The Epstein case is a reminder of the depraved milieu from which our president sprang.
On Monday, Donald Trump disinvited the then-British ambassador, Kim Darroch, from an official administration dinner with the emir of Qatar, because he was mad about leaked cables in which Darroch assessed the president as “insecure” and “incompetent.”
There was room at the dinner, however, for Trump’s friend Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who was charged in a prostitution sting this year. Kraft was allegedly serviced at a massage parlor that had once been owned by Li Yang, known as Cindy, a regular at Trump’s club Mar-a-Lago. Yang is now the target of an F.B.I. inquiry into whether she funneled Chinese money into Trump’s political operation.
An ordinary president would not want to remind the world of the Kraft and Yang scandals at a time when Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest has hurled Trump’s other shady associations back into the limelight. Epstein, indicted on charges of abusing and trafficking underage girls, was a friend of Trump’s until the two had a falling out, reportedly over a failed business deal. The New York Times reported on a party Trump threw at Mar-a-Lago whose only guests were him, Epstein and around two dozen women “flown in to provide the entertainment.”
Epstein, of course, was also linked to the administration in another way. The president’s labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, was the United States attorney who oversaw a secret, obscenely lenient deal that let Epstein escape federal charges for sex crimes over a decade ago. On Friday, two days after a tendentious, self-serving news conference defending his handling of the Epstein case, Acosta finally resigned.
Even with Acosta gone, however, Epstein remains a living reminder of the depraved milieu from which the president sprang, and of the corruption and misogyny that continue to swirl around him. Trump has been only intermittently interested in distancing himself from that milieu. More often he has sought, whether through strategy or instinct, to normalize it.
This weekend, Trump National Doral, one of the president’s Florida clubs, planned to host a fund-raiser allowing golfers to bid on strippers to serve as their caddies. Though the event was canceled when it attracted too much attention, it’s at once astounding and not surprising at all that it was approved in the first place.
In truth, a stripper auction is tame by the standard of gross Trump stories, since at least the women were willing. Your eyes would glaze over if I tried to list every Trump associate implicated in the beating or sexual coercion of women. Still, it’s worth reviewing a few lowlights, because it’s astonishing how quickly the most lurid misdeeds fade from memory, supplanted by new degradations.
Acosta, you’ll remember, got his job because Trump’s previous pick, Andrew Puzder, withdrew following the revelation that his ex-wife, pseudonymous and in disguise, had appeared on an Oprah episode about “High Class Battered Women.” (She later retracted her accusations.)
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, was once charged with domestic violence, battery and dissuading a witness. (The case was dropped when his former wife failed to appear in court.) After Bill Shine, a former co-president of Fox News, was forced from his job for his involvement in Fox’s sprawling sexual harassment scandals, Trump hired him.
The White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned last year after it was revealed that both of his ex-wives had accused him of abuse. The White House speechwriter David Sorensen resigned after his ex-wife came forward with stories of his violence toward her.
Elliott Broidy, a major Trump fund-raiser who became the Republican National Committee deputy finance chairman, resigned last year amid news that he’d paid $1.6 million as hush money to a former playboy model, Shera Bechard, who said she’d had an abortion after he got her pregnant. (In a lawsuit, Bechard said Broidy had been violent.) The casino mogul Steve Wynn, whom Trump installed as the R.N.C.’s finance chairman, resigned amid accusations that he’d pressured his employees for sex. He remains a major Republican donor.
In 2017, Trump tapped the former chief executive of AccuWeather, Barry Myers, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Then The Washington Post discovered a report from a Department of Labor investigation into Myers’s company, which found a culture of “widespread sexual harassment” that was “severe and pervasive.” The Senate hasn’t yet voted on Myers’s nomination, but the administration hasn’t withdrawn it.
And just this week, a senior military officer came forward to accuse Gen. John Hyten, Trump’s nominee to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of derailing her career when she turned down his sexual advances. “My life was ruined by this,” she told The Associated Press. (The Air Force reportedly cleared him of misconduct.)
