मुख्य A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America

A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America

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Washington Post national investigative reporter Carol Leonnig and White House bureau chief Philip Rucker, both Pulitzer Prize winners, provide the definitive insider narrative of Donald Trump's unique presidency with shocking new reporting and insight into its implications.

“I alone can fix it.” So went Donald J. Trump’s march to the presidency on July 21, 2016, when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland, promising to restore what he described as a fallen nation. Yet over the subsequent years, as he has undertaken the actual work of the commander in chief, it has been hard to see beyond the daily chaos of scandal, investigation, and constant bluster. It would be all too easy to mistake Trump’s first term for one of pure and uninhibited chaos, but there were patterns to his behavior and that of his associates. The universal value of the Trump administration is loyalty - not to the country, but to the president himself - and Trump’s North Star has been the perpetuation of his own power, even when it meant imperiling our shaky and mistrustful democracy.

Leonnig and Rucker, with deep and unmatched sources throughout Washington, D.C., tell of rages and frenzies but also moments of courage and perseverance. Relying on scores of exclusive new interviews with some of the most senior members of the Trump administration and other firsthand witnesses, the authors reveal the forty-fifth president up close, taking readers inside Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as well as the president’s own haphazard but ultimately successful legal defense. Here for the first time certain officials who have felt honor-bound not to publicly criticize a sitting president or to divulge what they witnessed in a position of trust tell the truth for the benefit of history.

This peerless and gripping narrative reveals President Trump at his most unvarnished and exposes how decision making in his administration has been driven by a reflexive logic of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement - but a logic nonetheless. This is the story of how an unparalleled president has scrambled to survive and tested the strength of America’s democracy and its common heart as a nation.
वर्ष: 2019
प्रकाशक: Penguin Press
भाषा: english
पन्ने: 480
ISBN 13: ISBN 9780593294963
File: EPUB, 621 KB
डाउनलोड (epub, 621 KB)

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To John, Elise, and Molly—you are my everything.

To Naomi and Clara Rucker





CONTENTS




Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Authors’ Note

Prologue


PART ONE

One. BUILDING BLOCKS

Two. PARANOIA AND PANDEMONIUM

Three. THE ROAD TO OBSTRUCTION

Four. A FATEFUL FIRING

Five. THE G-MAN COMETH


PART TWO

Six. SUITING UP FOR BATTLE

Seven. IMPEDING JUSTICE

Eight. A COVER-UP

Nine. SHOCKING THE CONSCIENCE

Ten. UNHINGED

Eleven. WINGING IT


PART THREE

Twelve. SPYGATE

Thirteen. BREAKDOWN

Fourteen. ONE-MAN FIRING SQUAD

Fifteen. CONGRATULATING PUTIN

Sixteen. A CHILLING RAID


PART FOUR

Seventeen. HAND GRENADE DIPLOMACY

Eighteen. THE RESISTANCE WITHIN

Nineteen. SCARE-A-THON

Twenty. AN ORNERY DIPLOMAT

Twenty-one. GUT OVER BRAINS


PART FIVE

Twenty-two. AXIS OF ENABLERS

Twenty-three. LOYALTY AND TRUTH

Twenty-four. THE REPORT

Twenty-five. THE SHOW GOES ON

EPILOGUE


Acknowledgments

Notes

Index

About the Authors





AUTHORS’ NOTE





Reporting on Donald Trump’s presidency has been a dizzying journey. Stories fly by every hour, every day. With each momentous event we chronicled, we realized history was unfolding in front of our eyes and we had little chance to take stock. There was always something next. So we decided to hit the pause button. We wanted to drill down deeper than our daily news reporting allowed, to truly understand what was happening behind the scenes, and to assess the reverberations for the country.

This book is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with more than two hundred sources, including Trump administration officials, friends, and outside advisers to the president, as well as other witnesses to the events described herein. Most of the people who cooperated with our project agreed to speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity, either to protect their careers in the government or because they feared retaliation from the president or his allies. Many of our sources recounted their experiences in a background capacity, meaning we were permitted to use the information they shared so long as we protected their identities and did not attribute details to them by name. We recorded many of our interviews.

We are objective journalists who seek to share the truth with the public. In this book, we aimed to provide the closest version of the truth that we could determine based on rigorous reporting. We carefully reconstructed scenes to reveal President Trump unfiltered, showing him in action rather than telling readers what to think of him. These scenes are based on firsthand accounts and, whenever possible, corroborated by multiple sources and buttressed by our review of calendars, diary entries, internal memos, and other correspondence among principals, as well as private video recordings. Dialogue cannot always be exact but is based here on multiple people’s memories of events and, in many cases, contemporaneous notes taken by witnesses. In a few instances, sources disagreed substantively about the facts in an episode, and when necessary we note that in these pages, recognizing that different narrators sometimes remember events differently.

This book is an outgrowth of our reporting for The Washington Post. As such, some of the details in our narrative first appeared in stories we authored for the newspaper, some of them in collaboration with other colleagues. However, the vast majority of the scenes, dialogue, and quotations are original to our book and based on the extensive reporting we conducted exclusively for this project.

To reconstruct episodes that played out in public, we relied upon video of events, such as presidential speeches, many of which are archived on C-SPAN’s website. We also relied on contemporaneous news reports in an array of publications. We have also drawn from the government record, including the report produced by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, and in most instances built upon the published record with our own original reporting. Material gleaned from such accounts is properly attributed, with a direct reference either in the text or in the endnotes.

We sought to interview President Trump for this project and first approached him in the early stages of our reporting. In a phone call, Trump told Philip Rucker he would like to sit for an interview. “Come in. You’ll do a fair one,” Trump said. The president added, “I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I’d like to have a proper book done. You’re a serious person. So that’s good.” In later months, as Trump escalated his war with the media, he declined through an aide the opportunity to sit for an interview and to provide his own recollection and context for events described in this book. After several weeks of back-and-forth discussions, Trump’s spokespeople were unable to substantively answer questions about those events or to provide the president’s responses before the deadline for publication.





PROLOGUE





I alone can fix it.”

On July 21, 2016, as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland, Donald John Trump spoke more than four thousand words, but these five would soon become the tenet by which he would lead the nation.

That night, Trump stood by himself at the center of Quicken Loans Arena on an elevated stage, which he had helped to design. A massive screen framed in gold soared behind him, projecting a magnified picture of himself along with thirty-six American flags. This was a masculine, LED manifestation of his own self-image. His speech was dark and dystopian. He offered himself to the American people as their sole hope for renewal and redemption. Past presidential nominees had expressed humility, extolled shared values, and summoned their countrymen to unite to accomplish what they could only achieve together. But Trump spoke instead of “I.”

“I am your voice.”

“I will be a champion—your champion.”

“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

It would be all too easy to mistake Trump’s first term for pure, uninhibited chaos. His presidency would be powered by solipsism. From the moment Trump swore an oath to defend the Constitution and commit to serve the nation, he governed largely to protect and promote himself. Yet while he lived day to day, struggling to survive, surfing news cycles to stay afloat, there was a pattern and meaning to the disorder. Trump’s North Star was the perpetuation of his own power, even when it meant imperiling our shaky democracy. Public trust in American government, already weakened through years of polarizing political dysfunction, took a body blow.

Tens of millions of Americans were angry, feeling forgotten by bureaucrats in Washington, derided by liberal elites, and humiliated by a global economy that had sped ahead of their skills and consigned their children to be the first American generation to fare less well than their parents. Trump crowned himself their champion. He promised them he would “make America great again,” a brilliant, one-size-fits-all mantra through which this segment of the country could channel their frustrations. They envisioned an America in which regulations didn’t strangle the family business, taxes weren’t so onerous, and good-paying jobs were plentiful and secure. Some of them also harked back to the 1950s, envisioning a simpler, halcyon America in which white male patriarchs ruled the roost, decorous women kept home and hearth, and minorities were silent or subservient.

President Trump was the indefatigable pugilist for MAGA nation. He did not bother with carefully selecting a group of leaders to help him govern. The flashy promoter and reality-television star believed he could run the U.S. government the way he led his real estate development company from a corner suite on the twenty-sixth floor of Trump Tower—on his own gut instincts to seize opportunities and to size up and cut down competitors.

Yet Trump’s own recklessness hampered his ability to accomplish the very pledges on which he campaigned. From the start, government novices and yes-men made up much of his inner circle, a collective inexperience that exacerbated the troubles, wasted political capital, and demoralized committed public servants. The universal value of the Trump administration was loyalty—loyalty not to the country but to the president himself. Some of his aides believed his demand for blind fealty—and his retaliation against those who denied it—was slowly corrupting public service and testing democracy itself.

Two kinds of people went to work for the administration: those who thought Trump was saving the world and those who thought the world needed to be saved from Trump. The latter, who at times were drawn in by Trump’s charm, were seasoned and capable professionals who felt a duty to lend him their erudition and expertise. Yet as the months clicked by, the president wore down these “adults in the room” with what they considered the inanity, impropriety, and illegality of his ideas and directives. One by one, these men and women either resigned in frustration or were summarily dismissed by Trump. He engaged in a constant cycle of betrayal, rupturing and repairing relationships anew to constantly keep his government aides off balance to ensure the continuity of his supremacy. Some of them now sigh from a distance at a president they hoped to guide and the realization that fewer voices of wisdom remain to temper his impulses. They lament a president who nursed petty grievances, was addicted to watching cable television news coverage of himself, elevated sycophants, and lied with abandon.

Trump has delivered in part on his promise to be a human hand grenade, to raze and remake Washington. He has weakened the regulatory state, toughened border enforcement, and refashioned the federal judiciary, including with two nominations to the Supreme Court—all priorities for his conservative political base.

Trump also transformed America’s trade posture, weakening multilateral agreements, which he believed allowed smaller countries to take advantage of the United States, and forging new bilateral accords on more favorable terms. He inherited a growing economy from President Obama and kept it humming, even as economists in mid-2019 predicted an eventual downturn.

