Welcome to both of you. It's really--it's great to talk to you. I've been wanting to do this for a while. The book is filled with extraordinary revelations about something that we all thought we knew everything about already.
So, I wanted to start, Carol, with you. The two of you reported on this administration day to day. You wrote "A Very Stable Genius," a fantastic book about the first three years of the Trump presidency. Did you learn anything new about Donald Trump given how much time you'd already spent, how much effort you had already put into reporting on him and his--and his White House?
MS. LEONNIG: You know, Jonathan, you're the perfect person to ask that question because--and to interview us today on our launch because you also know this material so well. You've excavated it, and we're looking forward to your book when it comes out.
I think the honest answer about what we learned about Donald Trump is that all of the basic boundaries of who he is and how he leads and how he governs are pretty well known by us. You know, he's an impulse guy. He's interested in his own benefit; he is not so interested in anybody else's. And he also doesn't follow any rulebook and rejects norms and cares very little about sort of what Washington should do, what's polite, what's proper.
I think the new thing that Phil and I learned that was even chilling to us, as hardened journalists as we are, is how much he was willing, the degree to which he was willing to put American lives and the democracy in peril for his own personal gain, for his own quest to maintain that grip on power that he became addicted to and loved. Insiders in that administration who looked from the outside and even to we reporters as if they were sort of silently acquiescing, silently standing by their man, were actually secretly in a near panic about the danger he was putting the country in during the Black Lives Matter protests, during the pandemic that lethally marched across our country, and then finally in a riot that he helped incite at the Capitol that put lawmakers and his vice president in the crosshairs, in actual mortal danger.
MR. KARL: And I think--I think that's well said. One of the things that was extraordinary for me about digging through and going over the major events of that catastrophic year is how willing, even eager the people really close to Donald Trump were to talk. And I want to get to some of that and some of the motivations behind the people that talked to people like you, people like me, and the eagerness to kind of set the record straight and to tell us that they had those concerns.
But before we get to that, you write something right in the beginning of the book that is a really extraordinary statement. You say--this is a quote from your introduction: "Most of Trump's failings can be explained by a simple truth: He cared more about himself than his country."
Phil, that--you're a reporter. You're a great reporter. I've been side by side with you throughout all of this. You didn't write that sentence lightly.
MR. RUCKER: No, Jonathan, we did not. In fact, that sentence, I think it's the only conclusion that Carol and I could really draw from all the reporting we did for this book.
We talked to 140--more than 140 senior administration officials, advisors to the president, the president himself down at Mar-a-Lago, and to a person they all acknowledged and were concerned by the fact that the president, when he was in office, prioritized himself personally, prioritized his political fortunes. Almost every decision he made in the year 2020 about the coronavirus pandemic was based on his reelection hopes. He was thinking about how does he position himself, how does he look strong, how does he appear tough, how does he get magical cures out into the public, how does he speed up a vaccine. It was all built around November 3rd Election Day and how he could remain in power and get reelected by the American people. That was the guiding and animating force for this president throughout, but especially in the year 2020. And that's not our judgment. That's according to the people who served him in the closest--and who saw up close what he was really like behind the scenes in the Oval Office.
MR. KARL: You know, your trip to Mar-a-Lago, I think that you and I--the two of you and I went just a couple of weeks apart. And I was struck reading your description, because it was so similar to the visit I had.
I mean, I--you know, you described the interview taking place right there in the middle of the lobby of Mar-a-Lago. I mean, he's got lots of places that he could sit down and talk to us privately, and he--I think you sat in the exact same seats I sat in, right in the middle of the lobby. You literally cannot walk into that club and go out and have dinner on the patio or go into--go into the bar without walking right by where the interview was taking place. My interview was scheduled for 5:00 p.m. I assume yours was the same?
MS. LEONNIG: That's right.
MR. KARL: So, in other words, exactly when people start to show up for happy hour and dinner. He wanted to be seen being interviewed by people he had vilified.
I mean, Phil, I saw him go after you personally time after time after time in the White House briefing room. He called me a third-rate reporter and many other things that we can't even say on Washington Post Live, and he invited us down to do this interview and wanted the world, or at least his world, to see that we are--you know, that we were there.
