New York Times Columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens Talk About What Might Make Trump Go Away

From a conversation between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and Bret Stephens headlined “Is There Anything That Will Make the ‘Former Guy’ Go Away?”:

Bret Stephens: Hi, Gail. I know I speak for us both when I say that our thoughts are with everyone who was in the path of Hurricane Ian. In the meantime, mind if I run a possibly crazy idea by you?

Gail Collins: Bret, there is nothing I would love more.

Bret: A friend of mine, not at all conservative, thinks that Joe Biden would be smart to pardon Donald Trump for taking all those documents to Mar-a-Lago. Insane?

Gail: Is there a middle ground here? Where the authorities don’t press forward but leave him dangling in the wind?

Bret: Eventually everyone gets his day in court. Not sure how long you can wangle the dangle.

Gail: I’m not crazy about turning Trump into a martyr to the right by prosecuting him for something as stupid as the document pileup seems to be. But I can’t envision just giving him a pass.

So what did you tell your not-at-all-conservative friend?

Bret: A pardon does a few things. First, as you suggested, it denies Trump the martyr card. Second, it humiliates him and tacitly requires him to recognize Biden as the legitimate president. Third, it saves the Justice Department from a potentially very tricky prosecution that it very well might not be able to win. And finally, it returns the public’s gaze to the far more important issue, which is Trump’s culpability for Jan. 6, which has oddly fallen off the radar screen.

On the downside —

Gail: Sorry, my bottom line is no no no no no. Don’t love the idea of trying him at all, but as I see it, the man is a criminal, and we can’t just say that doesn’t matter because he used to be in the White House.

Give me your final thought and then let me ask you about the other Big Republican Guy, the governor of Florida.

Bret: If Trump faces prosecution for the documents, it all but guarantees that no Republican will challenge him in a primary if he decides to run again. But if Biden pardons him, he will be a more diminished figure, making it likelier that he will face a real challenger. And given the choice — a miserable one, I will admit — I’d much rather see The Ron as the Republican nominee than The Don.

How about you? Is there a side of you that’s kinda hoping Trump gets the nomination, on the theory that it would be easier for the Democratic nominee to beat him than to beat DeSantis?

Gail: That was indeed my feeling for a while, but watching DeSantis during the hurricane crisis made me feel that maybe he just doesn’t have the … electricity you need to be a presidential candidate.

Really, I was sort of shocked by how flat he seemed in his public appearances. Joe Biden — who became president by being the dull guy who wasn’t scary — was more moving when he went on camera to talk about Florida.

Bret: I saw it a little differently: DeSantis is smart enough to know that now is the time to drop the political antics and act like a sober, competent governor.

Gail: Well, right now our main focus has to be on the folks whose world has been destroyed by the storm. Not dwelling, for instance, on how DeSantis once opposed giving aid to the New York folks who were hit by Hurricane Sandy.

Bret: If I had a dollar for every politician who says and does one thing one year and another the next …. My main problem with most G.O.P. hopefuls is that they are what I’ve come to call “one-sheep Republicans.” Not sure if I need to explain —

It’s a reference to an old joke about an old man whose lifetime of good deeds on behalf of his little village is undone on account of a single unfortunate moment of passion with a woolly companion. The point is that much as I prefer most Republican policy proposals on stuff like regulation and taxes, the refusal to forthrightly accept the results of the last election is their sheep.

Gail: Bret, whenever I look at a Republican on TV, I will now see a little fluffy creature baa-ing softly in the corner. Thanks.

We’ve spent a lot of time this election season — all of which I’ve found most enjoyable — talking about the terrible Republican presidential possibilities and the awful Republican Senate candidates in places like Arizona.

Give me some Republicans who make your heart sing. There must be somebody out there who isn’t immigrant-bashing and election-denying.

Bret: The only politician on earth who makes my heart sing is Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky. But in the beggars-can’t-be-choosers department, I admire Chris Sununu, the governor of New Hampshire, who earlier this year said of Trump, “I don’t think he’s so crazy that you could put him in a mental institution. But I think if he were in one, he ain’t getting out.” I also like Ben Sasse, who handily won re-election in Nebraska in 2020 despite being openly anti-Trump, and I’ve come around to liking Mitt Romney after I dumped all over him when he was running for president 10 years ago.

Gail: I’ve already publicly apologized for my anti-Romney crusade. Although I’ve still got a plastic dog-on-the-roof-of-a-car someone sent me when I was, um, obsessing on his animal transport policy. Keeping it by my desk.

Bret: And I think the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley has shown at least some political courage, given her presidential ambitions, in accepting Biden’s election and putting some daylight between her and her former boss.

Gail: Smart choice, although I have a pretty strong suspicion that if real presidential prospects arise, she’s gonna break your heart.

Bret: Probably. And the Republicans I most admire are now fast on their way to becoming statues in the pantheon of political has-beens: Adam Kinzinger, Liz Cheney, Larry Hogan, Charlie Baker, Rob Portman, Jeff Flake. Maybe they could even start a party?

Gail: Or a secret society where they could all get together and root for their favorites. Must be secret, since at this point their endorsement would be the equivalent of a karate kick to any serious Republican candidate.

Bret: Yeah, if you really want to sink DeSantis, maybe you should start telling rank-and-file Republicans that never-Trumpers like me are his biggest fans.

Gail: Meanwhile, all the actual Republican candidates seem to want to talk about is crime and immigration, with a side of inflation. Let me jump off to a topic I’ve been wanting to revisit. Explain your attraction to the idea of a wall along the Mexican border.

Bret: Gail, as you know I support a liberal immigration policy in general, not least from Mexico, where my dad was born and where I grew up. But immigrants need to come in, announced, through the front door of the United States, not unannounced from the back. The lack of effective border control encourages the latter, often at a terrible cost in lives. The wall isn’t a panacea, or even feasible along every mile of the border. But it needs to be part of an eventual overall solution where we bolt the back door shut in exchange for widening the front door. The two go together, no?

Gail: Um … no. It’s not all that practical. People have gotten pretty good at getting over — not to mention under — it. And it’s a terrible symbol to the world that we’re a country that’s shut its doors. Which, as we agree, would be disastrous given our aging work force and a blow to our reputation as a nation that welcomes immigrants.

Bret: We appear to be well on our way to having a record number of people trying to get across the border this year. Countries that can’t control their borders wind up getting very, very right-wing governments, as Sweden and Italy have recently discovered. A wall, or at least some kind of “smart fence” that accomplishes the same thing, doesn’t solve every immigration problem, but it solves a few. And it deprives the rabid right of one of its most effective political cards.

Gail: Solves very little and makes an international statement about our hostility toward immigrants. But we’ll revisit this again … and again.

Bret: Final question for you, Gail: We spend a lot of time in our conversations talking about conservative craziness. Any liberal or progressive craziness you’d like to vent about?

Gail: Well, right now, our news-side colleague Maggie Haberman, one of the greatest reporters I’ve ever known, is being beaten up online for her book about Donald Trump, “Confidence Man.”

The fact that Maggie was able to get access to Trump, even though she’s been totally spot on in her critique of his presidency, seems to bother some people. I’d say she deserves a medal.

Bret: Viva Maggie!

Gail Collins is an Opinion columnist, is a former member of the editorial board and was the first woman to serve as the Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007.

Bret Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.


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