As Trump often reminded his critics, he has been a president like no other. He has challenged the rule of law and jolted foreign alliances, disregarding seventy years of relations with other democracies while encouraging dictators and despots. He questioned the nation’s very identity as a diverse haven for people of all races and creeds by not silencing the white supremacists and bigots among his followers—and, occasionally, by employing racist rhetoric of his own. He treated subordinates and military officers with malice and detained migrant families. He broke boundaries for reasons significant and picayune, nefarious and innocuous. For this president, all that mattered was winning.

Trump’s ego prevented him from making sound, well-informed judgments. He stepped into the presidency so certain that his knowledge was the most complete and his facts supreme that he turned away the expertise of career professionals upon whom previous presidents had relied. This amounted to a wholesale rejection of America’s model of governing, which some of his advisers concluded was born of a deep insecurity. “Instead of his pride being built on making a good decision, it’s built on knowing the right answer from the onset,” a senior administration official said.

When Trump’s own intelligence analysts presented him with facts, the president at times claimed conspiracies. He refused to fully acknowledge that Russia had tried to help him win the 2016 election, despite conclusive evidence. He sought to thwart the Justice Department’s investigation of Russia’s election interference—and, after Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel, tried to have him removed. Yet Trump escaped being accused of a crime, despite scores of federal prosecutors who believed he would have faced criminal charges if he were anyone other than a sitting president.

These are conclusions drawn from nearly three years of reporting about Trump’s presidency. They reflect the experiences and opinions of several of the most senior principals who served in his administration, lived its dysfunction, and now fear the damage it is inflicting on the country they served. They took us for the first time inside some of the most controversial and defining moments of Trump’s presidency.

In a way, never before has an American president been as accessible and transparent as Trump. He telegraphed his moods and aired his disagreements in daily, sometimes hourly posts on Twitter. Behind-the-scenes revelations of tumult and lawlessness spilled forth daily. Whistle-blowers stood up in dark corners of the federal bureaucracy to bring light to corruption and malfeasance. The president’s state of mind was obvious to anyone. But the greater and perhaps more shocking meaning of the events of Trump’s first term, beyond the daily news cycle, has not yet been made clear.

“I’ve served the man for two years. I think he’s a long-term and immediate danger to the country,” a senior national security official told us.

Another senior administration official said, “The guy is completely crazy. The story of Trump: a president with horrible instincts and a senior-level cabinet playing Whac-A-Mole.”

Most of the officials who spoke with us did so on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution from Trump and his team or because they felt honor-bound not to publicly criticize a sitting president. Sometimes government officials decide to cooperate with book authors to settle scores or generate a political outcome, and certainly some of our sources fall into this category. However, we found that many of them were motivated to tell the truth for the benefit of history. Some wanted to accurately explain moments that had been contorted by the president and his handlers’ spin, easily forgotten, or, in some cases, kept entirely secret until now.

Trump’s defenders said those who fear his presidency have it all wrong. What others saw as recklessness, they saw as the courage to make decisions. They pointed out that every night on television the president’s critics decried the end of democracy as we know it but the sun still rose the next morning.

There are no perfect heroes in our book. Robert Mueller, perhaps Trump’s greatest antagonist, was a faultless paragon of integrity from his days as a platoon commander in Vietnam to his directorship of the FBI, but emerged from two years of shadowboxing with Trump with scratches. In the estimation of many fellow prosecutors, he got outfoxed.

World leaders, meanwhile, were ever adjusting to react to Trump’s whims. Allies had little faith in what U.S. diplomats said because they could be overruled by a presidential tweet at a moment’s notice. Foreign presidents and prime ministers were terrified about what Trump might plunge into in the name of “America First.”

“This guy is the most powerful man on earth,” said Gérard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States for the first two years of Trump’s presidency. “Everything he does and decides may have very, very dire consequences on us, so we are all in a mode of damage control.” Ahead of Trump’s first major summit with foreign counterparts, the May 2017 Group of Seven gathering in Taormina, Sicily, Trump’s advisers offered the other governments damage-control tips: don’t be patronizing to Trump, and sprinkle in compliments of him. “It was all advice on how to handle a difficult teenager—a very sensitive, touchy teenager,” Araud recalled. “So you have six adults trying not to excite him, and they are facing somebody who has no restraint and no limits. To be the adult in the room is to suffer the tantrum of the kid and not to take it seriously.”

The title of this book borrows Trump’s own words. In January 2018, as Trump neared the end of his first year in office, a national discussion was under way about the president’s fitness for office—specifically, his mental acuity and psychological health. Just before sunrise on January 6, Trump tweeted that the media were “taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence.”

“Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” he continued. “Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius . . . and a very stable genius at that!”

Trump invoked the “stable genius” phrase at least four additional times. At a NATO summit in July 2018, he labeled himself “a very stable genius” as he tried to dismiss a reporter’s question about whether he would reverse his support for NATO after leaving the Brussels meeting. In a July 2019 morning tweetstorm that covered everything from the Democratic presidential primaries to the Pledge of Allegiance, Trump wrote of himself, “What you have now, so great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius!” On a Saturday morning in September 2019, Trump quoted himself on Twitter by writing: “‘A Very Stable Genius!’ Thank you.” And in October 2019, as he defended his conduct on a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Trump remarked, “There are those that think I’m a very stable genius, okay? I watch my words very, very closely.”

Critics mockingly concluded that any man who feels compelled to announce to the world that he is a stable genius is neither stable nor a genius; however, Trump’s intimates offered a different interpretation. “He truly has genius characteristics,” said Thomas Barrack, a longtime Trump friend and business associate who chaired his presidential inaugural. “Like all these savants, he has edges that at times people wish weren’t there. He may not have the trained or staged elegance of an Obama or the ambassadorial restraint of a Kennedy or the soft regal-ness of a Reagan, but he has a kind of brilliance and charisma that is unique, rare, and captivating, although at times misunderstood. When he speaks one-on-one or to a crowd, you believe that you are the only star in his galaxy. . . . He is a genius warrior.”

Many close observers of Trump saw his so-called genius as far more destabilizing. One of them was Peter Wehner, who served in the Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations. An early and outspoken critic of Trump’s, Wehner was one of the first Republicans to warn publicly about his psychological unfitness to be president. By the spring of 2019, Wehner had become truly distraught by what he was witnessing.

“He is a transgressive personality, so he likes to attack and destroy and unsettle people,” Wehner said. “If he sees an institution that he thinks is not doing his bidding, not protecting him like he wants or is a threat to him, he’ll go after it. The intelligence community because they didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear. The Justice Department because it wasn’t doing what he wanted to do. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization because he doesn’t think they pay enough. . . . The press is ‘the enemy of the people.’ So he doesn’t have any regard for institutions, the role they play, why they’re important, and he delights in tearing them down.”

Wehner pointed to the British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke, who wrote in his 1790 pamphlet, Reflections on the Revolution in France, that “the rudest hand” of any mob could annihilate an institution but rebuilding one from the rubble would be far more difficult. “Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”

What follows is a chronological account of Trump’s vainglorious pursuit of power in his first term, one that seeks to make meaning by finding patterns in the seeming chaos. There are rages and frenzies but also moments of courage and perseverance. The narrative is intended to reveal Trump at his most unvarnished and expose how decision making in his administration has been driven by one man’s self-centered and unthinking logic—but a logic nonetheless. This is the story of how Trump and his advisers have scrambled to survive and tested the strength of America’s democracy and its common heart as a nation.





PART ONE





One


BUILDING BLOCKS





On November 9, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump began to staff his administration. Because he never truly expected to win, he was unprepared. Trump prioritized loyalty above all, and so, instinctively, he and his family knew whom to knight first: Michael Flynn.

Flynn was a retired lieutenant general and had been a respected intelligence officer. Yet his former colleagues had shunned him for a bill of particulars that included Islamophobic rhetoric, coziness with Russia and other foreign adversaries, and a reliance on flimsy facts and dubious assertions. None of that mattered to Trump.

During the campaign, Flynn was one of the few men who had ever worn stars on their shoulders willing to promote Trump. His allegiance was so intense that he had led an anti–Hillary Clinton chant of “Lock her up” at the Republican National Convention, which mortified his military and intelligence brethren, who believed he was leveraging his status as a decorated former military officer to fuel society’s more dangerous elements. Yet this endeared him to Trump. Flynn made himself indispensable to Trump, whispering in his ear that he couldn’t trust most intelligence officials but could trust Flynn. He was crafty enough to ingratiate himself with Trump’s family, too—including Jared Kushner, the candidate’s ambitious son-in-law who had no experience in politics or foreign affairs, yet styled himself as Trump’s political strategist and interlocutor with foreign governments.

The day after the election, the flattering consigliere got his reward at a transition meeting on the twenty-sixth floor of Trump Tower. Ivanka Trump, the president-elect’s elder daughter, and her husband, Kushner, who together helped oversee some of the high-level appointments in the new administration, made clear to Flynn that he could choose any job he wanted.

“Oh, General Flynn, how loyal you’ve been to my father,” Ivanka said in her distinctive breathy voice, adding something to the effect of “What do you want to do?”

Don McGahn frowned with some surprise. He had been the Trump campaign’s lawyer and was now in line to become White House counsel. He had nothing personal against Flynn. He didn’t really know him. But others in the room noticed McGahn’s displeasure, which seemed to say, “Is this really how we’re going to do this?”

Some in the room could hardly believe people were being appointed to key jobs so indiscriminately and irresponsibly. As Steve Bannon, the campaign’s chief executive officer who also was joining the administration, saw it, Ivanka was the princess with the sword, just tapping Flynn on the shoulder. McGahn and Bannon, hardly allies, shared the belief that this was a recipe for missteps and, quite possibly, disaster.

The haphazard and dysfunctional transition was a harbinger for the administration. Trump placed a premium on branding and image at the expense of fundamental competence. He and many of his advisers had no experience with public service, and therefore little regard for its ethics or norms. Rather than hewing to an ideological agenda, the entire operation was guided by Trump’s instincts and whims.

Flynn’s dream was to be national security adviser. Kushner, who was envisioning for himself a West Wing role as a shadow secretary of state—interacting with foreign leaders, negotiating Middle East peace, and running point on such key relationships as China and Mexico—calculated that installing Flynn as national security adviser would create for himself the freedom to maneuver as he pleased. Just like that, Flynn’s wish was granted. It would take another eight days for his appointment to be announced, but everything was set in motion on November 9.

