How America faced ‘Peril’ in final days of Trump presidency

The first draft of history is being written about the final, chaotic days of Donald Trump's presidency and the earliest days of Joe Biden's. A new book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reveals the alarm and lengths that then-president Trump's top advisors went to in order to prevent him from acting on his worst impulses. Woodward and Costa join Judy Woodruff with more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The first draft of history is being written about the final chaotic days of Donald Trump's presidency and the earliest days of Joe Biden's.

    In a new book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, they reveal the alarm and the lengths that then-President Trump's top advisers went to, to prevent him from acting on his worst impulses.

    The title of the book is "Peril."

    And they join us now.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    Bob Woodward, Robert Costa, welcome back to PBS.

    Robert Costa, "Peril" Co-Author: Good to see you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, before we talk about some of the details of the book, Bob Woodward, this is your third book looking at Donald Trump.

    How is he different, was he different at the end of his term than he was at the beginning?

  • Bob Woodward,”Peril” Co-Author:

    He's always shocking and different, but also always the same.

    And this — in a way, the reporting on Trump is a quest. Who is he? What does he really care about? What is he doing? What is his political appeal to so many people in the country? And just, if you zoom in on the reality now, it's — the idea that he and Nixon — when Nixon left and resigned, he didn't do around and campaign. Trump is campaigning.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is campaigning. And I want to ask you about that.

    Robert Costa, so much important reporting in this book, including about — as I just mentioned, about how Trump's advisers at different points, at many points were trying to keep him from carrying out acts that would have been — either violated the Constitution or been purely illegal.

    And there's one example in here I want to ask you about. It was 2020. The attorney general, Bill Barr, he was being asked by the president to OK an order that would, in an instant, take all 10 million American citizens who were the children of undocumented immigrants, because he said, let's just, in one fell swoop, say they won't be.

    And I won't get into all the details about why. But there were people around the president who agreed with him on this. The attorney general said no.

    Help us understand why some went along and some didn't.

  • Robert Costa:

    The answer to that is complicated, because these characters in "Peril" and during this moment in American history are complicated.

    In many ways, our reporting shows Attorney General Barr was an enabler of President Trump, a political ally. He actually went to President Trump in April 2020. We have the whole scene, and saying he needs to reform his behavior. He uses some words we can say here on PBS about trying to corral the president more towards the political center, toward political norms.

    He was enabling President Trump, but he was also, on issues like birthright citizenship, trying to pull him away from the more far right elements of the Republican Party.

    But whether it was Barr or others, we keep seeing in our reporting no one was able to contain President Trump. And that's why Chairman Milley decided to take some kind of behind-the-scenes actions to make sure catastrophe didn't happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we, in fact, have already done some reporting on elements of your book that came out about General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Bob Woodward, who got in touch with his Chinese counterpart to say, no, we're not planning to come after China.

    But there are other pieces, stories in the book about General Milley that suggests he was genuinely worried about the president.

  • Bob Woodward:

    Yes, he was.

    This idea — I mean, Trump has said that what Milley did was treasonous. We found no evidence, zero evidence of that. He's trying to protect the country in moments of crisis four days before the election. Milley gets intelligence that the Chinese think we're going to attack them.

    This is one of the hairiest moments for somebody in the military, that the adversary might think we're going to attack them, which could invite a Pearl Harbor strike, first move on the other side.

    And so, in the panic — and, I mean, it was a crisis — to talk to the Chinese counterpart and say, no, no, we don't mean that. We are not going to attack you. And he says some things that have been interpreted, like when he said, we're not — if we're going to attack you, I will call you.

    Well, what he means, in context, if you look at — I'm sorry we remember this — page 129 in the book, what Milley is saying to General Li China is, look, we will be talking. There are tensions. But this is not a time when we're going to attack you.

    And interesting, and maybe important to history, General Li said, I believe you. I accept you at your word in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And when it comes to Attorney General Bill Barr, whether it's Lindsey Graham, a number of people who were advising this president, at the time, it looked like they were unquestioning going along with him.

    You — in your reporting, they're telling you, well, I had different ideas.

    How do you know when to believe them?

  • Robert Costa:

    It's not about believing them.

    It's about charting what they do, what they say. Actions matter in politics and policy. And you see with Senator Graham, it's not about us believing him, because we see him twist and turn in our story at many times. He's at one time saying President Trump's going way outside of the bounds on the election. And, other times, he's saying this man must run in 2024.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to — and you referred, Bob, just quickly, a minute ago to President Trump. Do you think he will run again?

  • Bob Woodward:

    Yes.

    Our reporting shows — and he's been kind of baiting people and say, oh, I'm not going to announce yet, but telling his supporters, you will be happy with what I do.

    This — but nothing is certain here.

  • Robert Costa:

    Well, that quote from Brad Parscale, in July 2021, he privately said, based on our reporting, the former campaign manager for Trump in 2020, that, if he runs again — and Parscale and others around the president believe he will — the former president — he will run because of vengeance.

    That will be the motivating factor. And the people around President Trump and his supporters now are people like Steve Bannon, who told the president, we need to kill the Biden presidency in the crib.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, part of the book is about President Biden.

    Bob Woodward, you have got really interesting reporting here about his relationship with his closest advisers and what they are trying to keep him from doing. They don't like him doing unscripted events. And there are points where Republicans and others are looking at this White House and saying, they're keeping the president back. They're keeping him from what he wants to do.

  • Bob Woodward:

    Well…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did you end up reading that role?

  • Bob Woodward:

    I mean, they may be trying, but I think Biden's going to do what he wants.

    And we show him in private meetings regularly being the question man, be very tough on people. Where did that come from? Are you sure? Give me the data.

    He is somebody who was a tough boss. At the same time, in Afghanistan, which is so important, Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, and Austin, the secretary of defense, in March formally made proposals to President Biden, slow down the pullout. Do it in increments.

    And this, of course, is the criticism, saying Biden should have done that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Less than 30 seconds.

    President Biden, so much on his plate right now. Based on your reporting, does he understand the Congress, the U.S. Senate that he served in, but that it's changed since then?

  • Robert Costa:

    He has adapted.

    You see this man of the Senate. They call him old Joe, some of his closest friends in the Senate, because he was there for 36 years. He's adapted to a changing Democratic Party.

    One of his closest allies we show in the book is Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, his primary foe in 2020, who came close to the nomination, now working in tandem with him on infrastructure. It's actually the centrists at times, like Senator Manchin in West Virginia, who are causing President Biden the most headaches.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Robert Costa, Bob Woodward.

    The book is "Peril." Thank you both. And congratulations.

  • Robert Costa:

    Thank you.

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