“The historical record in this live-action threat to American democracy needs to be filled out,” Glasser told me. “We have to understand it as fully as possible.”
“We want this to be for history, but it has very real-world relevance today,” Baker said. “What’s past is prologue. This is the ultimate case study of that. You can see what the next term would be like.”
This is the third book by this all-star husband-and-wife team. (Full disclosure: Glasser hired me when she was editor at VFAB.) Their last one, which came out in 2020, was about James A. Baker III — The Man Who Ran Washington. Their first one, though, from more than 15 years back, was about Vladimir Putin and “his successful assault on the fledgling Russian democracy.” In their introduction to this new book about the arrogant, insecure, ignorant, impulsive, systems-testing and -wrecking Trump, Baker and Glasser end with a recollection from early in their time as foreign correspondents in Russia.
At an event in Moscow, they write, a reformist politician was asked about the unsteady state of the country’s democracy at the time. He answered with an old Soviet anekdot about a driver of an ambulance who picks up a patient.
“Where are we going?” the patient asks.
“The morgue,” replies the driver.
“Why? I’m not dead yet,” the patient protests.
“We’re not there yet,” the driver responds.
“Two decades ago, that was a mordant joke about where Russia was headed,” write Baker and Glasser. Now it “could also serve as commentary on the health of American democracy after four years of President Trump: We’re not there yet, but it does not look good.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Michael Kruse: This book strikes me as kind of the first comprehensive effort to put those four years between two covers.
Susan Glasser: Absolutely. We really wanted to do this as kind of the first take at an authoritative four-year history of Trump. There have been a lot of books, many of them great. There’s a lot more still to learn, but we felt that it was really important to take an accounting of the four years and see the trajectory and that hasn’t been done by anyone.
Kruse: What is the value in doing this kind of work right now?
Peter Baker: This is not the last history that will be written about this presidency. But there’s a value in doing it in the short term, in capturing people’s memories while they’re fresh, capturing people while they’re still around to make sense of the whole thing. If you do histories 20 years after presidency, memories have faded, and divisions and issues and debates have softened, and people have rewritten history, in effect, in their minds. Today, everything’s still sharp and very real. And I think the other important thing is it’s not over, right? This is history. At the same time, it’s also a very live-action situation. And there’s a reason why the book title has “2017 to 2021” — because it may not be the last we see of him, right? And therefore, to understand what another term might be like, it’s super-important to understand what the last one was like.
Glasser: There’s a reason in the introduction, I think, we called it “an active crime scene.” This is really important because that’s exactly the reason why we spent 18 months after Trump leaving office, doing original reporting for this. The historical record in this live-action threat to American democracy needs to be filled out. We have to understand it as fully as possible. And this notion that exists that, somehow, everything was already known about Donald Trump is, of course, ridiculous from a historical point of view. And more importantly, I think we learned in the course of doing reporting for this book the extent to which many of the things that seemed part of the Trump circus and the insane daily news cycle actually — especially when it came to national security — were much more threatening, serious, sustained and long-term threats to institutions than we understood.
And that I believe is the real story of the book — the real story of the Trump presidency — is war on American institutions. And when it came to national security, sure, we had a sense that there was friction between, say, Trump and the Pentagon. But to understand that it’s not just about how many troops there should be in Afghanistan, to understand that the sitting chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and others came to believe that Donald Trump was a threat to national security, that he was “ruining the international order,” that he did not subscribe to many of the principles that the United States fought for in World War II — you know, that’s the language in the resignation letter that Mark Milley did not send to Donald Trump, which we obtained in the course of reporting for this book after Donald Trump had left office — these are extraordinary and important things that belong in the historical record.
Kruse: Are you writing for the historical record, or are you writing for use by citizens of the United States of America today?
Baker: Well, I guess both. We want this to be for history, but it has very real-world relevance today. What’s past is prologue. This is the ultimate case study of that. You can see what the next term would be like. There’s an analogy that is quoted in the introduction from a national security official who used to meet with Trump every day, who said that he compared him to the velociraptor in “Jurassic Park,” which is to say that he learns. He didn’t know much coming into the presidency, but over four years he learned how to open the kitchen door, and therefore, in a second term, he would approach it in a more capable way, because he knows at this point what he wants and how to get it.
Kruse: What is the intended audience, and what do you think is the realistic audience? Who’s reading this?
