WASHINGTON – Furious arguments, abrupt decision changes, perpetual dismay and “anarchy and chaos” defined the finals days of the Trump administration, according to The Wall Street Journal’s senior White House correspondent, Michael Bender.
Bender’s book, “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost,” compiles interviews with dozens of former Trump staffers and allies, as well as two interviews with former President Donald Trump himself.
The book depicts the inner workings of a White House and presidential campaign in turmoil, as Trump’s subordinates fought each other for influence and grappled with obeying presidential orders that often contradicted basic democratic and constitutional norms.
Bender recounts, for instance, how Trump called for whoever “leaked” information on him staying a bunker during the height of racial justice protests in 2020 to be “executed” for their actions.
Trump was infuriated the New York Times reported he, first lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron, had been put in a bunker beneath the East Wing that as racial justice protests in Lafayette Square, near the White House, were cleared by federal, local and military police.
At a meeting with top law enforcement, military and policy aides, Trump “boiled over as soon as they arrived,” according to Bender. “It was the most upset some aides had ever seen the president.”
The book recounts: “‘Whoever did that, they should be charged with treason!’ Trump yelled. ‘They should be executed!'” Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who “repeatedly tried to calm the president as startled aides avoided eye contact,” Bender writes, then promised Trump the officials present would find whoever leaked the story.
In another 2018 exchange, Trump casually praised the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, for his economic reforms and popularity within the fascist regime.
“Well, Hitler did a lot of good things,” Trump remarked to White House chief of staff John Kelly, a former four-star Marine general. “You cannot say anything supportive of Adolf Hitler,” an astounded Kelly replied, “You just can’t.”
Much of the chaos of the Trump campaign and White House in 2020 centered on the administration’s missteps in its pandemic response and economic downturn and the social upheaval brought by the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis Black man murdered by a police officer.
Trump had a visceral response to the Floyd video, calling the event “terrible.” Trump later tweeted his support for the Floyd family, promising that “justice will be served.” His tone shifted rapidly, however, as protesters calling for racial justice filled the streets of cities and towns across the country.
Bender’s work depicts frantic scenes within the Trump administration, with many aides deeply concerned over the president’s cavalier desire to deploy military troops against peaceful protesters and rioters alike.
“The country had turned into a tinderbox. And inside the Oval Office was a president who liked playing with matches,” Bender writes, describing aides he spoke with as horrified by the president’s behavior.
Trump calls for military intervention
Multiple times, Trump called for the military to be deployed into cities across the country and that troops should use live ammunition against protesters, aides said.
In one tense exchange, senior adviser Stephen Miller, an ardent Trump ally, told a gathered group of aides that amid the summer protests “these cities are burning,” which justified intense military intervention.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quickly told Miller to shut up, using expletives.
“Let me show you what I can do with the National Guard before we make that next jump,” said Milley, who was unnerved by the prospect of US troops being deployed against civilians.
Campaign in disarray
In the weeks approaching the election, the Trump campaign was beleaguered with internal disputes and self-confidence issues extending the president himself, Bender writes.
After a story pitched by Trump allies Rudy Giuliani and Robert Costello about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, failed to catch steam in the media, followed by Trump’s own hospitalization with the coronavirus, the campaign became insular and doubtful, with Trump openly lamenting his poor polling among key constituents, like suburban women, at rallies.
“I didn’t love it,” Trump conceded to Bender on his experience with the coronavirus. Despite having a $2 billion war chest, Bender also describes the Trump campaign’s data and media advertising campaigns in disarray.
The abrupt replacement of campaign manager Brad Parscale with Bill Stepien in the fall further led to financial mismanagement. Bender quotes Stepien as complaining that he “has $65 million to spend on digital, and I don’t know whether to put it in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and at what levels,” the campaign manager said in the run-up to election day.
“Bill is locked in decision paralysis,” Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior advisor, told Katie Walsh, White House deputy chief of staff, offering Walsh the job to replace Stepien.
The disorganization of the campaign bled into efforts to contest the election after the president’s loss. A defiant Trump ordered aides to pursue dozens of election lawsuits and to pressure government aides and allies at the state and federal levels to help him overturn the election results.
Officials at the Justice Department were horrified, for instance, when DOJ attorney Jeffrey Clark aided White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in concocting a plan to oust the acting attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, and overturn the election results in Georgia.
In addition to pressuring Georgia’s attorney general, Brad Raffensperger, Trump also leaned on Supreme Court justices in North Carolina, while he pressured aides to convince GOP lawmakers in swing states across the country to help their effort in overturning the election.
The Jan. 6 insurrection and its aftermath further demoralized those closest to Trump, though Bender writes that few saw the attack on the U.S. Capitol as unforeseen, but rather a “horrifying but inevitable conclusion” to the president’s time in office.
Removed from Washington and splitting time between Florida and New Jersey, Bender describes an aggrieved and somewhat directionless Trump determined to win back power.
“What am I going to do all day?” Trump asked one aide upon landing in Mar-a-Lago after leaving the White House. Banned from social media and out of power, the president’s future remains unclear, though his power within conservative politics is unquestioned.
“Trump was in transition. Weeks earlier he’d been the leader of the free world. Now he was King of Mar-a-Lago,” Bender writes.
Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michael Bender describes turmoil, chaos in Trump White House book