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Barr’s crisis just got deeper


When Donald Trump fired off a tweet at 2 a.m. one night last week condemning the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation for his buddy Roger Stone, I doubt he had a clue that it would set off a firestorm that continues to rage today. I would guess that Attorney General Bill Barr also didn’t expect that he’d be getting calls for his resignation from a bipartisan group of over 2,000 former Department of Justice officials after he went on TV to try to cover up his own unethical actions by protesting that he has acted independently, in the face of clear evidence that he and the president are on a crusade to punish the president’s enemies and go easy on his friends.

One of the signatories, Donald Ayer, was a deputy attorney general under Barr in the George H.W. Bush administration, as well as a U.S. attorney and principal deputy solicitor general in the Reagan administration. Ayer wrote a piece in the Atlantic on Monday that runs down the full list of Barr’s transgressions and overreaches and concludes with this chilling assessment:

Bad as they are, these examples are more symptoms than causes of Barr’s unfitness for office. The fundamental problem is that he does not believe in the central tenet of our system of government — that no person is above the law. In chilling terms, Barr’s own words make clear his long-held belief in the need for a virtually autocratic executive who is not constrained by countervailing powers within our government under the constitutional system of checks and balances.  

Indeed, given our national faith and trust in a rule of law no one can subvert, it is not too strong to say that Bill Barr is un-American. And now, from his perch as attorney general, he is in the midst of a root-and-branch attack on the core principles that have guided our justice system, and especially our Department of Justice, since the 1970s.

I’m not sure Barr cares about any of that, to be honest. He’s clearly someone who had One Big Idea back in the 1980s — the unitary executive — and has since then become afflicted with a terrible case of Fox News Brain Rot, a terrible condition that seems to have a rate of infection that exceeds that of the Wuhan coronavirus. He may very well believe that Trump has been the victim of a “deep state” witch hunt and that it’s his solemn duty to track down all the perpetrators and lock them up. He has made it clear that he thinks his only problem is that Justice Department officials and federal judges think he’s taking orders from the president when he’s actually acting on his own.

That’s ridiculous, of course. Those former DOJ officials are deeply disturbed by the fact that the attorney general of the United States is acting as the president’s personal fixer. As one of Trump’s previous fixers, Michael Cohen, explained:

Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing,

That tracks with Bill Barr’s infamous testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when Sen. Kamala Harris of California asked him if anyone had ever asked him investigate someone:

It is an insult to the intelligence to believe that Barr is acting independently. The only question has been whether he was trying to appease Trump, as others in the administration have tried to do, or if he and Trump are simply on the same wavelength. As I said before, there is every reason to assume that Barr actually thinks the president is a victim and he’s trying to right the wrongs done to him.

Consider that even before he became AG, Barr told the New York Times that he believed the bogus Uranium One scandal was far more worthy of investigation than the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. That indicated he was deeply immersed in the right-wing fever swamps, ready to “lock up” Hillary Clinton and exonerate Trump as a “unitary executive” who is, by definition, above the law.

Since then, all of our suspicions have proved that out. From the way Barr spun the Mueller report to refusing to take up the Ukraine case the whistleblower brought to his attention to his personal crusade to “investigate the investigators,” whether he is taking orders from Trump or just spending his evenings getting briefed on “what’s really happening” by Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, he has left absolutely no doubt that he is working as the president’s henchman.

Moreover, Barr has given a number of speeches that reveal him to be a right-wing warrior driven by the kind of ideological zeal that compels some people to make deals with the devil. He told the Federalist Society back in November:

The fact of the matter is that, in waging a scorched-earth, no-holds-barred war of “resistance” against this administration, it is the left that is engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law. The “holy mission” of “so-called progressives” is to use the coercive power of the state to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection.

He is such an extremist that it’s led him to corrupt the Department of Justice on behalf of a president he believes has been unfairly targeted. This is delusional. And it’s finally caught up with him.

