On the night before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Washington Post reporter Robert Costa walked through the streets of D.C., surrounded by a throng of Trump supporters. He says he remembers a particular energy in the crowd that night.
"They were clashing with police officers. They were fighting with each other. There was a euphoria," Costa says. "The mob ... it was loud."
As the crowd agitated outside, Costa says, inside a "war room" at the nearby Willard hotel, Trump lawyers and allies, including Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon and Jason Miller, were laying out a strategy to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
According to Costa, Trump attorney John Eastman drafted a memo suggesting that an alternate slate of electors be used as a tactic to stop the certification of the election results.
"They were trying to get [Vice President] Pence and others to move the election to the House of Representatives to block Biden from taking office," Costa explains.
Costa says that Pence declined to go along with the plan — mostly because there were no alternate slates of electors on hand. But, Costa adds, "Imagine if in January 2025, Republicans are much more organized and they have alternate slates of electors ready in many states. What happens then?"
Ten months later, hundreds of members of the mob who stormed the Capitol are facing prosecution for their actions. But it remains to be seen whether anyone from the Willard war room will be charged.
"The looming question for Merrick Garland, the attorney general, is: Is he going to go at the key players, who may not be directly tied to the violence or may not have their fingerprints on the steel bars that were used against the Capitol Police officers that day, but [who] were part of planning an effort to defraud the United States?" Costa says. "I'm not a lawyer, but I think raising the question is certainly understandable based on all of this reporting."
On the scene on the street the night of Jan. 5 and into Jan. 6
[The crowd] was so loud that Trump could hear them. And Trump doesn't like being outside — from what I've witnessed over the years, he's more of an indoor person — but he keeps the door to the Oval Office open on the night of the 5th after Pence leaves just so he can hear the mob. And Woodward said to me, it's almost like when he was writing The Final Days with Carl Bernstein, when [Richard] Nixon was talking to the pictures on the wall, Trump is talking to the mob. A few aides come in from the press shop, and say, "Mr. President, Mr. President, it's cold. We closed the door. Why is the door open?" [And Trump says,] "I want to hear my people. Listen. They have courage. Listen." And he keeps the door open for the whole meeting on the night of Jan. 5.
On Trump's direct calls to the Willard war room
The fact that the calls happened is very important in the context of the whole insurrection because for months, as reporters, we know that Trump was pressuring Pence in the Oval Office. That's been well-documented, and we knew that Giuliani and Bannon were up to a lot of stuff in Washington that night. What we wanted to figure out when we were looking at this book is was there a connection between the two? And the fact that Trump calls Bannon and Giuliani after Pence leaves the White House around 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 5 to update them, it shows that there is at the very least coordination between these two power centers on the eve of an insurrection. It will be up to the DOJ to decide whether this is a conspiracy, a crime to defraud the United States.
On the statement the Trump campaign issued Jan. 5 about Pence's support, which wasn't true — and the resulting tension between the president and the vice president
It was a campaign statement on Trump campaign letterhead saying, in Donald Trump's words, that Mike Pence fully agrees with me. The quote that stunned the Pence people was "Mike Pence is in total agreement that on Jan. 6, the election should be overturned and he should move it to the House." It was issued on a formal statement.
This is where you start to see the crack in the American democratic system — when the vice president and president are not in sync, and the president starts to speak for other constitutional officers. This is where Pence and his team really go into a bunker mode and they don't even share the letter Pence ultimately releases on Jan. 6, explaining his decision to not try to do anything crazy on Jan. 6. They don't even share it with the White House counsel or with Trump. That was the level of tension between the president and the vice president.
On a possible criminal charge of defrauding the U.S. for those who organized the insurrection
It's a well-known part of the U.S. Code, and if someone wants to look it up, it's 18 U.S. Code 371. It means that if you have one or two people conspiring to commit an offense against the United States, to defraud the U.S., then you have committed a crime and you shall be fined or imprisoned for possibly up to five years. This is a crime, and it's been prosecuted many, many times.
On the perils that remain and the threats to our democracy
You have a former president in Donald Trump who refuses to share documents to give any kind of information to an investigation about an insurrection that his friends and allies were part of, at least on the legal and political level, in trying to force the election to be overturned. There is violence and connections that need to be explained at a grassroots level and potentially at a higher level. And these unanswered questions are part of the peril that remains. If we don't have accountability in truth and answers in a democracy, then what kind of democracy is it?
There are so many things that we just still don't know. ... What else don't we know about the domestic side of things? The QAnon movement, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers seem to be growing by the day across the country. There's a violence and extremism and a lot of the rhetoric now, publicly. You see Trump out there ... he's as active as ever. ... There is a huge effort, whether it's the Arizona "audit" — isn't an audit at all. But the Arizona effort to maybe say Trump won the state. All these Republican-controlled states have people in them, in the Legislature's key leaders who are doing a lot to try to change election laws, change voting rights. And [House Majority Whip] Jim Clyburn ... says in our book that "democracy is on fire" because, on the federal level, Democrats won't break the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation that they all agree on. But Republicans are very busy passing their voting laws in different states. And what I just see on the horizon is a collision of some sort on the voting rights issue and on the foundation of democracy. If the system's not functioning and people aren't accepting reality and pushing to change the laws, who knows what happens next?