Trump will sometimes jettison men accused of abuse when they become a public relations liability. But his first instinct is empathy, a sentiment he seems otherwise unfamiliar with. In May, he urged Roy Moore, the theocratic Alabama Senate candidate accused of preying on teenage girls, not to run again because he would lose, but added, “I have NOTHING against Roy Moore, and unlike many other Republican leaders, wanted him to win.” The president has expressed no sympathy for victims in the Epstein case, but has said he felt bad for Acosta.
Trump seems to understand, at least on a limbic level, that the effect of this cavalcade of scandal isn’t cumulative. Instead, each one eclipses the last, creating a sense of weary cynicism that makes shock impossible to sustain.
It was just three weeks ago that E. Jean Carroll, a well-known writer, accused Trump of what amounted to a violent rape in the mid-1990s, and two friends of hers confirmed that she’d told them about it at the time. In response, Trump essentially said she was too unattractive to rape — “No. 1, she’s not my type” — and claimed that he’d never met her. That was a provable lie; there’s a photograph of them together. It didn’t matter. The story drifted from the headlines within a few days.
Since Epstein’s arrest, many people have wondered how he was able to get away with his alleged crimes for so long, given all that’s publicly known about him. But we also know that the president boasts about sexually assaulting women, that over a dozen have accused him of various sorts of sexual misconduct, and one of them has accused him of rape. We know it, and we know we can’t do anything about it, so we live with it and grow numb. Maybe someday justice will come and a new generation will wonder how we tolerated behavior that was always right out in the open.
While cases of gun violence in Iran are extremely rare, domestic violence has been a fact of life for Iranian women throughout history.
The high-profile killing is shocking on its own merits. Yet the way the story unfolded publicly, with the help of real-time coverage by the state broadcaster, has created an utterly grotesque allegory for the excesses of this regime and the way it presents itself to the public.
First, quick review of the key details:
Najafi, 67, an MIT-educated former mayor of Tehran, married Ostad, 35, his second wife, in 2017. He was and is still married to his first wife, the mother of his children.
Polygamy is legal for men in Iran, who can have up to four wives at a time. But even though the practice is tolerated by the religious establishment, many Iranians (especially in the cities) consider it to be intolerable. It’s a maneuver that lecherous older men — especially if they have been caught cheating — make if they want to feign piety. And everyone knows it.
Even so, within the halls of power it’s standard procedure, and it never got in the way of Najafi’s political career. In fact, it was the public revelation of his ongoing extramarital relationship with Ostad that led the two to wed.
By Najafi’s account, he didn’t want to stay in the marriage to Ostad and proposed a divorce, a legal act that men in Iran can demand with ease. Najafi claims that his wife refused, and they continued the marriage unhappily.
But their fights were becoming more frequent and heated. On Tuesday, it all came to a head.
Najafi went to Ostad’s apartment (he lives with his first wife) with a loaded gun. In what he claims was an animated attempt to scare her, he waved the gun at her while saying that he could put an end to all the arguing right then and there.
Next, according to Najafi, “she lunged and me and, well, the gun was ready.”
If the story were to end there, it would be a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of misogyny-fueled domestic violence, polygamy and gun ownership.
What makes the story even more shocking, though, is that we know all these details of the crime because the murderer admitted to them on live television, to a seemingly sympathetic audience of police detectives (who served him tea) and a state media host who gently asked if it might not have been wiser to file a complaint against his untamable wife.
“That would definitely have been better, but the truth is that over the last year I’ve tried different ways of dealing with our issues,” Najafi told the reporter. None of them worked to his satisfaction, apparently, and that “resulted in making me this mistake, and her life ending.”
Not exactly words of sorrow and contrition.
At one point, the television presenter holds the alleged murder weapon — without gloves — and empties the magazine, counting out eight cartridges. “There were thirteen bullets in it,” he says. “Five were fired. Two hit the victim, and three hit the wall.”
It’s clear that there will be no need for a crime-scene investigation. The esteemed suspect’s word is more than enough.
Ordinary Iranians have taken to social media to express their horror over the unfolding drama, but in the twisted life of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, it was just another day.
