This is a transcript of the April 6 edition of the Political Gabfest, Slate’s weekly podcast about politics. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Emily Bazelon: Hello, and welcome to the Slate Political Gabfest for Thursday, April 6, the “Crossing Many Lines” edition. I’m Emily Bazelon, staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, and we are very happy to welcome Dana Stevens, Slate’s film critic from the Slate Culture Gabfest.
We are also here with John Dickerson, host of Face the Nation, who is in D.C. Dana and I are in Brooklyn.
On this week’s show, we have three topics. We’re going to start with the appointment of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and the end of the filibuster for SCOTUS appointments. That is all unrolling before our eyes today and will keep going into tomorrow. Then we want to discuss Trump’s approach to human rights, his response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent, terrible nerve gas attack against his own citizens in Syria. Trump has also been courting President Sisi of Egypt, despite his authoritarian crackdown on dissidents, and there are other signs that a more transactional foreign policy era is dawning.
Last, the many-tentacled octopus of business ties and potential conflicts among President Trump’s people. We’re especially interested in digging into Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who we learned this week will continue to reap the benefits of at least $740 million worth of real estate and investment business ventures, which would appear to be affected by decisions they could influence in government.
OK. Republicans are about to get their dearest love of the Trump presidency into the Supreme Court. Judge Neil Gorsuch will presumably be confirmed by the time you listen to this, or shortly after. The Democrats have decided to filibuster the Gorsuch nomination, so we’re going to see 40 or more Democrats voting against him. That means that he will not get to what’s called cloture. He will not get the 60 votes to get the up-and-down vote on the floor—that’s the actual confirmation vote. After the Democrats filibuster his nomination, all signs point to the Republican’s detonating the nuclear option and ending the filibuster for Supreme Court appointments.
A lot of senators seem to have misgivings about this, and yet it just seems like we’re on this march and that that is where it’s going to end. So, John, do you think this is just pointless, that the Democrats know they’re not going to stop Gorsuch, so why are they bothering? And do you feel like this is a sad loss of an important Senate tradition?
John Dickerson: Yes. Let’s go to the second question first. Usually, or in the past when this has been threatened over various times during the Senate’s history, there have been emergency efforts by the cooler heads in both parties to prevent it from happening. Then deals are made, and the nuclear option is averted. It’s one of those threats that is made to get an institution to break the ice floe and get things moving again. It’s not supposed to go all the way through, and what’s notable here is that it’s going all the way through with no backroom efforts. It’s just going to happen.
You can mark the start point on your calendar wherever you want it. You can go back to denying Merrick Garland even a hearing, you can go back to the Senate blockage of Bush appointees, you can go back to Robert Bork, you can back to the 17th Amendment, when you started having direct election of senators if you want. Wherever you go, this is a big deal because they don’t change rules like this very often in the Senate.
It is a better proof that despite ourselves—and that includes both everybody in the Senate, but also everybody in politics—there is a structure of partisanship that has taken over, which basically causes people to be completely beholden to the structure and unable to break out from it. That’s terrible, because that’s what’s making politics so partisan. This is a bad situation for both parties. And this is based on interviews with senators, so I’m not just making this up, but there are—
Bazelon: Oh, good!
Dickerson: There are Democratic senators here who are going to have to vote to try and maintain the filibuster, who would rather not. They think Gorsuch is—sure, he’s a conservative, and sure, they don’t agree with his opinions. But they believe that a president has the right to do this and that the Senate should confirm him. Now, they understand Garland and all of that, but they also understand that they don’t have the 60 votes. Given the political position for some of these senators in their home states, it would be better for them if they could vote for Gorsuch, but the groups in their states are putting too much pressure on them, so they can’t do that.
Well, Mitch McConnell had the same pressure from groups both in this specific moment but in blocking Garland. You now have a situation in which senators basically say neither party can tell their groups no. So the groups, which is to say the grass-roots and constituency groups that raise money off this kind of thing and put pressures on lawmakers, are more in control of both parties than they ever have been. That’s the structure that makes this situation one in which neither side can get out of it, and in which something will break, and in a time of constant breaking norms it’s not good to have another norm break. This norm forces compromise, and that’s the thing that’s being squeezed out of the system.
Bazelon: So Dana, the base is winning, the base on each side. Polarization is having yet another moment in the sunlight. Is there anything else going on here, though? Is there an advantage to Democrats in standing up against Gorsuch, given the history of Garland or given what kind of decisions they think that Gorsuch will make on the Supreme Court?
