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19 Jan

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World Politics

United States

The New York billionaires can be best described as mortal enemies – but that wasn’t always the case

Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump in New York, New York, on 20 May 2003.

Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump in New York, New York, on 20 May 2003. Photograph: Djamilla Rosa Cochran/WireImage

These days Donald Trump and Mike Bloomberg can best be described as mortal enemies.

The former New York mayor’s campaign against the president is leveraging Bloomberg’s deep pockets to oust his fellow Manhattan billionaire. Bloomberg has hired hundreds of staffers and organizers across 30 states. Bloomberg’s ads are ubiquitous on TV and his campaign has reserved a 60-second spot during the Super Bowl with an estimated price tag of $10m.

The Trump campaign, in an illustration of the arms race a general election matchup between Bloomberg and Trump would be, announced its own $10m Super Bowl ad reservation after Bloomberg.

On Monday, Bloomberg and Trump squabbled on Twitter, with Trump dinging the former New York mayor on healthcare, calling him “Mini Mike”. In response Bloomberg corrected Trump’s false claim that his administration protected the pre-existing conditions provision of Obamacare.

And recently, the financial news website Marketplace published a scathing op-ed by Bloomberg with the headline “Trump has been great for people like me – but I’ll be great for you”.

But it wasn’t wasn’t always like this.

Bloomberg and Trump, both billionaires from New York, for years kept a cordial and even friendly relationship as they repeatedly ran into each other at charity events, parties and even one of former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s weddings.

Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump at the Trump National Golf Course in Briarcliff Manor, New York, on 20 July 2007.

Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump at the Trump National Golf Course in Briarcliff Manor, New York, on 20 July 2007. Photograph: Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Along the way they swapped praise. At a 2007 charity golf club event, Trump said it was “my really terrific privilege to introduce a man that I think is one of the great mayors and will go down as one of the great mayors, if not the greatest, in New York City”. In 2013, Trump was asked if he thought Bloomberg is a good mayor. He responded: “Yes!” At a ribbon-cutting ceremony that same year Trump said Bloomberg had “been a great mayor”, adding: “I mean, this guy is fantastic.”

Trump has even praised Bloomberg’s past positions on gun control on Fox News’s Fox & Friends.

Bloomberg has also thrown Trump some kind words. At the same ribbon-cutting ceremony Bloomberg said: “If there is anybody who has changed this city, it is Donald Trump.” In 2004, Bloomberg appeared on an episode of The Apprentice. Trump at the time said he invited Bloomberg on to the show because he had “great respect for him”.

Yet even back then the identities they each fostered as famous billionaires were radically different. They ran in different social circles. Where Trump would go to a dinner party hosted by Jeffrey Epstein, Bloomberg would go to editor Tina Brown’s house.

“I’m sure Bloomberg has no gold toilets at his house,” said Rebecca Katz, a New York-based Democratic strategist. “It’s a different kind of money with less to prove.”

Congressman Peter King, a New York Republican, recalls Bloomberg once telling him that the only time he really interacted with Trump was at a charity golf tournament.

“They were in many ways from different worlds,” King said. He added that before Trump ascended to national office he had only met him a few times while he knew Bloomberg “very well”. Bloomberg and people in his orbit rarely mentioned Trump’s name, King said.

“It wasn’t like they were hugging or talking about ‘Hey, remember the great times we had’ – it was like two guys who knew each other but didn’t seem overly close, they didn’t seem overly hostile,” King recalled.

Donald Trump, Mike Bloomberg and Jared Kushner in New York, New York, on 14 March 2013.

Donald Trump, Mike Bloomberg and Jared Kushner in New York, New York, on 14 March 2013. Photograph: Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

But those days are long gone, leaving the hostility thoroughly overt and the antagonism is only likely to escalate as the two pour more money and time into the 2020 presidential race. Some think their previous social proximity might even make their rivalry more intense.

King, who Bloomberg has raised money for and who backs Trump, predicted that a head-to-head matchup between the two candidates would involve “a huge amount of money, a huge amount of ego on both sides”.

