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What got me steamed up this week

Tim Scott’s Stated Willingness to Crush Democracy Is an Ominous Moment

We crossed another Rubicon this week with these veep wannabees parroting Donald Trump’s line about not accepting election results.

Tim Scott speaks at a podium, with Donald Trump beside him and others in the background.
Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, speaks during an primary election night watch party in South Carolina with former U.S. President Donald Trump on February 24, 2024.

As many have observed, democracies don’t die overnight. There’s no One Big Event that does it. It happens bit by bit. Noticing it requires paying very close attention and connecting the dots as you go along, and most people don’t have the time or dedication to do that.

So I draw your attention to a new and ominous development this week: It’s now basically settled that Donald Trump’s running mate will be with him 1000 percent on denying unfavorable election results. Doing so became a litmus test this week. South Carolina GOP Senator Tim Scott is chiefly to blame, but of course it’s also Trump, and the entire cast of craven jellyfish who are today’s Republican Party.

As you’ve probably read, Scott was on Meet the Press Sunday and, under questioning from host Kristen Welker, refused six times to say he’d accept the election results. The things he did say were ludicrous: “This is an issue that is not an issue so I’m not going to make it an issue.” “I’m not going to answer your hypothetical question when, in fact, I believe the American people are speaking today on the results of the election.” “This is why so many Americans believe that NBC is an extension of the Democrat Party.”

The same day, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum ran for the hills when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked him about potential political violence after the election. He spat out some evasive nonsense about how the important thing about the election is that “both sides feel good about how it was counted.” We all know what that means: If one party (gee, which one?) doesn’t “feel good” about the vote count, then violence might be justified.

These are, in one way, dismissible men. But these are not dismissible comments. This is new. And it’s worth thinking about.

In 2016, Trump went around saying things like, “I will totally accept” the election results “if I win.” But it wasn’t yet holy scripture. In fact, that fall, Trump’s running mate avowed that the GOP would play by the rules. “We will absolutely accept the results of the election,” Mike Pence told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press on October 16.

This was very important at the time. It allowed people to think Trump was just blustering, wasn’t to be taken seriously. And his position was seen as a clear liability. Three days after Pence’s Meet the Press appearance, Trump debated Hillary Clinton. Trump refused to affirm to moderator Chris Wallace that he’d accept the election results. Even Republicans asked by Politico agreed that it was Trump’s worst moment of the debate. Said an Ohio Republican: “His answer on not accepting the results of the election [is] disqualifying—and that’s not an ‘elite’ position.” Added a New Hampshire GOPer: “Refusing to accept the outcome of a legitimate American election and refusing to commit to the peaceful transition of power is disqualifying. Stunning.”

Those Republicans reflected a consensus then among the Republicans Politico asked, and to some extent among rank-and-file Republicans too—53 percent of Republicans even told Politico that Clinton won that debate. The idea that a major party candidate would reject election results was disqualifying, or seemed to be.

Of course, Trump won, so the proposition wasn’t tested then. In 2020, he did the same thing, casting doubt on the veracity of the pandemic-era results throughout the campaign. And we know what came of that: January 6. On that day, remember, 139 House members voted against certifying the election results, while 72 voted to certify (or were absent). Eight GOP senators voted not to certify, while 43 voted to certify Joe Biden’s victory.

Those voting results were depressing enough, but it must be asked: Would we get similar results today? Or will we next January 6, if Trump is declared the loser and contests the results, as he all but inevitably will?

I think this time it would be worse, maybe far worse. As Scott’s and Burgum’s dodges testify, conventional wisdom has changed. Now, it is assured that Trump’s vice presidential choice will, instead of offering Pence’s 2016 reassurances, be right there with Trump in threatening not to accept the results. The new Trump-installed chair of the party, Michael Whatley, is a 2020 election denier whose chief appeal to Trump was that he’s “a Stop the Steal guy.” And the new co-chair, of course, is Lara Trump. Around 60 RNC employees were handed their papers in March. The new application process includes asking job-seekers whether they think the 2020 election was stolen.

