This week, the Guardian reported that what are assessed to be leaked Kremlin documents describe Donald Trump as an “impulsive, mentally unstable and unbalanced individual”. Vladimir Putin, the documents say, therefore decided to assist Trump’s rise to power in 2016 as a way to weaken America.
Five years on, as America digests a string of bombshell revelations about the last days of Trump’s presidency pulled from a string of new books, Russia’s judgment seems born out.
Taken together, these Trump books show just how close the US came to disaster amid stark warnings from military leaders and almost unprecedented fears of an attempted coup. They also revealed new and shocking claims about Trump and his inner circle, including praise for Hitler and an apparent desire to have protesters shot.
In Nightmare Scenario, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta of the Washington Post show how Trump failed to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Trump, they report, wanted to send infected Americans to Guantánamo Bay and seemed to hope Covid would take out his national security adviser.
In Landslide, Michael Wolff’s second sequel to Fire and Fury, the book that birthed the genre, Trump is shown isolated and unhinged in the White House, pushed to extremes by Rudy Giuliani before, during and after his supporters’ deadly attack on the Capitol. He also reports – and Fox News denies – that Rupert Murdoch personally approved the early call of Arizona which signaled Trump’s defeat with a pithy “Fuck him”.
In Frankly, We Did Win This Election, Michael Bender reports the 2020 campaign in exhaustive detail. He also tells us Trump believed Adolf Hitler “did a lot of good things”, wanted to “execute” whichever aide leaked news of his retreat to a White House bunker as anti-racism protests raged last summer, and told his top general to “just shoot” those demonstrating in Lafayette Square outside.
In I Alone Can Fix It, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker show that general, Mark Milley, resisting Trump but fearing a “Reichstag moment”, a coup by supporters of a president preaching “the gospel of the Führer”. Four days later, on 6 January this year, Trump supporters did storm the US Capitol, seeking to overturn the election, looking for lawmakers to capture and kill.
The two Pulitzer-winning Washington Post reporters also report that Vice-President Mike Pence defied his own Secret Service agents and refused to leave the Capitol as it came under attack. They even show Milley reassuring the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, that Trump will not be allowed to use nuclear weapons. So, on Friday, did Susan Glasser of the New Yorker, whose Trump book will come out next year. For good measure, Glasser also reported Milley’s efforts to stop Trump attacking Iran.
To the reader, America really did come to the brink of disaster.
Asked for Trump’s thoughts, a spokesperson directed the Guardian to a statement issued on 9 July, before some of the most alarming revelations were public. The interviews he sat for were “a total waste of time”, Trump said, as the authors were “bad people” who “write whatever they want to write”.
But Trump did respond to Leonnig and Rucker – also authors of a bestseller on the start of his presidency, A Very Stable Genius. Denying their reporting, he said Gen Milley should be “impeached, or court-martialed and tried” and called Pelosi “a known nut job”.
Tara Setmayer, a former Republican strategist now a senior adviser with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, told the Guardian such statements were “the rantings of a raving madman”.
“But he’s a madman with millions of followers, including powerful elected members of the United States government.”
Therein lies the rub. Many Trump books report important news. Many trade in salacious gossip. But all in some way document a moment in US history that is unprecedented – and which has not ended.
Trump retains control of a party committed to advancing his lie that his defeat was the result of electoral fraud and to attacking the voting rights of opponents. It is therefore important, Setmayer said, for the media to continue to cover both Trump and the avalanche of books about him.
“It is unconscionable given his behavior that the Republicans would give him the time of day,” she said. “He should be a political pariah. But it’s important to frame it all in the proper context, to point out when he’s not telling the truth. And as long as that’s done, then I think you have to continue to show what he’s doing.”
Trump is not a reader but he knows what is written about him. According to Politico, earlier this month he woke to news – broken by the Guardian – of the passage in Bender’s book in which he is reported to have praised Hitler.
Trump again denied the remark, Politico said, but also told an adviser: “That doesn’t mean [former chief of staff] John Kelly didn’t tell Mike Bender that. That doesn’t mean other people didn’t say it.”
Former aides jockey to tell their sides of the story. Pence and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law-cum-adviser, have signed deals for memoirs. Trump has even claimed to be writing his own book, news that prompted leading agents and publishers to reach for their very longest bargepoles, with which not to publicly touch it.
Most influential Trump world figures have spoken on or off the record. As one former aide told Politico: “It’s fraught right now as to who is telling the truth. They’re all trying to go back in time and curate their own images.” All have reason to be cautious. Trump remains powerful – and angry.
“Nobody had ever heard of some of these people that worked for me in DC,” he said in yet another statement this week, adding: “For the first time in their lives they feel like ‘something special’, not the losers that they are – and they talk, talk, talk!”
Portrayals of key meetings and moments fuel the new Trump books, all written in a style made famous by Bob Woodward, the Post veteran whose own third Trump book is due out in September. Drawn from anonymous sources, scenes are reproduced as if the reporter is in the room, quotes reported verbatim. It all adds up to a tempting prize for other journalists, jockeying to scoop the hot new read.
Keith Urbahn is a former speechwriter and Pentagon chief of staff who co-founded Javelin, a leading Washington literary agency. He told the Guardian: “Over the last year, various editors have told us they’re skeptical, that the demand that we saw in the last few years of the Trump presidency for political books was necessarily going to decline as soon as he was out of office.
“And our thesis was that it wouldn’t. Maybe it would diminish a little bit. But that the desire to understand this critical period of history was going to continue. And I do think that’s been proven.”
A glance at the Amazon bestseller list suggested Urbahn was right. Leonnig and Rucker led the way, days before publication, with Wolff third and Bender fourth after a few days on sale. Pro-Trump books by Mark Levin and Jesse Waters filled out the top five.
The presence of the two Fox News hosts echoed a note of caution from Setmayer. Deep reportage of the excesses of Trump, she said, “further confirms to the 80-plus million who voted for Joe Biden that they made the right choice. Clearly.”
“But you had over 74 million people who still voted for Donald Trump. Does it make a difference to them? I fear that for the large majority of those people, it does not. If anything, it further entrenches them in this idea that Donald Trump was somehow the victim, that the ‘deep state’ was indeed after him. And I’m not quite sure how you ever break through to those people.”
Most likely, the publishing world never will. But as Urbahn said, plenty of other readers “look back on the Trump era with a mixture of anger, surprise and shock. I think the books are a great way to make sense of that history in ways the daily drumbeat of news stories and tweets does not. It’s not possible. Only books are really a way of doing that.”
Journalism, so the cliche goes, is the first draft of history. Books based on journalism are therefore seen as the second.
Setmayer said: “I think that the books by the more credible journalists are doing that, versus the more salacious ones. We can let history be the judge.”
“It would be complacent to regard this as something comfortably in the past,” he said. “The insurrection Trump organised and coordinated and had paid for revealed weaknesses in the system that the entire Republican party now is devoted to exploiting, through not only voter suppression but future election suppression.
“All this demonstrates how dangerous Trump remains.”
And why books about him sell.