Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and the executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. He is working on a biography of President Jimmy Carter.
We called Watergate our long national nightmare. The presidential scandal captured headlines for two full years, from 1972 until President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974. But our collective obsession with the scandals of President Trump, elected just under two years ago, seems somehow far more excruciating. We are exhausted from trying to absorb revelations involving a wide cast of characters — not to mention the president’s almost daily barrage of tweets, some merely outrageous and not a few bordering on the nonsensical. Even the most careful readers of this newspaper and other serious news outlets must sometimes struggle against a definite sensation of vertigo.
We cannot understand what happened in the 2016 election, Russia-gate or the imploding Trump presidency by reading the 24-hour digital news on our phones or watching the talking heads on partisan cable news platforms. Fortunately, we still have a simple technology invented nearly six centuries ago: books. Greg Miller has written a damn good one. “The Apprentice” is not as breathless as Bob Woodward’s recent “Fear: Trump in the White House,” nor as anecdotally investigative as this spring’s “Russian Roulette,” by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. Miller’s book paints on a broad canvas, showing readers the full arc of an incredibly complicated political tale. Miller has twice won Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting on national security issues for The Washington Post. He and other Post reporters, including Adam Entous and Ellen Nakashima, have broken many of the hard news stories about the Trump presidency. But Miller puts it all together in “The Apprentice,” placing the tale in a comprehensible historical and political context. The resulting portrait of our very weird president is certainly not flattering — but somehow it is reassuring that Trump comes off as a politician more in the tradition of the dangerous but clownish Silvio Berlusconi rather than the fascistic Benito Mussolini.
Miller’s sources are more or less transparent, and his writing is measured and clear. Miller makes no pretense about knowing the end of the story and acknowledges that at this point he does not know whether the special counsel, Robert Mueller, will accuse the president of any crimes.
But Miller’s account of the Russian hacking of the Democrats is highly persuasive. He shows how a “troll factory” called the Internet Research Agency, housed in a drab office building in St. Petersburg, broke into the Democratic National Committee’s servers and made off with 50,000 emails belonging to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. It was a hack — not a leak — and the stolen information was then astutely disseminated by WikiLeaks in a manner designed to embarrass Hillary Clinton. Similarly, Miller documents how the Russians planted disinformation on Facebook and Twitter.
Miller has written about this in The Post, but the book explains much more. He cites the example of a Facebook advertisement paid for by the Russians that featured a grizzled U.S. Navy veteran, homeless and destitute, complaining that there were 50,000 veterans like him “starving” in the streets — allegedly because of liberals who favored immigrants over taking care of “our own citizens.” This single fake story was posted more than 724,000 times, and Facebook has acknowledged that such provocative postings by the Internet Research Agency reached 126 million Americans. Similar Twitter postings routinely referred to Clinton as “Killary” and hammered away on Trump’s anti-immigrant themes. Clearly, the Russian disinformation campaign poisoned the well of civic discourse. But the Russians didn’t need Trump to do this.
Miller is careful to acknowledge that Russian efforts were not the only factor in Clinton’s defeat — or even necessarily the decisive factor. FBI chief James Comey’s clumsy handling of the Clinton email server investigation weighed heavily, and so did “Clinton’s own undeniable failings as a candidate.” Like most of us, Russian President Vladimir Putin thought Clinton would win, and he waged his disinformation campaign against the Democrat hoping merely to weaken her coming presidency.
Miller is also measured in his treatment of whether Trump consciously colluded with the Russian efforts. This remains an open question to be answered by Mueller’s investigation. But Miller’s account of what happened after the 2016 election makes clear that many of Trump’s current troubles stem from “self-inflicted” wounds. The man is inept and plagued, writes Miller, by “his impulsiveness and excessive confidence in his own instincts.”
Firing Comey is a case in point. Miller writes that Trump would have been better off with Comey inside the tent than outside. Be that as it may, Trump foolishly believed that by dismissing the FBI director, he would close down the Russia investigation. Needing a less self-serving excuse, he asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to write a memo cataloguing Comey’s mishandling of the Clinton email server probe. Rosenstein did so. But Miller writes that in the wake of Comey’s firing, Trump “failed to anticipate how Rosenstein would react to being manipulated.” Eight days later, Rosenstein, a 27-year career Justice Department civil servant, retaliated by ambushing the president with the appointment of a special counsel. Trump thus brought the relentless Mueller to his own doorstep.
At the end of his book, Miller wonders what exactly Putin has on Trump. Citing the infamous but increasingly plausible “dossier” by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, Miller suggests that “kompromat” images of prostitutes urinating on a hotel bed in Moscow, even if true, might not be “decisive leverage on a man who has survived scandals including his taped admission of sexually assaulting women, and payoffs to a porn star and ‘Playboy’ model for affairs while his wife was tending to their young child.” Trump, he writes, “appears beyond shame when it comes to his relationships to women and money.”
So what explains Trump’s strange submissiveness to the new tsar of Russia? Yes, perhaps the Mueller investigation will uncover “financial entanglements with Moscow that he seems determined to keep hidden.” But Miller also cites unnamed CIA officials speculating that the answer is “in plain sight.” What happened is what we saw, a presidential candidate openly soliciting a foreign power’s help with opposition research: “Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump said at a news conference on July 27, 2016, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” But for Trump, this is the one thing he can never admit — that “his victory might not have been earned free and clear.”
If so, it seems that the president’s narcissism is about to drive the country into a full-blown constitutional crisis.
By Greg Miller
Custom House. 431 pp. $29.99