Harry Reid, who died Tuesday, was among the few characters I liked in Mark Leibovich’s book “This Town.” Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, was a bare-knuckles brawler with no interest in the money-and-lobbyist culture that rendered Washington a teetering wreck before Donald Trump came along and toppled it over — while he and those close to him pursued their own corrupt schemes.
There is, though, one weird blemish on Reid’s record — his claims during the 2012 presidential campaign that Republican candidate Mitt Romney hadn’t paid any taxes. “So the word is out that he hasn’t paid any taxes for 10 years. Let him prove that he has paid taxes, because he hasn’t,” Reid said on the Senate floor that August. It wasn’t true, and Reid’s only justification was to tell CNN in 2015, “Romney didn’t win, did he?”
So I found myself wondering if there was anything more to Reid’s false claim. The answer: yes, a bit. Maybe not enough to justify Reid’s lies, but more than you might recall.
In more than three decades, no other nominees for either party have released fewer than five years’ worth of returns. Romney’s own father released a dozen years’ worth when he ran for the GOP nomination in 1968.
Romney has been under mounting public pressure to release tax returns — largely due to the Obama campaign raising questions about Swiss bank accounts and investments in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. Romney has released his tax returns for 2010 and an estimate for 2011 (the full return of which he says he will release later). He says that’s enough.
So here you have Romney, a noted liar in his own right, refusing to release tax returns that might have blown his campaign out of the water. Someone needed to put the pressure on him. The Obama campaign could only say so much. Reid took the hit, making up a false accusation that Romney wasn’t paying any taxes and essentially saying: Prove I’m lying.
Four years later, Romney enthusiastically embraced the Reid line of attack in his efforts to derail Trump’s candidacy. Trump, as we all know, wouldn’t release any of his tax returns. Here’s what Romney said: “There is only one logical explanation for Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his returns: There is a bombshell in them. Given Mr. Trump’s equanimity with other flaws in his history, we can only assume it’s a bombshell of unusual size.”
Expressed in Mitt-speak rather than with Reid’s pugnacity, but essentially the same thing.
Romney finally released a fuller set of tax returns in September 2012. At that point, though, the damage had already been done. And no, Reid did not cover himself with glory in that episode. But Romney could have done the right thing at the start of his campaign rather than opening himself up to charges that there must be hiding a “bombshell” — as Romney himself would put it four years later.
I half-expected to wake up this morning hearing martial music on the radio and an announcement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that President Pence would be speaking soon.
Instead, Donald Trump is still president. In the early-morning hours, he finally conceded the race and promised an orderly transition of power to Joe Biden, though he refused to abandon his false assertion that he actually won the election — a toxic lie that led directly to Wednesday’s insurrection.
What led Trump to back down? We can be pretty sure what it wasn’t. Even the rioting and the fatal shooting of a Trump supporter in the Capitol weren’t enough to stop him from releasing an incendiary video in which his call for calm was completely overshadowed by his words of support for the insurrectionists. It was so horrifying that Twitter and Facebook both took it down.
It seems more likely that Trump’s change in tactics came as the result of what The Washington Post described as serious talk among “some senior administration officials” to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove him from office before his term expires on Jan. 20. Something like that may have begun Wednesday evening, when Vice President Pence but not Trump was consulted on whether the National Guard should be called out — a clear violation of the chain of command, but understandable under the circumstances.
Trump should be removed anyway. As we saw Wednesday, he is far too dangerous to leave in power even for another day. “The president needs to be held accountable — through impeachment proceedings or criminal prosecution — and the same goes for his supporters who carried out the violence,” The New York Times editorialized. The Post called for Trump’s removal under the 25th Amendment, arguing: “The president is unfit to remain in office for the next 14 days. Every second he retains the vast powers of the presidency is a threat to public order and national security.”
Naturally, the radical Republicans who continue to support Trump are pointing their fingers at anyone but themselves. Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Brit Hume and others have tried to blame the violence on left-wing infiltrators from antifa groups, an absurd and offensive proposition for which there is zero evidence. As Molly Ball of Time magazine put it, “The amazing thing about ‘it might have been antifa’ is that Trump literally summoned these people to DC, spoke at their event, offered to walk them over to the Capitol and then praised them afterward.”
The amazing thing about "it might have been antifa" is that Trump literally summoned these people to DC, spoke at their event, offered to walk them over to the Capitol and then praised them afterward.
