Why would have Trump talked with Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker for their book? He had declined an interview for their first book about his presidency, and when A Very Stable Genius was published in January 2020, he attacked them personally and branded their reporting "a work of fiction. But Trump was quick to agree to our request this time. He sought to curate history." Or perhaps it had something to do with the old carny adage that all publicity is good publicity? He couldn't have imaged they intended to write a puff piece, not after A Very Stable Genius. He seems to have been on some kind of charm offensive with them and other members of the media, desperate, maybe, to not sink into irrelevance? Last week, we re-published a long Washington Post excerpt and yesterday there was another one in Vanity Fair, this one based on an "hours long" live interview at Mar-a-Lago.
Maybe he did it because Rolling Stone is right about him believing he's going to run for president again in 2024. Andy Kroll wrote he's "told at least three people he’s dined with in recent months that he plans to run in 2024," one of which was part of a conversation in the last 2 weeks."
The king of Republican politics granted Leonnig and Rucker an audience on March 31, 70 days after he was ousted from the White House They wrote that "beneath the gold-leaf ceiling of winged griffins and crystal chandeliers, Trump still rules, surrounded day and night by applauding fans, obsequious courtiers, and dutiful servants. At the perfectly manicured Mar-a-Lago, none of the disgrace that marked the end of his presidency pierces Trump’s reality. Here, he and his aides work to maintain the gospel according to Trump, with the most important revelations being that Donald Trump was the greatest president of all time and was unjustly denied a second term."
Before they began Trump's p.r. person gave a bound volume: 1,000 Accomplishments of President Donald J. Trump: Highlights of the First Term, 92 pages organized with chapters dedicated to the economy, tax cuts, deregulation, trade...
Trump walked into the room flanked by a couple of plainclothed Secret Service agents, a much smaller detail than he once had as president. He wore his customary dark suit and tie, his face covered with bronze makeup. He sat in his preferred position, a plush armchair of ivory brocade facing the entrance where guests arrive, with us on a sofa to his right. Behind him was a huge window looking out to the Atlantic Ocean; in front of him, the patio facing Lake Worth.
“This is the biggest, the best, the most acreage, the most everything-- the ocean, the lake, it fronts both,” the ever-boasting Trump said. “Mar-a-Lago is ocean-to-lake. Did you know that? Mar-a-Lago, ocean to lake. It’s the only place. See that window? That window, when that was built, is the largest pane of glass in the world, okay?”
That's how he talks. His cognitive functions are breaking down. He's a mess. Listen to what Dr. John Gartner told David Pakman about it in 2019, when Trump's condition was just "pre"-dementia.
Trump started the interview by pointing out his enduring and unrivaled power within the Republican Party. He explained that he didn’t intend to follow the path of former presidents, who largely bowed out of the nitty-gritty of party politics. He was proud to say he genuinely enjoys this sport he found so late in life, and believes he plays it better than anyone else. The parade of Republican politicians flocking to Mar-a-Lago all spring to kiss his ring had both energized him, he said, and proved the value of his stock.
“We have had so many, and so many are coming in,” Trump said. “It’s been pretty amazing. You see the numbers. They need the endorsement. I don’t say this in a braggadocious way, but if they don’t get the endorsement, they don’t win.”
But future elections were not front and center in his mind. A past election was. Trump was fixated on his loss in 2020, returning to this wound repeatedly throughout the interview.
“In a certain way, I had two presidencies,” he said. In the first, when the economy was roaring, Trump argued that he had been unbeatable, never mind that his approval rating was never higher than 46 percent in the Gallup poll during his first three years as president.
“I think it would be hard if George Washington came back from the dead and he chose Abraham Lincoln as his vice president, I think it would have been very hard for them to beat me,” Trump said.
Then, he lamented, came his second presidency: the pandemic killed his chances.
Trump seemed determined as well to convince us that he actually had won, and handily, had it not been for the many people who had wronged him-- the “evil people” who conspired to deny him his rightful second term.
“The greatest fraud ever perpetrated in this country was this last election,” Trump said. “It was rigged and it was stolen. It was both. It was a combination, and Bill Barr didn’t do anything about it.”
