in his report: that Trump can absolutely be charged with obstruction once he leaves office, not to mention the slew of other criminal charges hanging over him, like tax, bank, and real estate fraud, and felony campaign finance violations for which his lawyer is now in prison and in which the SDNY has already named him as an unindicted co-conspirator—“Individual 1.”

Um, could we just fast forward to that post-presidency moment please? Because I’m not sure the country will survive the wait. Max Boot again:

(F)or the next 18 months, at a minimum, this nation is at the mercy of a criminal administration. I am in despair as I have never been before about the future of our experiment in self-rule. Before Mueller filed his report, it was possible to imagine the president being brought to justice. That fantasy is no longer tenable. Instead we are left with the dismaying likelihood that the president will now feel emboldened to commit ever greater transgressions to hold onto power—and thus delay a possible post-presidential indictment.


Bill Barr’s dishonesty has been on prominent display in another way, which is in ignoring two other functions of the special counsel probe: its counterintelligence aspect, and the notion of it as a referral to Congress for impeachment.

Again, this is part of the insidious “binary” formulation that is all the rage for Hannity fans.

Barr continually makes comparisons to an ordinary prosecutor, ridiculing the idea that one would decline to prosecute but still make public derogatory information that he or she feels is in the national interest. (Even though that’s precisely what then-FBI Director Jim Comey did in July 2016 when he announced the end of the Bureau’s probe into Hillary’s emails, but thought he’d give her a public dressing down anyway, just for fun.)

But the Mueller probe was not a case in criminal court, or even a purely criminal investigation, no matter how much Barr wants to frame it that way. It was something much broader and more amorphous than that.

Mueller makes it clear in his report that he didn’t see his investigation in the same narrow terms Barr did, because he specifically refers to the possibility that Congress can and should take up the evidence he uncovered and draw its own conclusions on whether or not to pursue impeachment. But that of course is the last thing Trump and Barr want, which is why they are going out of their way to ridicule and discredit the very idea, precisely because it is right and proper and therefore very threatening to them.

By contrast, in 1998 the Starr report went straight to Congress and the American people, specifically framed as an impeachment referral. Since then, the rules have been changed so that Mueller didn’t have that option, and now we see why. It’s also no coincidence that under the new rules the job title was changed from “independent counsel” to “special counsel,” which is proving more than just a matter of semantics.

Trump, Barr, and their loyal lemmings all across MAGA Nation are fixated on the false claim that because criminal charges were not brought, Trump is vindicated, the show is over, and there is nothing more to discuss. But as we’ve seen, this is the height of mendacity given that the special counsel followed rules saying that criminal charges CAN’T be brought. Here’s Michelle Goldberg, writing in the Times:

The president’s manifest disloyalty to the country in trying to halt an investigation into a foreign attack on an American election is, to the right, of no account. Nor are the counterintelligence implications of Mueller’s findings, which aren’t part of the report. In the eyes of the president’s supporters, his campaign did not participate in the criminal conspiracy that helped elect him, so no more needs to be said.

Moreover, as we all know and have been told ad nauseam throughout this ordeal (cue up that Lindsey Graham clip again, will ya?), impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. A president need not be guilty of a prosecutable crime to be legitimately removed from office for the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Founders stipulated as cause, wholly unrelated to criminal conviction.

Which brings us back to where we started at the top of this piece, with a mountain of evidence of presidential misconduct, and a Republican Party that is making like Nero rosining up his bow while the Roman firetrucks race by.


So what do we do when a third of the American people—either because they willfully deny it or hypocritically condone it—simply do not care about behavior that by any reasonable measure demands, at the very least, consideration of impeachment?

What do we do when they are willing to tolerate behavior that makes Nixon look like a piker: massive corruption, shameless attacks on a free press, undermining of the rule of law, and open consorting with our enemies for personal gain, not to mention brazen racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and general contempt for democracy and even the very concept of truth itself?

What do we do when some of them turn not just a blind eye to this behavior but actively applaud it, while far more minor transgressions by members the other party—and sometimes things that aren’t even offenses at all, or aren’t even true—rouse those same people to start fashioning nooses?

What do we do when they will defend the president in defiance in violation of anything even remotely resembling principle, simply because he’s their boy? What do we do when they are fine with a gangsterocracy?

I don’t know. But I do that it leads down a very very dark path.

It is as if there is a plague among us that has infected fully a third of our countrymen and shows no sign of abating, let alone being cured. I have often suggested that future historians will look back on this era as one of Salem-like mass hysteria, but it’s beginning to feel more like something even more flesh-eating. What will be left of our republic if it is allowed to fester and spread and is not addressed?

I realize this sounds hyperbolic and, more importantly, patronizing—the very thing we are repeatedly counseled against if we want to win in 2020. And patronizing it may be. But hyperbolic it is not.

Such a situation renders the fundamental mechanisms of representative democracy useless, particularly in terms of checks and balances. The Founders assumed that Congress would by definition be vested in preserving its own power and therefore would never turn so abjectly servile to the executive. But they never envisioned the rise of political parties, such that the division of power is not really among the three co-equal branches but between two hyperpartisan extra-constitutional political organizations. When one of those organizations abandons any pretense of commitment to democracy, we have a serious problem on our hands.

Racism, misogyny, wanton greed, powerlust, selfishness, and a willingness to victimize others for personal gain will ever be with us so long as humankind roams the earth. (Silver lining: perhaps that may not be much longer.) But how can we manage and minimize it , especially when a huge swath of the populace is totally fine with even the worst and most Machiavellian behavior, so long as it is employed for their chosen ends?

As many have noted, Donald Trump is the symptom, not the cause of our ills. Per Mr. Mencken, a malevolent ignoramus of this sort is the logical end result of the modern Republican Party’s slow slide into John Bircherism, beginning in 1964 (to be generous; really one can trace it to Tailgunner Joe circa 1950). Therefore, his removal, when it comes and by whatever manner, will not be the end of the struggle.

Let me quote—gasp!—AOC, despite her being, ya know, a girl, and brown, and young, and smart, and willing to speak her mind (quelle horreur!). On March 24, a day that will live in infamy (to coin a phrase), she tweeted:

He can stay, he can go. He can be impeached, or voted out in 2020. But removing Trump will not remove the infrastructure of an entire party that embraced him; the dark money that funded him; the online radicalization that drummed his army; nor the racism he amplified+reanimated.


Next week in part three of this series we will discuss the Big Eye itself: impeachment. But even if we succeed in removing Trump from office by whatever means (including the ballot), what kind of smoking wreckage we will be left with when he is gone?

For as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez reminds us, the black plague that he represents and from which he sprang will still remain.

Reading Mr. Mueller

Screen Shot 2019-04-16 at 2.50.05 PM

It has now been two weeks since the redacted Mueller report hit the street, enough time for us to begin—but only begin—to digest its meticulously prepared, bone-rattling conclusions.

For some, the headline—seized upon and hammered relentlessly by Donald Trump and his lowlife band of criminals, would-be autocrats, and political enablers, led by the utterly shameless William Barr—was that no criminal charges were being brought. But that does not begin to be the whole story, not by a country mile, even though Trump would like us to believe that it is. Indeed, with his characteristic pathological dishonesty, he has crowed that the report goes way beyond even that, representing “complete and total” exoneration of all wrongdoing.

Well, it turns out America was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.


So here’s the real bottom line, which fortunately has been well-reported in the legitimate media, and continues to gather steam with each passing day and further revelations:

The Mueller report laid out a damning portrait of a presidential campaign that eagerly accepted the help of a hostile foreign power in order to win the White House; that was well aware of Russian efforts to interfere on its behalf and welcomed those efforts; that enthusiastically entertained meetings with foreign nationals offering such assistance (“If it’s what you say I love it”), openly encouraged this attack on our electoral system (“Russia, if you’re listening…”), and then gleefully exploited and capitalized on the poisonous fruits thereof (the WikiLeaks dump of stolen DNC emails).

Among other things, Trump & Co. tried to set up a backchannel with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that would circumvent the US intelligence community; to tap into WikiLeaks (via Roger Stone) regarding the Russian hacking of the DNC; strategized how best to use that dump against Hillary Clinton; and passed polling data in key battleground states to Konstantin Kilimnik, a known GRU operative.

Everybody over there in once-Russophobic Fox Nation cool with all that?

Writing in Salon, former federal prosecutor Kenneth F. McCallion summarizes the import of this very well:

Trump and his team were willing without hesitation to betray the core interests of the United States in maintaining the integrity of our democratic and electoral systems and to provide aid and comfort to the efforts of a foreign hostile power to attack America and to shake its democratic foundations to its core. This stark portrait of a presidential candidate and a campaign organization that was willing to seek a short-term political advantage at the risk of jeopardizing fundamental US interests by soliciting and utilizing data that they knew had been hacked and stolen by the Russians amounts to a fundamental betrayal of the US on a scale never before experienced by our country.”

Moreover, Team Trump vehemently denied over and over that it had ANY contacts with Russians whatsoever, only later to be shown to have had at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals, WikiLeaks, or their associates. That alone ought to have made any American citizen think twice about the honesty of this team and its claim of unquestioned loyalty to the United States….although per Rudy Giuliani, Republicans have recently decided that accepting the help of the Kremlin is totally fine, when their side does it.

But of course the public didn’t have the opportunity to think twice about that, because in September 2016 Mitch McConnell blocked the proposal to make that pertinent information public in a bipartisan manner.

The parade of guys in furry hats meeting with Team Trump was so long that Mueller spends 198 pages in Volume One of his report documenting it, as noted by Washington Post columnist Max Boot, a senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In a key passage, Mueller writes: “The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” That, by any reasonable political definition, is collaboration with a hostile foreign power, passive or otherwise—a sin of omission that ought to be disqualifying for any presidential aspirant, to say the least.

The proof, for any doubter, is that the Trump campaign failed to inform ANYONE in the US law enforcement or intelligence communities that it had been contacted by foreign nationals offering this kind of illegal assistance. As Lucian Truscott IV writes: “To the contrary, the Trump campaign made continual use of the help the Russians provided to the campaign when Trump repeatedly and approvingly cited the release of the Democratic Party emails hacked by the Russians and released by WikiLeaks. He cited WikiLeaks and the hacked emails more than 160 times at rallies and in interviews in the closing weeks of the campaign.”

So we are not talking about a presidential campaign that was appalled by the actions of Vladimir Putin’s agents, regardless of its own cooperation with them or lack thereof.