“Each guy would think he’s smarter than the other,” King said, adding that each billionaire would be acting like he’s accomplished more than the other.

The relationship is also extra testy because of Bloomberg’s unique position within the field of over a dozen Democratic candidates vying to face Trump.

Bloomberg has seen his national poll numbers rise within the Democratic primary as he’s poured money into advertising for his campaign. Bloomberg is the only one who hails from the same state as Trump (although Vermont senator Bernie Sanders was born in Brooklyn) and whose background as an outsider billionaire who is still a household name within political circles is similar to Trump’s.

Recently, Trump has reportedly started to wonder how much money Bloomberg could spend to defeat him. And Bloomberg is airing ads promising not to copy Trump’s tweeting habits if elected president.

Bloomberg has toyed with running for president multiple times but Trump’s performance in the White House seems to be the breaking point that has finally tipped him into the race.

Aides to the former New York mayor like to point to recent statements Bloomberg has made lambasting the Republican president. As he’s opened campaign offices across the US Bloomberg has sprinkled his public remarks with apocalyptic warnings of Trump winning re-election.

At his newly opened campaign office in Tennessee, Bloomberg said: “Donald Trump is trying to pull this country apart, and if you want a future we just have to pull it together.” That same day in Philadelphia Bloomberg said pointedly: “Donald Trump does not know how to manage. He’s never been a businessperson. He’s a real estate developer, promoter.”

Trump has criticized Bloomberg as well. In early December, Trump mockingly tweeted that “Mini Mike Bloomberg has instructed his third rate news organization” to investigate “President Trump, only”.

The antagonism goes back through 2016. Bloomberg delivered a speech at the Democratic national convention that summer saying he wasn’t there as “a member of any party” but to urge voters to help elect Hillary Clinton and defeat “a dangerous demagogue”. Trump around that time tweeted: “Little Michael Michael Bloomberg, who never had the guts to run for president, knows nothing about me. His last term as Mayor was a disaster!”

Michael Bloomberg with Donald Trump and Melania Knauss in Washington DC, on 28 April 2001.

Michael Bloomberg with Donald Trump and Melania Knauss in Washington DC, on 28 April 2001. Photograph: Newscom/Alamy Stock Photo

At the beginning of 2019, the Washington Post chronicled the evolution of Trump and Bloomberg’s interactions. At the time Trump told the newspaper that he and Bloomberg used to like each other but the relationship “went strangely haywire once I ran for office”.

Bloomberg, Trump said, didn’t care about his political positions before he ran for the presidency.

“I’m for guns, he’s against guns,” Trump said. Though Trump, in the past, had praised Bloomberg’s positions on guns.

For the same article, Bloomberg told the paper that his “objection to Donald Trump is the way he’s filling his current role, in terms of representing the country, in terms of representing the public. There’s an attitude, and a style, and a lack of civility that I think is bad for the country and I find offensive.”

Using the phrase to land blows on a political opponent could hurt women

Seventh 2020 Democratic Party Presidential Debate, Des Moines, USA - 14 Jan 2020Mandatory Credit: Photo by Edward M PioRoda/CNN via ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock (10526052k) Elizabeth Warren Seventh 2020 Democratic Party Presidential Debate, Des Moines, USA - 14 Jan 2020

‘The term ‘believe women’ was never supposed to mean, believe everything that women say and don’t bother to investigate their claims.’ Photograph: Edward M PioRoda/CNN via ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

It’s a familiar scenario. An exchange occurs in private. Only the two figures involved – a man and a woman – know what truly transpired. But once they leave that room and start to tell their version of events, the man is given the benefit of the doubt and the woman faces intense scrutiny and skepticism.

This is the basic set up for any number of high profile cases that have dominated the news for years now, stories of rapists and other sexual offenders evading legal prosecution or other consequences for years as their accusers were painted as gold diggers, political operatives, and compulsive liars.

In response to this incredulity, the phrase “Believe Women” emerged from the larger #MeToo movement, and it has inspired serious investigations into the statistics of false reporting, which are lower than commonly thought, and has provided much needed push back against smear campaigns against accusers in high profile cases.