Trump faulted not only his attorney general, but Vice President Pence for lacking the bravery to do what was right.
“Had Mike Pence had the courage to send it back to the legislatures, you would have had a different outcome, in my opinion,” Trump said.
“I think that the vice president of the United States must protect the Constitution of the United States,” he added. “I don’t believe he’s just supposed to be a statue who gets these votes from the states and immediately hands them over. If you see fraud, then I believe you have an obligation to do one of a number of things.”
The irony was lost on Trump, however, that one of the central reasons he had prized Pence as his number two was his resemblance to a statue standing adoringly at his side.
Trump then invoked the non-analogous example he had latched on to: “Thomas Jefferson was in the exact same position, but only one state, the state of Georgia. Did you know that? It’s true. ‘Hear ye, hear ye . . .’-- was much more elegant in those days. It was, ‘Hear ye, hear ye, the great state of Georgia is unable to accurately count its votes.’ Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Are you sure?’ They said, ‘Yes, we are sure.’ ‘Then we will take the votes from the great state of Georgia.’ He took them for him and the president.”
Trump continued, “So I said, ‘Mike, you can be Thomas Jefferson or you can be Mike Pence.’ What happened is, I had a very good relationship with Mike Pence-- very good-- but when you are handed these votes and before you even start about the individual corruptions, the people, the this, the that, all the different things that took place, when you are handed these votes...right there you should have sent them back to the legislatures.”
Later in the conversation, Trump again expressed his disappointment in Pence. “What courage would have been is to do what Thomas Jefferson did [and said], ‘We’re taking the votes,’” he said. “That would have been politically unacceptable. But sending it back to these legislatures, who now know that bad things happened, would have been very acceptable. And I could show you letters from legislators, big-scale letters from different states, the states we’re talking about. Had he done that, I think it would have been a great thing for our country.” But, he surmised, “I think he had bad advice.”
Trump argued that he stands apart from the presidents before him by the loyalty and intensity of his supporters. “There’s never been a base that screams out, with thirty-five thousand people, ‘We love you! We love you!’” he said. “That never happened to Ronald Reagan. It never happened to anybody. We have a base like no other. They’re very angry. That’s what happened in Washington on the sixth. They went down because of the election fraud. The one thing that nobody says is how many people were there, because if you look at that real crowd, the crowd for the speech, I’ll bet you it was over a million people.”
What was Trump’s goal on January 6? What did he hope his supporters would do after he told them to march on the Capitol?
He chose to remark again on the size of the crowd. “I would venture to say I think it was the largest crowd I had ever spoken [to] before,” Trump said. “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. It was too bad, it was too bad that they did that.”
Pressed again, Trump said he had hoped his supporters would show up outside the Capitol but not enter the building. “In all fairness, the Capitol Police were ushering people in,” Trump said. “The Capitol Police were very friendly. They were hugging and kissing. You don’t see that. There’s plenty of tape on that.”
Trump didn’t mention the countless accounts of horrific violence-- that of a riotous mob shoving a police officer to the ground, later threatening to shoot him with his own gun, or that of an insurrectionist bashing a flagpole into another police officer’s chest, or that of yet another officer howling in pain as he was compressed in a closing door.
“Personally, what I wanted is what they wanted,” Trump said of the rioters. “They showed up just to show support because I happen to believe the election was rigged at a level like nothing has ever been rigged before. There’s tremendous proof. There’s tremendous proof. Statistically, it wasn’t even possible that [Biden] won. Things such as, if you win Florida and Ohio and Iowa, there’s never been a loss.”
He was referring to conventional wisdom that historically the winner of the presidential election has carried that same trio of states that Trump won. This was one of the traits that had led Trump to the White House on full display: his extraordinary capacity to say things that were not true. He always seemed to have complete conviction in whatever product he was selling or argument he was making. He had an uncanny ability to say with a straight face, things are not as you’ve been told or even as you’ve seen with your own eyes. He could commit to a lie in the frame of his body and in the timbre of his voice so fully, despite all statistical and even video evidence to the contrary.
