“He’s Blown the Barriers Off the System”: Katie Interviews Two Veteran Reporters About Their Deep Dive Into the Trump Administration

Trump walking down a red carpet

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A new book, The Divider, reveals shocking details about the 45th president.

Peter Baker, New York Times chief White House correspondent and New Yorker columnist Susan Glasser have nearly 60 combined years of Washington reporting. And most recently, they turned their journalistic lens on a figure who might be one of the most controversial in politics in the last century.

The duo’s latest jointly written book is called The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021. It’s a meticulous deep dive into the Trump administration based not only on their time covering candidate Trump and President Trump, but also on more than 300 original interviews, including two sessions with the former president himself. Katie sat down with Baker and Glasser to learn about the reporting process, hear about interviewing Trump himself at Mar-a-Lago, and learn about the lasting legacy that The Donald has had on the world.

Katie Couric: Were you worried that the world didn’t need another book about Donald Trump? 

Peter Baker: We were a little trepidatious because there are really good journalists out there who spend a lot of time looking at Donald Trump. But our book is a little different, because it’s about the four years of his presidency. Nobody’s taken that on before. The media can write a lot about January 6, which is super important. But to understand January 6 2021, you really have to understand January 20 2017 and everyday that came in between. It was a four-year war on the institutions of Washington in the United States. So we thought it was worth going back and doing something different.

How difficult was it to get 300 people to spill the beans?

Susan Glasser: It was a wild ride for the people who experienced this presidency from the inside. Donald Trump basically had a conveyor belt in and out of the White House and the Cabinet, the likes of which we’ve never seen — the turnover was breathtaking. I was just reflecting the other day how we’re nearly two years into the Biden presidency, and there’s none of this crazy coming-and-going. Donald Trump was an outlier in many things. But there were a lot of potential sources for this book because there were so many people who cycled in and out of his world.

PB: I think they did want to talk. They were so eager to finally unload. Some people came to our house and they sat there for hours, unburdening themselves. In some cases, they were trying to wash their reputation. They were trying to justify, explain, and make people think better of them. But in a lot of ways, it’s just a way of talking about an experience that was so traumatic for them, and trying to make sense of it themselves.

Who are some of the characters you met? 

SG: Without his enablers, Trump is just another angry old dude shouting at the television in between golf games. So it’s the enablers’ story, too. When you look at the incredible, unprecedented struggles between the White House and Donald Trump and the senior leadership of the US military, that is a story that I think is more fully told and reported in this book than has been previously known. It’s not just the catastrophic ending of the presidency in 2020, with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and his very public rift with Donald Trump. It actually goes all the way back to the very first first encounters with what Trump calls “my generals.” 

There was James Mattis, the defense secretary. Retired Four Star Marine General John Kelly, another very eminent retired general who becomes his second White House Chief of Staff. Then you have H.R. McMaster, the brawny three-star army general who becomes his second national security adviser. And by the way, McMaster is feuding to an extreme degree with Jim Mattis and John Kelly in a way that empowers Donald Trump. Trump is the divider. He divides his own aides. He divides his family. He exacerbates divisions in the country. That, to us, was a major theme.

At the same time, he was kept from doing really outrageous things that he thought were within his purview. That indicates a complete lack of knowledge about law, ethics, historical precedents, and about the role of the President of the United States. It indicates such ignorance about our existing institutions that it seemed almost unfathomable.

PB: One of his own aides told us he knew almost nothing about most things. He asked at one point, “How do I declare war?” 

Exactly. He wanted institutions of government that were mainly the apolitical institutions — like the law enforcement system, the military, the intelligence agencies, the healthcare industry — to suit his own needs, goals, and interest in his own political desires. He didn’t understand when people told him, “No, you can’t do that.” When they told him that, he would simply try to find other people who would go along.

Does that reveal his lack of basic knowledge of civics and government experience?

PB: It’s the combination of ignorance and arrogance that really sets Donald Trump apart. There have been presidents who were inexperienced before: Like Bill Clinton about foreign affairs, or Barack Obama only having a few years of Washington experience as a junior senator under his belt. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Donald Trump is the first and only president in American history who never served a single day in government or the military before becoming president. But people were prepared to tutor. 

There’s this incredible scene in the book, the very first meeting with his top national security officials in the Situation Room in the White House. The idea is to go around the world and fill in the new president on everything: Here’s the situation with Russia, here’s the situation with China, here’s the situation with Afghanistan.” The meeting was a disaster. Donald Trump had no intention of listening, no interest in listening. Trump was talking about how much money South Korea charges his hotels for their televisions. In the first national security meeting of his presidency, things went so poorly that Reince Priebus, the hapless first Chief of Staff, said afterwards that he gathered a bunch of the participants and said, “We better go to my office and figure out what the hell just happened here.” They go to his office. Joe Dunford — a Four Star Marine General who at that time was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — said, “Don’t panic. We just need to get to know him. We’ll try to understand a little bit more what the Trump doctrine in foreign policy is all about.” Jared Kushner, at this time, obviously not much more experienced than Donald Trump himself, interrupts the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He said, “That’s not going to happen. That’s not how this is going to work, guys.” The really remarkable thing is that Jared Kushner was absolutely right. Donald Trump was never going to change. Washington was just unprepared from day one for a president who had no interest. It wasn’t that he was ignorant, it was that he didn’t care.

Your book talks about North Korea and Iran. Were those the most serious foreign-policy situations that might’ve had terrible consequences when it came to foreign policy, under President Trump?

