As revelations continue to pour from the Jan. 6 committee, Julia Ioffe and Tara Palmeri discuss the mounting pressure on Merrick Garland to indict the former president, how Trump’s donor anxiety might be the driving force behind his forthcoming ‘24 campaign announcement, why the Dems’ long-standing misconceptions about immigrant priorities have prevented them from developing a comprehensive electoral strategy, what a DeSantis presidency might look like, and which party has the deeper political bench.
Tara Palmeri: Julia, this may have been the most explosive week of January 6th testimony. We now know what many have long suspected—that Trump planned to have his supporters march toward the Capitol. Does this disclosure, following Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony, move the needle forward on an indictment? I’ve previously reported that people close to Attorney General Merrick Garland think an indictment is a long shot, as he will have an adverse reaction to political committees demanding action from the D.O.J. But maybe the calculus is shifting.
Julia Ioffe: You know, I heard this last summer, too, that Garland was worried about balancing the need to punish such unprecedented acts and setting a precedent in which an incoming administration prosecutes its predecessors. But that was last summer, before Hutchinson, before these hearings, when we didn’t know nearly as much as we do now. It seems a much harder line to walk now that it’s increasingly clear just how unprecedented—and dangerous—Trump’s actions were, and how close we came to losing the entire system that Garland is trying to uphold.
Despite this classic Washington syndrome of focusing intently on your one little tree so you don’t have to think about the forest fire that’s coming for it, it does seem like the pressure on Garland is growing. Between the mind-boggling Hutchinson testimony and this week’s revelations that this was all planned in the White House, the Jan. 6th committee has presented a very compelling case that what we saw on January 6, 2021 was not a spontaneous riot but a planned coup that, thankfully, failed. The hearings are, to me, a really good reminder of the fact that so many people who come to D.C. to make a career of politics—either as the elected official or her staff—have law degrees. That’s why this looks so much like the work of a prosecutor presenting a meticulously crafted case in a criminal trial.
I’ve always thought that the January 6th committee has had two jobs, especially since the G.O.P. has refused to cooperate with it in any way and it didn’t seem to make a dent in how people vote. One, to create the first comprehensive historical record of the attempted coup. Two, to provide evidence—and political cover—for prosecutors, whether they work for Garland in D.C. or elsewhere in the country, to charge people involved in attempting the overthrow of the U.S. government. We’re already seeing murmurs that Mark Meadows, who was Trump’s chief of staff on that day, might be charged. Whether the prosecutors come for Trump regarding his actions on January 6 and the lead-up to that day is still an open question. But it’s becoming harder and harder for Garland to resist.
Speaking of Trump, Axios reported this morning that he’ll be returning to D.C. later this month for the first time since leaving office for an event at the America First Policy Institute, whatever that is. Then Olivia Nuzzi followed up by reporting that Trump has made up his mind and that his only question is whether to announce before the midterms, or after. Tara, you’ve been reporting that Trump is antsy to move up his announcement date. Is this performance another sign that he’s trying to beat Ron DeSantis to the punch?
Tara: Advisors I’ve spoken with say that Trump is desperate to turn the national conversation away from Jan. 6. He’s calling around, asking for advice, and realizes he doesn’t have the same microphone he would have as a candidate. That’s a big thing that’s motivating him to announce.
He’s also obsessed with the perception that Jan. 6 is hurting him with big donors, who are tired of the antics and worry about how his Jan. 6 baggage will impact the presidential election if he decides to run. Not to mention they’re having a bit of a love affair right now with DeSantis, who they are donating to under the guise of his gubernatorial campaign. He’s raised more than $100 million.
Politico reported this morning that Trump has been holding small dinners around the country with these money men, like casino magnate Phil Ruffin. The thing that I find interesting about this is that Trump is going to their turf to feel them out. This reeks of desperation to me, because one thing I remember from covering the Trump White House was that he absolutely hated overnights, and they always tried to arrange trips so that he could be back at home, sleeping in his own bed. This means he’s courting the money, not just holding court in Bedminster as he could do when he was president. It suggests that he’s feeling insecure about his status among the donor class, something I’ve heard from his advisors. Indeed, the January 6 hearings have reinforced his toxicity to some mega-donor Republicans, but one top bundler stressed to me that a mass exodus has not occurred yet.