The upshot here should be clear enough. This November, the entire party will be armed to fight an adverse election result. This is new—worse, even, than 2020 and 2021. Scott and Burgum helped cement this posture as the new conventional wisdom this week. But really, they were shaping conventional wisdom far less than they were allowing themselves to be shaped by it. If they hadn’t said what they said, they’d be instantly tossed from Trump’s short list.

And the rest of the party? Please. They’ll fall into one of two camps. They’ll enthusiastically parrot the accepted line. Or they’ll use the “It’s not an issue, because Donald Trump will be elected our next president” dodge. And those in the latter camp know very well that the road is littered with the political carcasses of Republicans who defied Trump.

So, again: If January 6, 2025 comes around, and Congress is confronted with a situation similar to that other January 6, how many Republicans will stand up for democracy this time? Jellyfish may not have backbones, but they can still sting.

A Dem’s Principled Opposition to a Grandstanding GOP Antisemitism Bill

Why Jerry Nadler and four other Jewish Democrats voted “no”

Rep. Jerry Nadler
David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
Representative Jerry Nadler in 2022

It’s always worth taking note when a legislator casts an unexpected vote. So it caught my eye Wednesday morning as I was scanning the House roll-call vote on H.R. 6090, the Antisemitism Awareness Act.

It passed by a wide margin, 320–91; 187 Republicans and 133 Democrats voted for it, and 21 Republicans and 70 Democrats against. I scrolled down to look at the “no”s, because votes like this one—which right and left approach, let us say, from different moral universes—always offer an amusing coalition of the unwilling. GOP “no”s included hard-rightists like Lauren Boebert, Paul Gosar, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Democratic “no”s mostly all came from the Progressive Caucus, even the progressive wing of the Progressive Caucus—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Rashida Tlaib, and more.

Then a surprising name caught my eye: Jerry Nadler of Manhattan. And another: Jan Schakowsky of Evanston, Illinois. These are both liberal Democrats, of course. But they’re also both Jewish, and they represent heavily Jewish districts. This was interesting.

Thursday, I spoke with Nadler about his vote. I should say that I’ve known and respected Jerry for many years. We met (can it be?) in 1987, when I was a young reporter covering New York politics. Before I get to the matter at hand, a quick story from those days that made me realize that Nadler was willing to take unpopular positions.

There were neighborhood political clubs in those days in Manhattan (they still exist, but their heyday was long ago). In Greenwich Village, there were two clubs: an older and more established one that opposed Mayor Ed Koch, very unpopular by the late 1980s among progressives, and a newer, pro-Koch club. An issue arose at some county Democratic meeting I was covering, I don’t even remember what it was exactly, but I do recall that Nadler, then a state assemblyman, rose to speak in defense of the pro-Koch club’s First Amendment rights. He was booed. I was no Koch fan then, but I thought it was kind of a gutsy thing to do.

Flash-forward. Why did a Jewish congressman from the most famous Jewish district in America (the Upper West Side) oppose an antisemitism resolution? “It’s violative of free speech,” Nadler told me, “and it’s totally unnecessary.”

H.R. 6090 would require the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to use the definition of antisemitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association in 2016 when investigating complaints of bias at institutions that receive federal funds. That means college campuses (even private universities like Columbia receive federal grants and so on).

The IHRA definition, debated for years, has been adopted by around 20 countries, including the U.K., Canada, Germany, and more. Its definition is mostly nonproblematic, but to Nadler, one aspect of it threatened to squelch free speech on campuses. “You could read it as saying that criticism of Israel is antisemitic,” he said.

