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What got me steamed up this week

Bill Barr Basically Agrees With Donald Trump About Us Vermin

Has everyone forgotten about Barr’s 2019 Notre Dame speech? Well, I’m here to remind you.

Barr testifies at a hearing on Capitol Hill
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Barr testifies at a hearing on Capitol Hill on April 16.

Surprised by Bill Barr? Don’t be. Oh, yes, it’s shocking that he said on Fox News on Wednesday night that if push comes to shove, he’ll be voting for what he euphemistically referred to as “the Republican ticket.” I’m not denying that it is. The frequency and ferocity with which Barr has attacked Donald Trump—a “consummate narcissist” whose second term would be “chaos” and a “horror show”—has led many people to believe that there was no way on God’s earth he’d endorse Trump.

Barr hates disorder and all the rest of it. But he hates something else more: liberalism. And when I heard the endorsement news Thursday morning, my mind raced back to October 2019, and a speech Barr gave at Notre Dame University on government, religion, and the perceived assault thereupon. It was shocking to me at the time—as extreme (though evidently quite honest) a profession of fears and lamentations about modern secular society as you’re likely to hear at an Opus Dei convention, let alone from a sitting U.S. attorney general.

The speech’s, and the man’s, core philosophy were laid out in these sentences:

No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity.

But, if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.

On the other hand, unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous—licentiousness—the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny—where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.

Barr reaches into his hat to grab a few statistics that allegedly make his point about the sewer into which we have descended. First up, out-of-wedlock births, which have indeed gone up since the 1960s from under 10 percent to around 40 percent. Is the main culprit here that society has lost its religious moorings? Some would put that spin on it, sure.

But specifically, social science seems to have settled on these explanations: wider availability of birth control and abortion (things that Barr laments but are available in just about every developed nation in the world) and the ending, starting in the 1970s, of shotgun marriages. Barr surely thinks this an evil. I would imagine a lot of Americans consider it not a bad thing at all that two immature and incompatible 19-year-olds aren’t forced to marry out of a social convention that traps them in a probably unhappy marriage where the wife may end up the victim of some kind of abuse.

He also cites “record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.” Again, all true. But the society for which he pines didn’t even measure many of these things and locked mentally ill people away in facilities where we wouldn’t put dogs today. And is the answer to these ills greater piety, or maybe more opportunity in the places that forge all these alienated young men?

It was a very revealing and, as I say, honest speech. He regrets pretty much everything that has happened in America since Elvis. He uses the phrase “moral chaos” twice. And he clearly believes we are in an age of secular tyranny.

So you see, Barr is against Trump, but not in the same way that you and I are. He eventually took a stand against Trump, but let’s recall that it did take him a long time. It wasn’t until Trump’s election denialism after the 2020 election that it all became too much for Barr to swallow. Until then, he was with Trump all the way: through the Muslim ban, through the family separation policies, through the Putin love, through the climate denialism, through the various expressions of racism, through the relentless dividing of the country into an Us and a Them, through the reactionary response to George Floyd’s killing, through the famous walk across Lafayette Park to use a Bible as a prop for the cameras, in which Barr, I remind you, was a happy participant—through every bit of it.

But he objected when Trump tried to overthrow democracy. And good on him for doing so. His was a necessary voice at a crucial, brittle time.

But now we see the real nature of Barr’s Trump opposition. Many conservatives have beheld Trump, contemplated how the GOP could have come to this, and become pretty different people than they used to be—Stuart Stevens, Nicolle Wallace, Jennifer Rubin, many others. That the party and the movement of which they were once proud members was so easily captured by Trump made them see the hollow core of its belief system, and they took on a new belief system instead.

Barr has had no such revelation. Trump the election denier was a danger to the republic. Everything else, though, was jake.

So let’s not kid ourselves. There are a lot of Barr Republicans out there, and it’s clear how they’re going to vote. “A continuation of the Biden administration,” Barr said on Fox, “would be national suicide.” The tyranny of licentiousness. He laid it all out for us back in South Bend.

Trump’s Abortion Gambit Proves He’s Bad at Politics

Backing a 15-week ban would have been the “smart” play. Instead, he took the strategically dumbest position.

Trump at Atlanta's international airport
Megan Varner/Getty Images
Trump at Atlanta's international airport on Wednesday

It’s been pathetic over these recent years to watch people impute certain skills to Donald Trump. Oh, he’s very smart politically. He’s charismatic. It’s all nonsense. It’s political commentators trying to assess him in normal political terms, which only ends up presenting him as a normal politician, which he decidedly is not.

He isn’t smart. In fact, about politics, he’s quite dumb. He has precisely one skill: He knows how to sniff out people’s worst qualities—weakness, envy, anger—and bring them to the fore. That’s it. I’ll grant that this skill got him elected president once and may again. But that doesn’t make it admirable, and it doesn’t mean we should ascribe to him qualities he doesn’t remotely have.

He proved again this week how dumb he is about politics with his new abortion rights position. Earlier this week, I published a column based on the assumption that he was going to back a national 15-week ban. I wrote it on Sunday. It posted Monday at 6 a.m. Then, at around 7:20 a.m., he released his video that made my column moot: no 15-week ban from Trump, but an announcement that it should be up to the states.

Backing a 15-week ban would have been smart politics. He could have sold that as a “moderate” position, even though it isn’t. But fifteen weeks polls well. A February survey showed 48 percent of people backing a 16-week ban, with only 36 percent opposed. And more generally, of course, about two-thirds of Americans in poll after poll say abortion should be generally available with some restrictions.

The embrace of a 15- or 16-week ban would have left plenty of space between Trump and his party’s anti-abortion extremists. It would have enabled him to say, when some deep-red state passed some draconian ban, “No, I don’t agree with that at all; here’s my position, 15 weeks.”