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Robert Costa, co-author with Bob Woodward of the new bestselling book "Peril." It's the third book in Woodward's series about the Trump presidency. This one focuses on Trump's final days in office.
"Peril" broke several important stories. It revealed that one of Trump's lawyers, John Eastman, wrote a two-page memo outlining a six-part plan to have Pence prevent certification of Biden's victory and overturn the results of the election. Costa and Woodward report on the so-called war room, the headquarters for the Trump team that was planning ways to overturn the election and hand Trump the victory.
The book includes the transcript of a previously unreported call from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the day after the storming of the Capitol in which Pelosi called Trump unhinged and insisted it was time to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump from office. Pelosi accused Trump of doing something illegal, immoral and unethical, and Milley said, I'm not going to disagree with you. Milley had been so concerned about Trump's behavior and its impact on other countries, he contacted his counterpart in China to reassure him that we weren't going to attack China. The House committee investigating the invasion of the Capitol and the events leading up to it has been following leads from this book.
Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post. He's a former moderator of the PBS program "Washington Week" and was a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. Spoiler alert - "Peril" ends with two words, peril remains. We recorded our interview yesterday.
Robert Costa, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on this book - some incredible reporting. So on the night of January 5, you were stationed outside the Willard Hotel, about a block away from the White House, where the Trump command center, aka the war room, was located. And this was the group trying to prevent certification of the election and give Trump the victory. Tell us more about the war room. What was the purpose of this group? What was its strategy?
ROBERT COSTA: Terry, it is one of the regrets of my reporting career that on the night of January 5, when I was outside in 31-degree weather in Washington, D.C., that I just did not book a room at the Willard Hotel. I had no idea, like everyone else, that there would be an insurrection at the Capitol the next day.
I knew it was chaos. Trump supporters were in the streets. And eventually, it took Bob Woodward and I months to figure out that that location was the nexus of the Trump movement, the Trump White House and the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers gathering outside.
I was there that night, notebook in hand, just to try to capture the scene before this rally on January 6. This was a group - Giuliani, Bannon, Trump adviser Jason Miller, and many others - who were communicating directly with Trump, who was across the street in the Oval Office pressuring Pence. This was a coordinated pressure campaign. And January 5 at the Willard Hotel was the culmination of that effort to overturn an election.
GROSS: What was a strategy they were talking about that night, right before the insurrection?
COSTA: While others are in the streets that night, the mob, and they're planning to storm the Capitol, we later learned, upstairs in the Willard Hotel, they are mounting a legal and political campaign. It's up to the Department of Justice and the House committee and reporters to figure out whether there were lines crossed between the war room and the violence that eventually happened on January 6. That's still a reporting target for me and many others.
But we do know - we've confirmed, and Bannon himself has confirmed publicly our reporting - that upstairs at the Willard, they were trying to get Pence and others to move the election to the House of Representatives to block Biden from taking office. This was, in Bannon's words to Trump, an effort to kill the Biden presidency in the crib. And the mechanism for doing so was this Eastman memo.
Conservative lawyer John Eastman - he's in the Willard war room with Bannon and Giuliani, and he has been confronting Pence to Pence's face in the days prior, arguing to Pence that he does have the ability as vice president to walk up to the lectern on January 6 and say, we can't count all the electors. And long story short, what he wanted Pence to do is say Biden doesn't have the necessary 270 electoral votes to win, thus Congress can't certify it, thus Congress must move it to the House for a vote.
And the twist in our system, the gap in our democracy, at least at that time, was that if it did go to the House, the vote would not be a simple majority vote. It would be a vote by delegation. And in that scenario, in a roundabout way but a very real way, Trump knew he could win another term.
GROSS: So you report that Trump actually called into the war room on the night before the attack on the Capitol. What do you know about that call or those calls?
COSTA: The fact that the calls happened is very important in the context of the whole insurrection because for months, as reporters, we know that Trump was pressuring Pence in the Oval Office. That's been well-documented. And we knew that Giuliani and Bannon were up to a lot of stuff in Washington that night. What we wanted to figure out is, was there a connection between the two? And the fact that Trump calls Bannon and Giuliani after Pence leaves the White House around 7:30 p.m. on January 5 to update them, it shows that there is, at the very least, coordination between these two power centers on the eve of an insurrection.
