Saturday, February 09, 2019


The acting attorney general was rude and uncooperative in House testimony yesterday. Writing about this, The Atlantic's Natasha Bertrand offers the standard explanation:
It took about five minutes of questioning for the acting attorney general to provoke gasps and jeers in the congressional hearing room. “Your five minutes are up,” Matthew Whitaker ... told the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic chairman Jerry Nadler. Nadler cracked a smile, but from that point on the rules of engagement seemed clear: Whitaker ... appeared to be playing to an audience of one.
Beltway journalists love to use the phrase "an audience of one" in the Trump era. It's often argued that Fox & Friends and various Fox evening shows customize their programming for the same "audience of one."

Bertrand suggests that Whitaker was trying to please Trump. She thinks he might be angling for another job in the administration, possibly chief of staff. But Whitaker didn't focus on gratifying Trump's ego. He focused on carrying out Trump's strategy. Axios's Mike Allen explains:
President Trump watched live cable coverage of yesterday's chippy Hill testimony by acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, and liked what he saw.

... "He liked the combative approach," said an outside West Wing adviser familiar with Trump's thinking. "He thought the Democrats were grandstanding." Inside the White House, according to the adviser, here were the lessons learned: Do not give an inch, push back, resist, delay, deflect.

... The White House recognizes that it can do little to resist the House Dems' demands for testimony. Republicans just hope that over time, they can argue to their base that Dems have been guilty of overreach and "show trials."

A Republican political operative and Capitol Hill veteran told me: "It doesn’t take long for ordinary voters — who are very different from people in Washington — to start seeing participating committee members as pompous, rude and belittling, and begin to side with whoever is sitting in the hot seat."
Whitaker's insolence wasn't just aimed at "an audience of one." It was aimed at audience of 63 million -- the people who voted for Trump in 2016. Like Brett Kavanaugh, Whitaker was trying to fire them up. (GOP congressman Doug Collins, who did some anti-Democratic ranting of his own, was Lindsey Graham to Whitaker's Kavanaugh. Collins's histrionics will probably make him a Fox News star now.)

I don't like the "audience of one" argument. It implies that the only result of these actions is a dopamine rush in Trump's brain from all the flattery. In fact, when Fox reaches out to the president, it's to push the national agenda rightward, because that's what the Fox TV audience wants (and, on most issues, what the Murdoch family wants). This has real-world consequences. Whitaker was previewing a strategy that Trump's people will use in every hearing held by House Democrats: portray the investigations as "overrreach and show trials" and discredit all efforts to hold Trump and his circle accountable. I don't know how many Americans might be receptive to this, but I think it's nearly half the population.

I say that because the president's approval numbers are bouncing back, after a stretch of time during the shutdown when even friendly polls like Rasmussen had the president deeply under water. A few weeks ago, consecutive polls from Rasmussen had Trump's approval rating below his approval rating by double digits -- 43%/55% and 44%/56%. Now he's back where he usually is in Rasmussen surveys -- 50%/49%. The Hill HarrisX poll also had Trump down by 12 during the shutdown, at 44%/56%. Now he's at 47%/53%. Expect similar bouncebacks in other polls.

Trump still has a large base of support. No matter what various investigators find, most of these people will remain loyal to Trump. They'll dismiss all investigations as overreach, no matter how shocking the revelations seem to us. And they vote, so we have to outvote them. It's not at all certain we'll manage to do that.

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