Glasser: I think all you can do as a journalist writing this kind of history is work as hard as possible to put as much important, relevant information on the record, and to try to synthesize this overwhelming national experience that we’ve all just come out of. We want people to read it because we think it tells an urgent story. The mission statement is really right there in the first paragraph, which is to say there’s been this incredible, understandable focus on the catastrophic ending of the Trump administration and his unprecedented challenge and effort to overturn the 2020 election results and January 6th. But it’s our view that to understand January 6th you really have to go back to day one of the presidency and put these through lines together. I think you see things so much more clearly. The assault on institutions that I mentioned is one thing, right? The attack on NATO, for example. Now that a fuller historical account emerges, you see very clearly that Trump was dead serious about destroying the NATO alliance on day one of the Trump presidency. The first workday — this is just an amazing detail that, of course, we forgot about — he invites the congressional leadership to the White House, and he starts ranting and raving about the rigged election and millions of illegal votes in California, and Nancy Pelosi — on day one of the Trump presidency — is saying, “What are you talking about?”
Kruse: What do the two of you want people to do with the information that you’ve compiled and reported and synthesized in these 600-some-odd pages?
Baker: Oh, it’s a fast read.
Kruse: It is a fast read for a 600-page book.
Baker: We understand, I think, that this is a country where people’s minds are often made up long before anything actually crosses their screen. But I would just hope that people take a look at it and think through what it tells us about where we as a country are right now and where we want to go. But beyond that, it’s not for us to be prescriptive. It’s not a polemic. It’s not a call to action. There have been plenty of books that are telling you what to do and all that — that’s not what we were trying to do. We were just trying to create real-time history so people are informed and make the judgments that they’re going to make.
Kruse: I ask because while reading this book I found myself thinking back to our trip, Susan, to Trump Tower in March of 2016.
Glasser: Absolutely. I reread it last night.
Kruse: What were we trying to do with that very first convening of the Trump biographers that you christened the Trumpologists? What was the goal of that way back when?
Glasser: We were doing what journalists do. We were trying to understand and describe in clear, stark terms, for as large an audience as possible, the urgency of understanding this character who had burst onto the national political scene but actually had a very extensively documented history. And by the way, if you read that piece, the interview that we conducted with those five Trump biographers, you had an incredible primer and guide to how Donald Trump was going to be as president, because Donald Trump was the same guy that they had described in those biographies. And that was well before the 2016 election. The information about Donald Trump was public, but was it widely understood?
Baker: All those books, I read and reread them all in the last year, and they’re all remarkable. And they really are a roadmap. We would like to add to that body of literature. We’d like this book to be in effect the successor or the next in line from some of those amazing books that were done by those five Trumpologists.
Kruse: Has there ever been a president who had been more covered before his presidency than Donald Trump? Had there ever been more resources at the disposal of the citizens of this country to know who this person is, how he operates, and what he might do as president?
Baker: Probably nothing that’s really comparable. Americans knew Eisenhower pretty darn well by the time he became president, and you could go back to some of the others who had long lives in the public spotlight, but we didn’t have at that time the kind of intense 24/7 media, social media, extensively reported media and book culture. These books on Trump are remarkable because they did what biographers in previous eras couldn’t have done, and really went very deep into his life, his personal life, his professional life, his business life.
By the time he comes to the Oval Office, he has had a complete life more than any other president up to that time, because he’s 70 years old when he comes into office. A lot of these presidents come into office in their 40s or 50s. He has had a very complete life by the time he gets there — that has been lived in the public spotlight since very, very early days. And so you’re right in the sense that I can’t think of any other president who lived his life in the public spotlight and in the spotlight that exists in today’s media environment that is comparable to Donald Trump.
We knew more about his sex life, we knew more about his finances, we knew more about his family interactions — all these things had been really extensively reported before. And some of it didn’t make a difference to the voters, obviously — things that would’ve killed any other political candidate — but they were important, I think, for people to understand if they were going to understand how he would be president.
Kruse: Right. If you had done the reading, we knew how this was going to go.
Glasser: Exactly. Do your homework, people!
Kruse: But he has both highlighted the extreme urgency and importance of clear-eyed, diligent reporting, and he also has caused some, including perhaps me, to question, ultimately, the value of that reporting. If enough people respond to this reporting by just doing what they would’ve done anyway, shrugging their shoulders, retreating to their partisan corners, what does it matter anymore?
