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Actually, We’re All a Little Bit Dumber
The kids’ table debate.
“The problem facing all the aspirants on the Reagan Library stage tonight: Republican primary voters don't care about policy. What they want is a proven record of violent sedition, sexual assault, and financial fraud.” — David Frum
Do we have to pretend that last night’s kids’ table debate mattered? Are we really going to do this again?
The debate itself was a muddled mess — a nonevent distinguished only by its embarrassing lack of substance and its utter pointlessness. Other than that, it was great.
We did get one memorable zinger, when Nikki Haley told Vivek Ramaswamy: “Honestly, every time I hear you, I feel a little bit dumber.” But even that was a bit warmed over, since she borrowed it from one of the great movie scenes of all time:
How much of a shitshow was it? Much of the time, the candidates were yelling at or interrupting one another as they rolled over the hapless moderators. The result was occasionally as incoherent as it was inaudible. My colleague Barry Rubin put together a montage of the lowlights:
Meanwhile, as one might expect from a Fox Business debate, there was no mention of Donald Trump’s call for the execution of General Mark Milley, or a judge’s ruling that may put Trump out of business in New York. Some of the candidates did take shots at the former guy, but it mostly amounted to rhetorical slap-fighting. As Nicholas Grossman writes in this morning’s Bulwark:
None tried to make a What type of party do we want to be? case against corruption and authoritarianism.
It was surreal, how the debate moderators avoided the profound, historical question of nominating a man who will be on trial for federal felonies during the campaign. And it was ridiculous that no candidate mentioned that the man they trail in the polls makes anti-democracy assertions on a regular basis….
As Grossman writes, the whole thing was surreal: “It felt like a broadcast from an alternate dimension—one where the Senate had convicted Donald Trump in the January 6th impeachment and barred him from office, freeing up Republicans to leave Trump and all his baggage behind them and hash out serious policy questions.”
If we must pretend that this matters, a case can be made that Nikki Haley once again had a good night and so was, in a sense, a winner of the debate for 2nd place. She took a solid swipe at Trump:
This is where President Trump went wrong. He focused on trade with China. He didn’t focus on the fact that they were buying up our farmland. He didn’t focus on the fact that they were killing Americans. He didn’t focus on the fact that they were stealing $600 billion in intellectual property. He didn’t focus on the fact that they put a spy base off our shores in Cuba. They didn’t focus enough on the fact that all of our law enforcement drones in America are Chinese, and we’ve got all these little surveillance cells.
Chris Christie continues to be a magnificent beast, and he came up with a new nickname for the Orange Guy:
I want to look at that camera right now and tell you, Donald: I know you’re watching. You can’t help yourself. I know you’re watching, OK? And you’re not here tonight, not because of polls and not because of your indictments. You’re not here tonight because you’re afraid of being on this stage and defending your record. You’re ducking these things. And let me tell you what’s going to happen: You keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. We’re gonna call you Donald Duck.
Ron DeSantis needed a breakout night, but once again, couldn’t get out of the way of his own cringe-inducing awkwardness. Based on news reports, Mike Pence and Tim Scott also attended.
But even though it feels like lazy punditry, it’s hard to ignore the conclusion that the biggest winner of the night was the guy who was a no-show. Trump has a massive lead in the polls and nothing that happened at the Reagan Library will change that.
The folks on Morning Joe summed it up:
JOE SCARBOROUGH: The debate last night. We’re going to get to it and play more the clips. But just overall-.
MIKA BRZEZINSKI: A mess!
JOE SCARBOROUGH: I had one Republican leader and one contributor. One after another after another, just they were texting and calling, all saying the same thing. What a mess. What an embarrassment. What a disaster.
WILLIE GEIST: It was. It was a lot of what we just showed in that clip talking over each other, the moderators having lost control of things, some very cringey moments, awkward moments. Nikki Haley, if you wanted to pick somebody, she had several adult moments. But for the most part, you’re watching and thinking, wow, this is, as some people put it, the kids table where they’re all fighting for second place as Donald Trump sits comfortably at home. And you watch that, you watch it and you ask yourself, why would Donald Trump ever participate in that debate with the lead he has? Why would he, you know, step into that fight?
