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How Trump Repeatedly Duped the GOP Elites

Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book, in describing the end of Trump’s presidency, offers a modern tale of the definition of insanity.
November 23, 2021
How Trump Repeatedly Duped the GOP Elites

When a blockbuster nonfiction book like Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s Peril comes out, the media will typically gorge on a few juicy excerpts released before the book hits the shelves. Woodward’s longtime publisher, Simon & Schuster, is an expert at goosing sales for his books using these bursts of controversy over select revelations.

Typically, everyone soon moves on to the next controversy of the day. But Woodward and Costa’s deeply reported book warrants more thorough discussion.

If you listened to the hype, Peril seems like another in the parade of new books about Trump palace intrigue, bombastic personalities, behind-the-scenes controversies, disgruntled officials, and f-bomb-dropping pols. It is all that. But tucked in the book’s pages is another story—a story about how various elites kept getting duped by Trump and are setting themselves up as his stooges once again.

Mark Esper, Trump’s second secretary of defense, is not a naïve person. Neither is Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Which makes it all the more surprising how easily Trump could break them for something as trivial as a photo op.

After attempting to de-escalate Trump’s anger over the Black Lives Matter protests that roiled the nation in the spring of 2020, Milley and Esper found themselves desperate to contain Trump’s eagerness to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy federal troops against the protesters.

In late May 2020, as protests arose after the killing of George Floyd, Trump pressed to have the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division sent in to quell the protests—apparently having in mind the way that President Lyndon Johnson had ordered the 82nd into Detroit in 1967 and into Washington in 1968. Trump adviser Stephen Miller repeatedly urged him to take drastic measures: “Barbarians are at the gates,” Miller apparently said in the Oval Office. “They are burning America down.”

“Shut the fuck up, Steve,” Milley reportedly replied, explaining that the Black Lives Matter protests were not comparable to the 1960s riots, nor to other times the Insurrection Act was invoked.

But Trump remained fixated on the idea of military action. On June 1, he asked about using the 82nd to clear Lafayette Square. According to Woodward and Costa, “The president was getting increasingly contentious, and Esper worried that if he didn’t put something on the table, Trump might formally order him to bring the 82nd to D.C.”

Looking for some partial measure that would satisfy Trump, Milley and Esper agreed to start moving troops toward Washington but station them outside the city and let the National Guard handle the streets. Then, Trump went to the Situation Room to speak to governors about the protests on a call in which he told them, “You have to dominate,” otherwise “you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”

Esper dished up another morsel to Trump, apparently hoping some rhetorical affirmation would help satisfy his hunger. Esper echoed Trump’s words. “I agree, we have to dominate the battlespace,” Esper said.

The secretary of defense using the word “battlespace” to describe America’s streets was provocative and Esper’s remarks immediately leaked, much to his regret.

That wasn’t the only time that day Epser compromised his integrity by appeasing Trump, though.

Around 6 p.m that day, Milley and Esper were told that Trump wanted them back at the White House. There, someone described as a “low-level White House aide” told Esper and other officials to “line up.”

Soon enough, they were all striding with Trump in front of reporters and TV cameras to St. John’s Church, as pawns in one of the most infamous scenes of Trump’s presidency. “We’ve been duped,” Esper said to Milley.

A few days later, Milley stated that “I should not have been there” and that it was a “mistake” to walk with Trump to the church.

To their credit, Milley and Esper did go on to stand up to Trump. Esper eventually went public with his opposition to Trump’s potential invocation of the Insurrection Act, which factored into his firing-by-tweet after the election. And Milley, who continues to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs under President Biden, took unprecedented steps in the final weeks of the Trump presidency to secretly mobilize the national security state for potential threats out of concern that the defeated Trump’s erratic actions could create a crisis.

Milley and Esper seemed to learn a hard lesson from Lafayette Square. Unfortunately, that makes them anomalies in Trump land.

By the end of November 2020, then-Attorney General Bill Barr had had enough of Trump’s conspiracy theories about election rigging, despite the fact he planted some of the seeds for them himself.

On December 1, Barr asked an Associated Press reporter to lunch where he fed him the line he wanted to see printed widely. “To date,” Barr said, “we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome of the election.”

This, of course, made Trump livid. Trump called Barr in for a meeting, and, according to Woodward and Costa, Barr told him, “Every self-respecting lawyer in this country has run for the hills. Your team is a bunch of clowns. They are unconscionable in the firmness and detail they present as if it’s unquestionable fact. It is not.”

That critique stayed behind closed doors, though. Barr resigned on December 14 with a letter that flattered the president in gushing terms. In this letter, an important part of the historical record, Barr could have explicitly quashed the false allegations that Trump’s supporters were circulating; instead, he continued to give cover to Trump’s Big Lie about the election. The first line said, “I appreciate the opportunity to update you this afternoon on the [Justice] Department’s review of voter fraud allegations in the 2020 election and how these allegations will continue to be pursued.”

The rest of the letter is full of absurdly fulsome praise for Trump’s “historic” record—which would be bad enough in a vacuum, but again, remember that it was written in the context of Trump’s weeks-long quest to overturn an election he lost.

So even as he walked out on Trump, Barr didn’t stop promoting him. Barr knew that Trump’s Big Lie was indeed a lie. But instead of warning the public about the danger to our democratic system, Barr warned Trump privately about the danger to his reputation—and publicly kept singing Trump’s praises.

One of the people whom Barr quietly reached out to for help post-election was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Too bad for Barr, McConnell wasn’t about to go out on any kind of limb against Trump.

