Trump’s Fatigue, Merrick’s Motives, & the Jan. 6 Mega Producer

Trump at the "Stop The Steal" rally on Jan 6, 2021. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
June 9, 2022
The Producer

When I first met James Goldston at Le Pain Quotidien on West 65th Street, near the ABC News studios, he kept repeating a line that Trump used frequently to praise his own team: “You’re a killer, you’re a killer.” It was 2017 and Goldston, then the president of ABC News, was recruiting me to join the D.C. Bureau as a White House correspondent. I was obviously enchanted by the prospect of joining a major network. And he was unbothered by my relative lack of television experience. He wanted a scrappy young reporter from Politico to help shake up the bureau. Goldston also liked that I had spent the formative years of my career working at the New York Post. 

Goldston always wanted a splash. While some people at the network questioned my experience as a former Page Six reporter at 22, Goldston defended it, and in fact, loved it. Given the mischievous glint in his eyes and his Fleet Street sensibility, I thought we would get on spectacularly. I’d worked with lots of Brits like him at the Post. And we did. Unfortunately, the thing I liked most about Goldston—his tabloid flair—wasn’t equally appreciated by some of my more self-reverential colleagues in D.C. They respected his Oxford degree, but looked down on him as a showman who cared less about the journalism and more about the shot. 

In my opinion, that view undercut his talents. Goldston thought news didn’t have to be boring, and he enjoyed the magic of television. At the same time, he was notorious for being overly concerned with how a correspondent looked—hair, makeup, wardrobe— rather than critiquing the substance of their report, but TV is sadly a visual, and cynical, business. Correspondents and producers could gripe about Goldston’s priorities, his lack of management style, his short temper, but no one could take away from him the fact that he was one of the best producers in the building. It’s telling that he’s most remembered for producing one of the creepiest TV specials on Michael Jackson, helmed by Martin Bashir. The program saved the Nightline brand and indirectly led to child molestation charges being filed against Jackson.   

Earlier this week, Axios co-founder Mike Allen reported that the House’s January 6th committee had turned to Goldston, who was still the president of ABC News on January 6th, to produce tonight’s 8 p.m. hearing, as if, in Allen’s words, it was “a blockbuster investigative special.” Now it will be Goldston’s challenge to find a way to make compelling television regarding a horrific, but now quite familiar, day in the country’s history. He’s also inundated with footage, imagery, interviews and more. The House is hoping that he can produce something that grips the nation like the Watergate hearings did in 1973, back when there were only a handful of channels, no phones, and no Netflix. We’ll see.

When I worked for Goldston, I was taught one of the dark arts of the business: sometimes a great question, compellingly asked, is more important than the actual answer. Sometimes it’s the question Tara, I was told, not the actual answer, so let it linger. I’m sure Goldston is coaching committee members and witnesses similarly. He’s likely splicing deposition videos for the right soundbite, too, and crafting the shot, the sound, the moment, creating the tension, the urgency… all the stuff that used to make blood pressure rise for the audiences of ABC. And it also seems like he’s helping out his old pals at ABC, who somehow got their hands on a clip of exclusive footage from documentarian Nick Quested, who followed the Proud Boys on January 6. You can bet it will be in tonight’s sizzle. 

Will Garland Be Moved?

If members of the January 6th committee hope that their must-see TV spectacle will inspire Americans to rise up and demand that Attorney General Merrick Garland press charges against Trump or his inner circle—like, say, Rudy Giuliani or Sidney Powell—well, then they don’t know much about Garland. According to two people who have worked alongside him since the start of his career in the Carter administration, Garland is avowedly stoic and apolitical, despite the manner in which his own Supreme Court nomination was politicized and derailed by Mitch McConnell. “Merrick would be the person that would be most reluctant to do something if there was a fervor coming out of the committee,” said one of his former colleagues and confidantes. “He wouldn’t like to look like he’s been pressured into doing something because of the demands of the committee.”

Garland is thoughtful, deliberate and cautious. He is an anti-activist, which is part of the reason why he was selected for the job by Joe Biden, who wanted to restore the independence and morale of the Justice Department. (Indeed, it’s the same reason why Carter selected Griffin Bell as attorney general in the divisive post-Watergate 70s.) Biden, of course, needed a confirmable, non-controversial candidate in a split Senate. It’s one reason why he passed over Doug Jones.  

Garland’s steady temperament is angering swaths of the Democratic party that want their own Bill Barr to deliver a head on a stick. But the Garland experts suggested that not only was this profoundly unlikely—after all, Garland presumably doesn’t want to be accused of retaliating against Republicans for his own slight—but the enthusiasm of an aggrieved committee would likely backfire. “The more they pound their desks, the less likely it will happen,” his colleague said of the committee’s intention. 