At various points in our interview, Trump presented other examples of what he called proof the election had been stolen from him.
“Take all of the dead people that voted, and there were thousands of them, by the way. We have lists of obituaries,” Trump argued. “If you take the illegal immigrants that voted. If you take this-- Indians that got paid to vote in different places. We had Indians getting paid to vote! Many, many different things, all election-changing.”
Trump zeroed in on large cities in Michigan and Pennsylvania, both of which he lost to Biden, that are home to many Black people and historically vote heavily Democratic. “Look, everyone knows that Detroit was so corrupt. Everyone knows that they literally beat up people there, they hurt people to get the vote watchers out, our vote watchers, Republican vote watchers,” he said. He added, “Philadelphia, highly corrupt in terms of elections. There were tremendous irregularities that went on there, including the fact that you had more votes than you had voters.”
He was still fixated on the debunked water main conspiracy in Fulton County, Georgia. “They say, ‘Water main break!,’ everyone leaves-- everyone leaves-- and then you have these people go in with two or three other people, all their people, run to the table where ballots are...this table which had a skirt on it, opened the skirt and took out the ballots and started stuffing the ballot boxes,” he said. “It was reported on every newscast.”
In his discussion of the “stolen” election, Trump grew more animated and specific about the long list of advisers and allies he considered disloyal. He said that Barr failed him as attorney general for not buying the conspiracy and for not dispatching the FBI to investigate Fulton County’s vote-tallying process. To Trump’s mind, Barr had become too exhausted to act in his final months on the job. Trump also posited that Barr had grown too sensitive to media criticism, worried about his depiction as a loyal marionette who did the president’s bidding, that he backed away from properly investigating voter fraud.
“Bill Barr changed a lot,” Trump said. “He changed drastically, and in my opinion, he changed because of the media. The media is brilliant. I give them credit. I get it better than anybody that’s ever lived. Bill Barr came in because he was really legitimately incensed at what they were doing to me and the presidency on the Mueller hoax. He did a good job on the Russian hoax, right? And then as time went by, and what I should have done is said, ‘Bill, thank you very much. Great job.’”
The Department of Justice, he continued, “is loaded up with radical left, and Bill Barr was being portrayed as a puppet of mine. They said he’s my ‘personal lawyer,’ ‘he’ll do anything,’ and I said, ‘Here we go...’ He got more and more difficult, and I knew it. You know why? Because he’s a human being. Because that’s the way it works.”
Trump listed Barr’s sins: He didn’t charge James Comey or Andrew McCabe; he didn’t announce an investigation into Hunter Biden; and he didn’t bring an end to John Durham’s probe of the origins of the Russia investigation before the election. Trump speculated that Barr was motivated by personal pique rather than reality when he announced on December 1 that the Justice Department had uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could change the election outcome.
Barr disliked me at the end, in my opinion, and that’s why he made the statement about the election, because he did not know,” Trump said. “And I like Bill Barr, just so you know. I think he started off as a great patriot, but I don’t believe he finished that way.”
Trump said he was also disappointed by federal judges-- especially the three conservative justices he had nominated to the Supreme Court-- for ruling against his campaign in the scores of lawsuits it filed or, in the case of the high court, declining to take the case. When we asked whether he needed better lawyers, considering so many courts had ruled there was not substantiated evidence of fraud nor merit to the cases brought before them, Trump said his legal team was not to blame.
“I needed better judges. The Supreme Court was afraid to take it,” Trump said, suggesting that justices might have declined to intervene in the election out of fear of stoking violence. Referring to the election result, Trump added, “It should have been reversed by the Supreme Court. I’m very disappointed in the Supreme Court because they did a very bad thing for the country.”
Trump singled out Justice Brett Kavanaugh, suggesting that he should have tried to intervene in the election as payback for the president standing by his nomination in 2018 in the face of sexual assault allegations. “I’m very disappointed in Kavanaugh,” he said.
Trump’s chagrin was evident in many of his answers. He emphasized his feelings of victimhood.
