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The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021

The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 PDF

Author: Peter Baker

Publisher: Doubleday


Publish Date: September 20, 2022

ISBN-10: 038554653X

Pages: 752

File Type: ePub

Language: English

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Book Preface

The Calling Card of a Presidency

When we set out to write The Divider, we began with a simple premise, that Donald Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in the 2020 election, and the insurrection at the Capitol he summoned to overturn his loss, were no violent outliers but the inexorable culmination of a sustained four-year war on the institutions and traditions of American democracy. As the historian Michael Beschloss observed on the afternoon of January 6, 2021, while the pro-Trump mob surged through the halls of Congress, chanting “Hang Mike Pence! Hang Mike Pence!” and sending the vice president and lawmakers fleeing for their lives, “This day has been foreshadowed by every hour of this presidency.”

This is a book about what happened in that presidency, about an unimaginable period in our history when the United States had a leader for the first time who neither knew nor subscribed to many of the fundamental tenets of the Constitution and even actively worked to undermine them. From the day he took office until the day he left, Trump sought to bend if not break many of the rules that constrained presidents in the American system, so that holding on to power despite the will of the voters was only the next logical step. To understand what happened on January 6, 2021, it is necessary to understand what happened on January 20, 2017, and all the days in between.

This is not exclusively a work of history, however. Trump, and Trumpism, have captured the Republican Party and radicalized it. The former president, twice impeached and twice acquitted, is the only chief executive since the founding of the nation to obstruct the peaceful transfer of power and he has spent the time since his exit from the White House seeking to become only the second president ever to return to the office. Tens of millions of his followers believed the big lie that he was not defeated and continue to do so to this day. His party’s leadership, rather than repudiate him, still looks to him as its titular head and president-in-waiting. The Trump era is not past; it is America’s present and maybe even its future.

We could think of no more urgent project than to record and seek to understand what really happened when Trump was in the White House. It is not yet a matter for the archives; it is a report from an active crime scene, still under investigation by multiple authorities. Someday, whether soon or not, it will no longer be a subject of current events. And then, we hope, this book can play a different role, explaining for future disbelieving generations what it was like when a crude New York real estate mogul with an itchy Twitter finger, an outsize self-regard, and an extreme disdain for all who came before him ended up as the president of the United States.

We chose to call the book The Divider because for four years, from the “American Carnage” speech that opened his tenure to the “Rigged Election” charade that cursed its tumultuous ending, Trump pitted Americans against Americans, the United States against its allies, and his own staff and family members against each other. He threw matches on the dry kindling of race relations in the United States and escalated a polarizing culture war over competing visions of national identity. Even when the deadliest plague in a century struck, the nation’s forty-fifth president spoke of two countries—his America, Red America, and that of the blue states opposed to him. He soon turned a simple thing like a face mask worn to protect against a public health threat into a wedge issue between warring parties. Trump made divisiveness the calling card of his presidency.

This alone set him apart from all the other American presidents of our lifetime. George H. W. Bush called for a “kinder, gentler” America. Bill Clinton vowed to be a “repairer of the breach.” George W. Bush presented himself as a “uniter, not a divider.” Barack Obama declared there was not a Blue America and Red America but “the United States of America.” None of them fully lived up to those ideals, but they at least gave voice to the aspiration that a president should endeavor to bring the country together. Trump never saw it that way. He exploited the fissures in American society to gain, wield, and hold on to power. He did not create those fissures, any more than he created the weaknesses in the people around him that he so effectively used for his own purposes. America on the eve of his ascendance was more fractured than at any other time in generations. But he leveraged America’s differences for his own ends and created new ones along the way. He was, is, and always will be a “wrecking ball,” as a Republican senator once put it, the “chaos candidate” who would become a “chaos president,” just as one of his 2016 Republican rivals had warned. He sought out enemies and where they did not exist, he invented them. With Trump, there was always an us and always a them.

For most of his seventy years before arriving at the White House, this was of little consequence outside his family and the business worlds in which he operated. The fact that he lied and cheated and did not pay his bills harmed mostly the creditors affected by his six bankruptcies or those ripped off in his various failed ventures. The producers at NBC profited from his flair for conflict with a hit television show whose signature moment each week was Trump firing a different contestant. The New York City tabloids feasted on his many personal and professional feuds, to his shame-free delight.

But when he improbably won election as president of the United States in 2016, this became America’s reality too. Over the next four years, Trump identified the vulnerabilities in Washington, and in those who served there. He weaponized his prolific lies for his political benefit and bullied any who opposed him, setting up his administration as an endless series of loyalty tests. He hijacked a Republican Party that was riven and ailing—a party that has now lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections—and turned it into a cult of personality so dedicated to him that instead of producing a policy platform at its last convention it simply issued a resolution saying it was for Trump.

The Divider draws on our four years of covering Trump’s presidency for The New York Times and The New Yorker as well as about three hundred original interviews conducted exclusively for this book. We obtained private diaries, memos, contemporaneous notes, emails, text messages, and other documents that shed new light on Trump’s time in office. We spoke with many of those who worked most closely with Trump—his cabinet secretaries and senior White House officials, his political strategists, lawyers, national security advisers, and counselors. Many spoke with us for their first extensive interviews. We also talked with others who struggled with how to respond to Trump’s volatile presidency, including members of Congress, generals, business executives, and foreign leaders. And we traveled twice to Mar-a-Lago to interview Trump himself.