It'll be up to DOJ to decide whether this is a conspiracy, a crime to defraud the United States. It is a crime to defraud the United States, but at the least we know in our reporting that Trump's calling in because he's - these are his advisers. He's working to pressure the system, to pressure Pence. And Trump tells Giuliani and Bannon, Pence was very arrogant.
And then they decide to do something. They don't just rest on their laurels. Around 8, 9 o'clock on January 5, 2021, they decide to issue a statement in Pence's name saying that Pence fully agrees with Trump's position that the election should go to the House. And they issue this statement, effectively taking control of a constitutional office, the vice presidency, and it gets blasted out to reporters. Pence and his advisers are stunned. The president is speaking for Pence, and he's lying about Pence's position.
And Marc Short, based on our reporting, calls in to Jason Miller, who's at the war room with Bannon and Giuliani, a Trump adviser, and says, what the heck is going on? This breaks protocol. And Jason Miller and others tell Short and other Pence advisers, we don't care. Pence better be loyal.
GROSS: When you say that they issued a statement, was this a tweet? Was it a press release?
COSTA: It was a campaign statement on Trump campaign letterhead, saying, in Donald Trump's words, that Mike Pence fully agrees with me. The quote that stunned the Pence people was, "Mike Pence is in total agreement that on January 6, the election should be overturned and he should move it to the House." It was issued on a formal statement.
And this is where you start to see the crack in the American democratic system, when the vice president and president are not in sync and the president starts to speak for other constitutional officers. This is where Pence and his team really go into a bunker mode, and they don't even share the letter Pence ultimately releases on January 6 explaining his decision to not try to do anything crazy on January 6. They don't even share it with the White House counsel or with Trump. That was the level of tension between the president and the vice president.
GROSS: Were they afraid to share it with anyone?
COSTA: They knew if anything got circulated that it had the risk of being manipulated, being changed. And they just felt that on the morning of January 6, they had to make a statement that was clear that Pence was not going to act.
And as our book shows, we're not saying Pence is a hero. We don't say anyone's a hero or villain 'cause Pence took a long time to get to this decision, a winding decision - talking to his lawyers, torn between his loyalty to Trump and his conservative Republican past. But ultimately, his lawyers are telling him, constitutionally, you can do nothing but count the votes. On January 6, you are an emcee for the certification. Nothing more.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Costa, co-author with Bob Woodward of the new bestseller, "Peril," about the final days of the Trump presidency. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Costa, co-author with Bob Woodward of the new bestseller, "Peril," about the final days of the Trump presidency and the orchestrated effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
So at 1 a.m. on the day of the storming of the Capitol, Trump tweeted this - if Vice President Mike Pence comes through for us, we will win the presidency. Many states want to decertify the mistake they made in certifying the incorrect and even fraudulent number in a process not approved by their state legislatures. Mike can send it back. And then you write, Twitter blew up with things like, shoot this person, hang this guy, blow this up.
COSTA: And, Terry, I saw it up close. On the 5, on the 6, walking among these people in the red caps on Pennsylvania Avenue late at night, they were clashing with police officers. They were fighting with each other. There was a euphoria. And I remember telling Woodward it was just - it was a scene that'll always stick with me, the ecstatic nature of the crowd, the mob, on January 5. It was loud. In fact, it was so loud that Trump could hear them.
And Trump doesn't like being outside. From what I've witnessed over the years, he's more of an indoor person. But he keeps the door to the Oval Office open on the night of the 5, after Pence leaves, just so he can hear the mob. And Woodward said to me, it's almost like when he was writing "The Final Days" with Carl Bernstein, when Nixon was talking to the pictures on the wall. Trump is talking to the mob.
And a few aides come in from the press shop - say, Mr. President, it's cold. Can we close the door? Why is the door open? I want to hear my people. Listen; they have courage. Listen. And he keeps the door open for the whole meeting on the night of January 5. And I just want to come back to that tweet you read, Terry. Bear with me for just a second.
COSTA: Because it's so important to understand what Trump was doing there. And I didn't understand it at first until I dug into it. What John Eastman and Trump wanted to do on the night of the 5 - and this is the key. This is not just some narcissistic ego trip to have a branding exercise. What they wanted to do was have Pence throw out electors so the certification is delayed, and they wanted to have alternate slates of electors be presented in state legislatures in the coming days in January. And with that pretense, with the idea of new electors coming, they thought that was enough of a fig leaf to give Trump an excuse to give House Republicans a reason to vote for Trump in the House of Representatives, to give him another term. It was all about trying to create a scenario where alternate slates of electors could be presented.
Now, for the system, the system didn't break down, and Pence didn't agree to this, mostly because there were no alternate slates of electors. Mike Lee, in our book, the Utah Senator, a Trump ally, he presses the White House about the Eastman memo and goes, we can't do this because there are no alternate slates of electors. But I would just urge people to think about this. Imagine if in January 2025, Republicans are much more organized, and they have alternate slates of electors ready in many states. What happens then?
