On this week’s Political Gabfest, hosts Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz spoke with Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, authors of the new book A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America about what they had learned while researching the book. This transcript of part of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Plotz: One of the great divides in culture is between comedy and horror. What seems funny under some circumstances can be pure nightmare under others. I feel that way about our guests’ new book, A Very Stable Genius. Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig, of all the tales you told in this book, what story has struck most with readers?
Carol Leonnig: I think that the piece that has made people the most upset and distraught is the moment where the president is dressing down his generals and his military officers, many of whom have offered to give their lives, and have literally given the lives of their children, to protect the country. And that moment in July 2017, when three of his senior advisers—his secretary of defense, his secretary of state, and his national economic adviser—bring him into a sacred space in the Pentagon to try to educate him a little bit about what keeps America safe, because he doesn’t seem to understand that. And his recoil at their schoolhouse rock turns into a bellowing fest, where he calls them dopes and babies and tells them he wouldn’t have gone to war with them. Perhaps the worst curse word they could ever hear. That has really resonated with readers, in part because many people in America have members of the military in their family and found that upsetting.
John Dickerson: There are two possible responses from defenders of the president’s about that episode. One is that’s he’s demonstrating his tough style. He’s a disruptor. And then there’s a second, slightly more precise argument, which is that when presidents come in, there is a kind of accepted wisdom. We’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for 18 years. The Washington Post printed the amazing Afghanistan Papers, which show that administration after administration has lied and deceived the public. So, a new president coming in against that kind of calcified thinking perhaps has to engage in a bellow fest. If people mount those counterarguments against that scene, what would your response be?
Leonnig: This scene does have the president challenging, very openly, in a very bellicose way, the Afghanistan war, calling it a loser war. And after experiencing the Afghanistan Papers, I see exactly why folks would view the president as rightly challenging the wisdom of that many years in what he calls a piece of sand. However, that scene is not just a moment in which he’s accusing his generals of being losers for pursuing that war. He’s also challenging their decision to have troops in bases in places that protect us. He’s challenging fundamental assumptions that have been really beneficial for the country for decades. The NATO alliance, for example. This is a moment in which the president takes the snow globe of the way we’ve been running the country’s national security apparatus, shakes it in the air, and throws it on the ground.
He isn’t just challenging the Afghanistan war. And it is an ad hominem attack. He’s calling them dopes and babies. He’s threatening to fire Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, for being a loser, until Gen. Joseph Dunford and Jim Mattis—much more senior folks, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the secretary of defense—remind him that Nicholson is simply doing exactly what was in the national security plan that the president had authorized when he came into office. He is following the orders that he’s been given.
Dickerson: In this world of chaos, what keeps people around? There are obviously lots of people who’ve been kicked to the curb or who fled. But why does Mick Mulvaney stay? Why does Hope Hicks come back?
Philip Rucker: I think a couple of things have motivated these people to stay in the orbit, despite, in some cases, the abuse they receive from their boss. One is power. They want to be a decision-maker. They want to be part of the action. They see long-term career benefits from serving in the government at a high level. They can go on and give speeches, or be lobbyists, or get bigger corporate jobs or what have you. They’re making an investment in their careers by serving a president who they see a lot of fault with.
But the other thing to keep in mind is that people in Trump’s close orbit view him as an incredibly magnetic force. It’s exciting to be around him. Hope Hicks spent hours of every day at his side when she was working in the White House, and then she left the White House and went to L.A. to work for the new Fox company under Lachlan Murdoch, and by all accounts, that’s a more boring job. It’s a corporate job. She’s dealing with investors and earnings and all sorts of corporate issues. You’re not with the president of the United States every day, putting out brush fires every hour. So there’s an appeal to people who want to be a part of that action, to just being there despite all the flaws that Trump may have.
Plotz: I’m curious how much of the regular order of the White House goes on in the Trump administration. Historically there’s always so much made of the president’s daily briefing, the gatekeepers, how meetings are held, the protocol of it. Is any of that still in place?
Leonnig: A lot of that was tossed out the window. I found it really interesting to go through some records of the president’s schedule. As Phil and I were reporting on this, we were pretty fastidious about looking at the actual contemporaneous records, and when you look at the schedule, you can see that the president’s day, like Obama’s day when he was president, pretty much started at the crack of 6:30, 7, 7:30.
As the days went on after President Trump’s inauguration, those hours kept shifting back. “Executive time” kept absorbing more of his morning. He stayed up in the residence. They tried at first to impose this idea of him coming into the Oval Office at 9. That didn’t work. Then it was 10. Then it was 11. So he doesn’t do much in the morning other than watch a lot of television, some of which he’s TiVo’d. Make a zillion phone calls to friends, especially Fox folks who he’s just seen on TV, to congratulate them on what he’s just heard them say in real time.
The order of decision-making is another way in which this presidency is so unusual. People talk about how there should have been a process for how decisions are made. There’d be documents provided, the president would look at them. Then he’d be at be able to ask questions. There’d be sessions where other people would come in to answer those questions, and then there would be a group of people to suss out the best options. There’d be recommendations, there’d be a final decision.
It doesn’t happen that way in this White House. As former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster once said to aides, people come in sideways, cross-ways, long ways. They’re coming in at different junctures. There is no formal and consistent review process. Some people call the president on his cellphone and tell him, “I think this is a good idea.”
As we say in the book, Lou Dobbs used to call him and say, “Here’s what you should do about the border.” His homeland security secretary at the time, Kirstjen Nielsen, was getting phone calls from the president, berating her. Why aren’t you doing what Lou says? And she said, Well, some of those things are illegal, and a few of them we’re already doing. So, lots of differences in this White House.