Now Leonnig and Rucker are back with a book on the last year of President Donald Trump’s reign, also with a title inspired by one of the former president’s grandiose utterances: “I Alone Can Fix It.” It’s a vital sequel, given the momentous public health, racial and electoral crises that unfolded during Trump’s bid for a second term. Like their first book, this one is filled with vivid, often alarming, occasionally humorous reconstructions of private White House meetings, complete with enough F-bombs to fill an episode of the classic HBO series “Deadwood.” But more than ever, it raises a question for readers of this and similar Woodward-style books coming out this summer and fall: How much skepticism should be applied to versions of events based primarily on the anonymous testimony of protagonists in the story — many of whom, in this case, are trying to soften history’s judgment of their roles in the mishandling of a pandemic that has killed more than a half a million Americans, as well as a “big lie” about the 2020 election that led to the gravest political insurrection since the Civil War?
One Woodward rule is that those promises of anonymity and a novelistic narrative style excuse reporters-turned-book-writers from the usual journalistic requirements of attribution. But the format itself — such as the appearance of verbatim dialogue and interior thoughts — provides ample clues as to which characters played ball. Based on that evidence, dozens of top Trump administration officials and aides cooperated with the authors in order to put distance between themselves and the former president’s most egregious actions, as well as to settle scores with Rudy Giuliani and White House aide Stephen Miller, both of whom are resented by virtually everyone else for their arrogant meddling and stoking of Trump’s basest impulses. Among the longtime enablers who are depicted as attempting to get Trump to back off the “big lie,” or to intervene to stop the Jan. 6 riot, are White House aides Pat Cipollone and Hope Hicks, and former aide Kellyanne Conway; allies Chris Christie and Lindsey Graham; and, predictably, the image-conscious first daughter herself. (“As soon as she saw on the television in her second-floor office that the rioters were inside the Capitol, Ivanka Trump said to her aides, ‘I’m going down to my dad. This has to stop.’ ”)
Whether personally or through close aides, Mike Pence provided enough anecdotal detail for a dramatic, newsworthy account of his last-minute acquisition of a spine in the face of Trump’s attempt to bully him into stopping the electoral college certification. As rioters breached the Capitol and roamed the hallways shouting, “Hang Mike Pence!,” the vice president was evacuated to “a secured subterranean area,” the authors report. But when the head of his security detail, Tim Giebels, tried to persuade him to wait inside an armored limousine, Pence refused, suspecting that the Secret Service would try to drive him to safety, making him look like either a conspirator or a coward unwilling to carry out his constitutional duty to ratify Joe Biden’s victory. “ ‘I’m not getting in the car, Tim,’ Pence replied. ‘I trust you, Tim, but you’re not driving the car. If I get in that vehicle, you guys are taking off. I’m not getting in the car.’ ”
Based on their own self-serving testimony but presumably also on corroborative reporting by Leonnig and Rucker, three other major players get more favorable treatment than conventional wisdom might suggest. In public, Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, came across as a dour waffler who allowed his agency’s long-held reputation for independence to be trashed by Trump’s attempts to wish away the coronavirus crisis. But in this account, Redfield was a private truth teller who — having taken a big pay cut to accept the CDC post, the authors inform us — recognized the severity of the pandemic earlier than most of his colleagues did and eventually went over the heads of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and White House officials to appeal for emergency funds for vaccine distribution. (“Redfield told one of his deputies, ‘This is so important that if I get fired by telling Congress what is needed, so be it.’ ”)
Some readers may balk at seeing Bill Barr get credit for anything, and with good reason. The former attorney general deserves to be forever remembered for helping Trump falsely claim exoneration by the Mueller report and for corrupting the Justice Department in the service of protecting the president’s friends and pursuing his partisan aims. But in this account, when Trump toyed with invoking the Insurrection Act to put down Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, Barr stood firm against it, taking on Miller, who favored a crackdown, in several White House shouting matches. (“ ‘You don’t know s--- about what you’re talking about,’ Barr said, his voice booming at Miller. ‘You have never had operational responsibility for anything.’ ”) And after the election, in key public statements and in several tense private confrontations, Barr drew the line at supporting the “big lie,” depriving Trump of backup in his desperate attempt to mount legal challenges to voting results in the states that put Biden over the top. “We’ve looked into these things and they’re nonsense,” Barr told the president about his election fraud tirades in one of their last meetings, before he conveniently resigned just in time to avoid association with the Jan. 6 riot.
The most sympathetic of these burnished portraits is of Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To his former-Catholic-schoolboy shame, Milley participated, in uniform, in Trump’s infamous Bible photo op after the violent clearing of Lafayette Square. After that “wake-up call,” the authors write, Milley told aides: “He burned me. F--- these guys. I’m not playing political games.” From then on, Milley joined Barr in opposing the scheme to unleash the military on Black Lives Matter protesters. And as Trump installed “acolytes” at the Pentagon after the election, Milley stayed on to guard against a scenario in which they would go along with an attempt to cling to power through force. “They may try, but they’re not going to f---ing succeed,” Milley told associates, according to the authors. “You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the ones with the guns.”
Fortunately, it never came to that, although questions remain about what role some of those Trump Pentagon loyalists played in the delayed security response to the Jan. 6 riot. While refusing to concede defeat, Trump eventually relinquished power peacefully and departed for his home at Mar-a-Lago. Seventy days later, he sat down with Leonnig and Rucker at the posh Florida resort for an on-the-record interview — ironically, one of the few in the book — that was scheduled for an hour but rambled on for more than two and a half. Surrounded by fawning hangers-on and endorsement seekers, Trump was as aggrieved and vengeful as ever, whining about the “rigged and . . . stolen” election and lashing out contemptuously at onetime allies and aides who wouldn’t go all the way in supporting his bids to deny science and overturn democracy. Barr “started off as a great patriot, but I don’t believe he finished that way,” Trump groused. Mitch McConnell is “a stupid person. I don’t think he’s smart enough.” Anthony Fauci is “a highly overrated person,” and White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx is “a real diva with the scarves and s---.” And so forth.
In keeping with Woodward rules, the Mar-a-Lago interview provides a cinematic epilogue to the book, evoking the rantings of an exiled King Lear or the delusions of washed-up silent-movie star Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” But it also serves to underscore what’s missing in this kind of “rough draft of history,” in addition to self-reflection on the journalistic quid pro quos involved in the genre. That is, any discussion of the larger social forces that made Trump’s rise possible: the backlash against America’s growing demographic diversity, the working-class resentment of globalism and cultural elitism, and the emotional appeal of nativism and authoritarianism. As the former president prattles this book to its conclusion, one is left with the sense that future historians will find Trumpism a far more consequential subject of study than the petty tyrant himself.
I Alone Can Fix It
Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year
By Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker
Penguin Press. 578 pp. $30