Political Animal

Janet Yellen, Tony Blinken, Ron Klain and the End of Crazy Time

The announcement of cabinet members out of Biden transition headquarters should be soothing as Trump’s post-election declarations are alarming. No one doubts that Jake Sullivan, the forthcoming national security adviser, or Tony Blinken, the soon to be secretary of state, are serious people. Lahnee Chen, Mitt Romney’s top policy advisor during the 2012 presidential race, described Sullivan, who he knows well, as a “top caliber” individual on MSNBC. You can disagree with the pro-multilateral views of the two, their take on the Iran arms deal or efforts to contain Vladimir Putin’s aggression against former Soviet republics. Still, you’re not going to see bonkers. Seb Gorka, the baritone giant with the memorable accent, famously said at the outset of the Trump administration, “the era of the pajama boys is over. The alpha males are back.” You might say the era of the straight-jacket crazy men is over. There’s no more Mike Flynn, Richard Grenell, John Ratcliffe, or Steve Bannon who had a seat on the National Security Council for a time. Even Donald Trump’s accomplished and courtly first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who seems like Metternich compared to what followed, somehow managed to piss off the Hill, Foggy Bottom, and the White House–a rare hat trick–before getting shown the door. 

I know Blinken and like him and his wife, Evan Ryan, herself a much-admired veteran of the State Department and Office of the Vice President. We’ve got many friends in common. We’re both the same age and have been in DC for a long time. Stay in Washington long enough, and the people you knew as youngins become George Marshall and James Baker. As Barack Obama said this week, Blinken is consistently gracious and diplomatic, which will be a welcome change from Mike Pompeo. YouTube videos of Blinken speaking fluently on a Parisian talk show are making the rounds, as well as his Spotify recordings. It’s all very refreshing.

What I find interesting is that this is the first Secretary of State as staff. I don’t mean that pejoratively but John Kerry, Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Cy Vance, Ed Muskie were closer to presidential peers than top aides. Some of that is that age difference; Blinken is 20 years younger than Biden. I haven’t done the math, but just eyeballing it, I can’t imagine we’ve had a Secretary of State 20 years younger than the president in this century or ever. Still, at 58 Blinken is older than Condi Rice when she took the job at 55 or Henry Kissinger at 50.

This doesn’t mean Biden runs State or Blinken lacks his predecessors’ wide command to implement foreign policy. It does mean a healthy, close, and pre-existing relationship between president and secretary. It’s probably the closest of any since Rice and George W. Bush and before that James Baker and George H.W. Bush. If Biden and Blinken pursue bad policies, intimacy won’t save them, but it is likely to help with unforced errors. No one will doubt Blinken speaks for the president. And, hopefully, it does mean that historical tensions between State and Defense or State and the NSC advisor are likely to be quickly cooled if there are any at all. The other Biden picks all seem super solid, and choosing a Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, who is strongest on the immigration side, was wise. Figuring out DACA, reuniting separated families, preparing for what surely be another wave of immigration from Central America makes more sense than someone whose bent is more like Marine John Kelly’s.

An interesting aside. I noted on Twitter that it was an exciting pick for the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Jay Carney. He and Blinken are very close, and Blinken recruited him to be Joe Biden’s press secretary in 2009, a job Carney had before he was White House Press Secretary. Biden and Carney are very close. (Disclosure; I know and like Jay. We worked together as colleagues at Time and as competitors covering the White House and other beats before that.) Jay speaks fluent Russian and was a correspondent for Time in Moscow during the tumultuous Gorbachev-Yeltsin years. (His wife, Claire Shipman, the author, covered Moscow for CNN at the time.) Carney really could do the job. Having a Russian ambassador close to the secretary and president would be good. Would Carney want to give up what must be an insanely lucrative perch running public affairs for Amazon? Trading DC and Seattle and money for the gloomy autocracy of Putin may not be tempting. But if the shares have vested, it would be of service to the country. 

Janet Yellen is in a class by herself. She’s as ready to be Treasury Secretary as anyone and at 74 will be one of the oldest, older than Lloyd Bentsen (72) or Andrew Mellon (65). She’s universally liked and respected which is why even Trump almost kept her at the Fed. Steve Mnuchin has been among the least awful Trump cabinet members but this will feel like a big step up the first time you see her (yes, her!) signature on the currency

It’s a couple of days late, but I share in all of the accolades for Ron Klain. His Zelig-like ability to be everywhere is genuinely remarkable. Less remarked upon in his bio than, say, his tenure as Ebola czar is this: In 1993, Klain was asked by his old boss Justice Byron “Whizzer” White to inform the new Clinton White House of his retirement. Since then, he’s done everything, including two stints as chief of staff to the Vice President, once for Al Gore and once for Joe Biden. His toughest moment may have been having Kevin Spacey portray him in the HBO film about the Florida recount.