Nobody bothered to vet Flynn. There was no review of his tenure as a U.S. military intelligence chief in Afghanistan, which had been the subject of a misconduct investigation. Nor of his time as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which President Obama had cut short. Nor of his international consulting firm and his contracts with Kremlin-aligned companies. Nor of his attendance at a 2015 Moscow gala as a guest of Russia, seated at the table of President Vladimir Putin.

Flynn had used the Trump campaign as a gravy train, hoping to better his lifestyle after thirty-three years of relatively low military wages. At the same time he was advising candidate Trump, Flynn was working for the Turkish government and, according to federal investigators, concealing the nature of that arrangement. On Election Day, Flynn published an op-ed in The Hill in which he trumpeted Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cause by comparing his political opponent, Fethullah Gulen, who was living in exile in the United States, to Osama bin Laden. Flynn called for the United States to force Gulen out of the country, stunning his former colleagues in the intelligence and national security communities.

Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who had endorsed Trump and was the chairman of the presidential transition, was flabbergasted when the president-elect told him he would name Flynn his national security adviser.

“You can’t do that,” said Christie. “First, you have to have a chief of staff in place and let your chief of staff have input on that because the security adviser’s going to be reporting to the chief of staff. And Flynn’s just the wrong choice. He’s just a horrific choice.”

“You just don’t like him,” Trump replied.

“Well, you’re right,” Christie said. “I don’t like him. Do you want to know why?”

“Yeah,” Trump said.

“Because he’s going to get you in trouble,” Christie replied. “Take my word for it.”

Trump didn’t want to hear anything else about Flynn. He told Christie to go downstairs to the fourteenth floor, where the campaign headquarters had morphed overnight into a transition command center. Christie had a government to assemble.

Later that week, Christie was canned by Trump. Technically, he was fired by Bannon, who told Christie he was acting on orders from Kushner, but Trump had allowed the termination. He was replaced as transition chairman by Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Eleven years earlier, Christie had been U.S. attorney in New Jersey and had put Kushner’s father, Charles, head of the family’s real estate business, behind bars for tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal campaign contributions. The case humiliated the Kushner family and left a lasting impression on young Jared.

On November 10, Trump was 230 miles south in Washington, visiting Obama at the White House. Obama was unsettled by Trump’s victory, but less than forty-eight hours after the election, in accordance with America’s tradition of peaceful transfers of power, he welcomed his successor into the Oval Office and offered him some advice. Two things the forty-fourth president said stuck with the forty-fifth: one, that North Korea was the biggest foreign policy challenge and security threat, and, two, that he should not hire Flynn.

Obama personally warned Trump against hiring Flynn because he found his judgment dubious and his motives untrustworthy. Obama had fired Flynn in 2014 from the Defense Intelligence Agency amid complaints in the agency that he lacked focus and an even temperament. Trump later recounted to aides that Obama had called Flynn a “flake” and a “bad guy,” a critique Trump dismissed.



* * *



—

The president-elect approached the ten-week transition as a casting call for a new season of The Apprentice, the NBC reality show that had made him a household name. Day after day, Trump Tower’s golden-framed revolving door on Fifth Avenue delivered politicians, business leaders, and celebrities, who paraded through the lobby for their appointed visits. They came to pitch themselves for jobs in the administration or to curry favor with the president-elect or simply to get a piece of the action. “It was like walking into the Jabba the Hutt bar in Star Wars,” one Trump adviser said dismissively. “You never knew who was going to crawl in.” The president-elect loved to gin up the ratings, and was quick to seize on how the presidency could benefit his personal brand and his businesses. He held job interviews and transition meetings not inside the federal office building in Washington that was provided for this purpose but at Trump Tower, Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida.

In the helter-skelter, unstructured rhythms of the transition, a trio of campaign power players jockeyed for influence: Kushner, Bannon, and Reince Priebus. Kushner had exalted status as Trump’s son-in-law, while Priebus and Bannon were appointed early on as White House chief of staff and White House chief strategist—a unique arrangement in which they had coequal footing atop the organizational chart.

Trump tapped Priebus, who had been the Republican National Committee chairman, partly as a thank-you present for the foot soldiers and state-by-state organization that the RNC built for Trump to compensate for his campaign’s almost-nonexistent ground game. Well connected in Washington, Priebus was considered by GOP leaders to have the most capable set of hands among Trump’s aides.

Bannon, meanwhile, was impolitic, gruff, and unkempt. He had proven his loyalty in the trenches with Trump during the toughest stretch of the campaign. Bannon had previously run the conservative website Breitbart and pitched himself to Trump as the essential conduit to his indispensable base, which he affectionately referred to as “the deplorables,” a reference to Clinton’s infamous gaffe about Trump’s “basket of deplorables. . . . The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.”

Priebus set about installing former RNC staffers and other trusted figures in key West Wing roles, while he, Bannon, and Pence focused on cabinet positions. They paid special attention early on to national security roles and had their eyes on Mike Pompeo to lead the CIA. Pompeo had been elected to Congress as a Kansas Republican in the Tea Party wave of 2010, and when he arrived in Washington, he quickly established himself as a hard-line conservative and a sharp partisan. From his perch on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Pompeo had hounded Clinton over Benghazi, making him a Breitbart favorite.

Though he had known Priebus, Bannon, and Pence for years, Pompeo was an outsider to Trump’s world. In fact, he had campaigned vigorously against Trump in the primaries as a Marco Rubio surrogate. During the March 5 Kansas caucuses, Pompeo had warned that Trump would be “an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution,” and he urged his fellow Kansans to “turn down the lights on the circus.”

But Pompeo was eager to join the circus now. Bannon knew that it would be hard to sell a small-state congressman he regarded as “a warrior’s warrior” as a potential CIA director to the elites he dubbed “the Morning Joe crowd,” given Pompeo’s Benghazi bludgeoning. But Pompeo wanted the job.

On November 16, Pompeo traveled to New York to meet with the president-elect. Priebus had prepped Trump on Pompeo’s credentials, and Bannon had given Pompeo a pep talk, telling him something along the lines of “We’re just going to go in, I’m going to reiterate you’re number one in your class at West Point, number one in your class at Harvard Law School, you’re the best guy intelligence ever had. I’m going to tee you up—and don’t wait for him to say anything. You just rip. Do not wait for a question, because there won’t be a question. He doesn’t even know what intelligence is. Just rip.”

The meeting went off without a hitch. After others fluffed him up before the boss, Pompeo talked about restructuring the CIA. He and Trump chewed over problems with the Iran nuclear deal. As a West Point and Harvard Law graduate, Pompeo easily checked the credentials box. The former army captain, beefy and hulking as he works a room, also had the imposing, tough-guy image Trump desired.

Before the meeting concluded, Pompeo had the job. Trump shook his hand, turned to Bannon and Priebus, and said, “I love it. Let’s do it.” Two days later, Pompeo was formally announced as Trump’s nominee for CIA director. Pompeo would become one of the more respected members of the administration, but Trump offered him the CIA directorship based on a single interview.

Trump approached staffing the administration like a casting call and sought “the look,” a fixation in keeping with the beauty pageants he had once run. For national security positions, he gravitated toward generals. For public-facing communications roles, he wanted attractive women. At the United Nations, he picked as his ambassador Nikki Haley, whom he typecast for the UN in part because she was a daughter of Indian American immigrants. To Trump, one of the most important attributes for any job candidate was the ability to present well on television.

“Don’t forget, he’s a showbiz guy,” Christopher Ruddy, a Trump friend and the chief executive of Newsmax, remarked. “He likes people who present themselves very well, and he’s very impressed when somebody has a background of being good on television because he thinks it’s a very important medium for public policy.” Ruddy added, “The look might not necessarily be somebody who should be on the cover of GQ magazine or Vanity Fair. It’s more about the look and the demeanor and the swagger.”

On December 6, Trump formally announced the retired Marine Corps general James Mattis as his nominee for defense secretary, playing up his rugged appearance and combat history. He told aides he was especially enamored with the nickname that Mattis privately disliked. “Mad Dog plays no games, right?” Trump told a roaring crowd as he announced Mattis’s nomination at a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He called a reluctant Mattis onto the stage and lauded him as “the closest thing to General George Patton that we have,” referring to the legendary World War II commander played by the late George C. Scott in the 1970 biopic, one of Trump’s favorite films.

While Trump was taken with Mattis’s physical appearance and his macho moniker, his nomination was very reassuring to the national security establishment. At least there would be a seasoned and steady set of hands at the Pentagon. When Mattis later interviewed candidates for senior staff positions at the Pentagon, he would ask, “Can you ride the brand?” What he really meant was, can you support Trump, warts and all? He knew this would be a controversial presidency.

The transition’s official vetting process varied from minimal to nonexistent, depending on the candidate. Most important in researching one’s background was a review of news articles and social media accounts to see whether he or she had ever said anything derogatory about Trump. One senior Trump adviser recalled, “People filled in paperwork on the airplane on their way down to the inauguration. . . . Well, they might as well have. They didn’t think about transition until literally the day they started the job.

“In hockey,” this official added, “you can lose a knee playing with a lot of inexperienced people. That’s how this has felt.”

Behind the scenes, Rick Gates, who had worked on the campaign as chairman Paul Manafort’s deputy, was putting together the inauguration. Gates and Manafort were longtime lobbying partners, specializing in representing foreign governments in shady plots, and when Manafort was fired from the campaign in August 2016, Trump figured his No. 2 would leave with him. Trump strongly disliked and distrusted Gates, due in part to a toxic reaction he had to a poll Gates had commissioned. Trump didn’t like the survey’s results, which rated his popularity as low, and felt Gates was cheating the campaign by paying the pollster for such junk. “Gates gives me the creeps,” Trump told some associates.

But Gates had a powerful champion in Thomas Barrack, who chaired the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Trump had no idea Gates was quietly helping Barrack direct the inaugural festivities until one night sometime in the middle of the transition when the president-elect overheard his wife, Melania, talking about him. At the same time, Johnny McEntee, twenty-six, Trump’s personal assistant and body man, had arrived at the Trumps’ penthouse to bring the president-elect a sub sandwich for dinner. In the living room, Melania and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a friend of the incoming first lady’s who was helping plan inaugural events, were sitting on a sofa talking about inauguration plans. Trump walked into the room to get his sandwich from McEntee just as he heard Melania say the name Rick.