Over the weekend there was a flurry of reports that an insurrection is brewing within the department in the wake of the withdrawal of the four prosecutors who had handled the Roger Stone case. Concerns over Barr’s ongoing interference in cases “of interest to the president,” particularly his practice of bringing in prosecutors from outside jurisdictions to second-guess conclusions reached by highly regarded professionals and his obvious eagerness to go easy on Trump cronies like Stone and Michael Flynn, apparently had the department in turmoil from coast to coast.

Of course, that only goes so far:

Profiles in courage are hard to come by in Trump’s government.

However, late Monday, something happened that may be even more important than a restive DOJ:

A national association of federal judges has called an emergency meeting Tuesday to address growing concerns about the intervention of Justice Department officials and President Donald Trump in politically sensitive cases, the group’s president said Monday.

As with so many other moments in this scandalous administration, this all may pass with yet another institution gravely weakened and the president carrying on as if nothing happened. But federal judges have lifetime appointments and no fear of angry voters. If the judiciary no longer believes the Justice Department is operating in good faith, it’s hard to see how William Barr can remain attorney general.

My Salon column reprinted with permission

Trump’s “New Age” of disinformation

Former Rep. David Jolly (R-FL), now an MSNBC commentator, told host Joy Reid Monday that Donald Trump is intentionally sowing chaos:

“Garry Kasparov, the Russian freedom activist, has said the point of disinformation isn’t to manipulate the truth, it’s to exhaust your critical thinking,” Jolly explained. “To exhaust your critical thinking, that’s what we’re experiencing as voters.”

“I had a colleague that was in a meeting in the Roosevelt Room and he said he heard Trump say, ‘Have you ever seen the nation so divided?’ My colleagues and others said, ‘No, we haven’t.’ Trump said, ‘I love it that way.’ This is the currency that he’s peddling as political strategy, but it’s not one we have to accept,” Jolly explained.

Sowing chaos strengthens Trump’s genetically weak hand. One hesitates to call anything Trump does a strategy. Sowing chaos — mated with bullying — is more a reflex the trust-fund “king of debt” has employed for decades to dominate more intelligent and capable people around him. This is perhaps an element of Trump’s kinship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a much craftier and more strategic authoritarian.

“He is escalating and sending our nation into chaos. I know this man,” Tony Schwartz tweeted in October 2017. Schwartz, who ghost-wrote Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” added a dire warning: “Republicans and Democrats alike must find a way to remove Trump from office as soon as possible. I can’t overstate the mortal danger he poses.”

Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin ponders how “Ivy League-educated, formerly sane politicians” can regurgitate Trump’s conspiracy theories, patent falsehoods, anti-science, and other “unadulterated nonsense.” Rubin writes:

It is not as if anti-intellectualism suddenly appeared with the election of President Trump. The habitual rejection of expertise on everything from climate change to the economic impact of immigration has been rampant in the Republican Party for some time. It is part and parcel of the invented victimization of mostly white, non-college-educated men who attribute their loss of prestige and status to “elites,” especially those in colleges and the media. Even right-wingers who should know better have felt compelled to pander to audiences that wear ignorance and anti-intellectualism as a badge of honor.

Political sentiments do not exist on a linear spectrum, but on a circle. Travel too far left or right and extremists meet each other. It is why authoritarians exist on the left as well as on the right. (I often use “left-wing fundamentalists” to drive home the point.)

To answer Rubin’s query about how smart, college-educated people can spew nonsense, consider the New Age movement that saw its apogee in the 1990s. This post is from 2015:

The irony about evidence falling on hard times is that when I arrived here in the 1990s, the New Age was in full flower-power. As Larry Massett observed in “A Night on Mt. Shasta” (recorded during the Harmonic Convergence), “I met a lot of people I liked and almost no one I believed.” People following their spiritual journeys seemed alienated by modernity, and suckers for whatever snake oil came peddled by people who seemed genuine enough.

Massett noticed how many New Agers he met began sentences with “for me.” He began to think of it as a “universal prepositional solvent, making conflict impossible, dissolving external reality.” The movement did not represent spiritual evolution so much as a return to medieval pre-science and mystery religion adorned in contemporary vestments and speaking in a vocabulary lifted from Star Trek and particle physics. People I met who spoke with aliens, channeled spirits, and sold snake oil at spirituality trade shows seemed nice, intelligent, and as lost as Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and others in the Donald Trump fan club.