GROSS: I don't understand the concept of alternate slates of electors. Can you explain that?
COSTA: The Electoral College, which votes in December after an election, is always tied to who wins the popular vote in the state. It's an obvious way of making sure the election is ultimately certified by Congress. What Trump wanted was for state legislatures to present alternate slates, despite the Electoral College giving it to Biden.
GROSS: This idea of an alternate slate of electors, does that pose a threat for the future?
COSTA: It really does, and that is what I am fixated on as a reporter. Dueling slates, alternate slate of electors, are very rare in American politics. But the threat for January 2025 is that Republicans in state legislatures across the country are prepared to foist upon Congress alternate slates, even if the Electoral College votes and declares a winner based on the popular vote in different states.
Republican legislatures across the country could use the Electoral Count Act, which was enacted in 1887, to come up with this idea of having alternate slates proposed. And in that situation where Congress is considering myriad slates of electors, that's where you have a true constitutional crisis.
And the only reason it didn't happen in 2021 was the Republicans weren't organized and the states didn't have the alternate slates ready. That's what Eastman and Trump wanted. They didn't have it. But it could happen next time around.
GROSS: You had no idea that there would be, you know, violence and invasion of the Capitol on January 6. I mean, who knew, right? But some people kind of suspected something terrible was going to happen. But on November 10, after the election, Gina Haspel, the head of the CIA, said privately in conversation, we are on the way to a right-wing coup. Did you hear that from other people who were in the Trump administration and were concerned?
COSTA: No. We did not until months into the reporting. And this was the thing that stunned us the most as we reported out this book because we knew that this was a domestic political crisis, and I saw it up close in many ways. So did Woodward. But at the end of the day, we realized this was a national security emergency and that it wasn't just about January 6, that from the - really the Election Day to the insurrection, there was increasing alarm at the CIA among a nonpartisan person like Gina Haspel that a right-wing coup was possible in this country, that Trump was unhinged. The Speaker of the House believed that.
And Mark Milley, the senior officer in the United States, the senior military officer, really was concerned that something even worse could unfold post-January 6 and take steps within his duties to try to make sure the nuclear arsenal and military strike procedures are under control and not going to be taken command of by some president who wants to make a statement without consulting with his advisers.
And one of the most critical moments in November is when Mark Esper, the defense secretary, is fired by Trump. That is what sets off Haspel. That's why Haspel says that privately. She's saying to Milley, to others, we got to be really on the edge of our seats because now we don't have a defense secretary who's confirmed. We have an acting person. We don't know who this acting person's really - what's he going to do? Is he going to be a Trump lackey? Is he going to do what Trump wants?
And secretary of defense, with all respect to the secretary of commerce, is no secretary of commerce. You need someone in there who's stable and trusted by other military leaders, especially during a transition period. When Esper's fired, that's when the national security leadership of this country goes, whoa, what is Trump up to?
GROSS: You report on Trump's indifference to the invasion of the Capitol, the threats against some members of Congress, including the House speaker and, you know, shouts of, hang Mike Pence, Trump's own vice president. So you report that General Keith Kellogg, who was a member of Trump's team and Pence's national security adviser, told Trump during the insurrection to tweet, stop the violence. And then Trump blinked and continued to watch TV.
But during the George Floyd protests, Trump wanted to call on the military but was advised by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that the military isn't trained for crowd control and civil unrest. They're trained for combat. And Trump wanted to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act, which gave the president authority to use active-duty troops domestically by declaring an insurrection.
So during an actual insurrection, Trump watches TV, doesn't take any action. But during the George Floyd protests, he wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act.
COSTA: And that moment in the George Floyd protests is where things really begin to unravel in the eyes of Mark Milley and others around Trump. And it shouldn't be forgotten for history that Donald Trump was an inch away from calling the 82nd Airborne into Washington, and they were up near Washington. This was not the 82nd Airborne down in North Carolina, maybe going to come up. The 82nd Airborne was brought up to Joint Base Andrews, Andrews Air Force Base, during late May, early June to be ready to be called into the streets of Washington, D.C.
And Esper and Barr and others are saying to Trump, remember, Mr. President; the 82nd is no joke. These are not the National Guard in soft hats and soft gloves directing traffic on the Mall. These are the most lethal troops in the U.S. military. They come in to kill. They go into a battlefield, and they kill. And you - if you bring them into the streets of Washington to meet with people protesting for racial justice, it's not just chaos that's going to ensue. It's likely blood, violence.
And Trump ultimately does not get the 82nd Airborne into Washington, but people around Trump were worried. They thought 1968 was bad with LBJ in D.C. Who knows what it would have looked like in the summer of 2020? And this is where Milley in particular, based on our reporting, starts to say to himself, what is going on with Trump?