“Rick? Rick who?” Trump asked his wife.

“Rick Gates,” she said.

Trump lost it. He started yelling.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he asked.

Trump decided to fire Gates on the spot and turned to McEntee and said, “Johnny, get with Melania. You’re the executive director.”

By all accounts, McEntee was an excellent body man. Since joining the campaign before the primaries, he had spent most of his waking hours at Trump’s side. He looked up to the boss, was loyal to the family, and did not leak to reporters. McEntee had Hollywood good looks, just the kind of image Trump sought to project. He was athletic, too, having played quarterback for the University of Connecticut Huskies and even becoming something of a YouTube sensation for a viral video of football trick shots.

McEntee, however, had precisely zero experience in running a presidential inaugural. This was a $107 million operation, not merely a grand celebration of Trump’s election, but also a projection to the nation of the new president’s values and goals for governing. Within a few hours, after Barrack persuaded Trump to reverse his snap decision and simply put up with Gates for a little longer, McEntee was back to being the body guy and would move with Trump to Washington.



* * *



—

The president-elect completely disregarded government ethics and the law. Ivanka and Kushner were eager to leave their mark on Washington and to serve in the West Wing, a role they thought would burnish the personal brands they had so carefully cultivated back in New York. Some Trump advisers saw this as a risky proposition, certain to invite cries of nepotism and create an untenable working environment. Yet even before the inauguration, no one felt they could tell the kids—among some West Wing colleagues, Ivanka and Kushner were called just that, the kids—no.

“There’s some things in life, when you shoot, you better kill. I knew that this was not a winning effort to stop the kids from coming into the West Wing,” recalled one of their colleagues. “They were dead set on coming, and there was nothing anyone was going to do about it. And I think everyone understood that.”

White House lawyers were concerned that Ivanka’s business interests created potentially huge ethical quagmires. In addition to her clothing company, she was involved in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, which could easily become a direct conflict with her White House role.

The president had the broad authority to name his relatives to join the White House staff. Antinepotism laws barred a president only from appointing family members to agency jobs, according to a ruling from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Ivanka was envisioning a norm-breaking role for herself. She wanted special treatment and sought to be immune from all of the cumbersome rules for government jobs, which she thought she could achieve by becoming an informal “volunteer” adviser.

Even Trump had mixed feelings about whether it was a good idea for his daughter and son-in-law to follow him into the city he derided as a swamp. “Why would you want to kill yourself and come to Washington, D.C., and get shot up by all these media killers?” Trump wondered aloud to some of his advisers. But Trump couldn’t say no to the kids, either. He wanted family around.

As the inauguration neared, Trump did not fully trust all of the aides he was hiring. He did not know whether they were coming to work for him as Trump devotees or whether he was simply their means to a job in the White House, the ultimate résumé line for any political operative. His suspicions regularly burst into the open, including one evening shortly before Christmas at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in Palm Beach. On December 19, the day the Electoral College electors were certified, officially affirming Trump’s victory, the president-elect celebrated over dinner with seven of his top aides: Priebus, Bannon, deputy campaign manager Dave Bossie, communications adviser Hope Hicks, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, social media director Dan Scavino, and Priebus’s deputy, Katie Walsh. The eight of them sat around the table, and when the conversation turned to personnel matters, Trump impressed upon his team the importance of loyalty. As they ticked through candidates for various jobs, the president-elect repeatedly asked, “Is he loyal?” “Is she loyal?”



* * *



—

Trump spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s at Mar-a-Lago, accompanied by a slimmed-down cadre of aides. The morning of December 29, as the president-elect enjoyed some golf at one of his nearby courses, CNN turned to a breaking story: “White House announces retaliation against Russia.” The Obama administration had decided to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, shuttering two Russian compounds in the United States and ejecting thirty-five diplomats suspected of spying.

Trump was angry when he learned the news. He felt it was one thing for Clinton’s advisers and allies to accuse Russia of meddling in the election; he could just accuse the Democrats of sour grapes. But retaliatory action against Russia by the U.S. government effectively confirmed that Russia had actually interfered in the election—and that, Trump believed, raised doubts about his own victory.

“They’re trying to delegitimize your presidency right now,” Bannon told the president.

Trump was piqued that the Obama administration was sticking his incoming team with an aggressive slap at Russia—a significant foreign policy move—without so much as consulting him.

The day before in Washington, Obama had signed the sanctions order with plans to announce it the next day, but a few news outlets reported on the evening of December 28 that some retaliation against Russia was expected soon. Also that evening, Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak was given a heads-up on the sanctions by the State Department. Flustered and upset, he reached out to the Trump team. Kislyak texted Flynn on December 28, “Can you kindly call me back at your convenience?”

Flynn was spending the holiday week with his wife at a resort in the Dominican Republic. Reception there was spotty, so he did not see the ambassador’s text until the next day, around the time the Obama administration had announced the sanctions. Before Flynn called Kislyak back, he wanted to check with the transition team in Mar-a-Lago. He talked for about twenty minutes with his deputy, K. T. McFarland, who was at Trump’s Palm Beach club with the president-elect. Flynn and McFarland went over the Obama administration’s punitive shot and agreed it could hurt Trump’s intended goals of cultivating a better relationship with Putin. McFarland shared with Flynn the consensus among the team at Mar-a-Lago: they hoped Russia would not ratchet up the aggression in responding to Obama’s move.

Immediately after hanging up with McFarland, Flynn dialed Kislyak and asked that the Kremlin not get into a “tit for tat.” Flynn assured the ambassador that the incoming administration would likely revisit sanctions and possibly rescind them. He raised the possibility that he could arrange a meeting with Trump later on, once they were all in the White House.

By communicating about U.S. policy with Kislyak before Trump took office, Flynn was undermining the current administration and breaking the standards of diplomacy. His communications were instantly picked up and stored by the massive listening apparatus of the National Security Agency, which routinely surveils prominent government officials and helps the FBI monitor suspected spies who work for hostile foreign powers.

Despite the high drama of the Russian compounds’ being evacuated, Putin’s reaction the next day, December 30, was unexpectedly calm. “We will not create any problems for U.S. diplomats,” Putin said. “It is regrettable that the Obama Administration is ending its term in this manner. Nevertheless, I offer my New Year greetings to President Obama and his family,” he said. “My season’s greetings also to President-elect Donald Trump and the American people.”

Putin’s tone surprised CIA director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper. At that time neither of them knew about Flynn’s secret assurances to and request of Kislyak. Some U.S. officials wondered if Putin was just toying with the Americans. Yet he never pounced. That same afternoon, Trump startled the outgoing Obama team with this tweet: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin)—I always knew he was very smart!”

On January 6, Brennan, Clapper, FBI director James Comey, and National Security Agency director Michael Rogers traveled to New York to brief Trump, Pence, and their top advisers about the extensive Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor and sow discord through cyberattacks and social media infiltration. During this infamous briefing at Trump Tower, the president-elect rejected what did not confirm his view. This was not how an incoming commander in chief was meant to act.

As the ninety-minute meeting wrapped up, Comey and Trump cleared the room to speak alone. The FBI director brought up a salacious dossier, a widely circulated collection of intelligence reports written by the former British spy Christopher Steele. Comey noted that it alleged that Russians had filmed Trump interacting with prostitutes in Moscow in 2013. Trump immediately denied the allegations, snorting, “There were no prostitutes,” and arguing that he wasn’t the kind of man who needed to “go there.” Trump had praised Comey for having reopened the Hillary Clinton email investigation in the final stretch of the 2016 campaign but now wondered whose team Comey was really on. Trump’s distrust of the intelligence community only grew when, shortly after the Trump Tower meeting, the agencies published their report detailing Russia’s election interference campaign. This infuriated Trump. He concluded that the national security establishment would never respect him and was determined to sabotage his presidency.

There were three core questions facing U.S. intelligence officials about Russia’s role in the 2016 election. First, did the Russian government itself interfere? The overwhelming evidence said yes. Next, did Russia try to help Trump win? Much of the evidence suggested yes. Finally, did Russia’s efforts change the election result? Intelligence leaders argued they lacked the ability to say definitively. But Trump believed that acknowledging Russian intervention effectively tainted his victory.

In the days following the January 6 intelligence briefing, Priebus, Kushner, and other advisers pleaded with Trump to publicly acknowledge the unanimous conclusion the spy chiefs had presented to him. They held impromptu interventions in his twenty-sixth-floor office in which they tried to convince him that he could affirm the validity of the intelligence without invalidating or even diminishing his win. “This was part of the normalization process,” one adviser explained. “There was a big effort to get him to be a standard president.”

But Trump dug in. Each time his advisers pushed him to accept the intelligence, he grew more agitated. He railed that the intelligence community’s leaders were deceitful and could not be trusted. “I can’t trust anybody,” the president-elect said. On that point, he was seconded by Bannon, who said of the Russia report, “It’s all gobbledygook.” The president-elect said he believed admitting that the Kremlin had hacked Democratic emails would be a “trap.”

On January 11, just nine days before the inauguration, Trump held a news conference in the pink-marbled lobby of Trump Tower. His advisers pleaded with him once more to accept the intelligence community’s assessment, and he begrudgingly complied. “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” Trump told reporters. “But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.” Yet Trump also accused the intelligence agencies, without evidence, of leaking the Steele dossier to BuzzFeed, which had published the salacious material on January 10. “That’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do,” he said. “I think it’s a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public.”

Soon after the news conference ended, however, Trump told his aides that he regretted accepting the findings about Russian hacking. “It’s not me,” he told his aides. “It wasn’t right.”





Two


PARANOIA AND PANDEMONIUM





Before his inauguration, President-elect Trump did not know that the FBI was secretly conducting a counterintelligence investigation of Michael Flynn, but once he did, it would plant seeds of paranoia that would germinate and take root during his presidency. Investigators were examining whether Flynn had betrayed the United States by acting as an agent of the Russian government. Intelligence officials learned from an intercepted communication that Flynn had made a secret call to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak on December 29, 2016, to consult with him about the Obama sanctions, one he would later lie about.

FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe alerted acting assistant attorney general Mary McCord to the call on January 3, 2017. He stressed the obvious: Flynn’s conversations were especially disturbing given his role on the incoming White House team. “Trump’s about to become the president, and this is his announced national security adviser,” McCabe said. Now their bosses, James Comey and acting attorney general Sally Yates, had to consider how much to share with the president-to-be about Flynn’s secret outreach, but as they debated, intervening events got the jump on them.

On January 12, the fact that Flynn had secretly called Kislyak on December 29 appeared in a Washington Post column by David Ignatius, though Ignatius did not report the topic of the conversation. One top U.S. official described the stunned reaction inside the Justice Department: “Everybody is like, ‘What the fuck? How has this already leaked?’”

Hours later, the Trump team—clueless still about the intercept in the FBI’s hands—repeated Flynn’s lie. On the evening of January 12, the transition’s spokesman Sean Spicer insisted Flynn didn’t talk with Kislyak about sanctions. “The call centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in,” Spicer said. Then, on January 15, Vice President-elect Pence flatly denied that Flynn and Kislyak discussed sanctions. “It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation,” Pence said in an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation. “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”

Yates was alarmed. If Pence was telling what he thought was the truth, she knew that meant the vice president-elect had been lied to—and that the Russians knew, too. Flynn’s lying led to a tug-of-war between Yates and Comey. She wanted to alert Trump that his national security adviser was compromised, but Comey said he didn’t want to reveal concern about Flynn until they had more facts. In keeping with how he had handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Comey would ultimately decide he knew best.

Yates believed it was well past time to alert Trump to Flynn’s lie, but Comey was trying to convince intelligence leaders that doing so would jeopardize the investigation. On January 19, the evening before Trump’s swearing in, the clock had run out. “They’re in their tuxedos by now,” one of Yates’s deputies complained as the Trump team gathered to celebrate at Washington’s iconic train station. “I just don’t see how you drop this turd on him tonight. It’s not like one more day is going to change anything.”



* * *



—

On January 20, Trump was sworn in to office and uneasily tried to settle into his new life as president. He was apprehensive about moving to Washington, a city in which he had many adversaries, far fewer allies, and no true friends. Despite his extroverted personality, Trump was a homebody and a creature of comfort. Having campaigned on the idea that the nation had been betrayed by its political class, Trump, now the most powerful man in Washington, did not know whom he could trust. He and his advisers feared from the moment they seized power that the capital’s entrenched interests would scheme to undermine the administration. The night of January 23, the first Monday of his presidency, Trump came face-to-face with House and Senate leaders from both parties at a White House reception with his top administration officials. At a long table in the State Dining Room, Steve Bannon, one of the inspirations of Trump’s “American carnage” address, could not stop looking at Nancy Pelosi. In the Democratic House leader, he saw Katharine Hepburn from The Lion in Winter—who looks up and down the table and thinks to herself, “These men are all clowns,” and plots her return to power.

Pelosi assumed Trump would open the conversation on a unifying note, such as by quoting the Founding Fathers or the Bible. Instead, the new president began with a lie: “You know, I won the popular vote.” He claimed that there had been widespread fraud, with three to five million illegal votes for Clinton. Pelosi interjected. “Well, Mr. President, that’s not true,” she said. “There’s no evidence to support what you just said, and if we’re going to work together, we have to stipulate to a certain set of facts.” Watching Pelosi challenge Trump, Bannon whispered to colleagues, “She’s going to get us. Total assassin. She’s an assassin.”

On January 24, as Yates debated with her staff who best to contact at the White House about Flynn, she got a call from Comey, who delivered an annoying surprise: FBI agents were at the White House to interview Flynn. Yates was furious. Comey, who had repeatedly insisted he needed to keep this probe under wraps, had neglected to notify the Justice Department. Yates said something to the effect of “How could you make this decision unilaterally?” Comey told her it was just a normal investigative step.

At the Justice Department, one senior official recalled, “The reaction that we all had is they’re going to try to get a false statement . . . and we’re going to look terrible, like we set him up,” the official said. “Like we’ve known about this for a week, haven’t told anybody, and now it looks like a setup of the national security adviser, like we backed him into a corner.”

Finally, on January 26, Yates asked Don McGahn if she could meet with him in his West Wing office that day. She laid out the intercept and explained that Flynn had lied to Pence and that FBI agents had interviewed him about his Kislyak communications. McGahn listened, then asked some questions. Mostly he wanted to know why one person lying to another in the White House worried the Justice Department. Yates explained that Flynn was compromised because the Russians knew the truth and could use the fact of the national security adviser’s lie to manipulate him.

When Yates departed, McGahn went to Reince Priebus’s office and found the chief of staff and Bannon there. “Did Flynn tell you guys that the FBI was here talking to him earlier in the week?” he asked.

Priebus and Bannon looked at each other with surprise, then back at McGahn.

“What are you fucking talking about?” Bannon said.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Priebus said. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“Well, the FBI was here in that office on Tuesday,” McGahn said, referring to the national security adviser’s suite down the hall.

“We haven’t even been here a week,” Bannon said.

McGahn then went to the Oval Office to alert Trump. The president was largely nonplussed. Flynn hadn’t told the senior Trump leadership team that he had been interviewed by the FBI about his calls with the Russian ambassador, but Trump expressed no concern about Flynn’s lying to Pence. Rather, he was bothered that Yates was questioning Flynn’s motives—and by extension Trump’s personnel decisions. The president said something to the effect of “We’ve only been here for four days, and they’re already questioning our guy?”

On January 27, without consulting his Justice Department or fully briefing his homeland security secretary, Trump issued a travel ban barring citizens and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. Chaos reigned at large international airports, and immigration lawyers filed emergency petitions asking federal courts to intervene to halt enforcement of the ban, arguing that it was unconstitutional.

The ban was drafted in secret by Bannon and Stephen Miller, Trump’s thirty-one-year-old senior policy adviser and a hard-line opponent of illegal immigration. They didn’t consult McGahn or Yates about its legal framework. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, whose department had to enforce the ban, never got to see the final version until after Trump delivered his executive order. Kelly was on a plane when the ban went into effect, which meant his deputy had to arrange an emergency conference call to explain to top department officials how it would be enforced, and didn’t have a copy of the document itself. Customs and Border Protection agents, wholly confused by the order’s language, inconsistently enforced a part of the ban that was later found to be illegal: barring people who had green cards from returning to their homes in the United States. Even Trump’s allies acknowledged the unmitigated disaster.

At the White House, staffers working through the weekend were shocked by the footage of dark-skinned people being rounded up in foreign airports and escorted away from the boarding line for planes bound for the United States. The saga played out on television screens hanging throughout the building. “It was like running a meeting in a Buffalo Wild Wings. There are TV screens everywhere,” one senior administration official recalled. “Nobody really seemed to realize that the government roundup was being done by people who are in the administration, this administration. People are rubbing their heads and going, ‘Huh? Why is this happening?’”

Trump’s aides blamed each other for the chaos. Some argued that Priebus and his deputies should have better coordinated with various departments and taken charge more robustly of public relations. Others placed the responsibility squarely on Miller.

Amid the mayhem, some of Trump’s new appointees donned black tie and evening gowns to attend the Alfalfa Club dinner, an annual gathering of business and political elites. It was a Saturday night, January 28, and the Trumpers mixed with the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos, to name a few. As French ambassador Gérard Araud watched the masters of the universe line up to shake hands with Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s omnipresent campaign manager turned White House counselor, he whispered to her, “That’s the sweet fragrance of power.”

But these elites were never to be trusted by Trump. Miller shared this mind-set and would later explain to Araud over dinner at the ambassador’s residence that the president had been elected for the explicit purpose of creating unease for the establishment. “This president is revolutionary, so he has to break China,” Miller said. “The scope and scale of change we’re seeking to implement by definition will involve disruption.” He added, “If we follow the normal procedures, we work into the hands of our enemies.”

By Monday, January 30, Flynn and White House aides wanted to hear his intercepted call with Kislyak. Yates called McGahn to tell him White House lawyers could come over to listen to the tape in one of their sensitive compartmented information facilities. Separately, Yates issued a memo instructing Justice Department employees not to defend the travel ban because she had concerns it was unconstitutional. Trump and his allies considered this an abuse of her office and fired Yates that afternoon. The White House said Yates had “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States.” The Flynn investigation continued without Yates.



* * *



—

On February 2, The Washington Post reported a cantankerous phone call the president had had five days earlier with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Trump badgered Turnbull over an existing refugee agreement and accused him of seeking to export “the next Boston bombers.” Trump fumed, “This is the worst deal ever.” The Associated Press reported on the same day that Trump had a similarly blunt conversation with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto in which he threatened to deploy U.S. troops to stop “bad hombres down there.”

Trump was furious. He demanded that his aides root out the sources for the leaks and suggested that reporters needed to go to jail. Trump hated all leaks and made no distinction between West Wing infighting and sensitive national security decisions. Despite repeated efforts by his lawyers to explain, Trump did not understand that leaks of unflattering details of his constant television watching or limited understanding of government were not punishable crimes.

By February 7, a team of Washington Post reporters had confirmed that Flynn had indeed discussed sanctions in his December 29 call with Kislyak. With that story, Pence learned Flynn had lied to him. Neither Trump nor McGahn had felt it important to alert him earlier. Flynn continued in his job, flying that weekend with Trump to Florida for a summit with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago.

On February 13, with everyone back at the White House, the Trump team debated Flynn’s fate. Pence said he was willing to let bygones be bygones and wouldn’t oppose Flynn staying on. But Priebus, still smarting from having repeated Flynn’s lie early on, insisted he had to go. Flynn told Trump that he would go quietly, no whining. He submitted his resignation late that night, and Trump accepted. Flynn’s lie was not the only reason for his dismissal. Trump had had growing doubts about Flynn’s fitness for the job and had found Flynn’s briefings discursive and lacking precision.

The day after Flynn’s ouster was Valentine’s Day. Chris Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, traveled to Washington to have lunch with Trump. Jared Kushner joined them.

