In their incisive, dramatic and masterful account of President Donald Trump’s last year in office – what we read is “the closest version of the truth that we could determine based on rigorous reporting” – veteran Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker build on their stunning book about Trump’s first years in office, A Very Stable Genius.
Trump’s final year was “the most consequential and for many Americans the most frightening”, they say. They fully capture Trump’s terrifying character deficiencies that drove the fear, chaos and instability that culminated in nothing less than a violent threat to America’s democracy itself.
Trump “cared more about himself than the country”, always putting “his political and personal interests over the common good”. They give us this wrenching insight: Trump’s “self-victimisation yoked him to his supporters”, who also felt “disrespected by elites and wronged” by the global economy. That’s who showed up at the Capitol riot on January 6.
Last year was not just a presidential election year, but an election in a once-in-a-century pandemic. Even though the early internal polling showed the Trump base as energised as ever and poised to deliver a win even bigger than in 2016, Trump was warned repeatedly, by his aides and by allies such as Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, that his catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic “could cost us the election”. But Trump persisted with dangerous stunts such as touting the virtues of bleach to fight COVID-19 and politicising the wearing of masks. The virus would ultimately invade him.
Trump relished hating his enemies and vanquishing their attempts to take him down: beating the rap in the “Russia hoax” probe by Special Counsel Bob Mueller and his impeachment for corrupting his office. “I should be impeached more often,” he said in 2020. He got his wish in 2021.
Power in this White House was held by a very small group: Trump; son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner; chief of staff Mark Meadows and Attorney-General Bill Barr. They formed a wall around Trump that enabled him to act out all his impulses and prejudices, never checking his lurid excesses.
The existential question posed by Trump was always: would he threaten America’s democracy and the Republic? A preview of the nightmare that could occur unfolded after the murder of George Floyd, with protests erupting across the country, and the movement for racial justice and Black Lives Matter engulfing Lafayette Square, directly across from the White House. On June 1, police and military forces cleared the square of protesters. Trump marched with his staff, the Attorney-General and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley (in combat fatigues), to St John’s church, where Trump held a Bible aloft.
That seminal moment of the use of military force to secure Trump’s power as president was an epiphany for General Milley. And he is the hero of this book. Seared and chastened, he was never again going to permit the use of the military to interfere in the political process. He was not going to permit the military to overturn an election. He was not going to stand by and let the Trump forces of insurrection have their “Reichstag moment”, bathed in “the gospel of the Fuhrer”.
Vice-President Mike Pence also did his constitutional duty in refusing Trump’s ceaseless pressure for him to overturn the election when the Electoral College votes were finally counted on January 6. Barr, also, was true in telling Trump in December that there was no fraud in the 2020 election, and that he had lost.
Trump loves to hate and never forgives, and he really hates Pence, Barr, and Brett Kavanaugh, who Trump appointed to the Supreme Court but voted against Trump and his baseless, insipid legal arguments that the election was stolen.
Leonnig and Rucker capture it all. Just when we think, in absorbing these horrific events of the transfer of power to Joe Biden, that we can’t be shocked any more – we are. The tumult is raw and real and ugly. The Trump Oval Office is a place defiled. As they showed us previously, their reporting is as authoritative and seamless as the legends they have now succeeded – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – under the shield of the venerable Post.
Their coda interview with Trump in the glitzy rococo decadence of Mar-a-Lago is clear: if he sees a way to come back, he will. At the very least, he holds the power in the Republican Party: “If they don’t get the [my] endorsement, they don’t win.”
Michael Wolff is, in the final of his trilogy of Trump’s presidency, the master of the tabloid fantastical genre: “What was in Trump’s mind? And who knew what was in Trump’s mind?” Only Wolff, thanks to more than 300 pages of spewing by “multiple sources” who “asked to remain anonymous”. There are no notes.
Wolff has three false premises at the outset of this non-fiction roman-fleuve: that Trump was deserted by aides and staff (no, the true believers who drank the Kool-Aid were all in to the end); that Trump’s presidency was a mirror image of good government (no, it was a cracked mirror that reflected corruption, lying and abuse of power); that Trump was not understood by the liberal world and media (no, they understood him all too well as being unfit for office).
In grinding, numbing detail, with names you never want to remember as having had the privilege of being in the Oval Office, Wolff relates the losing struggle – consistently futile thanks to Rudy Giuliani – to convince Trump that he lost the 2020 election. Wolff also scores an interview at Mar-a-Lago, again with Trump in tirade against those who betrayed him.
But Wolff lands on one final, absolute truth for now: “The Trump proposition is that he is the Republican Party.” Be still our hearts. Wolff may yet score a tetralogy.
- I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Bloomsbury
- Landslide: The Final Days of Donald Trump, Michael Wolff, Hachette