Elizabeth Drew

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As I’ve stated before, it seems clear how it ends for Trump, his family and his minions–in utter disgrace–but I don’t know how it turns out for America. There are just too many variables at play to prognosticate.

It may depend on how far and wide the sweep of justice extends. I have the same dream scenario that many do: The cynical players in government and outside will be washed away in a wave of justice, returning some semblance of sanity to our society. That’s not likely to be the result, however.

You can’t impeach, indict or arrest away what ails us, even if it’s a necessary start. Nearly 63 million citizens went into a voting booth and chose a bigoted, ignorant, kleptocratic sociopath. We’re deeply divided, armed to the teeth and living in a time where profiteers and ideologues alike are using our new media tools to obliterate truth. We’d better divine some solutions for our moral and political rot because eventually the crooks, trying to steal democracy as well as currency, aren’t going to be so stunningly incompetent.

In an excellent interview Susan B. Glasser of Politico Magazine conducted with Elizabeth Drew, the Watergate chronicler still doing excellent work in this time of Trump, speaks of her prescience when Nixon’s ouster still seemed unthinkable: “I may be a witch. I just had this instinct. I said, ‘I think that we might change vice presidents and presidents within a year.’ Now, this was a wild thought in the fall of 1973. I just smelled it.”

In one exchange, Drew, who asserts that the Nixon and Trump scandals are different despite their similarities, speaks to a common point they share: The lawlessness and abuses of both Administrations go far beyond one break-in or a single meeting with Russians connected to the Kremlin. It was and is a pervasive evil. An excerpt:

I want to explain something. There is one very strong similarity between the two periods. Because this gets down to, “Well, what was Watergate?” And I felt throughout it was a very unfashionable thought. A lot of people just treat it as a detective story and a lot of people still think it was a detective story that these odd people broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. They got caught because of a night watchman, caught the tape on the door. They were indicted. The cover up began. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, they did incredible reporting.

They were just dogged and they kept at it and they broke the case of the cover up, but Watergate was much bigger than just that invasion of the DNC headquarters. To me, the worst thing that the so-called burglars—plumbers, rather. They were called plumbers because they were plumbing leaks. [LAUGHS] But they have the name “Plumbers” on their door in the Executive Office Building. They had an office there. They broke into the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers. In some ways, Watergate was as much about the Pentagon Papers as anything else. Now, just think about it: these bums breaking into somebody’s psychiatrist’s office to try to get his files, fortunately, were so incompetent. They messed up everything they did. They were real stumblebums. There were no files in that office although they supposedly cased it.

But that was really more troubling than the break-in to the Watergate, and it was a whole array of abuse of power, where they used the instruments of government against Nixon’s perceived enemies — and he was very good at perceiving enemies. We don’t have that now but Watergate was not a simple detective story. I always thought it was a constitutional crisis. And we still have that element of it. It’s: Can you hold a president accountable for the acts of his subordinates? We’re going to get to that question at some point in this. I don’t know when. I’m getting ahead of the story but the most important article of impeachment against Nixon was Article II, which held that a president could be held accountable for the acts of his subordinates, even if he really didn’t know anything about it.

That they created an atmosphere where these things can happen and if it ever got to impeachment and I don’t know if it will or won’t. People insist it won’t. I don’t know. It could under certain circumstances. This is a very important question. We were scared then in a way that we aren’t now. So it was quite different.•

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Trump will eventually be flushed down the vortex along with other waste products swirling around him, I’m fairly certain at this point, but as an amateur student of human psychology I’d be fascinated to know if he’s fully wrapped his declining brain around this scenario. Is it within his mental powers to grasp that some combination of potential financial crimes, traitorous activity and obstruction of justice could end up with him laundering prison clothes rather than moneyAs I’ve mentioned, I don’t think America is saved when Trump is toppled, but his ouster is necessary if we’re to have a chance to rescue our Republic and reform our government. Or maybe we’ll end up in another Civil War. Either or.

