In This Episode
Republicans, especially Donald Trump, hoped the pendulum would swing in their favor on election night, without penalizing their party for its extremism and the Big Lie. Instead the results kind of blew up their plans, such as they were. Now, with a growing realization that Trump is making their party non-viable, Republicans find themselves at a crossroads. Who are their party leaders? What’s their basic character? What policy agenda do they even have, if any? Unfortunately for us, what’s left of the national GOP is a group of people who’ve been selected for their willingness to set aside right and wrong in order to make Donald Trump happy. Mark Leibovich wrote a book about that called Thank You for Your Servitude, during which he got to know just how deep the servitude runs in each of the people who will soon gain power in Washington. Mark joins host Brian Beutler to discuss how those people might grapple with these dilemmas, and what will happen when their decisions, forged in the Fox News cinematic universe, meet reality.
Brian Beutler: Hi, everyone, welcome to Positively Dreadful with me, your host, Brian Beutler. We know Republicans biffed the midterms, we talked about all of that and the significance of it with Jamelle Bouie last week. But they only really lost by the weird rules of politics and and I guess golf, where questions of win or lose are answered relative to expectations in a purely objective sense, ignoring everything that happened before November eighth, the midterms were basically a tie. Democrats won big in some places, Republicans and others. Democrats will keep and maybe grow their Senate majority. But and it’s a big but. Republicans won control of the House, or at least by the time you listen to this, they will probably have won control of the House. So what does that mean? As far as we can see, one of the only things we can say for certain is it means that Biden’s policy agenda is dead or at least on hold during the campaign he’d promised wisely I thought, though maybe not quite repetitively enough, that if Democrats swept the election, he’d send a bill to codify Roe versus Wade to Congress, and then he’d sign it in January 2023. That kind of thing is just not going to happen. Once there’s a Republican speaker, then there’s the basic stewardship of the House, which is probably not going to be very good. Even before Donald Trump became the chaos agent in charge of the Republican Party, GOP congressional leadership was just famously, notoriously terrible at whipping votes. So the other thing I think we can say pretty confidently is that we’re in for some wild flailing about and just theatrical incompetence. But beyond that, things get pretty murky. And I don’t just mean like Republicans have been cagey about their policy agenda and may not have the votes to pass bills. I mean, like, who is going to be the Republican speaker? Is there a House Republican who can get 218 votes for the job? The majority is going to be much, much smaller than Republicans hoped it would be, and that’s kind of blown up their plans, such as they were. I think the idea was Republicans thought they’d have a big House majority and maybe even Senate control, and they’d use it to sort of bully Joe Biden, try to extort some policy concessions out of him here or there, and more or less do what Donald Trump demanded of them. And Donald Trump thought the pendulum swing of elections and inflation would deliver Republicans a big midterm victory that he’d get to take credit for, and it would cement his status as the party’s overlord. But instead, the statewide candidates most identified with Trump got wiped out basically everywhere, and he rushed to announce his candidacy for president in the shadow of that enormous failure. And down at Mar a Lago, none of his allies in Congress even bothered to attend. So even if Republicans decide once again to shrug off Trump’s failures and return to his heel, if they attempt to do whatever he wants, I think they’re going to humiliate themselves or do serious damage to the country, or possibly both. In a weird way, between their bad election night and the growing realization within the party that Trump is making their party non-viable, a lot will turn on who the party leaders are and what their basic character is. And unfortunately for us, what’s left of the national GOP is a group of people who were selected for their willingness to set aside right and wrong in order to make Donald Trump happy. The writer Mark Leibovich has written a book about this called Thank You for Your Servitude. It’s situated in Trump’s Washington, specifically at his extremely seedy hotel, rife with corruption. But it’s really more like a time capsule of a bunch of mortifying episodes from 2016 through 2020 that you may have forgotten because so many other, more mortifying episodes overtook them. Along the way, though, I think Mark got to know just how deep that servitude runs in each of the people who will soon gain power in Congress. And so he can help us understand how those people might grapple with these dilemmas, which presumably they didn’t anticipate, and what will happen when their decisions come face to face with reality. Mark, welcome to Positively Dreadful.
Mark Leibovich: Thanks for having me on. It’s great to be here.
Brian Beutler: So what surprised you most about the election itself, the results, and what has surprised you most since the general outcome became clear?