I mean, it's almost like "Full Metal Jacket," that movie where they scream at the recruits with obscenities. It's out-of-control fury, this eagerness to bring in violence to Washington. And that kind of behavior from Trump in the summer is coupled with Trump during the transition talking in a very eager way about possibilities for attack in Iran, just floating them out there with different advisers in private national security meetings. And so Milley's watching this and just saying, we have to keep this thing from exploding.
GROSS: Yeah, because Milley is worried at this point that Trump might actually want to attack Iran.
COSTA: Yeah. And that's what Gina Haspel confides to Milley. She says, are we going to attack Iran for his ego out of spite?
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Costa, co-author with Bob Woodward of the new bestseller, "Peril," about the final days of the Trump presidency. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHILIP GLASS' "DAMNED IF I DON'T")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Costa, co-author with Bob Woodward of the new bestseller, "Peril," about the final days of the Trump presidency and the orchestrated effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
This is something that might seem like a footnote, but I think it has significance. The people in the war room billed the Trump campaign for their rooms at the Willard Hotel, where they met, and for travel expenses. And we're talking about tens of thousands of dollars minimum. Why is that significant?
COSTA: It's very significant, and it's a great example of how this story needs more reporting. That was a new data point added in recent days by The Washington Post, a team there. I was not part of that story, but it's excellent reporting because the money here matters.
If this was a campaign operation and not just a collection of Trump allies hosting podcasts and plotting with the president, if this was a campaign-paid-for operation, then there should be federal files that reveal what were the expense accounts. You just can't expense that kind of money in a campaign and not have expense records. Who was there? Who was paid?
And if you're a congressional investigator who has subpoena power, something reporters don't have, I would predict they would find this of intense interest. If the campaign was paying for this, then it deserves scrutiny just like any campaign operation would.
GROSS: So we've been talking about the war room, the group of Trump advisers and lawyers who are trying to figure out a strategy to overturn the results of the election. And on January 5, the night before the attack on the Capitol, they're meeting in the war room.
You're stationed outside that hotel. You're stationed outside the Willard. It's a cold night. What are you seeing? And what did you hope to find out, standing out there in the cold all night?
COSTA: Well, I stood out there for a couple hours trying to get in. And they wouldn't let people in unless you had a hotel key or an invitation from a guest. But I knew at the time that Giuliani was in there. I didn't know about the other participants; took me weeks and months after that to figure out.
But I kept coming back to January 5 because this scene just stuck with me. This is the gathering place. The rally is going to be at the Ellipse, a few steps away from the Willard Hotel on January 6. Trump's over in the Oval Office meeting with Pence. I mean, it's a two-minute walk over to the West Wing from the Willard Hotel.
And at first, it's very easy to look at what's happened as just kind of a celebratory gathering of Trump people. They're trying to have a symbolic rally. But when you sit down with these sources month after month and you get them to share documents, and you realize that this was a real campaign to prevent Biden from taking office. And this is so important to remember, too. Even if Biden took office, they wanted to destroy his presidency, to make it seem illegitimate.
So even if they knew Trump couldn't actually get a vote in the House of Representatives, what Bannon and Giuliani wanted and Trump wanted was for chaos to happen. Because chaos would make Biden seem like he didn't deserve to be president.
And that's why, while January 5 matters, this really turns, Terry, on December 30, around Christmas time - December 25 through December 30. Trump's in Florida. And Trump's not really focused, and he's depressed about his political situation. They have failed in the courts. Giuliani has done all these different gambits in the courts to try to get a lot done. It's all collapsed. Even the Supreme Court has waved off the Texas lawsuit.
So Trump's in Florida, and he is despair - in despair. And he talks to Bannon on December 30. And Trump's going to still stay there at the time for the New Year's Eve party at Mar-a-Lago. He loves it. That's one of his favorite events of the year. And based on our reporting, Bannon calls Trump and says, you have to kill the Biden presidency in the crib. Focus on January 6. Pull Pence off the f-ing (ph) ski slopes in Vail, Colo., and get back to Washington.
I remember as a reporter wondering, why did Trump skip the New Year's Eve party at Mar-a-Lago? He comes back early on December 31, which a lot of reporters thought was very odd. But he does, and he doesn't speak to reporters when he gets off Marine One.
But you really see - once he's back at the White House on December 31, John Eastman's with him. Eastman drafts the memo. Bannon's talking to him, and they start to say, let's make the 6 a reckoning. Maybe it happens in a chaotic way. We don't really know how this is all going to play out, but we want to destroy Biden by making our supporters believe the election is illegitimate. And this was the intent, and this was a coordinated campaign.
GROSS: It seems like the House committee that's investigating January 6 and the events leading up to it have been using your book as one of the tools to help guide them and inform them. What are a couple of things that you know of that the House committee learned from your book?
