- President Donald Trump’s White House has long been perceived as a workplace of chaos and dysfunction, but some of the details of the president’s rage and ignorance are truly shocking.
- The authors of “A Very Stable Genius” have put together one of those most meticulously-sourced accounts of the Trump administration to date.
- Insider spoke with co-authors Phillip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, both long-time Washington Post reporters, about their new best-selling book.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America,” one of the latest insider-based accounts of the Trump White House, debuted at the top of The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list upon its release earlier this month.
Written by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, respectively the White House bureau chief and a national investigative reporter for The Washington Post, the book is based on interviews with over 200 well-placed sources within the administration and in Trump’s inner circle.
The result is a sweeping and engrossing account of a presidency built on “a reflexive logic of self preservation and self-aggrandizement – but a logic nonetheless.”
Insider spoke with the authors about the stories they recounted in the book of Trump’s stunning ignorance of world affairs, his frightening displays of rage, his flagrant insults toward cabinet members and military generals, and his administration, which is seemingly devoid of basic protocols.
We also touched on the president’s relationships with Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton in the wake of his impeachment acquittal, and his tendency to prioritise the advice of Fox News personalities over his own aides.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Insider: “A Very Stable Genius” has an episode where Trump meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the president tells him, “It’s not like you’ve got China on your border.” You wrote that a number of top White House officials were aghast at Trump’s ignorance. Why was this particular instance such an issue for them?
Leonnig: We did interviews with more than 200 former and current senior level officials, advisers, friends, and aides to the president. The reason they shared these stories is they feel that the president rejects facts and information. It’s like he can’t be bothered with it. And his rejection of a briefing before he went to meet with Prime Minister Modi had terrible consequences.
Modi went from being a person who was trying to have a real serious negotiation with Trump about partnership, about how to protect himself from China and Russia and Pakistan. And as a result of the president not knowing that India shares a very significant border with China, Modi began to withdraw a little and, as told to us by aides, viewed Trump as just not serious enough to make a deal with.
Insider: You’ve got Trump quoted in the book as saying Rudy Giuliani is “the only guy in the world who’s less prepared than I am … Rudy goes on TV and doesn’t know what the f— he’s talking about.” During Trump’s victory lap speech following his impeachment acquittal, a thank you to Giuliani was conspicuously absent. What’s Trump’s relationship with Giuliani like right now?
Rucker: That was notable that he didn’t thank Rudy Giuliani in that speech. Although, Rudy was not technically one of the lawyers leading the president’s defence in the Senate trial. They have been friends and associates for years and years predating the president’s run for office in 2016, and Trump really admires Rudy for being such a bulldog and being vicious in his defences of the president.
That’s something the president really values. Rudy certainly created some problems for the president with the Ukraine episode, but I imagine they’re going to have a relationship in the years to come.
Insider: Where do you think [former national security adviser] John Bolton goes from here? Is he completely persona non grata among the entire Republican establishment over his willingness to testify in the impeachment inquiry? Or do you think the fact that he never actually got the opportunity to testify will be able to keep them in the GOP circle?
Leonnig: I sense both from people close to him, and from just watching Bolton navigate this, is that he always was thinking about how he was going to remain a part of the Republican Party firmament and not be a person who was running in to testify. He was just signalling that he was not going to automatically withhold his information. He didn’t want to look like he was cooperating with the Democratic probe, and he also didn’t want to look like he was withholding critical information.
He has a longstanding reputation in the party and he’s definitely put his money where his mouth is in terms of his PAC. I would imagine that he will face some problems and some skirmishes with Donald Trump, but he is somebody that a lot of Republicans are indebted to and feel gratitude towards. It’s hard to see them casting him to the wind.
Trump’s rage and a White House with no protocols
Insider: You wrote that a lot of people in the White House were angered by Trump’s treatment of the Joint Chiefs and of former Defence Secretary James Mattis. In particular, there was one meeting in “the Tank” (a windowless vault where the Joint Chiefs meet) where former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who notably was not a military veteran but has veterans in his family and his very reverential toward them, put himself in Trump’s line of fire and defended the generals that the president was viciously insulting as “dopes and babies.”
Is there anyone in the administration who would do that now?
Rucker: It’s impossible for us to answer that because we can’t predict how somebody might act in a given moment. But most of the people who might’ve been inclined to stand up to the president, or to tell him no, or to confront him in a setting like that have left the administration. We see most of the people currently serving the president at that high level as largely enablers of his. And what we mean by that is people who see their jobs as trying to execute the president’s orders and following what he wants done.