But now? I remember thinking Monday morning that hypothetically, his new “states’ rights” position meant that any extremist position adopted by any state could now be hung around his neck.

The gods sure have a sense of drama because barely 24 hours passed before we went from hypothetical to all too real, when the Arizona state Supreme Court turned the clock back to General Sherman’s march to Atlanta. The decision, reinstating a near-total abortion ban passed in 1864, nearly a half-century before Arizona became a state, was politically shocking and morally repulsive to millions of Americans and Arizonans.

A Trump who’d come out for a 15-week ban could have credibly distanced himself from the decision. Everyone would have bought it. But a Trump who says, as he did on Monday, let’s let the states decide it, owns what the Arizona court did. He later tried to insist, in speaking to reporters Wednesday on the Atlanta tarmac, that he found the position too extreme. But he had just said two days before that states should set their own laws.

So he’s going to get absolutely pounded on this, and deservedly so. Vice President Kamala Harris is headed to Arizona today for a campaign event. According to Playbook, here’s what she is expected to say: “We all must understand who is to blame. It is the former president, Donald Trump. It is Donald Trump who, during his campaign in 2016, said women should be punished for seeking an abortion.”

Boom. Trump just made a huge target of himself—especially with that part of the video where he bragged about putting the justices on the Supreme Court who overturned Roe.

With his position, Trump has tacitly endorsed every severe anti-abortion law in the country. Fourteen states have made abortion illegal since the Dobbs decision. Trump owns every one of those laws. Suppose between now and November, a doctor in Texas is prosecuted for having performed an abortion—a felony punishable by up to life in prison. That will be Trump’s creation every bit as much as the prosecutor who brought the case.

And paradoxically, Trump also owns the positions of the 10 or so states that have liberalized their positions since Dobbs. Some states have enshrined reproductive freedom in their state constitutions. Trump owns that now too.

His pathetic tarmac performance this week showed that he barely knows what he’s talking about. My guess is that the position he took came from two imperatives. One, he heard from abortion rights foes in the GOP and the evangelical world that a 15-week ban was squishy and RINO-ish. Two, someone told him to say “states’ rights” because the phrase lands gently on the conservative ear, and a substanceless person like Trump just thinks that saying a phrase takes care of everything.

He is going to get slaughtered on this issue because of this new position. He says he won’t sign a federal ban. Fine. But that’s not much comfort to the large majorities who want reasonable abortion laws. And there are all those film clips of him bragging about ending Roe. And he’s a liar, so his word is as dependable as a share of Truth Social stock. He has spent his life contradicting himself, saying one thing Tuesday and the other thing Wednesday, and denying he ever said things he said a hundred times. But he’ll learn this year that people have memories.

This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.

Is Biden Really Going to Let Netanyahu Lose Him the Election?

If this war is still happening in October, Biden will lose. He’s finally showing signs of getting this.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Finally, the Biden administration appears to be starting to get serious with Benjamin Netanyahu. The president’s 30-minute phone call with the prime minister on Thursday was tense. The same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said with respect to Israel’s Gaza actions: “If we don’t see the changes that we need to see, there’ll be changes in our own policy.”

It’s sad that it takes the tragic killing of seven workers for the great global humanitarian José Andrés, as opposed to the piles upon piles of dead Palestinian babies, to spur this change. And, of course, it’s not even really a change yet. It’s a threat of a change down the road if certain behaviors continue. As has been widely noted, on the same day the World Central Kitchen workers were killed by the Israel Defense Forces, the Biden administration approved sending more than 2,000 additional bombs to Israel. But this new tone from the White House is already yielding some results: Israel took immediate steps to increase the flow of aid to Gaza.

The invasion of Gaza is first and foremost a moral calamity. Alongside the wanton death, there is the imminence of massive famine (well, it was declared “imminent” in a March 18 report; it may be happening right now). A recent U.N. report calculated that the destruction of Gaza has been so severe that it will be—get this—2092 before Gaza is returned to its 2022 GDP levels.

But it is also a potential political calamity for Joe Biden. If this war is still happening in October, he will lose the election. Democrats right now very strongly back a cease-fire. In a March 27 poll, both Democrats and independents disapproved of Israel’s actions; just 18 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of independents approve of how Israel is prosecuting the war.

Biden has stuck with Israel, and with Netanyahu, through all this. Partly this is sincere, driven by a combination of horror at Hamas’s savage attacks last October and views on Zionism formed decades ago when Israel was a liberal democracy surrounded by hostile, mostly illiberal neighbors.

But it’s probably part political calculation too, based on another reflex that goes back many decades in Washington: that to oppose an Israeli government’s actions is to risk being tagged as “anti-Israel” by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and thereby to risk losing Jewish votes.

That may still be true. AIPAC is still very powerful. But there are also a lot of reasons to think that the politics of this situation among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have changed dramatically in the last decade, especially among young people. And between 2020 and 2024 alone, eight million new voters are aging into the electorate.

But this isn’t just about people’s views on Israel. It’s about their views of Biden. He risks being seen here as not his own man. An old Bill Clinton quote has been kicking around in the media in recent weeks: After his first meeting in 1996 with an arrogant Netanyahu, Clinton asked his aides, “Who’s the fucking superpower here?”

Netanyahu has only grown more arrogant over the years, which is astonishing. Consider: He’s extremely unpopular in Israel. He’s running a hard-right government that was the target of massive demonstrations since the time it was formed. He’s holding onto his office—and thus prolonging the war—to stay out of jail. His government and military let October 7 unfold for hours with no response. Beyond that, he’s been fine with Hamas running Gaza and letting Qatar finance that for years.