“I had two jobs: running our country, and running it well, and survival,” Trump said. “I had the Mueller hoax. I had the witch hunt. It’s one big witch hunt that’s gone from the day I came down the escalator,” a reference to his 2015 campaign launch event in the lobby of New York’s Trump Tower.
“Nobody’s ever gone through what I have,” Trump added. “They got me on all phony stuff.”
Trump found fault with most of his fellow Republican leaders, past and present. Still clearly vexed by the ghost of the late Arizona senator John McCain, Trump without prompting brought up the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, whom he had attacked for years.
“John McCain was a bad guy,” he said of the decorated prisoner of war. “He was a bully and a nasty guy, bad guy. A lot of people disliked him. Last in his class in Annapolis. All that stuff, but he was a bad guy. I say it to you. I don’t care. Does it affect me? I won Arizona, okay? By a lot. Didn’t turn out that way in terms of the vote, but I won Arizona. Everyone knows it. He didn’t affect me. I won the first time. I won it the second time.”
Trump, who in fact lost Arizona to Biden, continued with this fix. “You know, I did three rallies in Arizona,” he said. “I never had an empty seat.” Governor Doug Ducey, who withstood Trump’s pressure to overturn the result, was “not a loyal party member,” according to the former president. “I think Ducey is a terrible Republican,” he said. “Ducey did everything he could to block voter integrity, to block people from making sure the vote was accurate.”
Trump also complained about former House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he labeled a “super-RINO”-- Republican in name only. And he said Mitch McConnell has “no personality” nor a killer political instinct. He faulted McConnell for refusing to eliminate the filibuster to ram through Republican legislation and for not persuading Senator Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia, to switch parties.
“He’s a stupid person,” Trump said of McConnell. “I don’t think he’s smart enough.”
“I tried to convince Mitch McConnell to get rid of the filibuster, to terminate it, so that we would get everything, and he was a knucklehead and he didn’t do it,” Trump said.
Trump said he wished he had had partners in Congress like Meade Esposito, who was the head of the Democratic Party machine in Brooklyn from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Esposito, who was close to Trump and his late father, Fred Trump, was known for his patronage and commanded respect.
“Nobody would ever talk back to Meade Esposito. Meade Esposito didn’t have a RINO like a Mitt Romney, you know, or as I said, Ben Sasse, who’s a lightweight,” Trump said, invoking two Republican senators who sometimes criticized him. He added, “Mitch McConnell compared to Meade Esposito, it’s like a baby compared to a grownup football player with brains on top of everything else.”
Esposito had run a citywide patronage system that doled out important jobs to loyalists and people providing gifts and favors. The party boss gained a fearsome reputation for his intimidation tactics and connections to organized crime. Amid an investigation of his work, Esposito retired in 1983; he was convicted of offering a gratuity and interstate travel charges in 1987.
Other presidents attend to philanthropic interests, write memoirs, and curate presidential libraries after leaving office. But not Trump. Many of his Palm Beach days have followed the tempo and style he set back in Washington, a reflection of his addiction to the twenty-four-hour news cycle and appetite to maintain political relevance. In the morning hours, he spends time alone in his private quarters watching television and making phone calls to allies and friends. Many days he plays a round of golf at one of his nearby clubs. And in the afternoons, he puts on his suit, applies his makeup, and emerges for meetings with whichever politicians or acolytes have made the pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago. By early 2021, Trump had turned his club into a political base camp for his potential comeback.
Trump made no secret of his interest in perhaps running for president in 2024. Would he choose Pence again as his running mate?
“Well, I was disappointed in Mike,” Trump said. “But, you know, I’ll be making a decision at some point. I will say this: Based on the polls, those polls are great, the Republican Party loves Trump. Ninety-seven percent!”
When we pointed out that Pence is said to be interested in running for president, too, Trump seemed to welcome the competition. “It’s a free country, right?” he said. “It’s a free country.”
But Trump all but ruled out running with Chris Christie, who had been runner-up to Pence in his 2016 veepstakes, and Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, who had criticized Trump’s attempts to subvert the vote in repeated interviews with Tim Alberta of Politico.
