MS. TUMULTY: Good afternoon, and thank you so much for joining us here at Washington Post Live. I’m Karen Tumulty. I’m deputy editorial page editor and a columnist here at The Post.

And it is my absolute delight this afternoon to be talking to two of my colleagues, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, about their terrific new book, "Peril," which looks at one of the most dangerous periods of our recent history, which was the transition between the presidency of Donald Trump and the presidency of Joe Biden.

Congratulations, guys. I looked at Amazon this morning, and there it was, right up at number one.

MR. WOODWARD: Thank you.

MR. COSTA: Great to be with you, Karen.

MS. TUMULTY: So, how close did Donald Trump actually get to staging a coup that would have allowed him to hang onto the presidency, and what does this experience say about our future elections? I mean, this is a playbook that it looks like people are going to continue to run.

What do you think, Bob?

MR. WOODWARD: Well, first of all, what we found and what really surprised us was that this was a national security emergency, that Chairman Milley, head of--chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the number one military advisor to President Trump was very alarmed. And there were two calls; they've been portrayed as secret. Actually, they were not. They were on a--

MS. TUMULTY: Okay.

MR. WOODWARD: --top secret back channel. And it was a situation where there is intelligence, first, that the Chinese--this is before the election last year--Chinese might--kind of thought the United States was going to attack them, which is the worst possible situation for a military person. The seeds of miscommunication lead to war. And the second call was two days after the January 6th riot, when the Chinese were worried that the United States was going to collapse. What's going on?

And so, Milley is trying to calm down General Li, the head of the Chinese military, and had a five-year relationship. And you see the details of--in the book, from our reporting, it's a very alarming moment for the country. What's interesting is the country and the world didn't know. This was all classified and kept under wraps. And when we found out about it--this is the horror and the nightmare of having a president like Trump who does not really understand not just how he is seen domestically in the United States, but this really spun up China, Russia, and Iran.

MS. TUMULTY: So, Robert Costa, though, this episode--these two episodes, these phone calls in your book, really have provoked a lot of discussion and debate over the propriety of General Milley's actions, whether this was somebody who had no other option in this situation, or whether he violated the chain of command.

Republicans, in fact, have been calling either for him to be fired or to resign. What did you guys decide about the appropriateness of what General Milley did?

MR. COSTA: Our reporting shows that this was a long, unfolding story. That phone call on January 8th, 2021, was not some kind of isolated event that happened in a vacuum. It goes back to October 30th, 2020, days before the election, when Chairman Milley spoke with General Li of the PLA on the phone, trying to calm the Chinese military down, the Chinese Government from thinking that the U.S. in some way was going to attack. That was the belief based on some intelligence reports and miscommunication. Our reporting shows that people believe--the top ranks of the military, that miscommunication can be the seeds of war. So, you saw Milley trying to calm down the Chinese.

But then, just a couple weeks later, when the president at the time, Donald Trump, issues this rogue memo on Afghanistan, it takes Chairman Milley and National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien really aback, and they're wondering, is this president going outside of the channels to dictate major policy decisions, like the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And this is all coupled with what happened over the summer of 2020 when President Trump was lashing out behind the scenes and, at times, publicly, at Chairman Milley, at Attorney General William Barr, and others over the protest at Lafayette Square.

So, long story short, there are all these episodes, October 30th with the Chinese, the Afghanistan memo in November of 2020. Then, there was a private meeting--a national security meeting on Iran where the president is asking about, maybe there are different options about attacking Iran that he seems quite interested in, based on our reporting. So, all these things collectively form a new reality for some of the people around President Trump, including Chairman Milley, who then takes steps to reaffirm procedures on January 8th. And it does have echoes of what happened with Schlessinger, Secretary James Schlessinger in 1974 with Richard Nixon, which Bob knows so much about.

But this is a chairman who's trying to operate within the bounds of his office as the senior military officer of the United States, to try to make sure chaos doesn't happen, catastrophe, and, most importantly, war does not happen. But he will have an opportunity to testify this coming week, on Tuesday, I believe, and that's what's part of the system. Top people like Milley, at times, need to go under oath and face Congress.

MS. TUMULTY: So, Bob Woodward, though, was this something that Milley did on his own, or were others involved in the decision, including--others including Defense Secretary Esper, involved in the decision to make these highly unusual calls to the Chinese?