And one thing that struck me--and I'm wondering if you had the same impression--I get the sense from reading it that it was the same--the darker the conversation got, the more he spoke about his grievances, the more happy he seemed to be talking about it. He actually said to me I find all of this so interesting and so exhilarating. And I got that sense from reading your description. He's talking about really dark things, and he's accusing people who were very close to him of betraying him, and he's--you know, he's like excited about it. Why did he invite you down? Why did he invite me down? Why did he do this?
MS. LEONNIG: Well, you know the answer, Jon. He's--he wants his audience, right? Just as you beautifully described Phil and I sitting in that lobby, we couldn't believe we were going to be interviewed in a room where anybody could just walk by, including the crew that was setting up the, you know, raw bar for dinner. We were really surprised by that. But you're right. He wants people to realize how sought after he is, how his conversation is a draw. The Trump show, it's always on, it's always popular. He wants people to know that.
But to your point about the exhilaration, I couldn't agree more. And I know Phil feels the same way. When he was lashing into the late John McCain--a hero in his state in Arizona--it was unprompted. He brought up his win--according to him, his win in Arizona--saying that he did not lose because he criticized McCain. And he began talking about what an awful person he was, how weak he was, and how he was a flip-flopper that nobody could rely on. He enjoyed discussing that.
He enjoyed telling us that his attorney general, Bill Barr, who many people agree--and rightfully so--was one of the president's best lieutenants--you know, most loyal, most in the weeds of getting Donald Trump reelected--he was ecstatic to describe to us that Bill Barr failed him in the end. Bill Barr got worried about media criticism of being too loyal to Trump, in Trump's eyes, and failed Trump by not doing what he needed to do to really investigate and prosecute the allegations of election fraud that Trump said existed and that Barr had called nonsense. These moments were in a sense cathartic to Donald Trump because he finally gets to tell his version of reality. Even if it doesn't stack up with the truth, he gets to say it.
MR. KARL: You know, one of--Carol, obviously a lot of the coverage of your book--and it's--you've gotten--you've gotten glowing reviews. You've made news everywhere with this, which also is a testament to how much is there. I mean, the idea that a presidency that was reported on so exhaustively for four years, and especially in the past year, you were able to get out like, you know, jaw-dropping new information.
And some of that new information is about Mark Milley--General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--you know, extraordinary kind of blow-by-blow accounts not just of his opinions of Donald Trump and Donald Trump's supporters and the comparisons with Nazi Germany which are just--I mean, you have to--just take a step and consider this is not like a random pundit saying this. This is the man who served as the top military officer in the United States, chosen for that job by Donald Trump.
My question to you about Milley, you show that, you know, his break with Trump precedes at least a bit the infamous walk across Lafayette Park, which Milley obviously took extraordinary heat for. Mattis particularly came out with a very strong statement, but he was certainly not alone in condemning Milley and Esper for taking part in that--in that disastrous photo op. But--and you show that earlier in the morning, Milley and Esper--and by the way, Bill Barr--all pushed back very aggressively against Trump and his desire to get active-duty troops on the streets of American cities by invoking the Insurrection Act. But I'm wondering if you could rewind a little bit beyond that, because, you know, he served for just--for what, two years as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Trump, or about two years. Were there indications before that that Milley felt uncomfortable with Trump's leadership or crossed him in any way? Or what's your sense? When did that falling out happen?
MR. RUCKER: It's a great question. And Milley is such an interesting character, not only in this book but in the Trump presidency, in this whole era that we've been living through because he had such a front row seat to what this president was doing and yet he was not a political actor. He's raised in the military. He has served in battle in a number of instances. He came up through the military chain of command and was named by Trump to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but he's not a political appointee. He does not consider himself a Trumper or a representative of MAGA nation, so to speak.
And he became increasingly uncomfortable, according to our reporting, with some of the things the president was trying to do in his presidency, and also uncomfortable with the lack of knowledge, the lack of information, the lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of the president. He felt that President Trump didn't fully understand the Constitution, didn't understand the divisions, the norms, the traditions of our government here in the United States, and that was concerning to Milley, who's a student of history, not only of military history but of governmental history and understanding the way our government works.
