A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America
Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig
Penguin Press, New York, 2020
First, the requisite warning: There was a time in America when parents threatened to wash with soap the mouths of their children who cursed. Donald Trump would have the cleanest mouth in the world. Beware. This is how your president really speaks to his staff.
Talk about timing. If ever the times called for a real and very stable genius, CoronaTime is it. But alas, as Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig reveal in excruciating detail, the very stable genius we require isn’t to be found where we need him/her to be, having failed the test for America even before his and our greatest challenge.
I began reading Rucker and Leonnig’s account more than a month and a half ago. As chilling as it was to read their expose just a short while ago, it’s a hundred times more disturbing now. His recent bizarre boast proves that:
“A Very Stable Genius” is a primer in total dysfunction. Rucker and Leonnig offer example after example of a man who doesn’t know but is compelled to pretend more than those who actually do know. He is so uncomfortable with expertise that he hounds and bullies his experts out of the White House. Especially those he bragged about bringing in.
This is one of those books you’ll have to force yourself to read, especially now as the virus attacks. Perhaps you like the man, hate the Dems, appreciate his bluntness, despise the Deep State. No problem. Many of us — not, of course, aspiring immigrants or the Kurds or the very poor — could have survived his crude self-absorption — that is, until now, when the proverbial shite hits the proverbial fan with unrelenting fury. When no amount of Hillary-hating, Fake News-blaming, and Sleepy Joe Burisma bait and switch can distract from the frightening fact that every American can’t really be tested. That there aren’t enough masks and respirators and ventilators and ICU beds to meet our need. That our healthcare professionals are exhausted and terribly vulnerable, our hospitals close to collapse.
And the thing about AVSG is that one of the things you realize so very early on is that either the Washington Post bugged the White House, or so many months before COVID-19, some of those closest to Donald Trump, increasingly terrified, were compelled to spill a multitude of beans to Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig — a sustained cry for help. I don’t really know who they were, but I’m guessing at least Don McGahn might have said something to someone about this extraordinary phone call and meeting with the President:
“McGahn was relieved. ‘Hey, we’re interviewing FBI directors over here,’ he told Rosenstein. ‘Where are you?’
‘I gotta tell you something,’ the deputy attorney general said. ‘I just appointed a special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation.’
McGahn … felt as if a flash from a camera had gone off in his face and closed his eyes. ‘What?’ McGahn said, trying to get some purchase. ‘You did what?’
“Rosenstein repeated himself. McGahn inhaled and exhaled slowly, thinking of all this would mean. ‘Okay, Rod,’ he said, regaining his composure. ‘Got it. How much time do I have?’ Rosenstein told McGahn he had a few hours …
“In the meantime, an aide poked her head in to say there was someone waiting on the line for Sessions. The attorney general stepped out of the room. Rosenstein delivered the same news he had just given McGahn.
“Sessions returned to the Oval, his face white as a piece of paper … his gallows expression revealing his fear of what was to come …
“‘What is it, Jeff?’ Trump said. ‘Well, uh, Mr. President’ … ‘Well, uh, we have a special counsel.’ He explained Rosenstein had appointed Mueller. Trump looked at McGahn, genuinely confused.
“‘What he’s trying to say is Rod just appointed a special counsel and has picked Bob Mueller to investigate the Russia stuff,’ McGahn told him.
“‘What did you just say?’ Trump asked, aghast. ‘Jeff, is this true?’ Sessions nodded, looking down to avoid the president’s gaze.
“‘You’re serious?’ Trump asked. ‘Serious as a heart attack,’ McGahn replied. There was a palpable pause in the room, unlike anything any of them had experienced from the voluble Trump, who could fill any airtime. The president slumped in his chair and sighed deeply, like someone making room in his lungs to take in more oxygen for a powerful scream. ‘Oh, my God,’ Trump exclaimed. ‘This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked!’ … (Emphasis added.)
