Opinion

It’s July 4, 2022, and Somehow We Are Still Talking About Trump

Gail Collins: Happy Independence Day, Bret! Want to celebrate by talking about the Supreme Court?

Bret Stephens: I was sorta thinking of a cookout on the patio with a nice bottle of rosé, but fire away.

Gail: We were in such accord, gnashing our teeth over the decisions on abortion and guns. How about their deep-sixing environmental regulation? You still gnashing with me?

Bret: You are referring to the ruling that says the Environmental Protection Agency can’t unilaterally reinvent the entire energy economy with an expansive interpretation of the Clean Air Act that Congress did not intend when it wrote the bill? I’d say the decision was the best thing the court did this term.

Guessing you … don’t see it quite the same way.

Gail: Well, um … no.

Congress gave the E.P.A. extensive power when it comes to regulating carbon emissions. That’s because carbon emissions are a threat to the environment and a trigger for global warming.

If Congress feels the E.P.A. is going too far, it has the power to override said regulations at any time. That hasn’t happened because — gee, I guess the Congressional majority feels global warming is a big deal.

Bret: The case hinges on an interpretation of the word “system.” The Clean Air Act requires power plants to adopt “the best system of emission reductions.” The court’s conservatives took “system” to mean emission-controlling technologies at the plants themselves, not a vast regulatory mechanism that puts the entire American coal industry on a swift path to extinction.

Gail: I think I told you that my father worked for a utility company, and I remember the agony he went through trying to deal with both the government regulators and the folks we called “the coal barons” in West Virginia. I have sympathy for the folks in the middle here, but not so much for the barons.

Bret: I grew up listening to my father’s complaints about the way the Mexican government did business with the private sector. In case you ever wonder about my worship of the works of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Gary Becker and Ronald Coase.

Gail: We obviously need to keep directing help to the working people in the mining industry, but the government’s top job is to protect the nation and future generations from global warming.

Bret: If Congressional Democrats — whose majority happens to hinge on a certain senator from West Virginia — want to make a case that global warming is the country’s No. 1 priority, they should do so openly rather than sneak regulatory actions that they can’t get through Congress through the E.P.A. bureaucracy. I hold no particular brief for the coal industry per se. But Democrats need to figure out a set of climate-change policies that don’t threaten people’s wallets, jobs or businesses. Trying to put coal out of business is just a big fat political gift to Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy.

Aside from the court, Gail, last week’s big news enchilada was Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony before the House committee investigating Jan. 6. Did we just have a “this changes everything” moment?

Gail: Well, we certainly had some “Holy cow — did you hear what Donald Trump did?” moments. But I’ve sadly gotten used to the idea that he can do almost anything and still keep his very, very large fan club of voters.

Bret: Truest words ever spoken by Trump: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

Gail: Yeah, sigh. And I just don’t think there’s an appetite for trying to prosecute a former president for stuff he did while he was still in office. Am I being too cynical?

Bret: Until last week, no. But, to quote from “Only Murders in the Building,” Hutchinson’s testimony “sends the investigation in a whole new direction.”

I don’t mean the stuff about Trump trying to grab the steering wheel of his limo, which Hutchinson acknowledges she heard secondhand. I mean her overhearing Trump at the Jan. 6 rally yelling that he didn’t care if people were armed because they weren’t there to hurt him. And also her report that Trump instructed Mark Meadows to get in touch with Roger Stone and Mike Flynn, who in turn were apparently in touch with some of the most violent protesters on Jan. 5. If it’s true, that just seems like a textbook case of seditious conspiracy.

There’s still a big question of the overall wisdom of a prosecution, however well-justified. If, God forbid, Trump runs and wins in 2024, the first thing he’ll do is find any pretext to prosecute Joe Biden, and then it’s off to the races. If you were in Merrick Garland’s shoes, what would you do?