But the real breaking point came, as you mentioned, on June 1st after the George Floyd protests when there was a clearing of peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square outside the White House and then Trump of course walked with Milley, who was wearing his camouflage uniform, and Esper and Bill Barr and other administration officials, across the park to do that Bible photo op in front of St. John's Church. It was a moment that Milley regretted participating in. He actually gave a very thoughtful and forceful speech apologizing for it, which was a point that ruptured his relationship with the president, because Trump was very upset that Milley would have apologized for that photo op.
And after that moment, Milley made a vow to himself that he was going to serve to protect the independence of the military, that he was not going to allow the United States military to become a political tool for President Trump ahead of his reelection campaign, and that he was committed--he was going to commit himself to ensuring a peaceful transfer of power on January 20th when a new president, Joe Biden, was sworn in. Those days became so much more harrowing, of course, after the election when Milley saw parallels between Hitler and Trump in what Trump was saying, the misinformation he was spewing about election fraud. But he continued to try to be a bulwark, a safeguard in preventing what he thought could have been a coup by President Trump to stay in power.
MR. KARL: You know, Carol, Phil mentions that powerful speech that Milley made. I think it was on June 11th. It was a good 10 days after the walk across Lafayette Park. Mark Esper, the--he was then the first defense secretary, came out and expressed his regret almost immediately, and came out and publicly said that he opposed invoking the Insurrection Act and it was something that he thought would get him fired and almost did get him fired. Why do you think Milley took 10 days to come out, which in the kind of news cycles we have now was an eternity, and he was getting pummeled everywhere for being there in his fatigues right behind the president, walking across that park? What do you think was behind that delay?
MS. LEONNIG: You know, it's funny you say that about getting pummeled, because Esper got pummeled literally as soon as he issued that public statement. I think as we relay in the book in some cinematic detail, as soon as the defense secretary gave that press briefing where he said he would not support the Insurrection Act, he was supposed to be giving a briefing to the president in the Oval Office in about an hour and a half. And when he got away from the lectern, essentially, of his press conference, he got a call from the chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who said "What in the eff are you doing? The president is going to rip your face off."
Now, and indeed, that is what happened when he arrived at the White House. He sat down at a chair that was empty and waiting for him in a room for of Cabinet members, and the president proceeded to, like a lion, roar in Esper's face about how he had undermined him, he had violated his oath to the president. Esper reminded him his oath was to the Constitution. He told him that he had usurped his authority. And it was the final break in their relationship. So, there was a kind of pummeling for Esper as well. It was just different.
Milley's delay, I believe, based on--again, on our reporting from people around him was really that he planned to give a speech at the National Defense Institute, and he was scheduled to be there. And he thought that was basically the right venue instead of asserting himself, throwing himself in front of a stage, he knew he was going to have a stage soon enough. And he took his time and rewrote his speech, according to our reporting, and explained that he felt very, very, very deeply about America's 400-year-old sin of racism that underpins the country. And he was very upset about the way in which he had been--he had let himself be used, essentially. He didn't want the military in any way to look political, and he apologized for that.
And again, within moments of finishing his speech, he heard from the president who said, why'd you apologize? And Milley said, you know, I'm Catholic. When I do something wrong, I say I'm sorry, and I move on. And Trump responded to him, what's wrong with walking with your president? It's funny, the way he treated Esper and the way he treated Milley were quite different. He had a lot more respect for the man with the gold on his chest.
MR. KARL: It's--one other thing you point out in the book regarding the dressing down that Esper got is one of the things that upset Trump was that Esper's press conference was at the same time that Lindsay Graham was holding a hearing about how Trump had been mistreated during the Russia investigation and he wanted to know--it was as if he was like worried about the counterprogramming notion of it. I want to ask you about another key player.
MS. LEONNIG: Forgive me, Jon. Can I break in there and just say that it also was so humorous to Phil and to me because, according to our reporting, Esper was flummoxed. Like, "What are you talking about, what hearing?" The president is thinking about the TV schedule, and Esper has no idea what he's talking about.
