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How 'normal' Republican staffers paved the road to Trump

A video of former President Donald Trump from his Jan. 6 Rose Garden statement is played as Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testifies. (Sean Thew/Pool via AP)
A video of former President Donald Trump from his Jan. 6 Rose Garden statement is played as Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testifies. (Sean Thew/Pool via AP)

For years, Tim Miller was a run-of-the-mill Republican operative.

Then, Trump got to the top of the GOP, and Miller walked away. But he doesn’t want kudos.

Instead, his new book begins with a damning phrase: “America never would have gotten into this mess if it weren’t for me and my friends.”

Today, On Point: How — and why — “normal” Republican staffers paved the road to Trump.


Tim Miller, The Bulwark’s writer-at-large. Author of Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. (@Timodc)

Sarah Isgur, staff writer at The Dispatch. Former director of the Office of Public Affairs at the Justice Department from 2017-2018. (@whignewtons)

Interview Highlights

On politics as a game

Tim Miller: “There have always been hacky political operatives, who care more about winning than losing. But the culture, I think, in the late nineties and the 2000’s that led up to Trump, particularly on the right, but a little bit on the left. You know, there are some great books about this. I went back and read Michael Lewis’s book from 1996, Losers, about the Dole-Clinton campaign.

“And this was his critique about all of this. You know, he said, everybody I meet on both sides, they only care about their clever tactics and strategies, like they don’t even seem to have an interest in what the impact is, you know, they’re going to have on the voters. Which is the whole point of the circus, the whole point of why people are running. That’s ’96.

“I think it gets worse and worse as you move forward, you know, into 2008. And I think things start to change on the left, particularly with Obama, because he taps into people … in a very earnest way. I think he inspired a lot of folks. But that culture continued on the right. And so in Republican politics, we get to this point where the game is the most important thing.

“And if you’re good at it, if you’re good at clever attacks, which I was good at that, you know, if you’re good at coming up with good strategies for, you know, depressing liberal turn out or riling up the base with red meat, that is more important than actually, okay, how are we going to get in office and help people, and improve people’s lives, which is the whole point of politics.

“And it became so perverse that when I went to the Republican National Committee’s campaign school, you know, my teacher said, it just really stuck with me. He’s like, the best thing that you can be told in politics is that ‘you get it.’ And what is, ‘you get it,’ mean? ‘You get it’ means that you don’t care about all the superfluous stuff, the policies in the white papers. You get the joke, you get that you’re here to win. And so to that end, in campaigns, if you are the person who’s the turd in the punchbowl, you know, who’s saying, I don’t know if we should send this tweet, I don’t know if we should do this ad. It’s too inflammatory. It’s not quite true.

“You become looked at as, you’re the problem. You get sent to the back office, right. For questioning, you know, the efficacy and the ethics of campaign tactics. And so, you know, I think this all leads me to Trump. Like, is it that surprising then that somebody like Donald Trump could have manipulated a system that had become as nihilistic and debased as that? Look, I don’t think so. With the benefit of hindsight, it makes it make sense.”

On the drug of ‘being close to power’

Tim Miller: “I write in the book that I think that there’s some differences between New York and L.A. and D.C. are big striver cities. You know, that New York is really driven by money. In L.A., by fame. D.C. is driven by that line from the Hamilton musical, being in the room where it happens, right? This kind of proximity to power.

“Some people want to substitute power for that, but that’s not really true for most people, because with power comes responsibility, but they want to be close to power. And so that drug of being close to power is very similar to the drug of money. And you get wrapped up in it, and you start caring about that more than how your actions are going to impact others. And I think that’s an important lesson for how we got here.”

On the story of Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, before and during the Trump administration

Tim Miller: “Reince was my boss when I worked at the RNC in 2012. So I got to know him pretty well. We worked together then on the famous Republican autopsy that Trump, you know, threw in the trash at Trump Tower and completely rejected. All of our suggestions, particularly on the messaging side, the notion that the party should be more welcoming to immigrants and soften language that would be offensive to suburban women. And we move into the primary, Reince stays at the RNC. I go to work for Jeb as his communications director, but we maintained a pretty good relationship.

“And obviously, all the listeners know what happened there. Jeb didn’t do very well in the primary. But as soon as Jeb loses, I join a PAC that was aiming at stopping Trump, and it was really anyone but Trump, whether it be Cruz, or Marco or John Kasich. Obviously I would have preferred Kasich, but any of them I figured would be better than Trump. And so the PAC went after him. As I was at this debate in Florida, after Jeb had lost. And it was the debate where Marco basically just kind of conceded to Trump. You know, he stopped fighting. He stopped doing the hand jokes and just came to terms with the fact that Trump was going to beat him.