One of the more interesting questions today is whether Trump might face criminal charges for inciting violence, as the Times editorial suggests. Of course, Trump has been inciting his followers for months — for years, even. But the key to criminal charges would be the speech he delivered to the mob shortly before it began its rampage through the Capitol.
According to the Times’ account of his speech, he did not explicitly call for violence, although he indulged in incendiary rhetoric such as “you will never take back our country with weakness.” On the other hand, Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat” and Donald Trump Jr. — speaking of Republican members of Congress who were not supporting the effort to overturn the election — said, “We’re coming for you.”
An investigation might well conclude that they had crossed the line, and of course it was the president himself who was aiding and abetting such calls. “There’s no question the president formed the mob,” the Times quoted U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as telling Fox News. “The president incited the mob. The president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”
There’s so much more that we need to know. I’ve heard a lot of criticism that the police essentially enabled the violent Trumpers just months after a massive show of force put down Black Lives Matter rallies. From what I’ve seen, the problem Wednesday is that the police were vastly outnumbered. An overly aggressive response in such a situation could have led to an even greater disaster. But why were they outnumbered? Why was the planning for Wednesday so poor given that we all knew a Trumper mob was descending upon the city?
Needless to say, we also need to know more about Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran and Trump supporter who was fatally shot inside the Capitol, reportedly by a Capitol Police officer. Three others also died after experiencing “medical emergencies, according to reports.
Wednesday was a day that will live in infamy as five years of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric reached its logical end point. “What happened at the U.S. Capitol today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
What happened at the U.S. Capitol today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States. https://t.co/NojKm86sZ2
What we need, I suspect, is a new conservative party untainted by Trumpism and led by people of conscience like Romney. The notion seemed absurd even a few days ago. But just as the Republicans supplanted the Whigs in the 1840s and ’50s, it may be time for the Republicans to be supplanted by a party committed to principle and democracy.
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It seems transparently obvious that Romney believes Trump won’t survive the Mueller investigation and that he’ll be in the best position to pick up the pieces. Add to that the fact that Utah Republicans can’t stand Trump, and this is a no-risk move by the Mittster — which is to say the only kind of move he ever makes.
There is nothing reporters and pundits love more than a mind-boggling gaffe. Rudy Giuliani achieved what you might call Gaffe Apotheosis on Sunday when he lectured Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth.”So let’s savor it, make memes out of it (Todd told us we should!), and throw it in the faces of President Trump’s allies whenever they repeat the falsehoods that spew forth from this administration. But let’s not pretend we don’t understand the perfectly reasonable point that Giuliani was trying to make.
As is the case with many political gaffes, the full effect of Giuliani’s howler depends on taking it out of context. The former New York mayor, now a member of Trump’s legal team, was asked by “Meet the Press” host Todd why the president won’t simply sit down and answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller.
“I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury,” Giuliani responded. “And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”
Todd: “Truth is truth.”
Giuliani: “No, it isn’t. Truth isn’t truth.”
Giuliani knew instantly that he had stepped in a big, steaming pile, and he tried ineffectively to push back. The damage was done. But think about what Giuliani was saying: If Trump answers questions under oath, he’ll say things that contradict what others have said under oath. And that could set up Trump for a perjury charge. Giuliani expanded on that point a short time later, arguing that if Mueller had to choose between Trump’s sworn statements and those of former FBI director James Comey, Mueller would choose Comey, whom Giuliani identified — or, should I say, derided — as “one of his best friends.”
Now, set aside our knowledge that Trump has spoken falsely more than 4,000 times since he became president, and that Giuliani has a credibility problem of his own. Giuliani was actually making sense in saying that Mueller would have to choose between competing versions of the truth, and that he might be disinclined to believe Trump. But the inartful (OK, idiotic) way he expressed himself is all we’ll remember. This is mostly Giuliani’s fault, but it’s partly the media’s as well. Because this is what we love.
Want some more examples? Before Sunday, perhaps the most memorable gaffe by a Trump official was uttered by Kellyanne Conway, who used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview with the very same Chuck Todd. Appearing on Jan. 22, 2017, Conway sought to explain White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s obviously false claim that Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd was the largest in history. Conway didn’t push back as hard as Giuliani did when challenged by Todd. But, later in the interview, she said Spicer was simply relying on different sources of information.