“‘It doesn’t matter what the truth is,’ the president said. ‘They just fuck you up the whole time’ … Then Trump turned his full venom on Sessions. ‘It’s your fucking fault,’ he said. ‘You’re weak. This is all your fault.’
“Sessions said blaming him was not fair. ‘If you feel that’s wrong, then I’ll resign,’ the attorney general said.
“‘You know what, Jeff?’ Trump said. ‘You’re fucking right. You should fucking resign!’
“Sessions’s eyes welled up. He was holding back tears with everything he had. By this point, McGahn, Pence, and Hunt were watching the president break the attorney general in front of their eyes. The vice president interjected. ‘Do you mind giving us a minute, gentlemen?’ Pence asked …
“As Sessions headed toward the West Wing exit, McGahn charged down the hallway to Reince Priebus’s office and stuck his head in the door … ‘Sessions just resigned, and we’ve got a special counsel.’
“‘No!’ Priebus said, looking horrified. ‘Where’s Sessions?’ The chief of staff rushed past McGahn in his doorway and took off in a trot for the Oval, where he saw Pence. ‘Where’s Jeff?’ Priebus asked the vice president. Pence confirmed for him that Sessions had resigned and was leaving the building. Priebus then raced out to the parking lot to try to catch the attorney general before he drove off. Priebus climbed into the backseat of Sessions’s black vehicle and asked him, ‘What’s going on?’
“Humiliated, Sessions said, ‘He doesn’t want me around. I’m done. I’m tired of this.’ ‘You can’t resign,’ Priebus said. ‘We cannot have the attorney general, a special counsel, and the FBI director fiasco all at the same time.’ Priebus brought Sessions back up to his office, where he, along with Pence and others, persuaded the attorney general not to resign immediately but rather to take some time to consider his actions.”
Now I admit this clown show seems kind of quaint in the Days of Corona. Because, when all is said and done, they were merely facing a special counsel and an investigation into Russian interference — nothing close to a catastrophic pandemic.
As for the title:
But, in the light of these new developments, I might have stolen from Dante: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here. Because imagining a broken Sessions about to cry and Priebus running after him is just one of a never-ending stream of mind-boggling, stupefying incidents that White House insiders just needed to share with the Washington Post reporters.
In retrospect, humiliating Sessions seems petty compared to reassuring the American public that anyone can get a test whenever they need for a virus that can kill them, when, in fact, they can’t get a test because this very stable genius had already presided over the mass firing of the very people who know most about viruses, and had already cut the budgets of every agency we’d normally rely on to combat the disease. Still, if you’re desperate for a metaphorical silver lining, he did prevail on the heads of Target and Walmart and Walgreens to open up their parking lots for the nonexistent health vans that will offer the drive-by nonexistent tests.
“A Very Stable Genius” is the result of interviews with more than 200 officials and associates of President Trump. Given the fierce attempt of the Trump administration to uncover the identity of the whistleblower, it’s understandable that most wouldn’t talk unless they could remain anonymous. And while the authors explain that though “Dialogue cannot always be exact,” it is nonetheless “based here on multiple people’s memories of events and, in many cases, contemporaneous notes taken by witnesses.”
Rucker and Leonnig show us how the mix of ignorance and arrogance infected foreign affairs: “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson worked to advance the U.S. relationship with India throughout the first year of the Trump administration … Tillerson was immediately impressed by Modi. The prime minister was a serious person, an experienced deal maker who was motivated by the prospects of a strategic partnership with the United States … On one border was Pakistan, India’s greatest threat, and on another was China, which had been trying to partner with Pakistan. To the north was Afghanistan, which was ravaged by war, highly unstable, and vulnerable to Russia and other countries … [Modi] was inclined to deal with the United States, but if things ever went sour, Russia was knocking on his door …
“On November 13, Trump sat down with Modi in Manila … Tillerson had high hopes for the meeting — even though, back at the White House, Trump was known to have affected an Indian accent to imitate Modi, a sign of disrespect for the prime minister …
“Trump had been briefed but didn’t appear to have retained the material and instead tried to wing it. He took a hard right turn into a nitpicky complaint about trade imbalances. Modi tried to refocus on the threats India faced from Afghanistan, China, and Pakistan … When Modi mentioned his concern about China’s ambitions and aggression in the region, Trump revealed a stunning ignorance about geography.