“Chris has been very disloyal, but that’s okay,” Trump said. “I helped Chris Christie a lot. He knows that more than anybody, but I helped him a lot. But he’s been disloyal.”
As for his former ambassador, Trump said he was rebuffing her outreach. “Nikki Haley wants to come here so badly,” he said. “She did a little nasty couple of statements... She has been killed by the party. When they speak badly about me, the party is not happy about it. It’s pretty amazing. There’s not been anything like this.”
Over the years, Trump rarely has expressed misgivings. But he regrets his response to protests last summer in Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and other cities. “I think if I had it to do again, I would have brought in the military immediately,” he said.
Trump had no such second thoughts about his handling of the pandemic. He said he had been “very tough” in protecting the country by restricting travel, first from China and then from Europe. He said he did so against the wishes of his top medical advisers; in fact, most of them agreed with the restrictions before he made his decision, according to participants in the discussions and their contemporaneous notes. But he correctly said he pushed scientists at the FDA “at a level that they have never been pushed before” to get vaccines approved in record time.
“I think we did a great job on COVID and it hasn’t been recognized,” Trump said, noting that other countries saw spikes in COVID-19 infections in the months after he left office. “The cupboards were bare. We didn’t have gowns. We didn’t have masks. We didn’t have ventilators. We didn’t have anything...We brought in plane loads. We did a great job.”
When we asked Trump why he encouraged people to believe things that weren’t true or to distrust science and the media, he delighted in talking about the scientific smarts in his family’s genes.
“First of all, I’m a big person,” he said. “Do you know this? My uncle, Dr. John Trump, I think he was at [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] longer than any other professor. Totally brilliant man. He had numerous degrees. So that’s in the genes. I always go with that stuff. But it’s a little bit in the genes and Dr. John Trump, he was a great guy. My father’s brother. No, I’m a big believer in science. If I wasn’t, you wouldn’t have a vaccine. It depends. Are you talking about disinformation or are you talking about lies? There is a more beautiful word called disinformation.”
When we pressed him on whether a president should be expected to be honest all the time, given his long record of exaggerating successes, downplaying pitfalls, and spreading misinformation, Trump said, “I want to be somebody that’s optimistic for our country. I think it’s very important.”
Trump ridiculed Anthony Fauci as a self-promoter and lamented the doctor’s popularity. He said the widespread praise for Fauci was undeserved, and mocked Fauci’s frequent request of people to call him by his first name.
“A highly overrated person,” Trump said. “He’s a nice guy. I got along great with him. ‘Please call me Tony,’ I call him. ‘Please call me Tony.’ He’s a great promoter, but he was wrong on everything.”
Trump also trashed Deborah Birx and said she was far too restrictive.
“She was a lot of work, a real diva with the scarves and shit,” he said.
“If it were up to her, we wouldn’t be meeting tonight. This place would be totally closed. You wouldn’t have three hundred people having dinner outside and schools open. If it were up to her, everything would be closed forever.”
“She’s a woman I always liked, but in the end I jettisoned her and I didn’t take her advice,” he said, adding: “She loves publicity almost as much as Fauci. I got some real beauties.”
Trump credited himself with turning government officials into household names, but said it also had a negative consequence. The incredible excitement of his administration, he said, drove media interest in chronicling disputes and differences of opinion among his staff, creating a false impression that his administration was chaotic.
“You have people that have never been stars before and all of a sudden the Washington Post is calling. New York Times is calling. CNN would love to have lunch with you. ‘Come up and meet our editorial staff!,’” Trump said. “All of these people are calling. You are a regular person in government. If you were [in the] Jimmy Carter [administration], you’re not calling these people. If you were [in the] Bush [administration], you’re not calling these people. With Trump, everybody becomes a star. I’m the greatest star-maker in history.”
Our interview with Trump was scheduled for one hour but stretched to two and a half. His press secretary chimed in every thirty minutes to let him know how long we had been speaking and to give him an opening to end it, but Trump seemed to enjoy the conversation and kept talking.