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How U.S. officials worked to prevent coups, Waco-like sieges in Trump’s final year

President Donald Trump's last year in office was book-ended by impeachment trials and, marked by a deadly pandemic, economic collapse, racial unrest , and a violent insurrection. "I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year" authors Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker join Judy Woodruff with new details about the chaos and alarm that rippled across the government during that time.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump's last year in office was bookended by impeachment trials and, in between, marked by other historic events, a deadly pandemic, the economic collapse, racial unrest across the country, and a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

    And in their new book,"I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year," Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker reveal new details about the chaos inside the Trump White House and the alarm that rippled across the government during that time.

    Carol and Phil's book is out today. And they join me now.

    And it is very good to have both of you with us. Congratulations on the book that is getting a lot of attention.

    You already do this remarkable reporting in your day job, and that comes through in this book.

    But, Carol, let me start by asking you, what was President Trump's bottom line in this final year in office? What mattered more to him than anything?

  • Carol Leonnig:

    You know, his public image and getting reelected.

    Maintaining his grip on power, Judy, was numero uno in everything he did. And one of the takeaways — Phil and I reported this in real time, but when we did that deeper excavation, the big takeaway was how disturbed and unsettled insiders in the Trump administration were about to the degree in which the president was willing to put American lives and democracy in danger, again, for his primary goal, staying president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And these were people, Phil, who were close to the president, working for the president, still having these concerns.

    But one of the early examples that struck me was, at the very beginning of the COVID crisis, when they were discussing whether to bring Americans home from china, and the president said no. Why not?

  • Philip Rucker:

    You know, the president — these, by the way, were not only Americans, but they were government workers, American public servants who were doing their jobs overseas in China.

    The president did not want them brought home because they could be infected, and it would increase the numbers of infections in the United States.

    And he didn't think of that as just a simple fact. He told his advisers it was his number, my number would go up. And he said, no, we can't bring them back here. He thought about quarantining them somewhere off-site, and so that they wouldn't be counted towards that statistic. And it took interventions on behalf of the senior government officials in the government — in the Cabinet, rather, to make that happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it was that kind of thinking that you document persisted throughout the COVID period last year.

  • Philip Rucker:

    That's exactly right. It was, for Trump, all about his numbers, his political fortunes, and his chances for reelection on November 3. That was paramount for him, even as the U.S. faced this deadly pandemic and a genuine crisis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So many things to ask you all about. I wish we had longer.

    But, Carol, one of the most striking things is the reporting around last summer and fall. You had three senior figures in the Trump administration, the attorney general, the secretary of defense, and then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spending a lot of energy — and I'm quoting you — "keeping Trump from deploying active-duty troops on the streets of American cities" in reaction to the protests around race — this is after the death of George Floyd — but also how they were worried that he could use troops to, in your words, perpetuate his power by somehow intervening in the election.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    That's right.

    From our reporting, Judy, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that this was a Reichstag moment, essentially compared president's moves to Hitler's efforts to consolidate power, believed that he was trying to create chaos and disturbance and fear basically to hold on to power, and was worried about this coup.

    The three people you mentioned were banded together to stop that, and banded together to keep a Waco from happening in an American city. They did not want U.S. troops deployed on people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest the death of George Floyd, to protest systemic racism.

    And they would meet together privately before going into the Oval just to basically compare notes and figure out a plan to stop Donald Trump in his tracks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of course, none of this was public. I mean, there were rumors, but none of it was clearly public at the time.

    And then, Phil, you have — fast-forwarding in the days after the election, in November…

  • Philip Rucker:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … the president seriously thinking at that point about firing his secretary of defense. He was also thinking about firing the chair of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley.

    But you write in a book about how the military leadership, the Joint Chiefs, came up with a plan to make sure, frankly, that the country held together. Talk about what they did.

  • Philip Rucker:

    Chairman Milley, but not just him, the other Joint Chiefs, the heads of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, all of the branches of our military, were across the river at the Pentagon, in fear of what this president might do in those harrowing few months between the election and Joe Biden's inauguration.

