The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New book details how Republican leaders learned to stop worrying and love Trump

Then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) shakes hands with President Trump as he speaks during a meeting on tax policy with Republican lawmakers in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Nov. 2, 2017.
Then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) shakes hands with President Trump as he speaks during a meeting on tax policy with Republican lawmakers in the Cabinet Room of the White House on Nov. 2, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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Few people have more power in President Trump’s White House than Madeleine Westerhout, his executive assistant who controls access to the Oval Office, delivers the president’s marker-scribbled messages, sends orders to top military officials, prints emails and articles to show Trump, and seeks to keep a tight grip on his schedule. 

 But she was not always a staunch supporter of the president. On election night, Westerhout, then a Republican National Committee aide, broke down crying, “inconsolable” over Trump winning the election.

 “To the amusement of her RNC peers, she was later chosen as the president’s executive assistant and now sits just outside the Oval Office,” writes Tim Alberta in “American Carnage,” a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post ahead of its scheduled release Tuesday.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) did not always support Donald Trump's quest to the White House. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The book is filled with vivid details and on-the-record quotes from prominent Republican officials and includes an interview with Trump, who gleefully takes credit for the GOP’s shift while standing over the Oval Office desk and waving a poll that shows his approval numbers as soaring from his State of the Union.

“Can there be a question?” Trump says, smirking, when asked by Alberta if he is transitional or transformational. “Honestly, can there even be a question?”

“The tea party still exists — except now it’s called Make America Great Again . . . The Republican Party was in big trouble. I brought the party back. The Republican Party is strong. The Republican Party is strong,” he says, before pausing, according to the book. “They’ve got to remain faithful. And loyal.”

The book details how many Republicans who once criticized Trump quickly changed their tune after his election, striking a devil’s bargain with a man Alberta describes in the book as behaving in a way that is dishonest, amoral, narcissistic and uninformed.

Westerhout now tells others she would do almost anything for Trump, and he calls her “my beautiful beauty.”

Sean Spicer, depicted in the book as trying to stack a South Carolina 2016 debate crowd against Trump and for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (a charge Spicer calls “100 percent false”), is most famous for his pugilistic performances as White House press secretary. Reince Priebus, the RNC chairman who pushed for Trump to drop from the ticket before serving briefly as his chief of staff, now gives lucrative speeches deciphering the president to corporate bigwigs and serves as a Trump whisperer.

“These guys have all convinced themselves that to be successful and keep their jobs, they need to stand by Trump,” Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), who recently left the GOP over his differences with Trump, said in an interview for the book. “But Trump won’t stand with them as soon as he doesn’t need them. He’s not loyal. They’re very loyal to Trump, but the second he thinks it’s to his advantage to throw someone under the bus, he’ll be happy to do it.”

Alberta dings Vice President Pence and others for seeking to defend Trump as an evangelical and humble man behind the scenes seeking to help his country — while casting aside their core convictions. He reports that the vice president’s wife, Karen Pence, did not want to appear in public with her husband after the “Access Hollywood” tape and that Pence disagreed with Trump on many key issues, from immigration to trade.

Now, Pence’s oldest friends joke about whether Trump has blackmail material on him.

“Pence’s talents for bootlicking — he was nicknamed ‘the Bobblehead’ by Republicans on Capitol Hill for his solemn nodding routine whenever Trump spoke — were at their most obscene during meetings at the White House,” Alberta writes. 

Mick Mulvaney is cast as ambitious and clear-eyed about Trump before the election, telling fellow lawmakers that he read “The Art of the Deal” and could play to Trump’s ego while blocking his worst inclinations.

“We’re not going to let Donald Trump dismantle the Bill of Rights,” Mulvaney said to Alberta in 2016 when he was still a congressman from South Carolina. “For five and half years, every time we got to the floor and try to push back against an overreaching president, we get accused of being partisan at best and racist at worst. When we do it against a Republican president, maybe people will see it was a principled objection in the first place.” 

Now, as the president’s acting chief of staff, Mulvaney says to others that he “lets Trump be Trump.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who basked in Trump’s glory during a large rally that helped him win a tight Texas race down the stretch of the 2018 midterms, once felt differently about the president.

Cruz “told confidantes there was ‘no way in hell’ he was prepared to subjugate himself to Trump in front of tens of millions of viewers,” Alberta writes. “ ‘History isn't kind to the man who holds Mussolini's jacket,’ Cruz told friends in 2016.” Even later, he bemoaned Trump for seeking to end birthright citizenship, saying he would cost the party seats.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told Alberta in June 2016 that he wishes the Republican-controlled Congress could have done things differently to “avoid creating this environment that was conducive to someone like Donald Trump becoming the nominee.” Jordan is now on Fox News defending Trump more than almost any other of the president’s allies.

Perhaps no one has had a more tortured relationship with the president than former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — who went from wanting to abandon Trump after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape to working to enact his agenda after the election all while doing his best to avoid commenting on his tweets and controversial statements.

Alberta reports that Trump berated Ryan over a 2018 spending bill because it didn’t include funding for his border wall but then said he would sign it if Ryan were to give him time to build suspense on Twitter. Ryan agreed and then publicly sang the president’s praises after the meeting. 