Mark Leibovich: Well, first of all, I am surprised by the results I had. I’m not going to say I had an inkling that this was going to happen, but I had a tiny inkling that, no, I get very suspicious of certainty. And there was a whole lot of certainty out there that, you know, the red wave is inevitable and so forth. And that’s usually a sign that it’s not going to go that way. Look, I mean, I’m obviously someone who wrote a book that sort of, I think, deconstructed a lot of some of the most shameless and horrific and cowardly behavior. You know, you can imagine from many of the putative leaders of the Republican Party. I mean, my biggest fear was that the red wave was going to go on as advertised. And it would vindicate all of the sycophantic behavior that Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham and all of them have sort of engaged him. I mean, I was surprised by the whole narrative of the thing. I think a repudiation like this is really good for the country. I think theoretically it could be good for the Republican Party. I mean, not in the short term, but it could be exactly the kind of clear sighted, you know, message or sort of clear message that they that they probably needed. Ultimately, though, I think the sort of low character of a lot of the characters at the center of this story, both in the book, but also now going forward as they try to lead the party, you know, through this period is such that Donald Trump, I think, if he wants, will continue to be able to impose its will on it to a degree that results in a lot of the same chaos and ultimately weakness to the Republican Party.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, I want to get to that in a second. Like just how his presence in the party, combined with this very small majority that they’re likely to have in the House, are going to interact. But before we get there, I wondered if you have any sense of whether Republicans were surprised by the result. You know, they’re definitely acting like they were. But at the same time, I feel like in hindsight, they were pretty clearly intentionally flooding the polling averages with these propaganda polls—
Mark Leibovich: Right.
Brian Beutler: —basically meant to make them look like they had a margin large enough that they would suggest a wave.
Mark Leibovich: Right.
Brian Beutler: Why would they be doing that unless they were trying to will it into existence?
Mark Leibovich: Right. I mean, you could argue that either they saw writing on the wall or this is just good politics. Right. I mean, because, you know, you can’t just manipulate polling. You can’t just throw polls into a polling average. I mean, someone has to aggregate the polling average. So it’s sort of on the media to to decide, you know, what’s going to be part of their argument. So a lot of it, I think, is on the media also. But ultimately, yes, I mean, I think they did seem, you know, very, very happy to go with the it’s inevitable narrative, which frankly doesn’t work. I mean, maybe it works as an individual candidate like, well, you know, Ron DeSantis is inevitable. So maybe we’ll just hop on that train and write him a check or something like that. But for a party wide effort, it tends not to work that way. So maybe although my experience, at least in talking to people in the last few days, is that Republicans are genuinely shocked by this. They I mean, everyone sort of accuses Democrats and liberals of of operating in echo chambers, which, you know, I think is fair in many cases. But I think Republicans are more guilty of it in some ways. And, you know, I would be 100% stunned if they watched Fox and Newsmax all day. And then all of a sudden this happens. I think I’m less right because I avail of myself of, you know, a broader range of media.
Brian Beutler: Yeah, I guess it depends on like which Republican like your Fox News watching uncle is definitely shocked. Mitch McConnell I don’t know. I mean, Mitch McConnell, I’m guessing tries to get good data. And, you know, he seemed earlier on in the cycle at least to be resigned to losing. And so it made me wonder, like, okay, are are they are they really just mostly trying to will a good election outcome into the into existence when they’re when their data is telling them it’s not coming.
Mark Leibovich: Yeah.
Brian Beutler: Because of how they conduct themselves under the thumb of Donald Trump.
Mark Leibovich: Yeah. I mean, that’s interesting. I mean, I was struck yesterday by, you know, he had a press conference. I mean, I don’t know when that’s going to air. But Mitch McConnell, about a week after the midterms, did a press conference and he seemed really pissed. He seemed much more unfiltered than he usually is. He looked just done with the Rick Scott’s and the Ted Cruz’s of the world and just seemed extremely contemptuous of the position he found himself in. And, you know, to which I say, you know, well, he has only himself to blame, but that’s another conversation. But no, you’re right. I mean, I think I think part of him and Mitch McConnell smart enough to know that this could have happened. I don’t think he was as stunned as everyone else was. But I think he saw he sees this pretty clearly.