The New Age was a reaction to the coldness of modernity and the loss of community the same way Trump’s followers feel displaced by change. I wrote at the time (1995):

People are desperate for something in which they can believe. Communities have disappeared, replaced by subdivisions and condominiums. Terrorism and human rights abuses are more visible than ever. Anything you eat, drink or breathe might produce cancer. Science has reduced life to a cold set of mechanistic principles, demythologizing the world and stripping life of the meaning our myths once conveyed. The world seems to be coming apart and we are powerless to stop it. Nothing feels right anymore.

The New Age was an attempt to find meaning amidst the chaos of the modern world by scavenging from the ancients an ecumenical mythology to replace that lost to scientific rationalism. Trump’s MAGA faithful simply want to stand athwart history, yelling Stop — if not sometime during the Medieval period, then seventy-five years ago before political reforms of the 1960s upended their comfortable, white Christian patriarchy. So long as they can bring Fox News back in time with them.

Decades after the New Age got old, it is the right’s turn to dissolve external reality, only this time making conflict inevitable in its pursuit of a security blanket of the familiar. Disinformation sows chaos. Trump thrives in it, as do his autocrat friends. We need to steel ourselves for more of it. Rather than expending energy refuting the flood of lies, we need to drown them as much as possible in truth.

In a land where objective truth escapes the bounds of gravity and the president rejects the laws of men, darker forces see opportunity for exploitation. Putin is patiently waiting as Europe shakes its head at Trumpism. The MAGA faithful will find Trump’s New Age less cozy than they imagine.

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Delusional

Many people recalled this famous scene when they saw that:

Trump himself:

In his memoir, “The Art of the Deal,” Trump wrote that his main focus as a youngster was “creating mischief.” As a second-grader, he wrote, he “actually” gave his music teacher a black eye because “I didn’t think he knew anything about music, and I almost got expelled.”

Trump’s assault on the House

He thinks he can take it back:

If Trump wins re-election and Republicans are able to hold the Senate and take back the House, Trump will essentially have free rein to do whatever he wants in his second term.

  • Winning back the House majority is also the best insurance policy against additional attempts to impeach him.

Can you believe this is what we talk about now? He wants to take back the Houe so he won’t be impeached again? Good lord.

 House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Axios that Trump is “going to travel for us. If you look at where we’re playing, he’ll be going. He’s already made that commitment to me.”

  • Trump has indicated to aides that he is committed to winning back the House this year, a senior administration official tells Axios — largely because McCarthy has told him it’s possible.
  • A second administration official said Trump wants revenge on Democrats for putting him through “months of hell” with impeachment and a flurry of investigations.

Imagine that.

Republicans privately admit that the chances of winning back the House are pretty slim so they’re obviously just trying to keep Dear Leader happy by telling him that he can get it back. Unfortunately, Trump doesn’t like to play in small venues so he won’t be going to individual districts but Kevin McCarthy says he’s sure Trump will attend some dinners so that will be helpful.

It occurs to me that the Trump party is entirely dependent on Trump to do everything now. The rest of the party is merely there to serve him and protect him. Luckily for them Trump is incredibly generous and always puts the greater good ahead of his own needs so they can count on him to go the extra mile to help their campaigns.

The whistleblower on a pike

The New York Times reported yesterday:

House Democrats, recovering from their failed push to remove President Trump from office, are making a sharp pivot to talking about health care and economic issues, turning away from their investigations of the president as they focus on preserving their majority.

They’ve decided not to call John Bolton but I guess they’re hoping Bill Barr will actually show up at the end of next month. But if he doesn’t, well …

The Republicans, on the other hand, are going full speed ahead:

Senators are reviving the fight over the whistleblower complaint at the center of the months-long impeachment effort against President Trump.