Dana Stevens: Yeah. That is such a tougher question than I would have said even before reading the briefing materials for this podcast. Last week, I listened to you talk about this with Jamelle Bouie, and he really had me on his side when he was standing up for the filibuster and saying even if it is a pure piece of political theater, holding up this norm is really important and the payback element is important. That it is actually important to not let Mitch McConnell get away with what he did to Merrick Garland.
Bazelon: The fight-fire-with-fire argument.
Stevens: Yeah. Jamelle had me up on the ramparts waving a flag for that. Then when I started to read about some of the practical implications for actual Democratic policy goals for blowing everything on this particular filibuster—
Bazelon: —Are you talking now about the filibuster just for the Supreme Court, because as far as we know it’s going to hold for legislation. Right, John? We’re not really worried about that yet.
Dickerson: You mean worried about losing the 60? Yeah, we are worried about it.
Bazelon: For legislation, too?
Dickerson: For legislation. I was meeting with a Republican senator yesterday, who said it’s basically happening. They are drawing up the legislation. It’s going to happen. For this reason: next big thing comes in, Democrats try to block it, Republicans feel that pressure from the House. Think about what’s being done on health care, just briefly. The Republicans are bending over backwards and doing all kinds of things, just as the Democrats did to pass the Affordable Care Act, to get health care squeezed in through reconciliation.
Why is that important? Because reconciliation needs only a majority vote in the Senate. The Freedom Caucus that’s being coddled by the president is the most conservative part of the Republican constituency. It is wagging the dog. The power it has is now moving over into Senate business. The next time something big is at stake in the Senate, all that inspires and gives power to the Freedom Caucus, that got Donald Trump elected, will come to bear and force senators to change the rule to a simple 50-vote victory.
Bazelon: OK. Then this is bigger than I realized. I thought it was Mitch McConnell who said that none of the senators actually favored doing away with the filibuster for legislation.
Dickerson: Well, he might not be giving the most complete version of the picture because obviously he doesn’t want, in this case, to say, “Yes, we are unleashing the hounds of hell.”
Stevens: Here’s a question for you guys. I was looking into the background of the filibuster and whence do they derive the authority to exercise this nuclear option, and I don’t understand in some ways. OK, we’re at our most partisan moment maybe in decades, but why hasn’t this happened already? Wasn’t the precedent for changing Senate rules some Supreme Court case from 1892? It seems like everything already would have been taken down to this kind of bare-knuckles simple majority before.
Bazelon: Except that the senate has this tradition of being the more moderate, more slow moving, more bipartisan body. The famous saucer that cools the teacup, and so the history of the filibuster—right, John?—is that it used to only be used a few times in each congressional session. That was true up through the 1990s, right?
Dickerson: Right, yeah.
Bazelon: Then it became deployed constantly. The whole tit-for-tat of who did what is a little tedious, but I think that the escalation—the period in which the filibuster goes from being a rare weapon only pulled out in dire circumstances, to one that’s routine—I thought the Republicans were responsible for more of the ratcheting up of its use.
Dickerson: There is obviously debate about that.
Bazelon: Of course.
Dickerson: What you count as a filibuster, a lot of times the threat of a filibuster is sort of raised and then not employed because the other side does something to avoid it, so it’s not counted as a proper filibuster. But if you go by the pure numbers, I believe you’re right about the Republicans. But again, I want to throw in the caveat that I don’t have those figures in front of me.
Bazelon: One question I always have with the filibuster. It’s essentially antidemocratic, because it goes from majority rule to this bigger supermajority threshold for passing legislation. If the Senate does get rid of it for everything, as John is suggesting, we are going to have an experiment in which the party in power that holds the House, the Senate, and the presidency gets to pursue its agenda. Then we find out what that agenda is like to live with the way we would in a parliamentary democracy, where one party comes in and controls the government and makes the rules for a while. Then if people don’t like it, they can throw that party out. I suppose what I wonder is if this could actually be clarifying. Sometimes gridlock and stalemate in Washington mean that the more extreme parts of either party’s agenda never really get enacted, and that adds to this sort of cloudiness of American government, where we don’t really know who to hold responsible and it feels sclerotic. Dana, what do you think about that?
Stevens: Yeah. That would be the argument for, I guess, efficiency of government, but then it also just seems like it could lead to a very sclerotic ossification. Can you have a sclerotic ossification?
Dickerson: Oh my God! I think a sclerotic ossification is basically just a stone.