MR. WOODWARD: Well, what happened--I mean, the chronology, as you know, Karen, from your own reporting, is key here. And Esper had been fired by the time of the second call, two days after the insurrection. And what's his responsibility? Our reporting shows he did not take away any authority from the commander in chief at the time, Donald Trump. He made sure that the procedures that require the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to be involved in key military decisions. And if you look at it from the point of view of somebody who's trying to protect the country, and every piece of evidence we have is that's exactly what he was doing. But in the course of it, he said some things, like telling General Li, the head of the Chinese military, if we're going to attack you, I'll be calling you. People have looked at that in isolation saying Milley was going to tip off the Chinese.

When you see it in context on Page 129 of our book, and it is a long interchange, he is saying, look, when there are tensions, there will always be a buildup and we will be talking. And he said to General Li, look, this is the situation, very much where we are going to be talking if there's going to be some sort of fight. This is not one of them. We have no intent, here. We're not going to do anything. And significantly, at the end of that conversation, General Li said, I'm going to take you at your word. But this was an electric moment and the whole point here is what goes on behind the scenes often we don't know until much later. And this is a classic example of danger, maximum danger, to the country.

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, called Chairman Milley on this same day, January 8th, two days after the insurrection. I mean, the insurrection will be--is going to go down in the history books, and Nancy Pelosi, we have a transcript of it, which we run in the book, is on fire about Trump and says, he has the nuclear codes. He can launch--what assurance can I give people in the House of Representatives that Trump is not going to go rogue and launch nuclear weapons or initiate some sort of military action, which he can do? He has that power as commander in chief. Milley assures Nancy Pelosi every--the procedures are fine. And then, he realizes very dramatically that, no, Pelosi is right. And he calls in the people from the War Room at the Pentagon and makes them essentially take an oath that they will include him if there are any orders that come from Trump or the White House somehow out of the normal procedural channels.

MS. TUMULTY: Robert Costa, we really haven't put any of this behind us as a country, I don't think. I mean, you still--you look at polling and it consistently shows that a strong majority of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Donald Trump. There is a fair amount of support within the party's base for the insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol on January 6th.

As you look at elections going forward, again, with these sorts of premises so embedded in a large number of--big swathe of the country, how concerned are you about the integrity, the trust in our electoral system? Are we going to see versions of this playing out elsewhere?

MR. COSTA: It's already playing out in many states. But there's a culture inside of the Republican Party that we capture in this book that really made me, as a reporter, sit up on the edge of my seat. You see after the election President Trump seemed to acknowledge privately that he had probably lost to Joe Biden. He says to Kellyanne Conway and others, based on our reporting, I can't believe I got defeated by this guy.

But he feels compelled to move forward. People like Rudy Giuliani but so many other supporters are then calling him in the days after the November election and saying, you have to fight. You have to fight. And Hope Hicks, one of his longtime advisors, in one scene pulls the president aside in the Oval and says, you don't have to do this. You can wrap this up. You can be king of the GOP down at Mar-a-Lago. And he looks at Hicks, who was with him all the time in 2016 and in the White House, and he says, I can't--I don't care about my legacy. I don't care about anything. My people want me to fight. I need to fight.

And so, it's not just about the pervasive claims of election fraud. There's a culture, as I said, based on our reporting, of a Republican Party and people within it led by President Trump who just refuse to concede any sort of defeat. They want power. They want it back. And Brad Parscale, his former campaign manager, says privately in the end of our book to some others, that if President Trump runs again, this is about vengeance. He wants back in and he wants revenge.

MS. TUMULTY: So, Bob Woodward, Bob Costa, what do you guys think? Do you think Trump's going to run again?

MR. WOODWARD: Well, our reporting shows clearly that he plans to at this point. And there have been some public examples of this where he'll tell supporters, well, I haven't decided yet, but you're going to really love my decision. It's pretty clear that is the intent, but what's important here, if you can ever get to 100,000 feet and look down on it, the pivot point here for Trump is his claim that the election was stolen from him.

