How It Went Down: Authors Go Deep Into Doomed 2020 Trump White House
Ten weeks after leaving the White House, former President Donald Trump hosted two reporters from The Washington Post at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Fla., mansion, club and base of operation. He told them that before COVID-19 came to the U.S. he had been assured of reelection.
"If George Washington came back from the dead and he chose Abraham Lincoln as his vice president," Trump told them, "I think it would have been very hard for them to beat me."
That straight-faced assertion, as recounted by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, came from a man who had never scored above 46% in the Gallup Poll in his first three years in office. And the two reporters note that simple fact in their new book on Trump's last year in office: I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year.
They might have added that Trump's full four-year average of approval in the Gallup was 41%, 4 points lower than any other president since polling began. And in the weeks since their work went to press, we have also seen C-SPAN release a survey of 142 historians who rated Trump three slots from the bottom among all presidents in history.
Yet here was Trump in March, sitting in his cavernous lobby with reporters who had already written one highly critical account of his presidency (A Very Stable Genius), which he had denounced as "a work of fiction." Having refused interview requests for that previous book, Trump was "quick to agree to our request this time," according to the authors. "He sought to curate history."
By haranguing all who will listen, in interviews and rally rants, Trump is still demonstrating his abiding and preternatural confidence in his own persuasiveness.
But as a curator of his own story, Trump has his work cut out for him. In addition to this much-anticipated Rucker-Leonnig sequel, bookstores are stocking a widely discussed account of events that followed the 2020 election by Michael Bender of The Wall Street Journal and a third "tell-all" volume about the final days of Trump's term from magazine writer Michael Wolff.
Trump has apparently done all he could to drive home his version of events. Rucker and Leonnig report their one-hour appointment with him stretched to 2 1/2 as Trump continued to insist he had actually won the election, a performance they largely replay in the epilogue to I Alone Can Fix It. Trump expresses profound disappointment with key Republican figures, including Sen. John McCain ("a bad guy") and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell ("I don't think he's smart enough").
Even some of his own team let him down, in Trump's estimation, including Vice President Mike Pence, Attorney General William Barr and the three members of the U.S. Supreme Court he nominated. Trump was especially upset with Brett Kavanaugh, his second nominee to the high court, "suggesting that [the justice] should have tried to intervene in the election [result] as payback for the president standing by his nomination in 2018 in the face of sexual assault allegations," the authors write.
Trump wanted Kavanaugh and the rest of the court to hear lawsuits filed by his supporters in Pennsylvania and Texas and elsewhere in hopes of overturning the election results in states Trump lost. These efforts were overwhelmingly unsuccessful, even where Trump's own appointees or other Republicans were making the rulings.
As for the rally he held on Jan. 6 that led his followers to break into the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop the official acknowledgment of the election results, this was actually "a loving crowd," according to Trump. And a large one, too, he adds, "because if you look at that real crowd, the crowd there for the speech, I'll bet you it was over a million people."
Take that bet. No one has an exact number, but several knowledgeable estimates put the number gathered for Trump on the Ellipse that day somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000. Some commentators went so far as to suggest it might have been twice that size. But Trump's claim was an exaggeration by a factor of 10 at least, perhaps more like 20 (shades of his claim of having the largest Inauguration Day crowd in history in 2017).
Trump speeches can leave people speechless
Statements of this kind, blithely delivered yet seemingly in earnest, have been leaving people speechless since Trump declared his candidacy in 2015. Setting aside Trump's penchant for hyperbole and casual superlatives, setting aside his unabashed bragging, his attachment to baldfaced whoppers still boggles. Of course, it has also tended to delight his followers, at least in part because it so perplexes everyone else.
Is the man delusional? Is he self-deceived or deliberately deceptive? We have heard armchair psychologists discuss the Narcissus syndrome, the profound attachment to self. Some also speak of solipsism, another word for obsessive focus on one's own interests and utter lack of empathy for others. The title of the Rucker-Leonnig book is a quote from Trump, of course, in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016.
But even these terms do not capture the degree of detachment from reality that is a theme throughout Leonnig and Rucker's 500 illuminating — and often punishing — pages.
Unlike its two most immediate competitors, I Alone Can Fix It attempts to assay the full year of 2020, beginning with the fateful Jan. 28 meeting when Trump was first briefed on the seriousness of the new virus from China. Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, and his deputy, Matt Pottinger, make a forceful case that this virus will be the "biggest thing" in Trump's reelection year.
(This event was featured prominently in Rage, a 2020 book by another Post luminary, Bob Woodward. He used it to demonstrate that Trump had accurate, reliable information on the COVID-19 threat long before he acknowledged it and knew it was far deadlier than conventional flu.)