Stevens: Yeah. So just imagine a hardened lump of ideology on both sides, right? It seems like the reason the filibuster is considered to be this gracious, old-world feature the Senate has that the House doesn’t anymore, is that it allows the minority a say. It lets the people who are out of power have their Frank Capra moment of speaking for 15 hours on their unpopular opinion. So it’s both antidemocratic and in a way, in its spirit, also preserves something of democracy.
Dickerson: I love your take though, Emily, because it’s the one possible bright light in what’s otherwise a pretty dark picture. In other words, it basically puts the ruling party on the hook. Of course, what we don’t have in a parliamentary democracy is the ability to vote out and that’s particularly true of the Senate—the Senate being six-year terms, as opposed to the House. The idea of the House was, if they’re closer to the people and the grass-roots than the Senate, then they can be voted out if they misbehave. The Senate taking a longer view can’t be corrected by popular will as fast. It sort of works against the design of the institution.
The other thing about the filibuster is the way in which it’s a part of the original American design, even though it wasn’t a part of the original American design. In fact—actually just a brief historical aside—I believe it’s true that the filibuster arrives in 1917, when Woodrow Wilson—I can’t remember the measure, in the lead-up to World War I, he was trying to help Europe—was blocked by 12 Republican senators, had no way to stop them and then they instituted something called Rule 22, which was the beginning of the filibuster.
The part of the American system that it protects is that the minority has some say. That it can’t be railroaded by the majority. It will be harder to protect the minority rights now, after the filibuster disappears on the Supreme Court nominees, and then, if the second step happens, disappears on legislation.
Bazelon: Right. But think about the agendas we’re talking about here. Here’s a partial list. The Republicans scrap the filibuster, they can pass large, permanent tax cuts; they can do oil drilling in the Arctic; they can pass a national concealed-carry gun law; they can pass a health care bill, as you were talking about earlier, that didn’t have to cater to Democrats, didn’t have to do some of the weird contortionist things that reconciliation would have required. Democrats get back into power, they could increase the minimum wage, they could pass gun control, they could up social security benefits, do Medicare for all. There’s a wish list on either side involving actual change to our policy making that seems out of reach in part because of the filibuster.
I guess, Dana, when you look at those two lists, you probably feel better about one side than the other, but do you feel like trying them both is worthwhile, in terms of testing these policy ideas?
Stevens: I guess, but the test, as I understand it, would be a permanent rule change going forward, right?
Bazelon: Well, I mean, they could always change it back, if they like.
Dickerson: Change it back, knowing that it’s as easily broken as before. I mean, once you break the seal, you’ve broken the seal.
Stevens: Right. I mean, it’s certainly spoken of in the press as if this is it. That the rule will disappear if this path is chosen by the Democrats. I don’t know. Now you’ve got me torn again. Maybe we give each a try. Each side gets its interference-free way to try to make its policy happen, but insofar as that would lead to great reduction, it seems, of incentive for bipartisanship, that doesn’t seem like a great path going forward.
Dickerson: When you just ran through that list, Emily, one obvious downside of your otherwise attractive theory of making the majority own the majority is that you can’t keep progress from happening just because of the filibuster. First, lots of conservatives would believe progress should be in air quotes, which is to say that, as John Boehner used to say, “Part of what conservatives want to do is keep legislation from being passed.” Just the production, the efficient production of legislation is not an [inaudible] good. Second, a lot of the things you mentioned ... for instance, tax reform. Let’s say that gets passed on a majority basis and the country hates it, and you have a change and Republicans are not in control and Democrats are. In a short period of time, businesses that have to rely on that tax reform, or Americans who have to rely on health care reform, or others who have to rely on whatever was just passed, are getting whipsawed around. That can have real and painful consequences.
Now, the possible rejoinder to that would be, OK, let’s say it goes awry, the party gets voted out of power. Then maybe the changes to whatever the first piece of legislation on tax reform would be embroidery as opposed to wholesale replacement. Except now you have a majority, and your base that controls you is going to want wholesale replacement, as we see with the Affordable Care Act, not simply embroidery to the thing that just was so bad that it got whatever party was previously in power voted out. It seems like you would have increased whipsaw-ism.
Bazelon: Although, just to play devil’s advocate, it’s been so interesting to me to watch the Republicans as they try to negotiate within their own party over health care reform. Up surface the very differences and clashes that previously were all framed as a partisan fight. You have the Republican moderates yelling at the House Freedom Caucus, and the House Freedom Caucus yelling back that the moderates are left wing. Suddenly, part of this is because we have the baseline of Obamacare to start with, and that has changed the whole discussion, but it just seems to me there’s a way the party can’t pretend that all of the problems, or at least the lack of solutions, are the fault of the other party. And so the party itself perhaps is having, at least about health care, a more comprehensive—and I would argue honest—internal debate than we saw before the election.
