Jeremi Suri is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.”
The memorial service for John McCain revealed the prestige of the modern presidency. George W. Bush and Barack Obama, McCain’s former political adversaries, delivered eulogies on behalf of the entire nation, appealing to the deeper well-springs of democracy. Bush and Obama sat with Bill and Hillary Clinton, representing how presidents can rise above the factions that the founders feared and pull the country together to extoll basic freedoms and national interests. Thousands of Americans watched in awe of these statesmen; many were inspired by their appeal to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
President Trump was not there, although his ghost haunted the service. His presidency is cast from a different mold — probably the only point his supporters and detractors agree upon. Major Garrett, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News, has written a close-up account of Trump’s first year in office, attempting to figure out what it all means for the country and the future of the presidency. Other authors, notably Bob Woodward, have chronicled this White House. Garrett tries to focus on policy deliberations more than personal details. “I seek,” he writes, “to record events that represent genuine and lasting change.”
It is, of course, too soon to tell, but Garrett tries to show how Trump has shattered the shared world of the old men at McCain’s memorial. The book covers a range of issues, from tax cuts to judicial appointments to immigration restrictions to foreign policy. In each area Garrett narrates the chaos created by the president. He “rarely reads memos,” and he often fails to tell his closest advisers what he has decided before they read about it on Twitter or somewhere else. Garrett draws a surprising comparison between Trump and Lyndon Johnson, describing how both presidents were obsessed with television, relied on the telephone for their deliberations and exploited their “size and bearing to ‘own’ a room and to intimidate.” Trump has pulled the presidency back to its “primal” essence.
In this White House jungle, serious policy analysis is censored and punished. Garrett explains that even Trump’s enablers find it impossible to work with him: “The reality is that Trump does not share, does not inspire and does not lead nearly so much as he owns, commands, demands, projects and brands.”
Decisions reflect the political instincts of the president, not a careful examination of risks, costs and consequences for the nation. Garrett describes how this arbitrary and self-serving atmosphere contributed to controversial decisions surrounding the infamous travel ban, the failed repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the president’s fawning visit to Saudi Arabia and other head-spinning events. Trump’s instinctive politics often led him to say and do things that undermined his stated goals, and weakened his allies in Congress and the executive agencies. Trump was often “his own worst enemy,” Garrett writes.
The president is rational and strategic in this account. Garrett credits Trump with having media savvy and a feeling for large parts of the electorate. The most insightful section of the book is Garrett’s step-by-step account of how, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump used the replacement of the late justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court as an issue to rally Republican voters and separate himself from other White House contenders. He was the first candidate to publish a list of conservative judges he would consider. His successful nomination of Neil Gorsuch appealed to those who demanded a figure they could trust to limit government regulation of businesses and communities. And with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, Trump had his second opportunity to shape the high court. Despite his frequent recklessness, Trump signaled that he was a reliable president for reshaping the federal judiciary along the most conservative lines. With a large cohort of circuit and district court nominees approved by the Senate, this amounts to Trump’s most enduring legacy.
The chaos surrounding the White House makes it difficult to weigh the actions of the president and his supporters. Garrett recounts a frequent refrain among today’s journalists: “What a long year last week was.” He also seems to reveal his own feelings when he writes that Trump is “exhausting to the soul and corrosive to the spirit.”
“Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride” captures the political storm and takes the reader to the center. Other journalists have reported on many of the same details, but Garrett provides a coherent narrative. His book allows readers to understand how different Trump really is — behind the scenes and on the surface — from other recent presidents who still define the image of the office. And we do not know how it will end, because Trump is making it up as he goes.
That is the limitation of this revealing book. Garrett describes the storm and the damage it has done, but he leaves the reader with few clues about what to expect next. Despite his early emphasis on “lasting change,” Garrett offers little analysis of which elements from the Trump whirlwind will endure and which will not. By the end of the book, Garrett seems overwhelmed by his subject, unable to give readers a better handle on what to make of the havoc he has faithfully recounted.
Few observers are, in fact, confused by Trump any longer. He is a self-serving bully with little regard for the welfare of those who did not vote for him. He does not believe in the basic tenets of our democracy. He shares almost nothing with Bush or Obama or any other modern president. Garrett has helped readers to understand this. His book leaves open what Trump’s time in the White House will mean for the presidency as our democracy struggles forward. “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride” is excellent journalism, an early draft of our current history.
By Major Garrett
All Points. 326 pp. $28.99