Nuclear doomsday could be coming — if political doomsday doesn't get here first

The solution to America's political dilemma is simple enough: Real accountability, starting with Donald Trump

By Brian Karem


Published January 26, 2023 9:18AM (EST)

Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kevin McCarthy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Kevin McCarthy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved its Doomsday Clock forward to 90 seconds before midnight.

The clock has been maintained since 1947 and is used as a metaphor for the likelihood that we'll blow ourselves up. Originally set at seven minutes to midnight, the farthest it has been from midnight was 17 minutes — in 1991, right after the end of the Cold War. Some mistakenly believe the clock is a gauge to register international power struggles, but according to scientists, "It is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age."

In 1953, the previous closest point to midnight before 2020, scientists pushed the time forward after the Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs. Today it's the war in Ukraine, climate change and COVID-19 that have all helped to push us closer to the brink. As Barry McGuire sang many years ago, "You don't believe we're on the eve of destruction."

The Ukraine war has been a driving force in this latest round of fear by scientists, particularly because of Russian President Vladimir Putin's threats to use tactical or other nuclear devices. Tactical nukes could destroy agriculture in Ukraine and increase the likelihood of global famine. An exchange of nuclear ICBMs could destroy all of us. 

Adding to this trepidation, of course, is the announcement on Wednesday by President Biden that the U.S. and Germany will send tanks to Ukraine. The U.S. is contributing 31 tanks despite Putin's threats. "We weigh escalation risks," a National Security Council official told me on background. Despite the Doomsday Clock movement, I was also told that there "is still no indication that we need to adjust our strategic deterrent posture." (Whatever that means.)

Meanwhile, the Earth's inner core may have started spinning in the opposite direction — perhaps in reaction to the Doomsday Clock or perhaps because all of our elected officials seem to have taken home classified documents and stored them in bedrooms, garages and offices, or perhaps used them as insulation. Makes you wonder what former President Jimmy Carter is using to build those Houses for Humanity. Look, if anybody asks, I don't have any classified documents at home, in storage, hidden in the glove compartment of my car or anywhere else for that matter. But I can't help but wonder at this point: Are there any classified documents in the National Archives? Somebody better check eBay. 

Maybe the Doomsday Clock is moving closer to midnight because, less than a month into the new year, we've already experienced 39 mass shootings in the United States. There are many people who say that's not normal, but it seems to be the new normal in this country. What does that mean to you?

To me it means that 2023 isn't a month old and we already need a break. Anyone want to join me for a barbecue and beer? Well, if you can get through the tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, mudslides, blizzards and severe weather, you're welcome to join me on the patio.

No one could be happier about all the doom and gloom than Donald Trump: It could almost make you forget that he's closer to criminal prosecution than he's ever been in his life.

The cavalcade of doom and gloom seems to be never-ending and no one could be happier about that than Donald Trump — mainly because discussing a potential apocalypse could make you forget that Trump is closer to criminal prosecution than he's ever been in his life. In fact, it may be "imminent" — at least according to Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who argued in court Tuesday that a special grand jury report on the 2020 election should not be released because "at this time, in the interest of justice and the rights of not the state but others, we are asking that the report not be released because … decisions are imminent."

Of course all of this could just be more high wind in the trees — with no indictments forthcoming, no matter how wishful the thinking of Trump's opponents. 

Meanwhile, the case against Trump is advancing on other fronts. The investigation into Biden's handling of classified material could, according to one DOJ source, actually lead to a quicker prosecution of Donald Trump. "With Biden and now [Mike] Pence both in possession of classified documents, it stands to reason we will have to take some kind of action," I was told, again on background. "The logical place to start is with Trump." 

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Not according to Jim Jordan and other Republicans who believe that Biden is involved in a cover-up and Pence and Trump are two stooges, merely "victims of circumstance." (With apologies to Curly Howard.) But as John T. Bennett noted in his CQ Roll Call newsletter this week, Jordan and other members have little more than wishful thinking on their side if they wish to prosecute Biden:

House Republicans, as expected, have come out firing at President Joe Biden and his family. They contend the family is guilty of "influence peddling," shady -- even potentially criminal -- business dealings and a "cover-up" regarding classified documents.