“I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or the other,” she said. “There’s no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want.” Yes, I understand that the small size of Trump’s crowd is factually beyond dispute. But Conway’s spin was reasonable, if wrong. She was not invoking Orwell.
On a more serious level, Hillary Clinton has been castigated for years over a disingenuous reading of her Benghazi testimony before a Senate hearing in 2013. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans?” Clinton said. “What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?” How callous! But as PolitiFact observed in analyzing Clinton’s testimony, she continued:
It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information…. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.
The journalist Michael Kinsley once memorably defined a gaffe as an inadvertent statement of the truth. Sometimes, though, it’s a deliberate statement that you think won’t become public. That was the case in 2008, when Barack Obama told a group of his supporters what he thought of Clinton-leaning voters in poorer industrial cities: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Four years later, Mitt Romney said at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the electorate would vote for Obama because they “are dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims,” and “pay no income tax.” Both Obama and Romney spoke as they did because there were no reporters present, but their damaging remarks became public anyway.
For politicians and public figures, the solution to the gaffe challenge is obvious: Don’t step on your message with language that will seem clumsy, dumb, or insensitive if it’s taken out of context, as happened with Giuliani, Conway, and Clinton. And don’t speak your mind on the assumption that the media aren’t listening, as was the case with Obama and Romney. These things have a way of becoming public knowledge.
But there are lessons for the media, too. No one imagines that they should stop reporting gaffes, especially when they play out on live television. But even as Giuliani was making a mess of his interview, he was also saying something newsworthy: that Trump shouldn’t speak to Mueller for fear that he’ll be charged with perjury even if he speaks truthfully. You can agree, you can disagree, or you can denounce Giuliani’s statement as an outrageous attack on the rule of law. What the media shouldn’t do is overlook it in favor of cheap — if well-deserved — mockery.
Politico last Monday revealed the existence of a longshot effort to deny Donald Trump the presidency: a plan for members of the Electoral College to coalesce around Ohio Gov. John Kasich as an alternative. The idea would be to persuade Democratic electors to switch to Kasich, and then hope a decent-size share of Republican electors could be persuaded to abandon Trump.
With the Washington Post reporting that the CIA has concluded what has long been evident—that the Russians intervened in the election on Trump’s behalf—the moment for such an audacious gamble may have arrived. Kasich, who is deeply conservative, especially on social issues, may not be the best choice. Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney might be better. But anyone who resembles a normal politician would be preferable in what is turning into a real moment of national crisis.
The need is so obvious that it feels wrong to say this is almost certainly not going to happen. But that is the truth. If there is any chance of this taking place, here’s what has to happen:
One universally respected Republican has to declare his willingness to serve if the Electoral College chooses him. Even though Clinton won the popular vote by quite a bit, it really does have to be a Republican, since the Republicans won the Electoral College and control a majority of the votes.
Clinton has to come out publicly, endorse the plan, and urge all of her electors to support the compromise alternative. In a perfect world, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer would appear on stage with her. We do not live in a perfect world.
If no candidate wins the minimum 270 votes when the electors meet on December 19, the election will be decided by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Then we’ll see whether the members prefer Trump—or will instead switch to the Kasich/Romney/Bush alternative.
Alex Beam’s column in today’s Boston Globe got me thinking: What would I do if Donald Trump were the Democratic nominee? Alex confesses that he was a late arrival in the #NeverTrump camp. I’m not a Democrat, but I am a liberal. Because of the unique threat I think Trump poses to our democracy, I’ve broken with past practice and said whom I’m voting for this time around: Hillary Clinton. I have great respect for Republicans and conservatives like Mitt Romney and Charlie Baker, who came out against Trump early on. But what would I do if the shoe were on the other foot?
So here’s my little mind game. I can’t think of a Democrat who’s analogous to Trump, so let’s just imagine that Trump himself had won the Democratic nomination; it’s not that far-fetched given his chameleon-like political identity over the years. And since Trump is hardly a traditional conservative, let’s imagine, too, that there’s one significant issue on which he departs from Democratic orthodoxy. For the sake of argument, I’ll stipulate that Trump the Democrat holds the same views on immigration as Trump the Republican.
Now, then. There aren’t really any moderate Republicans left on the national stage, but there are rational, sane Republicans: Romney, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich to name three. So let’s extend this experiment by imagining that Romney had somehow won the nomination. How would I vote?