If Trump announces his run before the midterms, however, DeSantis will be undercut. Remember, he has to run for reelection in Florida first, and Trump will be able to proposition the donor class to choose among the candidates. (Most of them do not want to give money this early on, especially before a mid-terms.) On top of that, Trump will have a chorus of candidates that he endorsed on the trail saying they’re all in for Trump.
This is the problem with DeSantis—he’s Trump-made and has to run for reelection. But as I’ve been reporting for weeks, and Trump finally said himself to New York, it’s not if, it’s when. Everyone around him is just standing by and getting the books ready—including the woman managing his political operation, Susie Wiles, who looks increasingly poised to also run his campaign. (Sadly, Trump’s first wife, Ivana, passed away today.)
Of course, the majority of Republicans wish he’d wait because an announcement could indeed turn the midterms into a referendum on Trump rather than on a host of other issues, like the economy, where Democrats are vulnerable. But despite their warnings, many fully expect that Trump, who is being investigated in multiple states, will do what’s best for himself rather than the party.
Speaking of which: Julia, you were in Europe a few weeks ago—does it feel like everyone is starting to accept that Trump may be president again?
Julia: I think that’s certainly the fear. Europeans are still so traumatized by the four years of Trump (if you don’t count the shit he kicked up during his campaign). It wasn’t that long ago that the putative leader of the free world was trashing NATO, mocking long-standing American allies and siding with dictators instead of with them. It only ended a year and a half ago, and if the last 20 years have taught the world anything, it’s that post-Cold War American foreign policy can fluctuate wildly from administration to administration. That makes Europeans feel increasingly like they should not rely too much on American leadership and instead look inward for strategy and guidance.
They’ve been so relieved that Biden, a member in good standing of America’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment, especially now that Russia has unleashed this destructive and destabilizing war on Europe’s eastern flank. But they know that he won’t be in the White House forever. And they fear that, even if Trump isn’t re-elected in 2024, that someone just like him will become president and then they’ll be left to face Vladimir Putin on their own. Or, worse, they’ll have to face an empowered Putin, who has the U.S. president in his corner—again.
But Tara, can I just get you back to DeSantis for a moment? I, too, am seeing the Republicans who loved Trump’s policies but hated Trump’s personality flock to DeSantis—or privately swoon over him. But what kind of president is DeSantis likely to be? His culture-war agenda in Florida was clearly designed to get national attention—but it’s also absolutely terrifying. A law that allows people to ram protestors with cars? Another that doesn’t let L.G.B.T.Q. teachers speak about their partners in the classroom? Is that what we can expect to see on a national level from President DeSantis?
Tara: I think you will absolutely see a President DeSantis regularly fiddling with cultural hot buttons that sound like dog whistles for the MAGA base, but are actually targeting suburban white women. It’s a dark artform that he and Glenn Youngkin have perfected, perhaps with the help or influence of Jeff Roe—picking incendiary fights in defense of the nuclear family. It’s a way for them to tap into the anxieties of swing voters, who care about schools, safety, pocketbook issues, etc. Our Puck partner Tina Nguyen reported that DeSantis’ wife, Casey, has been his single-person focus group when engaging in specific culture wars that appeal to suburban women.
At the same time, DeSantis is learning that this is a difficult dance when it comes to abortion. He’s under pressure from the national Christian right to make abortion laws in Florida more restrictive, but it’s something he’s been hesistant to tackle because of the realities of the Florida electorate, still a battleground state. He’s also thinking about the possibility of a presidential general election when he’ll be looking to win over these same suburban women, who want abortion rights to remain in place, for the gubernatorial race. So far, DeSantis has only uttered weeks ago that he’ll “expand pro-life protection,” and he hasn’t said much since.
I have to say it’s so hard to even imagine a DeSantis presidency. He’s a one-term governor, and before that he was a little-known congressman with a low-wattage personality. He seems larger-than-life because of how he grates on Trump and how he’s been able to use the bully-pulpit in Florida to attract national press, but there are still so many unknowns about him. One thing we know for sure is that he surely lacks the charisma of Trump, and we’ll see that tested on a debate stage if he decides to enter a presidential primary. Although I’ve heard he’s been working on his likeability.
Meanwhile, Julia, what do you make of this new New York Times poll that shows Democrats are losing ground with minorities and Republicans are making gains specifically with Hispanics?
