Covering President Donald Trump has been a marathon for Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig, reporters for The Washington Post who have catalogued some of that work in their bestselling book, “A Very Stable Genius,” published in January.
Rucker and Leonnig interviewed more than 200 sources working in and around the Trump White House for their book. They joined author David Maraniss at Cap Times Idea Fest this week to discuss "Stable Genius" and what they’ve learned as Trump’s presidency has continued through 2020.
Looking ahead to Nov. 3, the public should take Trump’s rhetoric questioning the integrity of the election and the peaceful transition of power seriously, Rucker and Leonnig said. His statements deliberately parallel his 2016 approach, Rucker said.
“It’s the exact same tactic but on steroids and on overdrive,” Rucker said. “We’ve learned through four years of his presidency to take this presidency at his word. When he makes statements like that, they are deliberate.”
Federal institutions, including the Department of Justice, are also monitoring Trump’s statements on election integrity and the transition of power, trying to prepare for what might happen in the days following Nov. 3, Leonnig said. Many institutions that the public would have expected to rebuff Trump and intervene have not, she said.
“They have not held up well in the past three-and-a-half years to very specific threats,” she said. The DOJ has a “slew of prosecutors who question themselves every day about whether they should resign over undue influence of politics” in the department.
Filling a U.S. Supreme Court seat immediately following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this month has been the “crown jewel” in what Senate Republicans have been waiting for in their long push to turn the ideological tide of the court, Rucker said.
“It’s the reason why (Senate Republicans) didn’t stand up to Trump for so many times and it’s the reason they voted to acquit him in the impeachment trial and it’s the reason they’re holding their nose right now because they want to get these judges on the bench,” he said.
The court will consider the Affordable Care Act soon after the election, further underlying the impetus for filling the seat quickly.
“This is just a strategy and calculation by the Republican Senators, even if the cost is the Trump presidency,” Rucker said.
Maraniss noted that the reporters’ book discusses two types of people in the Trump administration: those who think Trump is out to save the world and those who are trying to save the world from Trump.
“Which one is dominant?” he asked.
There were a large number of people who joined the Trump administration who were very supportive of Trump’s ideology and believed in what he was saying, Leonnig said. But over time, that pool has dwindled, according to their reporting.
“Over time they grew distraught and ultimately some of them were repulsed by what they saw in the Oval Office,” she said.
They were replaced largely with “yes men and yes women,” Leonnig said.
“That is one of the most concerning things in this administration now,” she said. “There is nobody telling him ‘No’ anymore.”
For Rucker and Leonnig, the mission of their book was to catalogue history, to take a step back from their fast-paced day-to-day reporting to consider a wider view.
“It was moving so fast that we had to take a break, hit the pause button and… tell this story that was so consequential,” said Leonnig, who has covered several presidential administrations.
“It’s gobsmacking” how different covering Trump is, she said. She and Rucker began with reporting what was historic and unusual but then went behind the scenes to see what they could learn.
It is a type of reporting pioneered by Bob Woodward, Rucker said. As they dug in and peeled back the layers, they got more in-depth accounts of horrifying things the president had said, according to some of his former and current aides.
According to their reporting, Rucker and Leonnig said they learned the extent to which Trump watched TV, absorbing what was said about him, obsessing over how he was portrayed and frequently calling conservative political commentator Sean Hannity. Trump would also lash out at aides when he didn’t feel he got the star attention he deserved, Rucker said.
He also was constantly talking about how to ensure his base was fed, and what would make them feel supported, Leonnig said.
On the pandemic especially, it has become clear that Trump has put his personal interest and stakes ahead of national security and the country’s interests, Rucker said.
Trump "doesn’t particularly have morals or (an) ethical grounding. He care about winning, retaliating against enemies. He cares about making money,” Rucker said.
Jared Kushner, Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law, has led the government response to this pandemic and is “in over his head,” Rucker said.
“This is all according to our reporting... he was in charge of ventilators and PPE which was a problem initially,” he said. “He is also responsible for the testing challenges the country has had. He has not prioritized a national testing strategy … which public health experts say is a detriment to the country’s ability to limit the spread of this virus.”
Both Leonnig and Rucker said covering this president has been challenging in some ways in how they practice journalism, but agreed the fundamentals they’ve always relied on remain the same.
“These Trump years haven’t changed how I think about journalism, they have crystallized for me how what we do as journalists fits into this experiment in democracy in this country,” Rucker said. “In the Trump years it has really made it clear how us finding out this information is so critical and could change the course of history… and that has been really gratifying and really raises the stakes for our profession and for what we do every day.
"I never had this kind of clarifying sense of mission that I have now.”
There has been no president like him in Leonnig’s lifetime that has challenged the press like he has, she said. But, she said, they approach the work as they always have and carefully vet information. There are many tips and unflattering pieces of information about Trump they have chosen not to publish because they could not vet it, she said.
“We are still doing our work the same way we have always done it, the old school way,” Leonnig said. “We are not going to change our threshold for accuracy just because the president has made us an enemy and is campaigning against us. We are not campaigning against him. We are simply trying to deliver the truth all the time.”
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