And on top of all that, between now and November, he’s going to be playing a game of chicken with Biden. Cut me off, he’ll taunt, and I’ll be more open about my presidential preference (which, obviously, is Donald Trump).

Biden needs to show Netanyahu, to go back to Clinton’s question, who the superpower is here. It will be risky, sure. But I think at this point the greater risk is in the president of the United States looking like the prime minister of a country of fewer than 10 million people can push him around.

Presidents have stood up to Israeli prime ministers before. It’s not like it’s some outlandish, radical idea. As I write these words Friday morning, I just saw former TNR editor Peter Beinart on Morning Joe pointing out that Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all attached conditions to aid to Israel when they felt Israel wasn’t acting in America’s interests—and that it usually worked.

In that last case, it was 1991 when Bush Sr. and his secretary of state, James Baker, held up $10 billion in aid that right-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir wanted to use for resettlement of Soviet Jews in the occupied territories. Bush and Baker said no. Things got intense. One Israeli Cabinet minister called Bush a “liar” and even an “antisemite.” But Shamir backed down. (Yes, Bush lost the next election, but it wasn’t remotely because of Israel.)

People are questioning Biden’s ability to lead at his age. He may lose some Jewish votes in standing up to Netanyahu—although it’s hard to see a state where any such losses would make a difference in Electoral College terms (Biden is not going to lose New York or California, and no, despite this week’s little hypelet, he’s not winning Florida). But if he doesn’t draw a line, and this war is still happening and the United States is still seen as complicit in all this come the fall, he’ll likely lose a lot more.

This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.

Trump’s Bible Stunt Isn’t Brilliant. It’s Insanely Desperate.

Are “the rubes” finally on to Trump?

Trump attempts to look extremely natural holding the Bible
Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Trump attempts to look extremely natural holding the Bible.

The standard commentary on Donald Trump’s “God Bless the USA Bible” is that while of course it’s cynical and twisted and borderline sacrilegious, there’s also no doubt that his people are going to buy it by the carload, because these people would buy a bag of Trump Dogshit from the guy (“from the bowels of the best dogs, everybody says so”). Some people are just that, well, let us say easily taken in.

Trump’s dark penchant for hucksterism is endless, and P.T. Barnum’s dictum is as true today as it was when he said it. You could take slips of paper on which you write the names of 25 things these Americans like, pull out three or four, conjure up some physical manifestation of it, and Trump would sell it: NASCAR-Branson’s Famous Baldknobbers Beer, in limited-edition cans that show Trump as Rambo.

It’s endless. Or is it? Trump’s fundraising has taken a nosedive. His small-donor numbers are below where they once were. NBC News recently reported that donations to Trump of $200 or less are down 62.5 percent against 2019. He’s still raised a lot; I don’t want to mislead you here. The New York Times recently reported that Trump has more small donors than Joe Biden in some key swing states. But Biden has raised more from small donors overall, according to OpenSecrets. And in the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, Trump had $33.5 million cash on hand and Biden reported having $71 million. That was March 20, before Thursday night’s Radio City Music Hall event with Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, where Biden raked in $26 million.

All this is a shock to no one, because as we all know, Trump is spending a good chunk of his donations on his legal bills. The Times ran an amazing report about this on Wednesday. Of nearly $85 million in donations, almost a third, $27 million, has gone to legal bills. Hey, at least this time around, he’s apparently actually paying them.

Trump will have money. There’s no use pretending he won’t. But $400 sneakers and $60 Bibles are not signs of strength. They’re signs of weakness. Panic. Desperation. A guy who’ll sell anything that isn’t nailed to the floor.

And: He damn well should be panicked. Liberals and Democrats always impute to Republicans and right-wingers a strength they neither have nor deserve. Just because Trump tries to act like a tough guy and appeals to tough guys, liberals tend to concede he’s a tough guy. Nonsense. He’s a very weak and insecure man, as Mary Trump is always pointing out.

Physically, he’s horribly out of shape: probably couldn’t climb a 20-step flight of stairs without stopping halfway up and, Rambo iconography notwithstanding, couldn’t throw a punch that would crush a grape. A few months ago, I saw a photo of Biden biking around Rehoboth Beach, and it struck me: Has Trump even ever been on a bicycle in his life? I’d be shocked. Biden may be older, but really, who’s the more likely stroke victim here, the guy who still rides the occasional bike or the guy who eats well-done steaks and whose four major food groups are McDonald’s, KFC, pizza, and Diet Coke?

Psychically, he’s in far, far worse shape. He knows very well in some corner of his brain that he’s guilty of everything he’s accused of. He knows that if he doesn’t win the presidency, there’s a very serious chance that he ends up convicted of one of those crimes and in prison. It won’t be Angola Penitentiary, but there won’t be chandeliers in the bathroom or an 18-hole golf course for him to win phony championships on, either.

He would never admit any of this publicly, but privately Trump is surely terrified of this possible future. He knows that if he loses, the cases go forward, and he’s going to have to fight them as long as he possibly can, and it’s going to cost untold millions. Hence the sneakers and the Bible. And there’s surely more in store.

Some people will buy these things, there’s no question of that. But I’ll bet you that if we look hard six months from now, we’ll see that sales did not meet expectations. Of course, we’ll never know that because Trump will have full control of that narrative, and he’ll insist that sales were off the charts, and the press will print it. But we’ve seen this movie and heard this b.s. Trump Steaks were moving faster than they could cut them. Trump University was making millionaires out of many, many people. Right.

So let’s avert our gaze from the people who’d walk across hot coals for Donald Trump (while he stood off to the side, pleading bone spurs) and think instead about the ones who are slowly peeling off. They’re out there too. And they’re starting to see what you and I have so obviously seen for years: a twisted, desperate huckster who’s never cracked a Bible in his life and whose only religion is hustling the suckers who are born every minute.