Brian Beutler: So you mentioned the people that you talked to seem surprised without asking you to spoil any stories you might have on the horizon. Have you circled back to or heard from any of the characters in the book since the election? And what is beyond oh, this sucks. We lost. I wasn’t expecting it. Like, what’s their general takeaway been?
Mark Leibovich: Yeah, I mean, I haven’t had I mean, I’ve had I’ve talked to have a few conversations. The general takeaway is sort of what you see on TV, which is, I mean, there aren’t a lot of people trying to spin the results. I mean, at first Trump himself. Was. I mean, he was like, Oh, there’s a great victory and so forth. And I suspect, you know, when there’s an official call for like the Republic, when Republicans like clinch the House, which presumably they will, you know, in the next day or so, you know, when the last of these races start being called in their favor, you know, I’m sure it’ll be kind of a fake victory lap or a yay, you know, good for us. But no, I mean, I think they’re stunned. And, you know, McCarthy knows he’s in a jam now. He’s in a major, major jam now. I think he also knew I mean, he’s smart enough was not that smart. [laughter] He he is politically astute enough to know that even in the best of circumstances, if they had won 25, you know 30 seats, he would have had a hard time, just as speaker. He would have been led around by the nose, by by Trump, by the Freedom Caucus, by Marjorie Taylor Greene and so forth. I think that that’s still just as true as it was, but it’s just more so. And there’s just even the tightrope got even thinner for him. So I don’t know. Look, I just I just have an overwhelming sense of dread. I mean, I think they’re all focused enough and bought in enough so that I think McCarthy is disciplined in that he just he’s probably just on the phone with donors, with his members. Just shoring up is getting as close to 218 as he can. And, you know, I don’t think is going to get there, but I mean without some kind of deal making. So that’s when it becomes fascinating.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. I was going to ask you and I will still ask you if there was any kind of backup plan as far as I know, because I think the idea was win a majority big enough that he’d have some breathing room to cobble together to win anything. It’s not just for speakership, but for whatever else they wanted to do and then run sort of brute force political plays against Democrats. And I mean, I’m not sure that’s going to be possible, but I don’t know what he’s going to want to do instead.
Mark Leibovich: Yeah, I don’t I mean, what McCarthy like my sense of McCarthy is he just wants to get his name on the door. Like even if it lasts for like two months, he’ll, like, have a little selfie. He can take House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and he’ll be able to dine out the entire rest of his life as a former speaker of the House. Now, I don’t know. I mean, I think my sense was he was delusional. Not, not delusional. He really was is is he had a pretty set vision of of how, you know, how great things were going to look the day after the election. And I don’t think he had a plan B. I don’t think Republicans have a plan B. I think if they’re if not, McCarthy I would assume the most likely speaker or you know, most acceptable alternative would be Scalise. But I mean, who knows? I mean, unless someone else comes forward. But there’s no Paul Ryan, no consensus choice.
Brian Beutler: If the idea was that they’d win by a healthy margin, Donald Trump would sort of be like the proxy speaker—
Mark Leibovich: Right.
Brian Beutler: —kind of giving marching orders to McCarthy to carry out. One, I mean, it interacts in weird ways, I think. Right. Because I don’t know if McCarthy has the votes to do that anymore, but at the same time, I think the whole thing was sort of premised on Trump would come out looking super victorious, too, if Republicans won. And now Trump comes out seeming very weak, actually. And does it I mean, McCarthy would have to at some point, I guess, take some sort of affirmative steps away from Trump and be willing to do things that Trump didn’t want him to do. But—
Mark Leibovich: There’s no way he can do that. He can’t. He took I mean, here’s the thing. You say Trump is weak. He is he’s weakened, that’s for sure. But he’s as all powerful with among the 200 and you know, 20 or so Republicans in the House as he was last week, because not a single one of them is going to stand up to him. Right. I mean, is McCarthy going to say, Mr. Trump, I’m sorry, we’re not going to impeach President Biden ten different times because the American people will hate that? I don’t think I have the votes for it. You know, it’s just so—
Brian Beutler: I don’t I don’t know. I mean, like, I, I think, you know, a week and a half ago, I would have said even if even if even if it only comes up 15 or 20, you know, they gain 15 or 20 seats in the election. It’s a narrower margin than we thought, but it’s still something I would have said. Okay. They’re just going to claim that they won a huge landslide and and Trump will issue the marching orders and McCarthy will follow them and they’ll have enough votes to get it done. But now he’s going to have these like random New York Republicans who have been anti-Trump.