COSTA: The House committee began with its hearings with Capitol Police officers. And what does that tell us? It tells us that initially, they're trying to figure out the facts and the brutal reality of what happened on the day of the insurrection - the failure of security, the failure of policing, the breakdown of order. Members of Congress, what exactly were they doing? Who was talking to Trump?
So they're trying to figure out the day of. And what they're now trying to do is expand the investigation. They want to go inside the White House. So they're trying to get documents from Trump. Who was he calling? Who was he talking to? And I know as someone who's interviewed Trump dozens of times - doesn't use e-mail, he uses the phone. Who was he talking to? We've picked - pointed out some of that in our book, but we don't know the full story.
But Trump is now asserting executive privilege, even though he's a former president. And this may go all the way up to the Supreme Court. So they're trying to get documents, and they're also trying to figure out, beyond the violence, what was the legal and political war going on? And that is why Woodward and I have in recent days brought up the idea of fraud, fraud against the United States. We have talked to former federal prosecutors about that, and there is a belief in that community, at the least, that there could be, on a legal and political level, a crime.
And what the committee is also trying to do as it expands and try to bring in people from the war room, possibly subpoena Eastman - that was the news this week - is you see them trying to get somebody to talk. In the simplest terms, they're looking for a John Dean. Remember, in Watergate, John Dean was the White House counsel. Why was he important to the Watergate Committee? He decides to testify under oath, and he acknowledged that he participated in a crime and that there was criminality inside the White House.
To have him say that and not just be a witness to events, but acknowledge his own criminality in the White House and claim the White House had criminality was a significant turn in the Watergate investigation. And what this committee really want (ph) as it fans out, based on my conversations and reporting, is it wants to just get somebody to really be a whistleblower, a truth-teller about possible crimes, not just about the messiness of just random things.
GROSS: I'd like to hear more about this idea that there could be a criminal charge of defraud. What? - of defrauding the American government by trying to overturn the election, defrauding the American people?
COSTA: That's right. It's called conspiracy against the United States. It's a well-known part of the U.S. Code. And it's - if someone wants to look it up, it's 18 U.S. Code 371. And it means that if you have one or two people conspiring to commit an offense against the United States, to defraud the U.S., then you have committed a crime, and you shall be fined or imprisoned for possibly up to five years. And this is a crime, and you can't - and it's been prosecuted many, many times. You can't cheat the United States.
And the question is - there's the violence, and the DOJ is prosecuting hundreds of people for participating in the violence at the Capitol, and that's all very real. But the looming question for Merrick Garland, the attorney general, is is he going to go at the key players who may not be directly tied to the violence or may not have their fingerprints on the steel bars that were used against the Capitol Police officers that day? But they were part of planning an effort to defraud the United States.
And is claiming, like the Eastman Memo, that there are alternate slates of electors when none exist - by claiming that and making that case to the country, to the vice president that alternate slates exist and you should deny Biden taking office, is that fraud or not? I'm not a lawyer, but I think raising the question is certainly understandable based on all of this reporting.
GROSS: So if there was a charge of conspiracy to commit fraud, that would be - that would involve a lot of people. It would involve the people in the war room. It could involve Trump because he's participating in the planning, by phone at least; of course, Steve Bannon, who's part of this. And I don't even know who else.
COSTA: That's why Bannon...
COSTA: And that's why Bannon is being held in criminal contempt by the U.S. Congress. Because...
GROSS: Yeah, because he defied the subpoena. But this is a real big deal.
COSTA: It's - and he's defying the subpoena because he believes Trump still has executive privilege. And he wants it - in my view as a reporter, he seems to want it to go to the Supreme Court, to fight it all the way there. But the House is pursuing Bannon - and they cite the scenes in our book of Bannon talking to Trump - because they know Bannon is talking to the president.
And Bannon is working directly with Eastman, who's on his podcast every day. Eastman's memo is being circulated by the White House to key senators. They're trying to get conservative buy-in. This was not some kind of legal theory floated out of a academic faculty lounge. This was in the Oval Office with the VP, with the president.
And Bannon is kind of at the center of all these discussions - Giuliani, Eastman, Trump, Pence. And that's why they want answers from him. What does he know? When did things happen? What exactly was said beyond the reporting out there? And Bannon is defiant. And it will be interesting to watch about how the Department of Justice chooses to pursue Bannon, if at all.
GROSS: What are the choices Merrick Garland has to make?
COSTA: Well, Merrick Garland has many choices. Is he going to look into fraud against the United States? Is he going to consider a special counsel? Is he going to try to prosecute Steve Bannon for defying a congressional subpoena? It's difficult to do that, especially if the courts haven't fully decided.
But Merrick Garland's been very mum about exactly what he's going to do. He's known in Washington as someone who relishes being seen as apolitical and vigilant and not treading into political waters. But he is certainly going to be tested by these times because a lot of this is almost unavoidable if you're attorney general. Even if it's tinged with politics, it happened, and people are defying Congress from getting answers.