“‘It’s not like you’ve got China on your border,’ Trump said, seeming to dismiss the threat to India. Modi’s eyes bulged out in surprise. Aides noticed him giving a sidelong glance at Tillerson, who accompanied Trump as part of the U.S. delegation … Tillerson’s eyes flashed open wide at Trump’s comment, but he quickly put his hand to his brow, appearing to the Indian delegation to attempt not to offend the president as well as to signal to Modi that he knew this statement was nuts.
“Trump did not appear to notice their silent exchange. He just kept rolling, droning on about unrelated topics. Modi tried to keep the conversation on an elevated plane … But each time Modi tried to get Trump to engage on the substance of U.S.-India relations, the American president veered off on another non sequitur about trade deficits and the endless war in Afghanistan … Modi’s expression gradually shifted, from shock and concern to resignation.
“I think he left that meeting and said, ‘This is not a serious man. I cannot count on this man as a partner,’ one Trump aide recalled. After that meeting, ‘the Indians took a step back’ in their diplomatic relations with the United States.
As a senior national security official told Rucker and Leonnig: “I’ve served the man for two years. I think he’s a long-term and immediate danger to the country.” While another senior administration official emphasized, “The guy is completely crazy. The story of Trump: a president with horrible instincts and a senior-level cabinet playing Whac-A-Mole.” (Emphasis added.)
Others have told this story, but never with this kind of horrifying detail: “The meeting was billed as a briefing on Afghanistan, because Trump was in the midst of developing a long-term strategy to defeat the Islamic State there … The organizers viewed it as a course correction, an intervention to educate Trump and give him some fundamentals for analyzing the world …
“Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford sat in the seat of honor midway down the table … Mattis and the newly confirmed deputy defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, sat to the president’s left, with Vice President Pence and Tillerson to his right. Down the table sat the leaders of the military branches, along with Cohn and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin. Steve Bannon was in the outer ring of chairs …
“[Mattis] sought to explain why U.S. troops were deployed in so many regions and why America’s safety hinged on a complex web of trade deals, alliances, and bases across the globe … [and] the power of the NATO alliance to stabilize Europe and keep the United States safe. Bannon thought to himself, ‘Not good. Trump is not going to like that one bit.’ The internationalist language Mattis was using was a trigger for Trump. ‘Oh, baby, this is going to be fucking wild,’ Bannon thought …
“Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn took turns trying to … [explain] how U.S. deployments fended off the threats of terror cells, nuclear blasts, and destabilizing enemies in places including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Korean Peninsula, and Syria. Cohn spoke for about twenty minutes about the value of free trade with America’s allies …
“Trump appeared peeved by the schoolhouse vibe but also allergic to the dynamic of his advisers talking at him. His ricocheting attention span led him to repeatedly interrupt the lesson … For instance, the word ‘base’ prompted him to launch in to say how ‘crazy’ and ‘stupid’ it was to pay for bases in some countries … South Korea should pay for a $10 billion missile defense system that the United States built for it. The system was designed to shoot down any short- and medium-range ballistic missiles from North Korea to protect South Korea and American troops stationed there …
“‘We should charge them rent … We should make them pay for our soldiers. We should make money off of everything.’ Trump said U.S. troops and defense systems in South Korea did not make Americans safer. Trump proceeded to explain that NATO, too, was worthless. U.S. generals were letting the allied member countries get away with murder, he said, and they owed the United States a lot of money after not living up to their promise of paying their dues …
“‘Then he scolded top officials for the untold millions of dollars he believed they had let slip through their fingers by allowing allies to avoid their obligations’ … The NATO allies didn’t owe the United States back rent, [Mattis] said … NATO had a nonbinding goal that members should pay at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their defenses. Only five of the countries currently met that goal, but it wasn’t as if they were shorting the United States on the bill … [And] the NATO alliance was not serving only to protect western Europe. It protected America, too. ‘This is what keeps us safe,’ Mattis said …
“Trump then repeated a threat … He wanted out of the Iran nuclear deal that President Obama had struck in 2015, which called for Iran to eliminate its uranium stockpile and cut its nuclear weaponry. ‘It’s the worst deal in history!’ Trump declared. ‘Well, actually …’ Tillerson interjected. ‘I don’t want to hear it,’ Trump said, cutting off the secretary of state … ‘They’re cheating. They’re building. We’re getting out of it. I keep telling you, I keep giving you time, and you keep delaying me. I want out of it.’
