It s not often this gets said: Move over, Celine Dion.
Only in an election year would the best show in Vegas be a Democratic presidential debate. But this was no Cirque du Soleil -- more like Future Stars of Wrestling. Elizabeth Warren -- and pretty much everyone else -- aggressively went after an apparently flummoxed Michael Bloomberg, making his much-anticipated debut Wednesday -- just a few days before the Nevada caucuses. The candidates also came hard at each other this time, on a night of fireworks and faceplants; several CNN commentators described it as a "free-for-all" -- and they were not wrong.
But with the eyes of much of the nation on him, and his self-funded star on the rise, it was billionaire Bloomberg, who was the target of choice for his fellow candidates. The nearly unanimous verdict on his performance from a diverse panel of CNN Opinion commentators? "It was a horrible night."
Or, in the words of David Axelrod, a "disastrous debut."
Some, like SE Cupp, were at least relieved that at last the gloves were off. "Well it s about time," Cupp wrote. "It took, evidently, Michael Bloomberg on the debate stage for Democrats to realize that this primary can t be a group effort and a love fest forever." Scott Jennings didn t mince words: "Finally, this debate has revealed what I thought was probably true -- these Democrats running for president really seemed to hate each other."
Errol Louis assessed a winning strategy in Warren s pugnacity and preparation; likewise, Patti Solis Doyle saw a "thrilling tactical moment" when Warren "gutted Bloomberg on his non-disclosure agreements in cases of alleged sexual harassment." Tara Setmayer thought much of the anti-Bloomberg energy was misplaced -- suggesting Sanders, as an emerging frontrunner, deserved the target on his back, if the Democrats really want a candidate who can win against President Donald Trump.
Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg sniped at one another over experience and drew mixed reviews. "What more could President Donald Trump ask for" than a divided opposition, Frida Ghitis wondered. Debate coach Todd Graham delivered a rather stern report card: no one got an A, but Sanders drew the highest grade (B+) He "handled himself well when placed center stage," Graham wrote, and shone when talking about policy in moral terms.
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The intelligence world was in chaos this week after Trump s decision to appoint US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as acting director of national intelligence. A staunch loyalist with no intelligence background and a reputation for alienating people, wrote David Andelman -- Grenell replaces outgoing acting director Joseph Maguire.
Andelman called Grenell a "catastrophe-in-waiting" unqualified to hold a post so central to America s national security, and implored Trump to reconsider. "Most alarming" were reports that Trump s dissatisfaction with Maguire -- who had briefed a bipartisan committee in Congress that Russia was back at its election interference efforts -- contributed to his departure and Grenell s appointment, Andelman wrote.
Admiral William McRaven spoke out strongly on Maguire s behalf in the Washington Post, praising his long experience and record of service and concluding that Maguire "was dismissed for doing his job." He warned: "As Americans, we should be frightened -- deeply afraid for the future of the nation. When good men and women can t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security -- then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil."
Bloomberg faces other uphill battles as both a primary candidate and a prospective Democratic nominee. Arick Wierson, who was Bloomberg s media advisor when he was New York s mayor, sketched out suggestions for next steps, and noted that his abysmal debate showing has raised the stakes for Bloomberg in the South Carolina debate.
As the controversy over sexual harassment, toxic workplace culture and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) grew louder, Kate Andersen Brower wrote that these issues were part of why Bloomberg didn t make the cut as a VP prospect for Barack Obama in 2008. Brower noted that in 2020, if Bloomberg faces Trump, voters would have the right to ask: "Can t (we) do better than two billionaires who are accused of demeaning women?" On Friday, Bloomberg said women covered by three NDAs who had made complaints against him can be released from those agreements if they contact his company.
David Love urged Democrats to think twice before casting their lot during the primary with an oligarch of their own; for Love, a potential choice between the moderate Bloomberg and the progressive Sanders posed a moral dilemma for democracy. In his view, "It s not a stretch to say that when it comes to the role of wealth in determining the elections, the contrast between Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders is one with moral stakes."
The Revs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, also offered moral arguments this week, but not on behalf of a particular candidate. Both parties need to give more attention to the 23 million poor and low-income voters in America, they wrote. "They and other poor Americans rarely hear a politician call their name and speak to their conditions. In the more than 20 debates leading up to the 2016 elections, there was not a single hour dedicated to poverty or economic insecurity."
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On Thursday, all eyes were on Judge Amy Berman Jackson s courtroom, where longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone faced sentencing after being convicted of crimes including lying, obstruction and witness tampering. Prosecutors had recommended seven to nine years. Then Trump tweeted and Attorney General William Barr intervened, undercutting his own prosecutors to suggest a lighter sentence. James Schultz, formerly of the Trump White House counsel s office, insisted that Barr had done the right thing inserting himself into the process. "The reality is the sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years for Stone was a ridiculous overreach," he wrote. Michael Zeldin noted that: "Trump s encroachment into DOJ territory, especially in such a public way, was unprecedented." "Indeed," argued Frida Ghitis, "Stone s sentencing turned into a microcosm of the battle to save the rule of law in this country ... On Thursday, in Judge Jackson s courtroom, the rule of law fought back."
In sentencing Stone to over three years in federal prison, Michael D Antonio observed, Jackson "demonstrated genuine fairness ... Now it will be up to the President to either honor the decision or commute the sentence of his friend and show that it is he -- and not the system -- that is corrupt."