GROSS: You said you think Bannon actually would like to see his defiance of the subpoena be taken to the Supreme Court. Does he want to be a martyr or does he think the Supreme Court would uphold his claim of executive privilege?
COSTA: And that's why what Mitch McConnell did over the past four years is so historic. He overhauled the federal judiciary, installing conservative after conservative. And McConnell and Trump, for history, working together to get all these justices confirmed on the Supreme Court, but also judges on the federal judiciary, this was rapidly done, constantly done for four years.
And so now it's a real question. If this question of executive privilege goes before the Supreme Court that now has more conservatives on it, do they rule in favor of the executive, the executive branch, in a legal way and say that privilege is protected even after you leave the White House, even when talking to a private citizen like Steve Bannon? And Congress has only so much teeth, sometimes, with enforcing subpoenas. It's - technically Congress can try to imprison people for defying subpoenas, but it's not really done. It hasn't been done for a long, long time.
And so Congress in some ways is watching Garland. When I talk to lawmakers, they want to see what Garland does 'cause the DOJ has so much more power in criminal investigations to issue subpoenas that must be followed. And if you don't follow a subpoena in a criminal investigation, you face real, real problems. And you think back to Watergate; it was the grand jury investigation of Watergate that had as much of an effect on the whole end game as the Congressional Committee.
And you look at a poll this week from POLITICO and Morning Consult; about a third of registered voters in the United States believe the election of Biden should be overturned. And that is just another data point that shows that Trump's efforts continue to smear Biden's election and to stoke Republicans in the states to get elected to municipal positions, to get elected to state election offices so they're in more of a position to help him come 2022 or especially in 2024.
And if you listen to Bannon's podcast - I know people love FRESH AIR, but sometimes it's worth listening to stuff like this because you realize Bannon is on air - along with a lot of other conservative personalities - urging people to run for office in election positions to help Trump next time around. This is an active movement. They're taking action. They're not just complaining about the election. They're trying to get power and hold power and make sure that next time, regardless of what happens, they win.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Costa, co-author with Bob Woodward of the new bestseller, "Peril," about the final days of the Trump presidency. We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Costa, co-author with Bob Woodward of the new bestseller, "Peril," about the final days of the Trump presidency and the orchestrated effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post. We recorded our interview yesterday.
Early in your career, you took a job with the only publication who was willing to hire you as a reporter, and that was the conservative publication National Review. And, you know, you've said that you took the job reporting for them under the condition that you could just be a neutral reporter on Washington politics and not come at it from any political point of view.
But in that job, you had a lot of contacts, I'm sure, with, you know, with Republicans, you know, conservatives. And I'm wondering if because of those contacts that you established you've been able to gain certain insights, including insights into how the Republican Party has changed and what more old-school Republicans think of Trump Republicans now and how the old-school Republicans are losing or have lost control of the party.
COSTA: The thing National Review experience gave me was an up-front, first row seat to the rise of nationalism in the United States. Something - I remember sitting with Steve Bannon in Pella, Iowa, in 2011. He had made this propaganda film about Sarah Palin called "The Undefeated." And he looked at me. He was an unknown filmmaker. He wasn't even at Breitbart at the time.
And Bannon says to me - I'll never forget it for the rest of my life. He says to me in 2011, Costa, the future of this country is populism and nationalism. And I said, what are you talking about? Nationalism - that's some kind of Charles Lindbergh bs from the '30s. What do you - nationalism? He said to me, you're wrong. You're all wrong in the media. The middle class has been destroyed by the Great Recession, and they're going to get moved to the right. They're going to move to nationalism.
And in a strange way, he was right about the right. And, you know, he missed that on the left, there was also a lot of anger about the political establishment and led to Occupy Wall Street and other things and, eventually, the Bernie Sanders movement about the anger toward the business class.
But you really see that, in a way, we all missed it. I tried to cover it. The undercurrents of this total upheaval in American democracy began post-2008, when figures like Trump, incendiary populists spouting racist lies, are kind of allowed to wander into the center of American politics and eventually become ensconced there and by 2015, 2016 can take over a major American political party, win the presidency and ultimately leads to an insurrection.
GROSS: Do you have any sense of how serious Trump is about running again? You know, he doesn't want his legacy to be loser, and he lost the election. But does he really want to be president again? Do you think he would really run again? He's also going to be pretty old. And I'm also wondering if you think Republicans want him to run again or if they're just humoring him because they want his base's support. And I know that's a double question.
COSTA: Well, you have to follow what he's doing. He's out there saying, we will never surrender. We will never give in. And this is a different Trump in one specific way. When he comes into office, he's a total outsider who doesn't understand the presidency. And the famous scene in Bob Woodward's first book on Trump is Gary Cohn, the economic adviser, stealing documents off of Trump's desk. He's such a novice that his advisers are worried about him. They're taking the documents off the desk.