And we have in the book, and there's been some additional reporting on this, and I think it's very important, that Lindsey Graham kind of, in many ways, one of Trump's key supporters; Senator Mike Lee of Utah, very conservative, very pro-Trump, they got memos and documents from the White House saying, look, we have all this evidence that the election was stolen. So, Graham and Lee, in a very dutiful way, which we lay out in the book, investigated. It wasn't just kind of, oh, we'll accept this or we'll reject it. And they found absolutely no--zero evidence--zero evidence that the election was stolen.

All of these claims that Giuliani made and a White House lawyer named John Eastman evaporate under scrutiny. Now, this--Karen, you understand this so well--the political question is, if Trump's going to run again, what's the rationale for the candidacy? And traditionally, the rationale for a candidacy is what I will do for you, the voter, or the people in my party, or the independents, or the other--and Trump's rationale at this moment is the election was stolen, and so I should--I'm going to run again and I should get it again. Now, what's so interesting, just yesterday, Trump said that Senator Lee and Senator Graham should be ashamed of themselves taking the position that the election was not stolen.

Our reporting shows that Senator Graham, Senator Lee--again, this is not Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer, these are his allies--looked in detail at the evidence and it's not there. The election was not stolen. And this is key to understanding what's going on now when we close the book with this notion that the peril continues, because Trump will not let go of this idea of the stolen election. And it would be very interesting if people just look at the facts, as we tried to do. This is not a partisan examination at all, absolutely key to understand Trump's supporters don't--you know, emotionally buy into it. But if you look at Senators Graham and Lee, they're just saying no, it's not there. That, I think, is significant.

MS. TUMULTY: Well, I would like to turn to a couple of questions that we received from our audience.

And Arthur Weinstein in California raises the question of the 25th Amendment. Did that ever come into play in your reporting? Did either of you find--or both of you find evidence that there was a serious enough concern about the president's capacities for functioning in the office, that anyone ever thought about invoking this?

Bob Costa.

MR. COSTA: There's a few scenes about this in "Peril," and the key to focus on here is Vice President Pence who, as vice president, the Constitution--could try to invoke the 25th Amendment. And you see after January 6th, Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer, they're trying to nudge Vice President Pence in this direction. And they call Vice President Pence in one scene and they're waiting for him to pick up the phone, but he doesn't pick up the phone.

Vice President Pence instead talks to his top advisors including his attorney in the vice president's office, Greg Jacob, one of these little-known figures in Washington who actually had an enormous role during this transition period. And his counsel to Pence, along with the counsel of others in the office, is to not invoke the 25th Amendment, because they don't see some kind of mental incapacity or health incapacity on the part of President Trump. And because of that, they don't feel it's appropriate to invoke the 25th.

But this is a contrast to Chairman Milley, for example, who we report believes President Trump was in serious mental decline in the final days of the Trump administration. So, the opportunity was there for Vice President Pence to maybe work with congressional leaders to pursue the 25th Amendment; but ultimately, Pence did not decide to do that in the wake. And you see some tensions in our book, in Pence's inner circle. There was almost a worry, an unhappiness that Pence wasn't more angry about what happened on January 6th, wasn't more willing or eager to move against Trump.

MS. TUMULTY: And do you think Pence really has a future in the Trumpified Republican Party? He was considered, I think, a likely potential successor to Trump at one point.

MR. WOODWARD: The story of Pence that we were able to build is, what a tale. You could write a book just about that, because he wants to accommodate Trump. He knows Trump's political power. And so, there are scenes where he is looking for a way to join with Trump on this idea of the stolen election. The key people in Pence's inner circle passionately arguing, no, you can't do it. There is a call from Dan Quayle, former vice president, also from Indiana, telling--literally reading the Constitution and the law to Pence, saying, you can't do anything other than formally certify Biden as the coming president.

Pence, you see him walking this kind of wobbly road for a while. And then, at the end, he realizes, no, the Constitution and the law are very clear, and he certified--he oversaw the certification of Biden as the winner, which was emotionally, politically very difficult.

What is easily forgotten, and we found in our reporting, if Pence had stood up there before the House and Senate and said, you know, I can't decide who really won the election, and walked away, which he could have done physically and, you know, just say, look, I'm confused. That would have created, triggered a constitutional crisis in this country like we've never seen before, because the very legitimacy of who is going to be the next president would be not just in question, but be--what's the process to get there?

This is one of the dangers that we found and, in many ways, it is as important as General Milley's assessments about the national security danger. If we don't have a process that is clear to everyone, this is the next president, we are going to go off the cliff. When I say, "we," this country.