Trump seems to regard the pandemic not as a threat to the country but as a problem for his poll numbers and his reelection campaign. He portrays it as an extension of the Democrats' failed effort to remove him from office through impeachment. (The House impeached, but the Senate did not have nearly the supermajority votes needed to convict him.)
Subsequent chapters show the White House getting serious in March as deaths mount and Trump sees body bags piling up at a hospital in his old home neighborhood in Queens. But tension remains between those who want to keep lockdowns in place against contagion and those who want the economy to stay open and as normal as possible. In some of the many Oval Office arguments featured in the book, aides debate which is more to be feared: mass infection or a recession?
Just when the country needs a unified and coherent national response, Trump is seen frantically moving and removing senior staff, counterposing one powerful official against others — in effect, putting cats in a bag.
Through it all, Trump's attachment to his own dismissive narrative is powerful, and it grows even more so as truth intrudes on several fronts. Trump resists using the word "pandemic" in the spring of 2020 and insists the warmer weather will make it "disappear." He adopts and promotes supposed miracle cures discredited by his own federal health agencies.
Fighting happens in the streets as infighting rages at the White House
Then it's on to the separate drama that unfolds when George Floyd is killed by Minneapolis police and street riots break out in many American cities, including in Lafayette Square across the street from the White House. Trump is taken to a safe room underground on the worst night of unrest, and word of this leaks to the media. Outraged by what he considers a show of weakness, Trump demands his top aides devote themselves to finding the source of the leak (which no one manages to do).
Trump tells the authors, in their 2021 interview, that he "should have used the military right away" against the Black Lives Matter protesters. But the authors have extensive reporting to show he tried to move in that direction in late May and early June of 2020 and was discouraged, if not blocked outright by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At this point in I Alone, Milley emerges as the hero of the story. And not for the last time, as he will figure again in the weeks before and after the election, and in the tense days of January when the Capitol is attacked and fears of further violence shadow Inauguration Day. Warned that Trump supporters might seek to keep the defeated president in office by force, Milley is reported to have said: "You can't do this without the military. You can't do this without the CIA and the FBI. We're the guys with guns."
Milley was willing in June to tell Trump the uniformed services were not in the business of supplanting local police forces or for that matter the National Guard. When Stephen Miller, Trump's firebrand speechwriter, says troops are needed because demonstrators are "burning down the country," Milley confronts him and orders him to "shut the f*** up." Milley got support from Mark Esper, the secretary of defense who succeeded former Gen. James Mattis in the top civilian Pentagon job. (Mattis had resigned and later became a sharp critic of the president.)
Esper came up with a plan to assemble police, National Guard and various federal officers who were not part of the regular armed forces. It was enough to mollify Trump at the time, the authors report, and get him to back away from threats to invoke the Insurrection Act or other authorities for the use of force.
Milley and Esper reappear as a kind of tag team later, reining Trump in when he is most inclined to lash out at enemies real or imagined. The two confer often as the election approaches and Trump makes noises about efforts to steal it. On one level it is a reprise of his messaging from 2016, but at that time he did not have the title of commander in chief.
Trump makes efforts to project strength
Trump's desire to project strength comes to a head on the night of June 1, 2020, when protesters are forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square shortly before the president walks across it for a photo session in front of St. John's Church. He holds aloft a Bible that the authors report was brought to the scene in his daughter Ivanka's $1,500 handbag. Ivanka Trump is credited with the idea for this gesture, although reportedly she originally thought her father would go inside the church and perhaps offer a prayer.
At that time, some of the controversy about the clearing of the square attached to Barr, Trump's second attorney general. Barr had seemed something of a super-loyalist in 2019 for his role in defanging the Russian election interference investigation done by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. When Mueller's report was done, it went to Barr, who de-emphasized the findings of real interference and stressed the lack of proof of a conspiracy involving the Trump campaign. He let it play as an exoneration, despite Mueller's insistence to the contrary, with respect to potential charges of obstruction of justice. Trump was thrilled.
But thereafter, Barr proved more difficult for Trump to handle. He bristled when the president pressured him on various cases the Justice Department was pursuing, delaying or declining to pursue. "I can't do my job," he protested, and Trump backed off rather than fire another attorney general. After the Lafayette Square incident and its fallout, Barr was increasingly cast as Horatius at the bridge, an ally of Milley and Esper in telling the president where the guardrails were. The authors speak of the Trump administration as a truck speeding out of control, "grinding against the guardrails" and always threatening to bust through.
