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“Smart, rational people break when it comes to Trump,” Lindsey Graham told Bob Woodward and Washington Post reporter Robert Costa for their new book, Peril. “He’ll get you to do things that are not good for you because you don’t like him.” Graham, whose every attempt to separate himself from Trump has been followed by some groveling, compensatory abasement, ought to know. As Woodward and Costa portray it, Graham’s only notable value to his party at present is as a “Trump whisperer,” tasked with assessing the former president’s state of mind (it doesn’t change much) and persuading him to let go of his incessant claims of having been cheated of victory in the 2020 election, an enterprise that is apparently doomed.
But just this once, I’ll have to agree with Graham. My own unabated appetite for tales of Trump’s downfall—his weeks in the figurative bunker, surrounded by toadies and cranks, spinning off into ever-more-loony theories of election fraud, as the West Wing empties and Rudy Giuliani, his hair dye dripping down his face, pours poison into his ears—demonstrates Graham’s point. Peril is a more virtuous bowl of schadenfreude than Michael Wolff’s racier Landslide, published earlier this year. Call it cornflakes to Wolff’s Cap’n Crunch. In either case, it’s not good for me, but it’s so hard to pass up.
For Wolff, the period between the election and Joe Biden’s inauguration was a spectacular shitshow, and little more than that. Landslide is a webcam inside a clown car. Trump’s incompetence as a leader made it nearly impossible—at the end, when he had driven away any staffer of independent ability—to get much done in the way of governance, good or bad. As Woodward and Costa portray it, the final two months or so of Trump’s presidency were a period of veiled crisis in which the handful of sane people left in the Cabinet feared he might do something terrible.
The hero of this part of Peril’s narrative is Gen. Mark Milley, whose strenuous efforts to run interference between Trump’s moods and U.S. foreign policy, as reported by the authors, have been making headlines for the past couple of days. Books like this are shaped by their sources, and those sources always have their own agendas. Former Attorney General William Barr, for example, is apparently granting long interviews to everyone writing a book-length account of Trump’s final year in office in an evident attempt to pass himself off as someone who moderated the president’s worst excesses. Trump aides who served as sources for Wolff, such as former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, come across as voices of reason in Landslide, then turn up in Peril trying to, say, hire the nutcase conspiracist Kash Patel to run the CIA.
As Peril tells it, Milley virtually saved the republic by setting up buffers between a raging president, who to Milley’s mind “had gone into a serious mental decline” after the election, and the various military buttons the chief executive was empowered to push by virtue of his office. Trump might, Milley feared, set match to his own Reichstag fire, engineering a defense emergency as a power grab, such as by starting a war with Iran or China. Knowing that the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol building made some foreign powers nervous about the stability of the U.S. government, he reportedly contacted Chinese military leaders to assure them that no American attack on them was imminent.
The flurry of treason accusations and denials that have followed these revelations—not to mention Peril itself—fail to provide any evidence that such a plan even crossed Trump’s mind. The only indication that Trump had given a moment’s thought to anything besides overturning the election was a Nov. 11 memo instructing the acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, to withdraw all U.S. forces from both Somalia and Afghanistan by the end to the year. The resemblance between this document and a real, official National Security Memorandum was so tenuous that it might as well have been written in crayon, yet Trump had signed it with one of his famous Sharpie markers—or had he? Months later, Axios reported that the rogue memo had been drafted by Trump favorite John McEntee, the president’s former body man who was then “running personnel,” along with a bewildered, newly minted senior adviser to Miller. Peril even implies that the signature might have been forged, as Milley at first suspected. At any rate, if Trump did actually issue the directive, he was not invested enough to pursue it.
All evidence, in this book and others about the transition between the two administrations, indicates that Trump was completely preoccupied with his fantasies of election fraud and any scrap of support he could find for them. He seemed incapable of conceiving that Mike Pence would fail to invalidate the election on Jan. 6, or that somehow the Supreme Court, which he’d packed with “his” judges, would not swoop in to overturn it. Milley’s vigilance is appreciated by this and many other citizens, but the Reichstag-fire scenario presumes that what Trump wanted was to stay in office by any means necessary, to go on being the president, when in fact, all he really wanted, and still wants, is to prove that he won. “I don’t care about my legacy,” he told Hope Hicks. “If I lose, that will be my legacy.” In his fervid psyche, his base has replaced the demanding father who drummed into his sons the imperative to be a “killer.” Whenever someone urges him to be pragmatic, to move on and exercise the considerable power he retains, he refuses, repeating that mantra, “They expect me to fight.”
In counterpart to Trump’s mercurial narcissism, Peril presents an almost ridiculously glowing portrait of Biden. Chapters about the bungled Trump campaign and the disorder in the White House alternate with snapshots of Biden and his advisers resolutely crafting plans for vaccine distribution. In the authors’ telling, the new president is humble and diligent and humane, a skilled senatorial negotiator, an attentive listener, a firm leader, and yet ready to drop everything in the midst of a campaign to spend a half-hour consoling the grieving family of a longtime supporter. Only twice do the authors offer anything in the way of personal criticism. Sometimes it seems Biden is “testy.” Sometimes he misspeaks. But that’s about it. At any moment, I expected him to untie a swooning maiden from the railroad tracks. While this is reassuring, it’s also a bit dull. Which may indeed be the point.
I can’t judge the accuracy of the authors’ depiction of Biden, but I have no doubt that Woodward himself has much invested in the political establishment. Peril portrays the political events of the past year as a battle between the evil of Trump’s self-serving chaos and the orderly virtue of the system he promised to blow up. Biden’s election represented a return to that system and its protocols, which is more or less why I and more than 81 million other Americans voted for him. Still, is it really necessary to get quite so starry-eyed over business as usual? The old ways definitely look good compared with the past four years, but their shortcomings were one of the reasons Trump happened in the first place.