Another winner: Joe Biden? Here’s Fox News contributor Mark Penn:
President Joe Biden went to sleep after the second Republican debate on Wednesday night knowing that the big event in Simi Valley, California left the GOP no closer to consolidating around a candidate against Donald Trump. The former president remains the likely nominee.
Co-moderator Dana Perino put it bluntly when she pointed out that with this number of candidates vying for the Republican nomination it’s impossible to defeat Trump unless they winnow the field. Still, all the candidates on stage in California declined to vote their rivals off the island.
In the two-hour debate, Bidenomics came out mostly unscathed. The seven Republican candidates were again uncomfortable talking about the economy and quickly fell back into discussing immigration, crime, Donald Trump or virtually anything other than economic policy.
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General Milley answers Trump
Host Norah O’Donnell asked Milley about Trump’s suggestion that he be put to death. Milley responds:
Look, I’m a soldier. I’ve been faithful and loyal to the Constitution of the United States for 44 and a half years, and my family and I have sacrificed greatly for this country, and my mother and father before them. And, you know, as much as these comments are directed at me, it’s also directed at the institution of the military, and there’s 2.1 million of us in uniform, and the American people can take it to the bank that all of us, every single one of us, from private to general, were loyal to that Constitution and will never turn our back on it, no matter what. No matter what the threats, no matter what the humiliation, no matter what.
If we’re willing to die for that document, if we’re willing to deploy to combat, if we’re willing to lose an arm, a leg, an eye to protect and support and defend that document, and protect the American people, then we’re willing to live for it too. So I’m not gonna comment directly on those things, but I can tell you that this military, this soldier, me, will never turn our back on that Constitution.
Was he worried about his safety after the former president’s comments?
“I’ve got adequate safety precautions, the general told O’Donnell. “I wish those comments had not been made, but they were, and we’ll take appropriate measures to ensure my safety and the safety of my family.”
In today’s Bulwark, my colleague Mona Charen writes that the “MAGA movement has made political violence and intimidation a regular feature of our public life.”
The MAGA Republican party is less like the party that nominated Romney than it is like the party that nominated Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And it’s a mistake, in my judgment, to minimize the role that fear now plays in assisting and enabling Trump’s continued dominance.
Romney is hardly alone among members of Congress in worrying about personal security. In the first year of Trump’ tenure, threats against members of Congress quadrupled from fewer than 900 to 3,930. Threats continued to rise throughout the Trump presidency, more than doubling by 2020. After January 6th, the Capitol Police estimated that there were more than 10,000 threats of violence or death against members.
Trump’s Empire of Fraud
On the latest episode of Trump Trials: A judge delivers a death sentence to Trump’s businesses in New York. Meanwhile, his lawyers are prepping for Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas to weigh in on a gag order, and some Republicans go Team Menendez. Ben Wittes and I take a deep dive.
1. Pro-Life Voters Will Eat Whatever Trump Serves Them
Trump’s attack in his recent Meet the Press interview on the six-week abortion ban Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in Florida as a “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake” provided the Republican contenders a sugar high they needed badly. In the aftermath, several of them seized on his comments as evidence that pro-lifers can’t trust Trump and that, as DeSantis said, “he’s preparing to sell you out.”
Yes he is—and it won’t hurt him. Especially if the other candidates give up on creating a contrast on this critical issue. This break could cost Trump some support among pro-life voters, but not likely enough to threaten his position as the all-but-certain primary victor. His support has only grown as he has racked up 91 criminal charges; it won’t drop off because of his remarks about abortion after he delivered the three new justices who overturned Roe v. Wade. Pro-life leaders will follow the voters—and eventually so will all the 2024 GOP candidates—when Trump wins the nomination next spring.
That’s why condemnation of Trump’s remarks from some conservative writers was robust, while from pro-life leaders it was weak sauce.
2. A Civil Case May Have Just Cost Trump His Business
On Tuesday, state court Judge Arthur F. Engoron entered a judgment against Trump on one of seven fraud-related counts. This one involves exorbitantly inflated or deflated property valuations made in statements of financial condition (SFCs), which reported his businesses’ assets, liabilities, and the value that would be returned to investors if they liquidated in a given year, for purposes of securing financing and insurance between 2011 and 2021.
In response to the ruling, Michael Cohen, who first flagged the issue in his testimony before Congress, told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins: “If you really want to get to Donald, the way to do it is through his bankbook. That’s what really gets to him.”