YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Bookshelf. Tonight we are going to continue the conversation about January 6th.
Joining us are Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, co-authors of the new book I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year. This book is filled with incredible details, it’s deeply reported, and reads like a political thriller. I want to dig into it with our two – I want to dig into your two-and-a-half-hour interview with former President Trump in March at Mar-a-Lago. You questioned him about January 6th, former Vice President Mike Pence, and the 2024 election.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) (Had) Mike Pence had the courage to send it back to the legislatures, you would have had a different outcome in my opinion.
PHILIP RUCKER: (From video.) Is that what you told him to do, the vice president? What did – what specifically did you –
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I didn’t tell him to – I didn’t tell him to do anything. I said –
MR. RUCKER: (From video.) What did you want him to do? What did you expect him to do?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I thought that the election was rigged.
MR. RUCKER: (From video.) Who will your vice president be if you run again?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Listen to him. (Laughter.)
MR. RUCKER: (From video.) Really. It’s a good question.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Well, I was disappointed in Mike, but you know, I’ll be making a decision at some point.
MR. RUCKER: (From video.) But not guaranteed that it would be –
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) No, I will say this: Based on the polls, those polls are great. The Republican Party loves Trump.
MS. ALCINDOR: Now, former President Trump left office six months ago. I want to know, what keeps former President Trump believing or at least repeating his lies about the election and January 6th? Phil, I want to come to you with that question because we covered President Trump together and I just wonder what is going on in his mind.
MR. RUCKER: Well, I should preface the answer by saying we can’t get inside his head, I – none of us can.
MS. ALCINDOR: We tried for, like, four years. (Laughter.)
MR. RUCKER: We’ve tried for years, Yamiche, and there’s no getting in there. But look, I think he doesn’t want to admit that he lost, he doesn’t want to be labeled a loser, and he has convinced himself by telling himself so many times that the election was rigged and by having people like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell whisper in his ear, you know, falsehoods about alleged fraud that he believes it to be true today. I mean, he spoke about election fraud that doesn’t exist with such conviction and clarity to us, like, it does not seem performative. It seems like this is what he actually believes today. He may not have believed it six months ago when the lie was born, but he seems to have convinced himself of it today. And he spoke in a lot of detail about these conspiracies, things that were just completely bogus and debunked, but you know, saying Indians were paid to vote – we assume he means Native Americans, but he said Indians were paid to vote. He said there was a water main break in Fulton County, Georgia, that meant that a whole bunch of – a whole box of ballots emerged under a table skirt somewhere. I mean, this stuff is just completely baloney, but it’s what he has convinced himself is true.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Carol, I had a question for you but you were nodding your head and laughing, so I almost want to say tell me what’s going through your head as you hear Phil talk about your reporting. Talk a bit more about your reporting.
CAROL LEONNIG: I’m thinking about the drama of being with Donald Trump as he creates this alternate universe. You know, as you revealed earlier about January 6th about that tape that you played, you know, we all know that police officers had heart attacks, were screaming for their lives, were begging protesters not to hurt them because they had children, were squeezed by protesters, and almost dissected by flagpoles – I mean, scary stuff. I’m thinking about how he told us it was a loving crowd. I’m thinking about the moment when he said, you know, these people that were dead voted and that’s why I’m not president. I am not sure he believes this, and many of the sources that we talked to that were literally at his shoulder through most of the presidency, especially 2020, they’re not sure whether he believes it or whether he is making it up for his own political benefit, and clearly it is his political benefit – just like stoking distrust of the vaccines, stoking distrust of the election also helps him. And he’s the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, Yamiche. We all know that if the primary was held tomorrow he’d be the Republican nominee. And so that Trump hangover and that sowing distrust and sowing lies, we’re going to be living with this for a while. Phil and I view this book as both a history book but also a lesson about the things we’re still dealing with today. These are current events.