Trump s rush of surprise pardons and commutations this week read like a casting call for Lifestyles of the Rich, Famous and Felonious: Among others, former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. (failing to report a felony in a bribery case), once-junk bond king Michael Milken (racketeering and securities fraud), Rudy Giuliani s ex-New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik (tax fraud and lying to the federal government). And then there was an actual former "Celebrity Apprentice," disgraced ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (public corruption).
After Tuesday s spate of high-profile pardons, Paul Callan marveled, "there s reason to wonder if the role (of acting pardon attorney of the US) should be offered to Geraldo Rivera -- or Kim Kardashian West. When President Barack Obama pardoned 78 people in December 2016, the White House announcement simply listed those given pardons and commuted sentences, along with details of their offenses. But when Trump used his powers to give clemency to 11 people, the press secretary s statement was larded with the often-famous names of those vouching for the pardoned," implying that Trump s mercy favors those with special connections.
"In also showing mercy late last year to two officers accused of war crimes, one convicted of murder, President Trump again dismissed the justice system" -- both civilian and military, asserted LZ Granderson. "What we have been witnessing recently is not in the spirit of the Constitution s Article II, Section 2, but in the spirit of authoritarianism. For it is one thing for a president to commute a sentence if she or he feels the individual has paid their debt to society, but it s totally another if the president intervenes with the belief there wasn t a debt to begin with."
What does it mean to be redeemed?
James A. Gagliano -- lifelong lover of the NFL s Atlanta Falcons, a team lit up (and then laid low) by legendary quarterback Michael Vick -- made the case directly to Trump that Vick, who was sentenced to 23 months on dog-fighting charges in 2007, should be pardoned. Gagliano recalls Vick s post-prison rehabilitation efforts on and off the field and his emotional welcome back to the Georgia Dome to be recognized as one of the best Falcons players of all time.
"Vick s tale is one of against-long-odds achievement, meteoric ascension to the pinnacle of his profession and losing it all," reflected Gagliano. "It is also a story of forgiveness, second acts and deserved redemption ... Michael Vick made good on his second chance. He s back working in football as a television analyst. He s a family man. He has acknowledged his failures and atoned for them. He has blamed no one else but himself ... here s hoping you ll give this pardon request some serious consideration, Mr. President."
On Thursday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, identifying him only as the "deputy leader of the Taliban," in which he argued: "I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop."
Peter Bergen, who has covered Afghanistan for CNN for over 20 years, was shocked by what the Times didn t say about Haqqani -- that the FBI considers him a "specially designated global terrorist" and that both the FBI and State Department are offering a reward for information leading to his capture.
Haqqani leads a network whose members have kidnapped multiple Americans, including a Times reporter, noted Bergen, who opined: "President Trump sees himself as elected to get out of America s endless wars. But there is a big difference between fighting an endless war and instituting a persistent presence in Afghanistan to safeguard both American interests and those of the Afghan people ... Haqqani s tepid assurances in the Times that the Taliban, going forward, will be just a normal bunch of Afghan politicians don t mesh well with the FBI s continued assessment that he is one of the world s most wanted terrorists."
The Times said in a statement from a spokesperson: "We know firsthand how dangerous and destructive the Taliban is. The Times is one of the only American news organizations to have maintained a full time team of reporters in Afghanistan since the start of the war nearly 20 years ago. We ve also had multiple journalists kidnapped by the organization. But, our mission at Times Opinion is to tackle big ideas from a range of newsworthy viewpoints. We ve actively solicited voices from all sides of the Afghanistan conflict, the government, the Taliban and from citizens. Sirajuddin Haqqani is the second in command of the Taliban at a time when its negotiators are hammering out an agreement with American officials in Doha that could result in American troops leaving Afghanistan. That makes his perspective relevant at this particular moment." US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States will sign a peace deal with the Taliban on February 29 provided there is a weeklong reduction in violence in Afghanistan, slated to begin Saturday.
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Jane Austen s most annoying heroine steals the screen
We can all admit it: Emma Woodhouse is for many Jane Austen s most irritating leading lady -- even her creator thought so. But director Autumn de Wilde s new film, "Emma," starring Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role, made a convert out of an initially reluctant Holly Thomas. She praised the film s ability to break out of staid tropes of the Austen adaptation canon in favor of a fresher take on feminism, romance and well ... men: "The purest cliche of an Austen fan, I have tended to give the over-examined Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, or the long-suffering Elinor Dashwood (the Sense half of Sense and Sensibility ) more credit ... But the most recent Emma flagged something lacking in those characters ... It s just refreshing to see a woman born out of classic literature whose flaws mean that she sidesteps several romantic cliches ...Taylor-Joy might wear Empire line dresses, but she doesn t dab away delicate Regency tears. She sobs gutted, 21st century ones."
Forget about Colin Firth s Mr. Darcy and his rumpled white shirt by the lake, Thomas urged us, and consider Johnny Flynn s Mr. Knightly, who is kind even as he explains to Emma how ridiculous she is: "In the real world, a young woman is far more likely to debate a friendly mansplainer than win over an aloof-but-secretly-decent aristocrat. Mr. Darcy has a lot to answer for in terms of expectation management of straight, single women who meet apparently indifferent men. Men like Mr. Knightly, who demonstrate excellent morals and an inability not to speak the truth from the outset, are a far better bet than ones who, in all likelihood, are not hiding a wealth of martyrdom behind their brush-offs."
That s wise advice for your week ahead.