Trump's military advisors were 'throwing their bodies in front of something dangerous': biographers
Trump, Pence, Milley, Esper (Photo: White House)

A new book by two Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporters provides fresh details on former President Trump's response to the pandemic, his campaign to overturn the 2020 election results, and the events surrounding the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The book, "I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year," details how the country's top general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, feared Trump would wage a coup after losing the November election, among other revelations. We speak with co-authors Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, who say their reporting unearthed "a lot of things that made our jaws drop to the ground." In an interview for the book, Trump said his only regret during his last year in office was not deploying the military against Black Lives Matter protesters. "He wanted to use active-duty troops on the streets of America's cities to combat American protesters who were exercising their First Amendment rights," says Rucker.



This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I'm Nermeen Shaikh, with Juan González.

We end today's show with the authors of a new book that debuted last week at number one of the best-seller list, I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J.Trump's Catastrophic Final Year. The book is by two Washington Post reporters: White House bureau chief Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, a longtime investigative reporter. Their book sheds new light on what happened during the early days of the pandemic, how Trump responded to the deadly January 6th insurrection, and alleges the nation's top general, Mark Milley, feared Trump would wage a coup after losing the November election. Rucker and Leonnig are both Pulitzer Prize winners and also co-authors of the 2020 best-seller, A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Carol, let's begin with you. This is your second book on Trump. You both reported extensively on his administration. Talk about what you found in this book. What was most striking?

CAROL LEONNIG: Yes, there were a lot of things that made our jaws drop to the ground, but I think that the most striking was just the degree to which people who wanted to serve Donald Trump, people that were ardent supporters in his White House, in his Cabinet, in his administration, how much they were nearly in panic about the impulses of the president, the degree to which he was willing to put American lives in peril, and actually how much he was willing to risk the democracy, again, all for his short-term political gain, his own personal profit.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Phil, you write that Trump told you it was his greatest regret that he did not deploy the military to shut down last year's protests over the police killings of George Floyd, saying, quote, "I think if I had to do it again, I would have brought in the military immediately." Could you talk about that?

PHILIP RUCKER: That's right. When Carol and I sat down with President Trump, former President Trump, earlier this spring for an interview, an extensive interview for this book, he said his only regret from that final year as president was how he handled the Black Lives Matter protests and that he wished he had followed his impulse, his gut, to send in the military immediately into Portland and Seattle and Minneapolis, D.C., all these cities where demonstrations were taking place. He wanted to use active-duty troops on the streets of America's cities to combat American protesters who were exercising their First Amendment rights. It was pretty chilling for us to hear him say that.

And the book details a lot of reporting, scenes that happened behind closed doors, where the defense secretary and attorney general and the aforementioned chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were trying to persuade Trump not to send in the military and explaining how that would be so inappropriate and not justified. But Trump said, after the fact, that he regretted not doing so.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you also report — I guess perhaps the most shocking revelation is how the top generals in the U.S. military were responding to Trump. You say that Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley was so afraid that Trump would attempt a coup that he and other top officials discussed a plan to resign one by one, rather than carry out orders from Trump that they consider to be illegal. Could you elaborate on that further?

CAROL LEONNIG: You know, this was a very frightening moment for us to learn, as well. Remember, we were covering this administration in real time. So, we thought we did a pretty good job at the first draft of history for The Washington Post. And then, when we excavated this time, we found out there was a lot more fear within the Pentagon and at the highest levels. These were people who had been to combat multiple times, and yet they were quite worried about what Donald Trump might do.

As Chairman Milley told confidants and colleagues, he became convinced that President Trump was trying to get his hands on the so-called guys with the guns — the agencies like the FBI, the CIA and the Defense Department. And the military leaders that he worked with, the other Joint Chiefs, and he began meeting to talk about how would they block the president from something that was illegal or dangerous for the country, some sort of deployment of the military that they thought was wholly inappropriate. And their plan, or their plot, their counterplot, was to essentially decide that they would resign one by one, a serial reverse Saturday night massacre, if you will, the idea being that each one of them had a legal duty to give the president their best military advice, and if he were to order something, each one of them would request a meeting whereby they could give him their advice and then then resign, almost like in slow motion. Again, they were throwing their bodies in front of something dangerous. That was their plan.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Carol, I'd like to go to another facet of the last year of Trump's administration that you cover extensively in the book, beginning with this clip from your two-hour interview with former President Trump in which he refers to the, quote, "loving crowd" during the deadly January 6th insurrection.

