But the danger Trump posed during the waning months of his presidency is only half the story of “Peril.” Even if you already know the outlines, the details — many of which have already found their way into the press — deepen one’s sense of how serious, even global, that danger was and how thoroughly Republicans enabled it.
The other half of the book is an account of Joe Biden’s campaign and early presidency, and as the authors shift between narratives, the reader must reckon with wildly differing realities. In one, Trump is the center of gravity; everyone works toward him; nothing matters except insofar as it fulfills his psychological needs. In the other, Biden is an ambitious politician leading a team of dedicated public servants trying to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic and its economic effects, endeavoring by sheer competence and energy to move the nation beyond Trumpism.
The strength of any Woodward book is its inside sources, but this reporting serves different purposes in each part of “Peril.” In the Trump half, hair-raising anecdotes show the 45th president behaving much as one expected, or a bit worse. In the Biden half, Woodward and Costa paint, for the first time, a clear picture of how the 46th president operates and what he hopes to achieve in the aftermath of Trump.
Trump’s dangerous refusal to accept the election’s outcome emerges most vividly in his conversation with Vice President Mike Pence on the evening of Jan. 5, 2021.
Pence would preside over the congressional certification of presidential electors the next day. Trump had already, repeatedly, urged him to declare certain states’ electors invalid, thus making Trump the victor. Or maybe Pence could simply cast enough doubt on electors to send the decision to the House of Representatives, where, because the vote would be taken by state delegation, Trump could also win.
Pence told Trump he had no power to do it. His staff had found no respectable lawyer — no matter how impeccably right-wing their interpretation of the Constitution — who would say he did.
Gesturing at some of his supporters already gathered and shouting outside the White House, Trump asked, “Well, what if these people say you do?” The president was willing to find authority in the mob if he lacked it in the law. “Wouldn’t it almost be cool to have that power?”
Pence disagreed. Trump shifted from insinuating to berating. “You’ve betrayed us. I made you. You were nothing.”
Trump’s lashing out went beyond yelling at Pence to inspiring his supporters to assault the Capitol. Amid the violence on Jan. 6, when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called Trump and asked him to order his supporters to stand down, the president demurred, suggesting instead that the Republican congressman regard the riot as a wake-up call. “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are much more upset about the election than you are.”
Congress did not cave; lawmakers counted the votes and certified Biden’s win. Trump left the presidency but continues to deny the legitimacy of his loss. Most Republicans rallied to defend him from conviction in his impeachment trial for “incitement of insurrection,” and he remains eligible for office.
For Biden, his mission became clear after Trump’s 2017 defense of the Nazi- and Confederate-flag-carrying protesters chanting anti-Semitic slogans in Charlottesville. He said Trump was promoting “the darkest, worst impulses in the country.” Biden believed that the nation was in a struggle for its “soul” — a theme he repeated thereafter. “Who thinks democracy is a given?” he asked at a private event. “If you do, think again.”
Over a long campaign to the nomination, Biden wooed supporters. He stumbled, gaffed; recovered. Woodward and Costa show him responding to criticism — about, for example, his retrograde and unacceptable attitudes toward women — and changing, without altering his core conviction that the nation must transcend Trumpism.
And here the book is most illuminating: Biden regards the -ism, not the man, as the real threat; Trump put the nation in peril because he evoked and organized a darkness that was already there. And his behavior is more shocking because it serves no purpose greater than salving his own obscure hurts; he is no historic visionary but simply someone who wants the perks of the presidency. Biden observes, on surveying the golf toys that Trump assembled in the White House, including a wall-size video screen so he could play virtual courses, “What a f---ing ---hole.”
Biden, by contrast, has an understanding of history born of his half-century in public life as well as from his consultations with historian Jon Meacham. Belief in the better angels of our nature implies an understanding that we have worse. He has convictions about politics: Meetings, especially long ones, can change people’s minds; small, graceful gestures can earn great good will. He knows, as the book’s sections on his consultations with Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) show, how much he owes Black voters and how much they expect of him. He calls out “systemic racism . . . economic inequality . . . the denial of the promise of this nation to so many.”
It won’t do him any good with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who also has a sense of history: “He’s doing what every Democratic president wants to do, which is to push this country as far left as possible, as rapidly as possible. They all want to be the next FDR.”
Biden’s team did learn from Franklin Roosevelt, who also faced an intransigent predecessor, albeit not one who sought to overturn an election. Herbert Hoover was more like Republican Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), who here tells Biden to discard his hopes for transformative legislation and advises him to say: “It’s our campaign agenda. We believe in it. But . . . we’re going to stop.” Roosevelt didn’t stop, no matter how much Hoover tried to make him, and so far, Biden hasn’t either, pushing his one-vote majority in the Senate to pass the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill and using existing federal power to acquire and roll out coronavirus vaccines with alacrity.
But as Woodward and Costa’s book shows, his agenda may yet run aground on Joe Manchin, the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia, who has already stymied Clyburn’s efforts to get voting rights past the Senate filibuster and who might stop the infrastructure bill that Biden describes as a “must-pass.” With it, he could claim not only to have met the immediate emergencies but also to have set the country on a firmer footing for the future, as Roosevelt did. Americans would have good jobs doing useful work in which they could take pride; there is no greater tonic for a nation.
Without it, democracy will remain in peril; structural inequities will persist and Americans will continue to nurse a sense that their country works for the powerful few, not for the many — a conviction that provoked some to turn to Trumpism.
As rich as the book is, it leaves some vital stories untold — for example, the 20-day delay by General Services Administrator Emily Murphy, under evident political pressure from the White House, in releasing funds lawfully allocated to Biden’s transition team and giving its members access to federal agencies. As Biden said at the time, “More people may die” of covid-19 each day vaccine rollout plans (which, it turned out, the Trump administration did not have) were deferred. That story begs telling, as do others, including the contents of Trump’s handwritten letter to Biden, pocketed by the new president without comment.
At Biden’s inauguration, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman, thought to himself with satisfaction, “It looked like another peaceful transfer of power.” However peaceful it looked in the end, it was not. Blood was shed to support the belief that retaining power by mob rule against the law would be almost cool.
By Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
Simon & Schuster.
482 pp. $30