MS. ALCINDOR: They are current events; it’s a good point to make. And I want to ask you, Carol, sticking with you, what’s – what was – take me into this scene at Mar-a-Lago when you’re sitting down in the lobby with former President Trump, and what do you think people don’t fully understand about him that maybe you got out of talking to him for two hours and 45 minutes?
MS. LEONNIG: I’ll start with the second part of that question first. I know some people who don’t like Donald Trump, in fact are petrified by him, will be angry when I say this, but he is quite charming. He went out of his way to make us feel welcome, to wine and dine us so to speak. He tried his darndest to seduce us into his fact pattern, you know. And we’re hardened reporters – we’re skeptics – we’re not going to fall into that, but I think it’s an important thing to know about him.
As for the scene, it was riveting. I can’t imagine a more dramatic movie set. We were asked to meet him in the lobby, which I remember saying to Phil, are you – are you sure he wants us to meet him in the lobby for the interview, and it seemed really scripted so that when his – it’s right at the dinner – pre-dinner hour; it seemed scripted as if everyone coming into his club – all of his supporters, his whisperers, his allies – would get to see that he is still the king to come visit, that he’s still the person reporters want to talk to, and maybe he also wanted us to see this.
It also was a bit of a Brigadoon in the sense that it’s his castle, his exile. Everything is as if he is still president. When everyone comes over to kiss his ring, Laura Ingraham coming by to tell him to watch the program, it’s going to be right up his alley, she’s going to go after the doctors that are criticizing his response to coronavirus, she – you know, there’s a replica of Air Force One that he had redesigned but it never happened, but it’s sitting there on the coffee table as if it did. There is – when we finally finished the interview – and Phil and I are kind of proud of ourselves because he agreed to talk to us longer than anybody else, two hours 45 minutes – as we exited onto the patio with the rest of the diners, Hail to the Chief is played and there’s a standing ovation for him. It is really as if he’s still in the West Wing in this world.
MS. ALCINDOR: That is incredible. Phil, talk to me a bit about whether or not the former president seems concerned at all about his future when it comes to the legal issues. You’re seeing people around him get arrested. Does he seem at all – at all concerned about that?
MR. RUCKER: Absolutely, and we know from reporting around him that he’s concerned now about the legal challenges as he has been throughout his presidency. But when we talked to him, he was venting, really, about, you know, why aren’t the prosecutors cutting him a break. He was upset that the New York investigations were going on into The Trump Organization, which could not only imperil the finances of his company but hurt his family. Remember, his two adult sons are running that company right now, all of the family’s money is tied up in the assets and properties that they – that they control. But he said, look, I’m out of office, I’m not president anymore; they should let me be, they should let me ride off into the sunset and not scrutinize my business or what I’m doing. They’re not looking into George W. Bush. They’re not looking into, you know, you name it, past presidents. Well, past presidents don’t have these corruption and fraud allegations – (laughs) – like Donald Trump does.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah.
MR. RUCKER: But he is bothered that this is continuing, and he sees it as all connected, all part of the big witch hunt, as he put it, starting with Mueller and going all the way through impeachment and now to what’s happening in New York.
MS. ALCINDOR: Just the idea of him kind of saying you should just leave me alone even though my – The Trump Organization has been indicted and the CFO, he’s just saying you should leave me alone, Carol? (Laughs.)
MS. LEONNIG: Well, remember, I mean, the president doesn’t really see the rule of law as valuable or important, especially as it comes to him. You know, in that moment when he is describing to us this is just another part of the ongoing witch hunt, you know, we’re also remembering that he was furious that the Supreme Court justices that he appointed didn’t rule for him when he was challenging the election, and he told Phil and me that he’s really mad at Brett Kavanaugh, really disappointed, as if a Supreme Court justice owes him a favor, owes him a loyalty –
MS. ALCINDOR: Owes him the presidency.