Mark Leibovich: Right.
Brian Beutler: I like I like Trump can issue the order still and McCarthy can feel like the safest bet is to just do what, try to do what Donald Trump tells him to. But he I mean, this is why I was saying during the intro that we’re going to I think we’re going to see a bunch of embarrassing failures, because if he does that, I think that there’s some stuff. He’s not going to he’s he’s going to put stuff on the floor and it’s going to could— [both speaking]
Mark Leibovich: No, no, no question. I mean, it will be look, it’ll be just delicious. [laughter] I think, you know, again, I think it’s kind of in some ways it’s his dream come true because, you know, he’s in a great position to be speaker, although it’s dicey as all hell. It’s gonna be miserable. It’s got to be miserable. I think it’s going to be miserable under the best of circumstances. But I don’t know what we will see. I mean, but there are I mean, I guarantee you, I mean, Marjorie Taylor Greene, surprisingly, I thought, endorsed McCarthy for speaker. Obviously, he promised or something. I don’t know Trump was involved in this or something, but, you know, he still didn’t he still lost like 35 votes in the Republicans. So that’s it’s a lot. So he’s going to I don’t know how he does that, especially if his margin ends up being, you know, six, seven, eight or something like that. I mean, just not a lot to work with. [music break]
Brian Beutler: You mentioned both feeling like this could be the sort of thing that finally sets the Republican Party on a better course than it’s been on since Trump came around. You also mentioned feeling a sense of dread about things. I, I wonder if you have any sense of whether you think it’s safer in terms of political and economic stability of the United States for Republicans to have this exceptionally weak toe hold on power? Is that is that like a more stable situation than if they had a bigger majority.
Mark Leibovich: For the United States? Absolutely. I mean, like, look, I mean, in my view, this is good for America. I mean, I think you know, I think a GOP controlled House that was willing to just sort of mess around with the debt ceiling is not good for the country.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Mark Leibovich: I mean, you know, call me biased. I don’t know. I just I don’t want that. I imagine the global markets don’t like that either. So, you know, in so much as this result is going to make that a lot harder to happen. I mean, I think it’s really good for the country. So, you know.
Brian Beutler: I guess I go back and forth on that because on the one hand, I agree the big Republican majorities during Obama’s presidency were very destabilizing. We had the debt ceiling hostage crisis and the government shutdown, and there were other smaller confrontations. And then there was this sort of chat roulette of pseudo scandals. And I, I think most times you’d say it’s just harder for one party to shove the other around that it like that unless they just want a big victory. And that hasn’t happened. I asked the question, I guess, because, you know, a person like Kevin McCarthy with his character, with no room to maneuver, with no apparent skill at the job and just sort of plenary power to destroy the economy. If he just refuses to put a debt limit increase on the floor, I don’t know. It strikes me as a kind of combustible state of affairs like that. It it yeah. I don’t know the I don’t know if the right metaphor is catching a tiger by the tail or something like that where a lot rests on him just being willing at the end of the day to do something responsible. And we don’t know if he’ll if he has that in him.
Mark Leibovich: That’s that’s true. I don’t know. I mean, I still think, though, that it’s if McCarthy just I think the less powerful he is, the better. I mean, look, if he’s speaker of the House with like a razor thin margin, that’s pretty powerful. But it’s still it’s all relative. And I mean, yeah, I also it’s just you don’t I mean, the debt ceiling is first of all, it depends what they do in the lame duck. I mean, they actually could before Republicans even take control. I mean, they could codify, you know, they could take care of this problem for a while. I have a feeling McCarthy, you know, privately would be very, very happy if that were the case. But, you know, again, as we’ve said, I mean, McCarthy is not a profile of courage here. So, you know, that itself is dangerous. But that would have been true whether he had a big margin or not.
Brian Beutler: Do you have any sense at all of what he or Republicans or Trump would even want out of a debt limit extortion play? Like, what would they be holding it hostage for.
Mark Leibovich: You know? All right. In exchange, we want X billion dollars in the next budget to the border wall or a promise that I don’t know. I mean, look, they can they can do any number of things, more seats on committees. I mean, you know, it can get pretty technical, but yeah, so.