“I fired Flynn, so the whole Russia thing is over,” Trump said, referring to the FBI’s ongoing investigation of Russia’s election interference.

“Mr. President, we’re going to be sitting here a year from now talking about Russia,” Christie said.

Kushner said that was crazy, because there was nothing to any of the Russia nonsense. Christie replied that he’s the only one among them who had both conducted federal investigations, when he was U.S. attorney in New Jersey, and been the subject of one, the Bridgegate scandal.

“There’s absolutely no way you can make this shorter, but there’s lots of ways you can make it longer, so keep quiet, listen to your lawyers, and that’s the way it will go the shortest,” Christie told the president.

At that very moment, Spicer was holding his press briefing, and it played on the television in Trump’s private dining room. The president, Christie, and Kushner watched as Spicer threw Flynn under the bus. He told reporters that Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation on account of an “evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable instances.”

As Spicer kept parrying questions, Kushner’s phone rang.

“It’s Flynn! It’s Flynn!” Kushner mouthed to Trump and Christie.

Flynn was pissed. He had thought if he left quietly he would not be disparaged.

“Make nice,” Trump instructed Kushner. “Make nice.”

Kushner told Flynn, “You know the president respects you. The president cares about you. I’ll get the president to send out a positive tweet about you later.”

The call ended. “We should try to help him out. He’s a good guy,” Kushner said to Trump and Christie.

“Bad people are like gum on the bottom of your shoe,” Christie replied. “Very hard to make them go away.”

Trump had some sympathy for Flynn. The two men had developed a genuine friendship as they hopscotched the battleground states together. That afternoon in the Oval Office, as a homeland security meeting wrapped up, Trump asked the FBI director to stay behind so they could speak alone. Trump told Comey that he did not believe Flynn had done anything wrong but explained that he still had to let him go. Then he pleaded for leniency, evincing no hesitation as he sought to use his power to let a loyalist off the hook. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey, according to the FBI director’s contemporaneous notes. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”



* * *



—

Spicer had been holding the dual roles of press secretary and communications director and was drowning—and not only because of Melissa McCarthy’s devastating portrayal of him on Saturday Night Live. A stout five feet six inches, Spicer did not have “the look” that Trump envisioned representing him on television, nor did the former Republican National Committee spokesman have the renegade pedigree that would have made him a natural representative of the “Make America Great Again” insurgency. Trump dissed Spicer’s briefing performances behind his back. “Sean can’t even complete a sentence,” Trump told other aides. “We’ve got a spokesperson who can’t speak.”

Spicer needed help, so he reached out to Michael Dubke, a veteran operative who ran a public relations firm, and asked him to interview for the communications director job. On February 10, Dubke came to the White House to meet with Spicer. The Flynn story was still hot. Spicer was too busy to talk with Dubke, so for hours the job candidate hung around outside his office, next to the copy machine in the “upper press” area. Nobody paid much attention to Dubke except for the NBC correspondent Peter Alexander.

“So who are you?” Alexander asked.

Not wanting to blow his cover, Dubke said, “I’m a friend of Sean’s . . . and just wanted to see how things work around here.”

Finally, Spicer brought Dubke in. They talked for maybe twenty minutes about the job, and Spicer asked Dubke to come back Saturday to meet with Priebus. This time the three men talked for forty-five minutes, and Priebus asked Dubke if he had anything on social media trashing Trump. Dubke was a low-profile operative who mostly kept his opinions to himself. “No, you won’t find anything from me,” he assured Priebus.

On February 16, Dubke came back for an Oval Office interview with Trump. He was just a few minutes into telling the president about the company he founded and his philosophy on branding when Trump had an idea. “What do you think about a press conference?” he asked.

“Well, I would decide what the three messages are that you want to talk about, and I’d bring the expert in from each of the agencies, have this conversation,” Dubke said.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Trump said. “Today. What if we do it today?”

Dubke thought he was joking. Trump was serious. Spicer turned tail out of the Oval to start setting things into motion. In any normal government, this kind of knee-jerk decision would be madness. But in the Trump White House, this was just another Thursday.

“Sean!” Trump yells out to Spicer. “We’ve got to get the East Room ready.”

Within minutes, White House tours were canceled for the remainder of the day to clear the residence. A lectern and camera risers were assembled within three hours. Soon, administration policy experts filed into the Oval Office to brief Trump, and Dubke hovered on the edge of the room, his visitor badge dangling from his neck.

“I’m Mike Pence,” the vice president said, introducing himself.

“Yes, sir, I know who you are. I’m Mike Dubke,” he said.

“So what’s going on?” Pence asked.

“Well, I think they’re preparing for a press conference right now,” Dubke said.

“What’s your role here?” Pence inquired.

“Well,” Dubke said, “this was my interview for communications director.”

Pence laughed, a momentary acknowledgment of the absurdity.

“How’s that going?” he asked Dubke.

There was no thematic purpose for Trump’s press conference. The president simply wanted to have one. Trump stepped out to his lectern and for one hour and seventeen minutes delivered to a live television audience a fiery, stream-of-consciousness screed.

“I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos—chaos,” Trump said. “Yet it is the exact opposite. This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”

This was the twenty-seventh full day of his presidency, and Trump was unscripted. The president denied dysfunction in an administration plainly defined by it. The next day, Dubke was officially hired, but as he began work as communications director, he knew he could not direct Trump. The ineptitude came from the very top. Trump cared more about putting on a show than about the more mundane task of governing. There would be no restraining the grievances Trump felt nor curbing the chaos he created. They could only be managed.



* * *



—

On February 23, two highly regarded cabinet members, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Kelly, ran into the Trump buzz saw when they traveled to Mexico City seeking to fix a problem their boss had created. Tillerson, sixty-four, a former chief executive of ExxonMobil, and Kelly, sixty-six, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, were both men of substance and gravitas. They saw their jobs as capstones on their already decorated careers and had agreed to join the administration out of a patriotic call to duty to help a neophyte president navigate a complicated world. Yet their experience and knowledge mattered little in Trump’s cabinet.

Tillerson and Kelly had been trying to smooth over the hurt, defensive feelings of America’s long-standing ally after Trump threatened huge tariffs on Mexican goods if the country did not agree to pay for construction of the border wall, his signature campaign promise. A planned meeting in Washington between Trump and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto was hastily called off on January 26.

Compounding the challenges Tillerson and Kelly confronted was the fact that Kushner was operating as an interlocutor with Mexico outside the boundaries of the State Department or the National Security Council. This arrangement not only smacked of nepotism but also undermined lines of authority, creating confusion for other officials in the government as well as for foreign diplomats. Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray, however, cultivated a friendship with Kushner during the campaign, and in the fraught early months of Trump’s presidency Videgaray would lean on Kushner as a troubleshooter.

In Mexico City on February 26, as Tillerson and Kelly believed they had reached a kumbaya moment in face-to-face meetings with their counterparts, Trump let the world know who was in charge. In what had become a startling new trend in the White House, the president let the cameras roll as he spoke off the cuff in meetings. At his 10:30 a.m. meeting with two dozen U.S. manufacturing executives in the State Dining Room, Trump applauded his administration’s decision to launch a “military operation” to deport criminals who had snuck illegally into the country and Kelly’s work to stop “really bad dudes” from crossing the border. “All of a sudden, for the first time, we’re getting gang members out, we’re getting drug lords out, we’re getting really bad dudes out of this country—and at a rate that nobody’s ever seen before,” Trump said. “And it’s a military operation.”

Though the White House and Kelly’s office had both denied they would deploy the military, nobody was entirely sure what the fledgling administration might ultimately do. After all, the travel ban had been launched without any warning. The president’s remarks became breaking news bulletins.

At this very moment, Tillerson and Kelly were at their hotel preparing to leave by motorcade for the official meetings with their Mexican hosts. Tillerson, who had been alerted to the news in Washington by his staff, ran into Kelly in the hotel hallway. “You’re never going to believe what the president just did,” Tillerson said. “He said he’s sending troops to the border.” They both knew the disaster rolling over them. The Mexican leaders were sure to be infuriated. Kelly closed his eyes and cursed. “Oh, fuck,” he said. Trump had just cut them off at the knees for the sake of the show, to look tough on television.

Tillerson and Kelly had about an hour before they were scheduled to give a joint press conference with Videgaray and Mexican interior secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong. When they arrived at the ministry for their meetings, the Americans found the Mexicans stunned. Videgaray asked, “Was this a setup? Were Tillerson and Kelly in on this joke?” “Videgaray was saying, ‘What the hell? What are we going to do now?’” said one U.S. official present for the meetings. “It was very hard for them to believe this was not planned.”

Tillerson and Kelly both insisted they knew nothing about it. Kelly was firm, telling the Mexican officials that the United States was not sending any troops. Still, Osorio Chong was stone-faced as he cited chapter and verse of the Mexican Constitution. “Let me explain to you why this is never going to happen,” the interior secretary said, assuring the Americans his country’s laws prohibit U.S. troops from coming onto Mexican soil.

The Mexicans kept their composure, which Kelly and Tillerson considered a gift. Setting aside the craziness from Trump, the Mexican leaders appeared to be working overtime to keep their eyes on the bigger prize: a productive working relationship with the United States, almost in spite of its president. When Kelly and Tillerson were done assuring the Mexicans in private, Kelly went to clean up the public mess. “Give me my binder,” he told David Lapan, his communications director. He wanted the folder where he kept his prepared remarks. “I need to make some changes.”

Kelly’s instincts were to try to correct the record and ensure both the Mexican officials and the international media that the U.S. military would not actually be deployed as troops to guard the border. The press conference started about twenty minutes late. Kelly was the last of the four principals to speak. He began by celebrating Mexico as a critical U.S. ally in combating trafficking and criminal gangs. Then he lifted up his head and stared over the room, where the local press and traveling U.S. press corps sat with microphones running. “Now this is something I would really like you all to pay attention to because it is frequently misrepresented or misreported in the press,” Kelly said. “Let me be very, very clear. There will be no—repeat no—mass deportations. Everything we do at DHS will be done legally, according to human rights and the legal justice system of the United States.”