This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.

Let’s Be Clear About the Real Reason for this Impeachment Madness

Imagining all the things that never would have happened if Fox News didn’t exist.

Republican Rep. James Comer during a hearing before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Republican Representative James Comer during a hearing before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee on February 8

James Comer, that caged monkey with a cocaine drip, just can’t stop. He wants President Biden to come to his House committee to testify. At the end of a hearing on Wednesday that was just an abject humiliation for his party and for him personally, Comer actually said with a straight face: “In the coming days I will invite President Biden to the Oversight Committee to provide his testimony and explain why his family received tens of millions of dollars.… We need to hear from the president himself.”

The White House reacted with an appropriate “LOL,” and there’s no sign I’ve seen that Comer is planning on issuing the president a subpoena, which would be insane. But who’s to say he won’t one day?

Ah, interesting question. Because there is a precise answer to who’s to say he won’t: Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, Sean Hannity, and everyone else at Fox who runs the Republican Party. This whole thing happened because Fox wanted it to happen. And therein lies a lesson for all of us about how a morally corrupt entity, which settled a lawsuit for three-quarters of a billion dollars because its executives were mortified about what the country was likely to learn about how they do business, has perverted American democracy.

As Media Matters’s Matt Gertz wrote at this week, “The House Republican impeachment inquiry satisfied Fox stars’ long-standing demands for a Biden impeachment, which began before he was even elected.” Fox and the New York Post and other right-wing outlets tried to make Hunter Biden an issue in the 2020 campaign. They claimed a great victory over the snaring of Hunter’s laptop, although we still don’t know what was on it that was supposedly so incriminating.

Then, after the GOP captured the House in the 2022 midterms, Fox shoved it into overdrive. Hannity, Gertz notes, did 325 segments on Hunter in 2023. Think of that. There are only 260 weekdays in a year. So that’s many shows with two segments. Which of course the story deserved, because the Biden crime family was the biggest scandal in American history!

Except there is no story, and no Biden crime family. Everything Comer and Jim Jordan have charged has collapsed. Everything. The Democrats on Comer’s committee drew attention Wednesday to the parade of schmegegges the Republicans have marched up to the Hill. Tony Bobulinski’s testimony has been riddled with inconsistencies, and he has his own alleged Russian connections, The Daily Beast reported. Jason Galanis has said nothing of importance that we know of that’s been substantiated. Alexander Smirnov was a great key witness; then he was indicted, and suddenly Comer said he “wasn’t an important part” of the probe. But my favorite is Gal Luft, whom Comer once described as “very credible.” Luft alleged that the Bidens received payments from China—then was indicted on allegations that he himself was an agent for China (he denies this).

But Comer kept it going, and he kept it going for one simple reason: Fox News, and the rest of the right-wing media following its lead, set up a very clear reward system. Comer and Jordan, and anyone else who cared to, make allegations; they get invited on Fox to talk them up; the small-dollar donations come in from the suckers who believe this spittle; and lies get filtered out into the discourse by a non-right-wing media that wants scoops and clicks but also fears in the back of its collective mind that it’s just possible that the Republicans are onto something and that if they dismiss that possibility, they’re guilty of liberal bias.

It’s the right-wing propaganda equivalent of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of grief. The five stages of right-wing propaganda: Assert, repeat, raise money, repeat again, blame the deep state when it falls apart. But now there is a sixth stage, which is when even Fox taps on the brakes and tells stooges like Comer, OK, you idiot, you have failed, it’s time to move on. This gives Fox the richly undeserved opportunity to look “responsible,” after five years of suggesting that Joe Biden was the most corrupt person in America since Boss Tweed.

None of it would have happened without the existence of this Fox doom loop. A lot of things wouldn’t have happened. Donald Trump’s march to the 2016 nomination wouldn’t have happened without Fox. Once Rupert saw that the enraged base he and Roger Ailes had spent two decades creating was demanding nothing less than an openly racist demagogue who talked smack on everyone Fox and Rush Limbaugh had taught them to despise, he decided to pave Trump’s way. Fox could have ended Trump’s rise at any point it wanted to in 2015 or 2016, but Trump was too good for business, and besides, he was the network’s unchecked id.

This is what happens to a democracy when a “news” organization becomes the command headquarters of a political party. And it is that—the command headquarters. It is not an “arm” of the GOP, as is often said; it is the brain, which sounds like a big statement but isn’t, really, since the GOP auto-lobotomized years ago.

Remember, that other lawsuit is coming—a judge ruled in January that the Smartmatic suit could proceed, rejecting Fox’s arguments. Smartmatic says Fox aired lies about the voting company as it repeated its false story line about the 2020 election. Fox says the suit is a baseless attempt to infringe upon its free speech rights.

People are reportedly being deposed now. There’s reason to think that, someday, we’ll see those depositions. They’ll tell us, again, what the Dominion lawsuit depositions told us. With any luck, this one will go to trial and Scott and others will have to place their hands on a Bible and swear to tell the truth, assuming their flesh doesn’t catch fire once it touches the good book. Then, maybe, America will finally see.

This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.

We Have to Beat Donald Trump. Clearly, the Broken Legal System Won’t.

How the law warps and harms our democracy

Shannon Stapleton/Pool/Getty Images

Judge Scott McAfee has ruled that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis can stay on the case against Donald Trump in that jurisdiction, provided that Nathan Wade, the prosecutor on the case with whom she had a relationship, withdraws. I guess we count that a win, although to be honest, Willis has so damaged herself by her colossally terrible judgment that it probably would have been better if she were out of the picture.