MR. KARL: Yeah, yeah.
MS. LEONNIG: Anyway, just an amazing moment.
MR. KARL: It's always programming. It's always programming.
And so, January 6th. You write about Ivanka Trump, who is one of the few people--I mean, one thing that's striking about January 6th is how empty the building was. You know, Robert O'Brien was traveling in Florida. You know, Jared was coming back from a trip to the Middle East. The place seemed kind of empty, and there weren't many people around. But one person who was there in her second-floor office, as you describe, is Ivanka Trump. And you write something she said in the morning, so before the speech, before the riot. You write that she said this is--regarding Giuliani, what Giuliani had been saying, you know, about the election fraud and on and on, "This is not right. This is not right." Who did she say that to? Was that something she said to herself, or did she--who did she say that to?
MR. RUCKER: You know, Jon, she said that while she was standing on the outside of the Oval Office. She sort of whispered it to a couple of advisors who were within earshot of her. It was at the same time that President Trump was at the desk on the telephone with Vice President Pence, who was back home at the Naval Observatory. This is in the morning before Trump went out to the Ellipse to give his speech, before Pence made his way to the Capitol to begin presiding over that joint session of Congress, and Trump was pressuring Pence on the phone to do what Trump thought to be the right thing, which was to effectively use his power as the vice president to overturn the results of the election, and Ivanka felt that was wrong. She said that's not the right thing.
She then, after the phone call ended, according to our reporting, went into the private dining room of her father and spoke to him one-on-one to try to persuade him. She was obviously not effective there because the president proceeded to go out to the Ellipse and make his feelings about Pence known to the world. But in the afternoon, we learned, once Trump got back to the White House, once the rioters broke into the Capitol and began the siege there, Ivanka had to be called into the--into the Oval Office multiple times by the chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to try to get her father into a mental place where the president would be able to call off his supporters.
Remember, it took two hours for him to finally issue that video saying stand down and go home. He also said, of course, "We love you."
MR. KARL: "We love you," yeah.
MR. RUCKER: But it--but it--you know, for the--for the daughter who is said to have this special sort of relationship with her father, even she couldn't break through until the end there. And it just speaks to Trump's determination to, you know, permit this riot to continue because it was a show of force in his own name under his banner.
MR. KARL: So, you also write that Ivanka went--as you point out, that she attended the rally but did not speak.
MR. RUCKER: Yeah.
MR. KARL: I want to read a passage from your riveting chapter on January 6th. You wrote, "Ivanka Trump did not appear on stage, however. Rally organizers repeatedly asked her to give a speech, but she declined. The first daughter told aides she had become increasingly uncomfortable with efforts to overturn the election results, yet she told them she decided to attend because she hoped to calm the president and to keep the event on an even keel." Now if that, in fact, was her goal, she obviously failed miserably.
MR. RUCKER: Yeah.
MR. KARL: What I'm wondering, she's obviously--this is--this is the story that Ivanka tells. Do you believe it? Do you believe that she was really trying to calm her father, and do you see any sign that before January 6th she was actually taking any actions whatsoever to get him off this--you know, the repeated lies and the disaster that everybody could see coming? Was there was any effort that she--that she really--if she felt so uncomfortable and she felt that this was so wrong, that she actually did anything about it before, you know, this failed effort, I guess, on January 6th?
MS. LEONNIG: You know, based on our reporting, Jon, it appears that [audio interference) Ivanka was essentially the stable pony for her father. And she came in to essentially calm down the racehorse.
But our reporting also indicates that while she may have been feeling these things and whispering them quietly to aides, she wasn't very forceful, at least in the beginning. But when things fell off the rails after rioters breached the Capitol, after everyone could see essentially one of the icons of democracy under assault, under literally a battlefield on the Capitol Hill, when that happened, a lot of people started to get very worried, and she was among them.
Multiple times she was brought down by Mark Meadows, the chief of staff, to return to the office to try again to persuade her father to make a stronger statement--no, no, no, just a little stronger--to quell [audio interference] to call off the dogs, essentially. And I take your point, though--and Phil and I both are really on guard for this and were in the reporting--I take your point that she wasn't a very effective spokesperson and calmer for her father, at least before, as the storm was growing and was obvious to so many.