Kelly explained that deportations would be focused on criminals and stressed the “interaction and friendship” between Mexico and the United States. Then he returned to his earlier point: “Again, listen to this, no, repeat no use of military force in immigration operations. None. I repeat: There will be no use of military in this. . . . At least half of you try to get that right, because it continues to come up in your reporting.”

Kelly had gotten out the message but found a clever way to correct the president: scolding the press, even though they were merely reporting the president’s own words. The moment was a forerunner for the rash actions he would confront again and again from Trump.

Kelly had a deep, nuanced, and personal understanding of the desperation that fueled the migration from Central America northward from his years as commander of the military’s U.S. Southern Command. Though Trump was fixated on erecting a wall, Kelly believed a sea-to-sea physical barrier was not the solution to illegal border crossings. In the secure confines of the Department of Homeland Security’s Washington headquarters, Kelly would snort at Trump’s public pronouncements about a wall with his top deputies. “Oh, come on, it’s bullshit. We’re not building any wall,” Kelly would tell them. He would really get a chuckle out of Trump’s promise to force Mexico to pay for the wall. Confiding in his aides, the secretary would say of his boss, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”





Three


THE ROAD TO OBSTRUCTION





On March 1, 2017, nearly six weeks after President Trump had raised his right hand and swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, he struggled to read aloud the words of the founding document. A film crew had come to the White House to record the new president reading a section of the Constitution. Trump chose to participate in the HBO production because he did not want to forgo the chance to be filmed for history, and he knew that as the sitting president he would be the documentary’s most important character.

The documentary, titled The Words That Built America, was directed by Alexandra Pelosi, a daughter of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Her conceit was that the country was starkly divided after the ugliness of the 2016 campaign but the founding documents remained a unifying force for the nation’s factions. Pelosi and her team had a novel and distinctly bipartisan hook: all six living presidents, as well as six vice presidents, would join in reading the Constitution on camera, while other political figures and actors would read portions of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Each performance would be edited to create a lively, unabridged reading of the treasured documents that have united the nation for more than two centuries.

On March 1, Pelosi and her crew arrived at the White House, and as they were getting ready in the Blue Room, Trump entered the opulent parlor, which sits at the center of the residence’s first floor and opens onto the South Portico. The Blue Room, distinguished by its French blue draperies and gold wallpaper, is steeped in history. It was where President Grover Cleveland and his wife exchanged wedding vows in 1886, and every December the White House’s primary Christmas tree is erected at the center of the oval-shaped room.

On this day, Trump seemed stiff and uncomfortable. Though he was technically in his own home, he did not greet his guests. Rather, he stood waiting for someone to approach him. Pelosi moved in to thank Trump for participating in this special history project, but he appeared to have no idea who she was, apparently not briefed on her political lineage or her role as the director. The president asked for some water, and with no staff bringing any to him, Pelosi handed him a bottle of Aquafina from her purse. “I’ve been into the White House,” Pelosi later said of visits to see previous presidents. “There are always protocols. Here there were no rules, no protocol.” She added, “There’s so much wrong with the whole thing. I’m thinking, isn’t there someone who’s supposed to guard what he’s eating and drinking?”

Meanwhile, a White House staffer gave the other crew members instructions about what they could and could not do with the president. The very first rule was for the makeup artist: Do not touch the president’s hair. On his face, light powder only. The next instruction was for the technical crew: Could they make the lighting a little more orange? The president preferred a warm glow on camera. The mention of “orange” struck some in the room as an odd choice. Outside the bubble of the White House, late night TV show hosts and cartoonists had been mocking the perpetually orange hue of Trump’s skin.

Pelosi had let presidents and vice presidents choose the portion of the Constitution they wanted to read. Many were wary of reading the section on the rules for impeachment or foreign emoluments. Trump had selected the opening of Article II, the part of the Constitution that addresses a president’s election and the scope of his or her power. It would normally have been the perfect selection for a president—but was an ironic one for Trump, who had spoken of his desire to exercise his executive power as much as possible, including by threatening Congress and challenging the judiciary.

With LED lights on stilts in front of him, Trump took his seat. “You’re lucky you got the easy part,” Pelosi told him cheerfully. “It gets complicated after this.” But the president stumbled, trying to get out the words in the arcane, stilted form the Founding Fathers had written. Trump grew irritated. “It’s very hard to do because of the language here,” Trump told the crew. “It’s very hard to get through that whole thing without a stumble.” He added, “It’s like a different language, right?” The cameraman tried to calm Trump, telling him it was no big deal, to take a moment and start over. Trump tried again, but again remarked, “It’s like a foreign language.”

The section, like many parts of the Constitution, was slightly awkward—an anachronistic arrangement of words that don’t naturally trip off the tongue. Members of the crew exchanged looks, trying not to be obvious. Some believed Trump would eventually get it, but others were more concerned. The president, already bristling about his missteps, was getting angry. He chided the crew, accusing them of distracting him. “You know, your paper was making a lot of noise. It’s tough enough,” Trump said.

“Every time he stumbled, he manufactured something to blame people,” another person in the room recalled. “He never said, ‘Sorry, I’m messing this up.’ [Other] people would screw up and say, ‘Ohhhh, I’m sorry.’ They would be self-effacing. He was making up excuses and saying there were distracting sounds. . . . He was definitely blaming everyone for his inability to get through it. That was prickly, or childish.” Though stiff, he eventually made it through without any errors.

Trump presented a stark contrast to many other readers, including the Supreme Court associate justice Stephen Breyer, who read as if he knew the full text by heart, and Senator Ted Cruz, who “knew it from beginning to end” as a result of performing dramatic readings of the Constitution as a high school student, according to Pelosi. “Donald Trump is a celebrity and he came to perform,” she said. “He had not practiced it beforehand. I don’t think anyone would show up to read the Constitution without practicing it first.”

Whatever the reason for Trump’s discomfort with the reading, several watching agreed on this much: he behaved like a brooding child, short-tempered, brittle, and quick to blame mystery distractions for the mistakes. “I didn’t expect this, but I felt sorry for him,” another witness said. “When [Vice President] Pence is reading it, when [former vice president Dick] Cheney is reading it, I knew they knew the Constitution. And I thought, before he got this job, he really should have read it.”



* * *



—

The next day, March 2, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s most steadfast allies, the man who served at the vanguard on immigration and other policies at the heart of the president’s agenda, recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation. During his January 10 confirmation hearing, in response to a question from the Democratic senator Al Franken, Sessions had testified under oath that he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the 2016 campaign. He did not disclose that he had had two conversations during the campaign with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, a fact later revealed in a Washington Post story.

The morning of March 2, the president got worked up at the prospect of Sessions bowing to escalating public pressure and recusing, believing the attorney general would look guilty for forgetting an inconsequential meeting, and, most importantly, leave him unprotected and vulnerable. So the president called White House counsel Don McGahn to insist that he stop Sessions.

“Sessions doesn’t have to recuse,” Trump bellowed, speaking so loudly that people in the West Wing hallway could make out what he was uttering from the Oval Office. “Whatever he said to Franken, so what?”

Trump was incredulous. “Everyone is now saying he has to recuse,” he repeated to McGahn. “He doesn’t have to!”

McGahn was convinced that some of Trump’s reasoning made sense, despite the angry tone he used to explain it. But other reasons were purely political. McGahn’s mind raced through the risks, knowing the president’s order had the potential not only to be a fool’s errand but also to get Trump into trouble for obstructing justice.

McGahn had been loyal to Trump since the early days of the campaign. A veteran campaign lawyer, he was not the typical Trump supporter, yet he was one of the first to recognize the power of Trump’s campaign and to join his team. In January 2015, he had watched the real estate developer and reality-television star in action by flying with him to the Iowa Freedom Summit, hosted by Congressman Steve King. McGahn had calculated that due to a seismic shift in the GOP and the rising disaffection of rural white voters in both parties, a traditional Republican candidate like Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush could never win in 2016. The hulking billionaire that McGahn saw onstage in Iowa, home to the nation’s first presidential caucuses, made a big impression and connected with the crowd in a way that surprised him. Trump took note that McGahn was in the greenroom, sizing up all the candidates, and figured he was an important player. When Trump later asked McGahn to be the lawyer for his campaign, McGahn said yes. Trump could tell that McGahn, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, knew his field and could see all the angles. Trump knew zip and was unapologetic about it. The candidate gave his lawyer broad autonomy and normally followed his advice.

Once they were in the White House, however, their dynamic changed. Trump believed he was cornered early with a series of rules rigged to box him in and limit his power. It often fell to McGahn to deliver bad news. Cabinet secretaries and other aides pleaded for McGahn to come to the Oval Office to explain to Trump why he couldn’t do this and couldn’t do that. In one of the counsel’s first discussions of executive power with the president, McGahn told Trump he couldn’t automatically issue an executive order to impose tariffs on foreign countries’ goods—unless he had a grave reason.

“I just want to do it. I’m the president. Can’t I do it?” Trump asked him.

“No,” McGahn said, pointing out the standard role of Congress in imposing duties and tariffs on imports. “You need a study under the statute. There’s a process. They have to do reports, and there has to be public notice.”

To Trump, McGahn became Dr. No. The White House counsel labored to keep bad ideas from germinating. McGahn, who carried a pocket Constitution, saw it as his duty to protect Trump from the novices in his administration who knew less about governing than a newly elected congressman coming out of a two-week orientation session. McGahn had also rankled Ivanka Trump by riding herd on the ethical questions of the first daughter joining the West Wing staff.

On March 2, McGahn called Sessions to tell him that Trump was not happy about the idea of his removing himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions responded that his hands were tied and that he intended to abide by the Justice Department’s rules of recusal and follow the advice of the career ethics staff who were evaluating the situation. Other White House advisers also pressed Sessions and his deputies against recusing. Still, Trump went public with his feelings. Asked by reporters whether Sessions should recuse, Trump said, “I don’t think so.” The president said he had “total” confidence in Sessions.

It was too late. Sessions hastily called a news conference and announced that he would not oversee any existing or future investigations that pertain to the Trump campaign. Sessions was following the rules, which plainly stated that no Justice Department official could participate in a criminal investigation if he or she has a personal or political relationship with an individual or organization substantially involved in the investigation. When a reporter asked Sessions about Trump’s and White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments that the attorney general didn’t need to recuse, the attorney general smiled awkwardly and shrugged. “They don’t know the rules, the ethics rules,” he said. “Most people don’t.”

