The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

All of this to keep Trump from getting upset

People try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington. (John Minchillo/AP)
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My kids have these little books that reveal different images when you brush them with water. There will be an ocean scene, say, an outline of a diver on a white page. As you dab at it, color emerges as well as details: a small fish, a starfish on a rock or even a big shark that was in the background the whole time.

By now, we’ve revealed most of the details surrounding former president Donald Trump’s last few months in office. We know the broad themes of that period but keep learning new anecdotes that fill in the white spaces. We learn, for example, that Trump’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, was so concerned about Trump’s stability after last year’s election that he proactively soothed the concerns of his counterpart in China and worked to insulate the military against the president’s vagaries. That’s a big shark that was floating there, undiscovered.

But that story and others from a new book by The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Bob Woodward are still just part of the overall picture, one that we recognized even before we’d added any detail at all. It’s an image of a person terrified of being seen as a loser who yanked every available lever of power to keep that perception from taking root. Nothing we’ve learned since Nov. 3, 2020, has shaken that fundamental image. It’s all been detail that presents a fuller, more complete picture, not revelations that shift what we’re seeing.

The small detail that jumped out at me from the new reporting is how Trump tried to cajole Vice President Mike Pence into pretending that he could reject the will of voters and halt the final counting of electoral votes. Pence told Trump, correctly, that he couldn’t do that.

“I don’t want to be your friend anymore if you don’t do this,” Trump told Pence in response, according to the book.

There are just so many ways in which to interpret that. There’s the image of the most powerful man in the country sitting in the Oval Office, the seat of American executive power, threatening to withhold his friendship to get his way — a threat that, again, brings to mind my young children. Then there’s the idea that Pence would in January 2021 be under any illusion that Trump was his friend in the first place. He endured months of speculation about being replaced on the ticket for 2020, and Trump, only days prior, attacked him during a rally speech in Georgia. Pence had been around Trump long enough to know the value of friendship to Trump, had seen more than enough examples of people loyal to Trump being quickly sliced clean when they became inconvenient, to understand that Trump wasn’t going to be loyal to him.

Amazingly, Pence tried anyway. That’s in the new reporting, too: Pence’s outreach to others, including former vice president Dan Quayle, seeking a way to keep Trump happy. There was no evidence anywhere that Pence had the ability to do what Trump wanted him to do — which, again, was to simply ignore the results of the 2020 election and trigger some unprecedented reconsideration of what occurred — but he went along with it.

“You don’t know the position I’m in,” the book says he told Quayle, a premise Quayle rejected. And with good reason: Everyone knew the position Pence was in. Trump was trying to get him to do something he couldn’t do to reinforce the idea that something questionable had happened in the 2020 election. Everyone’s been in a situation akin to that, though rarely when the stakes are so high. Eventually Pence succumbed to the impossible position and its inevitable consequence.

We’ve spent so long coloring in the details of Trump’s response to the election that we can lose sight of just how utterly bereft of validity it is. There was never anything suspect about the election results beyond a few dozen individual cases of illegally cast ballots, and there has never been any evidence of significant fraud presented. Trump tried to undermine the results of the 2016 election before it happened, and then tried to undermine the results in states that voted against him that year because he lost the popular vote, and then tried to undermine the 2020 election all that year, and then quickly tried to claim he won in the hours after it concluded.

Trump has consistently been dishonest and deflected about the election results not because they threaten his power but because they threaten his esteem. You don’t claim that California had millions of illegal votes in 2016 while you’re sitting in the Oval Office because you’re worried about power. You do it because you’ve built a brand on success and you consider that brand to be the most valuable thing about you.

That’s the outlined image on the white paper, the thing you can see clearly without any other detail available. It’s the thing around which everything else is centered — Trump’s claims about the election and the fury of those supporters who believed him and his unhinged scramble to use whatever he could in the U.S. government to keep the reality at bay. It’s what pushed away once-loyal allies such as Attorney General William P. Barr and left him with cronies more interested in the little scraps of power and attention that Trump was shedding than in what actually happened. It’s why he welcomed back his former adviser Stephen K. Bannon, someone once pushed away with the pejorative nickname “Sloppy Steve” but who now was willing to help Trump rail against the world.

He’s still doing it. He’s still holding rallies and saying false things about the election and feeling the warmth of the applause of his fans. He’s still giving interviews to thoroughly uncritical media outlets in which he tells everyone that, no, he didn’t lose, it was all fraud and the proof is always just a few weeks away. He’s still out there reinforcing this idea that he’ll become president again somehow, with people who are not savvy enough to understand that he’s being dishonest about election fraud being similarly incapable of understanding that this simply can’t happen. He’s helped build this whole world centered on rejecting a central tenet of democracy, a rejection that other people find useful for other purposes: raising money, say, or hurting their political opponents.

All because he’s mad he lost. As everyone who’s being honest about things recognizes. In “I Alone Can Fix It,” the recent book from The Post’s Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) recognized the impulse driving Trump’s effort to undercut the election results.

“When I heard him say, ‘If I lose to Joe Biden, the worst candidate in the history of the earth, it will be because the election is “rigged,” ’ I just presumed that’s in the category of something he’s going to say to himself and a few other people will believe him,” Romney said last September, “and he’ll therefore be comfortable at Mar-a Lago with himself and with his ego in the event he loses.”

If only.