Thomas Frank rejoins the show to talk about the past, present, and future of the Democratic party. Hosts Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper look into the Trump rallies planned for this weekend.
Krystal Ball gives her takes on DNC Convention speeches by Bill Clinton, Chuck Schumer, John Kerry, and AOC.
There is always a photograph, and so naturally there is a photograph. This one was taken during the summer of 2008, on a golf course owned by President Donald Trump in New York’s Westchester County. Despite whatever accidental prescience the image might since seem to have acquired, the photo itself was and remains just what it is: artless proof that some wealthy and powerful men—in this case Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Clinton—had at some point posed together on a golf course with their respective Big Bertha drivers out.
It’s the sort of photo that the principal figures have had taken thousands of times over the course of their public lives and equally public retirements. For people of this stature, taking pictures like this with other members of their micro-caste of puffy swells—variously seared pink or golden brown, buzzcut and triangular or pillowy and spheroid, foreign or domestic—is something like their job. There’s no aesthetic merit to these photos, which invariably involve three or four or more pairs of golf shoes and varying shades of incipient sunburn—and sometimes, as this one does, multiple pairs of centimillionaire knees. Aesthetic merit of course plays no role in the staging of such photos; rather, they serve to document a convergence of egos and interests. In functional terms, they mark a random historical moment in roughly the same way and for roughly the same reasons that hostage-takers photograph their captives holding up the front page of a given day’s newspaper. Everyone in the shot can point to it as proof of themselves being in the proper company and the correct milieu. Images like this do not exist to be looked at so much as they exist to be seen, or noticed.
And that’s what we have here. Giuliani, far left, looks as ever as if he has somehow been spilled into his clothes; he is turned such that he is grimacing towards a camera that no one else is facing. Trump is halfway into or out of a grin, and sagging to leeward like a butter sculpture left out in the sun. A head shorter and directly to Trump’s left, Bloomberg is trim, mirthless, and more deeply tan than any public official has a right to be. Bill Clinton had not at this point embarked on his vegan glow-up, and so looks jocular and fluffy in shorts and a pastel golf shirt with implausibly girthsome sleeves. Most versions of this photo that have circulated over the days since Bloomberg announced his interest in joining the field of contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination crop former Yankees Manager Joe Torre and professional Yankees fan Billy Crystal out of the photo entirely, even though the picture was taken at Torre’s own charity golf event.
That is rude, but it fits. Characters like Torre and Crystal are incidental to photos like this, or anyway useful mostly as local color, or a spritz of local flavor atop the expensive lobes of foie gras at the center of the image. The photos are proof that various powerful people once stood next to each other, more or less as peers, and they are to be hung up like a diploma—something for guests to see on the wall of a long corridor in some cold and fancified house, or notice in an office in which, as a matter of course, no actual work gets done. A bunch of rich old men, together, their respective pendulous drivers arrayed before them such that their identical heads are nearly touching, but not quite. Well, doesn’t that beat all?
In a better world, such photos might still exist. The people in them would not have become nearly as rich or unaccountable or powerful as they are in this one, but there’s no reason to think that they would not have found each other in some refrigerated clubhouse or hotel dining room or breakout session or cigar bar. In that world, these men would not be any better than they are in this one, because they are what they are by nature—mutants of appetite and ego, and outliers from the rest of humanity in terms of both the depth and the breadth of their need. But in that other world, in which they are merely rich and terrible, they would threaten only the good times of the other people sharing those spaces with them.
In this one, though, these vainglorious eternals somehow shamble on atop the culture even in their curdling dotage. From that commanding position they do what they do—pursue their endless blowsy feuds, scheme and carp, watch television and go on television and, where the opportunity presents itself, blithely commit various high crimes and misdemeanors. Far above the struggle and insecurity of everyday life, these brittle titans squabble and gossip and go through acrimonious and highly public divorces; for all the ways in which the toxic runoff of inequality can currently be felt in the culture, the fact that the cheesy churn of rich and petty men drifting into and pissily out of each other’s good graces now so distorts our politics is among the most enervating. It is one thing to see so much of our popular culture narrowing and flattening to suit various billionaires’ crude and idle whims, but it’s something else to realize that the political life of the richest and most powerful country on earth is in large part determined by the spats and obsessions of a super-class of aged and lazy lords, all of whom consider themselves peers of each other and virtually no one else.
It’s not a constitutionally enumerated power of the office, but presidents invariably shape the culture in ways that reflect their own values or anti-values, politics, and vibe. Clinton’s America applauded itself from the apex of boomer self-assurance; Bush’s was gilded and blustering and fragile, both strident and utterly bereft of ideas; Obama’s was cosmopolitan and smart from afar and naively inclined to assume facts not in evidence about the trajectories of various important things. It makes sense that Donald Trump’s America would be just the country for these old men—that the machinations and endless feuds of the tabloid undead would crowd and then devour everything else.