OK, let’s wind up there, because we just got a really surprising, at least to me, news bulletin. John, what just happened?
Dickerson: House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes today issued a statement saying he was stepping down from the committee that he’s headed and that has been a part of so much crazy activity in the last two weeks. He says this is the result of several (what he calls) left-wing activist groups that have filed accusations against him with the Office of Congressional Ethics. He is now going to have Rep. Mike Conway, with assistance from Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney, take temporary charge of the Russia investigation while the House Ethics Committee looks in to the matter.
Bazelon: What do we think of Conway and Gowdy? Let’s start with Conway, whom I’ve never heard of.
Dickerson: We know of Gowdy, of course, from the Benghazi committee, and he’s been a very strong advocate for spending as much or more time of the committee’s effort on the question of unmasking and leaking that Nunes was at the center of. I think we would expect Trey Gowdy to be the spokesman for the committee, probably because he’s more versed in the public role of being head of a controversial committee. The question now though is about contacts with the White House, which is the big thing that Nunes was being criticized for. What role does this play in that? Trey Gowdy recently criticized the president, actually, for claiming that Susan Rice she had committed potentially criminal acts.
Bazelon: With no evidence.
Dickerson: Exactly. Trey Gowdy said we had not heard anything from Devin Nunes along those kinds of lines, with respect to the separation of powers.
* * *
Bazelon: Let’s turn to topic two. Earlier this week there was just terrible news from Syria, a town in northwest Syria was subject to an airstrike. We don’t know exactly what kind of nerve gas was used, but more than 100 people died in just terrible circumstances. The apparent culprit is Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Countries around the world condemned the attacks, including the Trump administration, but the Trump administration spent more of its time and words blaming President Obama for setting a red line about chemical attacks and then not doing anything about it when Assad crossed that red line in 2013 with an earlier chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 people.
I should just footnote that at that time, in 2013, Trump tweeted, “Do not attack Syria.” We’re now at a point where, before this terrible attack, the Trump administration dropped the longtime American demand that Assad has to give up power for there to be any political resolution in Syria. Now, Trump is saying that the chemical attack has changed his view and he said that the attack crosses many lines, beyond a red line, without saying anything about what he was going to do about it. Dana, is Trump right that the Obama people deserve a measure of blame for this, that a lot of what happens unfolds from there?
Stevens: It seems like that is a talking point, not just with Trump but also among critics of the Obama administration as it was happening, right? That his inaction on Syria, and the statement of the big red line and not following forward with it, was one of the big foreign policy mistakes of his administration. At the same time, it’s very easy to see how a president who inherited a country ill-advisedly at war in the Middle East would not want to start a war toward the end of his two terms.
I don’t think I had a strong feeling at the time about what Obama should have done in Syria. I just don’t understand that part of the world well enough, but what seems hypocritical and a more worrisome, poor policy on Trump’s part is that he doesn’t seem to be changing anything that Obama did. I mean, there’s not any evidence that he wants to make any specific moves against Assad. He seems to want to brandish a saber and at the same time, change nothing. So he kind of just seems to be kicking the can down the road at this moment, and when it comes to human rights, not even talking the talk that Obama was.
In fact, I think there was a quote, an anonymous quote from someone in government, saying that Trump plans to—may not have just been in relation to Syria, but also to other situations that Trump is going to have to deal with—“be more discreet in his pursual of foreign policy in the Middle East,” which, if you’re talking about human rights, seems like the precise opposite of what the American president is supposed to do. Not have a bully pulpit, not set a model for the world, but just do some under-the-table dealing.
Bazelon: I have also been struggling with this. It seems like the United States, in the Trump era, is giving up some of its previous claim to moral authority and not speaking up in the way that we’re used to hearing, and Trump is taking this deliberately transactional approach to foreign policy, where he thinks of people like Assad as potential allies in fighting ISIS. Until this sudden (maybe) change of heart following the nerve gas attack, it seemed like Trump was interested in thinking about Assad in those terms. The way he treated the president of Egypt, Sisi. Having Sisi come, talking about him as extraordinary, someone who’s doing a great job. I think this was language that Obama and presidents like George W. Bush would not have used.
Stevens: No mention of the American citizen who’s been jailed by Sisi for essentially doing good works.