Ben Wittes of Lawfare has always been one of the sharpest observers of the Trumpocalypse, and his reading diary of the special counsel’s report is an invaluable and enlightening resource. If Barr’s infamous, now-discredited four page “summary” of March 24 was the kindergarten-level Cliff Notes version of Mueller’s Moby-Dick—one that mysteriously left out any whales—Wittes’s diary is more like a PhD dissertation on the same. (He recently produced an condensed summary of his conclusions in the pages of the Atlantic.) Wittes sees the semantically imprecise question of “collusion” this way:

Trump personally ordered an attempt to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails; and people associated with the campaign pursued this believing they were dealing with Russian hackers. Trump also personally engaged in discussions about coordinating public-relations strategy around WikiLeaks releases of hacked emails. At least one person associated with the campaign was in touch directly with the Guccifer 2.0 persona—which is to say with Russian military intelligence. And Donald Trump Jr. was directly in touch with WikiLeaks—from whom he obtained a password to a hacked database. There are reasons none of these incidents amount to crimes—good reasons, in my view, in most cases, viable judgment calls in others. But the picture it all paints of the president’s conduct is anything but exonerating.

Call it Keystone Kollusion.


The Mueller report also catalogued other clandestine connections between Trump and Russia that in any previous administration would, in and of themselves, been presidency-ending. Chief among these was the fact that Donald Trump had a multimillion dollar real estate deal in the works in Russia—a proposed Trump Tower Moscow—that came with a $50 million in-kind bribe he offered to Putin personally in the form of a penthouse apartment designed to lure other oligarch into the building.

Wow. Just fucking wow.

(We actually learned that through journalistic efforts before the special counsel report was released, but the SCO fleshed it out and confirmed it. Which I mention by way of credit-where-it’s-due to the Fourth Estate, which is much beleaguered these days.)

And just to remind you: like the claims that there had been no campaign coordination with the Russians, Trump howled with righteous outrage—both throughout the election and after he was in office—at the very suggestion that he had ANY business contacts with Russia. Now we know that that was perhaps the most bald-faced lie any politician ever tried to perpetrate on the American people.

As if all that is not enough, Trump’s lies about the Moscow venture created another historic scandal in the form of a counterintelligence nightmare: a presidential candidate (and then sitting president) vulnerable to Russian blackmail and other political pressure because the Kremlin held explosive information about him that he was hiding from the American people. That is the very definition of how extortion works, folks. In light of that, Trump’s bizarre, previously inexplicable pattern of pro-Russian statements and actions—even in defiance of his own intelligence chiefs and the US military and diplomatic communities—suddenly makes sense, and stands as stark evidence of just how much he was in Moscow’s thrall.

Lastly, and almost in passing, Robert Mueller and his team also painted an Armando Iannucci-worthy picture of a White House riven with incompetence, backstabbing, venality, megalomania, and palace intrigue that would make the Borgias blush. But none of those are really criminal or impeachable offenses, except against good sense, short of the argument that this administration is so appallingly inept that it is in breach of its duty to protect and defend the common welfare. Among his more headspinning conclusions, Mueller noted that some members of Trump’s team—including Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner—were, in effect, too stupid to know that what they were doing with the Russians was wantonly illegal. (Not that ignorance of the law is an excuse, only that their sheer idiocy might make it hard to win a conviction.)

All this in addition to other skullduggery that—as many on the hard left would remind us—arguably constitutes reason for removal even without entanglements with the Russians or efforts to cover up same, including (but not restricted to) tax, bank, and real estate fraud; pardon dangling; felony campaign finance violations in the form of hush money payments to a porn star and other mistresses; numerous and brazen conflicts of interest; nose-thumbing violations of the emoluments clause; and a jawdropping level of general corruption and wholesale abuse of presidential power.

All in all, kind of seems like a guy who should not be the President of the United States, no?


Unsurprisingly, Trump and Barr have done their best to obfuscate and pervert the actual content of the SCO report, for reasons that are now obvious. We can only wonder what the effect would have been had the report been dropped on Congress and the public—the way the Starr report was—without their despicable and profoundly deceitful muddying of the waters. But we are now—belatedly—experiencing a dawning understanding of how Trump, Barr, and the entire GOP have been trying to gaslight us.

Just this week we learned that Mueller himself was so unhappy with the way Barr’s initial four-pager mischaracterized the report that he twice complained in the three days after that statement was released, even taking the eyebrow-raising step of sending a personal letter to the DOJ expressing his frustration.

Yet when questioned by the House Judiciary Committee on April 19 about Mueller’s opinion of his four-pager, Barr professed ignorance. (I’m not a lawyer, but is the AG supposed to lie to Congress?) Testifying again yesterday, this time in front of the friendlier, Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, Barr resorted to unconvincing semantics to try to explain away that borderline perjury, and in the weaseliest possible way. In a stunning display of arrogance and Orwellian sabotage of the rule of law, he again flatly lied in how he framed the content of Mueller’s letter, even though it had by then been published for the whole world to see.

The chutzpah on this guy!

The Attorney General was also questioned on the related issue of whether he is being pressured by Trump to initiate politically motivated criminal investigations. Kamala Harris, like the former prosecutor she is, took Barr apart and had him stammering like the guiltiest perp on “Law and Order” ever. He never did answer definitively yes or no.

Really? Bill Barr can’t remember if he had any conversations with the President of the United States about launching investigations to punish the president’s political enemies? My eight-year-old wouldn’t try to get away with a howler like that.

(Sitting next to Harris during Barr’s cringeworthy non-response, fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker had a look on his face that was admiring, but a comic strip thought bubble over his head reading, “I’m screwed.”)

Asked about Trump’s pathological dishonesty by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Barr replied, “I’m not in the business of determining when lies are told to the American people.” Which is too bad, because that business is booming. At the very end of the testimony, Blumenthal had zeroed in another crucial matter—the existence of a written record of Barr’s recent phone call from Mueller, which Barr, appallingly, bluntly refused to hand over—when Lindsey Graham leapt in and ended the day’s events, a clip that is not going to age well for Barr or Graham.

How else did Bill Barr disgrace himself in front of Congress yesterday? Let me count the ways:

  • He flatly lied about what Mueller was upset about, claiming it was only about the media and how the summary was being perceived. (Read the letter—Mueller explicitly complains about Barr’s summary itself, not just the public reaction, and does not mention the media at all. Republicans continue to parrot this lie, but it is simply not there in black & white, making this an especially egregious attempt at deception on their part.)
  • He argued that Trump can rightly stop former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying before Congress, a claim that is beyond Nixonian in its view of executive power. (But we already knew Barr felt that way about the unitary executive theory.)
  • He continued to characterize properly authorized FBI surveillance conducted under a FISA warrant as “spying,” playing to his boss’s tweetstorm fits of pique and Fox Nation fantasies.
  • He claimed that the Steele dossier might include Russian disinformation, which is risible given that this administration (and the Trump campaign before it) might as well be a subsidiary of TASS.
  • Also, I’m not sure, but did the ghost of Richard Nixon just appear on live TV and say when the president orders his lawyer to lie it’s not a crime, because the one who gave the order is the president?

I could go on. Can we just go ahead and impeach this motherfucker too?

There were only two silver linings to the Bill Barr Shit Show on Capitol Hill yesterday:

First, that what little was left of Barr’s much-vaunted credibility is now gone, and second, that he has backhandedly made Mueller’s testimony before Congress an inevitability. “If there was any chance DOJ could prevent Mueller from testifying it’s gone now,” said former prosecutor Joyce White Vance. “Congress is entitled to hear from Mueller directly to see if he agrees with Barr’s characterization of his concerns and his comments.”

Not surprisingly, Barr declined to appear before the far less hospitable House Judiciary Committee today, presumably because he will be busy watching the ashes of his reputation scattered into the Potomac. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has suggested that should Adam Schiff subpoena Barr and he still refuses to appear, the House ought to exercise its power to arrest him and march him over in chains. I am heading over to Stub Hub now to get my tickets.

So in case it wasn’t already painfully clear, despite all the assurances that Bill Barr is a man of integrity and an “institutionalist” whom no one could imagine being a bagman for the likes of Donald Trump, it turns out that Barr is exactly that: a true believer, a soulless autocrat in full support of an imperial presidency (right wing version only), not at all bothered by Trump’s outrages, and more than willing to chain himself and his legacy to this rapidly sinking Liberian-flagged garbage scow. He strikes me as yet another rich old white man who has come to internalize the Fox News worldview, irrespective of his credentials and alleged reputation, and gone all in on Donny. He is the missing link between today’s Trumpified GOP and the allegedly respectable “old school,” Bush-led GOP that gave birth to it and is now undeservedly mythologized by some. (On that count I am almost grateful for him as a living reminder of that.) “Trump with a brain,” Nicole Wallace called him, abnormal though that brain appears to be….which makes him much more dangerous than regular brand Donald Trump, and exponentially more dangerous when the two are in league, melding schoolyard bully demagoguery with faux legalistic smoke-and-mirrors gibberish spouted by a soporific evil grandpa.

In short, in the words of the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, he is a hack who “can no longer function credibly as attorney general.”

The oft-asked question, therefore, of why a man like Barr would come out of retirement to go to work in the Trump administration, in a job he’s already had no less, is self-answering: Because he is not a man of integrity or principle in the first place. At all.

Bring back Matt Whitaker.


Setting aside this shameful right wing campaign to distort and disguise the truth, when it comes to Russigate the only remaining question is the degree to which Trump and his underlings cooperated in Moscow’s effort to influence the 2016 election, as opposed to merely serving as its happy beneficiaries.

Mueller seems to have concluded that Trump was not an active collaborator, only the passive but very willing recipient of the Kremlin’s gift-giving, a distinction which the GOP is bizarrely trumpeting as some sort of vindication and badge of honor. But even by that definition Trump’s involvement is more active than it might seem, and to understand that, it’s helpful to look at the story through a different lens.

Some months ago Ben Wittes offered the pithy formulation that “the obstruction is the collusion.” (See also Rise of the Espiocracy in these pages, January 20, 2019.) By that he meant that, in trying to stymie the Russia investigation, Trump was continuing to do the very thing of which he was accused: acting as an agent of a hostile foreign power. In concealing the scope of Russia’s actions from US intelligence and law enforcement officials, he was both serving Moscow’s interests and giving it cover to continue those attacks in the future.

