Letters From an American

Bad Day for the President: No Crowds, TikTok and Bolton’s Book

And an inexplicable call for stopping COVID-19 testing

Bad Day for the President: No Crowds, TikTok and Bolton's Book

The White House Flickr

June 20, 2020

Yesterday’s standoff between Attorney General William Barr and the interim U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman, whom Barr was trying to fire, was only one of today’s significant stories.

Last night, Barr announced Berman was “stepping down.” Berman retorted he was doing nothing of the sort and that Barr had no authority to fire him. This morning, Berman showed up for work. Then Barr wrote Berman a letter saying he was “surprised and disappointed by the press statement you released last night…. Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so.” Barr gave no reason for the firing.

Because Berman was an interim U.S. Attorney, appointed by the court rather than confirmed by the Senate, it was not clear if Trump had the authority to fire him (although it was clear Barr did not). But that point became moot quickly, when Trump told reporters: “That’s his department, not my department…. I’m not involved.” The president’s disavowal of Barr’s declaration means Barr, the Attorney General, has lied in writing twice in the past two days.

And Berman had gained his point. Barr’s letter said he would not replace Berman with an outside candidate—which was highly irregular—but would follow normal procedure and permit Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, to become acting U.S. Attorney in his place. With this win for the Southern District of New York’s U.S. Attorney’s office, Berman said he would leave his post. A former SDNY prosecutor said: “After all this what did they gain by getting rid of Berman? Nothing.”

Berman’s office has been handling a number of cases involving Trump and his allies, including one involving Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and political operatives Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who are charged with funneling Russian money to Republican candidates for office. The three have also been involved in the attempt to smear Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden by digging up witnesses in Ukraine who are willing to testify against the Bidens, although after repeated investigations there is no evidence either Biden committed any wrongdoing.

It may be these cases, or others, that the Trump administration is eager to quash. My guess is that we have not heard the end of its attempt to stifle the SDNY, but there is yet another roadblock in their way. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and usually a staunch Trump supporter, said he had not been consulted on the proposed replacement for Berman. He added that he would follow Senate tradition, and permit the Senators from New York, where the office is based, to veto the nomination if they wished. Nominee Jay Clayton has never been a prosecutor, and New York’s Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrats both, will almost certainly not accept his candidacy.

There was another loss for the administration today. A federal judge decided against Trump’s attempt to stop the release of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s memoir of his days in the Trump administration. U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth said it would be impossible to stop the distribution of the book, which has already begun to circulate.

The judge also blasted Bolton for moving ahead with publication without an official government sign-off on the book certifying that it did not reveal classified information. He warned that Bolton might face prosecution if he has exposed national security secrets in the book. Bolton’s lawyer welcomed the decision and said “we respectfully take issue… with the Court’s preliminary conclusion at this early stage of the case that Ambassador Bolton did not comply fully with his contractual prepublication obligation to the Government…. The full story of these events has yet to be told—but it will be.”

The other big story today was, of course, Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, designed to jumpstart his campaign and reunite him with the crowds that energize him. His campaign manager, Brad Parscale, along with the president himself, has spent days crowing that almost a million tickets had been reserved, and the campaign had built an outside stage for overflow crowds.

But far fewer than the 19,000 people Tulsa’s BOK Center could hold showed up: the local fire marshal said the number was just under 6,200. Young TikTok users and fans of Korean pop music (so-called “K-Pop stans”), along with Instagram and Snapchat users, had quietly ordered tickets to prank the campaign. The technological savvy of their generation has turned political: they knew that the Trump campaign harvests information from ticket reservations, bombarding applicants with texts and requests for donations. So they set up fake accounts and phone numbers to order the tickets, then deleted the fake accounts. They also deleted their social media posts organizing the plan to keep it from the attention of the Trump campaign.

The poor turnout after such hype was deeply embarrassing for the campaign. Trump’s people took down the outside stage and Trump blamed “protesters” who had kept supporters out of the venue for the small size of the rally, but there were few reports of any interactions between Trump supporters and protesters and no one was turned away.

The rally itself did not deliver the punch Trump’s people had hoped. The speech was disjointed as the president rambled from one topic to another, rehashing old topics that no longer charged up the crowd, many of whom were caught on camera yawning or checking their phones. It was clear that The Lincoln Project’s needling of his difficulty raising a glass to his mouth and walking down a ramp at last week’s West Point graduation has gotten under Trump’s skin: he spent more than ten minutes pushing back on those stories—the ramp was “like an ice skating rink,” he claimed– which, of course, only reinforced them.

Much more damning, when discussing coronavirus, he told the audience falsely that the recent spikes in infections are because there has been more testing: “When you do more testing to that extent, you are going to find more people, you will find more cases. I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’”

This is an astonishing admission. More than 120,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 so far, and while in some states hard hit early on numbers of cases are declining, cases are right now spiking in a number of other states in far higher numbers than increased testing would show. Experts agree that the administration’s odd reluctance to test for coronavirus cost American lives. Within hours of his statement, it was being used in a political ad against the president.

Far from energizing Trump’s 2020 campaign, the rally made Trump look like a washed-up performer who has lost his audience and become a punchline for the new kids in town. According to White House reporter Andrew Feinberg, a Trump campaign staffer told him that Biden “should have to report our costs to the [Federal Election Commission] as a contribution to his campaign.”


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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.