Bazelon: Or the thousands of Egyptian dissidents who are in prison. I mean, there’s just no question that Sisi has this alarming, authoritarian record, but is it fair, John, to be so worried about the loss of American words, when American deeds weren’t necessarily following? Is there a way in which Trump is just being blunt about recognizing the way our presence around the world had already changed? It was just that President Obama didn’t want to say this stuff?
Dickerson: Yeah, you’ve got two different things to look at. One is the specifics of Syria, and the second is the larger human rights approach from the Trump administration, which is being totally rewritten by the response to Syria. Sticking to Syria for just a moment, if Donald Trump is right and the larger foreign policy consensus in both parties is right, President Obama really erred when he drew a red line and then didn’t follow up on his words. The reason that’s important, some would say, is the totally elusive and phony idea of American prestige, which is that America has to do what it says, and that the reason it has to do what it says is so it can send threats and have countries react without America actually having to follow through on the threat.
That argument is made and there are lots and lots of examples used by countries that had nothing to do with the Middle East, that called up their various allies in the American government and said, after the president didn’t back up his red line statement, said, “Oh, I guess we’re all on our own now.” Let’s stipulate for a moment that that’s the real lesson of the red lines: You don’t say stuff you don’t back up. First of all, you’ve got to just step aside for the irony of the president whose own U.N. ambassador said Sunday on Face the Nation that she basically considered his tweets chatter and the things he says about China, like that it’s been raping America, to be not really that notable. In a world where the phrase “Words matter” is constantly used, the U.N. ambassador was essentially saying, “Don’t pay attention to a lot of what the president says.”
You now have the president standing on a rule that says, “Words matter so much that the president’s slip-up here on having said ‘the red line’ ”—the New York Times did a great look back on how that phrase was used, and it was, as I recall, essentially President Obama riffing in the moment, and then having to live up to his riff—anyway, “don’t be sloppy about words” is the message. Now you have a president who is setting a new standard for sloppiness on words in foreign policy, saying, “You must not violate what you’ve said.”
So that’s one little irony, but the second thing is, he has now put himself on the hook, saying this crosses lots of red lines, the U.N. ambassador saying, “If the world won’t join us in taking action against Syria, we may go it alone.” They have now put themselves out there. They have now done, maybe not as much as the President Obama did with the red line comment, but when you have a President Trump saying one thing and the U.N. ambassador matching that, maybe you could argue they’ve said more. In other words, it’s not just a slip-up of one person, but it’s now sending an administration message that something is going to be done.
If they then retreat from that, they will be missing the lesson they say is the heart of the Obama red line. That’s all of what’s contained right now in Syria. On the other stuff, yes, administrations have to stand up for human rights. It’s quite important, but they can’t do it without backing it up, and in some cases there are perfectly reasonable reasons to not be out front about human rights. To work behind the scenes. The case of the American citizen who worked with street children [inaudible] may be better adjudicated through quiet negotiation, and in fact, the part of that negotiation might be praising the Egyptian president in public. Fine. Gives him a certain sense of legitimacy. The Obama administration wouldn’t even meet with him. Giving that legitimacy in public and then, in exchange for that, request privately the release of this American citizen. That is perfectly reasonable, perfectly smart, and what has to be done when you don’t have total metaphysical control over the behavior of other nations.
Bazelon: Though we don’t have any evidence that’s actually what’s happening. That would just be a good thing to do, right?
Dickerson: It would be a good thing to do and when the administration says they’re going to try and work things more quietly, that is presumably what they’re trying to do. I mean, they’d be crazy if they weren’t. And by the way, remember when President Obama was criticized for not working hard enough to get certain American hostages released. The argument the administration would give was, “You know a lot of time working to get those hostages released is done in quiet and not with big, flashy statements, which puts the people who are holding the hostages into a corner and makes it tougher to do things.”
There is obviously a time for the United States to be a moral leader and speak up and act out, but there’s also plenty of humanitarian work that needs to be done without making nations embarrassed on the world stage, and therefore not able to step back. We should finally say, in the Middle East in particular, where the U.S. has a pretty spotty record, putting U.S. fingerprints on human rights activity makes the U.S. own it in a way that sets people into their corners, because of their existing feelings about the United States and its meddling in the Middle East, in a way that can be totally counterproductive.
Bazelon: I guess I just keep going back to this word transactional, and I suppose also “America first.” I really recoil from that slogan, given its earlier history, but Trump wants to use it. All this seems to be framed in terms of American interests. It’s as if the lives and fortunes of people around the world just have sort of dropped out of our calculus.