What emerged from our reporting were stories we had never heard and fresh understandings of stories we thought we knew. To a remarkable degree, it was a portrait of a rogue president, one whose combative instincts, erratic ways, and tendency to conflate the national interest with his personal interest took the country closer than we realized to outright conflict with Iran and North Korea, and to the brink of blowing up NATO even as Russia prepared to use force to redraw the map of Europe. He vindictively ordered the pullout of thousands of troops from Germany because he was mad at its leader. He tried to buy Greenland after a billionaire friend told him it was a good idea. He secretly sought to abolish a federal appeals court after it ruled against him. He privately expressed admiration for Hitler’s generals, while calling his own generals “fucking losers,” and subjecting them and others to racist rants that made it clear his infamous Oval Office comment about “shithole countries” was no isolated lapse.

The people who were most fearful of his reign were those in the room with him, the ones he himself appointed, who behind his back compared him to a czar or a mob boss or even, in the case of his first White House counsel, a monster in a horror movie. His handpicked chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff grew so outraged at the president’s conduct that he secretly drafted a resignation letter accusing Trump of subscribing “to many of the principles that we fought against” in America’s wars, only to put it in a drawer and resolve to stay in order to resist a commander in chief he considered a threat to democracy. Another top general warned Trump to his face that he was acting like a dictator. His intelligence chief privately wondered whether the president was a Russian stooge. His chief of staff secretly consulted a book by psychiatrists questioning Trump’s mental fitness. His wife thought he was blowing it against the coronavirus and his daughter and son-in-law thought he was wrong about the supposedly stolen election.

Our reporting revealed in a way that was not always evident in the fog of the moment just how much some members of Trump’s administration felt compelled to save the country from its own president, as more than one of his top officials put it. The internal resistance to Trump was fiercer than recognized, if not always effective: there were repeated mutual-resignation pacts among cabinet officers and senior officials; advisers who worked around him to secretly organize opposition to his proposals in Congress or even foreign capitals; aides who not only swiped papers off Trump’s desk but came up with elaborate rationales to ignore orders unless they were issued three times or more. The story of the demands they disregarded or sidestepped alone could fill many books: Prosecute Joe Biden. Prosecute Hillary Clinton. Prosecute James Comey. Close the border. Withdraw from NAFTA, from NATO, from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from South Korea. Immediately. This was going on long before the tragic excesses of 2020, when Trump wanted active-duty troops mobilized to quash protests inside the United States and sought the outright nullification of an American presidential election.

Trump was often just one yes-man away from doing what he wanted. One attorney general. One military commander. One vice president. Many of those who blocked Trump were complicated figures who had spent years enabling him before finally deciding he had gone too far. Even then they often remained in his orbit or refused to speak out. Mike Pence, Bill Barr, Mike Pompeo, his four chiefs of staff, his lawyers, the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. For them, every day was a moral challenge, a series of tradeoffs in which they weighed the benefits of accomplishing whatever agenda had brought them into Trump’s world in the first place—whether patriotism or personal ambition or policy goals or simply partisanship—against the need to stop the situation from spiraling out of control. There was a not inconsiderable element of hubris to this; they believed they could manage him, and often succeeded for a while in doing so, only to claim they were shocked it had not worked out when it all ended badly, as it inevitably did. This book is their story too, because without them Donald Trump might have been just another angry old man shouting at the television between golf games.

The painful fact is that those who stopped Trump from committing this or that outrage also helped him learn how better to get what he wanted the next time. A senior national security official who regularly observed Trump in the Oval Office compared him to the Velociraptors in the movie Jurassic Park that proved capable of learning while hunting their prey, making them infinitely more dangerous. It was a chilling thought: Who can forget the scene where the audience discovers this, when one of the predators chases the film’s child protagonists into an industrial kitchen by turning a handle to open a door?

In four years, Trump adapted. He tested limits. He pushed boundaries. He failed. And then he tried again. He had started out in office more ignorant about Washington and the federal government than perhaps any president in history. He did not know what power he had, or how to use it to do what he wanted to do. But he began to figure it out. He purged his staff. He hired more loyalists and fewer independent actors who might defy his orders. He busted norms and made progressively more outrageous demands. He was disgraced by scandal and renounced by his party’s last three presidential nominees. Yet his followers kept following. When he told them the election was stolen and the pandemic was a Democratic hoax and the violence on January 6 was just a legitimate protest, they believed him. They still believe him today.

The Divider is our third book together. Our first subject was Vladimir Putin and his successful assault on the fledgling Russian democracy that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We witnessed Putin’s rise in the first assignment of our married life, landing in Moscow on a frigid January day more than twenty years ago. No one, including us, suspected that Putin, an obscure former KGB lieutenant colonel, would go on to become Russia’s longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin. At the time, even our conclusion that Putin was an authoritarian modernizer who believed in the resurrection of a police state was seen as controversial in Washington, where many at the highest levels wanted to believe, against experience and evidence, that the man who called the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” would somehow turn out to be a Western-oriented reformer.

Never did we imagine that two decades later we would be covering the rise of an American leader who venerated Putin and his strongman tactics, who admired the world’s other autocrats in China, Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines, and elsewhere, who “fell in love” with the overseer of North Korea’s Gulags, and who attacked basic principles of constitutional democracy at home.

When we arrived in Russia, it was still only a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. At an event one day in Moscow, the reformist politician Grigory Yavlinsky was asked about the state of its flawed and faltering democracy. He responded with an old Soviet anekdot about an ambulance driver who picks up a patient.

“Where are we going?” the patient asks.

“The morgue,” replies the driver.

“Why? I’m not dead yet,” the patient protests.

“We’re not there yet,” the driver responds.

Two decades ago, that was a mordant joke about where Russia was headed. Today, Russia under Putin is an outlaw nation, waging a war of conquest against its neighbor with a dictatorship at home as repressive as anything in the latter days of the Soviet era. The driver, tragically, made it to the morgue. The joke could also serve as commentary on the health of American democracy after four years of President Trump: We’re not there yet but it does not look good.

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