With Trump’s trial in the rearview mirror, the Senate Intelligence Committee is quietly shifting its attention back to its investigation into the complaint process after hitting pause on the inquiry as the impeachment effort consumed Washington. 

The probe will force senators to decide if, and how, they speak with the whistleblower — a controversial call that could test the bipartisan reputation the Intelligence panel has maintained even amid deeply partisan fights in Congress. 

Asked by The Hill if he was willing to formally compel and subpoena the whistleblower to testify, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) didn’t rule out the possibility.

“I think you can rest assured that I’m prepared to do whatever we have to to interview the whistleblower,” Burr said. 

Meanwhile, rest assured that they are following up on the all-important Hunter Biden scandal:

The New York Times reported that Senate Republicans on the Finance Committee and Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs had requested documents related to Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine last year, a request that the Treasury Department has complied with.

The request suggests Republican senators are looking into Hunter’s finances using standard protocols for Senate investigations. But some Democrats are accusing the administration of complying with this investigation in a way that it refused to in the impeachment inquiry.

The Senate Finance Committee chair, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, pushed back on this allegation, according to the New York Times:

“It’s unfortunate that Democrats whom we’ve kept in the loop on our investigations would recklessly seek to interfere with legitimate government oversight,” said his spokesperson; Grassley also reportedly confirmed the investigation is ongoing.

The former Judiciary Committee chairman Grassley is sadly suffering from an advanced case of Fox News brainrot:

So we needn’t fear that the scandals will fade as we move into the exciting electoral terrain of government health care financing mechanisms. The Republicans are now on the case. We might even get some back yard watermelon shooting if we’re lucky.

60 Minutes on “the server”

This segment on Crowdstrike and “the server” was excellent:

Even after the acquittal of the president, his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is pursuing allegations of corruption in Ukraine. This past week, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department would “carefully scrutinize” what Giuliani finds. Last July, President Trump made the phone call to Ukraine that led to impeachment. He asked the president of Ukraine to investigate a mysterious Democratic National Committee computer server that Mr. Trump said was hidden in Ukraine. We have found that odd request is a story that has grown over the years and was influenced by Moscow. You may have wondered how the president was impeached over Ukraine of all places. The answer is in the story of the mystery server, a reminder that the U.S. and Russia have been on opposite sides of a war in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in 2014.

You can see the whole thing, here. If anyone who doesn’t follow this stuff closely was watching last night they learned something important.

This is no drill

We’ve been talking about the danger Trump presents to democracy since the day after the election in 2016. But this past week has really brought that concern into high relief.

CNN’s Brian Stelter’s newsletter on Sunday featured the following:

Quoting the watchdog group Freedom House: “Trump has assailed essential institutions and traditions including the separation of powers, a free press, an independent judiciary, the impartial delivery of justice, safeguards against corruption, and most disturbingly, the legitimacy of elections.” With that in mind, consider the headlines of the past week:

 — Separation of powers: Trump has been challenging the legislative branch’s power of the purse by diverting Pentagon $$$ to build more border wall.

 — Free press: His newest budget proposal would cut funding for PBS, NPR, and the military’s iconic Stars and Stripes newspaper.

 — Independent judiciary: Via Twitter he attacked a federal judge, the same woman who will be sentencing his friend Roger Stone.

 — Safeguards against corruption: He has been smearing the Ukraine whistleblower and those who testified about the scheme to the House.

 — Impartial delivery of justice: Look no further than the DOJ crisis. The NYT’s Sunday front page carried new concerns about political interference.

— Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt has been keeping a “dictator” checklist since 2016. He revisited the list for Foreign Policy mag a few days ago. He wrote that “after impeachment, the president has been passing most of the checkpoints on the way to authoritarianism.”

 — The Guardian has an excerpt from the 2018 book “How Democracies Die.”

 — This 2016 piece by Vox has aged well: “The rise of American authoritarianism.”

I guess you can say that this is all silly, wine-mom, hysteria if you want. But it strikes me as extremely serious. We’re in a new stage.

He can’t erase the Russia investigation

But he’s giving it the old college try.

