Public Media Arts Hub

'A Very Stable Genius' illuminates administration officials' worries about Trump


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: On our Bookshelf tonight, "A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America" from Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig. It takes us beyond the headlines to expose President Trump's chaotic first years in office.

And, Phil Rucker, one of the authors, The Post's White House bureau chief, joins me now.

Phil Rucker, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

Philip Rucker: Thanks for having me, Judy.

Judy Woodruff: There are so many anecdotes in this book, I hardly know where to begin.

But let me just pick one out from near the beginning. You quote a senior national security official who told you and Carol, he said: "I have served the man for two years. I think he is a long-term and immediate danger to the country."

It doesn't get any more alarming than that, does it?

Philip Rucker: It doesn't, Judy.

And for reporting this book, Carol and I interviewed more than 200 senior administration officials, advisers to the president, friends of the president, and we heard again and again a recurring theme, that they're worried for the country with his leadership. They think he makes decisions impulsively, erratically, without a basis of information.

He rejects intelligence from his advisers. He rejects information and knowledge from those around him who are in the government to provide it to him. And that is the cause for concern and alarm from some of these officials.

There are other officials we interviewed who feel like America's been lucky that there hasn't been a terrorist attack or some sort of major crisis to grapple with, and that they worry every day about this president at the helm.

Judy Woodruff: You describe so many, many incidences, we're saying, but over the last two years or more.

But just in the last few days, we have seen, what is it, 2:00 a.m. on Monday, the president was tweeting about how he thought the sentence recommendation for his friend Roger Stone was unfair. He said: "It's horrible. Can't allow this miscarriage of justice."

Then, just a few hours later, the attorney general changes the recommendation, reduces the sentence that the career prosecutors had made.

I think my question to you is, so -- is the conduct, the behavior that you're reporting on, is it getting more extreme since he -- since the impeachment process?

Philip Rucker: And it appears to be. And it fits a pattern.

We have seen again and again, after the Mueller investigation, after impeachment, that when this president escapes accountability, when he's held up, when he's effectively on trial, as he was before the Senate, and escapes without a legal consequence, without a conviction, as was the case in the impeachment trial, he becomes more emboldened.

He believes he's above the law, as the president. And he doesn't listen to the counselors and the advisers around him. Instead, he follows his gut. He says what he wants to do. He's not worried about the consequences.

Allies and advisers to the president told me and my colleagues this week that they believe the president is so comfortable doing what he did with Roger Stone because the Republican Party on Capitol Hill is compliant.

Judy Woodruff: And speaking of Capitol Hill, what, you had Senator Lamar Alexander, I think it -- Senator Susan Collins...

Philip Rucker: Yes.

Judy Woodruff: ... who said after what happened that they thought the president would learn from the experience.

I mean, based on your reporting, how do you see that?

Philip Rucker: Well, the lesson he took away from the impeachment inquiry seems to be that it's OK for him to do what he wants to do.

And that's how he's proceeding to govern in this first week after impeachment, and it's how those around him expect him to continue to govern in the months ahead. He's in a tough reelection fight, and he seems to be willing to do whatever it takes to win reelection, to perpetuate his own power, and to promote his self-image.

And that's been the pattern, by the way, from day one that we document in this book. The North Star for this president has been Donald Trump's image and what's best for Donald Trump in that moment.

Judy Woodruff: So, Phil Rucker, just today, we are learning, in a speech last night in New Jersey, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly...

Philip Rucker: Yes.

Judy Woodruff: ... making some statements about President Trump's call to the president of Ukraine, what much of this impeachment process was about.

John Kelly saying that call, what the president asked for, to investigate Bidens, was illegal, and he said those who called the president out on this, said it was wrong, like Alexander Vindman, who was forced out of the White House the other day...

Philip Rucker: Yes.

Judy Woodruff: ... he said Mr. Vindman, Colonel Vindman, was just doing his job. He went on to criticize some of the president's policies.

My question to you is, why did it take more than a year for someone like John Kelly to speak out, do you think?

Philip Rucker: It's a big deal that John Kelly spoke out the way he did in that university speech, and it's taken so long because he fears retribution from the president. So do so many of the others who have also served this president and continue to serve this president.

They know that he retaliates against any signs of betrayal, and that he has no tolerance for people who are going to speak ill of him. There's also a sense among some of the people that served him, including Jim Mattis, the former defense secretary, that they should be honor-bound not to criticize a sitting president while he's still in office.

That's one of the reasons Mattis gives for not talking about his experiences with Trump in his recent book.

But Carol and I, in reporting this book, talked to a number of officials on an anonymous capacity, and they really shared their truth. And it was alarming for us to discover, and I think alarming for people to read about and learn.

Judy Woodruff: And speaking of General Mattis, you had the former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, as the one person who confronted the president in that meeting at the Pentagon, the briefing in that secret room called the Tank.

Philip Rucker: Yes.

Judy Woodruff: The president blew up at the generals, didn't like what they were saying, called them -- what did he say? Said, you're losers, a bunch of dopes, and babies, wouldn't go to war with them.

So, Rex Tillerson confronts him, but then Secretary Mattis doesn't. Do you think he will at some point?

Philip Rucker: He may at some point.

The explanation we got from people in the room that day at the Pentagon was that Mattis is genetically a Marine, former four-star general...

Judy Woodruff: Genetically.

Philip Rucker: ... and follows the chain of command. And the idea of standing up to the commander in chief in a military setting in front of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was something Mattis was unwilling to do.

There was another person silent in that room, though, for that screed, and it was Vice President Pence. He was described to us as a wax museum figure. He has a son in the military. The president called the war in Afghanistan a loser war. His own son has been fighting a loser war, and he didn't confront the president about that in that moment, which just speaks to the fear that so many who serve the president have about the president's moods and whims and anger.

Judy Woodruff: Is there anyone in the administration, in the White House or anywhere else, who dares to speak up to the president and to challenge him?

Philip Rucker: At this point, I'm not sure there is.

The people who challenged the president, who tried to steer him to a different course in those early years are mostly gone. And they have been replaced with people who see their jobs as enabling the president. They try to get to a yes.

They're not exactly the guardrails anymore. They're the secretary of state who allows for Rudy Giuliani to do this shadow diplomacy with Ukraine. It's the White House chief of staff who allows for the military aid to be withheld from Ukraine for a period of time.

They're enabling what the president wants done. They're executing his orders. They're not standing up to him.

Judy Woodruff: Phil Rucker, the book, you, along with Carol Leonnig, "A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America."

Thank you, Phil.

Philip Rucker: Thank you so much, Judy.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.