The other problem with Willis’s scandal is how it slowed the case down, giving Trump’s lawyers a chance to make this not about the defendant but about her—and another chance to delay, delay, delay.

Meanwhile, Thursday, down in Florida, we saw Trumpy Judge Aileen Cannon issue yet another ruling in the classified documents case that helps Trump. She didn’t support Trump’s lawyers’ motion to dismiss the case, but she kicked the can down the road in a way that’s very helpful to Trump. MSNBC analyst Andrew Weissmann even called it the “worst possible outcome” for the government. “If the judge had simply said, ‘I agree with Donald Trump, and I find that this is vague, and I’m dismissing it,’ the government could have appealed it to the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, as they have done twice before and won twice before,” Weissmann said. “But she also did not want to rule in favor of the government. So what she did is said, ‘Why don’t you bring this up later? I think there’s some real issues here.’”

Also this week, in the Stormy Daniels hush-money case against Trump, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg shocked us all by asking for a 30-day delay in the trial, which was scheduled to start March 25. Trump’s lawyers had requested a 90-day delay. Bragg conceded that some delay was appropriate.

Why? It looks like it’s the fault of federal prosecutors. Bragg’s office requested certain documents a while ago from the Southern District of New York, and it shared them with Trump’s lawyers during the discovery process. Trump’s lawyers suspected there was more, especially relating to Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, so they subpoenaed the SDNY. That happened in January. It was only earlier this month that the Southern District turned over all the documents.

Bragg’s filing to the court on Thursday included this fascinating sentence, a clear swipe at the SDNY (in this sentence, “the People” equals Bragg’s office): “Based on our initial review of yesterday’s production, those records appear to contain materials related to the subject matter of this case, including materials that the People requested from the USAO more than a year ago and that the USAO previously declined to provide.”

Wait. What?

It’s more than fair to ask: Why did the Southern District take so long to produce these documents? And we must also ask this: Did Merrick Garland know his prosecutors were taking so long to hand over documents, and thus playing into Trump’s hands? And if he knew, did he do anything about it?

Finally, let’s recall the status of the fourth criminal case against Trump, the biggest one, at least to my mind—the January 6 insurrection case. On that one, we’re basically waiting on the Supreme Court, which announced on February 28 that it would hear arguments in Trump’s claim of complete immunity but set the argument date for April 25. The high court could easily take another month—or even two—to hand down its decision after that, meaning that this crucial trial, about whether a sitting president initiated an insurrection against the government of the United States, may not happen before Election Day.

How in the world did all this happen? A few weeks ago, it looked like the wheels of justice were finally turning, catching up on a man who has flouted and broken laws not only during his presidency but for his entire adult life, going back to when he and his father wouldn’t rent apartments to Black people in Queens. There was the judgment in the E. Jean Carroll case. And then the whopping penalty in the New York attorney general’s case against the Trump Organization.

But this week, it looks like everything is falling apart.

When we talk about what’s wrong with our democracy, we talk about our political structures and processes. We talk about the Senate. We talk about the Electoral College. We talk about gerrymandering. And of course all these problems are real.

We don’t talk about our legal system. We should. The American legal system doesn’t uphold the values of democratic rule like equality. It far more often corrupts and perverts them. Rich people like Trump twist the system into a pretzel and win delay after delay after delay. Corporations pay fines, usually not that large when considered against their bottom line, and they admit no wrongdoing, even after their practices have killed people. Poor people, meanwhile, get pushed around by the system constantly.

There is no such thing in this country as equality before the law, and everyone knows it. And I would argue that this legal inequality does more damage to democracy than all the political inequities for the simple reason that they’re more visible. And they’ve never been more visible than they are now with Trump. If he is able to push all these cases back past November, or at least three of them (the Bragg case should proceed this summer), and then especially if he wins the White House and pardons himself, that will constitute the biggest failure of the rule of law in the history of the country.

The lesson? We can’t count on the legal system to stop Trump. We have to stop him ourselves. One conviction would be nice; two would probably be quite helpful. But we can’t count on the broken legal system to do a job that we ourselves have to do at the polls.

This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.

Forget Biden’s SOTU Performance, and Focus on Tiny, Weak Mike Johnson

The House speaker lived down to the moment at the State of the Union on Thursday night.

House Speaker Mike Johnson at the State of the Union
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson at the State of the Union on Thursday night

Joe Biden more than made it through Thursday night’s State of the Union address. That moment that his supporters always fear—the major brain fart, the confusing of Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi (oh wait, that was someone else)—never came. Not only did it not come, but most of the energy was dramatically positive. As is the morning-after conventional wisdom. Politico’s Playbook called it the “turn-the-tables SOTU,” reporting that the Biden campaign’s best two hours of fundraising in this cycle were from 9 to 11 p.m. last night. A CNN flash poll found that 62 percent thought the policies Biden laid out would move the country in the right direction.

He had his stumbles, and that Laken Riley moment was pretty cringey. But mostly he threw punches—and he landed almost all of them. As TNR’s Osita Nwanevu wrote: “That overall impression—of a vigorous president, strong enough to take the fight to his detractors⁠—will linger more deeply in the minds of most who watched than the substance of anything he said.”

But let’s not talk about Biden. Let’s talk instead about that little guy in the chair over the president’s left shoulder. House Speaker Mike Johnson showed, in his histrionic facial expressions, everything that’s wrong and idiotic and dangerous and even treasonous about the Republican Party.

Johnson was ridiculous. He was small. Granted it’s not always easy for an opposition party leader to figure out how to comport him or herself during a State of the Union. The camera is on you for an hour or more, yet you can’t speak. You’re not going to join in on the frequent applauses, except rarely. Johnson did applaud Biden’s call for aid to Ukraine early in the speech, which he does seem to support personally, even though he’s too afraid of his wingnut caucus to allow a straight-up vote and thus may go down in history as the one person more than any other who handed Vladimir Putin the keys to Kyiv. So you sit there awkwardly.

