During a Republican retreat at Camp David last year, President Trump seemed particularly enthralled as Gary Cohn, then his chief economic adviser, delivered a briefing on infrastructure. The president impressed the assembled lawmakers with his apparent interest in the presentation, nodding along and scribbling furious notes.
But Trump’s notes “had nothing to do with infrastructure,” journalists Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer write in their new book, “The Hill to Die On.”
Instead, Trump had scrawled “Sloppy Steve” atop his index card, followed by “copious notes” criticizing Stephen K. Bannon, his former chief strategist whom he had fired several months earlier.
“As Cohn had detailed his plans to rebuild America’s roads, the president was writing down how he wanted to trash Steve Bannon the next time someone asked him about it,” the authors write, in one of buzzy scenes that pepper the book.
The 399-page tome — written by two longtime congressional reporters at Politico who also anchor the publication’s flagship newsletter, “Politico Playbook” — chronicles Congress in the age of Trump, largely beginning on Election Day 2016 and stretching through the end of 2018. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the book, which is scheduled to be released Tuesday.
According to a foreword, “A Hill to Die On” is the result of about 26 months of reporting, as well as interviews with White House aides and the president. The authors also write that they were reporting their book “contemporaneously with the daily news cycle” — and thus some scenes and details have already “appeared in news stories in Politico, The Washington Post, the New York Times, and elsewhere.”
The result is another addition to the now-overflowing canon of books about Trump’s Washington, this one with 22 chapters that each read like an extended edition of “Playbook” — with each including at least one or two nuggets that contain scoops or, in “Playbook” parlance, a “talker.”
There is, for instance, the anecdote from 2016 in which Trump calls Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), now the House minority whip, to solicit his opinion on Mike Pence, whom Trump was then considering as his running mate. Scalise praised the now-vice president, who, unbeknown to him, happened to be sitting with Trump and listening to the whole conversation.
“That’s good to know, because he’s right here with me,” Trump said, once Scalise finished, according to the book.
Sherman and Palmer write that Scalise later joked he was “an unwitting participant in the vetting of Mike Pence in front of Mike Pence!”
There is also the moment, during the presidential transition, in which Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) arrives at Trump Tower in New York for an interview with Trump for what many believe is “a done deal” — him nominating her to be his interior secretary. Instead, the authors recount, “the president-elect had a folder of media clippings at the ready, detailing various times McMorris Rodgers had spoken out against him.” The job ultimately went to someone else. The details of Trump’s meeting with McMorris Rodgers were first reported by The Washington Post.
And there is Trump’s confession, in an Oval Office interview with Sherman and Palmer, that he is not particularly troubled that Republicans lost control of the House in the 2018 midterms — the sort of electoral defeat that would devastate most other presidents, and the sort of admission that might disappoint Trump’s fellow Republicans. The president told the duo that had Republicans held the House, especially by a narrow margin, it “would’ve been impossible” for him to accomplish anything because of the legislative horse-trading among all the various factions in the chamber.
“In Trump’s thinking, a Democratic House majority was welcome, even freeing,” they write. Trump, they continue, instead said, “Now, I just say, ‘Hey, folks, let’s go. Give me legislation. Let me see. And if we like it, we’ll work on it.’ ”
Sherman and Palmer also report that once Democrats won the House, and now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was scrambling to rally enough support in her caucus to win the top leadership role, Trump devised a plan to help his rival if she couldn’t muster the Democratic votes: “He would ask the Freedom Caucus, the most conservative members of Congress and his staunchest allies, to do the unthinkable and vote for Pelosi.”
Trump told the authors that he thought “the most conservative members of Congress would do him a favor by voting for Pelosi.”
If Trump looms large over the book, other characters also make appearances in smaller vignettes.
In one scene, during a tense immigration standoff between House and Senate Republicans, several lawmakers say they can’t wait until Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) — then a House member — moves over to the Senate because she’ll bring with her a healthy dose of “testosterone” and hold firm on conservative issues.
According to the book, McSally generated “hoots and hollers” among her colleagues when she retorted, “It’s not about having testosterone. It’s about growing a pair of ovaries.”
Fox News host Sean Hannity also makes several appearances, including on a health-care conference call with Trump and a few Republican lawmakers where, “much to everyone’s surprise,” Hannity is also on the line.
Throughout, Sherman and Palmer delve especially deep into the dramas involving House Republican leaders, including the contentious and simmering fight between Scalise and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), now the House minority leader, to succeed then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) after he announced in April 2018 his plans to retire from Congress.
At one point, after seeming to promise not to challenge McCarthy for Republican leader, Scalise still gathers his brain trust at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle steakhouse where the topic of a possible run against McCarthy comes up. When news of the dinner leaks, Sherman and Palmer write, Scalise claims to McCarthy he was never even at Del Frisco’s, but McCarthy is furious.
“Run against me, McCarthy told him, I’ve had it,” they write, channeling McCarthy’s message to Scalise. “I don’t want to take this s--- anymore. I’ve been on leadership teams where the top two leaders don’t get along, and I won’t do it again.”
Scalise spokeswoman Lauren Fine responded: “It’s completely inaccurate to suggest Whip Scalise lied to Leader McCarthy.”
Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner, also appears several times, coming off as generally naive. In one anecdote before the election, the authors write that Kushner tells Ryan he found congressional committees — which are the critical starting ground for the overwhelming portion of legislation — to be “inefficient.”
“ ‘We’ll get to that later,’ Kushner told Ryan’s aides, giving the impression he wanted to — and believed he could — single-handedly rewrite Congress’s two-hundred-year-old rules,” they write.
One person close to Kushner disputed the anecdote as “nonsense.” “Jared has immense respect for the workings of the government and in no way would make a statement of that sort,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Later in the book, amid negotiations during the most recent government shutdown, the pair describe Kushner as marveling “at the fact that it costs the government $750 per day to keep an undocumented child in the United States,” before quipping, “They might as well put them up at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.”
The subtitle of the book is “The Battle for Congress and the Future of Trump’s America.” And like nearly all things in Trump’s America right now, it is the president himself who most often makes for the best copy — and the pair return frequently to Trump, whom they depict as bumbling, if genial.
In a chapter devoted to Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s successful Supreme Court nomination fight, Sherman and Palmer write that at one point, “the president privately raised the prospect of tapping Merrick Garland — the very man [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell had blocked from even getting a hearing” under President Barack Obama. Still, they add some caveats, noting that it can be difficult to suss Trump’s “serious ideas from musings” and that “it’s not clear how serious Trump was.”
In another scene, Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) urges Trump to stop the “tweets and whining about crowd size” — an admonishment that prompts the president’s ire.
“ ‘Who the f--- are you?’ Trump shot back, before once again incorrectly positing that he had had the ‘biggest inauguration’ ever,” the pair write.
Trump also seems to have copious free time, and the book gives the impression of a president constantly dialing lawmakers just to chat. One Sunday night in early 2018, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who was then the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, finds himself at home during a family dinner, patched through to the president.
After briefing Trump on an upcoming special election in Pennsylvania and chatting for roughly 20 minutes, Stivers attempts to end the call, politely saying, “Mr. President, I’m sure you have better things to do.”
But, the authors write, Trump stayed on the line.