Two Washington Post journalists spoke about their book, a behind-the-scenes view of President Donald Trump’s administration, at the Marvin Center Wednesday.
Journalists Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig discussed their new book, “A Very Stable Genius,” which offers narratives from insiders about the fraught relationship between Trump and his top national security officials that has resulted in vocal arguments, firings and resignations. About 315 people attended the event, which was moderated by NBC journalist Andrea Mitchell and hosted by independent bookstore Politics and Prose.
“It reads like a political thriller,” Mitchell said. “This narrative is just extraordinary. But then you realize just how serious the consequences are, and it gets really scary.”
The book, released late last month, offers an inside look at the first three years of the Trump administration through the eyes of top security officials and the president’s closest advisors.
The journalists also discussed the departure of several of Trump’s cabinet members early in his administration, like former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. Trump’s quick temper and tendency to retaliate against top officials explain these frequent removals, Rucker and Leonnig said.
“When people who serve in the highest level leave this government, there’s very little ceremony,” Rucker said. “It’s disgraceful in a way, the way they’re treated.”
When Pentagon staff planned to honor Mattis with a “clap out,” an act of respect for his service after his resignation, Rucker said Mattis rejected the idea for fear that the president would retaliate against department officials.
“Mattis said, ‘No, you can’t do a clap out. The president’s going to retaliate against the people left here at the Pentagon if you do that,’” Rucker said. “So there was no clap out for him.”
The journalists discussed a standoff between Trump and top officials, including Tillerson and Mattis, in July 2017. After his generals attempted to convince him to look beyond financial concerns with respect to the nation’s troops and military bases, Trump called them “losers,” “dopes” and “babies,” according to the book. Tillerson called Trump a “fucking moron” after the president left the room.
Leonnig said the confrontation was “a gripping scene” that revealed unsurfaced details, like Trump’s amplified reaction to a persuasive presentation that was not intended to be condescending.
“It’s a theme that comes up later and over and over again in the book,” Leonnig said. “He’s almost insulted that somebody with expertise wants to tell him how things are.”
The book also covers the reaction to Mattis’ resignation announcement after Trump said he would pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Pentagon officials’ “eyes popped out, and one person said it looked like everyone was preparing for the end of the world,” Leonnig said.
She added that many of the sources quoted in the book were afraid to meet with the journalists – one asked to meet in Virginia and changed the location last-minute under the assumption that the government could be watching, Leonnig said.
“While a genius at marketing himself, he’s also become a genius at bullying people into silence and fear,” she said.
After firing officials who wouldn’t comply with his demands, Trump now enjoys the loyalty of followers like Attorney General Bill Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Rucker and Leonnig said. Leonnig added that the president is feeling as “confident and invincible” as ever after his acquittal at his Senate impeachment trial.
“If past is prologue from our book, I think we’re going to see a more and more unburdened and unbound president who decides, ‘All of this snow globe of Washington, I can shake this to the point of breaking it,’” Leonnig said.