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New book 'The Divider' takes a look at Trump presidency and what led to January 6 attacks
Judy Woodruff: Investigations of the January 6 Capitol attack are still under way.
But, as husband-and-wife reporting team Peter Baker of The New York Times and Susan Glasser of "The New Yorker" explain in their latest book, to understand what happened on January 6, 2021, it is necessary to understand what happened on January 20, 2017, the day President Donald Trump took office, and all the days in between.
And that is the focus of their book "The Divider," which is out this week.
And we welcome you both, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, to the "NewsHour."
So, this is an eye-popping book literally from the first page, when you lay out your premise that that January 6 attack — and I'm quoting — "was the inexorable culmination of a sustained four-year war on the institutions and traditions of American democracy."
Peter, that is a stunning statement about the president of the United States.
Peter Baker, Co-Author, "The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021": Yes. No, it really is.
But that's the case here. January 6 was not an aberration. It wasn't an outlier. It was, in fact, predictable eminently, if you pay attention to everything he was doing up until that point. He tried to turn the institutions of American government into his personal political instruments, the Justice Department, the military.
And all of these efforts basically lead up to this moment where he's refusing to accept the democratic election in which he lost. And I think, to understand that, we have to understand what he was doing for four years. Nobody else has gone back to take that look.
Judy Woodruff: Susan, there's so much to ask you all.
But a lot of the book is about the division between the people who were around Trump, the people who were, in essence, trying to protect the country and worried about the country. And then there were others who were enabling him.
What's a good example of one of those who was worried more about the country than they were about President Trump?
Susan Glasser, Co-Author, "The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021": Well, you're right.
And the complication, of course, Judy, is, in that faction-ridden White House, the enablers sometimes were also the resistors. But, then again, the enablers were also the people who facilitated Trump. Without them, Donald Trump would have just been some angry old dude shouting at the television in between golf games, right?
But there was a group, in particular, of national security officials who defined their roles as protecting the nonpartisan traditions of national security. And this is a through line that goes back to the very beginning of the Trump administration. He called people like Jim Mattis and John Kelly "my generals."
He had clashes with them. He, extraordinarily, told John Kelly, his second White House chief of staff, why aren't you like the "bleeping" Nazi generals in World War II? Kelly said, what on earth are you talking about? He said, they were totally loyal to Hitler. Kelly said, no, no, they weren't. They tried to kill Hitler three times.
But Donald Trump defined service to the country as service to him personally. And so you go forward to 2020 and his clash with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley. And, for me as a reporter, getting ahold of a copy of Milley's unsent resignation letter in which he called the president of the United States a danger, a threat to national security, he said, you're doing grave and irreparable harm to the contrary, it's still mind-blowing.
Judy Woodruff: Was there one point, Susan, when you felt the country came closest to coming off the rails? We're clearly and rightly focused on January the 6th. But there were other moments as well.
Susan Glasser: Well, that's exactly right, Judy.
I mean, all of 2020, in many ways, was a catastrophic year for this country, the manipulation of a public health crisis, a once-in-a-century pandemic to exacerbate the divisions within American society, to turn something like a piece of cloth worn over the face as a public health measure into a badge, a partisan affiliation. This is a terrible tragedy for the American people, no matter where they live, right?
And then I think the testing of institutions that we wrote about that existed throughout, Donald Trump seriously considered in a five-hour meeting in the White House after he lost reelection imposing martial law. He didn't throw the people out of the Oval Office and say, what are you talking about?
In December 2021, he spent hours contemplating unprecedented steps. And, as it is, we faced a situation that has never before happened in American history, in which a president of the United States refused to accept his defeat and sought to overturn the election. That's never happened before, no Democrat, no Republican, no president, period.
Judy Woodruff: Did you come away thinking that, if these — some of these individuals around the president had been more — just had more courage in standing up to him, that things could have been different, or that, no matter what, Donald Trump was going to do what he did?
Peter Baker: Well, that's a great question.
And one of the through lines we found in our research — again, we did all this interview after he left office. We didn't hold anything back while he was in office. But we interviewed 300 people. And they were freer to talk, or felt freer to talk after he left.
And the through line through this was the struggle that many of them felt, the sort of moral conundrum, do I stay or do I go, those who weren't true believers. And they told themselves, a lot of them, the same thing over and over again. If I leave, it will be worse, because somebody behind me who comes and takes my job will be more willing to do whatever extreme thing he wants us to do that I'm trying to stop.
And you can see the difference in January 6. Think about John Kelly, right? Not — everybody, in some ways, is flawed in that White House. And somebody told us who was in that White House, says, there are no heroes.
But if John Kelly had been chief of staff at the end, he would have thrown himself in the doorway of the Oval Office, rather than let somebody come in and talk about martial law, whereas Mark Meadows was called by one of the Republicans we interviewed the matador, because he kept waving the flag and basically encouraging this whole effort.
And I think that people do matter. And people around him mattered, even if they weren't going to change his fundamental nature.
Judy Woodruff: You do come away from so much of this, Peter, of course, looking at, if Donald Trump runs for reelection, what is the country facing? Did you come to a conclusion?
Peter Baker: Yes, this book is not just a book of history, right? It is, in fact, partly a prologue, it could be, if he runs again.
And in some ways, it is a road map for where he would go. And we interviewed a national security adviser, not the national security adviser, a national security official, who spent time with him in the Oval Office. And this person compared to him to the velociraptor in the movie "Jurassic Park," which is to say that he learns, right, not about policy
He's not really a policy maven. But he learns how to make government work for him after four years in office. And this person compared him to the velociraptor, who learns how to open the kitchen door where the kids are hiding in the movie, right? He's learning how to do it.
And the point is that, in a second term, a lot of things that held him back, that constrained him in the first term wouldn't be there. He wouldn't hire John Kelly. He'd only hire a Mark Meadows. He wouldn't be captive to the people who are slow-walking him or resisting him. He would be much more aggressive and certain of his own ability. And he wouldn't have a reelection to worry about, to think about.
He could do what he thought was the right thing or the thing he wanted to do most,without being constrained.
Judy Woodruff: And finally, Susan, did you come away with a sense of what you think he will do about 2024?
Susan Glasser: You know, it's interesting.
Peter and I visited and interviewed Trump twice in Mar-a-Lago for this book. And, initially, I think we would say that we were somewhat skeptical that he would, that he seemed sort of like a very unwilling retiree, but a retiree to Florida nonetheless.
But I think, in particular, as we have seen these metastasizing investigations of Donald Trump continue and escalate in the last few months, not only the classified documents investigation, the January 6 congressional investigation, but also the grand jury investigation, the New York state investigations, there — it seems that Trump has a sense that actually being a candidate for president might protect him in some way.
I also think that Donald Trump, as we all know by now, cannot relinquish the stage. And I think that the mere concept that the sort of Trumpists, the Trump Mini-Me's, if you will, who have sprung up in the Republican Party, people like Ron DeSantis, the idea that Trump is just going to, like, fade away gracefully and let them take over seems very unlikely to me, knowing what we know of Donald Trump's personality.
Judy Woodruff: Well, there's so much to read, to reflect on in this book, "The Divider: The White House — Trump in the White House, 2017-2021."
It's just full of information that Americans should know, frankly.
Peter Baker, Susan Glasser, thank you very much.
Peter Baker: Thank you so much.
Susan Glasser: Thank you, Judy.