Even in this political season of the astonishing, the improbable and the dismaying, the return of Michael G. Grimm, a former Republican congressman of Staten Island, is one of those ominous signs that the body politic is wracked by ailments more grave than we have known. For if this cancer returns, what others loom?
Usually, nuance is necessary in politics. But not always. Grimm is probably the biggest embarrassment to afflict Congress in this strange, young century of ours. And that’s saying a lot for a institution led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a hapless duo whose superpowers are confined to inaction, dishonesty and cowardice.
Trying to actually describe Grimm’s manifold malfeasances is challenging, since there are so many. Best to begin with the most famous one, from January 28, 2014. It was captured on video. I urge that you watch the clip, lest you fall into the mistake of thinking that Donald J. Trump pioneered the practice of maligning and threatening the press.
It was the night of President Obama’s State of the Union address. Grimm thought that he’d be talking to Michael Scotto of NY1 only about the speech, but Scotto also asked about a federal investigation into Grimm’s fundraising. Grimm stormed off. Scotto figured the interview was over when Grimm wandered back into the frame. You can see a plainly stunned Scotto wheel back as a furious Grimm looms over him. “You ever do that to me again I'll throw you off this fucking balcony,” Grimm says as they stand on the third floor of the Cannon House Office Building, in front of a perilously low balustrade. Despite the poor quality of the audio, you can hear that Grimm isn’t kidding.
Scotto thought he’d posed a “valid question” into donations to the congressman’s campaign, according to the NY1 recording, which went predictably viral. Grimm disagreed. “No, no, you're not man enough, you're not man enough,” he says. “I'll break you in half. Like a boy.”
The threats against Scotto didn’t ruin Grimm’s career. Neither did the federal investigation into his campaign fundraising, which strongly suggested there had been illegal activity by Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, a New York City, rabbi on Grimm’s behalf. And yet he did go to prison for tax evasion, stemming from his operation of a Manhattan restaurant, Healthalicious. It was the best the feds could do.
Tax evasion and campaign fraud are damning stuff, but a little dull. So how about the time he allegedly had sex with a woman in a Brooklyn bar? Or the time he plagiarized as speech from A Few Good Men to trumpet his own military service? Or the time he grandiosely claimed that his campaign offices had been infiltrated by political enemies, when it was really just the target of some teenaged vandals? There was also the time he brandished a gun at a nightclub, in plain abuse of his authority as an FBI agent. Also probably not kosher: Grimm’s investments with disgraced FBI agent Carlos Luquis. There was a shady trip to Cyprus, where he visited a businessman later arrested in Brooklyn on corruption charges. Grimm tried to hide evidence of the trip but ultimately failed. And there was something called “donor swapping,” a practice whose name hints at its blatant illegality.
“Your moral compass, Mr. Grimm, needs some reorientation,” decreed Judge Pamela K. Chen as she handed Grimm an eight-month sentence in July 2015. Prosecutors had hoped for 30. Grimm served seven. He left jail in the spring of 2016, calling the sojourn behind bars a “horrible experience.” Nelson Mandela leaving Victor Verster Prison, this wasn’t.
And while the direction of Grimm’s moral compass is unclear, his political compass appears to be remarkably intact: reports indicate that Grimm will run for Congress once again, challenging fellow Republican Daniel M. Donovan, Jr., for the House seat Grimm once occupied. "He's certainly been making calls to run," a Republican familiar with the matter told the New York Daily News, whose Erin Durkin reported that Grimm “is expected to announce a run in the coming weeks.”
“Grimm doesn’t think he did anything wrong, isn’t really remorseful, and he appears to see the seat at his,” says Rachel Shapiro, who covers politics for the Staten Island Advance. “Donovan has some unpopular stances with his very conservative base,” she told me, pointing to his lack of enthusiasm for an Affordable Care Act repeal, as well as his moderate stance on immigration.
That Grimm would even consider pondering another run for office is a sign of a political climate so obscenely partisan that voters will consider deeply flawed candidates, as long as those candidates have the right letter next to their names. In Alabama, for example, incumbent U.S. Senator Luther Strange is defending his seat against Roy S. Moore, the shameless former chief justice of the state who treats the law as subservient to his own retrograde beliefs. Meanwhile, Robert Menendez, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, is on trial on a litany of corruption charges. The sordid stuff he stands accused of could send Menendez to prison, but he has deftly managed to raise more than $5 million for next year’s re-election campaign.
Grimm must see this and smile, especially since Staten Island is already predisposed to his political inclinations. Trump, clobbered in the four other boroughs of New York City, won 57 percent of the vote on Staten Island, the same share he got in Kansas. In other words, his incivility and dishonesty played well there — or at least well enough to win.
Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, put the matter plainly: “The guy who admitted to grabbing pussy and all that is the president, so...” Grimm’s encounter with Scotto of NY1 seemed astonishing back in the innocent days of 2014, when Americans still valued a free press and the democratic process. That, of course, was before Trump turned the Fifth Estate into a fifth column trying to undermine the American project, before he branded journalists dishonest enemies of the people; before his first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, assaulted a female journalist; before the Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body slammed Ben Jacobs of The Guardian ; before since-dismissed White House chief political strategist Stephen K. Bannon decreed that the media should “keep its mouth shut.”
At the same time, Grimm must look at Congress and think, I can do this. And he probably can. While it’s hard to call him an accomplished statesman, Grimm did assert that climate change was real, in contravention of Republican dogma. He showed a willingness to work with Democrats and, after Hurricane Sandy devastated his district in 2012, did worthy work in helping Staten Island recover. Congress today has an approval rating of 16 percent . Despite the many despicable things he’s done, Grimm isn’t going to harm that dismal reputation. Hell, he might even improve it by a point or two. At least the guy knows how to dress.
Shapiro of the Staten Island Advance doesn’t think that he can win against Donovan in 2018, but Richard Flanagan, a historian of Staten Island politics, is less confident that Grimm’s run would be quixotic. That’s not to say that such a run would be a good idea. “His return would most likely be an embarrassment to the congressional leadership,” Flanagan wrote in an email.
Muzzio has been watching New York politics for decades, and he doesn’t think Grimm is just another colorful New Yorker, a decent fella who takes it a little too far but always means well. Grimm is a “thug,” in Muzzio’s estimation. “A sophisticated wise guy.”
“There may be limits,” Muzzio told me, to what the American voter may be asked to countenance. “And this may be one of them.”