Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Frank Bruni: Ross, I hope you got more sleep than I did Tuesday night. If not, this could be a very interesting conversation. We need to discuss the midterms and, of course, Jeff Sessions, but first, because I’m reeling, that White House news conference. President Trump really does possess mystical powers, because after years of beholding him, I remain full of wonder. I am still taken aback: the pettiness, the meanness, the extravagant flights of pure fantasy. Oh, and the epic self-congratulation. “A hot White House,” he called it. Is the AC broken? He said he yearns to be boring. Well, then I yearn to be a credenza. Have you grown numb to it?
Ross Douthat: Kind of, yes. I lived through the entire 2016 campaign, after all, when with each twist and turn there were hopeful Republicans imagining that surely now — now that he had won a primary, or won the nomination, or accepted the nomination, or even won the presidency — Trump would start behaving a little more like a normal politician, or just a normal human being. But it never happened. So why should the aftermath of a midterm defeat be any different? This was just our president in full.
Bruni: Undiminished, undaunted and unhinged: our president in full indeed. But let’s take the “undaunted” part of that. Can he really protect himself from Robert Mueller’s inquiry — which is zooming back into the foreground now that the midterms are done — by getting rid of Sessions, his favorite scapegoat and punching bag? I’m less concerned than others, but before I explain why, please share your thoughts about what the Sessions development means.
Douthat: Well, first, it means that Trump so dislikes Sessions that he was constrained from firing him only by Republicans who worried about how it would look before the midterms — and probably always planned to jettison him immediately afterward, win or lose, which is why that Sessions letter was presumably pre-written. Second, it means that for now, pending an actual attorney general nomination, a Trump favorite with a cable-news trail of critiques of the Mueller investigation will have oversight instead of Rod Rosenstein. Which in turn might mean, depending on the new appointee’s integrity, that little stands between Trump and some kind of direct interference with the investigation except his fear of Congress and public opinion, not necessarily in that order.
Bruni: And that’s bad, absolutely. It’s also the latest example of Trump’s total shamelessness and complete willingness to do whatever he believes is in his interest, no matter the optics and no matter the insult to ethical behavior. Mueller should get to finish the job he started, which he’s doing in an admirably nose-to-the-grindstone fashion. That’s hugely important. But I cling to this: He has at this point gathered a mountain of evidence, and it won’t disappear if the rug is pulled out from under him. Maybe it doesn’t take the proper form of an official report. But is there much doubt that it would find its way into the public sphere? Trump’s Washington is many things. Unleaky isn’t among them.
Douthat: I’m still waiting hopefully for someone to leak the FBI interviews from the Brett Kavanaugh investigation. As for Mueller, some of the drama will depend on whether Trump sees the gains in the Senate, and the departure of critics like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, as a permission slip for forcing the Mueller investigation to an early end — which would also probably mean using a cascade of executive privilege claims against House Democrats and hoping that Kavanaugh and John Roberts are ready to overrule United States v. Nixon.
Which, as I describe it, seems like an insane plan, even if you assume that Mitt Romney and Susan Collins don’t have enough allies to back their Twitter pledges of support for Mueller. But I suppose the insanity quotient depends on what Trump thinks that he — or perhaps his dearly beloved Donald Jr. — has to lose.
Bruni: Whoa, was that political analysis, Capitol Hill soothsaying or an episode of “House of Cards?” Lots of players and moving pieces and intrigue. You mention the House, and one of the big questions coming out of Tuesday’s midterms is the extent to which Democrats will use their new majority there to torture a president who has so richly earned it. It’s going to be a spirited debate and ongoing tension within the caucus; we’re seeing glimmers of that already. I feel strongly that if they move too far too fast, they risk backlash in 2020. But I don’t have a great guess about whether they’ll overreach in that fashion. Can you do some more of your soothsaying and tell me what will happen? If you can also find a role for Robin Wright, much appreciated.
Douthat: Speak not of that awful show, which with or without Kevin Spacey shames the memory of the British original. As for soothsaying, were Trump a normal president, or person, you would expect him to seize this opportunity to return to his 2016 populism and triangulate against his own party by, say, finally doing that infrastructure bill. But again, you watched the news conference. Did that seem like a man ready to triangulate? I think not.
Bruni: I’m not sure Trump could define or spell “triangulate,” let alone try it. He would probably blush if you said it to him, mistaking it as counsel from the Kama Sutra. We will not have a big infrastructure bill, because we never get a big infrastructure bill, even though it’s the no-brainer piece of needed legislation and its absence is a complete betrayal of the American children who will inherit our crumbling bridges, cramped airports and constipated trains. But go back to Democrats and a possible subpoena-palooza.
