NEW YORK — A bit before 9 a.m. on Monday, I courageously left my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and crossed Central Park to the East Side in the back of a taxi.
What a dystopian hellscape. Yes, crosstown traffic in Manhattan is that bad.
At 9 a.m. in a federal building downtown, just a few blocks from the courthouse where Donald Trump was arraigned, the field-tripping House Judiciary Committee began a hearing focusing on the man who supposedly has become one of the greatest menaces facing America: Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney.
As Jim Jordan, the jacketless committee chairman, declared in an apocalyptic opening statement: “For the district attorney, justice isn’t blind, it’s about looking for opportunities to advance … a radical political agenda. Rather than enforcing the law, the D.A. is using his office to do the bidding of left-wing campaign funders.”
It is, of course, coincidental that Bragg is the district attorney who indicted Trump. It is also an odd quirk that Bragg received help in his 2021 election campaign from a group partly funded by George Soros, whose place in GOP demonology is midway between Satan and Hillary Clinton.
Attacking Bragg was obviously payback for bringing felony charges against the former president — though committee Republicans denied it with the credibility of Trump bragging about a “perfect” phone call.
Elise Stefanik — a major figure in House GOP leadership who was sitting in on the hearing even though she is not on the committee — gave away the rest of Monday’s agenda when she said: “Look no further than the last November election when we flipped four congressional seats [in New York State]. What was the No. 1 issue? It was crime.”
But committee Republicans ran into two problems with the over-hyped production, both of which could have been anticipated before they left Washington.
With the Democrats actively participating in the hearing and committee members stymied by a five-minute limit for questioning, it is was impossible to develop a coherent narrative about Bragg. Even Fox News only intermittently followed the hearing.
The facts also conspired against Jordan, Stefanik and Co.
Major crimes in New York City jumped during the pandemic — felonies are up by about 45 percent since 2021 — but they have dipped by a little in Manhattan this year.
Tellingly, crime in New York started from a low base. So while the percentage increase sounds ominous, New York’s per capita crime numbers are just one-third as high as those of seemingly safe Columbus, Ohio. Jordan’s 4th Congressional District borders Ohio’s capital city.
Committee Democrats hammered home this point, but the crime details also tripped up Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy.
Bragging about Rudy Giuliani’s record as mayor, Roy noted that New York was averaging over 2,000 murders a year in the early 1990s. “Due to the strong support of law enforcement and the anti-crime policies adopted by the city,” Roy said, “it got down to 288 in 2018.”
“But now,” Roy added ominously, “it’s back up to the mid-400s. I think the question is whether or not … you feel safe in New York City right now?”
Compared to the 1990s, New York is a much safer city. And Roy’s numbers — even though they were brandished for dramatic effect — underscored that point.
If Monday’s hearing had been designed with fact-finding rather than politics in mind, witnesses would have discussed the difficulties in deciphering causation when it comes to fluctuations in crime rates. Experts, after all, are still debating the reasons for the crime turnabout in the 1990s.
‘Violent crime epidemic’
But the overheated Republican narrative was that everything in New York was Bragg’s fault, probably including the Broadway closing of “Phantom of the Opera” after a 35-year run on Broadway.
Two-term Republican Rep. Troy Nehls went full Trump as he raged late in the hearing: “Mr. Bragg, I hope you’re watching. … You’re a disgrace. You’re a danger to this country.”
Exactly why Nehls, the former sheriff of Fort Bend County in Texas, feels so menaced by Bragg remained a bit murky during his five-minute rant. It has something to do with defunding the police and how “the dishonest media is the greatest threat to this country.”
Part of the problem with the orchestration of the hearing was that many of the crimes that the witnesses were lamenting took place before Bragg became district attorney. And the key political witness, Robert Holden, is a city councilman from Queens, which has its own non-Bragg district attorney named Melinda Katz.
But the Republicans did have one thing going for them in portraying Manhattan as more dangerous than the front lines in Ukraine. New York is the tabloid center of the nation. And Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, as well as the TV stations that emulate the newspaper, still follow the dictum, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
There are, alas, always horrendous crimes in a city of 8.3 million people, even if statistically the odds of being a victim are low. As Louisiana Republican Mike Johnson said with confidence, “We have a violent crime epidemic here — and everybody in America knows it because we see the videos played out on our television local news every single night.”
Clearly, it never dawned on Johnson that TV networks tend to play up stories that happen in the metropolis where they are headquartered, which is why New York crime stories regularly pop up on Shreveport news shows.
For all the Republican pyrotechnics, Monday’s hearing probably gained Bragg votes when he runs again in 2025. Somehow, I suspect that Fani Willis, the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, will not hesitate to indict Trump for illegally trying to overturn the 2020 election because she fears a visit from Jim Jordan and the Judiciary Committee.