Insider: Another story in the book that jumped out at me was when the documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi [Nancy Pelosi’s daughter] is standing next to a thirsty and befuddled Trump in the White House, and there’s no one around to give him a bottle of water. So she gives him a bottle from her purse, and was stunned that there was no protocol and nobody acting as a middle person to the food and drink that goes to him.
Can you talk a little bit about some of the more jarring examples of the abandonment of typical White House protocol in this administration?
Rucker: So that scene with Alexandra Pelosi and the Aquafina bottle in her purse is funny and cute, but we also thought it was really representative of the general chaos and dysfunction inside the White House, especially in those early months. And the lack of preparation by the staff and by the president himself for these jobs and for the awesome responsibility that comes with it. The fact that there wasn’t a standard staff protocol in that particular moment was illustrative of the broader trend of the administration.
Insider: You quoted a former Trump Organisation staffer who described Trump’s anger as “scary.” You have both been covering presidents for a long time. Is Trump especially prone to fits of anger compared to other presidents?
Leonnig: It sure feels like it after talking to people over and over again who had similar experiences. Many of these I recounted in the book, but perhaps not all of the ones that we heard. The time he was yelling at [former Homeland Security Secretary] Kirstjen Nielsen and calling her early in the morning and late at night after watching [Fox Business host] Lou Dobbs, then berating her to adopt and implement the ideas that Lou Dobbs has whispered to him on the phone.
Nielsen tried to explain to the president that some of these ideas were going to break the law or that the department was already doing them. But sometimes he would call her back in the morning after calling her in the night, and she would say, “Mr President, I haven’t done what you’ve asked yet because everyone in the office is sleeping in the intervening hours and I cannot get any answer for you right now.”
But there were many others who were on the receiving end of the president’s barking. [Former Attorney General] Jeff Sessions being cursed at and told that it was all his fault that a special counsel had been appointed. [Trump] yelling at the top of his lungs so loud that when people were excused from that room they could hear him through the doors yelling, and were crossing themselves about how glad they were that they were no longer there.
Fox hosts often have more pull with the president than his own cabinet members
Insider: You mentioned Lou Dobbs. It seems that the president, especially now three years into his administration, seems to be getting a whole lot of his policy and personnel cues from Fox hosts. Between the voices that are actually in the room with him and the voices that are on TV, who do you think he’s listening to most?
Rucker: He’s listening to a little bit of everything. One of the problems that so many sources identified to us in our reporting for “A Very Stable Genius” is that the president is not very good at prioritising among his advisers.
He’ll take something that the national security adviser says and hold it up weighed [against] something that Jeanine Pirro might tell him on the phone one night. He takes what Kirstjen Nielsen, who he tasked with being in charge of his immigration policy, and sort of override that with what Lou Dobbs, the Fox personality and commentator had to say on his opinion show that night.
So the president takes advice in all areas. And Trump would see that as one of his attributes in leadership as a president, that he’s looking for advice in different places and listening to lots of people. But the people who work for him find that actually to be a real detriment to reasoned and rational decision making.
Insider: A lot of Trump’s supporters would say that the title of your book, “A Very Stable Genius,” even though it’s a direct quote of his, is East Coast elite establishment snark. And that any implication that Trump is not a genius because of his accomplishments and his beating of the establishment would make the reporting in your book moot or biased.
What do you think is the most important reason that your book should be read by everybody, including people who would dismiss you out of hand for working at The Washington Post and writing a book like this?
Leonnig: First off, we’ve gotten some very nice reviews basically saying that all we do is what we intended to do, which is gather the facts, place them in this book and let people make their own minds up and make their own judgments of this administration, this president, and the people who serve him. And even [Trump’s] own enemies, those facts about them are in here as well.
We chose the title because we wanted to hold up the president’s own self-definition, one that he’s issued five times now. It’s not a mistake that he calls himself this. We wanted to hold that mirror up to him and also stress tests this definition, this moniker, with the people who know him best who had been at his shoulder for months and years serving him and are supportive of his agenda, but to see him up close every day and took us into this room.
We’re not trying to use this book as a political tool to persuade anyone no matter what their party is. But there have been Republicans and Democrats who’ve written to us, regular people, and said that it really moved them and it altered their impression a little bit, a hardened impression that they might have had either in support of the president or not in support of the president. There was a military father who wrote to us praising our reporting of that “Tank” meeting and expressing some concern about whether the president is really the best person to lead the country if he’s going to treat the front line of national security in this way.
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