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The Bravery of Few Vs. The Cowardice of Many
Also: How a humble mechanic embroiled Warren Buffett and the U.S. Treasury in a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme, and why communities can now sue fossil fuel companies in state courts over climate change.
The Bravery of Few Vs. The Cowardice of Many
Sexual abuse, defamation, a criminal indictment of 34 felony counts and a slew of possible federal and state charges to come aren’t yet slowing Trump.
No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, it’s hard to not marvel at the indefatigability of former president Donald J. Trump. It takes a lot of mettle to keep criminal charges, lawsuits, and rivals at bay long enough to cement a position at the forefront of a leading political party.
Despite everything (we’ll get into the “everything” in a moment), Trump is, as of this writing, leading every other GOP presidential candidate by more than 50 percent in national polls of likely Republican primary voters – a historically wide margin, particularly for a non-incumbent.
In the past century, non-incumbents polling as favorably as Trump in the run-up to a presidential election included Democrats Hillary Clinton (2016) and Al Gore (2000), as well as Republicans George W. Bush (also 2000) and Bob Dole (1996). While each of those candidates won the nomination, their races varied with frequently colorful results. Among them, only Bush won the presidency – and that case went all the way to the Supreme Court. (I should know, I was a fledgling editor, sitting on the Dow Jones news desk at the time, hanging on the phone for hours with teams of bewildered reporters feeding me live updates from the Florida recount – good times.)
It should be noted that none of the abovementioned non-incumbents were running for president while also living in the shadow of the sword, as Trump is doing. As has been the case with Trump from the start, past tempestuous performances may have very little bearing on future results.
So here comes the “everything”: Trump’s headwinds include an indictment last month in New York on 34 criminal charges, felonies totaling prison time of up to 136 years – far more than Trump, at 76, could ever serve – a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into his handling of classified documents and, separately, a probe into Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 insurrection that last week led to four seditious conspiracy guilty verdicts. There’s also an investigation by Georgia prosecutors into whether Trump and his allies sought to interfere with votes in the 2020 presidential election. It should be noted that all of these probes are criminal investigations.
Oh, wait, that’s still not everything. A jury in New York this week found Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation against writer and former Elle magazine advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, ordering him to pay $5 million.
Trump was deposed but did not testify in the civil suit. He denies Carroll’s claims and is appealing the verdict.
Carroll, who has described in graphic terms how Trump allegedly raped her in the mid-1990s in a dressing room of the upscale New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, declared after the verdict, “This is for every woman in the county, every woman.”
Her intentions in bringing the suit, she emphasized, were unrelated to Trump’s interest in retaking the presidency. “To me, I don’t think of this as being political,” she said in a television interview this week. But she did have a message for voters who were undecided as to whether Trump is a sex offender: “I want to tell people…Donald Trump did it,” she said. “Donald Trump did it. And all his saying no, no, no, is not true.”
Following the multimillion-dollar verdict and settlement, Trump appeared Wednesday night in a town hall forum on CNN, where he expressed what seemed to be no penitence about Carroll, shrugged off her allegations of sexual assault and battery and, referencing the evidence used against him in the case, doubled down on past statements he’s made about how, when you are a celebrity, you can subject women to non-consensual sexual advances with impunity.
When directly asked about these statements in the CNN forum before a live audience of Republicans and independents planning to vote in New Hampshire’s GOP primary, Trump clarified, “I said women let you [grab them]. They said, ‘Will you take that back?’ I said look, for a million years, this is the way it’s been. I want to be honest. This is the way it’s been. I can take it back if you’d like to…People that are famous, people that are stars, people that are rich, people that are powerful, they tend to do pretty well in a lot of different ways, ok?”
“And you would like me to take that back. I can’t take it back because it happens to be true. I said it’s been true for one million years, approximately a million years, perhaps a little bit longer than that,” he said to laughter in the audience.
“So, you stand by those comments?” asked CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, who hosted the forum.
“I don’t want to lie,” Trump said. “A rich and famous person has no advantage over anyone else? Well, you do have an advantage…that’s the way it is.”
During the CNN forum, Trump also refused to apologize for putting former Vice President Mike Pence in danger during the Jan. 6 insurrection, stating he did not agree Pence was ever in peril, although rioters chanted, “Hang Mike Pence,” and multiple sources alleged Trump had expressed support for this.
Asked about the war in Ukraine, Trump would not be drawn on whether he wants Ukraine or Russia to win. “I don’t think in terms of winning and losing,” he said. “I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all of these people.” If he was voted back into the White House, he said, “I would have that war settled in one day, 24 hours.” He did not explain how.
Following the town hall, CNN sustained widespread criticism for giving Trump a televised national platform, although it’s fair to say that if he is the GOP nominee in the 2024 election – which looks increasingly likely – it would be difficult for the media to not cover Trump, because he would be a presidential candidate. (Journalists are supposed to cover the news objectively after all, regardless of their personal views, or politics.)