Brian Beutler: I, I ask because I feel like one big difference between 2011 and now, apart from the fact that Republicans didn’t actually really win this election, is that after John McCain lost and George W Bush just left and Republicans, including Kevin McCarthy, right, flushed both of them down the memory hole and drew up this whole new identity for the party overnight. Right. Like the young guns who were so very sincerely alarmed about deficits and spending. And they were able to turn that into a whole basis for antagonizing Barack Obama and resisting the stimulus and resisting the Affordable Care Act so that when they took the House in 2011, they could adopt this sort of reckless, norm busting tactics like holding the debt limit hostage. And then it would all look consistent. Right. Like we’ve been saying for the first two years of Obama’s presidency that there’s too much spending. And so we need to do something drastic to to rein it in. And and that’s the play they ran. They haven’t been able to do anything like that since 2020 because they aren’t the party’s principal agenda center like Donald Trump is. And apart from—
Mark Leibovich: Right. They also haven’t been in control since 2020. So—
Brian Beutler: Right, right. I just mean that they weren’t using, you know, McCarthy and McConnell weren’t using their positions as majority or as minority leaders to say the big problem with Joe Biden is X and if we get into power, will stop it.
Mark Leibovich: Yeah. No, I, I hear you. I mean, a couple of okay, so a couple of distinctions I draw. I mean, again, you know, one, you know, John Boehner was he was speaker of the House. He was, you know, so he you know, he had more power basically at this point. But the other thing is, look, I mean, Obamacare was the issue that certainly swept Republicans into power in the House in 2010. Right. You know, at least these are this is a such an ancient history in the world of Republican politics and that they actually still talked about policy. Okay. There was at least a, you know, a pretense. You know, Paul Ryan was supposedly a policy guy. I mean, you know, you can argue all you want about whether it was posed or not, but, you know, fiscal responsibility, you know, hostility towards the stimulus, towards Obamacare. I mean, that’s what they stood for. I mean, that’s what they were holding up the debt ceiling over, you know, Obamacare related stuff. That’s what Ted Cruz was trying to do, you know, and what was it, 2015 or so, you know, defund Obamacare. You know, it didn’t work. But but that was at least there was a policy framework. Now, you know, now, in addition to probably being in a weaker, weaker political position, I don’t even I mean, I don’t even know what they care about policy wise, that that is how bankrupt and bereft the Republican Party is now. It’s just. Yeah. Whatever Trump wants. So. Yeah, the wall. The wall. He wants the wall. Let’s like let’s let’s reawaken the wall is an issue, you know, I mean, you know, look at the Republican platform of 2020, whatever Donald wants, right? So I mean, that’s I literally legitimately could not think of a single issue that Republicans like would be associated with right now. I mean, fiscal responsibility, you know, Trump blew that. You know, they don’t care about overturning Obama or, you know, killing Obamacare anymore. So, I mean, we’re going to secure the border or whatever.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. I mean, I think secure the border is or border wall is a good guess as any. You know, I you know, George W Bush also didn’t particularly care about deficits. I think if Trump had against, you know, everything we know about him had disappeared after losing the election. And, you know, A, you end up with no insurrection, which has changed his politics quite a lot on its own. But then Joe Biden comes in, you get some inflation, you get people like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell rerunning something like the Paul Ryan play where they say this is because of Democrats out of control spending and we’re going to fix it. And then when they when they get power, they say, okay, to get to get inflation under control, we want cuts. We want another budget sequestration, or we want to to, you know, cut entitlement spending in this way or whatever and and see if they can get Democrats to fold. And I think the they haven’t been able to articulate that because Trump doesn’t care about it, as you mentioned, but also because they you know, if they were to try to get a groundswell of conservative momentum behind that kind of strategic play, Donald Trump would just blow it up. What he’s been doing all along, you know, just telling lies about the election. And he’s sort of dragged the party along with him. And so it’s it’s sort of like they wouldn’t know what they would want to demand in a debt ceiling standoff. But because of Trump, they can’t demand it.
Mark Leibovich: Right. I mean, the thing is, I mean, Republicans, if they want to, had a they could tell a decent story, you know, with a policy ish framework. Great. I mean, it’s not like they have great policy ideas or if they do, I don’t know what they are. But, you know, they could just say, look, Democratic spending is out of control and that’s why we have this inflation. We’re going to be a check and balance on that. I mean, that’s a great message if you’re a Republican candidate running in a swing district. But instead, you know, it was so much given over to to Trump, to election denialism, to the big lie and so forth.
