‘Trump on Trial” is a stranger-than-fiction tale of our recent national nightmare. But it’s more than just a page-turning account of presidential malfeasance, bitter political wrangling and a failed battle to hold our top public official accountable. Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan, both Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporters, have fashioned a portrait of the third impeachment of an American president as a barometer of the health of our democracy.
The authors, working with a team of Post reporters and editor Steve Luxenberg, have uncovered riveting new details about the House investigation and Senate trial of President Trump. They draw on news reports, social media posts, hearing transcripts, government records and new reporting to assess whether the impeachment stands as an exceptional event in American history or a symptom of a democracy in decline.
Although we know how the story ends, “Trump on Trial” forces us to consider the efficacy of the impeachment process and the integrity of its outcome. The book recounts the catalyst for the House inquiry: Trump’s request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor” by investigating political rival Joe Biden and his son’s connections to a Ukrainian energy company. Memorable witnesses like Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, confirmed that Trump’s request was a “quid pro quo” for military aid. On a wealth of evidence, the president was impeached on allegations of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, but the Senate voted to acquit him. With the vote breaking down almost perfectly along party lines, the book invites us to wonder whether the facts of the case were fully appreciated and whether the impeachment power worked as the framers of the Constitution intended.
Events in late 2019 and early 2020 acquire fresh significance in light of the proceedings and Trump’s acquittal. Rep. John Lewis’s speech urging an impeachment investigation is a poignant moment in the book, with our knowledge that he will succumb to pancreatic cancer a short time later. Lewis, a warrior for civil rights, was deeply concerned about Trump’s behavior and the future of the country. “People approach me everywhere I go,” he said on the House floor. “. . . They believe, they truly believe, that our nation is descending into darkness. . . . I share their concerns. . . . It keeps me up at night.” He urged his colleagues to uphold their oath to protect the nation against all enemies, domestic and foreign. “Sometimes I am afraid to go to sleep,” Lewis admitted, “for fear that I will wake up and our democracy will be gone, will be gone, and never return.”
The coronavirus gets a sneak preview here, “an emerging new worry,” the authors write, hinting at darker days ahead and Trump’s lack of focus on the threat. The health of the American people and the health of American democracy suddenly seem on parallel tracks. When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar connects by phone with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in January, Sullivan and Jordan write, Azar has “trouble focusing Trump’s full attention on the deadly virus spreading in Asia.”
The book reveals the human instincts behind the political theater surrounding the impeachment. We see how views evolved within the Democratic Party on whether to start an investigation. The old guard, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was initially wary that impeachment could derail the party’s fortunes in the 2020 election. When asked in March 2019 about impeaching Trump, Pelosi replied in staccato wording: “He’s. Just. Not. Worth. It.” Slowly, however, she changed her mind as the facts trickled out. The authors give us a glimpse into her character by taking us inside her Capitol Hill office. “On display,” they write, suggesting the House speaker was not one to give up easily, “was a favorite gift — pink boxing gloves, monogrammed for the five-foot-two-inch fighter.” In September, after a call with Trump in which he told her, “You don’t really want to do this,” she publicly announced the impeachment inquiry.
Pelosi’s reticence stood in stark contrast to the views of “the Squad,” four young and unflinchingly progressive women of color elected to the House, including the dynamic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who were eager to shake up the status quo. One member of the Squad, Rashida Tlaib, had made news on the day she was sworn in by using profane language to say the House was going to impeach Trump.
And then there are the “Women Who Kill . . . the half-joking nickname some in the caucus had coined” for five freshmen who came to Congress after careers in the military or intelligence community. These representatives sought office to focus on kitchen table issues, not to engage in culture wars. Sullivan and Jordan explore the decision process of Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA officer who put much time and energy into considering the impeachment question. She walked the halls of the National Archives to read the founding documents and then did what she was trained to do — she dove deep into the details. She repaired to her farmhouse in rural Michigan to spend a weekend in quiet reflection. There, Slotkin sat at the desk that once belonged to her great-grandfather, who worked in the meat business and “engineered a little piece of Americana: the Ball Park Frank.” She pored over the evidence against Trump, House rules of procedure, the impeachment articles against Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, and even a copy of the Federalist Papers. After methodically studying the documents, she concluded that, contrary to her initial instincts, she would support the articles of impeachment against Trump, even if that decision proved unpopular with her constituents.
We are also taken into the lives of some of the witnesses at the House impeachment hearings. Literary authors would do well to create characters as rich as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill. “Trump on Trial” presents their backstories and some of the challenges they faced as a result of their testimony. Vindman, the National Security Council’s director of European affairs, was called to testify about what he had heard when he listened in on the call between Trump and Zelensky. Vindman had come to the United States from the Soviet Union as a child and made a career in the U.S. Army. During his opening statement to the House committee, he memorably spoke directly to his father, assuring him that he was right to bring his family to America. “Do not worry,” he said, “I will be fine for telling the truth.” His words, moving at the time, are all the more powerful in hindsight. Knowing that Vindman was forced out of his White House job and the Army, we realize now that he was not fine after telling the truth. Rather than protecting those seeking to expose government misconduct, the administration retaliated against Vindman and bullied him out of public service — demolishing another bulwark of our democracy.
Hill, then a member of the National Security Council, memorably admonished House members for advancing a “fictional narrative being perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves”: that it was Ukraine, and not Russia, that had attacked the U.S. election. Readers will also recall that she referred to Sondland’s work to advance the investigation of the Bidens as a “domestic political errand.” In “Trump on Trial,” we learn of her hardscrabble upbringing in England, her becoming an “American by choice” and her training as a Russia expert. And in a sign of at least a decline in discourse in our democracy, conservative commentators dismissed Hill after her testimony, mocking her on radio talk shows and in tweets as an “elitist academic moron” and “absolute stooge of the deep state & progressive left.”
“Trump on Trial” gives us a peek at another side of Hill: We see her in quiet moments at home with her husband and daughter, reminding us that the players in political dramas are human beings with everyday challenges. We also learn that the lead impeachment manager, Rep. Adam Schiff, was battling a severe toothache while delivering eloquent speeches during the Senate trial until he could steal away to get a root canal. “The tooth was extremely sensitive to cold, so Schiff had been drinking his guilty pleasure — regular Coca Cola, full sugar — at room temperature,” the authors write.
We all know how the impeachment trial ended. It sits heavy in our recent memory. But with their colorful and detailed telling, Sullivan, Jordan and the Post team have turned these contemporary events into a chapter of American history — one in which party politics prevail over truth, justice and the national interest. In this way, “Trump on Trial” is a service to all of us who wish to believe that that particular nightmare now occupies a place in the past, that it is behind us and we can move on. But the saga also forcefully reminds us that only by recognizing the damage to our democracy can we begin to repair it and avoid the nightmare John Lewis imagined.
Trump on Trial
The Investigation, Impeachment, Acquittal and Aftermath
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Scribner. 532 pp. $32