Johnson decided that the State of the Union was the right time to mug for the camera. And he laid it on like a silent-movie actor, so thick that you could practically see the girl tied on the railroad tracks and hear the piano music. He nodded and nodded—you know, that solemn, “more in anger than in sorrow” nod. And those eye rolls! He rolled his eyes more than a teenage girl listening to her father’s jokes (that’s an eye roll I know rather well).

And the things he rolled his eyes at! Most conspicuously, January 6. Here’s what Biden said: “We must be honest. The threat to democracy must be defended. My predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth about Jan. 6. I will not do that.” That drew a sustained eye roll. So did a mention of abortion rights and freedom. So did the border bill, which Johnson helped kill because Donald Trump would rather have border chaos.

Actually that one was more of a head shake, which went on a few seconds longer than it had any justification to. Mind you, he did that even as GOP Senator James Lankford, the chief negotiator on the border bill, listened to Biden lay out its provisions and nodded, clearly saying, “That’s true.” They’ll be coming for him today, the sellout. Johnson also shook his head at “buy American.” Seriously?!

And even this relatively nonpartisan sentiment drew an eye roll: “The very idea of America is that we are all created equal, deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives. We’ve never fully lived up to that idea, but we’ve never walked away from it either.”

Once upon a time, those sentences would have elicited more than a smattering of bipartisan applause. There were plenty of Republicans who understood the nation as aspiring to its stated ideals. Even Ronald Reagan renewed the Voting Rights Act back in 1982, saying at the signing ceremony: “As I’ve said before, the right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.”

But today? This Republican Party doesn’t believe we’re all equal. This Republican Party, and specifically this speaker, thinks that if you’re not a right-wing Christian, you are not on some level a good American. Exaggeration? Johnson is tight with something called the National Association of Christian Lawmakers. Go inform yourself about some of what they’re up to.

It wasn’t just Johnson. It was Marjorie Taylor Greene in that ridiculous getup and MAGA hat, which was in apparent violation of House rules. It was Lindsey Graham sitting there with that embarrassed smile pasted on his face. It was the MAGA screamer in the gallery. It was Alabama Senator Katie Britt’s lame and all-over-the-place response—the only person who was popping champagne over that speech was Bobby Jindal, because it arguably moved him from worst State of the Union response of all time to second worst. It was the Republicans en masse sitting there dumbstruck time after time after time as this man who, according to the news channel they watch, can’t string two sentences together or remember his own middle name delivered zinger after zinger that laid bare to Americans the Republican Party’s extremism.

And that, in the end, is what was deft and unexpected about this speech. Biden drew contrasts on substance that showed how radical the Trump GOP has become on virtually every issue. November 5 is a long way away, and there will be bad days. But this night showed us something we haven’t seen hard evidence of in a while: how Joe Biden can win this election, and how the party and the speaker on the wrong side of history can lose it.

This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.

A Post–Labor Day Trump Insurrection Trial? Great, Bring It On.

Why it’s good if Trump is on trial come Election Day

Trump at the New York state Supreme Court
Trump at the New York state Supreme Court on January 11

I’ve had a few conversations with fellow liberals over the last two days that went something like this: I can’t believe the Supreme Court did that. Although I guess, you know, of course they did. But I still can’t quite believe it. I just didn’t think they’d be quite this corrupt about Donald Trump returning to the White House.

If nothing else, the court’s announcement Wednesday that it will hear the Trump immunity case seven weeks from now should tell us once and for all—yep, don’t put anything past these people. Anything. They are as capital-P Political and Partisan as we suspect at our most cynical. More so.

Now, the quickly formed conventional wisdom after the announcement is that while the court’s six conservatives are obviously trying to help Donald Trump by slow-walking the process here, surely they won’t all accept the facially absurd and unconstitutional arguments of Trump’s attorneys. I tend to go along with this. It’s hard to imagine judges of any sort ruling that our laws don’t apply to an ex-president.

And yet … I opened this piece saying that they keep surprising us. They keep Lucying the ideological football on us, and we keep falling for it. So what if—nah, it can’t be. No way five justices could really grant Trump immunity. Right?

Well, two probably will, and we know which two. Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito are totally ready for authoritarian America. And from there, who knows? I mean, I’d like to have a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say, Ah, they’d never stop a state recount. Oh, come on, are you kidding? They’ll never completely overturn Roe.

So count me unconvinced. I guess with a gun to my head I’d say it’s 60–40 they’ll reject Trump’s claims. But 40 is damn high.

Now. A late-June decision by the court against Trump would mean a late-September trial date in Judge Tanya Chutkan’s courtroom. She gave Trump’s lawyers 88 days to prepare for trial, and that clock starts ticking when the Supreme Court rules, so a June 30 decision, say, would mean (I think) a September 26 trial date. Here, the liberal impulse will be the fretful one: Oh no! That’s too close to the election! We can’t do that! It wouldn’t be fair!

Pardon me, but: bullshit.

First of all: If you’re thinking—worrying—that this is in Merrick Garland’s hands, exhale. It apparently is not. Yes, the Justice Department has a rule about not interfering in the political process in the fall of an election year. But that has only to do with charging people with crimes. It stems from Reagan-era Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s decision to charge former Reagan official Caspar Weinberger four days before the 1992 election. It was after that that the department agreed upon an unwritten rule about not bringing those kinds of charges within roughly 60 days of a general election.

So that rule is only about charging. It’s not about when trials should be held. Here’s a good primer on the whole matter, debunking a recent Trump lie about it.