DONALD TRUMP: I would venture to say I think it was the largest crowd I've ever spoken before. It went from that point, which is almost at the White House, to beyond the Washington Monument. It was — and wide. And —
CAROL LEONNIG: But if you could have waved your want —
DONALD TRUMP: And it was a loving crowd, too, by the way. There was a lot of love. I've heard that from everybody. Many, many people have told me. That was a loving crowd.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: When Capitol Police officers testified last week at the first hearing of a House committee investigating the deadly January 6th riots, Capitol Police Sergeant Aquilino Gonell responding to Trump's comment.

SGT. AQUILINO GONELL: If that was hugs and kisses, then we should all go to his house and do the same thing to him. To me, it's insulting and it's demoralizing, because everything that we did was to prevent everyone in the Capitol from getting hurt, and what he was doing, instead of sending the military, instead of sending the support or telling his people, his supporters, to stop this nonsense, he egged them to continue fighting.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And meanwhile, as we reported earlier in headlines, a fourth Washington, D.C.-area police officer who responded to the violent January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has now died by suicide. So, Carol, could you respond to this latest news and also what Trump said in his interview with you on the so-called loving crowd?

CAROL LEONNIG: You know, there couldn't be a more stark split screen between officer Gonell, Metropolitan Police officer Fanone, what they actually experienced, what they told the public that medieval combat was like as they tried to protect the lawmakers and the staffers on the Hill who were scrambling for their lives from Donald Trump's supporters, from chants of execution for Vice President Pence — that's one side of the screen. And on the other side of the screen is Donald Trump sitting down with Phil and with me in Mar-a-Lago and explaining that this was a loving crowd, that he was watching them on television and he felt very supported by them, glad that they were going to "stop the steal," that they were going to show their support for the fact that he believed the election was rigged — though there's no evidence for it — and they were going to help him stay in power.

I thought that officer Gonell's remarks about the fact that he's still trying to recover from those hugs and kisses that Donald Trump told us the protesters were giving was really on the mark. There were no Capitol Police officers warmly ushering in these individuals, as President Trump — former President Trump told Phil and me when we were visiting with him. There was no love. There was a threat of death. There were chants for hanging Mike Pence. There were officers who were screaming for their lives, and, as officer Gonell described, literally having a heart attack, having the wherewithal to call out to the people around him, "Please don't take my gun. Please don't hurt me. I have children." Donald Trump was in a room watching television while that was happening.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Phil Rucker, the first section of your book deals with President Trump's response to the biggest crisis of his presidency, clearly: the COVID pandemic.

PHILIP RUCKER: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And he told you that "I think we did a great job on COVID, and it hasn't been recognized." Could you talk about his paranoia on believing that the drug manufacturers actually tried to delay the COVID vaccine in order to hurt his election chances?

PHILIP RUCKER: Sure. You know, Trump seemed to think that all of his enemies, his perceived enemies, were out to get him during the COVID pandemic, in part because he saw the pandemic through the prism of his reelection chances. He thought he was on a glide path to winning a second term before COVID arrived and that COVID spoiled his chances of winning the election last November.

He had particular disdain for pharmaceutical companies, for drugmakers, in part because of some tensions earlier in the administration between the industry and his administration. But during COVID, he thought that they were slow-walking the development of a vaccine. He thought it was imperative that he have a vaccine or multiple vaccines developed, tested and ready to be distributed before Election Day, so that he could get political credit for that. And when that did not become a possibility, he became enraged.

And he was especially angry at Pfizer, because Pfizer made their announcement about a week or so after the election, that their first COVID vaccine had met the mark, and Trump thought that was intentionally delayed to hurt him politically. There, of course, is no evidence to support that claim, but it does show you a little bit the paranoia in Trump's mind that he thought individuals, but also companies, industries were plotting to try to undermine his political standing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Carol, I wanted to ask you about this, Trump's conviction or clear belief that he was going to win on election night, and his reaction as the numbers came in that night and the days that followed. Also, if you could talk about the role of Rudy Giuliani? I mean, I covered Rudy Giuliani throughout his period when he was mayor of New York, and I always believed back then that there was something not right about him, but most people then didn't agree. But talk about the relationship between Giuliani and Trump, if you can, as well.

