Public Media Arts Hub

'Thank You for Your Servitude' explores the powerful Republicans who back Trump


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

Judy Woodruff: Many books have been written about Donald Trump and his presidency, but few have examined the motivations of the Republicans who initially were wary of him, but later pledged complete loyalty.

Journalist and author Mark Leibovich does just that in his latest book, "Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump's Washington and the Price of Submission."

Mark Leibovich, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Congratulations on this book.

And I want to say, as you point out, this is not a book about Donald Trump. But you also make it clear what you think about him and what you believe he's done to this country.

Mark Leibovich, Author, "Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump's Washington and the Price of Submission": Yes.

I mean, I think what's interesting is that the people who have been his biggest enablers, who have just been completely submissive to him throughout the last four years, who have supported him every step of the way privately have great ambivalence about him, to say the least.

I mean, I think a lot of the people who have been some of the most adoring supporters of his in Congress, in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, will privately show a great deal of contempt for him.

Now, obviously, Mitch McConnell is an exception there. He's publicly condemned the president much more vocally than the others. But, ultimately, the president — or the former president has been made possible by the complicity of the Republican Party. Without them, he would just be another sort of glorified, geriatric golfer in Florida who watches FOX a lot.

Judy Woodruff: And you were able to get some remarkable comments from a number — you had access to a number of these people in leadership, Kevin McCarthy, Senator Lindsey Graham.

Give us a sense of how they just — how they explain their ongoing support for this former president.

Mark Leibovich: I mean, it's sort of an age-old Washington story, which is, they have made it work for them. I mean, Kevin McCarthy wants nothing more than to be speaker of the House. And he knows that the surest way of blowing that dream up is to get on the wrong side of Donald Trump.

So he has to make it work for him with Donald Trump. Lindsey Graham desperately wanted to be reelected as a senator from South Carolina in 2020. And in order to do that — it's a very red state — he needed the blessing of Donald Trump.

You go down the line. Mitch McConnell, it's a little different. They don't have really any personal bond whatsoever. But Mitch McConnell knew that, if he wanted to work with a Republican president and get the judges that he was so desperate to get in the Supreme Court and on down, he needed to work with the White House on this.

And, look, I mean, politics is about dealmaking, but, ultimately, this relationship has been very precarious. And they have sort of turned the other way in a lot of steps along the way to a presidency that I think they would say privately, and I certainly would say, has been quite destructive.

Judy Woodruff: So much reporting in here that is striking.

And I just want to quote from one — this is one part of your conversation with Liz Cheney, Congresswoman Cheney, where she said: "The vast majority of elected Republicans understand how dangerous Trump is, but they also act as though they're bystanders."

Is — do you buy that, I mean, based on your reporting?

Mark Leibovich: Oh, very much so.

I mean, I think she was talking almost explicitly in that quote about Mitch McConnell. And I think there are some who are more active supporters and actually, frankly sycophants, which is Graham and McCarthy, that category.

But, no, I mean, I think one of the things that these hearings, these January 6 hearings of the last few weeks have cast into such sharp relief is that there is another way to do this. I mean, there is simple courage, there is simple patriotism of telling the truth, often among anonymous people, like Cassidy Hutchinson or Rusty Bowers from Arizona, who have just sort of stepped forward and told the truth.

Judy Woodruff: What I want to ask you to get at is this distinction between Republicans, Americans who genuinely believe in what Donald Trump says, they think he is the right answer still for the country, and, on the other hand, these Republicans you — or many of whom you talk to who your argument is, they know better, they know he's dangerous, but they still are working for him.

Mark Leibovich: Right.

I mean, I think — yes, the working title of this, in my own head at least, was they all knew better. And there's this sort of chicken and egg question at the root of all of this. And everyone says one of Donald Trump's superpowers is that he has the unyielding support of his base. And even now, he probably has the support of maybe 70, 80 percent, at least approval ratings-wise, among Republicans.

I think the reason for that largely is not so much that he has this magic touch over his voters. I mean, he does to some degree, but, ultimately, the white flag has been raised by other putative leaders of the party. They have not taken him on. There were several points, especially after the election, after January 6, where they could have had this off-ramp and really sort of broken free.

And, yes, it would have caused all kinds of short-term pain and discomfort with the nominee, but, ultimately, they probably would be in a very different place right now, and I think probably in the longer term a better place.

Judy Woodruff: And what did they say, Mark Leibovich, when you pressed them on, how much do they think about what this means for the legacy of the Republican Party?

Mark Leibovich: Yes, I mean, one thing that I was struck by across the board was how much contempt they have for the legacy question, the how do you think you will be remembered in history question.

Rudy Giuliani, the president himself kept saying, I don't care. If I lose, that will be my legacy. Lindsey Graham said repeatedly, I don't care. Kevin McCarthy looked at me like I had three heads when I asked him if he was worried that history would remember him as someone who lied for Trump.

They refuse at least to talk to me or really anyone, it seems, about any ramification beyond the short-term expediency of keeping Donald Trump's blessing and getting to the next election, getting the next job.

And that it does fall in contrast to people, again, like Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney. They talk all the time about the verdict of history, the verdict of their grandchildren, future historians, what have you.

And, to them, there is a much bigger stake at hand and a much bigger — there's just much more to consider when you make these decisions.

Judy Woodruff: And did you get a sense, finally, of what it might take to get these particular Republicans to change their minds? Or is that just not even a consideration?

Mark Leibovich: There have been so many times, Judy — and we have all been through this — I mean, when we were saying, OK, this time feels different.

I mean, if you can sort of persevere through an insurrection, the second impeachment, how the Trump presidency ended, and still, a few weeks later, a few months later, be the putative front-runner for 2024, it's stunning to me, but it also sort of shows that you are pretty bulletproof within your party.

And I think, until proven otherwise, I mean, he's the clear front-runner, and I don't see him going away anytime soon. And maybe the next sort of opportunity for a fever break is if Republicans badly underperform in the midterms.

And Trump candidates could cough up a few Senate seats in the next election, which could be decisive in terms — in deciding the Senate. But, ultimately, that's in a few months. And we will see. And he has shown an incredible, uncanny ability to be forgiven and to just sort of keep going, no matter what happens to him and what happens to the party and what he does to people.

Judy Woodruff: Mark Leibovich with some remarkable conversations with leading Republicans across the country.

The book is "Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump's Washington and the Price of Submission."

Mark, thank you very much.

Mark Leibovich: Thanks, Judy. Great to be with you.

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.