Peril: Book Review
Peril (2021), Woodward and Costa; Woodward seems to know everyone in Washington and get them on the record. This story tells the end of the Trump presidency and the first Few months of the Biden presidency. They seem to go out of their way to avoid criticizing anyone, except Trump and Biden (presumably the only two players they could not interview). This review covers only a few of the people and events described in the book, hopefully the most important.
A good introduction was actually in the Epilogue, on Trump 2020 versus Trump 2016:
An outsider: Antiestablishment. A businessman. A builder. Bombastic. Confident. A fast-talking scrapper. But we also say the darkness. He could be petty. Cruel. Bored by American history and dismissive of governing tradition that had long guided elected leaders. Tantalized by the prospect of power. Eager to use fear to get his way. ‘Real power is …fear,’ Trump told us. … Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power? Peril remains (p. 417).
The Prologue starts with JCS Chairman General Mark Milley calling his Chinese counterpart Li Zuocheng that there would be no military action against China to keep Trump in power in 2020 after January 6. Given the uncertainty, China, Iran and Russia (and likely others) were on high alert: “Trump was routinely impulsive and unpredictable … in a hair-trigger environment” (p. xiv). Military was the riots “a coup attempt and nothing less than treason … a Reichstag moment” (p. xvii). Milley tried to limit Trump’s potential damage, calling it “pulling a Schlesinger” (Nixon’s Defense Secretary). … “Milley was self-righteous and relished proclaiming his independence. But nothing prepared him for Trump” (p. 24).
“On January 20, Biden sat through Trump’s stark ‘American carnage’ inaugural address” (p. 16). Biden was upset by the white supremacists 2017 march in Charlottesville and Trump claiming fault on both sides, “moral equivalence; there were very fine people on both sides.” Biden tweeted: “There is only one side.” This could be the moment Biden decided to run for president. Paul Ryan, then Republican Speaker of the House was also caught off-guard: “Ryan began to research how to deal with someone who is amoral and transactional … [and] to understand what narcissistic personality disorder is [and] how to best deal with a person with anti-social personality disorder. … Ryan’s main takeaway: Do not humiliate Trump in public” (p. 6). Thus, Trump’s disjointed behavior, erratic decisions and anger about any perceived slights. Trump thought himself a genius, not likely to listen to anyone.
Trump nominated William Barr to be his next attorney general at the end of 2018. “Barr was one of the strongest advocates for the executive power of the president, and he was a firm supporter of Trump’s policies, tax cuts and deregulation” (p. 26). Robert Mueller finished his report in March, 2019. “On the critical question of whether Trump had obstructed justice, Mueller wrote one of the most convoluted lines in the history of high-profile investigations: ‘While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him’” (p. 29). Actually, this was okay for Trump. Trump caused another upheaval when he called Ukrainian prime minister Zelensky in mid-2019, essentially threatening to cut off aid unless he brings up dirt on Hunter Biden.
Biden did poorly in the early 2020 primaries, turning it around in South Carolina with the endorsement of Jim Clyburn. After that, it was a primary landslide for Biden. Clyburn also suggested to keeping his speeches short and simple. Covid changed his campaign plans, mainly staying at home and using Zoom. That actually worked well, as letting Trump torpedo his message increased Biden’s poll numbers; letting Trump run against himself, like injecting bleach to fight covid. Jim Clyburn expected Biden to pick a black female running mate; Biden obliged by picking Kamala Harris. This was considered historical and politically savvy.
Adenovirus-based vaccines enable cells to produce spike proteins that build up antibodies, used by J&J. Messenger RNA activates immune responses by giving cells instructions to make spike protein; the mRNA can be changed as variants pop up. Biden was getting daily updates; Trump did whatever Trump does.
A bright spot for Trump was Operation Warp Speed to get a vaccine produced quickly, with federal funding for producing millions of doses. Clinical trials still took time for FDA approval. Trump was unhappy, but knew next to nothing about how the FDA operated. Trump would flaunt masks and social distancing and got covid in October, as did some 34 White House staffers, plus Secret Service people. Attempts to push Trump to normality proved futile. Pfizer would announce its vaccines were 90% effective. He could have been a vaccine superstar, but chose to rail against vaccines, mask mandates, all other measures to fight the pandemic.