I think it’s important to recognize just how feverishly the Trump cult is working to erase the Russia investigation and create the illusion that it really was a hoax. It would be one thing if he were just using his twitter feed and Fox news to do this. But he isn’t.

This piece in the Washington Post by Philip Rucker tells the tale:

Seven months after Mueller’s marathon testimony brought finality to the Russia investigation, Trump is actively seeking to rewrite the narrative that had been meticulously documented by federal law enforcement and intelligence officials, both for immediate political gain and for history.

Turbocharged by his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial and confident that he has acquired the fealty of nearly every Republican in Congress, Trump is claiming vindication and exoneration not only over his conduct with Ukraine — for which the House voted to impeach him — but also from the other investigations that have dogged his presidency.

This includes lawsuits filed against Trump by the state of New York over his finances as well as alleged misuse of charity funds by his nonprofit foundation. Trump sought last week to turn the page on these probes, declaring on Twitter ahead of a White House meeting with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) that “New York must stop all of its unnecessary lawsuits & harrassment.”

Still, Russia is foremost on Trump’s mind. Since even before he was sworn in as president, Trump has viewed the FBI’s Russia investigation as a dark cloud over his administration that threatened to delegitimize his claim on the office. And more than three years in, Trump remains haunted by all things Russia, according to advisers and allies, and continues to nurse a profound and unabated sense of persecution.

As his reelection campaign intensifies, Trump is using the powers of his office to manipulate the facts and settle the score. Advisers say the president is determined to protect his associates ensnared in the expansive Russia investigation, punish the prosecutors and investigators he believes betrayed him, and convince the public that the probe was exactly as he sees it: an illegal witch hunt.

“The whole Mueller investigation was a shakedown and a disgrace. It probably should be expunged,” Trump said in an interview last week with radio commentator Geraldo Rivera, a longtime friend.

Referring to Mueller, Trump added: “I don’t call him special counsel because special counsel is not an accurate term. It’s a special prosecutor, because what he and his 13 angry Democrats — all horrible, just horrible people — what they did to destroy the lives of people that you know, but to destroy the lives of many, Geraldo, should never be forgiven, should never be forgotten, and something has to be done about it.”

He cannot succeed in this, of course. The people who try to do this never do. But it’s stunning that we are dealing with a president who is doing it openly in 2020 and there’s a chance he’s going to be re-elected in a few months.

Last week alone, Trump called the Russia investigation “tainted,” “dirty,” “rotten,” “illegal,” “phony,” a “disgrace,” a “shakedown,” a “scam,” “a fixed hoax” and “the biggest political crime in American History, by far.”

He argued that the probe into Russian election interference was based on false pretenses, despite a recent report from the Justice Department’s inspector general stating the opposite even as it criticized the FBI’s surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide. And he claimed, again without evidence, that Mueller, a former FBI director regarded for his precision with facts, lied to Congress — which happens to be one of the charges Stone was convicted of by a jury last November.

Absent from the president’s many public comments about the Russia investigation, however, was a warning to Russia not to interfere in the next election, or even an acknowledgment that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russian President Vladi­mir Putin is seeking to do so.

Of course he hasn’t. He needs all the help he can get and he knows it.

You say you want a revolution

Image Public Domain via Wikipedia.

The vicissitudes of the tourism industry drive the economy here. Post-Valentine’s tourism, someone told me, accounted for the traffic jam downtown on Saturday. Meanwhile, housing costs are up. Hotel and apartment block construction is up. But the joke circulating when I arrived 30 years ago still works: There are lots of good jobs around here. I know people who have two or three. Locals are being priced out. People in their 30s still have roommates.

But that’s not just a local problem, writes Eric Levitz. It is why an Economist/YouGov poll found that “60 percent of Democrats younger than 30 support either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.” Younger voters in the U.S. are not alone in wanting left-wing reform. Jeremy Corbyn’s Britain’s Labour party won support from 55 percent of voters under 30 in 2019. Younger voters drove the surprise victory in Irish parliamentary elections this month by leftwing Sinn Féin, becoming “the first party in almost a century other than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael to win the popular vote in an Irish General Election.”