But they, so far, aren't offering evidence to back it up.

Key Republicans, including House Oversight and Accountability Chairman James R. Comer of Kentucky, are ramping up efforts to attempt linking the Bidens to the Chinese government.

"This has all the pattern of an influence-peddling scheme, and it also has the makings of a potential cover-up," Comer told "Sunday Morning Futures" on Fox News, referring to the president's mishandling of classified documents.

If that sounds like more GOP grift, that's only because it is.

Elsewhere, the boom is also apparently being lowered on Trump in New York. Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen met with the Manhattan district attorney's office in the last week. He's met with them dozens of times in the past, but when Alvin Bragg took over the Manhattan D.A.'s job, it appeared any investigation into Trump was finished. Cohen chafed at that — after all, he was the only person prosecuted for paying off Stormy Daniels, and as Cohen famously said, "I didn't pay her off for me. I paid her off for Donald Trump." 

Sure, Trump was "Individual 1" in those court documents, but he was never publicly identified or prosecuted for orchestrating the illegal scheme that sent Cohen to prison. Now that investigation seems to be back on track, and while Cohen wouldn't say what specifically he spoke about for two and a half hours with prosecutors, we know it wasn't about the Doomsday Clock or the Earth's inner core reversing its spin.

"It was a very thorough meeting," was the only thing Cohen would venture to say. If you want to find out what that's all about, his new book "Revenge" covers it rather nicely. (Full disclosure: I helped write that book.)

Perhaps the core is spinning backward and we're that close to midnight because at the end of the day, the lies continue. The GOP-led House has made it clear that the priority for the next two years is to investigate the Jan. 6 committee, the government's response to COVID and Hunter Biden's laptop. These investigations will include star performers like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has spouted QAnon theories in the past to explain COVID. Speaker McCarthy has said he'll never give her up. Yes, with apologies to KC and the Sunshine Band, it sure seems like a scene from "Kingsman." I'm seriously waiting for several heads in the GOP to explode because of implants.

But that psilocybin nightmare aside, the grifts continue. I grow weary watching them and watching people pointing them out. Don't misunderstand me, I do understand the need by some to point out the unending con game being run by certain members of the Republican Party. This week on my podcast "Just Ask the Question," former federal prosecutor Michael Zeldin, who was once director of the DOJ's money laundering unit, said he believed that newly-elected Rep. George Santos will be indicted for a variety of schemes conducted prior to his election. A real estate investor who lost $50,000 in one of the Ponzi schemes Santos was involved in said his operation resembled something from "Goodfellas."

Yeah. That's funny. But who's going to fold under questioning? 

Until these people are held accountable, the massive grift operation against the American people will continue — and the public will remain bitterly divided. Without justice, there's only chaos and anarchy.

An endless parade of pundits, journalists and progressive advocates continue to tell us about the criminality perpetuated by those people I hold in the "highest minimum regard," as former House Speaker Tip O'Neill once said — but the grifts continue. The reason is clear: There's no accountability. That's why Rep. Matt Gaetz sits on an FBI oversight committee while being investigated by the FBI. That's why he, Trump and a host of others can get away with the Big Lie or screaming about the "Russiagate hoax" while facts suggest otherwise. That's why, at the end of the day, many of us have come to doubt all kinds of vetted facts. The reasoning is, "Well, if these guys were lying, they'd be prosecuted, wouldn't they?" The answer so far, sadly,  is no.

Until these people are held accountable for their actions, then the grift conducted on the American people will continue, reaping plunder that would make those who sacked Rome jealous. And the American public will continue to be divided — because without accountability there is no justice, and where there is no justice there is merely chaos and anarchy. Those are all conditions that make the ground fertile for continued exploitation. Just ask Don the Con. Santos, Jordan, Greene and others are his eager, soulless disciples.

Accountability starts at the top. There was a time in this country when we truly believed that no one was above the law. At least, that's always been the theory. It is being put to the test today. So while others continue to call out the grift, let me stay true to this course: Hold them all accountable. Start with Donald Trump. Otherwise the grift will continue and it's pointless to waste your breath pointing it out.

There should be a political Doomsday Clock for that. If we don't take action now, we're much closer to midnight than the nuclear clock.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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