Brian Beutler: What do you think this tiny majority does if if Merrick Garland were to indict Donald Trump or or Fani Willis were to indict Donald Trump?
Mark Leibovich: I mean I think they’re probably, I mean, whether whatever Garland does, I mean, I think they have all this mischief planned anyway. I mean, they’re going to investigate the Justice Department to like impeach Ali Mayorkas and impeach Biden and impeach, you know, Tony Blinken. I mean, you know, they had all this, you know, just theory to investigate this, that and the other thing, you know, it’s just that much harder to do right now. You know, I, I of the belief that I mean everyone I think the idea that oh well if Merrick Garland or if the Department of Justice indites Donald Trump, you know, the base will be incredibly activated. Everyone’s going to go crazy. It’s going to be it’ll backfire. I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that at all. I think I didn’t buy it before the election. I certainly don’t buy it now. I think you know, I think there will be a lot of Republicans sort of, you know, hemming and hawing about overreach. But I’m guessing that, you know, if Merrick Garland is going to indict Donald Trump, then, you know, I have no idea what his thinking is, obviously. But if he were, I mean, it’ll be for and maybe it’ll be by the book and it will be for, I assume, you know, a whole lot of reasons. I don’t know. I don’t I don’t think that activating or reactivating the base, the the other of the opposing base is as much of a threat as people might think it is.
Brian Beutler: Yeah. I mean, I guess my suspicion before Tuesday was that if Republicans won the election and then Trump got indicted by anybody, well, I guess it would have to be a federal officer if Merrick Garland decided to indict Donald Trump, that that Jim Jordan would just begin an impeachment proceedings against Merrick Garland, which he could still, I guess, do, but—
Mark Leibovich: Yeah, let him try. I mean, I think I assume the White House that I know the White House is, you know, expects all this stuff to happen, whether they indict or not. Right. I mean, I think they have sort of baked into the equation that, you know, the House is going to try to investigate this subpoena that impeach X, Y, Z. They don’t seem all that scared. I mean, except as a nuisance. I mean, I think look, I mean, I think they seem pretty confident that they, you know, one can use a lot of the same playbook that Trump did, which is just to delay it or to just sort of stonewall as much as they did. Because, I mean, believe me, Trump sort of wrote the book on that or certainly wrote the book on that. But, you know, okay, worst case scenario, Ali Mayorkas and Merrick Garland get impeached. First of all, really? [laughter] I mean, could it be I mean, it’s not going to go much farther than that. I mean, it’s it’s just it’s sort of seen as and it would be, I think, seen as a nuisance at best.
Brian Beutler: Does the plan that they had to to investigate this subpoena that. Does it even work in a in a 2023 environment where they just didn’t win the Senate? I mean, I guess [both speaking] my question is, is that if they’re going to if they think that they can use their house powers to go ham on Joe Biden and the Biden administration, but they didn’t win the Senate. And so Democrats could say, well, like two can play at this game, it it doesn’t really reap the same benefits that maybe they—
Mark Leibovich: So—
Brian Beutler: —anticipate.
Mark Leibovich: I would say, okay, this is a weird analogy, but because it’s a podcast going to make a weird analogy. [laugh] So in the wildlife world, there are people when you get to when you’ve been in, when you’ve been writing stories for as long as I have, I sound old. I’m not that old. But I’ve been around a lot, written stories on everything. And I used to I read a story on the staff at the Santa Clara County, California, animal control office that was in charge, basically, of dealing with animals like, you know, people would come down from there, animals would come down from the hills. They would deal with it like, oh, there’s a dead raccoon in the middle of like, you know, you know, I-50 or something. And they deal with the raccoon. so I remember a guy I was interviewing said, but we have a distinction. There are nuisance animals and then there are threat animals. Okay. And I guess the raccoon is in the category of nuisance animal. Right. And, you know, might be a threat if it has rabies or something that’s getting too technical. [laugh] But you know, I think the the House, the House, the Republican led House, especially one that is a little bit diseased as the current one is sort of sort of put like the rabies like thing going on here has a, you know, they have the ability to be a a threat animal, you know, with the if the debt ceiling is involved. But I actually don’t know if they will have that leverage with the numbers they have for their majority to have. But once you sort of get until like investigations, when you’re sort of subpoenaing people, you’re sort of making them schlep up to the hill and answer a bunch of questions from people that, frankly, they’re not that intimidated by. Because, you know, I mean, earlier when Hillary Clinton went up and talked to the Benghazi committee for like a million hours and like this one just ran circles around them and kind of made a lot of them look foolish. I mean, she kind of made the House Oversight Committee in that sense, looked like a nuisance animal. And I think my sense is the Biden White House right now sees a lot of these sort of the specter of a lot of these investigations and subpoenas. As like in the category of nuisance animals. So I probably spent way too much verbiage and I’ve been losing, [laughter] you know, setting up this analogy. But, you know, I do think that sort of the category of of sort of threat that they see this, it’s more of a nuisance animal.