Elizabeth Drew, the great correspondent of the Watergate Era, cautions that any Trump impeachment process must be a gradual and bilateral one. Of course, we live in a faster age and a far more divided one, so I don’t know if that’s possible. It’s not that I don’t think McConnell and Ryan and the rest wouldn’t kick a sad old goat from a cliff to save their own hides, but I’m not sure that if Russian collusion is proved that it doesn’t pull way more Republicans over the precipice than we can currently guess. The GOP will fight such an outcome with all it has.

In a New York column about Trump’s possible ouster, Frank Rich cites Drew’s work and compares the slow-forming Watergate inferno to the fire next time. An excerpt:

Here’s Drew describing a typical Watergate day: “The news is coming too fast. Faster and harder than anyone expected. It is almost impossible to absorb.” And here she is a week after Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned upon pleading no contest to charges of bribery and tax fraud: “The city seems to be reeling around amidst the events and the breaking stories. In the restaurants, the noise level is higher. At the end of the day, someone says, ‘It’s like being drunk.’ ” It already feels like that right now.

One could argue that the context is different today — that the America of 2017 is not the America of the early 1970s. We think of our current culture as being harder to shock, easier to distract, and more inured to crude public figures who violate traditional societal norms as unabashedly as Trump. This, in theory, would make him harder to dislodge than Nixon, whose sins would more easily scandalize a relatively innocent 20th-century citizenry. But even without the internet’s cacophony, Nixon faced a post-1960s America as factionalized, jaded, and accustomed to shock as our own: It had witnessed the assassination of two Kennedys and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a complete overhaul of its mores as a consequence of a rising counterculture and women’s movement, and a domestic civil war precipitated by the catastrophe of Vietnam. The alarming toxicity of Trump has burst through the noise of our America much as Nixon’s did through his. And while the technology for delivering news makes it come faster and harder in 2017 than Drew or any of us could have anticipated in that day of daily newspapers and nightly news broadcasts, the onslaught of shocking developments felt no less overwhelming then than now.

Human nature hasn’t changed — not for those of us standing outside a teetering White House or for the cast of characters within. Much as Trump risked his presidency by empowering hotheaded ideologues like Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, so Nixon’s White House had recruited the similarly reckless G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to wage war on the president’s perceived enemies. As John A. Farrell writes in his new, state-of-the-art Richard Nixon: The Lifeboth of them were “wannabe James Bonds.” Hunt, an alumnus of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, was the prolific author of often pseudonymous spy novels, while Liddy was alt-right before it was cool: “a right-wing zealot, with a fixation for Nazi regalia and a kinky kind of Nietzschean philosophy,” who “organized a White House screening of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.”

Though there are a number of areas where the Nixon and Trump narratives diverge, in nearly every case Trump’s deviations from the Watergate model make it even less likely that he will survive his presidency.•

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The Intelligence Community, the judiciary and (largely) the press have been fortresses against the dissolution of American democracy in this terrible time of Trump, even if the Republican legislature has rolled over for the Simon Cowell-ish strongman, a move which makes me wonder whether its obeisance stems merely from partisanship. How far do the Kremlin’s tentacles extend?

This attack on everything decent and enlightened, from the First Amendment to women’s health to Meal on Wheels, may very well end with numerous members of the President’s inner circle (including him) deposed, perhaps imprisoned, but that won’t mean our worries will be over over.

Nearly 63 million citizens voted for the most obvious conman, one who degraded our ideals at every turn. This awful and dangerous moment is merely the crescendo of decades of dumbing down, conspiracy theories supplanting civics and big money pouring into politics. There’s no guarantee that a post-Trump landscape will look anything like a desirable country. We’d be better for his removal, but we still won’t be anything near well.

Two excerpts follow.

In pretty much any other moment in our history, Brett Arends’ MarketWatch article, which encourages readers to move some of their investments outside of an increasingly lawless United States, would read as exceedingly hyperbolic. Not now. An excerpt:

It is no longer a certainty that America will remain a stable country governed by an impartial rule of law. You could argue it no longer is.

