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How Trump’s team struggled to tell him no, enabled election falsehoods

It has been eight months since former president Donald Trump's election loss to President Joe Biden. But Trump has falsely and repeated claimed the election was rigged against him. Judy Woodruff discusses his defeat and his chaotic, controversial final year in office with Michael Bender of The Wall Street Journal, author of "Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been nearly six months since Donald Trump left Washington, after losing the presidential race to Joe Biden.

    And, for months, the former president has falsely claimed the election was rigged against him. But his defeat and his chaotic, controversial final year in office is the focus of a new book, "Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost, " by Michael Bender of The Wall Street Journal.

    His book is out today. And he joins us now.

    Michael Bender, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    It was a famous quote the president gave as he was talking on television after it was becoming clear he had lost, but he goes before the American people to say: I won.

    It was the beginning of this process of denial, wasn't it?

  • Michael C. Bender:

    The Inside Story of How Trump Lost": Yes, that's right.

    I mean, it was an unscripted line uttered after 2:00 in the morning. He didn't even want to come down to address the nation and the guests at the White House, where he was planning a victory party.

    And he decided on stage to blurt out that he had won the election, obviously quite falsely, And that set off a chain of reactions for the next six months into 2021.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, the book is just a remarkable collection of stories.

    You follow the administration, the campaign. You spent — you had a number of interviews with him in person. You talked to, what, over 150 people working for him. And you paint this picture of this chaotic, disorganized campaign that never really could settle on a message or a strategy, and surrounded by people who basically didn't stand up to this president.

  • Michael C. Bender:

    This book focuses on 2020, but it is informed by over five years of covering him and the people around him, and use a lot of the stories to give context to what happened in 2020.

    And you mentioned the chaos of the Trump administration. It was beyond chaos. And the people closest to him thought he was, at different points of the year, a danger to the country and tried various ways to stop him or to keep him in line and tried to act as guardrails, some without very much success.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as we said, many of them were afraid to stand up to him. But, as you point out, Michael Bender, some were.

    You have that really fascinating episode in here where he is with General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is after the death of George Floyd. There are protests all around the country. The president is saying to him and others, we need to crack their heads, talking about the protesters, shoot them if necessary.

    And Milley says no.

  • Michael C. Bender:

    That's right.

    This is in June of 2020. If you recall, it's — Trump opened up the year in 2020 really primed for reelection. Yes, he had just been impeached, but he survived it and was thriving. His poll numbers were as high as they had ever been. The issue that he wanted to run on was the economy. And the economy was red-hot.

    And then, suddenly, COVID struck, George Floyd was killed, and triggered massive civil rights protests. The economy tanked. And he struggled to find a message. And what played out was that he lashed out at the people around him. He tried to get back to his law and order image at any cost.

    And you're right. It fell to General Mark Milley. The top general in the world's most powerful military was the only one who could sit in front of Trump and tell him no.

    And there's one, I think, very resonant scene in the book. He points to the portrait of Abraham Lincoln behind Trump and tells him: "That, man, sir, had an insurrection. What we have is a protest."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And this is when they were discussing whether to invoke the Insurrection Act.

    And you mentioned COVID., of course, all this taking place during the pandemic. It turns out, from your reporting, the president was tested — had tested positive for COVID before it was made public, and went on to do a fund-raiser in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he has a home.

    Why did that — why was that allowed to happen?

  • Michael C. Bender:

    There was very few people around him at that point who were in a position to tell him no.

    He had — anyone who was pushing back on the president — this is year four in the administration — was long gone, and even, you can argue, in those first three years, didn't happen all that effectively.

    So, on that morning, when his — some of his senior aides — one of his senior aides test positive, it's kind of chaos in the White House. And Trump — this is new reporting in this book — had several false positive tests throughout the year. And some — several people tell me that Trump tested positive that morning and assumed it was false, and had another test show negative, and then he left her Bedminster.

    That account is disputed. But, Judy, even the fact that we have competing accounts of whether or not the president tested — or tested positive for COVID the morning his — one of his top aides was sick, I mean, is a story in itself and tells you a lot about the struggle to address one of the — the biggest health crisis in the country in a century.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is a fair amount of — a lot of time spent in the book, Michael Bender, on sort of the unraveling at the end, after the election results are known.

    People around the president, as we said, are just not able to say directly to him "You lost" in a way that he would even hear. And then you see the rise of Rudy Giuliani.

    What was going on at that moment?

  • Michael C. Bender:

    People who were around him in a position to act as these guardrails never quite told him no directly. They always sort of left a little wiggle room that this president heard and latched on to.

    And so those first couple of weeks after the election, you had Vice President Mike Pence, you had Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee woman, even Mark Milley, to a degree, leaving the Oval Office saying, you know what, the president just needs a little bit of space, give him time, and he will get to a — he will get to this himself, he will find his own path out of this.

    But they gave him space. And what that did was create an opening for Rudy Giuliani and some of these characters to come in and tell the president exactly what he wanted to hear.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We hear Donald Trump now teasing a lot about whether he's going to run for president again in 2024.

    How does that keep him at the center of what's going on in the Republican Party? And do you think he will run again?

  • Michael C. Bender:

    Yes, I mean, that's where it comes back to, is — you're right, Judy — is, he wants to be the center of attention about what we're — what people are talking about, about the subject of the headlines, right?

    And one of the things I try to do in the book here is show how Trump's priority from day one was to win reelection. And very few people around him shared that priority. They all had their different reasons for wanting to be around Trump, mostly their own personal reasons.

    But Trump is going to — he has to wait to see what happens in 2022, because, right now, the Republican Party has a choice. Are they or are they not going to try to redefine themselves post-Trump? And how they answer that question will inform what Trump decides in 2024.

    And I think what this book does is provide new information and a new set of data points that shows that Republicans, when they make this decision, are doing it with their eyes wide open. They know who this president is and, after reading this book, what kind of political candidate he is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it is a book full of astonishing stories, "Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost."

    Michael Bender, thank you very much.

  • Michael C. Bender:

    Thanks for having me.

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