McConnell told him, “Bill, you know we have these elections coming up in Georgia”—referring to the runoff elections for the two Georgia Senate seats. “I can’t afford a big frontal attack on the president at this point. I have to be gentle.” Being “gentle” meant that McConnell would stay mute about the election until all the states certified the election and it was plainly obvious Biden won.

During that critical time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, behind the scenes, worried that “the crazies are taking over,” also refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory. When asked about the transition, Pompeo—America’s top diplomat, knowing the eyes of the world were on him—said, “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” He smiled as if everyone should allow him to say that he couldn’t cross Trump on the issue as a friendly joke.

McConnell finally acknowledged that Biden won in a Senate floor speech on December 15, after the Electoral College met the day before. Trump called McConnell and cursed him. According to the book, “McConnell hoped it would be the final time he and Trump would ever speak to each other.”

For a moment, McConnell seemed as if he might make that hope a reality. That moment, however, passed.

Even though McConnell conceded that “there is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible” for the January 6 riot, he did not vote to convict him for inciting it. Then, in a February 2021 interview, McConnell said that he would “absolutely” back Trump if he became the 2024 Republican presidential nominee despite everything that had happened.

Duped again.

Mike Pence knows, maybe more than anyone, how dangerous Trump is. The president’s fans chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” through the halls of Congress as some of them engaged in hand-to-hand combat with law enforcement, smashing glass windows to reach him. For weeks, Pence agonized over his role that day, seeking counsel from others about performing his duties to count Electoral College votes and while also satisfying Trump’s calls to block Biden’s victory.

“Mike, don’t even talk about it,” former Vice President Dan Quayle and fellow Hoosier told Pence.

“You don’t know the position I”m in,” Pence said.

“You have no power, just forget it,” Quayle said.

But Pence kept looking. As late as January 3, Pence asked the Senate parliamentarian, “Could I perhaps express sympathy with some of the complaints?” She was, reportedly, “curt” and advised the vice president that he was only a “vote counter.”

On January 4, Pence flew down to campaign for Republican candidates in the Georgia runoff races. He told the crowd that “I share the concerns of the millions of Americans about the voting irregularities. And I promise you, come this Wednesday [January 6], we’ll have our day in Congress. We’ll hear the objections. We’ll hear the evidence.”

Pence thought he gave a good and honest speech because he didn’t use the specific words “rigged” and “fraud.” He thought this invisible, semantic line would keep him safe. Wrong.

As the Capitol riot unfolded on January 6, former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who gave up his prestigious post largely out of frustration with Trump, watched in horror. He recognized the Capitol Hill officers on his television screen defending the spaces he worked in for so many years. This passage of classic Woodwardian paraphrasing-without-quotation-marks apparently describes Ryan’s emotional state:

I assumed Trump’s fight was an act, Ryan thought. Trump would have his rally and tell his supporters he didn’t lose. It would be post-election spin. I didn’t think it would go this far.

But it was happening. He kept seeing the faces of cops he knew. It was hard to absorb. He called up friends who were House members and staffers. Some of them told him they were fending off rioters in stairwells. Statuary Hall, which he crossed ten times a day as speaker, was being overrun. . . . Ryan looked up at the television again and watched the scene. He rubbed his eyes. My God, he said, catching himself by surprise. The rioters kept shouting, climbing. Police officers were being hit with metal poles. Ryan began to bawl.

Pence’s national security advisor, retired Gen. Keith Kellogg, was with Trump in the White House as the mob breached the Capitol. “Holy shit, what is happening?” he reportedly thought. Kellogg went to Ivanka Trump and convinced her to speak with her father and “let this thing go.”

As everyone knows, Trump, to this day, did not and has not let it go. Still, Kellogg believes in Trump’s leadership abilities. Woodward and Costa wrote, “Unlike others in Pence’s circle, he remained convinced Trump was a decent man, a president who had let a situation spin out of control.”

As for Ryan, he has decried (without using Trump’s name) the “dishonorable and disgraceful end” of the last presidency and warned the GOP against “the populist appeal of one personality” and “second-rate imitations”—but remains on the board of directors of Fox News, which is very much obsessed with one personality and his second-rate imitations.

What do the Republican elites now think they should do about Trump? The conventional wisdom is that he must be coddled or that, somehow, contrary to all available evidence, Trump will peacefully relinquish his control of the GOP.

“The problems created with Trump’s personality are easier to fix than if the party blew completely up and we had a civil war,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told Woodward and Costa. “A third-party movement would start if you tried to kick Trump out of the Republican Party.”

McConnell thinks Trump will somehow fade into the past as some kind of “OTTB” or “off-the-track Thoroughbred.”

According to Woodward and Costa, McConnell’s theory is that his “preferred candidates could eventually outpace any ragtag network that Trump might try to assemble. McConnell and his crew would out-organize them, out-fundraise them, and avoid theatrical clashes.”

“The only place I can see Trump and me actually at loggerheads would be if he gets behind some clown who clearly can’t win,” McConnell said.

Oh. How’s that going?

Just ask the Trump-endorsed 2022 candidates with the long string of assault allegations following them on the campaign trail.

The title of Woodword’s and Costa’s Peril comes from a line in Biden’s inauguration speech: “We have much to do in this winter of peril.”

The lesson inside this book, though, is that this perilous time is not a temporary, seasonal event. Trump digital guru Brad Parscale, who was seen last year being wrestled to the ground by Florida police, is sure the turbulent Trump times are not yet over.

“He had an army. An army for Trump. He wants that back,” Parscale said. “I don’t think he sees it as a comeback. He sees it as vengeance.”

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.