Forced confessions on IRIB are common, but Najafi’s is a departure from the norm. Nothing about it seemed coerced; if anything, it looked orchestrated — from the bows of deference he was shown by the police officers to the tea they served him. All of this is familiar to Iranians, who know from generations of experience that power means privilege. Even when you admit to murder.
It’s not that Iran’s ruling class is unrepentant — it’s also shockingly oblivious to its own excesses, as encapsulated both by this murder and the state broadcaster’s coverage of it. The depravity that the regime condones only highlights the growing divide between it and the country’s shocked society.
The misogyny and the state-sanctioned polygamy are bad enough. The brazen disregard for a female human life is appalling. But on top of all that, there’s the ingrained hypocrisy of a regime that has executed countless citizens without proper trial yet consistently lets its officials off the hook without even trying to hide it.
With this twisted version of reality TV, Iran’s regime has just demonstrated its shamelessness and depravity, offering a reminder of just how rotten it is.
In some ways, Obama’s desires for a stable home and family are quite conventional, and she uses the conventionally feminine, domestic metaphor of knitting to describe them. “We were learning to adapt, to knit ourselves into a solid and forever form of us,” she writes of the first months of her marriage to Barack. It isn’t easy: in the Robinson-Obama union, the South Side power-walker meets the Hawaii-born ambler; the meticulous planner and striver with an “instinctive love of a crowd” and a desire for family must adapt to the messy, cerebral dreamer who loves solitude and books at least as much as he loves people. Later, the woman who loathes politics must throw her life into her husband’s pursuit of the Presidency.
Things are complicated long before the campaign, as children both complete and unsettle the Obamas’ carefully cultivated “us.” Once Obama gets pregnant, through I.V.F., her resentment at Barack’s distance from the pain of miscarriage and needles gives way to feelings of maternal pride. Upon Malia’s arrival, she writes, “motherhood became my motivator”—yet, three years (and almost twenty pages) later, she is most galvanized by her new full-time job, at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Although she considers staying home when Sasha is born, she instead takes the job, which “[gets her] out of bed in the morning,” though Barack’s comparative absence, as a commuting state and U.S. senator, gets her home in time for dinner. Then, just as Sasha is about to start elementary school and Obama is “on the brink of . . . [firing] up my ambition again and [considering] a new set of goals,” it is decided that Barack should run for President.
Michelle is still driven, but now by a desire not to fail Barack’s growing base of supporters. In an effort to “earn” public approval, she talks a lot about her kids while campaigning—a safe subject for a black woman who was framed in negative contemporary press accounts as an unpatriotic shrew. As the Obamas near the Iowa primaries, Michelle’s growing commitment to Barack’s cause is reflected in her language. Her pronouns shift from “him” to “we”—“Our hopes were pinned on Iowa. We had to win it or otherwise stand down”—and she adopts Barack’s own sermonic listing mode, describing meetings with voters “in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs . . . in bookstores, union halls, a home for aging military veterans, and, as the weather warmed up, on front porches and in public parks.” Her rhetoric itself knits her and Barack into a “we.”
The book as a whole, however, represents a different moment, and announces her ambition to tell her story in her own way. A long memoir by any measure, “Becoming” not only matches the length of Barack’s first book, “Dreams from My Father,” but it also shows Michelle to be a better storyteller than her husband—funnier, and able to generate a surprising degree of suspense about events whose outcomes are a given (the results of Barack’s first run for President, for instance). Having devoted herself to strategically remaking the office of First Lady, through such initiatives as the White House garden and Let Girls Learn, she now reflects on what she has done and who else she might want to become.
Of course, the choices she makes throughout—to focus more and less on work, more and less on family—are a function of privilege. It is a privilege to decide how much or whether to work, and a privilege to have children, whether through I.V.F. or otherwise. The ability to steer one’s own ship also relies on the sheer luck of evading any number of American disasters: layoffs, mass shootings, prison, domestic violence, lack of health care. Then there are the disasters perpetrated by the U.S. surveillance state, which can undo black women, such as Sandra Bland, or their children, such as Kalief Browder. Under these conditions of hypervisibility, no amount of strategic maneuvering can guarantee one’s safety. And, in light of this, the Obamas’ faith in the American system, and in electoral politics, can seem woefully insufficient.