When Trump one Saturday in early 2017 accused the Obama administration of tapping his phones during the election, he called Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to ask his opinion of the predawn tweet. 

A slumbering, confused Priebus opened his phone and then called Ryan, a fellow Wisconsinite and longtime ally. “Paul, what the hell is going on? What the hell is he talking about?”

Ryan woke up, read the tweet and burst into “maniacal, punch-drunk laughter.” 

Now out of office and trading in his power suits for a blue vest, Ryan is back to critiquing Trump in unflattering terms in conversations with Alberta, who writes the former speaker could not stand the idea of another two years with the president and saw retirement as an “escape hatch,” in Alberta’s words.

“We’ve gotten so numbed by it all,” Ryan says. “Not in government, but where we live our lives, we have a responsibility to try and rebuild. Don’t call a woman a ‘horse face.’ Don’t cheat on your wife. Don’t cheat on anything. Be a good person. Set a good example.” 

Ryan depicts Trump as uneducated about the government. 

“I told myself I gotta have a relationship with this guy to help him get his mind right,” Ryan recalls. “Because, I’m telling you, he didn’t know anything about government . . . I wanted to scold him all the time.” 

Ryan says he sees the presidency getting worse, with Trump determined to govern and campaign on his terms, rejecting calls from other Republicans to moderate his message in 2020. 

“Those of us around him really helped to stop him from making bad decisions. All the time,” Ryan says. “We helped him make much better decisions, which were contrary to kind of what his knee-jerk reaction was. Now I think he’s making some of these knee-jerk reactions.” 

In Alberta’s telling, Trump calls Ryan a “f---ing Boy Scout.”

Alberta traces the ascent of Trump to the final stretch of the George W. Bush presidency and describes an elitist, bloated Republican Party that had won elections by minimizing differences with Democrats, but accomplishing little for the working class and embracing more liberal immigration plans, unpopular wars and financial bailouts.

The first chapter explains, in detail, how the rise of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, beloved by the base but detested by the establishment, presaged Trump and how Barack Obama brought out the “worst” in many of the so-called forgotten voters — and how many in the GOP did not see it all coming. “Republicans were blissfully ignorant of the discontent simmering below the surface,” he writes.

He recounts a scene where Bush, while meeting with advisers in his second term, said he was worried about protectionism, isolationism and nativism. “These isms,” Bush told his team, “are going to eat us alive.” He recounts Bush even asking conservative radio hosts in a 2008 meeting to “go easy on the new guy,” referring to his successor, Obama, because he was worried the “isms” would drive the opposition to Obama.

The book also takes a more favorable view than many others on the Trump presidency, saying he has “accomplished more for Republicans than any individual in three decades.” Alberta quotes religious leaders such as Tony Perkins and conservatives who praise Trump and say they have more access and sway than ever. He explains how some of the president’s critics help him with false attacks and comments that are seen as elitist and sneering toward much of the country

“Nobody gave them hope,” Trump says of his supporters. “I gave them hope.”

At his core, Alberta depicts Trump as a transactional, cynical and cunning person, who understands what his supporters want by consuming large amounts of media and watching how Republicans failed in the past. In Alberta’s telling, Trump offers perks to gain support, threatens foes with the wrath of his supporters and makes cold, narcissistic calculations to keep power.

“Those f---ing evangelicals,” Trump says in a meeting with GOP lawmakers, according to the book, smiling and shaking his head. In Trump’s mind, Alberta writes, he would “give them the policies and the access to authority that they longed for. In return they would stand behind him unwaveringly.”

Standing before the group of religious leaders in 2018, Trump said of Christianity, “ ‘I owe so much to it in so many ways.’ He then proceeded to explain that he wouldn’t be standing before them without it — not because of how the faith shaped his life or informed his worldview, but ‘because the Evangelical vote was mostly gotten by me.’ The attendees walked out of the room in a daze.”

He reports that Trump pressured the head of the Iowa GOP in 2016 to invalidate the results after he lost the caucus. 

In November 2016, Henry McMaster, then South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, told Trump he wanted to be governor of the state — after being the first statewide official to endorse Trump for president. “That’s it?” Trump replied. “Well that should be easy. You’re already the lieutenant governor!”

McMaster explained that it was not so easy — and that he could only become governor if Nikki Haley were not around. “Within days, seemingly out of left field, Trump announced Haley as his pick for ambassador to the United Nations.”

In 2016, Trump described why then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie could not become attorney general. 

 “Because that guy would prosecute my own kids and not think twice about it,” Trump told campaign chairman Paul Manafort, according to the book.

Trump is regularly depicted as far more interested in campaigning than governing. During one dinner in 2017, Trump asked others a startling question, Alberta writes.

“Has any president besides Franklin Roosevelt done anything big after their first term?” he said.

Trump also makes clear how much he enjoys the campaign trail.

Worried he may miss a rally in South Carolina, he yells at the Air Force One pilots to land a plane in a monsoon-like rain after they circled for an hour, swearing that he could land the plane.

After a 2018 rally in Missouri where Trump soaked in the adulation of the crowd, he screams into the night: “I f---ing love this job!”