Ultimately, of course, the committee may just be playing for the home viewers, who will vote in November on whether they want a Trump-inspired Congress and Senate, or to keep the party of Biden in place. Meanwhile, many members of the committee—like Adam Schiff and Jamie Raskin (who are potential future leaders of the Democratic caucus) or Adam Kinzinger (a possible future cable news star) or even Liz Cheney (who faces a tough reelection in deep-red Wyoming and may have bigger ambitions than the Cowboy state)—have smaller things at stake, too.  

Biden-Harris Donor Blues

Vice President Kamala Harris was slated to host the Democratic National Committee.’s major money-hauling event, the annual Women’s Leadership Forum, on May 25 and 26—a natural fit given that she’s the highest office-holding woman in American history. And when the invites were sent out on May 5, it was hyped as an incredible opportunity to mingle in-person after two years of virtual events and meetings. 

But the event was rescheduled at the last minute for autumn, when the event is traditionally held, after the D.N.C. couldn’t sell enough tickets, I’m told. Tickets for the event start at $250 per head for general admission, and the much-coveted photo-line slots start at $15,000 and top off at $50,000. The highest-tier tickets, in particular, weren’t moving quickly enough, and the organizers needed more time to build interest. 

Emphasizing that the event is typically held in the fall, even though invites were sent out for May 25, D.N.C. spokesperson Daniel Wessel countered that “The Vice President is a huge draw. Just in April she held a fundraising event for us that brought in over $1 million.” Wessel did not give a reason for the rescheduling. 

While the D.N.C. continues to rake in small donor dollars with digital ads, I’ve heard that there’s been frustration within the D.N.C. about the amount of access the White House is willing to give to the principals, Biden and Harris. The Obama administration, after all, okayed multiple events per month, which allowed them to charge as little as $5,000 for some grip-and-grin photos. The official line from the White House has been to blame Covid and scheduling as the culprits, of course, but their inactivity with donors has made the fundraising more difficult. And it’s a harder sell for the D.N.C. to charge $15,000 for a picture with Harris. “The honest reality is the White House hid behind Covid for a year, and they were perfectly legitimate in being cautious,” said a former D.N.C. staffer. “It’s a new world. Using that excuse is not that great. The White House needs to start giving the D.N.C. more dates, and they’re not.”

This is the latest micro-drama in a fractious relationship between the Biden administration and its elite donor base, whose members have gotten increasingly vexed about no longer being able to enjoy the familiar perks of their generosity. Some have told me that the donor maintenance has dropped to the point where they genuinely wonder whether Biden is truly pondering re-election in two years. I’ve heard from multiple donors that they don’t plan to give another penny. They see it as over-priced access to Harris and no access to Biden. Interestingly, Harris has been cultivating her own network through intimate donor dinners. (It’s not just donors who are frustrated, by the way. I heard this week about three more staffers trying to look for pre-midterm off-ramps, despite Ron Klain and Anita Dunn’s new, noisier strategy.)

Wessel denied that the White House is not making Harris and Biden available saying, “This is blatantly untrue. The White House has been incredibly gracious with all of the principals’ time, and it’s a major reason why the D.N.C. has raised $213 million already this cycle—a record for this point in any midterm year.” They did not offer a breakdown of the donations in terms of small dollar digital donations, direct mails and donations from high networth individuals. “President Biden is hosting two events tomorrow night for us in Los Angeles. The Vice President has two events scheduled at the end of the month, and is in South Carolina tomorrow headlining the Blue Palmetto gala.”

Pelosi’s Third Act?

Nancy Pelosi has said she cares greatly about the next U.S. ambassador to Italy. According to Axios, she put forward her friend and mega-donor Stephen Robert back in February 2022. But according to sources familiar with the situation, Robert never made it to the nominating process on account of some of his stated views on Israel. (In 2011, Robert, who is Jewish, wrote a column about the country that was headlined, “Apartheid on Steroids.”) I’ve heard that the White House has yet to find a replacement, leaving open the ambassadorship to one of the largest economies in the European Union.