Stevens: Yeah, yeah, and not only in Trump language but in Rex Tillerson’s too. Things like him not showing up for the annual Human Rights Report. Which I guess is not completely unprecedented for a secretary of state, but it doesn’t send a great message about his dedication to human rights. I guess he wrote a little prologue that was read for him, but it was sort of the minimum engagement he could possibly have shown. It’s been very disturbing since the campaign, I think, this real visceral identification that Trump seems to feel with strongmen, really across the board. I was looking at a quote that he gave to Fox in September, during the campaign, about Sisi, the Egyptian dictator. I don’t know. Is Sisi even elected, or is he ...
Stevens: He’s put in power, in a one-party election, right. Trump says of Sisi, “He took control of Egypt and he really took control of it.” And there is just kind of a pleasure in the idea of this strongman’s takeover, that leaves a really bad taste in one’s mouth.
* * *
Bazelon: Turning to topic three, I keep enjoying the rise of Richard Painter and Norm Eisen. They are the chief ethics lawyers for George W. Bush and Obama, respectively, and they are now all over the place. In the op-ed pages, on radio, kind of being the ethics police for this administration. This week, they wrote, “Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have so many potential conflicts of interest that, if they abide by ethics laws and followed White House practices, they won’t be able to advise the President on three of his top priorities: trade, tax reform and Wall Street deregulation.” This is at odds with this growing portfolio of Jared Kushner’s, which has been getting a lot of attention, and some mockery, in the last few weeks. Kushner is supposed to be dealing with China and Mexico and the Middle East, peace in the Middle East, and Canada, and also restructuring the government in something called the New Office of American Innovation.
Stevens: A lot of Post-Its on his computer. Just really blocking out the screen at this point.
Bazelon: Right, but because of the properties he owns, the deals he’s still trying to make—or at least his companies are—and the loans he’s taken out, he has conflicts of interest all over the place. Dana, what do you think? Is this couple, Jared and Ivanka, like a juggernaut? They are these beautiful people who appear in a million photographs, looking so pristine and kind of princely and queenly, if that makes any sense. And yet, they seem to be treading on this very fine line, across a potential chasm. I just wonder if you think, are they actually going to fall or is someone going to figure out a way to hold them responsible for these potential ethics violations, or are we going to see a world in which our norms about ethical behavior and government and corruption just change?
Stevens: I don’t know. I’m afraid that the latter is already in full swing of happening. It seems like all these ethicists, all these brilliant government ethicists coming out with statements about the Trump administration might as well just be a cloud of gnats being batted away, for all of the good it does, or all of the indictments and investigations that it’s bringing about. Talking about Jared and Ivanka, I’m really going to get out of the Dickerson objectivity zone and just start spewing some of my own intense dislike of this unelected, inexperienced, just this family couple. Coupled with, which we haven’t really talked about yet today, but coupled with the kicking off of Steve Bannon from the NSC, which I think must be related to this power struggle between Kushner and Bannon that you keep reading about, and all the jealousies of Jared Kushner’s power.
It just seems like it’s all speaking to this real consolidation of the administration around the family. One member of this family has been elected by a tiny margin, while losing the popular vote. Everybody else in his family is just coat-tailing along for the ride, and they seem to have exactly the same unconcern with ethics, or divesting from their personal assets, except in name, as Trump does, with even less of a mandate to carry out whatever vague governmental policies they’re supposed to be pursuing.
The whole thing is very, very creepy to me, and Jared Kushner just seems like someone who is so vastly overwhelmed by and underqualified for all the things that he’s being called to the table to do. It’s really, really hard to imagine how things like the Mideast peace process, for example, are going to make any progress with this 36-year-old realtor in charge of them.
Bazelon: John, do you think that the differences between Trump and the way he’s constructed his White House are not as giant as it sometimes appears to the left? That some of this kind conflict always exists and we’re hyperfocused on it right now? I guess the comparison’s difficult, just to answer my own question, because the Obama administration had this very clean reputation. Now, we have a whole bunch of people who’ve already been cited in various ways for ethics issues. Kellyanne Conway, Christopher Liddell, Bannon, Reince Priebus, Dan Scavino Jr. I have to mention Tom Price. There’s another report about him buying pharma stock, even as he was helping to kill a rule that was going to hurt drug companies. I don’t know. I can’t tell whether some of this always goes on and it just seems like this is a particular cesspool, or whether this is really different.