I’ve known Klain as a journalist, but 20 years ago, I negotiated with him. I had an idea when I was at Time that the magazine should join with its then corporate partner, CNN, to sponsor a Democratic Primary Debate at the Apollo Theatre, which was managed by AOL-Time-Warner. I sold the idea internally and took off my bureau and reporting duties to set it up. It meant a lot of time on the phone with the Bill Bradley and Al Gore camps. Everyone had the usual debate demands about time and podiums. But because this was in Harlem, the mecca for Black America, each campaign had all kinds of questions about seats, who would speak, offer benedictions, and whatnot. (Al Sharpton, on his way from provocateur to eminence grise, helped out informally.) Someone in Gore world had Klain, the Gore negotiator, insist that Tavis Smiley, the broadcaster, has some kind of role. CNN and Time had their journalists and weren’t going to budge. Klain knew that, I’m sure, but he used it as a tool to get other things and had game. 

Later that year, helping his O’Melveny mentor Warren Christopher lead the Gore fight in the Florida recount did not go his way.  But it was a reminder for Klain about how tough Republicans can be. He’d seen it on Capitol Hill, and as an aide to Janet Reno and in the White House, but it was a stark reminder that being a Wise Man in the age of the likes of Trump and Mitch McConnell requires being a brawler as well as a statesman. Biden has a weak hand: not enough congressional ballast and a pandemic to boot. In Klain, Blinken, and others, he has a very strong one.

Trump’s Enablers Are Sabotaging the Georgia Senate Runoff Election–and Helping Democrats

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Senate runoff elections in Georgia. The January 5 contests will determine which party has a bare majority in the body. If Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both win, the Senate will be tied at 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris being the tie breaker. If either Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue, holds on, Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader.

Does Donald Trump care which party controls the Senate? At this point, his narcissistic ego continues to be obsessed with conspiracy theories about a “rigged election” that he lost. If that’s the case, it’s easy to picture him not giving a damn about Loeffler (who he opposed), or Perdue, or anyone else.

As the president seeks to undermine confidence in the country’s entire election system with his lies, it is possible that, perhaps for the first time, his interests and those of the Republican Party are at odds. Frank Luntz, Republican pollster and strategist, addressed the conflict by saying that, “If [Trump] continues to disillusion voters … by saying that the elections were rigged and that your vote doesn’t matter, this could have severe consequences…in trying to keep those two seats Republican.”

On the social media platform Parler, Trump’s most avid supporters are already talking about boycotting the Georgia Senate election. Investigative reporter Marcus Baraum posed a question to Georgia’s voters: “If voting machines are rigged, how can you trust the runoff election?” Here are some of the responses:

YOU CAN’T! The only way to send a message is to BOYCOTT the vote. Make it HURT for them.

WE CAN’T!!!! WRITE IN TRUMP OR BOYCOTT.

Voting in an illegitimate election is tantamount to accepting deep state control. Your vote = the illusion of freedom. #boycottgeorgiarunoffs

STAY HOME. OSSOFF AND WARNOCK ARE A SMALL PRICE TO PAY.

DO NOT VOTE IN THE GEORGIA RUNOFFS, THE DEEP STATE WILL BE COLLECTING EVERYONE’S INFO. THIS IS A CHARADE, MEANT TO IDENTIFY PEOPLE WHO DON’T VOTE DEMOCRAT

It is unclear whether those comments represent a movement or simply a small subset of Georgia voters. But in a close race, it could only take a small number of disaffected Republicans to throw the race to the Democrats. 

Support for this effort isn’t limited to individual voters in Georgia. The Committee for American Sovereignty, a super PAC with ties to Roger Stone, unveiled a new web site, “Hack the Runoff,” calling on Georgians to write-in Trump’s name on their ballots.

With enough write-ins in the Georgia senate race, we can tilt the balance in Georgia in Trump’s favor! If we can do this, we have a real chance at getting these RINO senators to act on the illegitimate and corrupt election presided over by a Democrat party that is invested in the Communist takeover of Our Great Nation. We will not stop fighting for you, the American Patriot, against the evils of Socialism and inferior Religions. This is a Christian Nation and will be as long as we fight, together, for our sovereignty. 

Georgia’s most famous conservative, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, added fuel to the fire by suggesting that Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are on the “other side,” inferring that they would help Democrats steal the election. Gingrich declared that “the anger over the secretary of state’s incompetence and the governor’s failure to lead could mean that Republicans just stay home.”

Joining the fray is L. Lin Wood, an Atlanta-based lawyer who is part of Trump’s legal team. Wood filed a suit in Georgia to have all mail-in ballots disqualified, but it was summarily dismissed by a Trump-appointed judge. Wood is now threatening to boycott the Senate races.