Also, Garland was asked this very question in January by CNN’s Evan Perez:

PEREZ: The department has policies about steering clear of elections. Is there a date in your mind where it might be too late to bring these trials to fruition? Again, to stay out of the way of the elections as the department policies?

GARLAND: Well, I just say what I said, which is that the cases were brought last year. [The] prosecutor has urged speedy trials, with which I agree. And it’s now in the hands of the judicial system, not in our hands.

So the feckless Garland, who has striven so hard to be apolitical that he’s actually become political in the other (pro-Trump) direction, has nothing to do with this.

With that out of the way, are there other objections to a late-September trial? Trump and MAGA world will howl. I’ve been told that we can expect this trial to last six to 10 weeks. That would mean that it won’t be over before Election Day.

Is there a political risk there? That Trump’s base will be ultra-energized? Sure. But why shouldn’t it also ultra-energize the pro-democracy base? It certainly should.

And more than that: It will make the election about Trump, not Joe Biden. If Trump is literally sitting in a courtroom on Election Day—or even if he’s not sitting there but, say, Cassidy Hutchinson is on the stand describing that steering wheel incident, or Mark Meadows is on the stand squirming and sweating—the election is about him, the insurrection, the future of democracy. Your typical swing voter in Oakland County, Michigan, is going to be walking into the voting booth thinking about that, not Biden’s age or gait.

That’s what liberals should want the election to be about. There are two warring explanations afoot in our land about Trump’s legal trials. One, his own, is that all these indictments constitute election interference—the deep state trying to stop him from rightfully recapturing that which was stolen from him in 2020. The other, the planet Earth explanation, is that he’s a uniquely corrupt sociopath who thinks the law doesn’t apply to him and wants to get back into the White House for two simple reasons: to absolve himself of all crimes and to illiberalize our institutions and wreck the democracy to the point that he can do anything he wants—including, probably, be president for life.

If that’s the debate the nation is having on election eve, if that’s what neighbors are discussing across the fence post as they prepare to go vote—I’m good with that, and you should be too. And if those corrupt bastards on the Supreme Court inadvertently helped make that happen, so much the better.

This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.

Imagine a President Trump Who Owes Saudi Arabia $540 Million

Who’s going to pay Trump’s legal penalty?

Trump receiving the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal
Trump received the Order of Abdulaziz Al Saud medal from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh in 2017.

Donald Trump is attempting to appeal and delay having to pay that whopping fine that New York Judge Arthur Engoron laid on him earlier this month in the Trump Organization fraud suit brought by state Attorney General Letitia James. As we’ve all heard, to do so, he has to secure a bond.

NBC News did some cipherin’ Wednesday and reported that he’ll need a bond of about $540 million. It is widely assumed he doesn’t have the liquid cash. He has some buildings, notably 40 Wall Street, but many experts are saying that the government doesn’t like to take real estate as collateral. “Whoever is going to bond [Trump] is committing that they’re going to make good on that judgment,” New York business attorney David Slarskey told NBC. “Who’s going to do that?”

Indeed. That is the question. And the possible answer is chilling, if we imagine Trump back in the White House next year.

In sum: He could borrow this money from just about anybody. Or not even borrow it. Someone might just give it to him. Incredibly, as Neal Katyal said on MSNBC Wednesday night, there is apparently no law that prohibits someone in Trump’s position from securing the collateral from anyone. It’s another one of those laws that I suppose no one ever even thought to write because the system has never encountered a Donald Trump before. But now it has.

“There are potential sanctions prohibitions and campaign finance prohibitions. And of course potential tax issues,” MSNBC analyst Andrew Weissmann told me via email Thursday. “But apart from those, a third party can give a gift or loan to post the federal or state bonds.”

Ponder with me the possible dangers here. Let’s imagine a roster of actors who might have the resources and motive to stake Trump to half a billion dollars, either as a loan or a gift. There’s Russia, first of all. Russia—and Vladimir Putin personally, because he’s apparently stolen so much over the years that he might be the world’s richest man—may be out of the question because of the sanctions. But of course, that’s just the law, which Trump spits at.

Imagine a President Trump in hock to Russia or Putin to the tune of a half-billion dollars. Sure, Trump is inclined to give Putin half of Eastern Europe anyway. But money like that would turn a mere ideological sentiment into ironclad fealty, since money means a lot more to Trump than ideas. Well, Poland, you didn’t exist from 1795 to 1918; you can get used to it again.

Or let’s say it came from Saudi Arabia. Remember, it was during this very trial that Trump bragged that the Saudis, or at least some individual Saudi, would willingly pay inflated prices for Trump properties. This was a justification he used for inflating the prices in the first place. Engoron wrote in his ruling: “He also seems to imply that the numbers cannot be inflated because he could find a ‘buyer from Saudi Arabia’ to pay any price he suggests.”

So imagine now that a “buyer” or buyers from the kingdom secretly put up Trump’s collateral. And then Trump won the election. The United States would do whatever Mohammed bin Salman wanted it to do. On the surface, Saudi Arabia is committed to its Vision 2030 plan that proclaims a desire to normalize relations with Iran (this has started) and move away from the current reliance on oil revenues and toward a knowledge economy. That’s all very nice. But conflict will arise in that region, as it always does, and when it does, Trump will serve the master who bailed him out of legal hot water.

Or suppose the Netanyahu government put up the dough. People are plenty critical of Joe Biden now, and rightly so, over the money we’re giving to Israel and the absence of conditions imposed on that money so that Israel can commit atrocities on a massive scale. But if you think it can’t get worse, think again. Trust hard-right Israeli Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who said earlier this month: “Instead of giving us his full backing, Biden is busy with giving humanitarian aid and fuel, which goes to Hamas. If Trump was in power, the U.S. conduct would be completely different.”

