Bob Woodward's third book — after i">>Fear and i">>Rage — about Donald Trump turns out to be just as much about President Biden and how he got to be Trump's successor.
But dominating the pre-publication publicity and reaction is one explosive revelation that detonates in the prologue.
The book is Peril, the third volume in Woodward's "Trump trilogy" — this one written with fellow Washington Post reporter Robert Costa.
The revelation, as anyone with social media or a cable TV connection knows, is that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called his counterpart in the Chinese military to assuage Chinese fears about Trump launching some sort of American attack. Woodward and Costa report this happened once in October before the election and once after the Jan. 6 riot that breached the U.S. Capitol and routed members of the House and Senate.
Trump immediately said that the story, "if true," meant Milley had committed treason. That idea has been echoed by Republican officeholders and conservative commentators and a variety of other critics. Milley's spokesperson at the Pentagon said top U.S. commanders regularly communicate with their counterparts in other countries, including China and Russia. The White House said much the same.
But in Peril, Milley is also quoted speaking with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after Jan. 6 about the need to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump from office before his term ends. According to the book, Milley cites the president's "mental decline," and Pelosi uses the term "crazy." In this account, the two are clearly worried that Trump will attempt some use of his power as commander in chief in a last-ditch effort to keep Biden from being inaugurated on Jan. 20.
These incidents had not been reported previously, although readers of i">>I Alone Can Fix It by two other Post reporters, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, had already learned of Milley's fears regarding Trump's potential misuse of the military. More than a few readers saw Milley emerge from those pages as a national hero — Horatius blocking the bridge to autocracy.
But Woodward and Costa expand on this theme and add extensive detail. Milley was prompted by U.S. intelligence indicating the Chinese saw routine U.S. exercises near their shores as threatening, given Trump's hostile rhetoric and erratic behavior, they write. The general wanted to head off any misperceptions of U.S. intent or resolve, ones he thought might lead to war.
Both books relate how Milley had been offended when Trump put him and other top defense officials on display in the Lafayette Park incident in June 2020. That incident brought the Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of George Floyd to the center of the 2020 presidential campaign. It was an inflection point, a truly historic moment, but just one of many events that fly by as these authors speed-tour the campaign year.
Some familiar turning points, some new
Some of these landmarks are familiar, such as Trump's well-reported reaction to the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and his exchange with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who begs him to make it stop. "Well Kevin," Trump is quoted as saying, "Maybe these people are just more upset about the election than you are."
But other meaningful moments highlighted here have the quality of discovery. It has been conventional wisdom that Rep. James Clyburn, the House Democratic whip, turned his party's presidential process around by endorsing Biden just before his home state of South Carolina's primary on Feb. 29. But here the authors get well inside that relationship.
They tell how Clyburn took Biden aside during intermission in the Charleston debate that week to remind him of his promise to mention appointing a Black woman to the Supreme Court. "You can't leave the stage without doing that," they quote Clyburn saying. "You just got to do that." Biden agreed, the book recounts, returned to the stage and made the pledge. "The crowd roared," the authors report. "Clyburn nodded."
And the next day, Clyburn issued a clarion endorsement prompting a surge of African American votes for Biden, who would beat Bernie Sanders, the previous front-runner, by 30 points. Several rival candidates immediately withdrew and endorsed Biden. Soon the authors are taking us on Sanders' campaign plane to hear him tell his campaign manager to call Biden's people: "Just ask them if there's a role for progressives to play in their campaign."
After March of 2020, however, all the most vivid moments happen in Trump's White House, the book notes. Frustrated on several levels by the pandemic, he insists on getting back out on the hustings, then berates others when the first rally in Tulsa, Okla., is a bust. He presses his attorney general and White House attorney to end birthright citizenship, to prosecute people involved in the FBI investigation of his campaign in 2016 and to join in a longshot lawsuit against Obamacare. They resist, and Trump rages.
After the election has taken place, Peril becomes the inside tale of Trump's increasingly irrational efforts to challenge the result. When Attorney General William Barr tells Trump there is no evidence of fraud, the two are immediately estranged, and Barr leaves office early. Thereafter, Trump relies on legal advice from a volatile Rudy Giuliani, then an even more controversial attorney named Sidney Powell and finally MyPillow founder Mike Lindell.
Darkness over the White House
The atmosphere throughout this work is foreboding, darkened by the shadow COVID-19 cast over the country but also by the dangers to democracy the authors perceive and depict.
Peril has been a highly anticipated third volume, even in a season of such tomes. But Peril has a dual focus; the cover is half Trump's face, half Biden's. The authors want to illuminate the entire campaign year and the early months of the Biden presidency as well.
So after the gut-punch prologue, the narrative pivots immediately to Biden in Chapter 1, recalling his reaction to the Charlottesville, Va., riot in 2017 as a dynamic restart for his political ambitions. Thereafter, the authors alternate between the innermost councils of Trump World and the corresponding circle of people around Biden, re-creating scenes of high and low drama with extensive dialogue quoted directly. (Some pages of Peril read almost like a screenplay.)