“Before they could debate the Iran deal … Trump unleashed his disdain, calling Afghanistan a ‘loser war.’ That phrase hung in the air and disgusted not only the military leaders at the table but also the men and women in uniform sitting along the back wall behind their principals. They all were sworn to obey their commander-in-chief’s commands, and here he was calling the war they had been fighting a loser war.
“‘You’re all losers,’ Trump said. ‘You don’t know how to win anymore.’ Trump questioned why the United States couldn’t get some oil as payment for the troops stationed in the Persian Gulf. ‘We spent $7 trillion; they’re ripping us off,’ Trump boomed. ‘Where is the fucking oil?’…
“‘I want to win,’ he said. ‘We don’t win any wars anymore … We spend $7 trillion, everybody else got the oil and we’re not winning anymore.’ Trump by now was in one of his rages. He was so angry that he wasn’t taking many breaths. All morning, he had been coarse and cavalier, but the next several things he bellowed went beyond that description. They stunned nearly everyone in the room, and some vowed that they would never repeat them.
“‘I wouldn’t go to war with you people,’ Trump told the assembled brass. Addressing the room, the commander in chief barked, ‘You’re a bunch of dopes and babies’ … this was the gravest insult he could have delivered to these people, in this sacred space. The flag officers in the room were shocked. Some staff began looking down at their papers, rearranging folders, almost wishing themselves out of the room. A few considered walking out. They tried not to reveal their revulsion on their faces, but questions raced through their minds. ‘How does the commander in chief say that?’ one thought. ‘What would our worst adversaries think if they knew he said this?’
“This was a president who had been labeled a ‘draft dodger’ for avoiding service in the Vietnam War under questionable circumstances. Trump was a young man born of privilege and in seemingly perfect health: six feet two inches with a muscular build and a flawless medical record. He played several sports, including football. Then, in 1968 at age twenty-two, he obtained a diagnosis of bone spurs in his heels that exempted him from military service just as the United States was drafting men his age to fulfill massive troop deployments to Vietnam.
“Tillerson in particular was stunned by Trump’s diatribe and began visibly seething. For too many minutes, others in the room noticed, he had been staring straight, dumbfounded, at Mattis, who was speechless, his head bowed down toward the table. Tillerson thought to himself, ‘Gosh darn it, Jim, say something. Why aren’t you saying something?’ But, as he would later tell close aides, Tillerson realized in that moment that Mattis was genetically a marine, unable to talk back to his commander in chief, no matter what nonsense came out of his mouth.
“The more perplexing silence was from Pence, a leader who should have been able to stand up to Trump. Instead, one attendee thought, ‘He’s sitting there frozen like a statue. Why doesn’t he stop the president?’ Another recalled the vice president was ‘a wax museum guy’ … Surely, he disagreed with Trump’s characterization of military leaders as ‘dopes and babies,’ considering his son, Michael, was a marine first lieutenant then training for his naval aviator wings. But some surmised Pence feared getting crosswise with Trump. ‘A total deer in the headlights,’ recalled a third attendee …
“So many people in that room had gone to war and risked their lives for their country, and now they were being dressed down by a president who had not. They felt sick to their stomachs. Tillerson told others he thought he saw a woman in the room silently crying. He was furious and decided he couldn’t stand it another minute. His voice broke into Trump’s tirade, this one about trying to make money off U.S. troops.