Julia: I’m so glad you asked this question, because it’s my own little obsession. There’s this set belief, both among Democrats and Republicans, that immigrants and minorities are natural liberals and natural Democratic voters. Democrats have come to count on this theory as an electoral strategy and Republicans, like Tucker Carlson, who regularly screams about this on his show, have made it into a bogeyman. This, in conservatives’ view, is why Democrats want more immigration, because immigration means more Democratic voters.
All that tells me is that neither Democrats or Republicans have spent much time with actual immigrants or minorities. If they did, they would know that this was utter bunk. Look, for example, at Venezuelan Americans or Cuban Americans or Colombian Americans. These immigrant, Hispanic communities—especially their elders—have become solidly Republican constituencies, including in the key state of Florida. Why? They bring their own set of priors to American politics, which is that they are refugees from communism and it’s easy for Republicans to message to them that Democrats are radical leftists, i.e., the very communists they escaped back home. This also works wonderfully in the Vietnamese American community and in the community I come from: Soviet Jewish refugees, many of whom are highly educated but incredibly pro-Trump.
Another point: a lot of immigrants and minorities have come to the United States not to allow their kids to be gay without fear of persecution, but to make money. That is what they meant when they said they wanted “a better life.”And which party is about making money? Republicans.
Many immigrants and minorities are also quite religious and socially conservative. For example, I have friends whose parents are immigrants from West Africa. They are very religious, very conservative, and love Trump.
And remember the fuss that conservatives made about Afghan refugees last summer? What is the likelihood that the people who fled the chaos created in their countries by Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan will vote for Biden’s party in the future? I don’t know, but I think it’s very much an open question.
The point is simple: if you just look at these communities as categories, then you’ll make categorical mistakes of analysis. If you actually get to know them, even on a not very deep level, if you just learn about the dynamics that brought them to the U.S. and the social, economic, and political fabric of these communities, you’ll get something that might actually help you craft an electoral strategy rooted in reality.
Tara: I totally understand this as a first generation American. All immigrants are not the same and while they may start off as Democrats, they can become increasingly conservative. But back to the Trump/DeSantis question for a moment. Why does it seem like the Republicans have various presidential options while the Democratic party can’t cobble together a single person who excites anyone?
Julia: I actually disagree with you on this. Right now, the Democrats have a bench that is the length of the stadium. If Biden decides not to run in 2024, every Democrat and their mother will decide to run: Pete Buttigieg, Gavin Newsom (who isn’t being particularly shy about his ambitions), Gretchen Whitmer, J.B. Pritzker, and probably lots of others that neither of us has thought about in years. I think it seems that there’s no one on the bench right now because there’s a Democrat in the White House and the party’s goal is to support him and help him pass as much of his agenda as possible. Actively posturing for 2024 right now would overshadow that and look like a betrayal—because it would be. I think as soon as Biden announces he’s not running, which he can’t do until he’s absolutely sure he wants to be the lamest of ducks, you’ll see lots of Democrats clamoring to run.
Tara: Whoever it is, let’s hope they are under the age of 80. It amazes me how many very, very senior people in Washington, D.C. continue to hold a fierce grip on power in our institutions: ahem Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, Jim Clyburn, Steny Hoyer, oh and then there’s Biden. They are the inevitable leaders until they decide they want to retire. No pressure. The generation below them, waiting for those open leadership seats, is pretty old too. I know these are very powerful people, who in many cases have done favors for a lot of people while navigating very fractious party dynamics, but I still can’t seem to understand why there isn’t more pressure on them to step down and let the next generation step up.
It’s one thing that’s always racked my brain since covering European politics, where the average age of a prime minister or President—at least when I was based in Brussels in the 2010s—was about 40. The smaller countries always seem to sneak in a 30-something, (I see you, Sebastian Kurz.) We’re the young country, America, the ones that broke away from the old world, only to be run by our grandparents. I’m in Greece now with British friends who also can’t understand it. Please explain this to me Julia, I’m so lost.
Julia: Oh my goodness, save me some octopus, please! But yes, I agree with you. I really hope that, after the 2020 septuagenarian match-up, we get a new set of faces, maybe some young-uns in their fifties! But this is, unfortunately, how D.C. has always been: a bunch of very old, publicly elected officials whose offices are run by people in their 20s and 30s. And as lifespans get longer and U.S.G. salaries lose out to inflation and the private sector, this gap will continue to widen. I wrote about this last summer, have a look.