Brian Beutler: I’m not going to—
Mark Leibovich: You can edit this if you want.
Brian Beutler: I’m not going to beat the dead nuisance animal with whatever. But, you know, the I agree that in the past, when Republicans have controlled Congress and have used the subpoena power as sort of like an engine to feed Fox News storylines like Benghazi or whatever else, you know, they end up targeting intelligent people. You know, Hillary Clinton’s smart and she knew what the reality was and what that Republicans were trying to present. And so she was able to conduct herself well and sort of expose the people interrogating her as sort of frauds. But, you know, it didn’t work out great in the end, right? Like it was that investigative process that led to discovery of the trail server, which, you know and—
Mark Leibovich: You do not welcome the nuisance animal. You do not welcome it. You would prefer not to deal with the nuissance animal, because it can give you rabies. [laughter] right—
Brian Beutler: There you go.
Mark Leibovich: That and it becomes a threat animal. So but yeah, but I hear you.
Brian Beutler: So I guess at that time Republicans had both the House and the Senate. So it’s not like Hillary Clinton’s allies in the Senate could come to her rescue either with some sort of exonerating whatever or by running some sort of parallel investigation against Donald Trump.
Mark Leibovich: Right.
Brian Beutler: And, you know, I think that that ended up being pretty fateful, the fact that Republicans had full congressional control in 2015 and 2016 and that Republicans were thinking, well, we’ll just do that again and maybe we’ll turn up something.
Mark Leibovich: So.
Brian Beutler: A little damning about Biden and then we can run that play again. But if you if you don’t have the Senate and Democrats are trying to fight fire with fire.
Mark Leibovich: So a Republican controlled Senate would be a threat animal to Democrats because, yeah, every time Biden won to appoint of cabinet position or a judge or something, you know, you run right into the threat. And I mean, that’s a real problem. As you know, Merrick Garland, the first iteration that Judge Merrick Garland— [laughter]
Brian Beutler: Okay. So more specifically about the book, have you been back to the now formally Trump Hotel since it became the Waldorf Astoria?
Mark Leibovich: I have not been back to the Post Trump Hotel. I you know, in a way, I feel like I never should set foot in in that building again as a non Trump hotel property. But but just, you know, everyone of course must read the book immediately. But, you know, the sort of leitmotif or the sort of recurring scene is the atrium bar of the Trump Hotel, which is like the Cheers for the MAGA set, right? [laughter] Like anybody knows your name, everyone you know. And that’s where all the all the sort of pay all that happened, all the lobbyists, all the deals, all the White House people would go to commiserate about, you know, what madness they were seeing every day. And so they sold it. The Trump Organization sold it to a Waldorf. So, no, I have not been back since it no longer was in Trump hands.
Brian Beutler: Did you think that his decision to sell that lease was about anything other than just raw cash flow? Because I, I find it kind of hard to imagine another Trump terms God to help us if if he doesn’t have some sort of status property in the middle.
Mark Leibovich: Yeah you would think right.
Brian Beutler: Yeah.
Mark Leibovich: He’ll probably buy one something like that or yeah. [laughter] Yeah. I mean or something. Some establishment that is run by a like a Trump supporter, right. I don’t, you know, say like Bar X like a, you know, a cigar bar over by the White House is run by, you know, donor. I mean, I’m guessing it would be something like that or, you know, maybe he just buys the Holiday Inn Express [laughter] on the avenue like, you know, a few blocks from the White House or, you know, and then they rebranded the Trump Hotel for like temporary or something like that.