“‘No, that’s just wrong,’ the secretary of state said. ‘Mr. President, you’re totally wrong. None of that is true.’ Tillerson’s father and great-uncle had both been combat veterans, and he was deeply proud of their service. ‘The men and women who put on a uniform don’t do it to become soldiers of fortune,’ Tillerson said. ‘That’s not why they put on a uniform and go out and die. They do it to protect our freedom.’
“There was silence in the Tank. Several military officers in the room were grateful to the secretary of state for defending them when no one else would. The meeting soon ended and Trump walked out, saying goodbye to a group of servicemen lining the corridor as he made his way to his motorcade waiting outside. Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn were deflated. Standing in the hall with a small cluster of people he trusted, Tillerson finally let down his guard.
“‘He’s a fucking moron,’ the secretary of state said of the president.’ (Emphasis added.)
Rucker and Leonnig tell us: “It often fell to McGahn to deliver bad news. Cabinet secretaries and other aides pleaded for McGahn to come to the Oval Office to explain to Trump why he couldn’t do this and couldn’t do that. In one of the counsel’s first discussions of executive power with the president, McGahn told Trump he couldn’t automatically issue an executive order to impose tariffs on foreign countries’ goods — unless he had a grave reason.
“‘I just want to do it. I’m the president. Can’t I do it?’ Trump asked him. ‘No,’ McGahn said, pointing out the standard role of Congress in imposing duties and tariffs on imports. ‘You need a study under the statute. There’s a process. They have to do reports, and there has to be public notice.’
“To Trump, McGahn became Dr. No. The White House counsel labored to keep bad ideas from germinating … It appears that not only were staff members worried about tweets aimed at them, they were also afraid of the President. It seems the kind of anger Trump couldn’t even hide from his generals was a familiar and constant pattern. “‘The rages, they build and they build,’ one of his advisers said. ‘He’s screaming and he’s a big guy and he looks like he could get physical.’”
Page after page brings us back to the scary reality that Donald Trump and stability don’t really occupy the same universe.
As for genius: “Around 10:00 a.m. on May 8 … Trump greeted McGahn with a smile and waved him in. ‘You’re here. Wonderful,’ he said. ‘We’re going to fire Comey.’
“As McGahn told colleagues, he was never entirely sure when the president barked out a plan whether he was giving orders or merely crowdsourcing an idea by saying it aloud. But this time it was clear Trump was determined to fire Comey. The president read aloud from the firing letter Miller had drafted and told his advisers, ‘Don’t talk me out of this. I’ve made my decision.’ …
“McGahn felt reasonably sure Trump would get roasted by Democrats and even by some Republicans for such a drastic action. But the White House counsel also had grown tired of being Trump’s Dr. No and figured it would be impossible to talk the president out of it …”
Of course, Trump fired Comey, which called for more attorneys, who quickly found themselves forced to deal with the Trump children: “The lawyers increasingly saw Kushner and Ivanka Trump as problems. The kids wandered in and out of strategy sessions about the investigation, without so much as a knock on the door, asking what was going on. Ivanka would walk in, say, ‘Hi, Dad,’ and the lawyers would stop talking about substance and simply smile at her awkwardly, waiting for her to leave. She and Kushner talked openly about details of the investigation with other staffers, as well as with the president, and privately offered him their own advice.
“[Mark] Corallo later explained. ‘The discomfort is with the kids always being there and talking about the case with other people in the White House, which makes everybody a witness … McGahn shared their concerns. But the kids wanted to be part of the action, and they wanted the lawyers on their side. They worked to charm Dowd, who was immediately taken by Ivanka as she profusely thanked him for joining the legal team and remarked about how valuable he would be to her father.