Dickerson: Well, what doesn’t go on, is you don’t have a son-in-law and daughter at the center of things. And you don’t have people coming in with such extraordinary wealth, which in the pro-Trump view, means, “Look, it takes a long time to unwind this stuff. Nobody really knows how to deal with holdings that are this large. You can’t cordon off everything.” In the anti-Trump case, these conflicts make nothing you do removed from the taint of personal enrichment. Even if you’re not seeking to enrich yourself, there is a gravitational pull of your previous engagements that you may not be, can’t even constantly be looking out for. Or even if you are constantly looking out for it, it’s going to give you twice as much work than if you were just a person without these kinds of challenges. And also, by the way, it creates a constant set of questions for you that you’re always having to beat back and answer.
I think it creates tension with the idea that he was talking about as a candidate, that unless you drain Washington of all these kinds of special, inside-access arrangements, Washington would never work. There is tension with his own message. But one other point I would make is that there are a lot of people who see Jared Kushner as a force for good.
Bazelon: Force for moderation?
Dickerson: He’s a force for moderation. He was a force for moderation in the campaign and is a force for moderation now, in the White House, in the globalists versus nationalists. The nationalists being Steve Bannon and Steven Miller and the globalists or rationalists being Jared Kushner—
Bazelon: —Gary Cohn.
Dickerson: Gary Cohn. So, and as then another Republican lawmaker was putting it to me recently, you can call them globalists, rationalists, or you can just call them Democrats.
Bazelon: They used to be.
Dickerson: Right, which they used to be, so that makes some Republicans nervous, from that standpoint, from the ideological standpoint. I think also, you have a chaos White House. Which is to say, that (A) its internal arrangement is chaotic, and (B) it has so understaffed the other departments that it can’t rely on them to do some or any of the other work, because—even though there are people in those jobs, holdovers and so forth—the team is just not even on the field by any measure of the imagination.
White Houses always make the mistake of trying to run things through the White House, and this is something George Shultz advised Trump: Don’t run everything through the White House. Treat your Cabinet secretaries as your staff because they have broader perspectives, they have staff that can deal with these things. You’re not running the entire federal government through the same seven people. This White House has not yet learned that.
The chaos of the moment puts things on Jared Kushner’s shoulder. Finally, one point that Jeffrey Goldberg made, which I think is interesting, is counterintuitive on the lack of experience point, when sending Jared Kushner to either deal with Middle East peace or Iraq. His argument is that in the cultures that Jared Kushner would be working with, sending a personal family relative to do your negotiating is a sign of the honor that you are bestowing on the people with whom you’re negotiating.
Bazelon: And that they’ll read it that way.
Bazelon: Like the Chinese, the people in the Middle East.
Dickerson: Precisely. That Trump, Jeffrey says, cared enough to send the father of his grandchildren. I don’t know if that theory has any weight to it, but I like it as a counterpoint to all of the other criticism.
Stevens: Although it does make Kushner seem like a piece of symbolic [inaudible], rather than a negotiating mind who has anything to bring to the table, besides his [crosstalk].
Dickerson: No, it doesn’t seek to do that. It seeks to add weight to whatever else he brings to the table.
Bazelon: I for one am waiting to see where the scandals unfold and taking comfort in the fact that the conflict-of-interest laws in the government do apply to Jared and Ivanka now. Trump can claim that as president, he doesn’t have any conflicts of interest. I think that shows a huge, gaping hole in our laws, but these laws do apply to everyone else in the White House, so it will be interesting to see how all that unfolds.
* * *
Let’s go to cocktail chatter. John. What will you be dreaming about this weekend, over whatever drink is in your hand?
Dickerson: I wish there were a drink in my hand this weekend, but even if there isn’t—
Bazelon: —No drinks?
Dickerson: Well, you forget that I work on the weekends and haven’t quite gotten to the stage yet where I’m drinking and working. My cocktail chatter is not something so much to be talked about, but is the discovery I’ve made, through my son, of Oscar Peterson on YouTube. The first thing is that my 14-year-old son, who’s gotten in to music—this wonderful, multigenerational thing that’s happening, which is that he’s started to listen to some of the same music I did, and so we’re having this conversation about music in a way that represents a totally different stage in the relationship.
But then I started listening to his playlists, and one of them had a bunch of Oscar Peterson songs on it. His grandfather, whom he never really got to know well enough, was a huge Oscar Peterson fan. There’s that echo, but he started playing these YouTube videos and there are two that are really worth watching. One is a seven-minute interview that Dick Cavett did with Oscar Peterson. They’re just sitting by the piano and Peterson is going through all the different musical styles of various great pianists, jazz and blues pianists, and he’s so specific and articulate about what is essentially an emotional thing and a creative thing, and he’s fantastic.