Douthat: The key for Democrats is to stay focused. That means going after corruption, both Trump’s own and the shady doings of some of his functionaries, without going down every rabbit hole that the party’s conspiracy theorists want investigated. It means getting the Trump tax returns, or trying to, while leaving the Russia stuff to Mueller as long as he’s still allowed to do his work. It means resisting the temptation to try to impeach Kavanaugh for perjury — and resisting a rush to impeachment for Trump as well. It means treating their newfound investigative power mostly as means to check Trump’s behavior now and weaken him before 2020 — and recognizing that it would take more extraordinary developments for a path to open to actually removing him. What do you think?
Bruni: What the most impassioned warriors of the Democratic base want is Trump’s impeachment, because they recognize him — rightly — as a danger and a disgrace. But what most Americans want more is a government that seems to be doing its mature, earnest best to govern.
The next two years will likely be stalemate, but if Democrats are wise, they will show voters that they are doing their damnedest to draft and move along sensible legislation.
Douthat: If you assume that no big, beautiful deals are possible, it makes sense for Democrats to pick a few (but only a few) discrete pieces of potentially popular legislation and march them through the House so they can attack Republicans for obstructing them two years hence. (My zeal for family policy makes me wish for a House version of the Sherrod Brown-Michael Bennet child tax credit bill, but that’s relatively unlikely.) My main caution for Democrats is that despite all their wins, their most ambitious progressive candidates — the Medicare for All endorsees, especially — often fell short. Which might suggest that the public will respond better to liberal incrementalism (a minimum wage hike, a modest Obamacare fix) than some of the more sweeping ideas that the 2020 candidates are likely to endorse.
Bruni: We’ve zipped past the midterm results to the next two years, so let’s rewind. What one outcome surprised you the most, and what outcome or set of outcomes do you think has the most bearing on our immediate political future?
Douthat: I was surprised that the Republicans defeated both Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson in Florida; the polls were off, but they were different enough candidates that I expected at least one of them to win if the other fell short. Then apart from the obvious immediate importance of House Democrats checking Trump, I think the combination of Republican resilience in the Senate and disappointing results for ambitious progressives tells us that we are years, if not a decade, away from Democrats (or either party) being in a position to pass a sweeping, Reagan- or even Obama-esque agenda. I expect a lot of madness to come in the next few years, but for policy purposes, we’ll probably be in stalemate till 2024 at least.
Bruni: Andrew Gillum falls, like Beto O’Rourke, into the category of: spirited race; hugely impressive showing given the territory and other dynamics; but defeat in the end. We haven’t heard the last of him as a candidate in Florida, I suspect, but O’Rourke’s next move in Texas, given its greater redness, is less clear.
Douthat: Yeah, like a lot of conservatives, I rolled my eyes at Betomania, but he got close to Cruz and had coattails, so props to him — but the liberals who want him to run for president seem a little ridiculous. At the same time, there does seem to be real Democratic uncertainty about their 2020 field. Do you think anything about the midterm result boosts or diminishes any of the contenders?
Bruni: Well, Beto told me point-blank, in unqualified terms, that he’s not running in 2020. As for other potential Democratic candidates: There may well be enhanced interest in Sen. Sherrod Brown given that he just won re-election in Ohio by about 6 points — it was won by Trump by about 8 points in 2016 and elected a Republican governor, again. So Brown has some kind of secret sauce. Any Democrats catch your eye?
Douthat: I think Brown is a good fit for what Democrats need, but he actually underperformed his polls against a weak GOP candidate, so I don’t think the midterms helped his star that much. If I were a shadowy Dem power broker, I would want to boost Amy Klobuchar, whom everyone seems to like and whose showing in a purplish Upper Midwest state was extremely impressive. She needs a way into the spotlight, but she’s the Dem I would least want to face if I were Trump.
Bruni: You just hit on something basic but transcendently important: With the possibility of as many as two dozen declared Democratic candidates by the middle of next year, there will be a premium like never before on an instantly identifiable brand, on vividness, on the ability to go viral or capture media attention. The technocrats are at a disadvantage. Expect stunts. Expect super-ambitious or super-catchy policy proposals.
Douthat: Yeah, that’s the case for Beto: Start out with a celebrity shine, lock down 15 to 20 percent of the vote early, and you have a chance to win the way Trump did in a similarly crowded field.
Bruni: That could mean Oprah — or Avenatti.
Douthat: I don’t think 15 percent of Democrats want Avenatti — or even 5 or 1 percent. If he had actually knocked off Kavanaugh, instead of helping him by elevating what now look like bogus accusations, maybe he could have parlayed that into something ... but I think his moment has passed. But Oprah? Sure, she could win that way.
Bruni: President Winfrey? Stranger things have happened. Hell, look at that news conference. Stranger things did.
Douthat: And they will between now and the next election countdown, when perhaps we’ll reconvene to discuss President Mike Pence’s hard-fought battle against the Winfrey-Klobuchar ticket and an impeached, removed, running-as-a-third-party-candidate Donald Trump.
Frank Bruni and Ross Douthat are columnists for The New York Times.