Can anyone seriously argue that he is not continuing to do precisely that even now, by refusing to cooperate with Congress in its right and proper oversight role as a co-equal branch, despite compelling evidence of this behavior by Russia? Faced with the legislative branch taking over the investigative lead, Trump is waging an unconscionable campaign of defiance toward Congressional authority that even Nixon wouldn’t have dared: refusing to comply with subpoenas, suing to stop the release of banking records, ordering the Treasury Department and IRS to hide his tax returns, attempting to block White House aides from testifying (foremost among them Don McGahn), and so forth. Despite his lawyers’ specious claims, all that is well within Congress’s legitimate purview, both in terms of Trump’s demonstrable benefit from Russia’s actions and his pattern of corruption in general. Meanwhile Trump still refuses even to acknowledge that Russia interfered in our election, let alone spend any of the money allocated to harden our cyber defenses and prevent it from happening again, since he privately figures to benefit from it in 2020.

(Wittes also make some keen observations about the missing counterintelligence side of the SCO inquiry, which is a subject for another day.)

And this obstruction is a pretty winning strategy.

In his reading diary of the SCO report, Wittes offers a very compelling case that Trump so successfully obstructed justice that he prevented the special counsel from being able to uncover the full story of his conspiracy with Russia in 2016……which is kind of the whole idea of obstruction, n’est-ce pas? Charlie Sykes summarized Wittes’s argument well in a piece last week called “Did Trump’s Attempts to Obstruct Actually Work?” in the new(ish) Never Trump online magazine The Bulwark, which is a fascinating publication for any progressives out there interested in a (usually) sensible conservative view on our ongoing national nightmare.

Now, I know this sounds like exactly what we often accuse the right wing of doing, over Benghazi, and pizzagate, and Solyndra, to name just a few: refusing to accept the available facts and clinging to the delusion that there are hidden secrets that would prove us correct if only the invisible hand would remove itself. It’s a fair and predictable allegation, and one we have to be prepared to rebut.

But rebut it we can, as not all conspiracy theories are created equal.

There is ample evidence that the whole story on Team Trump’s collaboration with Russia has not yet come out, particularly in the case of Paul Manafort, whose lies to the special counsel are explicitly mentioned in the Mueller report as having hindered the investigation. Likewise the Seychelles meeting between Erik Prince, emissaries of the UAE, and Putin ally Kirill Dmitriev. (Though Adam Schiff and the House Judiciary Committee made a criminal referral to the DOJ against Prince just this week, for perjury, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Maybe Betsy DeVos can get her brother to start some adult education programs in federal prison, or he can just recruit some more hired killers for his businesses there.)

The SCO was also denied all the facts on Carter Page, Don Jr. declined to testify, and most notoriously, the White House legal team successfully kept Donald Trump from turning on his perpetual perjury machine in a face to face interview.

In other words, because of the stonewalling, the destruction of documents, the number of Trump deputies who baldly lied to the special counsel, and witness tampering with some of those same people, not to mention the ticking clock and intense pressure (some might call it “harassment”) on the SCO from the White House, the GOP-controlled Senate, and the right wing media, we may not yet know the full story of conspiracy with Russia, and possibly never will.

So one man’s tinfoil hat is another man’s Occam’s razor. To each his or her own conclusions, but for me, I’ll leave it at this:

Imagine a bank robbery where you couldn’t prove the suspect had the loot, but he was a known gangster, was at the scene of the crime, and was now covered in bright blue paint where the dyepack exploded on him.

That is certainly the feeling one gets after reading the Mueller report.


We have already discussed at length the difference between crimes that can be charged in a court of law with a reasonable certainty of obtaining a conviction, and what is morally wrong, poisonous to our democracy, and/or an eyepopping counterintelligence threat….that is to say, high crimes and misdemeanors. It is that latter half of that dichotomy with which we are now rightly concerned, no matter how much the perpetrators of those offenses would have us believe that this is settled science and there is nothing to see here, folks, let’s move along.

Trump need not have actively conspired with the Kremlin for his behavior to be outrageous and warrant ejection from office. For a reminder of that, let’s go to no less an authority than Senator Lindsey Graham, the former litigator who served as one of Bill Clinton’s prosecutors during his Senate impeachment trial in 1998, when he was accused of offenses far less than Trump is:

The point I am trying to make is you don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic, if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role. Thank God you did that, because impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.

Get ready to hear those words on an endless loop for the next eighteen months, Lindsey.

So let me make a statement that may sound absurd in its sheer obviousness:

The actions described in the Mueller report constitute a grave scandal, unprecedented in American history, that ought to rock the nation to its core and trigger severe political and legal ramifications, to include the removal from office of the current President of the United States.

The reason I feel obliged to state that blindingly self-evident point is because, as you may have noticed, many Americans don’t see it that way.

But history sure will.

Where is the outcry from the Republican side of the aisle? Where are the conservatives who screamed bloody murder about 44’s alleged “imperial presidency” and “executive overreach”? Hell, the right wing was ready to march on the White House with torches and pitchforks when Obama wore a khaki-colored suit. (A recent supercut of Fox News attacks on Obama makes this hypocrisy crystal clear.)

Now all I hear from the right of center is crickets. And that is the subject we will delve into next week in the second installment of this series….




Nevertheless They Persist

Persisticon Image for TKN

In 2017, a group of feminists in Brooklyn formed Persisticon, a female-led activist group dedicated to getting Democratic women elected to public office.

With several members with backgrounds in comedy and music, Persisticon’s main efforts have centered on stand-up comedy events—featuring mostly women performers—to benefit EMILY’s List. Persisticon’s next event is Sunday May 5 in Brooklyn. (Full details at bottom.)

I sat down with some of Persisticon’s founders—Diana Kane, Theo Kogan, Leslie King, and Christina Clare—to talk about the group, its activities, and the current state of play in the USA. (Another founder, Lynn Harris, weighed in via email from overseas.)


THE KING’S NECKTIE: For folks who don’t know, how did Persisticon get started? What was the origin?

DIANA: Our origin story? (laughter) The idea behind Persisticon is to take the things that we‘re passionate about, that we love, and employ them to further equality in elected office. That’s the ultimate mission, and the idea is to do it through promoting female performers and bringing our community together.

THEO: When 45 won—I can’t say his name—I just felt so incredibly hopeless. And I thought, “OK, this is the time. I’m so upset and angry, I have to do something aside from signing every petition online.” So Diana and I were talking about it, and she said, “You have to meet my friend Lynn,” and I said, “You have to meet my friend Leslie,” (laughter) and it just snowballed from there.

LESLIE: And then Christina came along and helped us organize everything, to project manage, and make it all happen.

DIANA: Theo and I kept talking about wanting to do something that we could actually do, because we are not lawyers, and we cannot run down to the airport and save somebody’s life with our laptops. But what we’re good at is throwing parties, and creating a community, and having fun. It seemed to us that if there were more people in policy-making places who genuinely represented us and all the things that matter the most to us—like clean air, and water, and education, and racial justice—that’s where we could put our energy to have the greatest effect. Civic engagement doesn’t always have to look like marching in the streets.

TKN: And what are your events like?

CHRISTINA: In the past we’ve had comedians and musicians like Bridget Everett, Janeane Garofalo, Murray Hill, Aparna Nancherla, Michelle Buteau, Abbi Crutchfield, Jon Glaser, Tiger Bay & Fancy Feast, Jo Firestone, Negin Farsad, Kendra Cunningham, DJ Tikka Masala, DJ Swoon, Ashley Nicole Black, Tammy Faye Starlight, and of course Theo, who’s the lead singer of the Lunachicks and Theo & the Skyscrapers. And we also have people outside the entertainment industry, like Emily’s List CEO Emily Cain, Evelyn McDonnell, editor of the new book Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, and contributors Caryn Rose, and Jana Martin….

THEO: It’s a whole event. You come into the venue and there are vendors selling things, and photographers, and drinks with funny names, and you can drunk shop, which is always fun. And then the show itself is comedian after comedian after comedian, and maybe there’s a singer, maybe there’s an activist or writer who speaks…’s a huge array of different types of humans—mostly women—from all different backgrounds and skintones and points of view. And it’s really fun—I always leave crying and laughing. And we raise all this money to get women elected, and raise awareness, and bring people together in the community. Just getting people feeling hopeful is a huge part of it.

LESLIE: it’s a way of activating the community, and making people feel less alone, and finding ways for them to find a voice. People leave and they start doing things themselves, which is ultimately what we want to happen. So people feel they have a voice and can use their talents, whatever they are, to make a change.

DIANA: And the thing about Persisticon promoting female performers is that, in so many shows I’ve gone to in my life, the lineup has been 80-90% male. And I never really questioned it. And it just struck me at some point that this was so imbalanced, and there are so many spectacular performers out there who need a stage, and if you bring them together you get out of the area of being token. There’s a whole panoply of spectacular women performers, and we get to experience them.

CHRISTINA: We do have men on the lineup too. David Cross will be doing our next show….

TKN: Yeah, men can do comedy too, I heard….

CHRISTINA: (laughs) Yeah, men can do comedy….

DIANA: But are they funny? 


TKN: So what’s the next event?

DIANA: The next event is Persisticon III: There Is No Planet B, which has an environmental focus. Because we’re in between elections at the moment, we thought we’d concentrate on issues that need to be on the forefront of people’s minds going into that next election cycle. The world is burning down, and it’s just so clear—and it has been for some time—that whoever we’re voting for needs to be paying careful attention to that. And because it’s springtime, it seems like a good time to bring everybody’s awareness to that. That’s on May 5th at the Bell House in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn.

TKN: And where does the money go?

DIANA: For these larger events, EMILY’s List is the organization that most strongly aligns with our values, which is to get pro-choice Democratic women into office. For some smaller events we’ve given to some smaller, more local organizations, but EMILY’s List has the structure to train candidates and support them throughout the entirety of the campaign process.


TKN: I’m loath to give “45” credit for anything—I don’t even want to give him the number 45—but the one thing I might backhandedly give him credit for is inspiring this kind of activism, as its target of course.

THEO: That was the thing I thought when “It” got elected: that it was gonna invigorate some art and people were gonna fight. I feel like we’ve been pummeled with shit by him and this whole situation, and I was just feeling like: (groans). Just rundown. And things like Persisticon just help me to believe, “Yeah—we’re gonna keep fighting.”