Glasser: I wrote a big essay for Brookings after the 2016 election in which the big thing I was grappling with was this question — of covering politics in post-truth America, I think, is what they called it. But it was really about what we do about a world that we seem to be moving into, where there’s transparency, the perceived goal of our political journalism, without the accountability that was assumed to go along with it. And I think that has become, in some ways, the central dilemma of American politics in the Trump era.
Kruse: What’s the answer to this dilemma? What do we need to do as reporters? And what do readers and consumers and citizens need to do?
Glasser: We need to do our job. The point is that it’s never over, right? Going back and back and back is the way that reporting on a subject like this needs to take place. There was great reporting, in my view, before Trump became president, and while he was president, and it’s important to keep at it. This is all new information or new ways of looking at the information. And that is our mission. It’s not like there’s going to be some moment when we’re done covering or understanding the Trump phenomenon in American politics. Look at how many books are still being written about Richard Nixon and Watergate.
Baker: I went back this summer and re-read All the President’s Men and Final Days and Teddy White’s Breach of Faith. And it’s fascinating how much, in the very short term after he left office, they were able to capture the really important elements and lessons of Nixon’s presidency. And while a lot of fantastic work has been done since then — including Garrett Graff’s recent book about Watergate, which is terrific — those early accounts are still important. They’re foundational to everything that would come. And so hopefully what we can do here is build something that other people will always continue to build on. I would imagine in years and decades to come, there are going to be a lot of books on Trump, but what I hope is that future historians will find this a valuable first start at capturing the most important angles and elements and issues.
Kruse: You said it’s never over. And let me ask this: If Trumpology in 2015 and 2016, if those biographies from the ’80s and ’90s and 2000s were materials that people could use, whether they did or did not, to sort of predict how a president Donald Trump would operate, is it fair for me to read this book and think this is how a second term of President Donald Trump might go?
Glasser: I think the book is very relevant to the question of what a second term might look like, because it suggests that actually it would be much more radical and disruptive than the first term. Trump at the end of the four years was a much more disruptive and radical figure not because he had changed his mind about things, but because he began to understand better how to “open the door.” He displaced so many waves of staff to get himself closer and closer to the enablers and those who would, as he saw, be loyal quote unquote to him and do what he wanted. Mark Meadows is a very different character as White House chief of staff than John Kelly. There’s a strong argument to be made that January 6th never would’ve happened if John Kelly or someone like him was the White House chief of staff at that time. And I think that Trump’s subsequent behavior out of office strongly suggests that the most radical, disruptive approach and people surrounding him would obtain in a second term.
Kruse: He’s almost certain to run again. From your perspective, is there an evolution in how to approach a third presidential campaign of Donald Trump?
Baker: How the media should approach? How the country should approach?
Kruse: Well, reporters, and I suppose by extension how the country will receive it.
Baker: I think the answer is still facts, actual information, as much as anything else. I know a lot of people want journalists to become more advocates. I think that the most powerful journalism is still reporting and finding out what happened and letting people know what happened so that they can make their judgments. And that’s what we did here. We didn’t write a polemic. We went out and did 300 interviews to find out from people who were in the room what went on so that history can make its judgments. And I think reporting remains the most important priority for journalists at this stage.
Kruse: Based on that reporting, why do you think he’s still even a viable political entity, let alone the almost obvious front runner for the 2024 Republican nomination?
Glasser: I do think that what Jared Kushner called at one point Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican party is perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of our lifetime in terms of American politics. Obviously, it is a continuing and ongoing phenomenon, and when history presents you with a story over and over and over again, it’s certainly our jobs to see things as clearly as we’re able to do. The bottom line is that we spent four years watching and [seeing] coverage of “Is this the moment when the Republican Party breaks with Trump?” January 6th was believed to be the moment that, of course, the Republican Party would break with Trump, and they did not do so. So shame on us if we can’t understand that there’s no going backward to the status-quo ante-Trump.
Kruse: Looking back, what in your mind is the single most important day of the Trump presidency?
Baker: January 20th, 2017, in a way, right? The day he comes into office sets the tone for everything that follows. His speech is dark and combative. The argument over crowd size, his obsession with making up facts that aren’t there, the desire to bend reality to his will and force everybody else to live in the reality as he defines it — in some ways it’s all there on that first day. To understand January 6th, 2021, you have to understand January 20th, 2017, and every day in between, because it wasn’t an outlier. It wasn’t an aberration. It was all a continuum over four years building to the explosive finale. And so I think you could argue that day one is in some ways the archetypal day of what was going to follow.