MS. TUMULTY: Well, I don't think we'd be doing justice to your terrific book if we didn't also explore how much you guys also focused on Joe Biden and his team.

Bob Costa, what did you learn about Biden and his strength and his weaknesses? And as much as he is a familiar figure to Washington and the country for decades, was there anything in your reporting that surprised you about Joe Biden?

MR. COSTA: When we pursued this book, Karen, we wanted to understand how we got here as a nation, and so much of that is tracing back the Trump story. But we decided you have to trace back the Biden story, too. He is president. Maybe he doesn't make as many headlines, but he has this enormous power in the presidency in his hands. He's someone who knows how to use the levers of power, having been in the Senate for decades, and then eight years as vice president. And to trace back that Biden story, we really learned a lot in our reporting about his decision to run, why at this stage in his life, in his career, did he decide to get back in.

And it goes back--and as many people know, to Charlottesville and the white supremacist rally in 2017. But we get in-depth into his thinking and his discussions at that time and in 2018 and 2019, and you see this slow deliberation, not so much out of ambition, which is the Biden of 1988, in other--2008, previous presidential bids, more of a--almost a self-centered candidacy, those previous bids. This time, it almost feels like a calling to Biden. He sees Trump as someone who's outside the American system, outside of the American norm when it comes to the presidency.

But even though he has these levers of power, we learn--and knows how to use them, we learned in this book, whether it's Afghanistan or right now with his major spending packages on the rocks--who knows what happens there--he's struggling to navigate a deeply divided country and a deeply divided Congress.

MS. TUMULTY: And of course, the divisions are--continue to be fostered by Donald Trump.

I mean, Bob Woodward, are you surprised by the hold that Donald Trump still has on the Republican Party? I can't think of any historic parallel of an ex-president, a defeated ex-president continuing to be such a dominant figure in politics.

MR. WOODWARD: Well, this of course, was his appeal in 2016. Costa and I started working together back then when Bob Costa approached me and said, let's go interview Trump. This was April of 2016. And Bob Costa had spent a lot of time with Trump, often had been the only reporter on the plane. And we interviewed Trump and Costa said, you know, we've got to take this seriously. And it was apparent to both of us that Trump has this visceral appeal. He can be harsh and cruel, but he can also be very charming.

And his realization--and I later discuss this with Trump, about the dying of the old order in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. And he stepped in and people are going to be writing about 2016 for, you know--what really happened? How did he win that election? And he is out there--look, there are two realities. China is on the march. China is--for instance, just last month, the head of the Strategic Command of the United States, I think his name is Admiral Richard--publicly said China is literally going through a breakout in developing and using and preparing to use more nuclear weapons. This is a very--China's on the march and Trump's on the march. That is the world in which Joe Biden is functioning in as president.

And if you look at some of the things we reported about on Afghanistan, his top people, General--I'm sorry, Secretary of Defense Austin, Tony Blinken, the secretary of state in March were recommending to Biden that he slow down the pullout from Afghanistan. They eventually went along with his emotional, passionate commitment to getting out of Afghanistan as quick as possible, that the legacy of that decision continues to this day and may for a long time. So, I think if you look at Biden now, he's done some things that work pretty well. He--now, Afghanistan a problem; $3.5 trillion in his spending plan. Karen, no one knows better than you, that is real, serious money. That is calling for an overhaul of the way the government helps people and very, very controversial. And the pandemic has ignited again--2,000 people in this country are dying every day from the pandemic. It got down to, in the good period, only 50 people.

So, stay tuned. Biden/Trump/China, that's, I think what Bob Costa and I are really focused on, because that's going to be the next year, next two years of American politics and national security policy.

MS. TUMULTY: Well, and I certainly hope this is also the next book from you two, because this book is absolutely terrific.

I'm afraid this all the time we have today, but I do want to congratulate you once again, Bob Woodward, Bob Costa, on this amazing book. And I want to, again, thank you for being with us today.

MR. WOODWARD: Thank you.

MR. COSTA: Very generous. Thank you, Karen.

MS. TUMULTY: And I’d also like to thank all of you who joined us here, today, and invite you to go to WashingtonPostLive.com to see what future programming we have coming up. There’s always something interesting, here. Thank you so much.

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