After George Floyd was killed, protests escalated. Trump called them: “arsonists, thugs, anarchists, bad people. Very dangerous people. These are very well-organized. Antifa’s leading it” (p. 86). According to Milley’s daily reports on domestic unrest, about 93% of the protests were peaceful. Trump called for “a law-and-order crackdown at Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020: “we have to control the streets” (p. 93). This happened about 6:30 pm; the protests were peaceful, but the police used riot control tactics. Trump made virtually the entire cabinet including Milley to walk with him to get his picture taken in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a Bible, a well-photographed moment. Esper told Milley, “we’ve been duped” (p. 94). Milley peeled off, but his reputation was hurt because this was a political moment. He publicly apologized (without telling Trump). Trump said it was a sign of weakness. Milley responded: ‘Where I was born and how I was raised is when you make a mistake, you admit it’” (p. 197).
Trump ordered the pullout from Afghanistan. First was talk about Iran, beginning with options then costs which would be severe. As Milley said: “It’s easy to get into a war. But it’s hard to get out of a war” (p. 105). World War I started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914; but there were several assassinations that did not trigger war. The outcome was uncertain; that war was good for no one.
A Tulsa rally was planned for June 2020. First, it was criticized became of the attack of destruction of the black community 100 years earlier, then few people showed up apparently caused by teenagers ordering tickets then not showing up.
Milley expected riots if Trump won in 2020 and claims of fraud if he lost. This was the drumbeat on Fox News. Giuliana was a primary participant. Other countries were on edge about an unstable Trump—he would not disappoint, fortunately without going to war. There was a Trump-to-Biden movement because of covid among many voters.
2020 was a close election, but the AP called it for Biden on November 4. Electors formally cast their votes on December 14, with 306 going to Biden, 232 to Trump. January 6 was when Congress would formally count the electoral votes.
Trump’s legal team was filing lawsuits as part of post-election strategy. Giuliani created connect-the-dots conspiracy theories: 27 affidavits, then 80, then 270. Giuliana and Sidney Powell held a press conference. Vanity Fair had this headline: “Rudy Giuliana’s hair dye melting off his face was the least crazy part of his batshit-crazy press conference” (p. 163). Powell claimed Dominion voting machines were part of a global communist conspiracy with money from Venezuela, Cuba and China—with absolutely no evidence [and facing a future lawsuit by Dominion]. Allegations of systematic fraud were made in Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Barr investigated with FBI and Homeland Security, which showed that Dominion’s machines were all but impossible to cheat with. Of course, the Trump team lost all the suits because the judges expected real evidence; even Alito rejected their claims.
Lindsey Graham and Biden had been friends and Biden claimed he had the best instincts in the Senate. [Too bad about the hypocrisy and sucking up to Trump.] He did try to convince Trump he lost. Graham and Mike Lee investigated fraud allegations, like voting dead people. It turned out that some people had voted, then died later in the year. They found no real evidence of wide-spread fraud. [Texas would later find 53 cases of fraud; probably all unintentional, but they were all prosecuted anyway.]
The Trump team hatched out another desperate attempt to hang onto the presidency, to get Pence to refuse to certify the electors on January 6 and turn the decision over to the House of Representatives, where the votes were by state and Republicans controlled 26 states. Pence phoned Dan Quayle for advice who said no flexibility exists. Josh Hawley among others would object to certification. Lawyer John Eastman had a detailed plan for how to make this work.
Law enforcement and the Pentagon caught intelligence on potential violence on January 6. After Lafayette Square, they did not want more violence and vastly underestimated the risks. [The US seems to suffer a substantial number of intelligence failures.] The feeling was the existing police could control the crowd. Milley expected a routine day. Then the Trump rally. Giuliana called for trial by combat. Trump: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. … We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated” (p. 240). Then the mob marched to the Capitol. By 1:30 a riot started. They were in the building by 2, shouting “Hang Mike Pence.” Congressional leaders were escorted out. Others were not so lucky and many stuck in the building. Hawley had his fist raised outside the Capitol. The chambers went into lockdown and most members escorted out. McConnell called Milley: “We are looking for help.”
Trump was watching the riot on TV from the White House. When minority leader McCarthy called Trump, his response was: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are” (p. 248). Ivanka tried to intervene. Trump eventually tweeted: “I am asking for everyone at the US Capitol to remain peaceful” (p. 249). Biden took the stage in Wilmington and said: “At this hour, our democracy is under unprecedented assault. This is not dissent. It’s disorder” (p. 251). The military was not excited about moving in. National Guard and other troops eventually arrived and order restored. The Senate returned to it chamber after 8 pm. It was at 3:40 am that Pence announced that Biden was certified the winner. Milley and others recognized domestic terrorism as a major threat. “Had January 6 been a dress rehearsal” (p. 415)?