“Others who interacted with Ivanka found her to be a spoiled princess who had absorbed her father’s worst narcissistic, superficial, and self-promoting qualities. ‘As a twelve-year-old, she was put on the phone with CEOs, and her father told her she was the most amazing thing in the world and her opinion was valued,’ one administration official explained. ‘She is a product of her environment.’ …
“June 14, The Washington Post reported that Mueller had expanded his Russia probe to include an examination of whether Trump had attempted to obstruct justice … Trump called Don McGahn on his cell phone. He was steaming hot and wanted to find out if the investigation really was trained on him — and, if so, how could this have happened? … He had to remove Mueller because of what the president believed were conflicts of interest. ‘You gotta do this,’ Trump told McGahn. ‘You gotta call Rod.’
“McGahn … again told the president that the conflicts case was not very strong and that his personal lawyers should be raising the issue, not the White House counsel. But … the president was not thinking rationally and would not take no for an answer. ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ McGahn said, giving his boss a noncommittal answer to get him off the phone. McGahn hung up, shaking his head at the president’s unreasonable demands …
“But on the morning of Saturday, June 17, Trump called McGahn on his cell phone again. It was Father’s Day weekend, and McGahn had slept in and was at home getting ready for a full day of family events planned for his son’s birthday. ‘Call Rod … Tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the special counsel … Mueller has to go,’ Trump continued. ‘Call me back when you do it.’ …
“[McGahn ] did not want to participate in another obstructive episode. He had no intention of actually calling Rosenstein, out of fear Rosenstein would also consider it a directive and that it might trigger him to take some drastic and irreversible step. But McGahn also did not want to fight Trump on his idea. Instead, he just replied methodically, ‘Yeah, boss,’ and ‘Okay.’ He was worn down, so tired of Trump’s bullshit. He just wanted to get off the phone and think through the choice he now faced …
“Trump would later claim that he never asked McGahn to help him ‘fire’ Mueller, which technically was true. He hadn’t used the word ‘fire.’ But it was clear to McGahn what Trump wanted him to do …”
As for the on-going battle between expertise and arrogance, AVSG offers the experience of General McMaster: “In preparation for the Asia trip, John Kelly asked Tillerson if he could … give Trump his national security briefings on the road? This request was odd. Briefing the president was normally the responsibility of the national security adviser. Tillerson asked Kelly why.
“He doesn’t want to see McMaster,” Kelly responded … A military intellectual and policy maestro, McMaster was widely respected in Washington’s foreign policy establishment … [but] his briefings to Trump were academic and detail-oriented, and the two men’s stylistic differences inspired epic clashes.
“McMaster had difficulty holding the president’s attention. Trump, meanwhile, would get annoyed with what he considered McMaster’s lecturing style. The president felt his national security adviser was always determined to try to ‘teach me something.’ … As the president repeatedly told Kelly when he proposed a subject briefing: ‘I don’t want to talk to anyone. I know more than they do. I know better than anybody else.’ … (Emphasis added.)