Much of this dialogue is attributed to either Trump or Biden, although neither sat for an interview for this book. Woodward uses material from his earlier Trump interviews for Rage, and the authors have been provided transcripts of some conversations. But most of these detailed exchanges that provide so much of the life of the book are re-created from the shared recollections of 200 other participants whom the authors interviewed.
Before and after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol
The climax of the narrative is the Jan. 6 riot to which everything builds and from which all that follows is denouement. Woodward and Costa do hold the new administration at critical arm's length, noting the confusion over Afghanistan and the struggles to unite Democratic Party factions behind the Biden agenda in Congress.
But the authors' perspective on Biden remains far more positive than their view of Trump, caught in the crosshairs here as in Woodward's earlier books. The authors evince respect for Biden's team, including chief of staff Ron Klain and longtime aide Mike Donilon. There is admiration for first lady Jill Biden. And while they devote a chapter to Hunter Biden, the troubled son whose efforts at rehab for drugs and alcohol are chronicled in his own autobiography, Beautiful Things, they do not dwell on this Achilles' heel.
Still, if one is looking for heroes in all this, the list begins with those Trump appointees and Republican officials who pushed back. Milley was far from alone, and the memoirs of others in the national security space — former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former national security adviser John Bolton in particular — have cast these internal conflicts in bold relief.
The authors devote substantial attention to Vice President Mike Pence, the former Indiana governor Trump elevated to the national ticket as a signal to white evangelical Protestants. Pence was a model of unwavering support through the trials of the 2016 fall campaign and the trying moments thereafter. But when Trump tried to recruit him in a far-fetched scheme to overturn the Electoral College, Pence balked. Led by his well-respected chief of staff, Marc Short, Pence consulted a constellation of conservative legal stars. He also called his fellow Indiana Republican Dan Quayle, the former vice president for George H.W. Bush.
Pence pressed the president's case with Quayle, and with others, the authors report. Wasn't there some way the Congress could get involved, even at this late date, to reopen the results? Quayle was succinct, quoted in the book as saying: "Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away."
Perhaps the most difficult characters to categorize are the windsock senators, Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell. Graham, from South Carolina, was a rival GOP candidate excoriating Trump in 2016, then a close confidant and ally once Trump became the nominee and president. Graham bailed out on Jan. 6, complaining that Trump's claims of a stolen election were baseless. But he still golfs with the former president and pleads with him to move on and think about 2024.
Just as confusing are the mixed messages from McConnell, the Senate Republican leader whom Trump consults and relies on and then consigns to perdition after McConnell congratulates Biden on his win. McConnell even now remains guarded and ambivalent on all things Trump, it appears, always calculating how any move will affect him and his party colleagues in the Senate.
A series of side by sides
Ultimately the book compares two men, two presidencies and two utterly different approaches to human relationships.
Trump is the more compelling figure, the sun within his own universe and the driving force in national politics. Biden seems less sure of himself, less forceful in debate, often more importuning than commanding.
But Trump also comes across as impatient, often delusional and obsessed with his own personal scoreboard. He is impatient and intolerant of dissent. Biden comes across as comparatively benign, inclined to listening and even saying he's sorry.
But perhaps what stands out most in each of the book's 72 mini-chapters is the contrast between how the two men treat their immediate circle of staff and associates. Trump demands, rages, curses and shouts. Even Cabinet members go away feeling browbeaten.
While we also hear Biden curse, he also winces and sighs and even whines a bit. He scrambles to correct for his failings, such as his habit of greeting women with too much touching and hugging. He backed off at the urging of his wife, as the authors relate, but as a problem this bespeaks his often-mentioned empathy. It is why he can have personal tête-à-têtes with other senators, even phone calls of a medium clubby-chummy nature with McConnell, his official chief impediment in Washington.
Trump's devotees loved that he disdained such outreach, that he proclaimed himself immune from "the miasma of the D.C. swamp," the book notes. His success at bullying his way through and past barriers and precedents drove the successes of his term. A big tax cut bill and regulatory reductions. Three Supreme Court justices and hundreds of other federal judges for life.
But it also cost him the service of many who could have helped, isolating him in the end with a claque of conspiracy peddlers. In so doing, he limited his opportunities to shape the world further, or at least the domestic politics of his time.
Woodward and Costa
This is Woodward's 21st book and his first with a co-author in many years. He began his book-writing career nearly half a century ago, producing All the President's Men with Carl Bernstein, his reporting partner on The Post's Watergate coverage in the early 1970s.
While not as well-known outside Washington as Woodward (who is?), Costa has been the host of PBS' Washington Week as well as a Post reporter. He left the PBS hosting slot at the beginning of 2021 to collaborate with Woodward, whom he has described as his mentor.
At 35, he is less than half Woodward's age, but he has built a formidable reputation over the past decade, beginning as a reporter for National Review, known for his contacts with and coverage of Tea Party Republicans elected in 2010. He joined The Washington Post in 2013.
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