MR. KARL: Yeah, I mean, it seemed both she and Jared Kushner were kind of MIA during those--during those weeks leading up.
MS. LEONNIG: Right.
MR. KARL: You know, and then of course, Ivanka's one statement herself on her Twitter feed was calling the--you know, the rioters American patriots--telling them to go home, to obey the law but calling them American patriots, which of course she deleted.
Let me ask you, I think your--one of the things that you've done so effectively in your section on January 6th is outline what was going on with the National Guard which is--which has been so opaque. Do you--what is--can you summarize what your sense of what Trump's role, if any at all, in getting--you know, in getting National Guard troops to Capitol Hill during this riot? And there--is there any evidence that he was resisting it on January 6th? What--just talk a little bit about that, because you really go kind of minute by minute with the Capitol Police in what was going on. Talk about Trump's role on January 6th.
MR. RUCKER: Jon, that's an important question. Our reporting shows that Trump played virtually no role in mobilizing the national guard or mobilizing any sort of law enforcement or military response to the siege of the Capitol.
In fact, it was Vice President Pence who was being held in a secure location underground at the Capitol, his own life in danger, the life of his family members in danger, who was on the phone with the Pentagon, on the phone with congressional leaders, and urging a swift response and effectively acting as the commander in chief. And that's because Trump, according to our reporting, was back at the White House, in the private dining room off the Oval Office, watching it all unfold on television but not actually doing his duty as the president and as the commander in chief to respond in any way.
It was an extraordinary couple of hours where you had a president completely MIA and the vice president filling in that gap. And you actually saw at the Pentagon senior leaders--the acting Defense Secretary, Chris Miller, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, and others, were responding and taking orders from Pence and in very close contact with Speaker Pelosi, with Senator Schumer, with Senator Mitch McConnell, and the other congressional leaders to sort of strategize and understand how to respond to what was happening at the Capitol. And they didn't really care what Trump had to say because the president said nothing.
MR. KARL: I mean, just--what you just said, Phil, I mean, let's not just let it pass by. That is an extraordinary statement, and we've heard it directly from Chris Miller, who was the acting defense secretary. Chris Miller was on the phone during the riot at the Capitol with Nancy Pelosi, with Chuck Schumer, with Mitch McConnell, with Mike Pence, and he listed all those people and others that reached out to him. And not once did he hear from the president of the United States.
MR. RUCKER: No.
MR. KARL: I mean, that's just--it's an extraordinary, an extraordinary statement.
We have about less than a minute left. I want to put you on the spot very quickly. Does he run again? And if you guys--you can give me--there's two of you, so you can give me a yes and a no and one of you will be right.
MS. LEONNIG: I think he's making all the noises of somebody who wants to run again. We know how much he enjoys that spotlight. I can't--you know we're not in the prognostication business. But right at this moment, he sure sounds like a guy who's running.
MR. KARL: Phil?
MR. RUCKER: Yeah, I agree, Jon. If he had to make a decision tomorrow, I think the answer would be yes. But we know that a year or two in politics is a very long time. He's at an advanced age. Who knows how his health is going to be in 2023 when he arrives at that decision? So, we'll have to see. But if he had to choose today, he would run.
And we want to know what you think, Jon.
MR. KARL: I've been--I've been thinking no, but I'm much less convinced in that--in that prediction given the events of the last several weeks. So, we shall see.
Anyway, we are out of time. I could have used the we are out of time to avoid answering that question. But Carol Leonnig, Phil Rucker, author of the already runaway bestseller just out--there it is--"I Alone Can Fix It." Great to talk to you.
I’m Jonathan Karl. As always, thank you for watching Washington Post Live. Check out what interviews we have coming up, and please head to WashingtonPost.com to register for more events just like this one and get more information about upcoming programming.
Great to see you guys. Congrats again on the book.
MR. RUCKER: Thank you so much.
MS. LEONNIG: Thanks so much, Jon.
[End recorded session]