“Some mornings, Trump would come down to the Oval Office and see the President’s Daily Brief on his schedule, followed by a meeting with the national security adviser, and complain. ‘I’m not fucking doing that,’ he told aides. “I’m not talking with McMaster for an hour. Are you kidding me?’ Instead, the president would step into his private dining room, turn on the television, and summon National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, or commerce secretary Wilbur Ross to come over and keep him company …
“By the time of the November trip to Asia, Trump was openly mocking McMaster. When McMaster arrived in his office for a briefing, Trump would puff up his chest, sit up straight in his chair, and fake shout like a boot camp drill sergeant. In his play, he pretended to be McMaster. ‘I’m your national security adviser, General McMaster, sir!’ Trump would say, trying to amuse the others in the room. ‘I’m here to give you your briefing, sir!’ …
“The National Security Council staff were deeply disturbed by Trump’s treatment of their boss. ‘The president doesn’t fire people,’ said one of McMaster’s aides. ‘He just tortures them until they’re willing to quit.’ …
There are extraordinary examples of the President’s lack of expertise: his mind-boggling ignorance about the history of Pearl Harbor; his bizarre insistence that he could evaluate the honesty of Putin and Kim within moments, and his stunning misperception of North Korea’s intentions. Remember this: “Just before leaving for Singapore on June 9, Trump announced that he would be able to determine whether a denuclearization deal was attainable ‘within the first minute’ of meeting Kim. How? ‘My touch, my feel—that’s what I do,’ he boasted to reporters …”
Then this clueless display: “Trump began his grand-finale news conference in Singapore by playing a film he had commissioned, first a version in Korean and then one in English. It was startlingly reminiscent of Pyongyang’s propaganda videos. The movie portrayed North Korea as some kind of paradise, with gleaming high-rises, time-lapsed sunrises, high-speed trains, majestic horses running through water, and children merrily skipping through a city square. It included a montage of images of Kim and Trump waving their hands and flashing thumbs up, as if running mates in a campaign.”
There’s his arrogant decision to abandon our allies the Kurds and their subsequent slaughter by another of his autocratic friends, Erdogan of Turkey.
Thanks to those many Trumpees who pulled back our Emerald City curtain to reveal our current day humbug-ian carny, Rucker and Leonnig offer amazingly relevant stories. There’s Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who so often bent over backwards it’s amazing she can still stand upright. A lawyer, Trump pressured her to preside over a legally dubious policy her previous boss John Kelly knew was doomed from the start. No matter how often she tried to explain the complicated reality that spurred poor people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Trump insisted on his simplistic wall and the increasingly harsh treatment of “illegal immigrants,” even those who followed the law and were attempting to claim asylum.
AVSG notes: “Nielsen didn’t know how bad the situation really was, and as she stood before the cameras, she didn’t realize ProPublica, an investigative news organization, had just moments earlier posted an audio clip of migrant children, ages four to ten, crying and pleading to see their mothers and fathers while being corralled inside a Customs and Border Protection facility. Their misery had been recorded a week earlier by a Good Samaritan who preferred to remain anonymous but felt wrenched by their cries just hours after the children were separated from their parents. As Nielsen answered questions from reporters, Olivia Nuzzi of New York magazine played the recording aloud in the briefing room. In addition to the sounds of sniffling and cries of ‘Mami’ and ‘Papi,’ a six-year-old Salvadoran girl could be heard pleading to have someone call her aunt and repeating over and over the number she has memorized.”
“A Customs and Border Protection agent could be heard joking in a deep voice, ‘Well, we’ve got an orchestra here.’ A reporter shouted out to Nielsen, ‘How is this not child abuse?’ …After giving the White House briefing, she became the public face of a government placing kids in cages …”
Jump ahead to troops on the border. “The next day, April 5, Nielsen met up with Trump on the president’s tour of a section of new border wall in Calexico, California. Shortly before a pair of media appearances there, Trump told Nielsen, ‘Go tell them we’re full. We can’t take any more [migrants].’
“Nielsen declined. ‘That’s not a legal reason,’ she told the president. Being ‘full’ didn’t justify denying people legal asylum. Trump then pulled aside Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, for a chat out of Nielsen’s earshot. At a roundtable session with border security officials, Trump said himself what he had asked Nielsen to say: ‘The system is full. Can’t take you anymore. Whether it’s asylum, whether it’s anything you want, it’s illegal immigration. We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full. Our area is full. The sector is full. Can’t take you anymore, I’m sorry. Can’t happen. So turn around. That’s the way it is.’” …
“Later the night of April 5, Nielsen called Trump … ‘I know you’re frustrated,’ she said. ‘Can I come in this weekend?’ Nielsen wanted to brief Trump on the new agreements she had just brokered with Northern Triangle countries designed to slow the flow of migrants into the United States by setting penalties for kidnappers, imposing blockades on travelers without visas, and establishing border checkpoints in southern Mexico …
“When Nielsen showed up at the White House on April 7 to meet with Trump in the Yellow Oval Room, Mulvaney was there with the president. She started to explain a major agreement she had secured in private negotiations with Mexican authorities the previous week. Mexico had promised to stop 50 percent of the migrants flowing through its internal border checkpoints as they headed north. But Trump cut her off. Looking at Mulvaney, he said, ‘See, this is what’s wrong with her. It should be 100 percent.’ …
“‘Mr. President, we can’t stop 100 percent,’ Nielsen said. They went back and forth. Trump didn’t listen to Nielsen’s explanations about the Northern Triangle agreement, how important it was to have partners in those regions to discourage the migration from within … He was tuning her out. The conversation escalated. Trump made it clear he wanted her gone.