And this is where we get to the question of the Republicans’ motivation in introducing this bill. The IHRA definition is not without controversy, precisely because of some language about criticism of Israel that many consider blurry. Two other definitions of antisemitism have been promulgated—the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism and the Nexus Document. Choosing to rely solely on one of the three definitions struck some critics as concerning. Even the author of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, has become a sharp critic of using it with respect to speech on college campuses, and Nadler told me that Stern opposed this bill.

But: The IHRA definition did have a notable champion in the United States: Donald Trump. As president in 2019, he signed an executive order to protect Jewish students under the Civil Rights Act, using the IHRA definition. Sounds good and uncontroversial, but numerous critics, including progressive Jewish groups, worried about its potential chilling effect on campuses. Stern, writing in The Guardian, argued that his definition “was created primarily so that European data collectors could know what to include and exclude.… It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code, but that’s what Donald Trump’s executive order accomplished this week.”

The Biden administration never rescinded that executive order. However, Biden did launch a different approach. In May 2023, he unveiled the first-ever national strategy to combat antisemitism. The 60-page plan outlined 100 steps that federal agencies committed to complete within a year and was based on input from 1,000 stakeholders.

Biden also proposed increasing the 2024 budget of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights by 25 percent. Republicans proposed cutting it by 25 percent. The ultimate compromise, says Nadler, is that it was flatlined. That battle is being repeated for 2025. House Republicans could shift their position on that, if they want to show that they wish to combat antisemitism in a real way. There’s also a House bill, sponsored by North Carolina Democrat Kathy Manning, that would codify the Biden administration’s approach, and it has an impressive 15 Republican co-sponsors (and 24 Democrats).

Speaker Mike Johnson could put his weight behind that. But as we see on an hourly basis, he (while pretty extreme himself) is dealing with a whole different universe of crazy. Marjorie Taylor Greene explained her opposition to the bill by saying that under it, Christians could be convicted “for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews”—an age-old and classic antisemitic fable.

I’m not sure this bill is dangerous. A lot of solid liberals voted for it. I just think it’s worth noting that some Jewish members opposed it (there were three more, in addition to Nadler and Schakowsky: Sarah Jacobs of California, Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts, and Rebecca Balint of Vermont), in part out of concern that criticism of the policies of Israel could be construed under law as antisemitic.

Antisemitism is certainly all too real, on college campuses and across the country, and obviously, there are times when criticism of Israel can and does include antisemitic tropes. But the laws of the United States should help clarify the difference between antisemitism and criticism of Israel, not obscure it.

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

Samuel Alito’s Resentment Goes Full Tilt on a Black Day for the Court

The associate justice’s logic on display at the Trump immunity hearing was beyond belief. He’s at the center of one of the darkest days in Supreme Court history.

Samuel Alito
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On the day Donald Trump took office in January 2017, pondering what he might do to the country’s democratic norms and institutions, I wrote these words: “Trump will destroy them, if keeping Trump on top requires it. Or try to. He might not succeed. And that is where we rest our hope—on conservative judges who will choose our institutions over Trump. Mark my words: It will come to this.”

That hope seemed not misplaced back in 2020 and 2021, when a number of liberal and conservative judges, some of the latter appointed by Trump himself, handed Trump 60 or so legal defeats as he attempted to unlawfully overturn the election results. But after Thursday at the Supreme Court? That hope is dead. The conservative judges, or at least most of them, on the highest court in the land are very clearly choosing Trump over our institutions. And none more belligerently than Samuel Alito.

His line of questioning to Michael Dreeben, the attorney arguing the special counsel’s case, was from some perverse Lewis Carroll universe:

Now if an incumbent who loses a very close, hotly contested election knows that a real possibility after leaving office is not that the president is going to be able to go off into a peaceful retirement, but that the president may be criminally prosecuted by a bitter political opponent, will that not lead us into a cycle that destabilizes the functioning of our country as a democracy?