PB: All this talk originally about fire and fury with North Korea really petrified some of the people around him, including John Kelly, the Four Star Marine General. He was so worried that they had actually stumbled into a nuclear war, so he encouraged Trump to do the kind of diplomacy that he later did. The love affair he ultimately had with Kim Jong Un, that wouldn’t have been exactly how John Kelly would have done it. But he felt it was better if the President tried to negotiate than to get into a war by accident. There are other examples. He always talked about trying to have missile strikes against specific Iranian sites. His military guys told him “We don’t have the legal authority to do that. That would be a war crime, if we did that.” That’s the kind of thing he kept pushing.

What was the most shocking thing you learned during your exhaustive reporting? 

SG: There are a lot of extraordinary moments: Things like John Kelly secretly purchasing a book called The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, which talked about his narcissistic personality disorder, in order to understand the wacky boss in the Oval Office. In three decades of reporting in Washington, I have never experienced anything like when we found that out. 

We understood the true nature of the fear — by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley — that Donald Trump constituted the most serious national security threat to the country. This is totally uncharted territory. There was a meeting between Mark Milley and Mike Pompeo, perhaps one of the most obsequious of the Trump officials. Pompeo is alarmed after the election when Trump is not conceding, and he fires the Defense Secretary on November 9 and installs this team of loyalists with a very murky agenda. Mike Pompeo comes rushing over to Mark Milley’s house at Fort Myer, at 9 o’clock at night, sits at his kitchen table and says, “The crazies have taken over.” 

We obtained a document that has no precedent: The resignation letter that Mark Milley wrote but did not send to Donald Trump in the aftermath of that disastrous Lafayette Square photo op. In the letter, Mark Milley calls the President of the United States a “grave and irreparable threat” to the country. He says that he is ruining “the international order.” He says he believes that Donald Trump does not subscribe to many of the values and principles that this country fought for in World War II. We knew in a general sense that there was this fundamental conflict between Trump and the generals, but the language there is just so extraordinary.

I know Donald Trump a little bit and he can be very gregarious and charming. What was his affect at Mar-a-Lago? Was he his petty, defensive self? Did he try to schmooze you? 

PB: He tried to be a hotel maitre d’ in affect, but the rest of the conversation then quickly devolved into name-calling of people he doesn’t like. He insisted that the election was stolen. Of course, it wasn’t. No matter what question you asked him, he kept bringing it back around to that topic, because that’s what he wanted to talk about. For a historian or a journalist who’s trying to write a history book, you realize he’s not a reliable witness. You can’t ask him, “What happened in this meeting? Who said what? What decision was made?” 

He’s not going to tell you the truth. He sometimes contradicts himself within the same interview. At one point, he says about January 6, he told us “I wanted to go to that Capitol with my protesters, but the Secret Service wouldn’t let me.” And then about 60 seconds later he says, “I never told the Secret Service that I wanted to do that.” Then, about 60 seconds later, he said that the Secret Service wouldn’t let him do that. He can’t even stay consistent within the few minutes of an interview. For a journalist or historian, it’s a perplexing and challenging environment.

SG: I’ve heard him described as charming before, but he certainly was not charming in our interactions with him. He’s not like fire-breathing. He’s not shouting. But yet, when you actually listen to what he’s saying, it’s a live-action version of his Twitter feed. He’s slinging insults at random people. He insulted Mitch McConnell. He was incapable of even uttering a straightforward sentence. It was basically a monologue in which we were occasionally interjecting.

Do you think he’s in denial about all the trouble he’s in? Did you get a sense that he felt like the walls were closing in on him?

SG: There was a pathos to Trump at Mar-a-Lago. We visited him in the spring of 2021 and in November 2021. These latest rounds of investigations had metastasized, but he was not feeling it then. He was seeking a crowd that had shrunken to his paying customers. After our interview in the hotel lobby of Mar-a-Lago, he entertains the crowd at a poolside fundraiser that his kids are sponsoring. Then he comes up to dinner. This is almost a nightly spectacle — they have his table behind a red velvet rope, as if anyone’s going to take it. All the people interrupt their dinners, stand up, and give him a standing ovation. He waves to them as if it’s a crowd of thousands. But it’s a small handful of paying customers. So there was an element of pathos. But I recognize that the political moment has shifted again.

PB: I think that he does feel like he’s gotten away with so many things before. He’s gotten out of so many different traps. He’s a political Houdini. But he may not be able to get out of it this time. We’ll see what happens.

The New York Times wondered if you had given Donald Trump enough credit for the accomplishments during his administration.

PB: We do talk about his accomplishments, but the most important thing that makes him an outlier is this idea that he was trying to upend traditions and norms that we’ve had for 246 years, particularly since the Watergate era. I think it’s more important to talk about what makes him unique and what makes him consequential in American history. 

Has Donald Trump done irreparable damage to American institutions? 

SG: This is the key question. However, we don’t know how the story ends. Until we know how the story ends, it’s very hard to know what the lasting impact will be. Donald Trump revealed the weaknesses, liabilities, fault lines, fissures, and the potential for even more catastrophic weaknesses in our institutions. We never even knew that January 6 could be weaponized on behalf of one individual who didn’t like the results of the election. Donald Trump has revealed a large number of previously unseen weaknesses in our institutions that, if not addressed, will be very dangerous. On the international stage, he has undercut the perception of American power in ways that I find will be almost impossible for a future president to overcome unless we really recoup into a much more bipartisan foreign policy very quickly. Who’s going to trust the word of the United States when Barack Obama makes a nuclear deal, and Donald Trump throws it back out? And that applies even to Joe Biden. If the Democrats lose the house and potentially the Senate in this fall’s election, what kind of a superpower can we possibly be on the world stage?

Trump provided a blueprint for behavior and strategy that results in unbridled and dangerous populism. That’s another legacy of the Trump administration. 

PB: He’s blown the barriers off the system in a way that didn’t exist before. People are watching him and realizing that they can get away with things that they would otherwise never do. Some of them are even going further. He’s created precedence.