Also on January 6, Georgia announced that Ossoff and Warnock both won, given Democrats 50 seats in the Senate, meaning changes were possible with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress. However, 50 does not overcome a filibuster and Manchin and Sinema would cause additional problems.
After January 20, Republican politicians started paying homage to Trump at Mar-a-Lago, included House minority leader Kevin McCarthy. Note that he had gone through the January 6 riot in the building and had said that Trump bore the responsibility for the riot. Graham also visited. New Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene spouted QAnon conspiracies on social media.
Trump had done a good job of developing the vaccine, but the plan was to let the states figure out the distribution. In other words, the Trump team had done a poor job of getting people vaccinated. Biden needed to increase supply, distribute and acquire sites to give the shots. They also planned to extend unemployment benefit, provide stimulus checks and increase nutrition programs. Congress had passed a stimulus plan in December.
Biden had a $1.9 trillion plan before his inauguration to combat the pandemic and economic slump. McConnell noted his “long game,” sit and wait. McConnell could work with Biden, but as “closers.” Senator Susan Collins got a group of 10 Republicans to work on Biden’s plan and came back with a $618 billion alternative. They met in the White House and reached little if any compromise; there was no attempt at counteroffers. Biden ultimately rejected their offer and the two groups took away extremely different versions of the meetings. Both thought the other group met in bad faith. Obama had been “rolled” when he tried to compromise with Republicans early in his presidency. Biden and his team felt similar, that the Republicans were not serious. “I just met with them and I don’t get any sense that there is really a seriousness there” (p. 329).
Collins and her team thought it was all show by Biden; she expected a counteroffer: “’It’s a really bad move. … Our offer was very sincere—and it wasn’t the final offer.’ Collins was always explaining why Biden was wrong, in a really nice way” (p. 331). The new Biden bipartisanship was now policy appealing to voters, both Democrat and Republican. Sanders “believed the Democratic Party was increasingly too cozy with the elites, the educated class with power and connections. He was looking for that Scranton vein, not the Ivy League” (p. 330).
Biden wanted to end the Afghan war. Of course, he felt the same way as vice president, when the military insisted on a surge. There were 25 NSC meetings. Either Biden was way to picky or it was “a textbook example of how foreign policy decisions should be made. Biden’s primary argument … was the mission had shifted from its original intent” (p. 337). Initially it was to route out Al Qaeda, then expanded into nation-building. Question: what is the mission? Biden saw it as a civil war. The Pentagon options were: “execute an orderly withdrawal of all troops … or an indefinite US troop presence” (p. 339). That would more-or-less stabilize the government.
Lindsey Graham apparently wanted relevance. “No other president had brought Graham inside like Trump. And the relationship also gave him increased visibility in the news and inside the GOP. He was a fixture on television, especially Fox” (343). Trump wanted revenge on the “disloyal, irredeemable traitors” like Liz Cheney. Trump was angry with most Republicans for some slight or other. Lewandowski made the point that “Trump … did not seem to get that Republican leaders were self-interested” (p. 345).
There is an analysis of passing the Biden legislation, what should be included and at what magnitude, mainly Democratic moderates verses progressives, mainly in the Senate. At least they usually compromised in the end. With a bare majority, every senator was “a tall pole in the tent. … The tallest pole remained Joe Manchin” (p. 351). Much of it was Manchin versus the House progressives. Changes were made, but the bill eventually passed in March. Particularly aggravating to Clyburn and others was the voting rights bill, after many states were increasing voter suppression. To pass, they would have to drop the filibuster. Manchin would not agree.
Biden proceeded to reverse many Trump policies, returning to the WHO, improving NATO and European Union connections, returning to the Paris Accords on climate change. He wanted to return to the Iran nuclear deal, but this would be difficult and still unresolved.
The military returned to the Afghan withdrawal, including the worst-case scenarios: civil was with the Taliban expands, Kabul and other cities eventually fall meaning the fall of the Afghan state and a massive refugee exodus. The military wanted another year (something they had said before), which the Taliban opposed and threatened to return to war against the US. Question: if not now, when? [This proved to be a massive intelligence failure, but the book went to press before that debacle.]