But now “Believe Women” is getting thrown around by political strategists and official opinion-havers to support the Elizabeth Warren’s claim that Bernie Sanders told her, in a private meeting with no witnesses and no evidentiary support, that a woman could not win the presidency in 2020. This is not only a grotesque distortion of what “believe women” is supposed to mean, it undermines the good work the phrase’s use was doing.

The term “believe women” was never supposed to mean, believe everything that women say and don’t bother to investigate their claims. The simplicity of the message has irked many – including this writer – in its ability to be misused and misappropriated since its inception, but many activists have taken it up in good faith to say believing women and believing victims is only the start of a process toward justice. But in the last couple days after Warren’s campaign first made the accusation and then double-downed at Tuesday’s debate (with an unfair and obviously biased assist from debate moderator Abby Johnson), many are using it to try to shut down any debate, investigation, or dissent. When Sander’s campaign denied the accusation and supporters showed interviews going back decades of Sanders saying a woman could be president, plus evidence of Sanders’s wide support of women candidates in various campaigns, commentators remained unmoved. “Believe women.”

The language of abuse and trauma is creeping more and more into political rhetoric, as if every interaction between a man and a woman these days can be understood as a potential violation. Virginia Heffernan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Sanders had gaslighted Warren over whether he told her a female candidate couldn’t win the 2020 election.” Gaslighting is a term for one person lying to their romantic partner so effectively and consistently that they start to question their version of reality. Had Heffernan simply said Sanders lied, it would not have given the accusation the melodramatic pull of centuries of stories of women being tormented and abused by the men in their lives. Lying is something politicians do. Gaslighting is something misogynistic monsters do.

The goal is to put the offense on a higher level than one of just lying. That way, if the Sanders campaign decides to point to all of the lies Warren has told throughout her career – that her father was a janitor, that she is Native American – her lies won’t matter as much because she’s just electioneering while his lies are rooted in misogyny. It’s a trick that still works for Hillary Clinton, who has repeatedly complained about the lack of support Sanders gave to her campaign, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. (Clinton, after losing the primary to Obama in 2008, appeared at two rallies with Obama and did ten solo campaign appearances to help him get elected. Sanders, after losing the primary to Clinton in 2016, did three events with Clinton and 37 solo events.) Many of her supporters still claim this supposed lack of support is proof of Sanders’s “problem with women.”

While this is effective dirty politics, the real losers here are the women for whom “believe women” still means something. To turn it from a campaign for empathy to a cheap slogan to siphon off primary voters hurts the credibility of activists who have been trying to use it for good.

Christine Blasey Ford was deemed a liar immediately when she came forward with her story of a sexual assault by Supreme Court then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and commentators dug into her past to prove her untrustworthiness. Young gymnasts who complained about Larry Nassar was dismissed as exaggerating or lying. Early accusers of serial offenders Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein were deemed gold diggers, looking for an easy settlement to shut them up. Even when there’s some form of evidence, like when photographs show President Trump with E Jean Carroll, who accused him of rape, even while he insists he doesn’t know her, supporters are still willing to take his word for it.

There was an entire Golden Globe-nominated Netflix series called Unbelievable about a real life case of a woman who was tied up and raped in her own apartment. When police became skeptical of her story, for not behaving in a typical way for a victim, she was charged for filing a false police report. Her rapist – who went on to commit several more rapes – was eventually discovered and found guilty. Her story is far from the only one. Who knows how many offenders across the country were allowed to keep attacking women because police and other authorities disbelieved women trying to report their offenses.

There’s always been an element of “by any means necessary” in American politics, with tactics like George W Bush’s 2000 campaign calling primary voters in South Carolina to insinuate his opponent John McCain had an “illegitimate black child” being surprisingly common. But it’s frankly disgusting to see so-called feminists undercut the work of judicial activists all for a political win. Using “believe women” in a smear campaign can only work to support the big smirk and the eye roll of the people we need most to sway.

  • Jessa Crispin is the host of the Public Intellectual podcast

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