And think about how it ends four years later, three books on. It's not Trump with his advisers taking documents off the desk. It's Trump putting documents on the desk, the Eastman memo. This is a man fully in control of the presidency, comfortable with power, knows how to pull the levers of power. And that's what I really saw as a reporter. He had changed in the sense that he had grown into the office.
And this idea that he doesn't want to run again - look; maybe he won't. I don't like to predict anything. You don't know where history's going to go, where politics moves. But follow what he's doing. This is someone who likes power, did everything possible to stay in office and is currently on the campaign trail. Unlike George H.W. Bush, who goes back to Texas, or Jimmy Carter, who goes back to Plains, or Nixon, who gets on the helicopter, Trump's not going back to Florida, New Jersey. He's going back to rallies. And that's what makes this so different.
GROSS: And let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Costa, co-author with Bob Woodward of the new bestseller, "Peril," about the final days of the Trump presidency. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HIOR CHRONIK FEAT. YOSHINORI TAKEZAWA'S "WE ARE ALL SNOWFLAKES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Costa, co-author with Bob Woodward of the new bestseller, "Peril," about the final days of the Trump presidency and the orchestrated effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Throughout this interview, I've heard an urgency in your voice about the threat to American democracy. Do you see your role as a reporter now differently than you did when you started reporting?
COSTA: I do. And I just don't see how you can approach reporting in kind of a ho-hum way right now. I also believe nonpartisan is key. I think being nonpartisan is critical to what I do, that I want to shine a light, put a mirror up to people in power, whether they're on the right or the left.
But you have to look truth in the face and yet, when something's happening, just state that it's happening instead of trying to come up with some prism of red versus blue, Republican versus Democrat. I got into politics because I loved campaigns and I loved following the presidency. I would read Woodward's books as a kid and read campaign books. I would watch "Meet The Press."
And politics in the '90s, in the early 2000s, had a different rhythm to it. It was - in 1996, there was the battle over the soccer moms. And that was fun to a point to track. And Clinton making his overtures to suburban voters, Dole doing the same - it was a different time. And now you can't sit down with people who are inside the Trump White House or who saw these events or, like I did at the Willard Hotel on January 5 outside, who sees this and then start to say, let's just cover this like we did in '96.
There's a democratic crisis in this country, and I encounter it all the time when I engage with voters who don't even want to engage with reporters, who'll just say fake news, walk away. And you have legislatures out in the country that aren't even really being covered because of the demise of local news, which is such a tragedy, but it's a tragedy for democracy because there's such little coverage of what's happening in a lot of these states in terms of voting rights, in terms of changing election laws. And so the peril remains.
And the reporters have to change and, really, I think, focus on democracy as a beat. And my only - on a personal level, I would just encourage my colleagues to be vigilant but civil and cool because it's - these are very heated emotional issues, no doubt about it. And I understand why people get emotional and heated about it. These are very serious things. But it's important for the press to just stay on it and just tell the story as fully as possible, talk to as many people out there and just make sure you don't lose sight of what the real story at the end of day is, not who's up or down or who wins or loses; it's whether this system continues.
GROSS: I like your idea of democracy as a beat to cover. We're not talking about the Democratic Party; we're talking about American democracy as a beat.
COSTA: That's exactly right. I mean, the institutions, voting rights...
COSTA: ...Reality - these are things that have to be covered in depth now. And if - one thing I've really learned...
GROSS: The threats to American democracy from different angles.
COSTA: The threats to American democracy from all these different angles, from multiple angles, from multiple states, from different - and to think about power in a new way. One thing I've really learned from this book in reporting it out is that it's very easy in political journalism to cover, let's say, McConnell and McCarthy and to say, that's the Republican Party. But are they the Republican Party? I mean, you know, formally, they're the leaders in Congress. But who has more power? Bannon with thousands and maybe even more, listening to his podcast and talking to Trump? Or McConnell and McCarthy?
And that's really where the - democracy as a beat comes in. You have to cover what's happening in terms of people trying to win power, keep power, hold off people from taking office. That's the democracy beat. What's the real story on how power is being pursued and manipulated versus just the back-and-forth on an official partisan level?
GROSS: Robert Costa, thank you so much for coming on our show, and thank you for the incredible reporting you've been doing.
COSTA: Terry, it's good to talk with you. Thank you.
GROSS: Robert Costa is co-author with Bob Woodward of the book "Peril."
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE REICH'S "VARIATIONS FOR VIBES, PIANOS, AND STRINGS: SLOW")
GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like this week's interviews with Katie Couric; or actor Jonathan Majors; or Stanley Nelson, director of the new documentary "Attica," along with Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated in Attica at the time of the uprising - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVE REICH'S "VARIATIONS FOR VIBES, PIANOS, AND STRINGS: SLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.