Let’s look to something I’d have thought lawyers and judges took seriously: historical evidence. American democracy has existed for nigh on 250 years, and power has been transferred from a president to his successor a grand total of 40 times (not counting deaths in office). On 11 occasions, a challenger has defeated a sitting incumbent—that is, a situation that creates the potential for some particularly bitter and messy post-election shenanigans.

Now, if Alito’s question really spoke to a malign condition that had hobbled American democracy throughout history and that loomed as a real problem that we had to take very seriously, it would stand to reason that our history suggested that these power transfers had had a wobbly history—that maybe, say, 12 of 40, and four or five of the 11, had been characterized by violence and unusual threats of retribution against the exiting executive.

But what does the record show? It shows, of course, that there is only one case out of the overall 40, and one case out of the more narrowly defined 11, in all of U.S. history where anything abnormal and non-peaceful happened. That, of course, was 2020.

And there was a lot of bad blood in previous transfers of power. You think John Adams loved the idea of handing power to Thomas Jefferson? John Quincy Adams was popping champagne to turn things over to Andrew Jackson? Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, who traded wins, weren’t bitter in defeat? These people couldn’t stand each other. But they did what custom required—a custom never questioned by anyone until Trump came along.

So in other words: Alito throws all that democratic history out the window and treats Trump as the new normal, assuming that the American future is ineluctably strewn with a series of lawless Trumps. Alas, with respect to the Republican Party, there’s a chance time will prove him right about that (but only a chance; my cynicism about the depths to which this GOP will sink is almost limitless, but even I think that Trump is most likely sui generis in this respect, and that your average Republican, even the neofascist ones like Tom Cotton, should we be cursed with a Cotton presidency someday, would probably yield power peacefully if he lost).

But think about what it says about both where Trump has delivered this country, and about Alito’s assumptions about democracy. On the former point: Have we now reached a place where challenges to election results are going to be the norm? Where an opposition party can be counted on to find some legal technicality on which to prosecute a former president, rather than leaving him or her in peace as we have throughout our history?

This is another twisting of reality. Trump, his defenders would protest, is the one former president who has not been left in peace. Well, that is true, I confess. But maybe there’s a reason for it! Actually, there are two. Trump has not been left in peace because a) it was always obvious he was not retired, and b) he’s the only ex-president who tried to foment a coup against the United States of America and who declassified sensitive national security documents with his beautiful brain.

And on the latter point: When George W. Bush named him to the court in 2005, experts told us—of course—that Alito was conservative, yes, but not an extremist (interestingly, Maryanne Trump Barry, Donald’s sister under whom Alito had worked as a prosecutor, was among those recommending Alito’s nomination). As The New Yorker reported in a 2022 profile, Alito was asked in 2014 to name a character trait that hadn’t served him well. His answer? A tendency to hold his tongue. Well, that problem’s been solved, eh? As writer Margaret Talbot noted of the justice, who ignored Chief Justice John Roberts’s importunings to strike a balance in the Dobbs decision, which he wrote: “He’s holding his tongue no longer. Indeed, Alito now seems to be saying whatever he wants in public, often with a snide pugnaciousness that suggests his past decorum was suppressing considerable resentment.”

And this week, he told us, in essence, that in his view democracy depends on allowing presidents to commit federal crimes, because if ex-presidents were to be prosecuted for such things, the United States would become a banana republic. That’s a Supreme Court justice saying that. And while Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and even Clarence Thomas didn’t go that far Thursday, it was obvious that the court’s conservatives are maneuvering to make sure that the insurrection trial doesn’t see the light of day before the election—in other words, that a sitting president who very clearly wanted Congress to overturn a constitutionally certified election result (about this there is zero dispute) should pay no price for those actions.

When I wrote seven years ago that we rested our hope on conservative judges who will choose our institutions over Trump, trust me, I wasn’t saying I was confident that they would. I was terrified that that day would eventually come. It came yesterday. The conservative jurists chose Trump. It will stand as one of the blackest days in Supreme Court history.

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

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.