    They saw in public him talking about discrediting the election, claiming it was stolen, even though there was no evidence to support that. They knew he was thinking about maybe launching a war in Iran. He seemed increasingly unhinged. And they were worried about a coup attempt.

    And they banded together. And they thought, you know what? If the president were to give us an order as commander in chief to do something they thought was unconstitutional or illegal or unethical in any way, that they would resign one by one to try to delay taking that action, and basically form a guardrail against the president's dangerous impulses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How eager were they to talk about this, Carol?

  • Carol Leonnig:

    We are pretty rigorous reporters, and we interviewed more than 140 people that were insiders, front-line.

    There were many people in real time when we were reporting for the public for The Washington Post who would not talk to us. They were afraid of Donald Trump. And some of them were afraid of coming forward, for fear that they'd be replaced by even a worse yes-man or yes-woman.

    And we found, Phil and I, when we went back to interview people, they were more willing basically to educate the public, and their fear had fallen off. They were also worried. These aren't just history in the rearview. This is current events. This is a Donald Trump who is intimating that he will run in 2024.

    We will see if that's true. But people wanted it to be known what he actually did behind the scenes.

  • Philip Rucker:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I think it's really important, Phil, to illuminate, to remind people what the president was doing on January the 6th, when this mob was over running the Capitol.

    What he was doing wasn't going to the Situation Room in the White House. What was he doing, and how hard were people trying to reach him who he said he didn't want to talk to?

  • Philip Rucker:

    Judy, it's chilling.

    The U.S. Capitol was under siege. There were violent rioters at the Capitol calling for the vice president's head, chasing after lawmakers. And the president, President Trump, according to our reporting, was in the private dining room off the Oval Office watching television. He was AWOL when it came to his responsibilities as the president and the commander in chief.

    He was not communicating to leaders at the Pentagon. He was not involved in orchestrating any sort of law enforcement or military response to protect the Capitol. He was watching it on television.

    People, advisers outside were trying to call him to get through to him — Chris Christie was one of them — to try to tell him he needs to tell his supporters to stand down, to go home, to stay peaceful. He wouldn't take the calls.

    We heard in our reporting that Ivanka Trump, his daughter, who had been in her office upstairs on the second floor, had to come into that dining room multiple times, one time after another, to try to get her father to finally put out a statement to his supporters, which he did in that video. But it took two hours. And lives were lost.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he resisted, was resistant.

  • Philip Rucker:

    He did.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Absolutely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The whole way.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Multiple times. For hours, they were working on this, without success.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If you — you think about this, and people think, yes, all this happened, and yet there's still 74 million people who voted for him, and a lot of them are still supporting him.

    Carol, you have covered this city for a long time. Phil, you have.

    I mean, how do you explain the fact that, after all the things that have been reported about what Donald Trump did, that — I mean, many politicians would just go hide under a rock and never want to be seen in public again.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Donald Trump struck a chord.

    In our first book, Judy,"A Very Stable Genius," we talked about the one thing that Donald Trump was truly a genius that, and that was his mastery of the megaphone, his ability to tap into people who feel elitists have dismissed them, people who feel disenfranchised, people who feel like the economic winds are blowing against them and that they are looked down upon.

    This group, including some white supremacists and nationalists, they really love Donald Trump. And now you have a band of Republicans who want that Donald Trump voter desperately, so they can stay in office. So they continue to repeat the lies that Donald Trump promulgated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, Phil, I mean, you had people who wanted to talk to you, wanted to get the story out, but there are many others who are sticking with him.

  • Philip Rucker:

    There are many others who are sticking with him.

    But we — Donald Trump also wanted to get his story out. We sat down with him for two-and-a-half-hours at Mar-a-Lago…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Philip Rucker:

    … for an interview for this book.

    And, look, people are sticking with him. Tens of millions of Americans support him to this day and believe the lies that he says about the election, which is one of the reasons why the threat to democracy is not yet extinguished. This is very real and continuing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very real. Very real.

    Philip Rucker, Carol Leonnig, we thank you both. It's quite a book.

    It is "I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year."

    Thank you both.

  • Philip Rucker:

    Thank you so much, Judy.

  • Carol Leonnig:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Appreciate it.

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