I am not saying that a further breakdown is guaranteed or even likely, but I am saying it is possible. Maybe things will end happily, but maybe not. What we are witnessing today is exactly how it has happened historically. It goes in steps. Countries do not leap from civilization to barbarism in a single bound. You do not wake up one morning to discover mobs burning books in the streets. The decline happens by degrees. Each step enables the next. 

And what is being normalized here now is not normal.

The voters of Montana have just rewarded Greg Gianforte for beating up a reporter by electing him to Congress as their representative. Many on the right are crowing. Gianforte was reportedly swamped with extra donations following the attack. Republican congressman Duncan Hunter of California said the attack was merely “inappropriate” — unless, he added, the reporter “deserved it.” The president has celebrated the result. Popular right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham actually mocked the reporter and suggested he should have fought back against Gianforte and his aides. (One can only imagine what she would have said if he actually had done so.) She was not alone.

None of these people are being subject to moral sanction by the market or their supporters so far as anyone can tell. Gianforte has only been cited legally for a misdemeanor by the local sheriff, who was a campaign contributor. The smart money says he will get away with it, and take up his lucrative sinecure in Washington.

And as every conservative knows, human beings respond to incentives. If this sort of action is rewarded and not punished, it will happen more often.•

In the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew, veteran Watergate reporter, believes the head-spinning events of the latter half of May could be the tipping point for Trump’s Presidency. The thing is, truly terrible things could happen between now and any eventual terminus. An excerpt:

Politicians are pragmatists. Republican leaders urged Nixon to leave office rather than have to vote on his impeachment. Similarly, it’s possible that when Trump becomes too politically expensive for them, the current Republicans might be ready to dump him by one means or another. But the Republicans of today are quite different from those in the early 1970s: there are few moderates now and the party is the prisoner of conservative forces that didn’t exist in Nixon’s day.

Trump, like Nixon, depends on the strength of his core supporters, but unlike Nixon, he can also make use of social media, Fox News, and friendly talk shows to keep them loyal. Cracking Trump’s base could be a lot harder than watching Nixon’s diminish as he appeared increasingly like a cornered rat, perspiring as he tried to talk his way out of trouble (“I am not a crook”) or firing his most loyal aides as if that would fix the situation. Moreover, Trump is, for all his deep flaws, in some ways a cannier politician than Nixon; he knows how to lie to his people to keep them behind him.

The critical question is: When, or will, Trump’s voters realize that he isn’t delivering on his promises, that his health care and tax proposals will help the wealthy at their expense, that he isn’t producing the jobs he claims? His proposed budget would slash numerous domestic programs, such as food stamps, that his supporters have relied on heavily. (One wonders if he’s aware of this part of his constituency.)

People can have a hard time recognizing that they’ve been conned. And Trump is skilled at flimflam, creating illusions. But how long can he keep blaming his failures to deliver on others—Democrats, the “dishonest media,” the Washington “swamp”? None of this is knowable yet. What is knowable is that an increasingly agitated Donald Trump’s hold on the presidency is beginning to slip.•

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It’s been roughly two weeks since stunning news broke that Trump had fired James Comey. It may as well have been a decade.

Since then, Trump admitted in an TV interview that he canned Comey to end the Russian investigation, the FBI director produced a memo of a conversation in which the President asked him to let Mike Flynn off the hook and it’s been reported that the Administration prevailed upon the DNI and NSI directors to intervene on his behalf to end the inquiry. Complicating matters further, the Putin praiser shared secret intelligence with Russian representatives in the White House. 

If this nonstop turmoil seems like Watergate played out at warp speed, Elizabeth Drew, the political journalist who chronicled Richard Nixon’s disgrace, doesn’t believe potential collusion with a foreign adversary nor obstruction of justice will result in a speedy ending for our Kremlin-loving kakistocracy, even if that’s what the country dearly needs. She warns that progress to endgame may be grindingly slow and must be bipartisan, a trickier feat to achieve today than in the 1970s.