Even at (supposedly) full employment, recent college U.S. graduates find themselves working jobs below their training or unemployed while saddled with loan debt.

Levitz writes:

To see why, consider three remarkable data points from this column by Bloomberg’s Alexandra Tanzi and Katia Dmitrieva: (1) The unemployment rate among recent college graduates in the U.S. is now higher than our country’s overall unemployment rate for the first time in over two decades, (2) More than 40 percent of recent college graduates are working jobs that do not traditionally require a bachelor’s degree (while one in eight are stuck in posts that pay $25,000 or less), and (3) the median income among the bottom half of college graduates is roughly 10 percent lower than it was three decades ago.

Bloomberg illustrates the problem with a chart entitled “Losing Out.” This economy has a glut of aspiring white-collar workers for which there is insufficient demand, Levitz continues:

Put differently: Even as the price of a college diploma has risen nigh-exponentially (thereby forcing the rising generation of college graduates to saddle themselves with onerous debts), the value of such diplomas on the U.S. job market has rapidly depreciated. And there is little reason to believe that this state of affairs will change, no matter how long the present boom is sustained. According to the Labor Department’s estimates, the five fastest-growing occupations in the United States over the next ten years will be solar-panel installers, wind-turbine technicians, home health aides, personal care aides, and occupational therapy assistants. Not a single one of those jobs requires a four-year college diploma. Only occupational therapy assistants need an associate’s degree.

The promise since WWII that a college degree was a ticket to a comfortable middle-class or better life is in tatters. As the stock market boomed in the Clinton years, politicians promoted the “knowledge economy,” as Levitz calls it (the “information economy” promoted under Ronald Reagan). Now, that too has fizzled.

Rising inequality? Pish posh. Not a failure of metastasized capitalism, no. Simply the product of a “skills gap,” not the “middle-class squeeze” Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren warned of in 2004 and lectured on in 2008. Now that squeeze is tighter than ever, the inequality more stark, the environment more unstable, and the promises more obviously hollow.

Arrayed against those lefty kids and flagging democracy is a growing, worldwide movement towards authoritarianism. Time is running out to stop it:

“The system is enabling Trump,” Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor who wrote “How Fascism Works,” told Insider.

“There need to be mass protests,” he said. “The Republican Party is betraying democracy, and these are historical times. Someone has got to push back.”

Celebrated by supporters for his consistency, to those who lived through the 1960s Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” rhetoric feels as dated as tie-dye, nehru jackets, and day-glo daisies. But old things have a way of coming back into fashion. Sanders never changed as times did. Half a century later, a new generation seems to wants his revolution. Perhaps Sanders should put supporters in the streets as in the 1960s, not just knocking doors.

Harvard Magazine cites political scientist Pippa Norris on rising authoritarianism:

… as societies have grown more liberal on social issues during the last half-century—more open to diversity and LGBTQ rights, more egalitarian about gender roles and racial equality, more expansive in democratic representation, more secular, more cosmopolitan, more global—that transformation has triggered a deep and intense reaction among traditionalists who feel threatened, marginalized, and left behind. Those traditionalists, whom she identifies as older, whiter, more rural, and less well educated, have tended to turn toward forceful leaders promising to hold back the rising tide.

Stopping that movement towards retrenchment will take out-organizing and out-voting neighbors energized in support of an authoritarian strongman. It will take more than songs and chants and visualization. This is not political theory. For the 60s generation, Vietnam was life and death. Trumpism may be as well.

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For The Win, 3rd Edition is ready for download. 2,600+ counties contacted, roughly 900 “opens,” over 400 downloads. (It’s a lead-a-horse effort.) Request a copy of my free countywide election mechanics guide at ForTheWin.us. This is what winning looks like.

I can’t say I blame them

There is a lot of footage out there of Trumpworld figures going on TV clearly tipsy. Here’s one from Saturday night:

As I said, he isn’t the first:

And before that …

Hey, I can’t hold it against them. If I had to go on TV and defend Trump I’d have to have a few shots of liquid courage too.