LYNN: But I will say this about this presidency—quoting one of my early mentors, Patricia Ireland: WE COULD HAVE DONE WITHOUT IT. Given that it happened, yes, thank GOD it sparked activism, not just complacency and doom. But I don’t think it’s a silver lining. I think it’s an imperative. And I do think we would have had record numbers of female candidates and a rise in activism and determination even without it. We just would have had a different fuel: not rage, but hope. Imagine where we’d be right now if we’d been spending this time building our democracy, not trying to save it from the fire!

TKN: Yeah, I do feel like there is some hopefulness in the country, despite it all, precisely because of this kind of activism. Is that a sense you get?

DIANA: I was telling somebody in Congressman Nadler’s office about Persisticon, and she was lovely, and the thing she said that most inspired me was that she’d heard of other things like Persisticon…..not precisely like us, but little pockets and bubbles all over the country. And that gave me hope. There are organizations that have sprung up like Indivisible, or Solidarity Sundays, or #GetOrganizedBK, that have really picked up the mantle. Everybody’s doing the thing that works for them—some people show up at Chuck Schumer’s office every single week. So I do think there is hope.

But it’s exhausting. We’re two years into this, and people are getting tired. So I also think that things like Persisticon are rejuvenating, because you come back together and remember that you’re not alone and there is still hope and things we can do.

I look at things like the fight for civil rights. We’re not getting beaten by policemen. We’re still in easy activism, in large part. There’s a long way to go. Our bodies aren’t on the line in the same way that the bodies of people in some communities are. I look at the beatings that John Lewis took and I think, “OK, this is exhausting and hard, but it’s not that.” There’s a long way to go.

TKN: I always think of that quote from Rev. William Barber II where he says, this is bad but this is not the worst thing we’ve ever faced. Not to minimize it, but just saying that if people made it through slavery, and the Depression, Jim Crow, we can make it through this and in fact use it to for positive change.

LESLIE: I think we’re in a very privileged position. We’re not living under that same sort of attack and oppression. So we have the duty to use our privilege to take action and try to activate change.

DIANA: One of the places where we do have power is that we are regular people in our community. There’s nothing special about us, there’s no massive history of activism or study in that area. So if we can do it, anybody can do it. It’s just taking the things that you’re passionate about and putting them to service. 

MISOGYNY (est. 50,000 B.C.E.)

TKN: I don’t wanna go back and relive 2016, but it seemed to me that misogyny was— if not the driving factor—certainly one of the driving factors in what happened. And I don’t feel like that’s changed.

DIANA: No. It’s funny, I work for myself. I own a boutique, and most of my customers are women, and even with all that exposure I feel like I was blind to a lot of it for a long, long time. It was really in the run-up to the 2016 election, like a solid year before, that I started to understand how deeply, deeply rooted misogyny is in this country, and in the world. It’s just shocking. It’s been a shock and an eye-opening experience, and it just continues to be revelatory. I lived in a privileged little bubble, and I didn’t realize how hateful the world has always been towards women, and continues to be.

LESLIE: Don’t you feel like Persisticon was born out that? After the election, all my women friends and I kind of held on to each other and kept talking about ways to support each other, and this felt like a way to do it on a much bigger scale. Bringing women together in a public space—performers, designers, activists—all in one room, celebrating women. And inviting men into that room as well, but women were the first ones to show up, which was powerful and exciting.

CHRISTINA: One of the amazing things about Persisticon is that, since 45 has been in office, I’ve wanted to be involved more politically, but I can’t stand hearing his voice, I can’t stand seeing him. The fact that we’re able to bring together these comedians who can talk about the issues and not talk specifically about him—that’s a beautiful space to be a part of. The idea that we can be politically active, but not talk about the people like him that are so enraging. I love the fact that Persisticon is not about 45, it’s about change. And I love being part of that.

DIANA: He’s the ultimate example of the misogyny that’s in this country, and beyond, for so long, that for me he’s sort of beside the point in a lot of ways. He just exemplifies the worst of it, but it’s so much bigger than him.

TKN: Right—he’s the symptom, not the cause. That was made clear recently with his hostility toward AOC, and the hostility of the whole right wing toward her, and other female politicians. I mean, where does that come from? Can you guys explain that to me?

DIANA: I wish. He hates women. They hate women. They hate anyone who’s different from them, and challenges them, or challenges the power structure, and they capitalize on it. I really think it’s that simple.

LESLIE: Just look at who he gathers together in a room when he makes any sort of “decision”: it’s all old white men. Consistently. If there is a woman, she’s in the background, or by the door, or getting coffee, or used as a token.

DIANA: I place my own awakening around those crazy incel guys, that shooting in Santa Barbara. People who just openly hate women, and come out with guns blazing. I just wasn’t prepared for that. I wasn’t ready for that in my bones, until some of those hashtags showed up. The #yesallwomen hasthag was incredibly powerful for me. Because a lot of women thought they were alone, and because that kind of behavior has been normalized in such a mass way, all these experiences that all these women have had forever were treated like, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

I think #metoo, all of that, is deeply important. We set what’s normal. Our culture sets that. And if we don’t want that to be normal anymore, we need to lay that down. And I think that’s part of what this is too, and it speaks to the growing awareness of what 45 represents.


TKN: Which raises the question of 2020. When I look at the presidential field, there are numerous strong female candidates. Do you think the Democratic Party is definitely going to—or needs to—nominate a woman?

THEO: No idea. I hope so.

LESLIE: I dunno. It’s so early….

DIANA: It’s too soon.

THEO: I’m hoping some of the “repeat” people will back down….not mentioning any names.

LESLIE: I think it’s definitely a time when we can have new voices, and I don’t know exactly who that is, but I think people are ready for a fresh voice.

LYNN: Personally, I think the number of white men who should be running for president this time around is zero. Especially the young ones. I like those fellas well enough, but it is NOT YOUR TURN, BRUH. Sit down for a minute and throw your resources behind a woman. Jeez.

LESLIE: There are certain people who are running that I would definitely rather not vote for, but whoever is our candidate is going to be better than what we have right now.

DIANA: Yeah, our strategy is to continue supporting all the women candidates that we possibly can. I think that was the turning point for me, really. When I realized that Congress was made up of 80% men, I was like, “Whaaaat???? How can that be? How can that be? What’s going on that we’re stifling those voices?”

But the 116th Congress is a spectacular thing—it really is. It’s remarkable and exciting and we feel like we helped contribute to that, and even if some of that contribuiton is just a backlash against what’s-his-face, we’ll just keep on going. Because there’s still so far to go. That’s part of why it’s called “Persisticon.” And in some way that’s super exciting. There’s so much room for improvement that anything you do is welcome. You don’t even have to try that hard—just showing up helps! Just the awareness of the problem is a huge step.

LESLIE: It has a ripple effect. People come to the shows, and then they talk to their friends, and that grows the conversation, and that’s ultimately what we want.

TKN: It does feel like it’s way bigger than just one horrible guy or one issue; it’s this consciousness that’s been raised.

THEO: It’s just so crazy, the dichotomy. All this is happening, this awakening, all these people are being called out in #MeToo, and then we have this horrible aggressor that’s still there. I dealt with so much, being in the music business, and the amount of sexism—all kinds of stories from that time. The music business allows a certain type of woman to succeed, and not the others ones that are maybe stronger and more “threatening,” and scary to them. We saw that a million times in the Lunachicks. We were like, “But we’re funny! And we’re good musicians!” And we went very far, but it was always there. And it’s still there. A lot of things have changed and there’s been progress, but it’s still there. Even just our right to choose…..a fetus is a person that can file a lawsuit? It’s insane. It’s completely horrifying, and unbelievable to me.

LESLIE: Yet not surprising at the same time.


TKN: It seems clear that this movement—Third Wave Feminism or whatever you want to call it, I don’t want to put a label on it—is threatening to the patriarchy. That’s why they’re lashing out. But how do you keep the movement together? How do you keep it from fracturing?

DIANA: I think that’s kind of the wrong question. Because it’s not really about that. Every single person is living in their own body and has their own experiences that they’re drawing on to make their own choices, and that’s a powerful thing. But it also means we’re not seeing everything through the same lens all the time. And I think the attention spent on how much division is in the women’s movement feels like a distraction, and we should all be vigilant and keep our eyes on the prize.

Look: we’re a diverse group of people with lots of different priorities, but for the most part, we’re all headed in the same direction together. So that kind of thinking is just a red herring, a way to get us off our game.

It’s like looking at the Democratic presidential field, where some people want to tear each other apart. But there’s over 90% agreement among every candidate on all the issues, so any one of those Democrats is going to be a good answer. Any one of them. So that divisiveness feels like it’s been inseminated—and I use that word on purpose. It’s intentional, to get us fighting with each other. And it works.

TKN: Right. I’m thinking specifically of the Women’s March. The first one was so inspiring: Ferne and I were out of town in a hotel, and I have a picture of our daughter watching it live on a laptop, and she was mesmerized. She was six.

But of course—and I don’t think it was a coincidence—there was controversy around the second march, which I’m sure was spurred by people who were looking to split the resistance. So how do you stop that?

DIANA: It was a moment—a spectacular moment. But I think marching in general is not always the answer. The answer is finding ways to go forward and keep progressing.

LESLIE: I think things change even in activism. We’re not going to have a women’s march like we did the first time. Things evolve and change. People want to recreate that moment again, but it’s not possible. It has to change. We can’t hold on to the past. It has to keep moving forward.

We’re about results-driven activism rather than ego-driven activism. That’s where people get really hung up. It becomes more about being right than about the endgame. And people on the other side know that and they feed it, and that’s where things get stunted.

CHRISTINA: There are no easy answers to a lot of these issues, and we’re still struggling to figure out the best way to consolidate our fight, and seeing that we have to find ways to bring groups together. And that’s going to be a constant issue that we’re fighting against, to make sure we have a united front. And it’s exciting to be a part of that.

LYNN: No matter what, we ALL need to stay at the table. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.  

TKN: Well, it does feel like people are aware of that—of the deliberate attempt to split us, and the need for us to stay together and focused. Because there are always opponents who are going to want to attack the movement and break it apart, and those differences are pressure points they go for: racial differences, economic differences, political differences. But to take an almost absurdly extreme example, the only way we could beat Hitler was by making a deal with Stalin. So we can work with people who have different points of view, to say the least.