There is another interview on YouTube with Andre Previn and Oscar Peterson. It’s about an hour long, and it’s just two pianists talking about the skill and the craft and even if you don’t like piano music, it’s a really great conversation. I recommend that to people.
Bazelon: That sounds awesome. Dana, what’s your chatter for today?
Stevens: I was trying to come up with a chatter for this week that brought politics and culture together in some way that would presumably be of interest both to your listenership and to ours on the Culture Gabfest, and there happens to be a Netflix three-part show opening this week that I think brings politics and culture together in a really fascinating way. It’s the adaptation of Mark Harris’s book Five Came Back, which is a wonderful book about five Hollywood directors, from the Golden Age of Hollywood, who all had some involvement with World War II. They were sent by the government to make either propaganda films or documentary films. The five directors are William Wyler, Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Huston and John Ford. The book is a really fabulous—it’s a way of getting to know their work after the war, the work they’re famous for, and also this kind of secret period of their careers, when they were working for the U.S. government.
Of course, what you don’t get in the book is getting to see the movie clips. I would still recommend reading the book as well, or maybe instead if you could only do one, but this is a really faithful and well-done adaptation. It cuts between clips of some of the wartime film they made, clips from their later films, interviews with them that survived, and interviews with contemporary filmmakers who are really knowledgeable and interested in their movies. Steven Spielberg’s company, Emblem Entertainment, is behind this series and—
Bazelon: —Is it a documentary series?
Stevens: It’s a documentary, yeah. It’s sort of a film history documentary. Spielberg is interviewed at length and he’s just such a film historian himself, and it’s wonderful to hear him on, for example, The Best Years of Our Lives, the great World War II return film by William Wyler. And who else? Guillermo del Toro does some talking. Meryl Streep is the narrator of the whole thing. They got some good A-list names, and it’s just a really fascinating little jaunt through Hollywood history. That’s my ... I guess it’s an endorsement, rather than a cocktail chatter, but—
Bazelon: —No, no.
Stevens: I’ll chatter about it at parties, all right?
Bazelon: It can double. That sounds great. My cocktail chatter this weekend, I’ve been watching civil rights issues percolate around the country with the special interests lately, and this week, a couple of things happened that I was paying attention to. One was that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a review of all the consent decrees that the Justice Department administers with the nation’s police departments. This is a big difference between the Trump administration and the Obama Justice Department.
The Obama Justice Department saw these pattern-or-practice investigations of police departments as a really important way to try to put the energy of the federal government behind reform. This is based on a law that goes back to the ’90s. The Bush administration did these investigations too. Particularly up for grabs right now are consent decrees the Justice Department negotiated in Baltimore and then they issued a big report in Chicago, but didn’t have time to negotiate an actual agreement and settlement in Chicago.
Essentially, Sessions is saying, “We might take all of this back. We’re not sure we really want to be monitoring police departments.” And Sessions couched this in terms of freeing cops to do their best work, but some of the police chiefs, particularly in Baltimore said, “Wait a second. This is really a gut punch. We’ve been counting on the Justice Department’s support and some funding that sometimes comes with this kind of monitoring, to make changes that we really needed to make.” That is one to watch.
The second, happier note of the week was that the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a big decision in a case called Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, in which the court found that sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act from the 1960s includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. This has been a long-elusive idea in the law. Congress has not passed national protections against this form of discrimination in the workplace, and the 7th Circuit was essentially saying that the meaning of sex in the Civil Rights Act really does cover sexual orientation and perhaps has changed over time.
At least one of the judges, Judge Posner, wrote an opinion that was a real defense of interpreting language in the law, based on its current meaning, and a kind of response to originalism, the theory that you have to have a meaning frozen in amber at the time the law was written.
If you’re interested in various justifications for changing how a text is read and also a defense of sticking with old meanings, there is a dissent in this decision. It was eight to three, and the dissent is by Judge Diane Sykes, who was, and still is, talked about as a potential Supreme Court nominee for Trump. Anyway, I really recommend these lively, dueling opinions in this case, and it could be a really important decision. It’s the kind of thing that could go up to the Supreme Court and could really change the law.
OK, that’s our show for today. Dana, it was very fun to have you as a special guest. Thank you.
Stevens: It was an honor. I should just tell you guys that this is the one Slate podcast that I never miss. I cannot process the week’s political occurrences without hearing all three of you on this, so thanks for having me on.
Bazelon: Our pleasure.
Dickerson: Thanks, Dana.