Here they come, this week, the Trump books – Frankly, We Did Win This Election from Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender, Michael Wolff’s Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump White House, and I Alone Can Fix It co-authored by the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig. These three books will be the talk of the town, or the talk of at least one town, Washington, for at least a few days. But perhaps they will be forgotten after those few days. This is the past. Now is now. Donald Trump is no longer the president. He doesn’t think so. Most of his base doesn’t think so. But he is not the president now, and perhaps he will be forgotten too.
But some things should not be forgotten. The guy was unhinged and dangerous. The Washingtonian’s Damare Baker notes what no one knew until now:
Trump believed that the Democratic Party would withdraw their nomination for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the last minute and replace them with Andrew Cuomo and Michelle Obama as the presidential and the vice presidential nominees, respectively. According to Wolff, Trump heard this theory from Fox News personality Sean Hannity and believed that former president Barack Obama orchestrated the plan.
Note: Watch Sean Hannity more often. One might miss this sort of thing, and there’s this:
Trump suggested using the pandemic as an excuse for indefinitely postponing the 2020 election. It’s no secret that Trump wanted to delay the election due to his concerns over mail-in voting fraud. However, once that idea didn’t work, he brought up delaying the election because there was “too much virus” and “people can’t get to the polls,” according to Wolff. Fortunately, his then-chief of staff Mark Meadows stepped in to inform him that postponing the election wasn’t a constitutional possibility.
Okay, no one should be surprised by any of that. Mark Meadows had been a Tea Party screamer in Congress, but he had read the Constitution, and there’s this:
Trump said that he wanted the military to “beat the fuck” out of protesters for racial justice and “to crack their skulls,” Wolff reports. Unlike the rioters at the Capitol, Trump allegedly wanted a violent military response to Black Lives Matter demonstrators following the murder of George Floyd last year. Bender reports that aides pushed back on the order, so Trump softened his stance and request that soldiers “shoot them in the leg – or maybe the foot but be hard on them.”
Trump wanted to use the military to shoot and kill protesters, American soldiers shooting down American citizens on American soil, citizens who were arguing a position about racial justice that simply angered him. Shoot and kill them! No surprise there. Some in the White House told him he couldn’t do that. That’s the real surprise here. Someone slowed him down.
But his grudges never end:
Trump feels betrayed by all three Supreme Court justices that he nominated, but “he reserved particular bile for [Brett] Kavanaugh,” Wolff writes. The former president told Wolff that he was “very disappointed” in Kavanaugh’s votes, saying that “he just hasn’t had the courage you need to be a great justice.” He also claimed that he saved the Supreme Court justice’s life, despite “practically every senator” telling him to not go through with the nomination.
Kavanaugh wouldn’t intervene and find for someone somehow, in some case somewhere, and then, with great ceremony, reinstall Trump as president. Kavanaugh owed Trump everything he had. Kavanaugh really had betrayed him.
Is anyone surprised at this? Or at this:
Trump allegedly told one of his many White House chiefs of staff, John Kelly. that Adolf Hitler “did a lot of good things.” Bender recounts Kelly’s failed attempts to discourage Trump from praising Hitler, regardless of what economic success Germany may have had under the dictator’s rule. Kelly and Trump deny this anecdote, but it’s not the first time Trump’s alleged interest in the Nazi leader has come up. Over thirty years ago, Trump’s first wife, Ivana, alleged that he kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches by his bed.
Who doesn’t? And the rest is just unpleasant details:
According to Bender, Trump thinks that Mitch McConnell is as “dumb as a rock.” The former President’s contempt for the Senate Minority Leader is well known, considering that Trump called him a “dumb son of a bitch” in front of Republic donors at Mar-a-Lago in April. McConnell’s failure to defend Trump during the impeachment trial after the Capitol riot caused a rift between the two. Apparently, Bender writes, McConnell dislikes Trump just as much, but he’s not so vocal about it.
And there’s the drunk:
Rudy Giuliani’s plan during election night was to urge Trump to say that he won, regardless of the truth. Rucker and Leonnig report that Giuliani came up with the idea in a drunken haze. However, members of Trump’s campaign team strongly disagreed with this and attempted to keep everyone calm and rational during election night.
And then there’s the insurrection:
Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol openly admitted that they were there to overthrow the government. One Capitol rioter that Bender spoke to claimed that those at the riot didn’t want to “steal things” or “do damage.” They just wanted to “overthrow the government.”
Trump’s notorious remarks before supporters stormed the Capitol were not in the speech that his staff had prepared. In his speech to the mob on January 6, Trump urged his supporters to march to the Capitol three different times, saying “we’re going to walk down to the Capitol.” However, Wolff revealed that the lines were ad-libbed by the former president.
Yes, he was making this up as he went along. He was never much of a planer. And then there’s Nicholas Lemann’s review of the Wolff book:
The strength of “Landslide” comes less from these stories and more from a coherent argument that Wolff, in partnership with his sources, makes about how we should understand the period between Nov. 3 and Jan. 20. Most quickly produced books about political events don’t do that.
Trump, in these pages, is self-obsessed, delusional and administratively incompetent. He has no interest in or understanding of the workings of government. He doesn’t read or listen to briefings. He spends vast amounts of time watching conservative television networks and chatting on the phone with cronies. The pandemic puts him at a special disadvantage; many of the people around him are either sick or afraid to come to work because that would entail complying with a regime of Covid noncompliance that Trump demands. If anybody tells him something he doesn’t want to hear, he marginalizes or fires that person and finds somebody else to listen to, who may or may not hold an official position. If Fox News becomes less than completely loyal, he’ll switch to Newsmax or One America News Network. He lives in a self-curated information environment that bears only a glancing relationship to reality.
