(CNN)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.
Don’t miss these insights from Nevada writers:
— Victor Joecks: The stakes of the Dem debate just got higher
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.”
Don’t miss these smart takes on CNN’s town halls with candidates this week:
— Nayyera Haq: Biden and Warren try desperately to redeem their campaigns
— Jill Filipovic: Town hall with Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar displayed a strong field
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