ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
This week the Senate opened up its impeachment trial. At the heart of the Democratic House managers’ argument is this, whether President Trump put his own interest above America’s national security in withholding U.S. military aid to Ukraine. A Very Stable Genius, a new book by my Post colleagues Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig, sheds new light on the day-to-day culture within the Trump White House and administration, and how many officials have felt concern about the president’s conduct. As Dwight Garner wrote in a wonderful New York Times book review, quote, “It reads like a horror story, almost comic immorality tale.” And three years into the Trump presidency, what are things like inside this Trump White House and what might come next?
Joining me at the table tonight is Carol Leonnig, investigative reporter for The Washington Post and co-author of A Very Stable Genius. Carol, congratulations on the book – a wonderful read, in depth.
CAROL LEONNIG: Thank you, Bob.
MR. COSTA: You’ve been on a book tour this week talking about it, but let’s start with your journey as a reporter in this project. You’ve covered the Trump administration so close, the Mueller investigation. We’ve worked on some stories together. What was it like to take a step back as an investigative reporter and try to process everything that happened and its consequences?
MS. LEONNIG: You know, at The Washington Post, as you know, we sit a stone’s throw from each other. You’ve watched it with me. You’ve done some great stories with me and I with you. It just sometimes felt like bullets ricocheting past our ears – so much news, chyrons with scandal, and interesting and shocking tweets of the president – every day, every hour sometimes felt like it replaced the shock from the day before or the hour before. And Phil and I – my co-author, Phil Rucker – we wanted to hit the pause button and say let’s make some sense of this, and when we did, again, pitching ourselves as historians – historians in real time – we were really shocked by the people who were willing to finally talk to us for history, for the benefit of that, and to tell us more about the scenes we thought we knew everything about at the time and we didn’t.
MR. COSTA: When you’re talking to some of these sources privately, on background, do you sense that they’re grappling with what you just said, history and how history will remember this moment and their actions?
MS. LEONNIG: Absolutely. In fact, I mean, you can’t stereotype the group into one view or another, but I would say so many of the more than 200 people that we interviewed who were senior officials, former Cabinet members, current aides, Republican confidants, so many of those people look back at the moments that they were a part of and privy to and they say something similar, which is he doesn’t make decisions in a disciplined, careful way; this is a trajectory towards chaos in this presidency; and his rejection of information and expertise makes us fearful, makes us frightened for what will happen if he has to manage a real crisis.
MR. COSTA: Is he ideological, is he a populist-nationalist, or is he, as I believe you write in your book, a presidency of one, driven more by his own interests?
MS. LEONNIG: You know, this question has come up about what motivates Donald Trump, and all politicians want to stay in power and nurture it and burnish their image, but many of the people who worked directly at the shoulder of the president said it is his – it is his divining rod – it is the thing he wakes up every morning thinking about – how am I going to win the day, how am I going to score in this public image way? And it – and I’m not on one team or another, I’m not a partisan, I’m a journalist, but Phil and I found more and more often people saying, I worked for the guy, he would put himself before pretty much anything.
MR. COSTA: What surprised you along the way as you reported this out? Because you recreate so many scenes that are known, but then when you read it in your book you realize they weren’t fully known.
MS. LEONNIG: There were so many. I’ll give you two. One of them we wrote about in The Washington Post, which is July 2017, he’s not been president very long, and General Mattis, Rex Tillerson the secretary of state, and Gary Cohn, his national economic advisor, they decide they need to have, like, a school session with him to explain the things they’ve been fighting about with him all the time. They ask him to come over to what is considered, you know, a sacred place in the Pentagon, the Tank, where decisions of war and peace –
MR. COSTA: It’s like a conference room?
MS. LEONNIG: It is, a gorgeous Joint Chief – chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff room. Flags, mid-century stylings, gorgeous wood. A conference room, but a special conference room. And they’re trying to explain to him: Here’s why we have bases here. Here’s why we have troops forward deployed in these areas. This is what keeps America safe. This is why you, you wife, your son can sleep near and deep at night. And he does not dig this talk and starts basically bellowing at them. What we learned new, even though many people have reported on this scene, is that he called them dopes and babies. He calls them losers. And then, in what many of them viewed as such a terrible insult, something they thought they would never speak about in public, he says: I would never go to war with you people. And that was crushing to them. That was worse than any curse word.
MR. COSTA: What has the effect been on the Pentagon, on the national security apparatus?
MS. LEONNIG: You know, Bob, many of the grownups in the room have been driven out of the room by the president. Mattis is gone over an impulsive decision the president made to withdraw from Syria. That was a bridge too far for Mattis. He couldn’t leave battlefield allies on the battlefield alone to be slaughtered. And that’s what he believed they were doing, because the president got on the phone with the president of Turkey and just decided to withdraw. General Kelly gone, another voice of counsel and reason, who would actually be able to say no to the president – in private, but he could do it. Kind of a Jim Baker, at least on the no part. A lot of the people that would give this counsel are out. And now we’ve heard from so many people who are there, it’s really the era of enablers.
MR. COSTA: Why do you think so many former officials are reluctant to battle him publicly at this time?
MS. LEONNIG: You see it every day and you’ve beautifully written about it. The president can come at you with a big megaphone if he’s angry.
MR. COSTA: So it’s fear?
MS. LEONNIG: Some of it is fear. For some who don’t have any real worries about their reputation, think that they’re in good stead over the course of their career, it is actually a piece of their DNA. You don’t criticize a sitting commander. There are national security and intelligence officials who, again, in their DNA, run from reporters. But luckily for Phil and I, they do have a feeling of history should be accurate. If you’re going to write the history, let’s get it right.
MR. COSTA: One thing that stuck out to me as I was reading your book was how the president is such an outsider. He comes into the presidency of the United States without having served in elected office. And it just is revealed in page after page that he’s learning as he goes. It’s not that he’s uncapable of learning certain things, but he has no familiarity with the levers of government.
MS. LEONNIG: Absolutely. And you know, what I find so fascinating about this is there is a huge firmament, an enormous apparatus in Washington and in the government to educate a president, to be at his beck and call. The presidential daily brief. The National Security Council staff. The rafts of people who will come in and tell the president: Here’s what you need to know about this today. No president should know everything. But the problem for these aides, in their mind, is that Donald Trump views it as an insult to presume that he doesn’t know.
He knows best, as he did with Rex Tillerson in one of our scenes. You know, Tillerson as CEO of Exxon had negotiated and met many times with Vladimir Putin. He tried to help Donald Trump realize how he could build a relationship with him while being aware of how Putin was going to take advantage of him, and take advantage of America any chance he could, and exploit it. But after meeting Putin just once on the sidelines of an international meeting, he told Tillerson, I got this. I know more about this than you now.
MR. COSTA: What a story. It’s hard to see how another story will be this big again, this turbulent, this unpredictable.
MS. LEONNIG: I don’t know. I find it really interesting because we’re all going to be really bored probably when Donald Trump is gone.
MR. COSTA: That’s what Donald Trump says. That’s what President Trump says. (Laughs.)
Well, that’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our website. While you’re there, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us and see you next time.