Of course, Trump’s benefactor need not be a foreign nation. What if, as Weissman posited to Lawrence O’Donnell Thursday night, it was Elon Musk who ponied up the dough? Or Peter Thiel? Or a consortium of Texas oilmen? Or the Mafia? Obviously, Trump would willingly accept the money from any and all of those sources. How nice would that be, to have a president who hardly made a move without anticipating their reaction?

Lara Trump argues that rank-and-file Republicans will be perfectly happy for their donations to the Republican National Committee to go to paying Trump’s legal bills, and the Trump-era Republican Party is such a warped, freakish imitation of a normal political party, so smothered in cult-worship, that she’s probably right. But even so, rank-and-file Republicans can’t begin to cover more than a fraction of this.

The other hypothetical to consider here is of course that it’s entirely possible that Trump won’t pay at all. After all, as we know all too well, if there’s a law or rule to flout, Trump is there to flout it and dare the system to catch up with him. So this all might be moot, which speaks only to how brazenly lawless the man is.

But if he decides to post the bond, and if all this reporting is correct that he doesn’t have the money himself, he’s going to have to get it from someone. And whoever that someone is will claim a mighty stake on what remains of the mind of the man who might be the president of the United States.

This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.

How Jack Smith Became the Worst Part of Trump’s Historically Lousy Week

The former president’s legal woes have packed headlines, but the special counsel’s filing in the January 6 case has somehow flown under the radar.

Donald Trump exits New York State Supreme Court on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024.
Jeenah Moon/Getty Images
Donald Trump exits New York State Supreme Court on February 15.

The big headlines Friday morning concerned Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and the combative testimony Thursday she offered concerning her affair with Nathan Wade. But that wasn’t the big story of the week on the Donald Trump legal front. In fact, it may have been about fifth.

What’s bigger? Let’s start with Judge Aileen Cannon’s decision to deny Trump’s attorneys’ bid to delay pretrial motions in the case she’s hearing, about Trump’s removal of classified documents from the White House. Cannon, you’ll recall, was appointed by Trump.  After the documents case landed so unserendipitously in her lap, she made a series of nakedly pro-Trump rulings; the 11th Circuit vacated one order of hers that would have helped Trump delay the proceedings. She also blocked federal investigators from examining the material seized by the FBI, a decision eviscerated by legal experts. So maybe she’s gotten the message that she’d better be a real judge, not a sycophant.

Trump also was dealt a blow this week when Juan Merchan, the judge in the Stormy Daniels hush-money trial, dismissed another attempt at delay by Trump’s lawyers. That trial will start, as scheduled, on March 25.

And—no, it doesn’t stop!—another judge, Arthur Engoron, is supposed to hand down his decision in the penalty phase of the civil suit brought by the New York attorney general against the Trump Organization. AG Letitia James is seeking $370 million. There are reasons to think that that number may be on the low end of where Engoron will land.

But for my money, the worst part of Trump’s week came in the filing by special counsel Jack Smith to the Supreme Court in response to the Trump team’s request for a stay on that trial, which is the January 6 insurrection case. In a 40-page filing, Smith and his attorneys dismantled Trump’s arguments one by one. Smith had until February 20 to file this response, but he did it eight days early and he means business: “The charged crimes strike at the heart of our democracy.  A President’s alleged criminal scheme to overturn an election and thwart the peaceful transfer of power to his successor should be the last place to recognize a novel form of absolute immunity from federal criminal law.  Applicant seeks a stay to prevent proceedings in the district court from moving towards trial, which the district court had scheduled to begin on March 4, 2024, before applicant’s interlocutory appeal necessitated postponement of that date.  Applicant cannot show, as he must to merit a stay, a fair prospect of success in this Court.”

Why is this filing so important? Three reasons. First, Smith urges the Court to act quickly. He still wants the trial to start in March. If the Court agrees, picture it: Trump on trial in two separate courtrooms, on charges that strike precisely at the heart of the two biggest manifestations of his moral turpitude: In New York, as a private citizen, as a man, who treats women like garbage; in Washington, as a public, um, servant who mocks the Constitution and believes that no law applies to him. It will be perfect stereo spectacle for Americans to spend the spring observing.

Second, while it’s true that we’re dealing with a very politicized Supreme Court here, and it’s obvious that at least two justices (Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas) will rule for Trump on just about anything, Smith’s response makes a very strong set of arguments that should appeal to at least some of the Court’s conservative originalists. “The Framers,” Smith writes, “did not provide any explicit textual source of immunity to the President.”

And third: The Smith case is the most important of all, for the simple reason that inciting the January 6 insurrection is the worst thing Trump has done. Granted there is stiff competition for his most mortal sin. But egging on a crowd to overthrow the government and hang your own vice president still takes the cake. If Smith succeeds in convincing the Supremes to expedite this case and goes on to win a pre-election conviction, that ought to seal Trump’s fate. Some recent polls have shown that swing state swing voters would be highly disinclined to vote for Trump if convicted of a crime.

We’ve seen the conventional wisdom turning on this question in recent weeks. Last year, the standard media line was to say that all the indictments were helping Trump, which was true if you were talking only about Republican primary voters. But now the attention of the media and of pollsters is turning toward general election voters, and they see matters differently.

Every one of these cases is important because each one points to a grotesque deficiency of character that demonstrates why Trump should never be president again. But the insurrection case is the first among equals. A conviction in this case before November 5 really should be the end of the road for Trump. It all depends on the Supreme Court agreeing with Smith’s motion this week. He made as strong a case as could be made.

This article first appeared in Fighting Words, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by editor Michael Tomasky. Sign up here.