The fall campaign aids a fall from grace
The book's third section swings into the campaign proper in September, with Trump desperately trying to get Alex Azar, his secretary of health and human services, to accelerate vaccines for the virus and approvals for various and controversial treatments. At the same time, Trump is berating Barr because the Justice Department is not going after people who had investigated the Trump campaign back in 2016. Trump also wants Barr to find dirt on the Biden family or campaign that Trump has been told exists. We witness the tension with Trump's campaign that leads to his erratic and bullying performance in the first debate with Joe Biden. We see the strategizing that prioritizes voting on Election Day over early or mail-in ballots. The plan is to dominate the traditional timing and be ahead before the mail-in votes get counted. An early claim of victory can be important in setting the media narrative.
On election night, that battle for the narrative became more important than ever. Florida went early for Trump, followed by Ohio and Iowa. While other swing states remained too close to call, Trump planned a victory celebration there in the White House as soon as one or two fell his way. Then Arizona was called for Biden, first by Fox News and then The Associated Press. The Fox call sent Trump into a rage, as Leonnig and Rucker report, shouting at aides and family members to call Rupert Murdoch, call his sons, call Fox anchors and analysts and editors and managers. How could they do this to him?
Trump's most troublesome intimate, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, urges Trump simply to declare himself the winner in the too-close-to-call states, the book reports. It is a breathtaking suggestion, roundly rejected by Trump's professional staff, but Trump goes onstage and says, "Frankly we did win this election," and to some degree the die is cast for the next 11 weeks of chaos, spurious claims, conspiracy theories and, ultimately, insurrection.
During those weeks, we witness Trump's peerless powers of persuasion stressed to the brink. He cannot turn the narrative in Arizona, or in Georgia. In the three Great Lakes states that put Trump over the top in 2016, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Biden winds up with slim but persistent margins of victory.
There is good news for Republicans down ballot, as they did well in House and state legislative races and for the moment appeared to cling to their majority in the Senate. But none of that seems to matter to Trump, or even register with him. Convinced he could not have lost legitimately, he listens not only to Giuliani but also to a procession of conspiracy theorists and rank opportunists.
In the end, we see Trump still pinning his hopes on an obscure academic theory of what Pence might do on the day of certification. In the words of "one senior Republican lawmaker," we see "all of the guardrails were gone."
Where does all this leave all of us?
The insurrection at the Capitol had happened, had failed and had left both the White House and the Congress in a state of shock and fear that bordered on panic. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi conferred with Milley, imploring him to keep Trump away from the use of nuclear weapons. Pence and Trump were no longer "on speaking terms."
Unable to find his way back to the helm on which he had lost his grip, Trump eventually surrendered to the inevitable. There would be a transfer of power, and it would be peaceful. But he did not have to make it gracious, and he did not.
He eschewed the longstanding traditions of welcoming his successor to the White House or attending the inauguration. He gave a last speech and flew away, into a kind of uneasy exile, insisting, as he does today, that he will be reinstated in the near future. No one knows but what procedure he imagines this might happen. He has also held open the prospect of another campaign in 2024.
But there is much Trump does not know or seem to want to know. He has demonstrated how little he seems to know about science, history, current world affairs, government, the law, the Constitution — or even the nuts and bolts of advertising and marketing campaigns. Ultimately we must conclude that a connection exists between this man's lack of interest in how the world really works and his instinct to recast the world in a likeness more to his liking.
And that may be as close to an understanding of the essence of Donald Trump as we are likely to get.
Here, as in their first book (and in Woodward's many books), the sourcing includes on-the-record statements and a mix of other forms of attribution. We are told this is done to enable sources to be forthcoming, and it surely makes it possible for reporters to hear a good deal more than they would otherwise. And in the 140 interviews the authors say they conducted, we do hear a great deal more than heretofore.
Thus we hear often that a particular player "told confidants" certain information, with the confidants presumably becoming conduits to the journalists. There are other instances when we are told a powerful person close to Trump had certain thoughts or reactions that perhaps only that person would know about. But we are largely left to trust the authors to be reporting what has been shared with them, whatever the agreements regarding attribution.
This gives the Rucker-Leonnig storytelling a compelling sense of almost novelistic omniscience, as though the authors had been present and taking notes in a host of conversations they never heard. That is the style that has arisen in even the most respectable works of research in political reporting in our time, and these two Pulitzer-certified authors are among its most trustworthy practitioners. But readers should always look beyond the story itself to consider its ultimate sources and their motives. That is all the more important when the issues at hand are as portentous as they are here.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.