Glasser: There’s this great quote from Steve Bannon who, along with Stephen Miller, had the pen in that “American carnage” inaugural address. And Bannon says, “We didn’t win an election to bring this country together.” Amazing.
Kruse: Are there particular dates in your minds that marked meaningful shifts in his approach or his level of grievance or emboldenment?
Baker: You could argue, obviously, that the day he fires Comey, he sets in motion a series of events that will define his presidency from that point on. It’s not only that it’s going to trigger a special counsel investigation, but it becomes this war that he wants to wage from that point [on]. His sense of grievance over the response to his efforts to control that investigation really shapes his approach to Washington writ large. There were people who thought: Well, he’s not really a Republican. He used to be a Democrat, he’s from New York, he’s got a flexible ideology, he doesn’t really believe anything too strongly with a handful of exceptions — so he could be a dealmaker, he could be a guy who cuts across the lines. Geoff Berman — the former U.S. Attorney from the Southern District of New York — writes in his most recent book that obviously was not the case, it may never have been the case, but it certainly wasn’t the case after he decides to try to rein in this investigation and go to war with the legal system as it existed. And from that point on he knows he needs conservatives, and he decides to go to war with the Democrats and the bureaucracy and the system, and he tried to bring it to heel or even destroy it.
Kruse: Where does Trump in your estimation sit on the spectrum of best/worst presidents and where does he sit on the spectrum of most consequential/least consequential presidents?
Glasser: History I suspect, will have its judgment for Trump.
Kruse: But you just wrote the first definitive history of his four years in the White House.
Glasser: And I hope that will be taken into consideration by whoever the gods of history are.
Kruse: Well, you’re the gods of history today. The gods of Trump history.
Baker: These things, as you know, change all the time. I mean, take the latest Truman book by Jeffrey Frank; people say a whole-lot different things about Truman today than they did 50 years ago. I’ll leave it to others to make the best/worst comparison — but consequential, yes, I will make that case because whether you like him or don’t like him, Trump is testing the system. He is testing our democracy after 246 years. He is testing the Constitution. He is testing our institutions. He is testing our conception of what the country should be. His admirers would say that’s a good thing. A lot of other people would say no. But there’s never been a president who’s tested the system quite this way. They’ve pushed the envelope. A lot of presidents did. They did things that history has either approved of or condemned. But I don’t think anybody came in with as little sense of fidelity to the system as it existed when he took office as Donald Trump. And I think that that is unique in American history.
Kruse: You’ve thought about him more than almost anybody. Why is he this way? Why did he have so little fidelity to the institutions and the constitution and the democracy of the United States of America?
Baker: There’s a psychoanalytic answer that your Trumpologists would give better than we would. But he’s a guy from Queens who always wanted to be in Manhattan, right? He was the guy who wanted to be part of the club and who the club didn’t think very much of, and he bought his way in to some extent, but I think he knew that they didn’t respect him very much, and they thought of him as uncouth and crude and not really worthy, at least as he saw it. That insecurity has made him throughout his life determined to prove himself, to dominate others, to be as combative as he has been. And so I think that the presidency was the ultimate validation for an insecure man. He’s a profoundly insecure person.
He needed this to demonstrate that he was all things. He always told everybody he was, even if they didn’t believe it. And that’s why he lives in his own reality, as your guys six years ago told us, and he’s still living in his reality. It’s a reality where he has never lost, ever, at anything, he’s never failed at anything, he has no weaknesses. There’s a great line in the book where his executive assistant says, “I think the president looks like he’s tired.” And the answer she gets is, “Donald Trump is never tired and he is never sick.” This mythology that he wanted to create, that he is the superman, in effect drove his business career, his entertainment career and now his political career.
Kruse: And if because of all of what you just said he continues to be a singular human pressure test for this country, how are we doing?
Glasser: Every generation has to renew its commitment to American democracy and its definition of it. Obviously there have been rocky, divisive, polarized moments in American politics before. Donald Trump has done a number of things that are unprecedented, even within that long history of ups and downs. What we saw after 2020 was something that really had never occurred before in the history of the country, and that is a president refused to accept the legitimate, constitutional results of an election and of his own defeat. That’s just an extraordinary moment that we’re living through. And it’s obviously still happening, right? It’s not over.