And that led to the darkest places:
Before the belief that the election was stolen had taken full control of Trump’s mind, the idea was already there – because he chose to regard all forms of expanded access to voting, which tend to favor the Democrats, as stealing. He turned down entreaties from his staff to set up a Republican get-out-the-early-vote operation, just as he also turned down entreaties to endorse masking and social distancing during the height of the pandemic: off-brand. He was utterly disorganized, with endless firings and reshufflings of the key players. And during his second impeachment trial, Trump was represented by a comically incompetent, squabbling team of lawyers whom he had barely met.
That was a mistake:
In the early hours of election night, when he was running well ahead of the pre-election polls, Trump decided he had won. After it became clear to everyone but him that he hadn’t, he empowered an alternate-reality team of advisers, headed by Rudy Giuliani and including people whom even Giuliani considered to be unacceptably out-there, like Sidney Powell, the freelancing lawyer, and Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, and he embraced every available conspiracy theory and strategic fantasy about how he could change the result. To Trump, in Wolff’s telling, elections are roughly similar to the due dates for loans in his real-estate business – a place to start negotiating. Because he divides people into two categories, strong and weak, and because he has the deep cynicism of an unprincipled person, he chose to believe that he was not the first result-denying presidential candidate, only the first who was manly enough to challenge a typically corrupt outcome.
Nobody holding official power in the White House or the Republican Party – in particular, Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell – took Trump’s ravings seriously, so the horrifying events of Jan. 6 came as a surprise, probably even to Trump himself.
And the rest is history, even if it shouldn’t be:
One obvious question that all of this raises is this: If Trump was so unrelievedly awful, not to mention dangerous, why were Wolff’s sources working for him? “In insider political circles,” Wolff writes, “almost all politicians are seen as difficult and even damaged people, necessarily tolerated in some civics class inversion because they were elected.” Over time the realization dawned that Trump was in a specially appalling category. After that, “You took it and put up with it and tried to make the best of it, not in spite of everything, but because this was what you did; this was the job you had.” Or you thought you could help by “keeping it from being so much worse than it otherwise might be.” Or you persuaded yourself that you were serving a larger cause, as in the case of Marc Short: “He detested the president but saw a tight-lipped tolerance, however painful, as the way to use Trump’s popularity to realize the conservative grail of remaking the federal courts and the federal bureaucracy.”
More than all this, though, the quality of Trump’s that best explains what happened is that he commands a vast, enthusiastically loyal following that may represent as much as a quarter of the voting public, or even more, and a majority of the people who vote in Republican primaries. Nobody holding an appointed position has this, and very few elected officials do either.
And then it gets really strange:
Wolff says the people around Trump believed he had “magical properties,” based on “a genius sense of how to satisfy the audience.” Everyone knew from firsthand observation how incompetent a chief executive he was: “Beyond his immediate desires and pronouncements, there was no ability – or structure, or chain of command, or procedures, or expertise, or actual person to call – to make anything happen.” Therefore they assumed that his postelection lunacy would have no consequences, and that it was safe to avoid any public argument with the president that might arouse the Republican base. Essentially the only nefarious misdeed he was capable of pulling off was the one he did pull off, not entirely wittingly: the power to incite a violent, democracy-subverting mob of his devotees.
So, here we are:
Trump’s election, his term in office and the manner of his departure have reawakened a dormant debate about the essential health of the American political system. Are there too many barriers in the way of voting? Is the public misinformed? Do billionaires and other elites control the system? Do the Electoral College and the way congressional representation is apportioned over-empower underpopulated rural areas?
Ah, but beyond that:
Wolff raises a more fundamental and frightening possibility: that the lesson of Trump is that in a democratic society, a malign and dangerous “crazy person,” especially one with a deep instinctive understanding of public opinion and the media, can become genuinely popular. Millions of Americans love Trump. As Wolff points out, after Jan. 6, his standing in the polls went up.
This is not an abstract or theoretical concern.
Yes, there’s 2024. He will run again. Everyone knows that. And that would be this man:
Then-President Donald Trump told a number of his advisers in 2020 that whoever leaked information about his stay in the White House bunker in May of that year had committed treason and should be executed for sharing details about the episode with members of the press, according to excerpts of a new book from Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender.
Trump, along with then-first lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron, were all taken to the underground bunker for a period of time during the protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd as protesters gathered outside the building. Bender writes in the book that Trump, in the days following his time in the bunker, held a tense meeting with top military, law enforcement and West Wing advisers, in which he aired grievances over the leak.
“Trump boiled over about the bunker story as soon as they arrived and shouted at them to smoke out whoever had leaked it. It was the most upset some aides had ever seen the president,” Bender writes.
“‘Whoever did that, they should be charged with treason!’ Trump yelled. ‘They should be executed!’“ the book reads.
And no one was:
Then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows “repeatedly tried to calm the president as startled aides avoided eye contact,” Bender writes, adding that Trump’s top aide told his boss: “I’m on it. We’re going to find out who did it.”
Trump, angry over the leak for days, “repeatedly asked Meadows if he’d found the leaker,” with his top aide becoming “obsessed” with finding the source, according to the book, which noted that “those who said they’d heard the president issue that warning had interpreted the outburst as a sign of a president in panic.”
That may be what all three of these books are about. Perhaps we shouldn’t do this again. But he will be back. Or someone like him. This is America after all. And this is not the past.