If Trump has values beyond the protection and promotion of his hideous and hungry self, they are these tabloid-driven rules of engagement. If Trump has peers—if there are people that matter to him beyond those who might be instrumentalized to advance his pursuit of more of everything—these are those people. Bloomberg will not be the next president of the United States, because virtually no one alive wants him to serve in that role. And yet he and his untouchable peers, who have been allowed through various long-standing failures to have so much more than any person ever should, will spend millions of dollars not in pursuit of any particular set of policies or even the office itself, but out of habit. Look at that photo again, and it is clear that none of the people in it are really friends—but just as important, they’re not enemies in any meaningful way, either. If you know the roles they play in our politics, the people in the photo seem like an unlikely foursome—the lumpy blowhards who backed into fascism for lack of any conviction deeper than a distaste for those with less than them, grinning alongside the savviest and most state-of-the-art ur-moderates. Someone who didn’t understand how weak everything around them had become, or how high these duffers had been allowed to rise as a result, might just look at the photo and see some old guys heading out to play some golf, and maybe bet a little something on the outcome to make things interesting.
Matt and Katie dive deep into the reopening of the Epstein saga with Liz Franczak from TrueAnon
Steve Kornacki discusses his book, “The Red and The Blue, at Politics and Prose on 10/5/18. Kornacki’s lively political history of the 1990s is both an absorbing chronicle of the parallel rises of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich and a look at some of the key events, debates, and figures that laid the ground for today’s political landscape. In many cases—Trump, Schumer, Hillary Clinton—the cast of characters overlaps both eras. Kornacki, national political correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, shows how, for instance, Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential bid gave Trump his first taste of electoral politics in 1999, and how Hillary Clinton’s role in the 1998 midterm elections put her on track to run for the Senate two years later. Kornacki is in conversation with Hallie Jackson, NBC’s chief White House correspondent.
Lawyers representing Jeffrey Epstein’s accusers said Saturday that his death won’t stop their clients from seeking justice from those they say enabled or conspired with Epstein to allegedly sexually abuse dozens of underage girls.
The attorneys condemned as cowardly Epstein’s apparent suicide overnight while in a federal facility on charges of sex trafficking because now he won’t ever have to face the women he allegedly hurt.
“I guess there is somewhat an element of relief because the fear of him getting out is obviously over, but there is also, they’ll never be able to look into his eye and say, ‘You hurt me.’ There’s that element of closure that he’s taken away from them,” said Kimberly Lerner, an attorney for one of Epstein’s accusers.
But, Lerner said, Epstein’s death isn’t “the end, it’s just a new beginning.”
“There’s a whole network that enabled him and allowed this to happen and it’s time that everyone who was a part of this be held accountable,” she said.
Lerner’s client, Jennifer Araoz, released her own statement about Epstein’s death. Araoz has accused Epstein of raping her in his New York City home when she was 15. She said she was recruited outside her high school to make regular visits to his house
“We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed the pain and trauma he caused so many people,” Araoz said. “Epstein is gone, but justice must still be served. I hope the authorities will pursue and prosecute his accomplices and enablers, and ensure redress for his victims.”
Epstein’s death came less than a day after new details about his alleged sexual abuse of underage girls were unsealed in court filings. In the documents — part of a lawsuit settled in 2017 against a woman who allegedly recruited underage girls for Epstein — accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre named
- Prince Andrew, former New Mexico governor
- Bill Richardson (D) and former Senate majority leader
- George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) among the prominent men in Epstein’s orbit she was ordered to have sex with.
All three men have denied any wrongdoing. Epstein, a multimillionaire, kept powerful company and socialized with both President Trump and former president Bill Clinton.
Epstein was arrested last month on federal sex trafficking charges that could have put in him prison for 45 years. New York University Law School professor Stephen Gillers said Epstein’s death puts an end to that prosecution, but it doesn’t mean the investigation is over.
“Is there the equivalent of a little black book whose contents implicates others? Was incriminating video, email or voice mail found in his mansion’s safe?” Gillers said. “While the case against Epstein is over, the investigation is not.”
Those decades of free-market machinations are now paying off, as a quintet of Ronald Reagan administration alumni — Kudlow, Laffer, Forbes, Moore and David Malpass—united by undying affection for each other and for laissez-faire economics, have the run of Washington once more. Members of the tight-knit group have shaped Trump’s signature tax cut, helped install each other in posts with vast influence over the global economy, and are working to channel Trump’s mercantilist instincts into pro-trade policies. Blasted by their critics as charlatans and lauded by their acolytes as tireless champions of prosperity, there’s no denying that the quintet has had an enduring impact on decades of economic policy.
Most recently, in late March, and partly at Kudlow’s urging, Trump announced his intention to nominate Moore to one of two open seats on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the body that sets the tempo of the global financial system.
The announcement prompted protests from economists across the ideological spectrum—George W. Bush’s top economist, Harvard’s Gregory Mankiw, said Moore lacked the “intellectual gravitas” for the job—who warned that appointing Moore, a think-tanker with no Ph.D., would politicize the Fed. Soon, it emerged that Moore had made a mistake on a 2014 tax return that led the IRS to place a disputed $75,000 lien against him, and CNN dug up scathing comments Moore had made about Trump during the presidential primary.
Whether Moore can survive the scrutiny and pass muster with the Senate will be a test of the supply-siders’ renewed cachet. They believe they can pull it off.