MS. LEONNIG: Owes him the presidency. As if the – and he’s mad at all the justices he appointed, by the way, but he really fixated on Kavanaugh. He said, you know, I want to remind you a lot of Republicans told me I should let go of that guy when he was under – you know, under this cloud, I should let go of him, but I stuck with him and look what happened. Pretty interesting because everyone knows about the separation of powers and the separate arms of government. You know, the Supreme Court goes by law and by fact, and they found no facts and no evidence that there had been any tampering with the vote.
MS. ALCINDOR: Phil, I want to ask you about something that happened on January 6th. It’s General Mark Milley. He was really focused on not having the military be politicized, but it seemed to impact the military’s decision on January 6th, how – whether or not the National Guard was going to move in. Talk a bit about how Mark Milley’s decision-making and the way that he was trying to deal with President Trump, how it impacted things on January 6th.
MR. RUCKER: Yeah, well, it wasn’t just Mark Milley but other leaders at the Pentagon. After June 1st in Lafayette Square, in response to the George Floyd protests, felt like they did not want the military to be used in any political purpose at all, and so Pentagon leaders had been on guard through those six months about anything that they would be asked to do that could look political, and in retrospect that appears to have slowed the response to what happened on January 6th at the Capitol. And our reporting for the book showed that there were delays at the Pentagon in authorizing National Guard from Maryland and other neighboring states to enter the District and help support the Capitol Police at the Capitol. There was a slower response than you might have expected in calling up any troops to help at the Capitol. Vice President Pence was in direct contact with Milley, with Chris Miller, who was the acting defense secretary at the time, and other leaders at the Pentagon to get troops there now, but it appears that the shellshock from June 1st and Lafayette Square contributed to the delay on January 6th.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Carol, on January 6th there was this exchange between Jim Jordan and Liz Cheney. Talk about it.
MS. LEONNIG: I was thinking about how smart it was what Eva said earlier about how personal things are. January 6th was pretty personal. As lawmakers were scrambling literally for their lives, staff members – their staff, Pelosi’s staff, McConnell’s staff – were barricading themselves in offices, trying to keep themselves away from people with weapons who were chanting for various people’s heads – imagine the scene – there are a series of lawmakers that are up in a wing of aisles. They are in the chamber, and Liz Cheney is on the end of one of those aisles. Jim Jordan says: We need to get the ladies off the end of the aisles to keep them safer. Let me – let me help you. And she says: You get away from me. And I can’t use the expletive here, but she says: You get the F away from me. You did this. The same thing happens with Mitt Romney. He’s furious. As he’s trying to figure out where shall I go, where shall I evacuate to? Because there is no evacuation plan that’s obvious. No one anticipated an actual breach of the building by people with weapons. But as he is trying to figure out what to do he runs into Ron Johnson and Josh Hawley. And he says: I’m furious. You all did this. That’s how personal it was. And these are people in the same party.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Eva’s point about it being personal, it sticks with you because these were lawmakers running for their lives. Who will ever forget the video of Mitt Romney being turned around by that hero of an officer and told: You need to be running? And then you see the crowd move in and you realize that this was so close. It could have been so much worse. That said, as I was reading this I was thinking, Phil, what did you – what got edited out of this book? What are the things that maybe you didn’t include? Are there any anecdotes that stick in your mind that you didn’t put in the book? Because of course everyone needs an editor, but I’m always looking for what – (laughs) –
MR. RUCKER: Yeah. Well, the book is – the book is 592 pages. So that means there are a lot of anecdotes that did make it in.
MS. ALCINDOR: Right. (Laughs.)
MR. RUCKER: Look, Yamiche, we included everything that we found compelling and that we could verify. And we’re pretty scrupulous reporters. So we heard a lot in our reporting, but if we felt like it didn’t add up, or the source wasn’t credible, or we went to fact check it and there were some holes in the story, we took it out. And that’s what ended up on the cutting room floor. But all the juicy stuff that we could determine to be true is in those 592 pages.
MS. ALCINDOR: OK, fine. I’ll ask you after the Extra. (Laughter.) Carol –
MS. LEONNIG: She’s going to get it out of you too. (Laughs.)