“Sir, why don’t I give you my resignation,” Nielsen asked the president. Trump accepted. He wanted a change … ‘Why don’t we do a week of transition?’ Nielsen offered.
“Trump agreed and the meeting was over. Within minutes, as Nielsen was being driven home a few miles away in Alexandria, the president tweeted, “Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen will be leaving her position, and I would like to thank her for her service. I am pleased to announce that Kevin McAleenan, the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, will become Acting Secretary for @DHSgov. I have confidence that Kevin will do a great job!”
Rucker and Leonnig offer stories about the list of public servants savaged as the administration disemboweled our government: some you’re well aware of like FBI director James Comey, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Ret. U.S. Marine Gen. John Kelly, Chief of State,Don McGahn, John Bolton, Steve Bannon and the less famous dismissals, or pressured resignees like Chief of Staff Reince Preibus, Sally Yates, the acting U.S. attorney general, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindland, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, executive assistant Madeleine Westerhout, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert, John McEntee, President Trump’s personal assistant, Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary, Tom Price, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Service. On and on.
Some final thoughts from an insider: “Before Trump, this government aide had always felt the presidency had a kind of magic. No matter which party the president came from, he bore the weight of history on his shoulders, with the seriousness it deserved. But not anymore. ‘He’s ruined that magic,’ this aide said of Trump. ‘The disdain he shows for our country’s foundation and its principles. The disregard he has for right and wrong. Your fist clenches. Your teeth grate. The hair goes up on the back of your neck. I have to remind myself I said an oath to a document in the National Archives. I swore to the Constitution. I didn’t swear an oath to this jackass.’ …
“‘If he wanted to, how far could he push this?’ this aide asked. ‘Look back. Did people in the 1930s in Germany know when the government started to turn on them? Most Americans are more worried about who is going to win on America’s Got Talent and what the traffic is going to be like on I-95. They aren’t watching this closely.
“‘I like to believe [Trump] is too self-engrossed, too incompetent and disorganized to get us to 1930,’ this aide added. ‘But he has moved the bar … The time is coming. Our nation will be tested. Every nation is. Rome fell, remember. He is opening up vulnerabilities for this to happen. That is my fear.’”
I wouldn’t have said this a month ago, but Phillip Rucker and Carol Leonnig have provided a great public service. They have provided a primer, a guidebook, an instruction manual, if you will, for Donald Trump 2020. Because, relying on the experience and testimony of those closest to him, they have revealed in three dimensions how he has treated the men and women he chose to serve with him, how he has treated those who used to be our friends and allies, how he has treated decorated generals and former corporate executives, prime ministers and brutal tyrants. If you take the time to read “A Very Stable Genius,” you can’t be surprised when he lies to us about a worldwide epidemic. He is betraying us just as he betrayed the brave Kurds who died fighting ISIS.
Rucker and Leonnig leave us with words from Ron Chernow, author of a biographer of Alexander Hamilton: “When Alexander Hamilton wrote the two essays in The Federalist devoted to the idea of impeachment, Trump was the kind of president he had in mind — a populist demagogue who would foment frenzy, pander to prejudices, feed off chaos, and secretly betray the American people in the accumulation of power.”