Reading a gripping account of 465 pages, including endnotes, of Donald Trump in the White House would make one wonder whether to pity the man, the system or the American people; worse still shudder about the prospect of the incumbent carrying on beyond 2021 for another four years.
But the narrative put together by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists of The Washington Post is chilling at best and scary at worst. President Trump may dismiss these two reporters as “third rate” but the fact remains that the scribes have put together a first-rate narrative of the goings-on in the White House that America and the rest of the world would be worried of.
The world’s most powerful person sitting in the Oval Office thinks he is the master of all knowledge but is, in fact, a person who knows very little and yet adamantly insisting that he is the only genius in town and a stable one at that.
On more than one occasion President Trump has said publicly that he is intelligent, genius and smart.
“Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart” he once said on Twitter. Aside from the political hacks who have had an axe to grind with the President, few of Trump’s aides or Cabinet Secretaries have vouched to his intelligence or him being smart as a whistle. If one thing that this book establishes, it is the fact of a self-styled genius bristling at the idea of being told anything smart or close to reality.
The classic example that Rucker and Leonnig point to is in the meeting that was put together in the Pentagon in the scared Tank—a top-secret room where closed-door briefings are held—to brief the commander-in-chief on the projections and responsibilities of American power.
Aides to the President were horrified at his lack of knowledge of history and the meaning of alliances sewed in the aftermath of World War Two. But with no patience at what was being painstakingly put across in the simplest format possible, Trump ended the session exploding.
“You’re all losers, you don’t know how to win… You’re a bunch of dopes and babies”, he told stunned officers and civilians. But what can you expect of a person who does not know the significance of Pearl Harbor or what even happened there in 1941?
On more than one occasion President Trump, according to the authors, has failed to understand the nuances of foreign policy or why is it that American troops are stationed overseas.
American commitment to Trump meant that the South Koreans, Japanese and Europeans were ripping off America. He has had the tendency to link wars and conflicts to profits. After berating the establishment for spending billions on deployments in the Middle East, for example, the question has always been “where is the oil”?
On one such occasion at the White House Situation Room, Rucker and Leonnig, say that finally, one person had the guts to stand up to the nonsense; and that was former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “I’ve never put on a uniform, but I know this. Every person who has put on a uniform, the people in this room, they don’t do it to make a buck. They did it for their country, to protect us. I want everyone to be clear how much we as a country value their service”, Tillerson said much to the annoyment of the President.
The fascinating thing about the book is that one gets the real meaning of the Trump Presidency just by going through some of the chapter headings of the five-part masterpiece: Paranoia and Pandemonium; The Road to Obstruction; Impeding Justice; A Cover-Up; Shocking the Conscience; Breakdown; Scare-A-Thon; Gut Over Brains and Loyalty and Truth, just to mention a few.
President Lyndon Johnson’s infamous statement was “I never trust a man till I’ve got his pecker in my pocket”. In the case of President Trump, he would still not trust the man even if he had that in his pocket! Trump was so distrustful of everyone around him—except perhaps his daughter and son-in-law—that coming to work the next day for White House Staffers or even Cabinet Secretaries was not a guarantee. Often times staffers and senior officials came to know of their fate through tweets as the book would reveal.
Loyalty to Trump means blindly obeying him and carrying out his thinking and orders, even if they are illegal, undoable or plain crazy. The one axim that defined the Man and the Institution: You are with me or against me. That would explain the frequent run-ins Trump had with his handpicked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or his one time Secretary of Homeland Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, to mention a few examples.
Trump, according to the authors would go to any extent to harass at times even calling people like Nielsen in the wee hours of the morning or while she was travelling overseas and on different time zones.
And Trump’s persistent question to her: Why have you not shut the border? And her bold reply one time was: “I am not sure what we are saying here. As the Attorney General knows, people have the legal right to cross the border and try to claim asylum. That’s just the law”.
Whether it was the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency trying to impress the President that the Russians did in fact interfere in the 2016 elections, Trump was furious at the findings and soon began to disparage the men and women of intelligence services who were doing their best to protect America. Even if the intelligence agencies did not say that the Trump election machine colluded with the Russians, he did not want to hear the names of either Russia or President Putin mentioned in anything called “meddling”.
If Trump is really the genius he thinks that he is then surely he should know the functioning of American democracy. That somehow does not come through where on many occasions he is vehemently arguing with Cabinet Secretaries on mundane common sense aspects of governmental functioning: that the Department of Homeland Security, in the name of securing borders, cannot violate human rights of detainees, especially women and children; that funding for the border wall must come through Congressional appropriation; and that American corporate houses cannot resort to bribery and corrupt practices against existing law.
Trump pressures Tillerson to get rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. “It’s just so unfair that American companies aren’t allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas”, Trump complained to aides.
The problem to President Trump was two-fold: external conspiracy and deliberate internal leaks to weaken him. If it was not one, it was the other in any scheme of things to the point that he either disbelieved or suspected even his closest supporters. To a President who is accustomed to watching the Television from early in the morning but only Fox News or Morning Shows of anchors he liked, all hell would break loose in the White House if any news or anchor is even remotely critical to a policy or maintain that the administration is not following a proper track.
Many times he has ordered Cabinet Secretaries—Ms Nielsen especially—to check with favourite anchors and commentators the correct way of going about.
The paranoia of conspiracy was such that Trump was convinced that everyone starting with the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller down on to the lower-level officials in the Justice Department and White House were determined to bring him down. The big relief came only after Mueller released his two-volume report that his Acting Attorney General, William Barr, carefully carved out a four-page summary of the Report. Based on the opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel of the Justice Department, Mueller did not indict Trump – but he did not exonerate him either.
Trump’s Attorney General and Lawyers made sure they omitted the second part! Academics and historians may have a point when they maintain that critics of Trump including those writing books must have perspective in mind when coming to certain broad conclusions.
For instance that Trump is not the first President to use profane language; have a short temper; little knowledge of foreign affairs or domestic political process or very short attention spans.
When it comes to profanity, Trump will pale into insignificance when compared to Lyndon Johnson who was downright crude. John F Kennedy’s knowledge of the domestic political process was quite limited which is why he brought in Johnson, a folksy politician of Texas; and McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor had apparently said that President Kennedy’s attention span was around seven or eight minutes, perhaps much higher than that of Trump.
But in seeing the difference between Kennedy, Johnson and Trump, it can be safely said that neither Kennedy nor Johnson continually disparaged and humiliated their advisors and cabinet officials. Trump specializes in this, it would seem.
That brings the final question: Why is it that Americans elected Trump in 2016 and stands a fair chance of being re-elected again this November 3, 2020? The answer is really in the genius of Trump to speak the language of his electoral base. Writing an Opinion Piece in The New York Times shortly before the Senate acquitted the President of impeachment charges, Frank Bruni says: “He has turned himself into a symbol of Americans’ victimization, telling frustrated voters who crave for easy answers that they’re being pushed around by foreigners and duped by the condescending custodians of a dysfunctional system.
He’s their proxy, suffering on their behalf, and in that way, he collapses the distance between a billionaire with multiple golf resorts and displaced factory workers struggling to hold on to their one and only homes”.
A Very Stable Genius is indeed a treat to read; a rare peek into the White House of a President who seems determined to get his way even if his associates are pointing to the pitfalls and dangers in the road ahead.
(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations.)