“I understand there are imperfections,” Kudlow told POLITICO. “I think it can be worked out.”
Moore described some of his recent conversations with Trump, which often turn to Fed Chairman Jerome Powell.
“I think his criticism of Powell is excessive and could be counterproductive,” Moore said, because it could actually provoke Powell to prove his independence by defying Trump’s wishes. Generally speaking, Trump wants Powell to keep interest rates low to decrease the chances of any economic slump before the president faces voters again next November.
Moore also recounted how he and Laffer, who began advising Trump in 2016, helped place Kudlow in his current posting.
Roughly a year into Trump’s term, as Trump’s first NEC director, Gary Cohn, prepared to depart the post, the duo sprang into action. Moore said that during this period, whenever he and Laffer engaged in their semiregular consultations with Trump, they would have some version of the following exchange:
“You know, Mr. President, you’re missing one thing,” Laffer or Moore would say.
“What is that?” Trump would ask.
“Larry Kudlow,” Laffer or Moore would tell him.
“We just drilled the message over and over,” Moore recalled. “‘Larry, Larry, Larry, Larry.’”
During that same period, following the 1974 midterms, Laffer first drewhis famous Laffer Curve — a representation of the idea that at a certain level of taxation, lowering taxes would theoretically spur enough growth that government revenue would actually rise—at a meeting near the White House with Wanniski, Dick Cheney, then an aide to President Gerald Ford, and Grace-Marie Arnett, another free marketeer active in Republican politics.
Reagan would go on to fully embrace supply-side theory, a shift from the party’s traditional emphasis on fiscal discipline, appointing Laffer to his Economic Policy Advisory Board.
Then as now, supply-side economics was criticized for favoring the rich and derided by critics as unrealistic “Voodoo Economics.” The critics got an early boost from a 1981 Atlantic cover story in which Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, aired his doubts that this novel theory was working in practice.
The piece ruined Stockman’s standing with Reagan—Laffer calls him “the traitor of all traitors”—but Stockman’s young aide, Kudlow, now 71, remained a loyal supply-sider and struck up a relationship with Laffer.
Reagan would go on to appoint Forbes as the head of the Board of International Broadcasting, which oversaw Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, and Moore worked as the research director for Reagan’s privatization commission. Malpass, meanwhile, worked in Reagan’s Treasury department. Representatives for Forbes and Malpass said they were not available for interviews.
In the 1988 presidential primary, another supply-sider, the late New York congressman Jack Kemp, lost out to George H.W. Bush, curtailing the crew’s influence within the party.
But they stuck together. Moore, now 59, first became close with Laffer and Kudlow in 1991, after he recruited them to participate in an event celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Reagan’s first tax cuts for the libertarian Cato Institute.
In 1993, Kudlow and Forbes teamed up to craft a tax cut plan for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Christine Todd Whitman, who went on to unseat incumbent Democrat James Florio.
Meanwhile, Kudlow hired Malpass to work for him at Bear Stearns, where he had been flying high as the investment bank’s chief economist.
The next year, Kudlow crashed to earth—he left the bank and entered rehab for alcohol and cocaine addiction. Laffer stuck by Kudlow, hiring the investment banker to work for his consulting firm in California when he emerged.
In 1996, Forbes, backed by Moore, entered the Republican primary and lost out to Bob Dole, but the group takes credit for getting Kemp picked for the bottom half of that year’s ticket, which lost to incumbent Bill Clinton.
And they have not stopped partying since. Members of the group have continued to actively socialize with each other over the decades, with some spending New Year’s eves together. At one birthday party for Laffer in New York, they presented the aging economist with a signed poster of the Jedi master Yoda. “I’m short, a little bit fat. I’ve got big, green ears,” Laffer explained. “I look sort of like Yoda.”
In 2015, Forbes, Laffer, Kudlow and Moore created the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, a group intended in part to counter the emergence of the “Reformicons,” a rival gang of Republican eggheads who felt the party had gone too far in the direction of laissez-faire policies favoring the rich.
Among the other 29 committee members listed in a press release were both Malpasses, Kevin Hassett, now chairman of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Andy Puzder, who was Trump’s initial pick for labor secretary until allegations of domestic abuse unearthed by POLITICO derailed his nomination.
The group sought, with considerable success, to vet Republican presidential candidates for their supply-side credentials and to influence their platforms, holding large private dinners at Manhattan venues such as the Four Seasons and the 21 Club, so that committee members and other notable invitees—like Rudy Giuliani and Roger Ailes—could feel out the candidates.
Before meeting with the larger group, candidates would huddle with the committee’s founders to receive economic tutorials. Or in the case of Ohio Governor John Kasich, to give one. “We were all sitting there, and he would talk for an hour,” Moore recalled. “We’re like, ‘No, we’re supposed to be talking to you,’ and he’s talking to us.” Moore called the episode “Classic John Kasich.”
Though the events were supposed to be off the record, journalists often attended, and an otherwise lackluster February 2015 dinner for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker made headlines when Giuliani barged in, proclaimed he did not believe that President Barack Obama “loves America,” and insisted a POLITICO reporter could print the quote.