Karl calls this story “Betrayal” for good reason. The early chapters establish a pattern of duplicity directed at supporters, advisers and federal employees who trusted Trump at their peril. As Trump’s second presidential campaign got underway, low and high level political appointees in the Justice and Defense departments and in other agencies were purged by Trump loyalists, often against the wishes of the responsible cabinet members. Lying to the public about the dangers of the coronavirus, Trump betrayed his supporters by blatantly disregarding their physical safety at his super spreader events on the road and at the White House. (“We killed Herman Cain,” admitted one staffer after a Trump rally in Tulsa; Trump loyalists Chris Christie, Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks also fell ill.) Hundreds of thousands of Americans had died of the deadly virus, but when he returned to the White House as he recovered from his own case of covid-19, Trump childishly removed his mask for the cameras, defying science and sense. But as Karl suggests, Trump was a knave, not a fool. He engaged in death-defying acts of political theater to intimidate underlings and showcase the supremacy of his own “truth” over reality.
Karl prides himself on his scoops, which have gotten lots of play in the media, but even more valuable is his coolheaded narrative. He explains the divisions within Trump’s camp on election night and the ensuing chaos that resulted when Rudy Giuliani and his entourage — otherwise known by others in the Trump circle as “the crazies” — began alleging a vast global conspiracy of voter fraud that supposedly involved Cuba, China, Spain, Venezuela, George Soros, Germany and CIA Director Gina Haspel, as well as Dominion and Smartmatic, makers of voting systems. Karl shows how these lies, distortions, falsehoods and, in his words, “wacky” conspiracy theories not only lacked merit but were also utterly fantastic. At times, Karl blames this bedlam on the people around Trump rather than the president himself. But it was Trump who abruptly fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper via tweet on Nov. 9, throwing the Pentagon into chaos, and it was Trump who embraced the support of QAnon adherents such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who urged him to fight on. The overwhelming evidence gathered in “Betrayal” is that Trump sought out and promoted the views of incompetent, unqualified and unhinged people because they satisfied his authoritarian impulses and his personal pursuit of power.
Karl argues that although the seeds of Jan. 6 were planted in 2020, the ultimate betrayal occurred between Dec. 14 and Jan. 6, when an erratic and angry president decided to stay in office, even at the cost of law, human life and physical damage to the United States Capitol. Karl details Trump’s multipronged attempts to subvert the outcome of the electoral vote. Trump met for hours with Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell, who came up with a plan for the president to declare a national emergency and seize voting machines, but the acting secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, refused to comply. Trump called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demanding that he “find” more votes, and asked Republican legislators in Michigan and Pennsylvania to turn in only his electoral votes. They refused. He threatened to oust acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen unless he agreed to pressure Georgia to overturn Biden’s victory in that state. Confronted with the opposition of his own lawyers and the DOJ, Trump backed down. But now he would do something even more reckless.
In the chilling chapter “Hang Mike Pence,” Karl recounts how Trump betrayed the blind faith of those within his inner circle, including the exceedingly loyal vice president, who believed he would ultimately accept his electoral loss and concede. Instead, Trump bullied and threatened Pence, presenting him with a memo written by Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis detailing the steps Pence could take on Jan. 6 to declare Trump victorious. On the day he was to preside over the final electoral count in Congress, Pence released a statement of his intent to follow the law, and was denounced by Trump before a crowd of thousands. Responding to Trump’s cry to “fight like hell,” Trump supporters marched to the Capitol, where armed insurrectionists were already swarming to do battle. Violence ensued for two solid hours. The riots resulted in five deaths. Marauding mobs viciously threatened members of Congress and attacked hundreds of police officers. When Trump finally called on the rioters to stop, he said, “We love you. You are very special.”
Many people in these pages, including Pence, stood up to Trump, and Karl tells their story well. But when Karl states “the system held. Democracy prevailed,” the image of the raptors in Jurassic Park testing the fences for weaknesses comes to mind. “They remember,” the caretaker says. And as Trump tells Karl, Jan. 6 remains a day he wishes to remember fondly forever. Why shouldn’t he? Only the smallest players have been punished. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other leading Republicans continue Trump’s betrayal of the nation by alleging that voter fraud gave Biden his victory. Unless Congress can reassert its power, investigate the events of Jan. 6, and punish all guilty parties, it is difficult to escape Karl’s conclusion that Trump’s lies about his loss, and the Republicans’ continuing admiration of his authoritarian leadership, will end up destroying the spirit and the conventions of American democracy.
The Final Act of the Trump Show
By Jonathan Karl
Dutton. 362 pp. $28