MS. ALCINDOR: Right? I’m going to get the – what surprised you, Carol? What are the things that you learned while reporting this – you’ve been a longtime reporter. You do a great job covering the Secret Service. But tell me a little bit about what other – what are something that even for you – a hardened, great reporter – you sat back and thought, whew, this is surprising?
MS. LEONNIG: I mean, there were so many things, Yamiche. It’s hard to choose. But I’ll tell you a couple. And one of them actually does relate to the Secret Service. But one that stunned me is the president telling – let me rephrase. The Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who’s trying to hold on for dear life to his job – for his job, because he’s afraid of who will replace him and what will happen at the Defense Department if he’s booted.
He learned from the head of Operation Warp Speed that the vaccine is developing very nicely, and in fact one that’s in trials has got 80 percent effectiveness. He’s excited about that news. And it’s immediately replaced by fear that the president will learn about it and then start forcing people to take this untested, unvetted vaccine for political reasons. He’s been pressuring all of them to get the vaccine before the election so he can crow about that, and it will help him.
Another one that stuns me does involve the Secret Service. And that was the moment that Pence is told by his detail leader: We need to leave. This is January 6th. He’s in his hideaway with his wife, his daughter, his brother, and some aides. The detail leader says: We have got to get out of here. It’s not safe. He says it to him twice. And the third time – this is over the course of maybe eight minutes, which feel like an eternity – the third time it’s not a request. We are going, sir. I cannot let you stay here.
As they take him down to a subterranean basement that they think will be more secure, with riflemen agents leading the way to make sure they don’t run into trouble, as they get there the agent detail leader says: Vice President, please can you get in the car? And he says, no, Tim. I trust you – that’s his detail leader – I trust you, but I can’t get in the car because some other secret agents are driving it, and they’ll drive me out of here. And I am staying. I’m going to certify this election. Now, say what you will about Vice President Pence, there are a lot of critics of his, but in that moment he was stubborn and bound and determined he was going to certify the election.
MS. ALCINDOR: That is – that is riveting, like this book. I could listen to you talk about this. I have two other quick questions. The first is, Phil, have you heard from – or Carol – have you heard from former President Trump since this came out? Have you heard from him at all? Do you get any sense of what he’s thinking?
MR. RUCKER: He has not called us, nor has he sent us one of those, like, Sharpie notes. But he’s issued a couple of statements in response to our reporting attacking Mark Milley and attacking other elements of our reporting. But you know, we’ve not heard from him personally, nor, by the way, do we expect to.
MS. ALCINDOR: OK. And then the last question I’ll have for Carol, what questions do you still have for former President Trump, or about what you’ve reported that you think need to be answered? Of course, there’s going to be a whole select committee, but are there any burning questions if you could sit down again that you would ask?
MS. LEONNIG: I want to know how much he knew about the January 6th planning. He had several allies and friends who had gotten protest permits for huge numbers of people. I want to know how much he knew before January 6th about their plans. There is some good reporting that’s not borne full fruit yet, but there’s some good reporting that some of those people were warning the White House that protest organizers were advertising in various places a march on the Capitol. And they wanted to warn the White House because they knew that was improper. The permit didn’t allow it and they were worried about what it meant. Did that word get to the president? That’s something I wish we could have gotten him to answer.
MS. ALCINDOR: Phil, anything on your mind, last questions?
MR. RUCKER: I think Carol hit the nail on the key one for Trump, but there are so many other questions to ask him. If we had another two and a half hours we’d take it. But you know, I feel like we covered a lot of ground with him, so feel good about that.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah. Well, I wish I had two and a half hours to hang out with you guys, but – (laughter) – with both of you, but this is – it’s been very – it’s a riveting book. I’m going to give it to my – I’ve given it to my mom, I’ve given it to a couple of other people, so hopefully all of you watching will also buy it. We’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thank you to Carol and to Phil for joining us and sharing your reporting and writing this book.
And make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a behind the scenes look at all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.