The gist of the magazine’s report — that the book would reveal that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, feared Trump would precipitate a coup to maintain power — was so hot that it in turn triggered a nearly immediate follow-up report on CNN.com, written by no fewer than five reporters. Which in turn prompted The Washington Post to chase down the same nugget — which was kind of ironic, considering the book that produced the scoop was written by two Post reporters and had already generated a prominent excerpt in the paper, with a second to come days later.
The media-on-media scramble, a kind of Russian nesting doll of reportage, attested to both the profound import of the Milley anecdote and the cultural heat of the new syllabus of Trump books. On the same day, “I Alone,” written by The Post’s Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, was the best-selling book on Amazon, which includes preorders for not-yet-released books. The third and fourth bestsellers were also dishy Trump titles: “Landslide,” by the independent journalist Michael Wolff, and “Frankly, We Did Win This Election,” by the Wall Street Journal’s Michael C. Bender, respectively. A fourth book, “Nightmare Scenario,” about Trump’s handling of the pandemic by two other Post reporters, Damian Paletta and Yasmeen Abutaleb, had climbed up the lists the week before.
Books about Trump may be the most popular, and populous, nonfiction genre since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks inspired a publishing boom. Volumes documenting the scandal and chaos of the 45th president’s administration have been burning up the charts since he took office. Some authors have had two bites in a single presidential term: Leonnig and Rucker’s “A Very Stable Genius” appeared last year. Wolff has written three in the past three years.
This spurt does not include another dozen or so Trump books that will be released over the next few months, including one co-written by Post veteran Bob Woodward, who has already penned two Trump tomes, including last September’s predictably best-selling “Rage.”
Why the enduring fascination? It might be because there’s still so much to tell.
“News, tweets, outrages and scandals move at such a dizzying pace in the Trump era that it was impossible for the American public to make sense of what was happening in real time,” said Keith Urbahn, co-founder and president of Javelin, a literary and public relations agency. Books in general, and Trump books in particular, provide context “in ways breaking news cannot.”
Urbahn’s company, based in Alexandria, Va., has represented a string of authors of Trump books — not only journalists Bender, Paletta and Abutaleb, but also former administration officials. Its roster includes James B. Comey, John Bolton and “Anonymous,” a.k.a. Miles Taylor, the author of “A Warning,” a 2019 bestseller about his insight into the Trump White House.
The current Trump book traffic jam isn’t entirely coincidental; it was, in part, engineered. Bender’s book was supposed to be published in August, but his publisher, Twelve Books, moved it up to last week after learning that the other books would be published around the start of beach-reading season.
The hurried-up release seemingly defies conventional book-marketing wisdom. Publishers, like movie studios, usually avoid head-to-head competition, shifting the most promising titles out of the way of similar projects, so they don’t have to compete for publicity and consumers’ dollars.
And yet, this particular pileup seems to have worked synergistically, creating a kind of restaurant-row effect in which consumers are drawn by the concentration of offerings. News stories inspired by these books, such as the reports about Milley, often mention the various books together, boosting each one.
“Competition is sometimes beneficial,” says Alfred Regnery, co-founder and president of Republic Book Publishers. “Two books [about the same topic] can be reviewed or written about together, meaning both benefit. . . . It’s all about sales, and sales is all about how much publicity can be generated.”
It also helps that each of the books, which document the frantic final months of Trump’s presidency, contains a seemingly unending list of you’re-not-going-to-believe-this anecdotes and revelations.
Bender, for example, reports that Trump told White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that Hitler “did a lot of good things” and broached with Milley an idea to mobilize the military to quell demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Wolff says Trump toyed with the idea of postponing the election, using the Floyd protests as a pretext. Paletta and Abutaleb report that Trump was far sicker from covid-19 when he entered the hospital last fall than the White House ever acknowledged. In addition to Milley’s misgivings, Rucker and Leonnig write that presidential lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani advised Trump to simply declare victory in key swing states, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (For the record, Trump has denied the Hitler comment or that he ever discussed a coup.)
Yet such revelations raise a question: Why are these reporters only telling us these things now?
The same question came up last year, when Woodward’s “Rage” made news for the author’s disclosure that Trump knew as early as February 2020 that the incipient coronavirus pandemic was “deadly” even as he publicly downplayed it. But critics questioned why Woodward — who learned this firsthand from his interviews with Trump in early 2020 — didn’t let the world know about this sooner. Woodward argued that his book’s mission was to present a more complete picture of Trump’s response to the pandemic. And that, in addition, when Trump first shared his intel about the virus, he had no idea whether Trump was telling the truth. (“Which is always a problem with Trump,” he said.)
Rucker and Leonnig’s reporting for their book was walled off from their daily beat responsibilities, so real-time reports in the newspaper were out of the question, said Post editor Sally Buzbee.
“Basically, when staffers go on unpaid book leaves, which is the case here, there is an understanding that the reporting they are doing is for the book,” she said. “The Post typically publishes the book’s first excerpt, which gives our readers the first cut at the news. This is our long-standing practice and has served readers of The Post and the reporters well.”
New York Times editor Dean Baquet said he encourages his reporters to “keep in touch” with editors at the paper when they’re working on books, and to alert them when they come up with something worthy of daily publication.
“Sometimes we make the judgment that it is okay to hold [a big scoop], or at least to hold until we publish an excerpt,” he said. Book-writing and daily news reporting aren’t “church and state,” said Baquet, whose star Washington correspondent Maggie Haberman is at work on a Trump book, “and I do hope reporters break their big news in the Times.”
Rucker noted another constraint on real-time reporting of the news he and Leonnig uncovered: “Many of the officials we interviewed for ‘I Alone Can Fix It’ agreed to speak with us about these events only after Trump had left office and only for the purposes of this deeper history,” he said.
“Some of our sources told us they did not share this information with journalists in real time because they feared retribution from the sitting president, but as time passed they became more comfortable recounting their experiences to us for the historical record,” he added.
Bender did not respond to a request for comment. But Wall Street Journal spokesman Steve Severinghaus said: “While we generally expect our journalists to break current, relevant stories on our platforms first, we take each instance on a case-by-case basis, balancing the needs of our audiences’ timely right to know and respecting our journalists’ outside efforts.” He declined to respond to a question about whether the newspaper had discussed publishing Bender’s findings before publication of his book.
Book contracts typically are silent on the question of whether it’s permissible for journalists to report their own scoops before a book’s publication, said Regnery, the publisher.
“My position as publisher is that’s a matter between the journalist and his employer, and you better check with your employer because [withholding news] could get you fired,” he said.
“Of course, [publishers] always want the best information.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Alfred Regnery’s first name. This story has been corrected.