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'The Divider' probes Trump's White House years for lessons about our political future

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Our next guests spent four years chasing every story they could about then-President Donald Trump.

PETER BAKER: Everything we learned while he was in office, we printed.

RASCOE: Reporters Peter Baker and Susan Glasser knew there was more to learn. In recent months, they've conducted 300 interviews delving into Trump's White House years. They're out with a book called "The Divider." It's part of a growing list of books about Trump, which led Glasser to answer a question I didn't even ask.

SUSAN GLASSER: Why do another Trump book? Because having a full crack at the four years and to look at it laid out one by one, our premise is that January 6 and Trump's attack on the election results in 2020 was not some violent outlier but essentially the inexorable, horrific culmination of all four years of his tenure in office.

RASCOE: Peter Baker says that tenure reflects how Trump tried to manipulate the institutions of Washington for his personal use.

BAKER: The military is a great example - right? - where he wanted the military, basically, to be his shock troops in the streets. And we have this incredible scene where he's talking with his chief of staff, and he's unhappy that the generals aren't personally loyal to him. He says, why can't you be like the German generals? And his chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired general himself, says, what do you mean? You mean Hitler's generals? They weren't loyal to him, by the way. They tried to kill him. But that was the way Donald Trump saw the military - not as an apolitical institution of American life but as a series of generals who should do his bidding for what he needed, as we then saw in those final months of his presidency.

RASCOE: Your book includes reporting about then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar about how they had planned to resign in protest if Trump resumed the family separation policy. Over and over again, we hear these stories of officials in the Trump administration who say they were on the verge of quitting, but they don't. Like, what sense do you get about why people stayed?

GLASSER: You know, this is one of the enduring mysteries - right? - of the whole story. As someone pointed out to us who worked in the Trump White House, by the way, there are no heroes in this story. So it's very complicated - right? - because the enablers were also, at times, the constrainers. Kirstjen Nielsen as DHS secretary is a perfect example of that. She internally opposes the family separation policy. She fights against it. But when she loses, she doesn't resign in protest and ironically, even becomes, for a time, the public face of this policy that she's privately worked against. She insists to others and her confidants that she's staying in order to prevent even worse things from happening. In fact, we obtained an encrypted text message that she sent to one of her aides at one point, trying to resist one of Trump's wackier, more illegal demands. She said to him, quote, unquote, "The insanity has been loosed." But at the same time, as you point out, she never does resign in protest. And ultimately, after a series of humiliations public and private by Trump, he forces her out.

RASCOE: Peter, do you think that people from the administration, with the benefit of hindsight, use the idea of, well, I almost resigned; well, we had a pact; we were all going to do it, as a way of defending their actions.

BAKER: Sure. I mean, obviously, there's a lot of reputation washing going on here. But it's also, as Susan said - I mean, there was this, you know, sort of moral conundrum that a lot of people faced. And they told themselves they were the ones who were going to stop worse things from happening. And in some cases, that was the self-justification, and in some case, that was actually true. You could see over the course of four years as he got rid of people left and right, he would find other people to install in important positions who were more willing to do what he wanted. And that's why at the end you had a chief of staff, for instance, who was willing to, like, have everybody come in to the White House talking about martial law and seizing voting machines and sending fake electors to Congress, as opposed to, say, John Kelly, who never would've. He would've thrown himself in the front of the door rather than let, you know, the MyPillow guy into the Oval Office - that kind of thing.

RASCOE: What does it say about the American presidency and power in America that, basically, these unelected people just kind of stopped him from going to nuclear war with North Korea? Essentially, if one of these people didn't ignore Trump or say, I think you're going too far, the U.S. could be in war with North Korea.

GLASSER: I think it's important that you pointed that out. I agree with you. And in fact, people, even many of Trump's critics, sort of soothed themselves at times over the four years by saying, well, the institution's held. But in fact, Trump was constantly probing for the weaknesses in both the people who surrounded him and the institutions. And over time, he was increasingly successful at finding them. In fact, one very senior national security official who spent a lot of time with Trump in the Oval Office observed to us that he was like the velociraptor in Jurassic Park, you know, who learns eventually how to open the door.

RASCOE: To open the door. Open the door in the kitchen (laughter)?

GLASSER: Is it not a scary image? But, you know, we actually spoke with a number of officials who told us that the United States was much closer than people understood to potential actual conflict with North Korea before they got Trump to pivot into his negotiations with North Korea. And Trump then turned...

RASCOE: Fell in love with Kim Jong Un...

GLASSER: ... From fire and fury to a love affair. At the very end of the administration, the most senior national security officials and generals in this country were extremely concerned that Trump was headed down the path of potential conflict by demanding again and again to launch missile strikes against Iran or Iranian interests in the final days, weeks and months of his tenure.

RASCOE: You had two sit-downs with Trump for this book. What struck you about your time with him?

BAKER: Well, it was really fascinating, actually, as a exercise of history for authors trying to write about a person. He's not a reliable fact witness, right? You know, he constantly contradicted other people's versions of what happened and even sometimes his own versions of what happened. The very first thing he tells us when we sit down for our second interview was completely opposite of what he had told us in the first, right? So was he lying when he told us the second time or the first time? It's hard to know.

RASCOE: It doesn't seem like facts necessarily matter or even really apply when it comes to Trump, especially in terms of his popularity with the base or his influence with the GOP. So do you feel like this information will matter or make a difference?

GLASSER: You know, look. I think that it actually increases the urgency. And, you know, we began all this reporting after Trump left office, after his second impeachment. And, you know, we found that there was indeed more to learn. I'm sure there's still more to learn than we were able to get into this book, right? Because unlike many other presidents, really all other presidents of any of our lifetimes, Donald Trump is still the present of American politics. He's not yet history. He's not like George W. Bush, you know, retiring to the ranch and painting portraits, right? He is still hoping to become potentially the only president since Grover Cleveland in American history to return to the White House. So we felt like it was extremely important for the historical record to understand what went on in those four years of Trump in the White House.

RASCOE: Ultimately, Peter, do you think that Trump's tenure changed the institution of the presidency itself?

BAKER: I do. Yeah, I do. You can see it even with Biden today struggling to figure out how to - where the lines are compared to where they used to be. It's different than when he was vice president under Obama. And there is an expectation that the president can wield power in a way that Trump tried to do. You even hear people, you know, who are supporters of President Biden sort of pushing him to be pressing the envelope of where power goes just from the different point of view because Trump saw no limits, right? Trump liked to use the phrase absolute power. So I think that's a really important legacy at this point. What is the limits of a power of a president? Where does the Congress fit in anymore? - and how to balance them in the modern system.

RASCOE: Susan Glasser and Peter Baker. Their new book is called "The Divider." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GLASSER: Thank you.

BAKER: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.