CAROL LEONNIG: Of course. You know, the conviction issue that you mention is so interesting, because what Phil and I learned was that in the days before the election, President Trump had been warned multiple times that this was going to be a hard slog and that the odds were not great. You know, people who were paid to tell him that the odds were great were warning him that it didn't look so good, that Biden's poll numbers were quite strong.

And, in fact, we learned that, unbeknownst to us when we were reporting in real time, that Bill Barr called the defense secretary the night before the election to say that he had learned from White House sources that the president, whether he won or not, was planning to declare that night, election night, that he had won, before all the ballots were counted, that that was sort of a plan that was being cooked up. And it's unclear where Bill Barr heard this, but it was from inside the White House.

So, the conviction that President Trump had that he was going to win or had won really started to solidify after he lost. His conviction that it had been stolen from him was what got more calcified as time went on. The reason is, he basically shut out those people, those adults who were explaining to him that he had lost, people he had trusted and had his confidants alongside him for years, people like Hope Hicks, who counseled him that he was ruining his legacy, that he needed to think about graciously and appropriately conceding, people like Kellyanne Conway, who said she really didn't see the evidence and asked the president to either produce it or think about a plan B for stepping away.

And what's interesting about Rudy is he represents the group of individuals on that fringe who were spinning increasingly fanatical tales of how this election was stolen, though Bill Barr had a team of Department of Justice prosecutors and also FBI agents, ultimately, underneath him investigating these claims. He warned the president they had looked into all of them, they were nonsense, they were BS. But Rudy kept insisting they were true. On election night, he was the voice who said, "Just declare victory. Just say you won," even as important swing states were coming down for Biden and looked like they were going to go for Biden pretty strongly.

So, Rudy was warned, actually, and this is sort of the most colossal fall from grace that I think I've seen in covering politicians and government officials. This was "America's mayor." This was one of the strongest, most revered federal prosecutors in the country. Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, former, warned Rudy in a phone call after the election that he was ruining his legacy and that he was becoming a joke on late-night television. And Rudy hollered back at him and said, you know, "I'm fighting for now. Who cares about legacy? I'm fighting for today." But everything he was fighting for was a mirage.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, speaking of today, let's talk about what prospects Trump has in a possible future campaign. New federal campaign finance filings show that Trump has raised more funds than other Republicans in online donations during the first half of this year, entering July with more than $100 million from his 2021 political committee. Some say Trump is pursuing a, quote, "shadow presidency" as he plans to run again in 2024. On Friday, Mark Meadows, former chief of staff for the Trump White House, told Newsmax Trump is now meeting with people he called cabinet members at his golf resort in New Jersey.

MARK MEADOWS: We met with some of our cabinet members tonight. We actually had a follow-up member — meeting with some of our cabinet members. And as we were looking in that, we're looking at what does come next. I'm not authorized to speak on behalf of the president.
STEVE CORTES: OK.
MARK MEADOWS: But I can tell you this, Steve: We wouldn't be meeting tonight if we weren't making plans to move forward in a real way with President Trump —
STEVE CORTES: OK.
MARK MEADOWS: — at the head of that ticket.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Philip Rucker, your response, and on the question, in particular, on continuing Republican support for Trump?

PHILIP RUCKER: Yeah. Well, look, the Republican support continues to be very strong for Donald Trump. He is by far the most popular figure in Republican politics today. He has made no secret about his desire to run for president again in 2024. And when Carol and I sat down with him, it was clear to us that he wanted back in the game, that he sort of had that itch to get into the arena again. He has a lot of time left before he has to make that decision about whether to actually launch a campaign for 2024, but all signs point towards the likely possibility that he does. And if he were to run, you know, barring some change in the political environment, he would almost certainly become the Republican presidential nominee. He is that popular in his party right now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thank you so much, Philip Rucker, Carol Leonnig, co-authors of I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year. And that does it for the show. I'm Nermeen Shaikh, with Juan González. Stay safe.