Three excerpts follow from Matthias Kolb’s long-form Süddeutsche Zeitung Q&A with Drew, conducted soon after Comey’s ouster.



You know so many people on the Hill, in Washington Journal you describe how the different senators and congressmen talked to you about their thought process about how and when to criticize Nixon. Is this a similar situation?

Elizabeth Drew:

Not quite yet. If you took a secret ballot, Trump would be out. But it doesn’t work that way. I do know from various sources, most Republicans in the Senate want him out; they joke about it. I wrote that in a recent article.  The senators see each other in the gym or in the hallways and some weeks ago some Republicans  on the Senate floor were taking bets with each other over how Trump is going to be forced to leave office, not whether. Several sources told me about this. But they are not anywhere near… they are not ready for this.



You have covered American politics and presidents for more than five decades. Has there been anything similar to that?  

Elizabeth Drew:

No, Ronald Reagan maybe. He was an actor who was not very verbal. Reagan spoke well and could read aloud smoothly what was written down for him. But he was not a thinker. Barack Obama was our most contemplative president, a real intellectual. Reagan was not and Trump is definitely not. Trump doesn’t like to read. He gets intelligence briefings which he doesn’t like. His staff asks people to present things to him in pictures, that is similar with Reagan. I remember an aide telling me that he tried to explain something to Reagan about the war on drugs, and he made it like a movie plot to get Reagan’s attention. Trump likes pictures, aides have to draw things. It is alarming. Trump has no attention span, he is very impatient.



Will Trump stay in office for four years?

Elizabeth Drew:

From the beginning, I’ve thought that he wouldn’t last. He looks frustrated so much of the time. In his business, no one was in a position to block him.  He’s been going through a frustrating time. He’s lonely;  Mrs. Trump is apparently moving down here in the summer, but he’s not a quitter. And he likes being president; He said that the other day at this victory party at the Rose Garden after the House passed  the health care bill. You all saw the pictures, I’m sure. He said: “How’m I doing? I am president, can’t you see?” He will not give it up, I think. Things would have to become really bad. But I wouldn’t put any money on anything.       


If some younger reporters ask you for advice how to cover the Trump administration, what do you tell them? I took away from reading “Washington Journal”  that you should be skeptical about simple narratives and that historic events like Watergate could have gone a different way. 

Elizabeth Drew:

Watergate was not the simple narrative that many take it to be, nor will this be – however it turns out. and will never be. I tell those reporters: “Let it play out, don’t try to game it. Follow what is happening and watch for certain things.” I also tell my friends: Watch for certain things and be patient. Trump will be in trouble for firing Comey,  and it likely will build. Be careful and you have to be responsible with what you are writing. Watch the Republicans: He cannot be driven from office just by Democrats. Watch for key Republicans to say certain things that might signal that he is in serious trouble. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader, is important. I’m sure that he has in his head how he wants to handle this, but he won’t say much. He’s a careful and smart man who has been around for decades. If you hear criticism of the president by Mitch McConnell, he’s in big trouble. You can’t just rush a president out of office because you don’t like him. It doesn’t work that way and should not work that way. It must not be partisan because it otherwise will not be successful. It would tear the country apart.•

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It certainly wouldn’t benefit the American Society of Civil Engineers to slap an “A” grade on every bridge in the U.S., but I don’t think many doubt the organization’s dismal grades for our infrastructure. In a NYRB piece, Elizabeth Drew reviews a raft of books on the topic, including Henry Petroski’s The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure.

Drew shares small, interesting details (there are still wooden pipes working beneath the White House) and big-picture fears (only calamity may force us to catch up to much of the rest of the world). On the latter topic, she surmises that “it may require even more widespread paralyzed traffic, the collapse of numerous bridges, and perhaps a revolt in parts of the country that have inadequate broadband.” Well, let’s hope not. She also surveys the current Presidential candidates’ plans for remaking our roads and airports, uncovering a lot of fuzzy math.