This seems puzzling. The White House has filled posts, or at least nominated candidates, to almost every other European country, including Luxembourg, Malta, Hungary, Greece, and Bulgaria. Some wonder if Italy’s ambassadorship will remain vacant through the end of the year in case Pelosi, after a presumptive G.O.P. victory in the midterms, decides to retire from Congress. Her office would never admit interest in the position because it would peg her as a lame-duck and potentially dry her fundraising spigot. As the ever-colorful Drew Hammill stated on her behalf, “The Speaker has zero interest in this position and has had no conversations about this role. This is complete fiction.” A bigger issue than her office’s denial is the prospect that Pelosi would have to be confirmed by a potential Republican Senate in 2022.

A Ross Perot in ‘24?

No Labels, the bipartisan 501(c)4, has raised over $50 million in the past year toward a single initiative of getting the “No Labels” party on the ballot in all 50 states by 2024, in case there’s a Trump-Biden rematch or a Trump-Harris bake-off. The well-funded super PAC, whose board includes Larry Hogan, the popular Republican Governor of Maryland, and Joe Lieberman, who ran as Gore’s V.P. and was McCain’s top choice for the gig, has managed to find its footing in the past 10 years. The organization birthed the Problems Solvers Caucus and protected vulnerable independents like Joe Manchin during the Build Back Better negotiations with money from its deep-pocketed donors, like billionaire Nelson Peltz

Third parties tend to be a laughable, and sometimes dangerous proposition, peeling away voters from both parties. And they are also massively difficult to manage given how hard it is to make it onto the ballot of all 50 states. Some states require a candidate and a party conference to get a party on the ballot, for instance. So far, No Labels has managed to get on the ballot in five states after the 2022 election and they will continue to work in the off-year. A source close to the group, said that they have done polling on a ticket that would include Manchin and Republican Lisa Murkowski against a putative Trump ticket and Biden-Harris ticket. Either politician would be disowned by their own party if they took that leap, but these are strange times. 

In the past, third party candidates tended to be self-funded high-networth individuals, like Ross Perot (or Teddy Roosevelt nearly a century earlier). This could be the first time that a third-party candidate would be supported by an actual party. (A spokesperson for No Labels said, “There are a number of ideas under consideration, but nothing is definite.”)

Trump’s Endorsement Fatigue

Trump has been dragging his feet to endorse again in the Alabama Senate race after he un-endorsed Mo Brooks in March for making the fatal error of suggesting that the 2020 election can’t be overturned. At the time, he promised to make another endorsement in the “near future,” and now would seem to be the critical moment as candidate Katie Britt is headed to a runoff with Brooks on June 21. She’s favored to clinch the nomination and this would be an easy win for Trump if he’s trying to pad his stats, but he has been dawdling and questioning Britt’s credentials, I’m told. Britt’s pedigree as a former staffer to Senator Richard Shelby is too swamp creature-y for Trump. He sees her as a Chamber of Commerce Republican, a Mitt Romney type, and he doesn’t love that McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund gave $2 million to a pro-Britt super PAC. At the same time, what Brooks did was unforgivable to Trump and I’ve been told that there’s a push to get Trump to give Britt an endorsement soon. It could come as soon as the next few days. Patriots owner Bob Kraft has called Trump on Britt’s behalf; her husband, Wesley Britt, is a former Patriot offensive lineman. 

At the same time, Trump’s last-minute endorsement of Tim Michels in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race drew the ire of some party leaders and state activists, who were already supporting former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who has spent years building a network. Michels, whose numbers were slightly ahead of Kleefisch and had the backing of Reince Priebus and Sean Duffy, still won the endorsement even after he shockingly said he’s unsure if the election was stolen. Some in Trumpworld fear that these endorsements, among others, will hurt his credibility with party leaders and activists in the next presidential election. As I mentioned last week, his team is actively gearing up for when he decides to announce his candidacy for 2024. It could be as early as July, or right before the midterms, but most in his orbit are holding their breath, hoping it will be after. 

In the meantime, a group supporting Ron DeSantis called “Ready for Ron,” run by a Reagan acolyte Ed Rollins, may have crossed the line in their latest ad by using Trump’s name to raise money for DeSantis. Shortly after he left office, Trump blasted cease-and-desist letters at the R.N.C, N.R.C.C., and N.R.S.C. for daring to use his name to collect information that could raise party dollars, that, in at least the R.N.C.’s case, could be funneled back to support his next presidential campaign. Now the super PAC supporting DeSantis is saying that the governor of Florida will be “the next great American President—like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.” This could spell trouble, even though the ad is sponsored by a super PAC, which can’t technically communicate with the candidate. (A spokesperson for the group dismissed the suggestion that they were trading in any way on Trump’s name. In a statement, Lilian Rodriguez-Baz, a Ready for Ron co-founder, said the PAC’s name speaks for itself.)