It comes as something of a relief, then, that, even as Michelle seeks to bind her own story to that of her husband and, through him, to that of the nation, the story of her mother, Marian Robinson, hints at an exit. Robinson is a willfully marginal figure in the text, as she was in the White House—famously reluctant to move in, and evasive of its basic security protocols. She gave everything to her kids (“We were their investment,” Michelle writes of her parents’ devotion to their two children) and stood by her husband, Fraser Robinson III, while multiple sclerosis drained him of strength. And yet, it turns out, she harbored fantasies of leaving. It is here that Obama’s portrait of her mother grows most vivid: “Much later, my mother would tell me that every year when spring came and the air warmed up in Chicago, she entertained thoughts about leaving my father. I don’t know if these thoughts were actually serious or not. . . . But for her it was an active fantasy, something that felt healthy and maybe even energizing to ponder, almost as ritual.” Obama sees this ritual as an internal renewal of vows for Marian, akin to how doubts about God might be said to bolster one’s faith. But the fantasy also represents a wholly other possibility: not a knitting-together but an unfurling, a quiet dream of escape.
No president since Richard Nixon has embraced the weaponized rhetoric of “law and order” as avidly as Mr. Trump. “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” he said during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016. “I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job properly done. In this race for the White House, I am the law and order candidate.”
Time and again, the president denounces “illegals” and “criminals” and the “American carnage” they wreak on law-abiding Americans. He even advised an audience of police officers to rough up suspects they were arresting.
.. Yet this tough-guy stance disappears when the accused are in the president’s inner circle. In defending Rob Porter, the White House senior aide accused of abuse by both of his ex-wives, the president wondered whatever happened to due process while praising a man accused of giving his wife a black eye. (Mr. Porter denies the abuse.)
.. Where was this concern for due process, they asked, when the president and his supporters chanted “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton, who hadn’t even been formally accused of a crime? Where was his devotion to due process when he called for the Central Park Five to be executed, and then, after their exoneration, still maintained that they were guilty?
.. The president’s boundless benefit of the doubt for the Rob Porters and Roy Moores of the world, combined with off-with-their-heads capriciousness for immigrants accused of even minor crimes, is not a contradiction. It is the expression of a consistent worldview that he campaigned on and has pursued in office.
.. In this view, crime is not defined by a specific offense. Crime is defined by who commits it. If a young black man grabs a white woman by the crotch, he’s a thug and deserves to be roughed up by police officers. But if Donald Trump grabs a white woman by the crotch in a nightclub (as he’s accused of doing, and denies), it’s locker-room high jinks.
This view is also expressed by many of the president’s staff members, supporters and prominent allies. During the same week that the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, repeatedly vouched for Rob Porter’s integrity, Mr. Kelly also mused that hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants who did not fill out the paperwork for DACA protections had refused to “get off their asses.”
A political movement that rails against “immigrant crime” while defending alleged abusers and child molesters is one that has stopped pretending to have any universalist aspirations.
The president’s moral framework springs from an American tradition of cultivating fear and contempt among its white citizens against immigrants, indigenous people and people of color, who are placed on the other side of “the law.” It’s a practice that has taken on new strength at a time when many white people fear they may be outnumbered, outvoted and out of time.
This is the opposite of what we like to tell ourselves is the traditional American civic creed: one symbolized by a blindfolded Lady Justice who applies the law without fear or favor to whoever may come before her. It is one of Mr. Trump’s most insidious victories that he has given his supporters permission to drop any pretense of insisting that their actions and views should conform to this principle.
If all that matters when it comes to “law and order” is who is a friend and who is an enemy, and if friends are white and enemies are black or Latino or in the wrong party, then the rhetoric around crime and punishment stops being about justice and is merely about power and corruption.
And this is what “law and order” means: the preservation of a certain social order, not the rule of law.
.. The history of the United States is the story of a struggle between the desire to establish certain universal rights and the countervailing desire to preserve a particular social order.
We are now witnessing a president who wholly embraces the latter. America can have that kind of social order, or it can have justice for all. But it can’t have both.