On the one hand, Trump the Democrat has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who’d protect same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, to raise the minimum wage, and to reform Obamacare by seeking to add a public option. Romney has promised the opposite, and has vowed to repeal Obamacare, even though it’s based on Romneycare. On the other hand, Trump is Trump, with all the baggage we’ve seen on display throughout this campaign.
I would like to think I’d vote for Romney, but I’m honestly not 100 percent sure. Part of me believes that we could survive four years of Trump the Democrat, and that it would be worth it so as not to unleash the right. Then again, Romney’s a sensible guy, and maybe he could find some sort of middle ground.
The big question going into tonight’s debate is whether moderator Lester Holt should call out blatant lies by the candidates—and especially by Donald Trump, whose relationship with the truth is tenuous, to say the least.
I don’t think it’s realistic for Holt or the moderators who come after him to act as a real-time fact-checking machine. He’ll have enough to do with keeping Trump and Hillary Clinton on track and making sure they’re both getting more or less equal time. But if someone—again, most likely Trump—tells a whopper, then Holt shouldn’t let it go. It’s all in how he does it. I’ll adopt the wisdom of my fellow Beat the Press panelists Callie Crossley and Jon Keller, who have both said that the way to do it is through tough follow-up questioning.
For instance, Candy Crowley took a lot of heat four years ago for essentially calling Mitt Romney a liar when Romney claimed that it took President Obama many days before he was willing to refer to the attack on Benghazi as “terrorism.” Given the pressures of the moment, I have no real problem with what Crowley said. But here’s what she could have said: “Governor Romney, didn’t the president refer to the attack as an ‘act of terror’ the next day?” Yes, that’s a loaded question, but it’s not an assertion, and Romney would have had an opportunity to respond.
In other words, fact-checking can be done with persistent questioning rather than by calling out BS. Even when it’s BS.
Hillary Clinton had seemed like the inevitable Democratic nominee for so long—not just in the current campaign, but eight years ago as well—that she tends not to get the credit she’s due for what is by any measure a remarkable accomplishment.
And it’s not just that she’s the first woman to become the presumptive nominee of a major party, though that is legitimately a big deal. She also staged a comeback unlike any in recent political history. Since her enemies like to compare her to Richard Nixon, she ought to get the benefit of that comparison as well—as she does in a piece by Peter Beinart at the Atlantic, who writes:
In purely political terms, Clinton’s victory—after losing the Democratic nomination in 2008—constitutes the greatest comeback by a presidential candidate since Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination in 1968, after losing the presidential election of 1960.
Clinton’s fall from grace eight years ago was more devastating than we might remember, Beinart argues, noting that major party figures such as Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, and Chuck Schumer were so appalled at the prospect of a Clinton campaign that they urged Barack Obama (some openly, some privately) to run against her. Civil-rights leader John Lewis even unendorsed her and switched to Obama.
“Over the past 30 years, no American political figure has absorbed as many blows as Clinton,” Beinart writes. “And none has responded with more tenacity and grit.”
That theme is also reflected in Amy Chozick’s “how she won” story in the New York Times: “She may not be the orator President Obama is, or the retail politician her husband was. But Mrs. Clinton’s steely fortitude in this campaign has plainly inspired older women, black voters and many others who see in her perseverance a kind of mirror to their own struggles.”
Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Karen Tumulty reminds us of Clinton’s shortcomings as a politician: “Not one for mega-rallies, she prefers small, scripted settings where she can discuss the policy intricacies of heroin addiction, mental health treatment, college debt or gun control—all the while keeping her campaign press corps at arm’s length. There have also been times when her tone-deafness could be spectacular.”
Thanks to the Associated Press’s questionable decision to proclaim Clinton the presumptive nominee on Monday evening (see this Facebook post by Bill Mitchell of Poynter), today’s headlines are anticlimactic. The print edition of the Times leads with “Clinton Claims the Democratic Nomination,” which feels like an update of Tuesday’s awkward banner: “Clinton Reaches Historic Mark, A.P. Says.” Today’s Post offers “Clinton celebrates victory,” and it’s less than a full page across. On Monday the Post went six columns with “Clinton reaches magic number for historic nomination.”
As of Wednesday morning, Bernie Sanders is vowing to stay in the race even though Clinton has now won a majority of pledged delegates as well as superdelegates, and has received nearly 3.7 million more votes. Media and political voices are strongly suggesting Sanders’s refusal to concede might change over the next few days as reality sinks in for him and his supporters.