Gail: Well, if I wanted to make sure the reputation of Merrick Garland didn’t suffer, I’d prosecute rather than risk being remembered as the guy who wimped out. And as a matter of principle … well, gee.

Bret: Though, sometimes, not prosecuting is the truly gutsy thing to do. Sorry, go on.

Gail: But I do think there’s a danger to setting that kind of precedent at a time when the country has lost a lot of the old bipartisan values that, while frequently deeply irritating, did keep us chugging along as a nation. You’re totally right about what Trump would try to do if he got himself re-elected in 2024.

Which, oh God, involves a campaign that seems as if it might be starting any minute. The struggle inside the Republican Party appears to be about whether Trump should declare his candidacy now or have the grace to wait until after the midterm elections.

What’s your prediction?

Bret: It hasn’t gone unnoticed in Trump’s inner circle of political advisers that there’s a quiet but palpable turning away from the 45th president among a lot of Republicans. Nobody wants to cross him outright, but you can sense they’re hoping he won’t run and instead endorse the presumptive candidacy of Ron DeSantis. And they’re trying to win Trump over by suggesting that he’d be stronger as a kingmaker than as a king — limited, incidentally, to a single additional term.

Gail: Hahahahahaha.

Bret: Of course, from everything I know about Trump, this will just be an incentive for him to abort the DeSantis candidacy in utero, so to speak, by announcing sooner rather than later that he means to run. Of course, this also makes it much easier for Trump to say that any prosecution is politically motivated.

Do you think that’s good news for Democrats?

Gail: I can’t bring myself to call anything that would give us more Donald Trump every day “good news.” But nothing unites Democrats — and sane moderates — like averting the possibility of another Trump presidency.

His declaring is inevitable, and if he does it now it might encourage even more anti-Trumpers to show up at the polls for the midterms. Which would be good for the Democrats and, in my opinion, the country.

Bret: Except the worst thing Democrats can do is tacitly back Trumpy candidates in Republican primaries in the expectation that they’ll be easier to defeat than moderate ones. Problem with that theory is when the Trumpy people win in the general election.

Gail: Agreed. By the way, you’ve argued very forcefully on behalf of reasonable Republican candidates for the Senate. The only flaw, from my humble perspective, is that hardly any are. The old breed of sane moderates like Rob Portman in Ohio are being replaced by candidates like the dreaded J.D. Vance.

Bret: True, but in Illinois, Democrats spent $30 million pumping up the candidacy of the uber-Trumpy Darren Bailey. If he beats Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Democrats will have some splainin to do.

Gail: Totally against the idea of trying to get someone elected by pushing the worst candidate on the other side. And I’m still wedded to two-party contests, just so that the voters have a totally clear choice.

Bret: Switching subjects, Gail, the White House has been making it unequivocally clear that Biden really, truly means to run for re-election in 2024. Good idea?

Gail: Sigh. Don’t want the president declaring himself a lame duck before his term is half over. But at that point, I’d really like to see him open the door to possible retirement so the Democrats who are likely candidates to succeed him have a chance to make themselves better known.

Bret: We agree!

Gail: If Biden actually does run again he’d be nearly 82 when re-elected. Does that feel too old to you? Although if he’d probably be running against Trump, who’d be 78, the issue sort of dwindles …

Bret: I’ve known sprightly 82-year-olds. Biden isn’t one of them. And even if he were, at that age … stuff happens. And even if stuff didn’t happen, he’d be exiting a second term at 86, which should make Democrats even more anxious. And even if that didn’t stop him, has anyone in the party noticed that he has a 38 percent approval rating, with 85 percent of Americans thinking the country is heading in the wrong direction? And that’s before the economy slides — as it seems it will imminently — into a recession.

Whatever it is they are smoking in the White House, they need to stop. If Trump runs again, the Democratic Party had better put its strongest opponent forward to stop him. God love Biden, but he ain’t it.

Gail: OK, you’ve given me something to look forward to next week. We’ve got a whole lot of possible Biden successors to argue about.

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