The Most Unsettling Presidential Debate Spectacle Ever

INSIDE: Donald Trump ... Fani Willis ... Mark Meadows
TOPSHOT - (From L) Former Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson, former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, former US Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy... TOPSHOT - (From L) Former Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson, former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, former US Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, entrepreneur and author Vivek Ramaswamy, former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, US Senator from South Carolina Tim Scott and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, take part in the first Republican Presidential primary debate at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 23, 2023. Candidates were asked to raise their hands if they would support former US president Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate if he were to be convicted of crimes for which he has been indicted. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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A lot of things happened. Here are some of the things. This is TPM’s Morning Memo. Sign up for the email version.

What WAS That?

When one of America’s two major political parties has become a cult of personality, its leading contender for the presidency an authoritarian-wannabe under four criminal indictments, its base a blood-thirsty mob rising to the promise of incipient political violence, it surpasses understanding how the hackneyed tools of campaign debate coverage have any bearing or utility (to the extent they ever did).

But that’s only one level on which the first GOP presidential debate of this cycle was operating.

What about sponsor/host/organizer Fox News, a propaganda outfit that four months ago agreed to pay out more than three-quarters of billion dollars to settle one aspect of its false claims about the last election? It coddled Donald Trump for years, it lost its viewer base to him and to the farther-right news outlets he stokes, and it begged him to participate in its faux civic event. This made-for-TV spectacle wasn’t about civic virtue or democratic engagement. It was about giving Fox News a chance to bolster its business model as a right-wing populist carnival barker appealing to the grievances, grudges, and hatreds of older white non-urban Americans. The debate moderators framed up question after question around the same dark vision of a nation in decline that animated Trump’s American Carnage inaugural address.

And yet that only begins to cover it.

The most generous analysis — the kind you might hope to see in mainstream media coverage — would focus on a Republican Party in disarray on a level conservatives have long falsely accused Democrats of but which no party has exhibited to this degree since before WWII. By comparison, the Democrats of 1968 look like they were cast for that iconic Coke commercial of the era. The Republican field sans Trump couldn’t agree on Trump, the Constitution, Jan. 6, Ukraine, climate change, or — unbelievably — abortion. Kumbaya.

And yet that still doesn’t fully capture the dysfunction and self-delusion that the GOP exhibited last night. It’s not riven by factionalism or dueling power bases vying for supremacy. Chris Christie, Asa Hutchison, and Doug Burgum represent no one and had no place being on the debate stage. Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott represent the last vestiges of the former GOP, and their anemic response to Trump even now exemplifies how the Republican Party got itself into this mess to begin with. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy are explicit about wanting to be the next Trump and are soulless enough to pull it off but lack his skills and appeal. Ramaswamy was particularly horrifying to watch, a know-nothing who will say anything and do so convincingly.

If this debate had an iconic moment it was the halting raising of hands captured in the photo above when the candidates were asked if they would support Trump as GOP nominee even if he were a convicted felon by then. All but Christie and Hutchison were down for Trump 2.0.

No winners in this debate. Just losers.

Trump To Be Arrested And Booked Today

As if to reinforce the bizarro spectacle of a Trump-less GOP primary debate, the former president is expected to surrender to authorities in Atlanta Thursday night, apparently deciding to make it a primetime spectacle all his own.

Federal Judge Shoots Down Meadows And Clark

A federal judge in Georgia declined to intervene and block the arrests and bookings of Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and former Trump DOJ official Jeff Clark. The two men have until noon Friday to surrender.

Perhaps the most convincing argument by District Attorney Fani Willis in opposing the Meadows and Clark bids to avoid the indignity of surrendering was that the former president was submitting himself to arrest, i.e., what makes them such special snowflakes?

The emergency briefing schedule and quick decision by U.S. District Judge Steve C. Jones came ahead of a highly anticipated hearing Monday on Meadows’ motion to remove the case from state to federal court.

Fani Willis Looks Ready To Go

The flurry of filings over the last 24 hours have shown one thing: Atlanta DA Fani Willis ain’t playing.

The filings have been crisp and solid, despite short turnaround times, tight deadlines, and complicated legal issues. It looks like her office has been preparing for some time.

The jury is still out on whether a local prosecutor’s office is up to this monumental task, so I was curious to see whether the quality of the lawyering would fit the moment. So far so good.

But be aware that a local DA, even in a major city, doesn’t regularly deal with the range of issues — constitutional, political, procedural — at play in this case. It’s why Special Counsel Jack Smith’s case(s) remains the main show in town. DOJ has the resources, the experience, the deep bench, and the support structure to facilitate a case of this magnitude. But don’t sleep on Willis.

I Love Me Some Hatch Act

The big Fani Willis filing yesterday came in response to Mark Meadows’ attempt to remove the case to federal court.

I don’t know if her argument will ultimately carry the day, but it was notable for its elegance and simplicity. In short, Willis raked Meadows over the coals for his now-forgotten persistent violations of the Hatch Act while White House chief of staff, as best evidenced by a barely-noticed 2021 report of the Office of Special Counsel, a little-known DC entity charged with Hatch Act compliance.

Willis lowered the boom on Meadows with this killer quote from the OSC report:

From OSC’s perspective, the administration’s attitude toward Hatch Act compliance was succinctly captured by then-Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who said during an interview that “nobody outside of the Beltway really cares” about Trump administration officials violating the Hatch Act.

Willis’ argument is that all of Meadows’ conspiring to overturn the election was political activity, which federal officials are barred by the Hatch Act from engaging in, and therefore none of his alleged criminal conduct was within the scope of his federal office. It’s a tidy argument for deconstructing Meadows’ claim that everything he did was within the scope of being White House chief of staff, a key element for him to win on removal.

Willis Is Calling Witnesses For Monday

The big hearing in Georgia on Monday over whether Mark Meadows can remove the case to federal court won’t be only a legal argument. There are factual issues at play, and it’s anticipated that both sides will present evidence.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said he expects to be subpoenaed by Willis for the hearing. Willis had already subpoenaed Trump-aligned attorneys Alex Kaufman and Kurt Hilbert for the hearing.

Former U.S. Attorney Booked In Atlanta

The Cheese

Kenneth Chesebro, I should note, is asking for a speedy trial under Georgia law, an interesting tactic to try to force Willis’ hand early but with other potential strategic implications. More as it unfolds.

Released: The Kraken

Hate To See It

Georgia Defendant Allegedly Assaulted FBI Agent

WaPo has a scoop on the not-previously-reported arrest of Georgia racketeering defendant Harrison William Prescott Floyd III for allegedly assaulting a FBI agent who was trying to serve him with a grand jury subpoena in Maryland earlier this year.

Floyd figured prominently in our recent story on one of the more bizarre episodes charged in the Georgia indictment.

Down Goes Prigozhin

TPM’s Josh Kovensky on the mysterious crash in Russia of a private plane reportedly carrying Wagner warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin.

The Price We All Pay For The GOP Losing Its Mind

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