Demonstrating Wood’s following among Trump’s supporters, that statement was retweeted over 9,000 times.

Watching this unfold is a reminder that Donald Trump launched himself onto the national political scene via the birtherism conspiracy theory. Mitch McConnell didn’t mind that as long as it helped him maintain power. How ironic would it be if Trump’s conspiracy theorists wound up being the ones to sabotage the leader’s Senate majority?

No, It Wasn’t a Coup Attempt. It Was Another Trump Money Scam.

President Trump’s post-election machinations are not a bungled coup attempt; they add up to a scam to enrich himself. A coup would require broad collaboration from the courts and, failing that, from the military. The evidence suggests that Trump may not even be serious about election fraud. If he were, he would have recruited serious election law experts in the states he has contested. Instead, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell blanketed the country with a blizzard of lawsuits, offering fever dreams from the dark web as their legal justification and evidence.

The president’s post-election campaign demonstrates his singular talent for taking care of himself even when he loses. It is a momentous historic attack on the democratic process, on the order of Reconstruction. But for Trump, as Michael Corleone put it, “it’s just business.” Ultimately, Trump’s goals are to remain a star, make money, and solidify his clout. The corrosive effects on democracy are collateral damage.

Donald Trump has always craved fame, a drive common to national politicians. But he alone honed his approach to politics through his stint as a reality TV star. That’s where he learned how he could weave a narrative around his personality that tapped into the fantasies of a national audience. His quixotic claim to have won an election that he knows he lost rests entirely on his curated public persona. And as long as he pursues his claims, he is the center of attention instead of an ignored, sad, lame duck.

Trump’s intrigues embody his drive to come out ahead whether he succeeds or fails. His campaign hardly touched on the pandemic, the economy, or even his signature complaints about immigrants. Instead, he offered a narrative about systemic voter fraud and a stolen election. The strategy was smarter than Trump’s consultants and most media understood. It strengthened his connection to Americans who feel vulnerable to powerful shadowy forces beyond their reach, sufficient to drive nearly enough of them to reelect him.

This approach also laid a foundation for Trump to come out on top again, albeit not as president, and monetize the loss. Soon after the polls closed, his campaign announced an “Official Election Defense Fund” to help pay for his election challenges – with much of the proceeds diverted to his personal PAC, Save America. And by mobilizing his millions of true believers around a false narrative that his enemies have cost them their leader, Trump secured an enormous fan base for whatever he does as an ex-president. Millions will pay to attend more rallies or perhaps subscribe to a new Trump streaming service or cable network.

The strategy will give Trump a global stage to spotlight his inevitable grievances with President Joe Biden. It could become a means to mobilize public pressure against ongoing criminal investigations and possible indictments. Even from Mar-a-Lago, he could keep officeholders aligned with his interests, even as an ex-president.

Ensuring that Trump benefits even when he loses—and so never appears to fail – is an approach he has honed over his career. It nearly always involves making himself richer. He forged the strategy in Atlantic City. When he issued $100 million in junk bonds to bail out the failing Trump Plaza casino in 1993 temporarily, he used half of those proceeds to cover his personal debts. When his three casino hotels went bankrupt, he collected $160 million in management fees from the time the hotels declared Chapter 11 to the inevitable moment, years later, when he had to surrender them to his creditors.

Trump had figured out how to win while losing other people’s money. The final collapse of his Atlantic City properties also became personal paydays: He walked away with $916 million in tax losses based on $3.4 billion in defaulted debts owed to the banks and junk bondholders that actually put up the capital. To make it legal, Trump had assumed personal liability for the loans. But that was at the heart of the scam: Since he had not put up his own money, he couldn’t claim the losses without putting himself technically “at-risk” for the loans.

As president, Trump continues to profit from losing other people’s money. He owns 16 golf courses, all financed by accommodating lenders who put up the money to buy and operate them. As any real estate operator knows, golf courses are notorious money losers. Here too, Trump is personally “at-risk” for those loans – because otherwise, he couldn’t write off their annual losses. Based on the tax returns described in the New York Times, he claimed $15.3 million in those tax losses in 2017, his first year in the White House. For that year, he also reported personal income of nearly $14.8 million from branding deals, income tied to his old reality TV show, and revenues from favor seekers joining Mar-A-Lago and taking suites at his hotels. The losses Trump claimed for ventures paid for with other people’s money enabled him, even as president, to avoid paying personal income tax on all of his $14.8 million income.

Winning by failing has been Donald Trump’s signature business strategy, and now it is his political strategy.  Since he couldn’t force the Justice Department to arrest Biden or coerce the courts to overturn the election results, he is left to enrich himself and maintain his influence with his fans and GOP elected officials. Thankfully for democracy, Americans now face not a coup d’état but yet another scam from Donald Trump – and probably not his last.