An excerpt:

The water pipes underneath the White House are said to still be made of wood, as are some others in the nation’s capital and some cities across the country. We admire Japan’s and France’s “bullet trains” that get people to their destination with remarkable efficiency, but many other nations have them as well, including Russia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. A friend of mine recently rode on the Turkish bullet train and noted that the coffee in his full cup didn’t spill. Last year, Japan demonstrated its new maglev train, which, using electromagnets, levitates above the tracks, and can go about an amazing 375 miles per hour, making it the fastest train in the world. The fastest commercially used maglev, in Shanghai, goes up to 288 miles per hour. But the United States hasn’t a single system that meets all the criteria of high-speed rail. President Obama has proposed a system of high-speed railroads, which has gone nowhere in Congress.

When it comes to providing the essentials of a modern society, it has to be said that we’re a backward country. California Governor Jerry Brown, a longtime visionary, has initiated the building of a high-speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco; one high-speed rail system scheduled to come into service soon to carry people between the wealthy cities of Dallas and Houston will be privately financed. (Shopping and business made easier.) But not many communities have the means to build their own train.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) conducts a study of where the United States stands in providing needed infrastructure in various sectors. Though the organization obviously has an interest in the creation of more construction jobs, its analyses, based as they are on information from other studies, are taken seriously by nonpartisan experts in the field. In the ASCE’s most recent report card, issued in 2013, the combined sectors received an overall grade of D+. In the various sectors, the grades were: aviation, D; bridges, C+; inland waterways, D–; ports, C; rail, C+; roads, D; mass transit, D; schools, D; hazardous waste, D; drinking water, D. No sector received an A. That none of the infrastructure categories received an F is hardly grounds for celebration.•

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At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama’s best joke was this one: “I know Republicans are still sorting out what happened in 2012, but one thing they all agree on is they need to do a better job reaching out to minorities. And look, call me self-centered, but I can think of one minority they could start with. (Laughter.) Hello? Think of me as a trial run, you know?”

But a close second was this: “Of course, everybody has got plenty of advice. Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in The American President. (Laughter.) And I know Michael is here tonight. Michael, what’s your secret, man? (Laughter.) Could it be that you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy? (Laughter.) Might that have something to do with it?”

I know that well-to-do op-ed writers, tossing their precious bon mots, are generally as divorced from the reality of how most Americans live as Washington politicians are, but it amazes me how people who are Beltway insiders can think of politics as a fantasy world. FromObama and the Myth of Arm Twisting,” a New York Review of Books piece by Elizabeth Drew:

“The nonsense about what it takes for a president to win a victory in Congress has reached ridiculous dimensions. The fact that Barack Obama failed to win legislation to place further curbs on the purchase of guns—even after the horror of Newtown, Connecticut—has made people who ought to know better decide that he’s not an “arm-twister.” Ever since Obama took office, others have been certain about how he should handle the job and that he wasn’t doing it right.

Yet if the health care law is allowed to work, despite continuing Republican efforts to try to make sure that it doesn’t, and if we take into account some other victories—the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the stimulus that was as large as the political market would bear, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, the largest since the New Deal if Congress will let it be implemented—his presidency could go down as a time of historic achievement.

Nevertheless, when an insufficient number of senators was available to kill a hypothetical filibuster of the gun bill—a watered-down measure to expand background checks for gun sales (while opening gaping loopholes)—suddenly the word went out that the president is hopeless as an arm-twister; the assumption of course was that being a good arm-twister was critical for a successful presidency.

Wait a minute.

Arm-twisting is a narrowly defined and seldom successful maneuver by which a president can supposedly work his will with the legislature. It assumes that an elected official will cry “uncle” and change his or her mind upon being visited with presidential blandishments and threats: If you vote this way I will see to it that you get that dam. Or the other way around. Or: If you don’t vote for me on this I will make your life miserable for however long you are in office. That’s the popular image.

The problem is that such threats are rarely successful and a president would be most unwise to try to adopt them as a method of governing.”

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