“And after that debate, I saw Reince at a reception for RNC donors, and I pulled him aside. We went out in the hallway and I looked at him and I said, as a friend, I’m advising you to quit. Because Trump is going to ruin you and you don’t know what what bad stuff he’s going to do. But you know that he is corrupt. You know that he will say outrageous things. You know he’ll say cruel things. And quit now, and you don’t have to become a Never Trumper, but you can just say Trump deserves his own person here and you can quit to protect yourself.

“And he told me at the time, he said, No, we need to have a good guy in the room when this stuff happens. And if Trump ever goes over the line, I promise you I’ll quit. And it’s a shortened version of the conversation. But he made that promise to me very, very clearly. And obviously that was not a promise that he lived up to. He ended up becoming Trump’s first chief of staff, and he gets fired by tweet sitting on the tarmac 3 minutes after Trump was on the phone with him. And told him that he should come out to play some golf so they can discuss what the next steps were. He never saw it coming.”

On Priebus’ behind-the-scenes experience in the White House

Tim Miller: “In private, he was saying that he wished that he could have an exit strategy that would have allowed him to get out. He wanted to have a heart attack, but not a heart attack that was bad enough to have long term impacts. Because he had kids. But he was hoping for a heart attack that was just bad enough that would give him cover to quit, but not so bad that it would actually hurt his long term health.

“I mean … I just think that was such a telling example of how these guys are grappling with all this. … This is Reince admitting he knows he’s wishing for a heart attack. Trump is so bad, he’s wishing for a heart attack. So this is not a person that doesn’t know who Trump is, but he still goes into the White House. He still gets drug along. He still sticks around after the Muslim ban. Why? And it was this desire. He just wanted to be in the mix so bad.

“He just wanted to be in the room where it happened so bad that he couldn’t bring himself to quit. He was hoping for a medical intervention to help him do what inside he knew was right. And I just think that’s such an important story. Because like Steve Bannon is not that interesting. He’s a sociopathic extremist. He likes Trump. So those people aren’t as interesting to me as the people who knew Trump was bad. They knew so much that they were wishing for a medical event, and yet they stuck with him anyway. And trying to understand why. Why? Because those are the people that allowed all of the horrors.”

On sacrificing ethics in the Trump era

Tim Miller: “We talk about this game of politics, I think there were some people around Trump that were never really that ideologically rigid anyway. And had kind of very malleable principles. But to me, that would be a more compelling case if you’re talking about Ted Cruz winning. Like of an ideological extremist. The problems with Trump were partly about ideology and policies, but partly about how he was corrupt and manifestly immoral. And has all of the seven deadly sins in one person, you know, so that isn’t really about ideology as much.

“It’s about making a moral judgment about whether you can go along with this. And so that’s why, to me, I felt, okay, you can understand how somebody might sacrifice their view on taxes, or climate change or whatever. You know, I agree with that. But I think that you might understand that. How do you sacrifice your policy views, and your ethics, and your morals and what you think is right? And so I think that is the more interesting question of of the Trump era.”

On persisting in a job that causes moral injury

Sarah Isgur: “The thing that I spent time on was making sure the Mueller investigation got to completion. That was the vast, vast majority of my time. I thought it was very important that the Department of Justice be able to complete an investigation into a sitting U.S. president, as to whether he had committed any crimes in getting elected to that job. I think looking back, that perhaps it would have been better if we had simply let the White House do what they want and fire Mueller.

“As Tim said, maybe there would have been more votes to convict, but regardless, the American people would have seen what they were dealing with. I think that’s the part that I feel like obscured Trump from the American people. The times where Trump was showing the American people who he was. That’s democracy. Right? That’s why we have people vote. But that’s the hard part for me.

“And this idea of good people going into government to serve someone who they think is flawed or worse, as a president. Nobody is going to agree with everything they work on in these jobs. That’s campaigns. That’s politics. If you want to agree with 100%, you need to run yourself.

“Tim and I obviously didn’t do that. So and again, I go back to the Obama administration, working on Defense of Marriage Act. Lots of people work on things they don’t agree with all the time, and especially the Department of Justice, when you’re on the legal side. Or in the judiciary, when you’re clerking for a judge, you write opinions that you don’t agree with. That’s part of the role and the duty of being a taxpayer funded, government job.”

Related Reading

Bulwark: “Jan. 6th and ‘Why We Did It’” — “The political world is just starting to digest the big Supreme Court news that will dominate the headlines for the next few days.”

Washington Post: “We in the ‘shallow state’ thought we could help. Instead, we obscured the reality of a Trump presidency” — “Last month, President Trump lost his bid for reelection. Hundreds of his appointees will soon be leaving the government, including some who didn’t vote for him in 2016 or 2020.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.