Why GOP Officeholders Tolerate Trump’s Election Antics

Dan Pfeiffer, the former White House Communications Director and senior advisor to Barack Obama, doesn’t believe that cowardice explains why Republican officeholders are not doing more to stop Donald Trump’s post-election madness. In an echo of an analysis I’ve provided, Pfeiffer declares that the Party of Lincoln is working to maximize the white vote:

Republicans represent a dwindling base of mostly white, working class voters. With every passing election, this base gets smaller. Therefore, in order to win they need to get higher and higher turnout from that base. Trump has proven that the best way to jack up turnout with these voters is through an apocalyptic, conspiracy theory laden narrative of victimization at the hands of others. The “others” in this narrative are almost always people of color. This is the core of Trump’s white nationalist immigration appeal — immigrants/gang members/Muslims are coming to your community to take your job and threaten your life. It’s bullshit, but it’s clearly powerful with a relatively sizable portion of the population.

The problem with this craven strategy is that as more educated white voters abandon the GOP, winning an ever-larger share of a shrinking white vote gets more challenging, and the victimization/race-baiting card has to do more work. That’s where all the crazy-talk comes in. Even if Republican officeholders don’t subscribe to these theories themselves, they don’t believe they can do without them, and they’re probably right, at least for the moment.

But racism and cockeyed conspiracy theories were never the only play for the Republicans. Just as important as maximizing the white share of the electorate is suppressing the votes of people of color and other reliable Democratic voting blocs, like highly mobile college students. That’s why we’ve seen voter ID laws proliferate and GOP officeholders in the South taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that rendered moot the Voting Rights Act’s provision that any election-related changes in most of the region be approved by the Justice Department or the D.C. Court of Appeals. It’s why Republicans purge voter lists, target early voting, resist vote-by-mail, insist on unscientific signature matching requirements, and consolidate polling stations in Democratic areas to create long lines.

For Pfeiffer, it’s a mistake to think there’s a big distinction between erecting barriers to voting and refusing to count votes. “I don’t know why anyone is surprised by this,” Pfeiffer argues, “Voter suppression has been the primary political strategy of the Republican Party for more than a decade. Throwing out legally cast ballots is barely a hop, skip, and a jump from stopping legally eligible voters from casting ballots in the first place.”

If you think of elections as a two-part process, Pfeiffer makes even more sense. The first part is Election Day, along with all the early and absentee ballots. Win the most votes, and you win the election. But there are battles waged before the votes are cast over who can and cannot vote, where they can vote, how difficult it will be for them to vote, whether their ballots will be easy or difficult to challenge, and so on. By gerrymandering districts, politicians famously choose their voters rather than being chosen by them. Winning control of judicial panels makes it more likely that legal challenges will hold up in court. It helps if the governor, legislature, attorney general, and secretary of state are in the control of your party. The idea is to win the election before it occurs by changing the shape of the electorate.

We can measure progress by how these two impulses compare in relative strength. Until 1920, women were not allowed to vote. The black vote wasn’t secured nationwide until 1965. Voters under 21 earned the right to vote in 1972. In recent years, early and mail voting have become more widely available, reaching an all-time high in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. What we see now is different in detail, as it’s still a fundamental disregard for the consent of the governed.

Curtailing the electorate undermines the legitimacy of its choices. Just as we would no longer accept an election in which women were forbidden from casting ballots, we shouldn’t accept one where voters are intentionally forced to wait in eight-hour lines or their ballots are thrown out by poll workers acting as handwriting “experts.” We certainly cannot abide Trump’s lawyers who would throw out mail-in votes or the returns from entire counties.

Republican officeholders would be perfectly happy to go along with these extreme theories, Pfeiffer suggests, if they saw a prospect of success. They’re not tolerating Trump’s actions from simple lack of bravery:

The implication is that if things ever got really serious, the Republicans would step in to stop the election theft. I do not believe that. Math — not morals — is why Biden’s election victory is secure. He simply won by too large a margin in too many states for the results to be overturned. I believe without a shadow of doubt that if the election came down to a small margin in one state, the Republican Party — from top to bottom — would be engaged in a full fledged effort to overturn the will of the voters.

This is a conservative and reactionary impulse, not a partisan one. When race-baiters found their home in the Democratic Party, we had Jim Crow. Today, we have a Trump-led GOP. For both groups, the will of the people is only valid if it brings victory.

The Republicans want to support the myth of our representative system, which is why they won’t go along with simply ignoring the results of the 2020 election based on nothing more than crazed theories that don’t stand up in court. But, Pfeiffer is correct that if they could get away with stealing the election while retaining the fiction that we live in a Republic rather than a dictatorship, they would.