But after reading this piece in Politico by Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti, I’m not so sure. According to their reporting, Sanders is the chief hothead in his own campaign, continually overruling his advisers in favor of more aggression. “More than any of them,” they write, “Sanders is himself filled with resentment, on edge, feeling like he gets no respect—all while holding on in his head to the enticing but remote chance that Clinton may be indicted before the convention.”
So much for party unity. Then again, the self-styled democratic socialist has only been a Democrat for a few months.
Finally, Tuesday may have been Hillary Clinton’s day, but the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, came close to dominating it, as he does in practically every news cycle.
This time it wasn’t a matter of the cable networks giving him more attention than he deserved. Instead, there was actual news, as Republicans staged a collective freakout over Trump’s racist statements about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, as Matt Viser reports in the Boston Globe; House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Trump’s comments as “racist” while sticking by his endorsement (“Everywhere Paul Ryan turns, there’s the smell of Trump” is the headline on Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column); and Trump himself issued a nonapology in the afternoon while delivering a rare prepared speech at night in which he viciously attacked Clinton but avoided his usual excesses.
At this point, conservatives are hopelessly divided over how they should respond to the demagogue at the top of the GOP ticket. A Wall Street Journal editorial criticizes conservatives for pressuring Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to abandon Trump, while Jonah Goldberg of National Review, a leading anti-Trump conservative journal, blasts Ryan for not being tough enough: “Because Trump did nothing to earn Ryan’s endorsement, the presumptive nominee may conclude that he needn’t negotiate with the GOP establishment; he can just count on its eventual submission.”
Meanwhile, at the Weekly Standard—whose editor, Bill Kristol, has been unsuccessfully trying to convince a conservative to mount an independent campaign—Jay Cost pens an open letter to Mitt Romney begging the former Massachusetts governor to run. Cost begins:
I write to you not as a fellow conservative, not as a fellow partisan, but as a citizen of our republic. You have served your nation admirably for many years and by any ordinary standard are entitled to a happy retirement. But these are extraordinary times, and your nation still has need of your service. I respectfully implore you to run for president as an independent candidate in 2016.
It’s not likely to happen. Even if a significant number of voters could be persuaded to support an independent, it may be too late for such a candidate to get on the ballot in enough states for it to matter. (I should note that the Libertarian ticket of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld is in fact on the ballot in all 50 states.)
Still, Cost’s desperate plea is a sign of the straits in which the Republicans find themselves with Trump at the top of the ticket.
Someone pointed out the other day that the Iowa caucuses were just four months ago, whereas we still have five months to go before the November election. If you’re sick of this campaign, you’re far from alone. Unfortunately, we’ve just gotten started.
Instant update: Well, no. As several friends have pointed out to me, the Twelfth Amendment specifies that the House would have to choose among the top three finishers. Someone who didn’t run would not be eligible.
Now that we know Bill Kristol’s efforts to draft a serious independent candidate come down to some guy named David French, who may not even say yes, it strikes me that the Libertarian ticket of Gary Johnson and Bill Weld is in a position to do very well indeed.
How well? Ross Perot got 19 percent in 1992. I think he could have gotten at least 25 percent if he hadn’t wigged out, quit and then returned to the race. And Johnson is running against major-party candidates who are far less appealing than George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. This isn’t really fair to Hillary Clinton, whose main problem is that she’s been viciously attacked for 25 years, but there you go.
The real issue, of course, isn’t Clinton; it’s that there are plenty of principled conservatives and Republicans (like Tom Nichols) who are never going to vote for a racist demagogue like Donald Trump. How many? We’ll find out. But possibly enough to throw the election into the Republican-controlled House.
Which means that the Romney 2016 campaign isn’t quite dead yet.
In spite of his insistence that he will not run, Mitt Romney is being courted this week by a leading conservative commentator to reconsider and jump into the volatile 2016 presidential race as an independent candidate.
William Kristol, the longtime editor of the Weekly Standard magazine and a leading voice on the right, met privately with the 2012 nominee on Thursday afternoon to discuss the possibility of launching an independent bid, potentially with Romney as its standard-bearer.
I think Romney could win if he got on the ballot in all 50 states. He’s smarter and tougher than Jeb!, and he’s absolutely shameless, which is important. Romney says he won’t run, but that’s only because he hasn’t worked through the math.