DIANA: In order to get where we want to go, we need all voices. So there’s no reason to stifle anyone, even if you don’t agree with them 100%. The truth is, like I was saying, you’re gonna agree with them like 90%! (laughter) So I do think that as much as possible you need to keep including all voices, even if they contradict yours.

LESLIE: And those conversations are also very important, because you’re gonna wrestle with different ideas and you may learn something. We all do, in some way. But if you squash anybody who doesn’t agree with you on every single point, then we’re done.

Many women and oppressed communities are finding that we are more alike than we are different. So with the women’s march, we’re realizing that we need all voices to make change. It’s not just about women, or the black community, or immigrants: we’re all connected.

DIANA: One of the things that I most admired about the organizers of the Women’s March—particularly early on, and I don’t know where they’re at now—was their willingness to listen and adjust and make the changes that are called for. In the beginning it was like, “Wow, you’re too white, you need to listen to other voices.” And they did. And I really admired that. The evolution of that organization—at least initially—was pretty fantastic.

LESLIE: It’s something all women are unlearning that was reinforced in us, deliberately. People keep pushing that narrative that women are bitchy and are gonna fight. So there are a lot of things that women are breaking free of. We can do things together, we can work together in so many ways: in our activism, in our personal lives, in our professional lives. There’s more than just one spot for one woman; there are many spots for many women.

DIANA: For me it comes down to women’s bodily autonomy. Period. If you don’t have control over your reproductive rights—and I hate that it has to be framed by abortion, because it’s that, but it’s also bigger than that—but If you don’t have control over your choice, your destiny, and your body, then we’re sunk. Everything else is adjacent to being able to choose whether or not to have a child. And to have some man dictating whether or not you can do that is absolutely not OK. That affects every single woman, no matter what color or where you are in your life. And that’s where women come together: protecting your rights to your body.

TKN: And that issue is in the hands of five Catholic men. Which is grim….but they’re up against this groundswell that Persisticon and other groups like it represent.

DIANA: The way our country is set up, childbearing and childrearing falls mostly on women, still. There are pockets, and in this room right now we are all lucky to have partners who are fantastic, but in general, women’s economic health takes such a huge hit—a massive hit—and it all comes down to how we equalize opportunity for women. And a lot of that is in bodily autonomy.

LESLIE: It is grim. And if you are a person of color, your body is thought of as “different,” as far as women’s health, mortality rates, and so forth. It’s a real crisis, to even recognize a person of color as a full human being.


TKN: I want to thank you all again for speaking with me. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to add?

THEO: Can I flip the script and just ask, why do you think men hate women so much?

TKN: I wish I knew. But I don’t. I feel like you all felt: I was shocked by how much hatred came out in 2016. I feel stupid in a way. Here I am, over fifty years old, and suddenly I was like, “Wow—there’s a lot of misogyny in the world.”

People really hate women. Even women hate women! There are plenty of conservative women out there who are as misogynistic as any man. And I always say “misogyny” not sexism because it went so far beyond what I think of as garden variety chauvinism or sexism. It was hatred. And I’ve had this argument with a bazillion conservatives: the hatred toward Hillary was so out of proportion to anything she did. It was irrational in its extremity, and it stands for the hatred toward all women.

And it’s changed a little bit, but it hasn’t really changed. There’s a pushback now, and that’s the best thing that’s come out of this, as we were saying before. But the hatred hasn’t changed or gone away, and I don’t know how to make it go away, because I don’t know where it comes from in the first place.

So I don’t begin to know how to answer that question.  

LESLIE: One of the big changes is that now there are men asking “Why?” That’s a big first step. “Why is this happening and how am I contributing to it?” And they’re questioning the sort of community they live in, and the system they live in, and I think that is a huge step, that men are becoming part of the conversation and it’s not just women screaming from the sidelines.

The 45s of the world have this attitude toward women like, “Oh, they don’t know their place.” But I feel like men are recognizing that women don’t have to remember their “place” and stay in it.

DIANA: That whole glass ceiling thing is so apt. Even the guys on your side are only good up to a point. When you want true equality, when you actually want to run the company, they’re not so excited about that. And that’s been eye-opening too. I’m always like, “Wait—I thought you were one of the good ones! I thought we were in this together.” It’s startling.


TKN: It’s so ingrained. I’m conditioned, you’re conditioned, we’re all conditioned, and that doesn’t change overnight. Even if intellectually I understand it, sometimes I catch myself in a retrograde way of thinking. And sometimes I don’t catch myself. And it seems to me—you’d have to ask a sociologist, but it seems to me—that that takes a long time to change. A couple of generations at least. So let’s start.

LESLIE: If more people are asking why, and catching themselves in moments, that’s everyone. Really questioning the norms and asking, “How am I part of the problem?” That’s a huge step toward change. And that’s a big part of the battle, just having some self-awareness.

THEO: And can I say, for the next election, if the person you like isn’t the Democratic candidate, can you please just vote for whoever is running against 45, even if you don’t really like them? How about that?


Poster by Johanna Goodman


Sunday May 5, 2019

The Bell House

149 7th St, Brooklyn NY 11215

(between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in Gowanus)

Where COMEDY, ART and electing FEMINISTS collide. Laugh, listen and party and help raise cash for EMILY’s List: committed to electing progressive pro-choice women and equalizing the representation of all genders in government.

Click link below for tickets:

Bar Opens 5:30pm, Doors 6:30pm, Show 7:00pm (over 21 only)

With emcee Ophira Eisenberg of NPR’s “Ask Me Another”

Featuring (list subject to change): Alex Borstein, Michelle Buteau, Bunny Buxom, Carolyn Castligia, Kerry Coddett, David Cross, Ana Fabrega, Aparna Nancherla, Model Majority, Amber Tamblyn, and special guest rabblerouser Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of Uprose, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization, dedicated to environmental and social justice.



DIANA KANE ENGLISH is a retailer, designer, and activist. She is the owner of Diana Kane, a Brooklyn boutique highlighting the work of emerging and established independent, sustainable designers. She’s the creator of the viral FeministGold t-shirt and a passionate feminist, jewelry designer, and community organizer.

CHRISTINA CLARE is a comedy and social justice activist and founder of TheMicHub, an online comedy concierge and aggregator promoting inclusivity through a diverse comedy database. She has worked as a project manager in the translations industry for years and is passionate about music, comedy and all the restorative mediums that entertain, teach, and heal “by accident.”

MARTHA CORCORAN is the curator of The Art of Resistance, a feed that celebrates social justice art and creative resistance. She is a photo editor and researcher for book publishing, digital media, and documentary film, and has worked on projects for Hearst, Abrams, PBS, Barnes & Noble, Nat Geo, and Time Inc.

LYNN HARRIS is founder of GOLD Comedy, which aims to give girls/women/”others” the comedy skills to take over the world. She is an award-winning journalist, retired comedian, and former Tonya Harding lookalike (long story).

LESLIE KING is a Brooklyn-based designer and owner of the sustainable handbag company LK. She is also actively working with local and citywide groups committed to addressing and dismantling segregation in New York City public schools.

THEO KOGAN is best known as the singer of Lunachicks. She was a model, actress, and honorary drag queen, a DJ, party promoter and creator/CEO of Armour Beauty lip gloss. Theo grew up in Brooklyn and is currently a pro makeup artist and mom.

SASADI ODUNSI got her roots in protesting at a young age, speaking out to protect the land and mountains where she grew up in Colorado. Since then, she’s been an active supporter of many causes. She is a mother of four who has worn many hats, but mostly chases after kids and beads earrings these days when she’s not posting stories for Persisticon.

FERNE PEARLSTEIN is a prize-winning director/cinematographer who is one of a handful of women featured in Kodak’s “On Film” ad campaign. Her latest film, THE LAST LAUGH, about taboos in humor, features Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, and many others, and continues to screen around the world since its premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

ANDREW E. WAGNER is an Emmy Award-winning producer with over 25 years of experience developing and managing creative projects of every size and shape imaginable. He has a soft spot for people who want to make the world a better place.


Previous King’s Necktie essays on feminism, sexism, and misogyny:

Bette and Joan and Mary and Offred (and Hillary) – May 23, 2017

Feminism in the Age of Monsters: A Conversation with Alix Kates Shulman (Part 1) February 8, 2018

A Spark Is Lit: A Conversation with Alix Kates Shulman (Part 2) – February 15, 2018

“Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court – August 13, 2018

Oh, How Our Standards Have Fallen – February 11, 2019


Employee of the Month

Screen Shot 2019-04-18 at 11.09.58 PM

Read anything good lately?

The events of March 24—that is, the release of Bill Barr’s four-page Cliff Notes version of the Special Counsel’s report—seemed to reset the entire calculus of politics in these United States. But a series of events since then began to call into question the credibility of Barr’s conclusions, giving rise to a growing sensation that a mass gaslighting was underway.

With the publication of the redacted version of the actual report, we now have confirmation of what many began to suspect: that Barr’s topline summary/non-summary (depending on how he felt like characterizing it on any given day), and the subsequent high-fiving by Trump, the GOP, and the rest of MAGA Nation, were not just premature, but the deliberate deployment of the reddest of red herrings. Bright fucking fire engine red.

It is now clear that, in an appalling display of dishonesty and deception, Trump, Barr & Co. consciously waged a disinformation campaign to try to convince the American people that the SCO’s report says things that it pointedly does not. (Whoda thunk?) And for a while they succeeded. The apotheosis of that campaign came today with Barr’s disgraceful press conference ahead of the overdue release of the public version of the report.

But now the emperor’s nudity is on display for all to see. (Yuck.)

As many predicted, the actual Mueller report—even the redacted version—contains a Mount Everest of damaging information about Donald Trump, information that by almost any measure rises to the level to high crimes and misdemeanors, even if it does not consist of prosecutable crimes under the narrow interpretation of the law and DOJ policy against indicting a sitting president. Because “The president didn’t commit a crime!” is all we ask of our head of state, right?

And God knows what’s in the unredacted version. Ironically, the expected outcry demanding it may not emerge, simply because what we’ve already been told is so sufficiently mind-blowing.

A lot of us worried that the details would be too nuanced to overcome the right wing’s false but meme-ready mantra of “No collusion, no obstruction!” And those details are indeed voluminous and complex. But happily, the sheer breadth and weight of the information is scale-tipping for any reasonable person. (Which admittedly, lets out everyone in the Republican Party.)

And so the political calculus has been rocked and reset again.

Welcome to the wilderness of mirrors that is Trumpian America.