Brian Beutler: Okay. Let me let me end with my most important question. How much money do you think you spent on shrimp cocktails—
Mark Leibovich: Oh, good question—
Brian Beutler: —food, and drink at the Trump Hotel over the years?
Mark Leibovich: I spent a lot of money at the Trump Hotel. But in the finest journalism tradition, I expensed a lot of it [laughter] because I was working! The New York Times, which is my employer during the bulk of my reporting for the book. You know, I mean, these are legitimate work conversations. These are legitimate interviews I had there. You know, if I was there purely for personal benefit, which was rare, you know, I would, of course pay. But no, I probably paid out, probably say maybe $1,000 or something. It’s not a cheap place. So I would usually get one drink and a shrimp cocktail. And the shrimp cocktail was overpriced. [laughter] It was like 25, but it was very good.
Brian Beutler: I have only been since it became the Waldorf and it’s still very expensive.
Mark Leibovich: Yeah, [laughter] ridiculous.
Brian Beutler: I asked mostly as a joke, but then you mentioned the expensing. Did you and your editors at the time wrestle with what you do about the situation where the source of your subjects ultimately is also the owner of the establishment where you’re like, I remember entry level journalism training where they’re like, don’t let your sources buy you stuff—
Mark Leibovich: Oh no—
Brian Beutler: —every, split every check or whatever. But at the end of the day that money’s going to Trump.
Mark Leibovich: Yeah. I mean, look, that’s a weird situation. I mean, obviously, I mean, I wasn’t like, you know, Sean Spicer wasn’t buying me drinks. I mean, I was—
Brian Beutler: Right, no, no.
Mark Leibovich: God forbid. I was like at a table with Sean Spicer and he was drinking. I was paying. But yeah, I mean, I don’t think it ever became an issue. I mean, it’s unfortunate. I mean, I think it was questionable that like, I mean, we’ve never been in a situation like that before, you know. So yeah, I guess I have to plead guilty to lining just a little bit [laughter] of sort of dirty pockets of, of the Trump Organization by way of my diligent reporting. [laugh] So yeah. And the other thing is, I wasn’t alone, I mean, like at like so many reporters in Washington, I mean, it was like it was it was a really I mean, you get a lot of work done. You could see I mean, people they would all go they were hiding in plain sight. You know, Reince Priebus and like Kevin McCarthy was there. Lindsey was there. And then Trump himself was always like kind of peacocking in to go to the BLT Steak.
Brian Beutler: Mm hmm.
Mark Leibovich: And it was a bizarre scene. And, you know, left to my devices, I wouldn’t be hanging out there. But for for material and fodder for a book or even a sitcom, [laughter] it was it was glorious. I really you know, I relished the reporting laboratory in some ways.
Brian Beutler: If he wins in 2024, maybe you should have the Atlantic buy you a membership at the Sterling, Virginia golf course.
Mark Leibovich: You know what? We will cross that bridge when we hopefully never get to it.
Brian Beutler: Well, I think we’ll end it on that line if we hopefully never get there. Mark Leibovich, thank you for spending so much of your time talking to us today.
Mark Leibovich: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. [music break]
Brian Beutler: Things aren’t usually good and bad, positive and dreadful all at once. But in this case, I think they are. The GOP’s weak performance in the midterms is certainly positive news, as Mark said, at least relative to an alternative where the party was rewarded for insurrectionism and for promising to steal future elections. It’s the sort of development that if Republicans had more honest feedback mechanisms and fewer grifters in their ranks, it might lead to them cleaning house of enemies, of democracy. Instead, as we were preparing this episode. House Minority Leader, possibly the next speaker, Kevin McCarthy, reportedly made a promise to Marjorie Taylor Greene in exchange for her vote, he will sanction a Republican pseudo investigation meant to turn January 6th insurrectionists into martyrs. And on the one hand, you can see this as as like a gift to Democrats. Marjorie Taylor Greene style politics just hobble Republicans in a national election. And now to hold onto power, their leaders are constituting the whole party around it. But on another, it’s a reminder that despite all their failures, Republicans did still win the House. And that means some essential functions of government will be at the mercy of weak and corrupt men like Kevin McCarthy, who will take marching orders from even bigger villains. Who’d be happy to redress their grievances by letting the whole country burn. [music break] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producers is Michael Martinez, our producer is Olivia Martinez and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos.