Gail Collins: Bret, I suspect our first big argument today will be about Hunter Biden. But I feel sorta obliged to start with Donald Trump. I mean, how often do you have a former president facing the threat of multiple indictments on alleged transgressions ranging from paying hush money over a sex scandal to prompting a riot that stormed the Capitol to trying to fix an election?
Bret Stephens: While reportedly ordering an employee to delete potentially incriminating security camera footage in Mar-a-Lago. My preferred nickname for the 45th president, as you know, is Benito Milhous Caligula, but maybe we could switch that to G. Gordon Berlusconi.
Gail: Said former president is, of course, the front-runner for the next Republican nomination.
What’s your take on all this?
Bret: Two thoughts. First, Trump belongs in prison, assuming Jack Smith, the special counsel in the documents matter, can prove his case in court. At a minimum, it looks to me like an open-and-shut case of obstruction of justice. Apparently, nobody told The Donald that the cover-up is usually worse than the crime.
Gail: From your lips to God’s ears.
Bret: Second, the more the legal system comes after Trump, the more the Republican rank-and-file will rally around him as both a truth-teller and a martyr. The hard right increasingly views the U.S. justice system in ways that the far left traditionally has: as a rigged, corrupt system in which sinister insiders use the levers of power to advance the interests of the elite at the expense of ordinary people.
And of course, the Hunter Biden saga plays right into that narrative.
Gail: Knew you’d be dying to go on to Hunter. I thought the plea deal was pretty reasonable. His crimes were tax evasion and lying when he bought a gun by failing to acknowledge he was a drug addict. I hate the idea of virtually anybody being able to obtain a gun. But even I do not expect drug addicts will voluntarily share that information when they attempt to buy one. So, definite criminal behavior but not a real shocker.
Bret: If Hunter had been poor and Black, would the justice system have been as indulgent?
Gail: A fair point. But in most places, a poor Black defendant from a responsible family who’s subsequently been living a sober, well-supervised life probably could have made this kind of deal. Or, OK, at least in some places.
Maybe Hunter is a swell guy in private, and I have sympathy for anyone struggling with addiction. But what’s in the public record about him — from his obvious willingness to trade on the perception of access to make his living from dubious foreign sources to his reluctance to acknowledge paternity of one of his daughters to his career as a mediocre artist selling work at curiously astronomical prices to not paying taxes and then almost getting off with what seemed like a wrist slap — doesn’t exactly brighten the Biden family name. And while Republicans are jumping to conclusions without rock-solid evidence, I’m not entirely confident that Joe Biden really had no inkling of what his son was up to or that the larger Biden family didn’t benefit from Hunter’s shenanigans.
Gail: Absolutely no evidence Joe Biden knew about Hunter’s lawbreaking. But one charge I’d bet on is that Hunter dropped dad’s name a lot when trying to do business with foreign honchos. Sort of hard to imagine him being saintly enough to avoid it. And the whole idea of his making deals with foreign honchos in the first place while his father was vice president is … bad.
Bret: When it came to the Trump family’s finances — from his tax avoidance schemes to his foreign hotels to Jared Kushner’s sweetheart financing with Saudi Arabia — the news media left no stone unturned. It behooves journalists to be as aggressively curious about the Biden family’s finances. Especially since a federal judge wasn’t at all keen on Hunter’s plea deal, and I.R.S. agents are alleging political interference in the case.
Gail: Absolutely. And news of Hunter’s unacknowledged daughter — brought to us by The Times’s great reporting — is a deeply depressing embarrassment for both father and grandfather. I was happy to see Joe Biden acknowledge her last Friday.
But I still don’t believe anything on the Biden bad-behavior ledger compares to the way Trump built a personal real estate empire on smarmy-to-corrupt practices.
Bret: Yeah — probably.
Gail: And you know, as irritating as I find Donald Jr. and Eric making pots of money off their family name, I wouldn’t find that alone a major reason to violently oppose their father’s presidential ambitions.
I think it’s the same with Hunter Biden — the House Republicans may be trying to make him a big campaign issue, but voters mostly don’t care.
Bret: I bet plenty of voters would like to know how the extended Biden family raked in $17 million from foreign sources between 2014 and 2019, as a whistle-blowing I.R.S. agent testified. This was a period that seems to have coincided with Hunter’s crack binges. Just what expert services was he providing for that kind of income? Glassblowing?
Gail: Well, we’re not gonna resolve every part of this today. Always enjoy having a Hunter fight with you, Bret, and we’ll undoubtedly turn back to this subject. But let’s move on to Congress. Lots to discuss there.
Bret: Ad aspera per aspera, as some Roman must have said.
Gail: Mitch McConnell seemed to go totally blank while talking with reporters last week. People are wondering if he’s developed serious aging problems that should make him step down from his job as Senate minority leader. What do you think?
Bret: That one is between him and his physician, and he seemed to recover his faculties later during the press conference. But as with Dianne Feinstein, Chuck Grassley or, ahem, Joe Biden, elderly politicians do themselves no favors by trying to hang on to office for too long. Interesting question is who might replace him. Any free advice for the Senate Repubs?
Gail: We both agreed long ago that we wished the president wasn’t intent on running for re-election in his 80s. As to McConnell, I’ll never forgive him for squatting on Barack Obama’s final nomination to the Supreme Court. Still, I have to admit he’s generally seemed at least non-crazy as minority leader.
But proposing a successor is your territory. Any ideas?
Bret: I don’t think McConnell will step down right away, but someone I know who knows things tells me that the likeliest replacements are either South Dakota’s John Thune, the current No. 2, or Texas’ John Cornyn. My own preference would be Cornyn: a smart and sober guy and a non-MAGA conservative. Whatever else you might say about Cornyn, he is to the junior senator from Texas what pumpkin pie is to a jack-o’-lantern.
Gail: Love your Ted Cruz reference. Hehehehe.
Bret: Can I switch the subject to cultural issues? First, Kevin Spacey’s acquittal in a London courtroom on nine charges of sexual assault.
Gail: Bret, not having really kept up on the Spacey situation, I’m going to have to defer to you.
Bret: This is Spacey’s second acquittal, following last year’s in a case brought in New York by the actor Anthony Rapp. What bothers me is that even now, Spacey will face an “uphill battle” to get major roles again, according to a report in The Times. He’s one of the greatest actors alive, the Laurence Olivier of our day. He’s spent the last six years as persona non grata. He’s been declared not guilty by two juries in two countries. I think his case, like that of Armie Hammer, will be remembered as another ugly instance of #MeToo opportunism. To borrow a line from Raymond J. Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s unjustly indicted labor secretary, to which office does he go to get his reputation back?
Sorry, I had to rant. I hope some major Hollywood director has the guts and grace to give him a starring role.
Gail: Rant away! And as I said, I’m following your lead on this one. Except for your #MeToo swipe. The whole #MeToo opportunism reference hurts me.
On a far less somber note, I have to say I’m siding with the law-and-order crowd when it comes to the Biden family dog, Commander, who’s allegedly bitten Secret Service agents at least 10 times over the last few months.
I’m sure Commander has his own side of the story, but he should be exiled to the countryside forever. No deal with the prosecutor where he pleads guilty and then gets nothing but probation.
Bret: Maybe Commander got hold of that stash of white powder that was found in the White House? “Cocaine K-9” could make an interesting sequel to “Cocaine Bear.”
The other subject I wanted to raise is Sinead O’Connor, the Irish singer who sadly passed away last week. She basically blew up her musical career in the United States when in 1992 she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on “Saturday Night Live” in protest of the church’s cover-up of clerical sexual abuse. Your thoughts?
Gail: I’d love to see Sinead O’Connor’s story enshrined with other celebrities who did something righteous and fell into career limbo as a result. Many celebrities have been outspoken with few repercussions. But messing with religious leaders will almost always get you in deep trouble. Even when they deserve it.
Bret: O’Connor was calling attention to hideous facts about the church a decade before The Boston Globe’s Spotlight stories put it on the national agenda. She used her musical celebrity in exemplary fashion to call out monstrous evil. She went directly after one of the most beloved public figures of the time, now canonized, and she did so at heavy cost to her own career. It was an exemplary use of free speech and an extraordinary act of courage.
Nothing compared 2 her. Rest in peace.