Trump watched Sessions’s news conference from aboard Air Force One, returning from a short afternoon trip to Newport News, Virginia, to visit the USS Gerald R. Ford, the navy’s newest nuclear-powered warship. He was furious. As the diminutive Alabaman spoke from his lectern at the Justice Department, all the president saw was weakness and disloyalty. He railed about how “weak” and “horrible” the attorney general was. He said he should never have picked him for the job. To Trump, this was the end of Sessions. His attorney general had betrayed him. But this was also the moment Trump started to turn on McGahn, one of his earliest backers, for failing to stop the recusal. He began shutting out the very lawyer who had been working thanklessly to protect him from his own dangerous impulses.

“He should’ve told me he was going to do this,” Trump fumed about Sessions. “If he couldn’t handle this, he should’ve told me and we could’ve put him down at the border,” Trump said, meaning naming him secretary of homeland security.

Trump’s Air Force One eruption was the maddest his aides had ever seen him to date. He was so loud that some more junior staffers took a seat in a rear cabin of the plane and put on headphones to drown out the president’s yelling. Still, some aides shared their boss’s anger.

“This is fucked-up,” said Johnny McEntee, the president’s body man.

McGahn gave Trump a directive aimed at protecting the president from his own emotions: he could not call Sessions, under any circumstances. Otherwise it could appear as if he were seeking to obstruct justice.

When Air Force One touched down at Joint Base Andrews, the president was still so hot that he was urged to sit on board for a while so he could stew in private. Aides explained to him that the press corps would be waiting under the wing, so he shouldn’t stop to talk to them, nor should he stalk down the steps of the plane with a scowl on his face.

Trump managed to deplane without causing a ruckus. But his fury had not subsided. Rather, it was a rage that boiled into the next day. He went thermonuclear. “The rages, they build and they build,” one of his advisers said. “He’s screaming and he’s a big guy and he looks like he could get physical.”

Trump is famously short-tempered, a trait that predated his presidency. A large physical presence even when he is sedate, Trump becomes monstrous when something sets him off. “He is scary,” said Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization executive who worked for Trump between the 1970s and the 1990s. She recalled Trump losing his cool during a tour of renovations at the Plaza hotel shortly after he purchased the crown jewel overlooking Central Park in 1988. Inspecting the knockoff furniture purchased for guest rooms, Trump tried to slide back the doors to an armoire and one of them got caught on a rail. He shook the door, and still it wouldn’t move. So he pulled the door off its hinges and threw it to the floor. Then, inspecting one of the bathrooms, he launched into a tirade at Res over the green Chinese marble. An Italian verde this was not.

“You’re no fucking good!” Res recalled Trump yelling at her. “You’re making me look bad! This is cheap shit! Who told you to buy this?”

Res had shown Trump three samples of green marble—one for $5, one for $9, and one for $13—and he had picked the cheapest one. “I just stood there and said, ‘Donald, you approved it,’” Res recalled. “I thought he might explode. He was that angry. He was that volatile. His face gets red and his lips get white. He gets in these rages. The screaming. The cursing.”

The morning of March 3, 2017, Trump was in one of these screaming, volatile rages. In the Oval Office, the president gave Priebus and Bannon an earful about how much he despised Sessions and then summoned McGahn. He wanted to make clear to the White House counsel that he had failed him as well. Trump’s words were blistering as he conjured the ghost of Roy Cohn, his former personal lawyer, fixer, and mentor who had previously been a top aide to Senator Joseph R. McCarthy during the Senate’s hunt for communist sympathizers in the 1950s. Trump complained that he wished Cohn were still alive because McGahn wasn’t properly protecting him.

“I don’t have a lawyer!” the president screamed. “Where’s my lawyer?”

McGahn felt Trump’s fury was aimed at him, although the president appeared to tilt back and forth in his tirade about his “attorney,” appearing to be complaining about the abdication of both his White House counsel and his attorney general. Neither was actually Trump’s attorney, an important constitutional detail lost on the president.

“Roy wouldn’t have handled it this way,” Trump said, directing his ire at McGahn. “He would have told them all to go to hell.”

McGahn, Priebus, and Bannon explained to Trump that Sessions had no choice. But Trump wouldn’t listen. To him, everything was personal, and he saw Sessions’s recusal as a betrayal. The attorney general is the top federal law enforcement official in the country, serving the American people and leading a quasi-independent institution, the Justice Department. In Trump’s mind, however, the attorney general’s job was to protect the president, and by that measure Sessions had failed.

“Sessions should be fired,” he said.

“I never would have appointed Sessions if I knew that he would have recused himself,” the president said at another point.

“Where is my Bobby Kennedy? Where’s my Eric Holder? Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump bellowed to his advisers.

Trump held up Holder as a model attorney general because of what he perceived as his unwavering loyalty to Obama and his political savvy. He believed Holder acted as Obama’s protector, much the way Robert F. Kennedy had protected his older brother President John F. Kennedy as attorney general. Trump cited yet another example: J. Edgar Hoover, the politically cunning FBI director who served under eight presidents and was later found to have abused his powers.

Trump’s advisers tried to explain that the attorney general is not the president’s personal attorney. Independence was expected at the Justice Department, and the attorney general could not be seen as the president’s fixer. Bannon told Trump that times had changed. “There’s something that happened between those days of having Bobby Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover bringing over the files,” he said. “It’s called Watergate. It just doesn’t work like that anymore.”

Trump believed Sessions should have protected him and his family at all costs. Now oversight of the probe was transferring to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whom Trump hardly knew and therefore did not trust. Trump accused McGahn of not fighting hard enough to defend his oversight of the probe and told him to persuade Sessions to unrecuse himself. That was not legally or ethically possible, and McGahn told him it would look as if the president were interfering with an investigation if anyone at the White House tried to pressure the attorney general. Trump pushed back on McGahn, saying it was a stupid rule.

“You’re telling me that Bobby and Jack didn’t talk about investigations?” Trump said, throwing up his hands in disgust. “Or Obama didn’t tell Eric Holder who to investigate?”

Once the yelling subsided, Trump gathered a couple of his grandchildren to walk across the South Lawn to board Marine One. They were headed to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend. Bannon and Priebus were planning to accompany the president for the trip to Florida, but they stayed at the White House. “Figure this out,” Trump told them.



* * *



—

In Trump World, people’s fortunes can rise and fall based on the president’s changing moods, but the speed with which Sessions went from confidant to persona non grata was breathtaking. Trump and Sessions had known each other for twelve years, first meeting over a shared interest in a New York real estate project. A backbench, ultraconservative senator from the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Sessions led the crusade in Congress against building a new headquarters for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. He discovered an unexpected ally when he read an article in The New York Sun. The headline: “Trump Scoffs at U.N.’s Plan for New H.Q.”

Sessions invited Trump to testify before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on July 21, 2005, and Sessions was spellbound. He told the other senators on the subcommittee, “Mr. Trump is a breath of fresh air for this Senate,” and praised the star witness for his construction know-how. Sessions then invited Trump to his office to have lunch. Sitting at a conference table in the Russell Senate Office Building, the two men—one practiced discipline as a Sunday school teacher at his family’s Methodist church and kept the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared,” engraved on a stone on his office desk, the other was a bombastic braggart from Queens who broadcast his sexual exploits on Howard Stern’s radio show and survived life by winging it—bonded over Subway sandwiches.

In Sessions, Trump saw a man who shared his worldview and instincts and could help him establish credibility with conservative base voters. In August 2015, Trump, a newly minted presidential candidate, swooped into Sessions’s hometown of Mobile for what was his biggest mega-rally to date. It was something between a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert and the Daytona 500. Just before sunset, the sweaty masses in Ladd-Peebles Stadium heard the roar of a jet engine and snapped their heads toward the sky. Gliding toward them was a gleaming Boeing 757 with “T-R-U-M-P” stretched across its navy blue fuselage, dipping its wing toward the sloped stadium bleachers as if to say hello. The flamboyant candidate soon strode onstage to “Sweet Home Alabama” and ticked through all the polls where he was leading Jeb Bush and the other Republican candidates.

Sessions was blown away. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he told one of his political advisers. “Something is happening here.” After Trump finished speaking that August in Mobile, he invited Sessions and his wife, Mary, into his motorcade of Cadillac Escalades to ride to the airport, where Trump took the couple onto his plane to show it off—the white leather, the gold trim, the big-screen TV, everything.

In February 2016, Sessions became the first U.S. senator to publicly back Trump, and helped craft the candidate’s first major foreign policy speech in April 2016. He also lent some of his top staffers to the campaign, including Stephen Miller. Trump bragged about how smart Sessions was. Whenever he saw the senator, he would point at him and say, “So respected!” or “Totally gets it!” In his mind, there was perhaps no greater attribute than toughness, and Trump would tell aides about Sessions, “That guy is tough.”

Trump had signaled that Sessions could have whatever job he wanted. Initially, Kushner, Bannon, and others in Trump’s inner circle favored Rudy Giuliani for attorney general. During the campaign, Giuliani had contorted himself every which way to defend Trump, including after the release of the devastating Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. They thought the former federal prosecutor and longtime Trump friend was the closest thing to a modern-day Cohn. The trouble is, Giuliani was not interested.

“I don’t have the energy,” Giuliani told Bannon one Saturday afternoon in November, talking through a possible cabinet role. “You don’t understand how tough a job that is.”

Bannon replied, “You’ve gotta do this. We need you. It will only be for a year, but we have to have you.”

“Steve, you’re not a lawyer,” Giuliani said. “You don’t understand. It’s the worst job. . . . I’m too old. I’m not going to do it.”

Instead, Trump installed Sessions at the Justice Department with a mandate to oversee a hard-line anti-immigration agenda and start rolling back civil rights protections. In a statement, Trump hailed Sessions as “a world-class legal mind” who is “highly respected” and “greatly admired.” For Sessions, becoming attorney general was a personal triumph. His network of aides and advisers called him “Joseph,” referring to the Old T