As the CNN town hall wrapped up, some of the news network’s journalists seemed genuinely stunned by Trump’s mendaciousness. CNN host Jake Tapper remarked, “We don’t have enough time to fact check every lie he told.”
Trump aired other concerning views this week. For instance, he vociferously supported pushing American leaders into a corner with the threat of a debt default. U.S. House Republicans are requesting trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for raising the nation’s debt ceiling. If the issue is not settled by next month, the U.S. is expected to run out of funding and default on its debt.
“I say to Republicans out there – congressmen, senators – if they don’t give you massive cuts, you’re going to have to do a default,” he said. “And I don’t believe they’re going to do a default, because I think the Democrats will absolutely cave, will absolutely cave, because you don’t want to have that happen. But it’s better than what we’re doing right now, because we’re spending money like drunken sailors.”
Extraordinarily, none of the above legal travails, controversies or statements by the former president have damaged his standing in the polls.
How do we know this? Because, at the start of 2023, Trump fetched just above 40 percent, on average, of the primary vote and had a much narrower lead – by around 10 points – on his next closest opponent, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.
Trump’s lead is triple that this week, around 3o points on average, marginalizing DeSantis, who hasn’t even announced his presidential candidacy yet.
More humiliating, DeSantis’s argument that GOP voters should back him instead of Trump – because he can win elections and Trump can’t – doesn’t really hold much water if Trump is trouncing him in the polls.
So, what’s next for Trump – and by extension, the U.S. presidential race?
Former GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, a senator from Utah, said this week that Trump is “not fit to become the president of the United States.” Yet this time last year he predicted Trump would be the Republican nominee, if he wants it. “He’s the leader of the party, that’s clear,” Romney said. “It’s hard to imagine anything that would derail his support. So, if he wants to become the nominee in ’24, I think he’s very likely to achieve that.”
Following the Carroll sexual assault verdict this week, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is running against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, said that if Republicans are unable to find a new frontrunner for the presidency and are forced to back Trump again, it will backfire in favor of Democrats.
“I don’t believe Trump can be elected,” Hutchinson said, adding, “Trump is the candidate the Democrats would prefer, and that is enhanced by the fact that you got this jury verdict now that made this finding.”
Trump presents the GOP electorate with a very strange proposition: Stick with him and hope that he manages to become president before his legal problems catch up with him. Or back away and hope that a competing Republican candidate like DeSantis, who doesn’t appear ready for prime time, might win against Biden.
Trump’s inoculation of voters against his peccadilloes has been flawless – his base is very well aware of every last accusation and charge against him and have been for so long, they are inured to it.
Academic and legal scholar, Jennifer Taub, the author of “Big Dirty Money,” attended the Carroll trial but, even with its verdict, believes Trump likely will still be the GOP nominee. “Even before he was elected president, he told voters who he really is,” she says. “In my book, I write about the first-mover advantage and how, in corporate America, there is a competitive advantage if you don’t play by the rules. That’s true for politics too. He has been very open about the fact he is going to try to steamroll everything and everyone to win.”
President Biden, 80, who announced he will be running for a second presidential term last month, is hardly in a position of strength, with a job approval rating at an all-time low of 36 percent. In some polls, Trump is even leading him. All of which means this could be a very close race.
“If they’re both alive, it looks like it will be a replay of 2020,” Taub says.
While Biden and Trump have little in common politically, each represents a major failure of America’s leading political parties to come up with fresh, inspiring candidates. Either one of them could flame out – or knock each other out – without much cheering, fanfare, or joy by voters.
Given the jockeying in the polls, you could be forgiven for believing the next presidential race will be decided later this year. But the vote actually takes place more than 540 days from now.
Technically, it’s not too late to come up with better options. But that’s precisely the point. Is America capable of changing its course?
That is the impossible question.
A selection of recent reads, for your weekend edification.
One day a thirty-something, jobless mechanic with a souped-up car trailer in his driveway sporting solar panels hooked up to a large battery, caught the attention of some well-capitalized green energy enthusiasts. His solar generator sparked dreams of a “green-energy revolution,” writes The Atlantic’s Ariel Sabar, and led him to build a multibillion-dollar company. When the mechanic received his first big payday – Sherwin-Williams purchased 192 of his generators for nearly $29 million – he cried. A deeply engrossing story of how one man and his company, in less than a decade, somehow defrauded investors of nearly $ billion.
In the same sustainability vein, The New Yorker’s Bill McKibben reports on what he observes could be a “signal moment” in the fight over who – and specifically which corporations – may be held responsible for climate change. The U.S. Supreme Court this spring declined to review a petition from energy giants Exxon and Suncor Energy to move a case from state to federal court, he writes. Here’s why that development may allow communities to sue fossil fuel companies in state courts for compensation over climate change damage.
Finally, with enormous apologies to anyone who is all Coronation-ed out (I do not blame you), I meant to include this delightful read from The Atlantic’s Helen Lewis poking some good old fun at the crowning of King Charles III. Indulge me, if you will, with “King Charles’s Very Hobbity Coronation.”
Thanks all, and have a great weekend !