Let us now briefly turn to Bill Barr.

As I wrote two weeks ago—among a chorus of others—Barr has proven to be the kind of Roy Cohn figure that Trump always wanted as his AG, and his shameful performance on television today was the final nail in the coffin of his reputation. It might as well have been an episode of “Hannity”; even Chris Wallace of Fox noted that he was behaving more like Trump’s defense lawyer than like the Attorney General of the United States. (Which many thought the media-obsessed Trump would take as a “bad review,” though I wonder if perhaps he was actually delighted by that.)

Many have pondered aloud why a man like Barr, who had already been Attorney General under Bush 41, and whose career and reputation were secure (cough cough—more on that in a bit), would want the job in the first place. Whatever the reason, it was assumed by almost everyone, even critics of Trump, that he would act honorably in the role. The presumption was that a man of such integrity and principle—an “institutionalist” as many former colleagues on both the right and left attested—would serve as a brake on his boss’s criminal-cum-autocratic instincts.

Yet since the moment he was confirmed, Bill Barr has done nothing of the sort. Very much the contrary. Instead, in two short months, he has volunteered over and over to be Trump’s human shield, and his sword as well.

So at the risk of wading into both vulgarity and misogyny, why did Bill Barr agree to be Trump’s bitch?

There was some speculation that, at 68, and having been out of public life for many years, Barr simply failed to appreciate how fast the news cycle moves these days, and the impact of the myriad new avenues of reporting in the Internet Age, such that you can’t get away with the bullshit you did in 1992.

But that’s not a reason why he would take the job: only an explanation of why he mistakenly thought he could behave so abominably in it.

The other explanation is that Barr is a Trump true believer after all, presumably drunk on Fox News, who wanted to lend his—ahem—credibility to defending the administration in its hour of need. His behavior certainly suggests that (and Nicole Wallace today reported that a reliable source close to Barr had confessed to her exactly that.)

In truth, that should have been apparent from the git-go, based on his unsolicited 19 page memo attacking the very existence of the Mueller probe, and arguing that a president literally cannot obstruct justice, by which he auditioned for the AG job, and his well-known belief in the unitary executive theory.

For that matter, as I also wrote two weeks ago, what reason was there ever to believe that Barr was a man of integrity? In reality, his history as a bag man was clear after his run in the first Bush administration, including enabling the Christmas Eve ’92 pardon of six high-ranking underlings implicated in the Iran/contra scandal, among them SecDef Caspar Weinberger. That was an abuse of power so blatant and egregious that the special prosecutor in that case, Lawrence Walsh, publicly assailed it as a coverup. Even the conservative pundit and former Nixon speechwriter William Safire dubbed Barr the Coverup-General.

That history is precisely why he got the job a second time. Barr is the go-to AG for a Republican POTUS who needs covering fire from a reasonable-seeming faux “statesman” who in truth doesn’t mind behaving like a mob consigliere. Which is exactly what Trump desperately, openly wanted.

So it was instructive this week to watch smart, admirable people like former US Attorneys Joyce Vance and Chuck Rosenberg, who, despite being Trump critics, were among those who nonetheless praised Barr at the time of his appointment, now shaking their heads and admitting that he is just a right wing hack after all. Even at the time of his appointment I didn’t buy it, simply because there was no reason to believe that Trump would EVER hire anyone of integrity. And it turns out he didn’t. (His streak is intact!)

Turns out, Barr is just Giuliani disguised as your grandpa.

(See also Barr’s recent ruling that asylum seekers must be held in custody while awaiting their hearings—a ruling designed to give Stephen Miller an orgasm—and his outrageous and deliberate use of the term “spying” to refer to judicially authorized surveillance by law enforcement, a comment designed to feed the tinfoil hat fantasies of neo-John Birchers.)

Barr stands as the missing link between Trump’s mouthbreathing GOP and the old school Bush family GOP, which has undeservedly benefited by comparison with the horrors of Team 45. But the fact is, the former grew out of the toxic seeds sowed by the latter, and the two are more alike than many “mainstream” conservatives care to admit. And Bill Barr, who served as Attorney General in both incarnations of Republican monstrosity, represents the undeniable connection between the two.

Now Bill Barr has permanently trashed his reputation and his legacy, destroying whatever illusory goodwill he once had. In that there is some poetic justice, as he never really deserved that reputation in the first place. He will go down in history as a shameless, unprincipled shill for Donald Trump, and rightly so. And as icing on the shitcake, his heretofore largely forgotten subservience to George H. W. Bush has now been resurrected and appended as an ugly prelude.


So how exactly did Barr disgrace himself in the course of this particular goatfuck? Let me count the ways.

There was the aforementioned smoke-and-mirrors statement of March 24, when he not only deceptively spun Mueller’s conclusions on collusion, but also usurped the authority to decide the issue of obstruction (which Mueller pointedly had chosen to cede to Congress), and in so doing handed Trump an invaluable political weapon, not to mention freeing him from legal jeopardy. How far over the line were his actions? So far that members of Mueller’s famously tight-lipped team broke their silence or the first time, sending word via emissaries of their irritation at how their work was being mischaracterized for partisan purposes.

Then came the three week period of redaction which conveniently allowed Trump to go around using his bully pulpit (and I do mean bully) to pound his lie of “complete and total exoneration!” into America’s head. Then, in an unconscionable breach of legal protocol, he shared the contents of the SCO report with the White House ahead of time, allowing it to get a headstart on its counterattack. And finally, there was today’s press conference in which he spun the report like a dervish, all before delivering it to Congress—inexplicably—in a CD boxed set from Columbia House, yours for only $6.99 a month (allow six weeks for shipping).

In that presser, Barr used the legally meaningless words “no collusion” numerous times, sounding almost like his boss, and then launched into an absurd defense of Trump’s behavior, arguing that he didn’t obstruct justice, that he was just angry that he was being investigated at all, that his feelings were hurt, and that he was frustrated that the investigation was making it hard for him to do things like cage infants and praise neo-Nazis. (In real time, Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), tweeted in response, “No one is above the rule of law…unless you’re frustrated that is.”)

As my friend Tina said, Barr sounded like should have been wearing a MAGA hat. Frankly, a lot of the language read like it had been dictated by Trump himself, much like Donny Jr’s letter about his meeting with the Russians at Trump Tower.

Barr’s characterization of the Mueller investigation as “binary”—that is, either bringing indictments or not in each given matter—was also predictably dishonest and ignored the investigation’s counterintelligence aspect, not to mention the fact that Congress and the American people deserve to know much more than just whether or not their president is a felon.

Ironically, one of the few honest things he said bluntly contradicted Trump. On the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election Barr supported the unanimous conclusion of the US Intelligence Community that Moscow did in fact mount such an attack, rejecting Trump’s own disgusting refusal to acknowledge as much, let alone take any steps to stop Russian interference going forward. But just as telling, Barr pointedly refused to say anything about Trump’s silence and inaction on that count.

Once the (redacted) report finally was published, even more of Barr’s lies became clear.

He blatantly lied about Mueller’s consideration of the DOJ policy on indicting a sitting president in coming to his conclusion on obstruction (Mueller plainly states that he did consider that factor), and on leaving that decision to the AG (he did not: he left it to Congress).

Barr’s claims about how cooperative Trump had been with the special counsel were already laughable, of course, which was apparent to anyone who had watched our toddler-in-chief throw his tantrums over the past 23 months, and were further contradicted by the report itself, which detailed the number of people he had pressured to lie to investigators, derail the probe, or to stop it completely. Another zinger was the report’s observation that Trump actively tried to obstruct but was stymied because his deputies (notably, Don McGahn) refused to carry out his orders, like his directive to fire Mueller himself.

Barr claimed that the report says no Americans conspired with Russian assets, which is definitively at odds with what we know about the actions of Manafort, Stone, Prince, Gates, Page, Papadopolous, and others. In truth, the SCO report goes into stunning detail in painting a portrait of the Russian attack on our electoral system and the Trump team’s connections to it, witting and otherwise, and eagerness to benefit from same. (Meanwhile Mueller basically said DJTJ and Jared were too stupid to know they were colluding.)

Most notably, in order to try to make Trump look innocent on that count, Barr had famously cherrypicked a half-quote, out of context, to use as his lede in this four-page distraction of March 24th:

“….the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Now we could see what he left out, which was the crucial subordinate clause, which as George Conway predicted, begins with the word “Although”:

“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected that it would benefit electorally from the information stolen and released through Russian efforts….”

In other words, Team Trump was happy to have the help of the Russians and did not lift a finger to stop it, including refusing to notify the FBI, CIA, or other authorities of the help that was offered. Everybody OK with that?

Among the most damning parts of the report are Trump’s own words, foremost among them these from p290, which are likely to go on his tombstone:

According to notes written by (DOJ chief of staff Jody) Hunt, when Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, ”’Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.”

Ironically, it will likely not be the end, as he has miraculously survived—cockroach like—all manner of previous scandals that would have doomed any other president of either party. But the quote from Trump’s own mealy mouth tells us that even he knows that by all rights this should be the end.

In sum, we can now see for ourselves that Barr’s misrepresentation of Mueller’s findings rises way beyond mere spin and into the category of overt deception, abetted by abuse of his power in withholding the actual report for three weeks in an effort to let his preferred narrative set in stone. But should we be surprised that such deceit is the strategy of the Trump administration, or that Bill Barr eagerly carried it out?

So please stop telling me what a reputable jurist William Barr is.


Which bring us to the question: will any of this matter? In the twenty-five days since Barr issued his initial summary/non-summary of the Mueller report, polls have shown remarkably little change in how Americans view Trump, which is a measure of how entrenched the partisan divide has become, irrespective of the actual facts. Call us Confirmation Bias Nation.

Accordingly, the release of the SCO’s report (redacted or otherwise) is not likely to result in the deus ex machina that many of us on the left privately dreamed. Perhaps we never should have, as David Frum sagely warned way back in May 2017 (“A Special Prosecutor Is Not the Answer”). Barr’s reputation was already in tatters, so no one left of Mitt Romney was swayed by his “prebuttal” today. Conversely, all the evidence of wrongdoing in the redacted report meant precisely zip to Trump Nation, who would stand by their man even if were captured on video wearing a French maid’s outfit and shining Putin’s riding boots.

But I do think that, for any reasonable person, the sheer weight and volume of Trump’s sins, now confirmed by the SCO, ought to hurt him going forward into the 2020 election. (Wow, was it necessary to write that? That’s where we are these days.) And in the coming weeks, as we pore over the Mueller report with even more scrutiny, more and more explosive details will surely emerge.

Meanwhile the administration’s laughable attempts at damage control continue. While Kellyanne Conway told the press that this was “the best day” for Trump since November 8, 2016, Trump himself spent the morning busily sending out furious, vitriolic tweets again attacking Mueller and his team as “crooked cops” conducting a “witchhunt”… know, like you do when you’re totally happy and feel exonerated.

(Among his tweets, bizarrely, was a supercut of himself saying “No collusion,” which to my mind makes my point not his. Does he really think if he bludgeons us enough with the repetition of a lie it will make us believe it’s true? Apparently he does, and with some evidence to back him up, if one looks at the psychology of brainwashing and the credulity of his followers.)

So I say “laughable,” but their base does seem to lap it up.

On the other side of the aisle, the House of Representatives—led in this effort by genuinely reputable public servants like Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff—have made it clear that they will now be like a dog with a bone, and good on them for that. That kind of oversight is Congress’s job, particularly with a brazenly lawless, gangster president like this one.

And yes, impeachment is back on the table. I make no tactical assessment about whether that is a smart move going into 2020, gamesmanship wise, or what its prospects are for success. (Slim, I suspect.) I mean only that it is now all but impossible for Congress to ignore its duty to address the incredible smorgasbord of malfeasance that Bob Mueller has laid before them.

No matter what Billy Barr says.



Ghostwriter Wanted (Some Collusion Required)

All Work and No Play (Ghostwriter)

Recently The Daily Beast reported that Donald Trump is already excited about the idea of writing a “tell all” memoir:

[Trump] is planning on it being explosive and assumes (not without reason) that it will be a New York Times bestseller. And since the early days of his administration, he has conveyed his eagerness to get started on the project. “He sounded excited about it,” said one person who was present last year when the president made comments about writing a memoir. “He said it would sell better than even The Art of the Deal.

Another source, who is a friend of Trump’s, said the president has casually discussed how such a book could be used to dish dirt and settle scores with his foes in the media, the Democratic Party, non-loyal Republicans, law enforcement, and even individuals in his own administration. Trump, according to this person, noted that this memoir could help “correct” the “fake news” already published in popular books and newspapers, and give him the opportunity to spin a juicy yarn on his time at the heights of power.


Mick Mulvaney stared at me from behind his desk in the chief of staff’s office. The man exuded honesty, integrity, and principle in a way matched only by the likes of McConnell, Nunes, or Ross.

“Blood test go OK?” he asked.

I nodded. “And you’re sure my family is all right?”

“You bet. I checked their handcuffs and gags myself. And there’s Netflix and Amazon in the safehouse.”

“Thank you.”

He peered down his granny glasses at me as the quizzing began. “What great author do you see Trump most resembling?”

I thought for a beat.


Mulvaney scowled. I tried again.


The scowl deepened. “Think harder. In human history, who’s the greatest author in the English language—or any language, for that matter?”

I racked my brain. Then it came to me.

“Donald Trump?”

Mulvaney’s scowl transformed into a broad grin.

“Circle gets the square. You’ve read his previous bestsellers, I presume.”



“Yes, I have.”

“What do you think the president’s greatest literary strength is?”

“I think he’s very good at creating fiction.”

“The president sees this book as a chance to set the record straight; to call out all the ‘fake news’ he’s been subjected to for the past three years.”


“Also he wants people to know he has really long fingers.” Mulvaney winked. There was a pause. “And everyone knows what that means.”

I forced a smile. There was another pause, until Mulvaney spoke, helpfully:

“It means he wants people to think he has a really big dick.”

“I think people are well aware that Mr. Trump is a really big dick.”

Has one, has one,” Mulvaney corrected.

I made a note and took advantage of the lull to ask a question of my own.

“Will there be much back and forth with Mr. Trump while I’m writing? Normally I’d interview the subject at—”

Mulvaney cut me off. “We need someone who can run with this without needing their hand held. Dig?”

“No problem. But I assume, when it’s done, Mr. Trump will at least read it over to approve it?”

Mulvaney furrowed his brow. “We’ll give him the manuscript, yes.”

That furrowed brow worried me. “Are you saying he doesn’t have the attention span to read his own book?”

Mulvaney was silent, furrowing some more. I narrowed my gaze.

“He can read, right?” I asked.

“We’ll get Bill Barr to do a four page summary and someone can read it to him.”

I decided to let it go. “Any books he particularly admires that I might want to read, as models?”

“Two Corinthians.”

I wrote that down.

“Any thoughts on titles?” he asked while I was writing, as I thought he would, and I had some ready to pitch.

“Sure thing. How about, Trump: Almighty God-Emperor and Savior of Democracy (Part I)?”

“Bit subtle, don’t you think?”

“How about No Collusion: How I won the Presidency Without Really Trying?”

“I like it, but a bit narrow. Think bigger.”

Mein Kampf?”

“Love that. Might be taken, though—we’ll do a copyright search.”

“Any topics you’d like me to avoid?”

“Just his refusal to release his tax returns, his multimillion dollar deals with Russia that he lied about to the American people, the $50 million bribe he offered Putin in the form of a penthouse apartment, the money laundering for Russian oligarchs, the real estate fraud, felony campaign finance violations, hush money for mistresses, anything having to do with abortions he might have paid for, the Trump Foundation, the Trump inauguration, his previous marriages, his temper, his early onset dementia—“

I stopped him. “I get it,” I said. “And I presume there will be an audiobook too?”

“For sure. The President will read it himself.”

My eyes must have gotten big, because Mulvaney’s got narrow. “He can read!” he barked, reading my mind.

“Of course.” A coughing fit came over me. Mulvaney looked rattled. He looked down, mumbling to himself, and I noticed for the first time that in his hand he had prayer beads. “If they’ll let him record it from Sing Sing,” he muttered.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, regaining his composure. “Anyway, we can always get Alec Baldwin to do it.”

I nodded. He seemed mollified. “Any other questions, or can we button this thing up?”

“Just one. Why don’t you just hire Tony Schwarz again?”

Mulvaney’s lip curled into a sneer. Actually, it may have done that around 1967 and been fixed that way ever since.

“That is a name we don’t mention around here. The man you’re talking about proved to be a shameless publicity hound and traitor to his country. Wouldn’t you agree?”

I hesitated.

“We’re also looking into that rumors he might be Jewish. Jared’s on the case.”

I was confused. “But isn’t Jared—”

Mick cut me off again. “It’s because of people like Schw—I mean, that author—that we’ve developed the GLAS protocol.”

“GLAS protocol?” I asked.

“Ghostwriter Loyalty Assurance System. It’s all in the fine print in the contract. A microscopic silicon chip will be inserted behind your ear, subcutaneously. Should you violate the terms of your contract at any time—say, by getting all uppity and mouthing off to the press—a small electrical shock will be applied remotely, as a reminder of your obligations. Should you continue to act out, the voltage can be increased accordingly. And should you prove completely uncontrollable, the chip is capable of releasing a nerve agent into your bloodstream that will induce a violent and painful death within 24 hours.”

“Is that legal?”

“Normally no. But as a great man once said, it’s not a crime when the president does it. Cool with that?”

“Actually, that’s not much worse than some of the deals I’ve signed in the past.”

“Anything else? I have to get over to the Oval Office and look at paint swatches for the re-education camps.”

“One last thing. Not to be crass, but…..about the pay?”

Mulvaney waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, there’s no money upfront. It’s an honor just to be asked to write this book, don’t you think?” He continued before I could answer. “But don’t worry: you’ll make a killing in profit-participation. It’s the same deal President Trump has always given his contractors. Ask anyone in Atlantic City.”

I frowned. He seemed to sense my anxiety.

“Hey, if you can’t trust Donald Trump, who can you trust?”

I threw up in my mouth a little.

Mulvaney opened a desk drawer. “So, if there’s nothing else, it’s just a matter of dotting i’s and crossing t’s…..”

He pulled out a fountain pen. I could see that it was filled with my own blood, which the White House medical staff had drawn earlier. He held out the pen and slid the contract across the desk, nodding for me to sign on the line which was dotted. “Just think,” he said, smiling, “you’ll always be remembered for your part in telling the Trump story.”

As I took the pen, I smelled sulfur.


Der Furor

It Was Tweets Killed The Beast! -final

Over the last few weeks, all the focus on the fallout of the still-under-wraps Mueller report has obscured the central and ongoing reality of the Trump administration: its fundamental sadism, greed, corruption, and inhumanity as it marches into history as far and away the worst presidency of modern times by any metric you care to apply. Untoward footsie with Russia (and the Saudis, and the Azerbaijanis, and the Israelis, zzzzz) is but one aspect of it, and—as many critics on the left have pointed out—the attention paid to that sucks the oxygen away from a raging forest fire of other sins.

We were reminded of that this week with the abrupt firing of Homeland Security Secretary Kirrstjjen Nielssenn (did I spell that right?), apparently ahead of the impending departure of a half dozen other senior DHS officials in a purge orchestrated by the reptilian Stephen Miller, with Trump’s eager endorsement, but without any sign of succession by competent replacements. “Decapitation,” one anonymous insider called this Sunday Night Massacre…..and this at the agency responsible for addressing what Trump claims is a “national emergency.”

No tears will be shed for Kirsten, of course—screw her and the broom she rode in on. But that purge, we’re told, in turn precedes Trump’s fuming desire to “get tougher” on the situation at the southern border, to halt all asylum seekers in defiance of federal law, and to ratchet up his xenophobic immigration policy full stop.

“Get tougher”? Are they kidding?

Let’s not concede them their preferred terms. Ain’t no “tougher” about it. What they’re talking about is better described as raising the already appalling level of institutional cruelty to an even more stomach-churning level, which is saying something. That would include an attempt—again, in defiance of the courts—to reinstate the unconscionable policy of “family separation,” a euphemism for ripping children away from their parents and caging them, as a deliberately brutal ploy to deter future asylum seekers. (Suck on that, Emma Lazarus!) It is a policy that some mental health professionals have described—and not metaphorically—as torture.

In this effort Trump, Miller, and rest of their odious crew seem motivated in equal measure by their own innate sadism and by a tactical desire to appeal to that same quality in their salivating base. There is no discernible plan or policy beyond that, at least not one rooted in anything resembling reality. Some have speculated that mere cruelty is itself the goal, with some vague, nihilistic notion of “disrupting” the entire body politic. If that is so, they have succeeded in spades. But how is that any kind of coherent objective?

Typically, Trump (falsely) blamed Obama for the policy of taking children from their parents, claimed he is the one who stopped it (the exact opposite of what really happened) even as he openly considers re-starting the policy, while at the same time taking credit for its (mythical) deterrent effect. All of which is reminiscent of his claim that he “ended” the birther lie that he himself fueled: another example of the malignant, self-spun reality of the malignant sociopath.

Just to be clear: the Trump administration and only the Trump administration has ever systematically employed family separation as a deliberate deterrent, effective or not (NB: it’s not), to stop immigration on America’s borders.

Small children have died of negligence in ICE custody. At least one infant was stillborn as a result of the policy of detaining even pregnant women and the lack of suitable medical care. Children already detained during the previous stint of the “family separation policy” have shown signs of PTSD and permanent neurological injury that will require years of psychiatric treatment. The Trump administration recently admitted that it estimates it will take two years just to identify all the thousands of separated children, let alone reunite them, which in some cases will prove impossible.

To co-opt the words of Fannie Mae Hamer, “Is this America?”

These days, I guess so.

These are correctly described as crimes against humanity; if we were watching them unfold in some Third World country we would all recognize the horror and decry the barbarism of the government administering it.

So why are the American people not out in the streets in outrage? Why am I sitting at my computer writing this instead of doing that? In terms of federal policy, what’s going on right now—let alone what will happen next when Trump gets “tougher”— ranks as one of the most shameful episodes in modern American history, recalling the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Will we remember this as a low point in modern American history? You bet your ass we will.


This week I had intended to publish a humorous piece about reports that Trump is anxious to write his post-presidency memoirs. (I’m anxious for the “post-presidency” part myself.) But leave it to Don to leech the pleasure out of even the briefest moment of levity.

The sixteen days since Barr released his eyebrow-raising summary of the Mueller report have seen surprisingly little change in the political landscape, especially given the apocalypse that was expected. In part this is because Mr. Barr continues to carry out what increasingly looks like a blatant coverup of the full contents of the report. (Or really any of them, except his own two cherrypicked sentence fragments.) His appearance before Congress today did little to change that impression.

Even Trump seems stunningly unchanged. Writing in the New Yorker in the first week after Barr weighed in, Susan Glasser noted:

What’s been remarkable, this week, is how much Trump triumphant has sounded like Trump at every other point in his Presidency: angry and victimized; undisciplined and often incoherent; predictable in his unpredictability; vain and insecure; prone to lies, exaggeration, and to undercutting even those who seek to serve him.

And that trend has only accelerated since then. You’d think that Trump would be luxuriating in the news that he won’t be indicted for conspiracy with a foreign power (at least not by the special counsel) and the opportunity to spin that news—dishonestly—as “compete and total exoneration.” And he did revel in it…..but only for a nanosecond before returning to the familar, seething persecution complex that seems to be his natural state, calling for criminal prosecution of the “treasonous” and “evil” people he blamed for the appointment of the special counsel in the first place. (And Devin Nunes came running, Igor-like, bleating, “Yes, master—you rang?”)

In so doing, Trump instantly reminded us all of why that special counsel was needed. In Bloomberg News, Jonathan Bernstein writes:

Trump and his allies immediately reminded everyone how little respect this president has for democratic norms and set themselves up for political damage if the Mueller report doesn’t live up to their spin. Instead of taking a win and building on it, Trump took all of one day to oversell it, increase the likelihood that more damaging information will be publicly released, and remind everyone that he’s still unfit for the office he holds.

Is anyone really surprised?

Clearly Trump believes that the Barr spin on the Mueller report is a useful weapon for him going forward, but he seems motivated just as much by sheer infantile rage and lust for vengeance.

In that sense, the entire special counsel probe actually served Trump’s interests by giving him a useful enemy to demonize and a massive distraction from the other crimes against democracy he was in the course of committing. Throughout his life Trump has always needed an enemy to fulminate against, which may in part be why he is so unhinged lately with the vanishing of the “deeply conflicted” Bob Mueller and his witchhunt, much as he was when he lost Hillary as a foil.

What a sad and pathetic individual this man is, this 72-year-old infant, consumed with rage 24/7. As a wise, Zen-like man once said, “If you’re angry, you’re wrong.”

That Zen-like man was Vladimir Putin.

Of course, regular readers of this blog might raise a brow and note my own, uh, anger issues. But I’m not, I’m not, I’m not!

That too I blame on Trump.


And thus Trump’s “politics of grievance,” in Glasser’s phrase, continue into the post-Barr report era, as our fearless leader predictably overstepped, declined to breath a sigh of relief and take the win and change the subject—the way most humans would—and instead plunged into an inexplicable string of rage-driven self-inflicted wounds, including yet another attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act, a frantic but empty threat to close the entire Mexican border, and now this attempt to revive a policy of kidnapping children so horrific that it even put off Republicans.

This is not the same thing as seizing the momentum to push one’s policy agenda. It’s more like squandering it with a series of spasmodic, ill-advised policy moves. But that’s what you get when Stephen Miller is your spirit animal.

Some have suggested that these things do help Trump, the best analogy being his continued attacks on John McCain. Most people think that slandering a revered American war hero, even after he’s dead, is a bad look on anyone. But Trump’s base thrills to it, which is the thing that our thirsty thirsty commander-in-chief craves the most. The same logic—we’re told—applies to Obamacare and the border.

Maybe. But I question whether that is in fact a winning strategy, and even if it is, whether Trump is able to think strategically in that way, or is merely lurching transactionally from one fistfight to the next, with any “strategic” considerations merely grafted on after the fact by outside observers invested in the idea of Trump as idiot savant. (Perhaps they’re only right about the first part of that sobriquet.)

In part this parade of disasters flows from the fact that the fruits of Trumpian incompetence and corruption continue to flower, and will never stop, even in the post-Mueller world. This week alone we saw further revelations about Kushner’s security clearance; what looks very much like a Chinese agent wandering around Mar-a-Lago; ongoing (and proper) Congressional oversight including a request for six years’ worth of Trump’s tax returns; a Congressional subpoena for the full, unredacted Mueller report; and more. Amid all that Trump is doubling down on red meat issues that only solidify his base—which would already follow him right off a cliff, and needs no incentive to get out and vote—at the risk of further alienating everyone else. And he can’t win in 2020 with just his base, assuming the Democrats can get out their own voters.

But once again, I don’t believe Trump is even think in those kind of practical terms.

I think he just like to hear his crowds cheer.


Having begun this essay by stating how much the focus on Russiagate has distracted our attention from the other horrors perpetrated by the Trump and his administration, indulge me in a brief digression on that point, as it’s relevant and instructive. (I promise.)

Over the past two years, one of the things that made me most confident that there was as yet unearthed, direct evidence that Trump conspired with Russian assets beyond what we already know (which is substantial) was his daily, almost comical insistence that he didn’t. He used “NO COLLUSION!” the way other people use commas. That, as many noted, was not behavior typical of an innocent man.

In retrospect, I think there are three possible explanations.

One, as I wrote a few weeks ago (amid of chorus of many others), is that there was collusion however you want to define it, even if it didn’t rise to the level of a prosecutable felony….so much so that Trump was terrified of it coming out. He may remain thus. Note his characteristic 180 on his initial braggadocious claim that the public should see the full report.

Two, that he was—and remains—terrified that the Mueller investigation would uncover his impressive resume of other crimes over a lifetime of grift, which of course it did. Indeed, it lifted the lid off the whole Gowanus Canal/Superfund site sewer that is the Trump business empire, which the intrepid frogmen of the SDNY and others are currently exploring (in hazmat drysuits, I hope).

And three, that he is quite simply a rotten little child who doesn’t behave like a normal adult human being, which makes for a frustrating and unpredictable foe. As Steve’s illustration for this essay suggests, Trump’s tweets alone make the case for obstruction.

In New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan endorsed that theory:

Trump would happily obstruct justice even if he knew he was as innocent as the driven snow. It’s his core instinct. He’ll always act guilty—whether he’s guilty or not. He cannot see the process of an inquiry as a way for the entire system to examine and fix itself—let alone exonerate him. He instinctively recoils from any independent challenge to his control. Letting the law take its course would require a modicum of appreciation of a liberal society, and an understanding that the world doesn’t simply revolve around him. And he is clinically incapable of either.

And so if Trump is charged or accused of anything, he has the identical reflex. Always deny. Always lie. Always undermine. Never concede. Accuse your opponents of doing exactly what they accuse you of. Even if you’re innocent. This is the Roy Cohn playbook, and it’s damaging when even a real-estate developer deploys that kind of tactic, but in a president, charged with the faithful execution of the laws, it’s potentially fatal. But it will also mislead others, as it may have in this case. Most people tend to assume that someone who is acting incredibly guilty probably is a little guilty. But that misses the particular mind-set of this particular president.

We knew all this, though we’d rarely seen it so baldly on display as in the last two weeks.

This instinct is now playing out on multiple fronts, as the lack of empathy that puts Trump in a perennial state of rage in the first place is the same force that makes him turn it on the weakest and most vulnerable members of humanity.

As I’ve written in the past (Dear Huddled Masses: Go F—- Yourselves, June 21, 2018), when it comes to immigration, the entire rationale of “law and order” and “securing the border” is just a fig leaf for the real animating factor for Trump and his disciples, which is sheer racist nativism and hatred of immigrants, legal or otherwise. Not for nothing is immigration Trump’s signature issue, going all the way to back to his announcement of his candidacy nearly three years ago, anchored on the “Mexicans are rapists” theme. And need we mention Trump’s own familial hypocrisy on the topic, and Melania’s on chain migration, and Miller’s on asylum seeking?

As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg notes, “Trump is growing ever more lawless and autocratic.” We are seeing it before our eyes: with the madness at the border, with his administration’s open defiance of Congress, with the continuing, coy incitement violence among his supporters, and with hints that he may not yield power even if defeated in 2020. Nothing suggest that trend is going to get better; in fact, very much the contrary.

Meanwhile, Ms. Nielsen rides off into the sunset, where—as Goldberg and others such as Jeffrey Toobin noted—she ought rightly be remembered as a monster and pariah.

Couldn’t have happened to a nicer gal.


Illustration: “It Was Tweets Killed the Beast!” by Steve Bernstein