“Walking along the edge of the cliff perpetually.” Rob Porter, White House staff secretary.
It is a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.
“Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.” Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump in an interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa on March 31, 2016.
In Bannon’s evaluation, Trump was Archie Bunker, but a really focused Archie Bunker.
Interviews for this book were conducted under the journalist ground rule of “deep background.” This means that all the information could be used but I would not say who provided it. The book is drawn from hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand participants and witnesses to these events. Nearly all allowed me to tape-record our interviews so the story could be told with more precision. When I have attributed exact quotations, thoughts or conclusions to the participants, that information comes from the person, a colleague with direct knowledge, or from meeting notes, personal diaries, files and government or personal documents.
President Trump declined to be interviewed for this book.
In early September 2017, in the eighth month of the Trump presidency, Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs and the president’s top economic adviser in the White House, moved cautiously toward the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
In his 27 years at Goldman, Cohn, 6 foot 3, bald, brash and full of self-confidence, had made billions for his clients and hundreds of millions for himself. He had granted himself walk in privileges to Trump’s Oval Office, and the president had accepted that arrangement.
On the desk was a one-page draft letter from the president addressed to the president of South Korea, terminating the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement, known as KORUS.
Cohn was appalled. For months Trump had threatened to withdraw from the agreement, one of the foundations of an economic relationship, a military alliance and, most important, top secret intelligence operations and capabilities.
Under a treaty dating back to the 1950s, the United States stationed 28,500 US. troops in the South and operated the most highly classified and sensitive Special Access Programs (SAP), which provided sophisticated Top Secret, codeword intelligence and military capabilities. North Korean ICBM missiles now had the capability to carry a nuclear weapon, perhaps to the American homeland. A missile from North Korea would take 38 minutes to reach Los Angeles.
These programs enabled the United States to detect an ICBM launch in North Korea within seven seconds. The equivalent capability in Alaska took 15 minutes, an astonishing time differential.
The ability to detect a launch in seven seconds would give the United States military the time to shoot down a North Korean missile. It is perhaps the most important and most secret operation in the United States government. The American presence in South Korea represents the essence of national security.
Withdrawal from the KORUS trade agreement, which South Korea deemed essential to its economy, could lead to an unraveling of the entire relationship. Cohn could not believe that President Trump would risk losing vital intelligence assets crucial to US. national security.
This all stemmed from Trump’s fury that the United States had an $18 billion annual trade deficit with South Korea and was spending $3.5 billion a year to keep U.S. troops there.
Despite almost daily reports of chaos and discord in the White House, the public did not know how bad the internal situation actually was. Trump was always shifting, rarely fixed, erratic. He would get in a bad mood, something large or small would infuriate him, and he would say about the KORUS trade agreement, “We’re withdrawing today.”
But now there was the letter, dated September 5, 2017, a potential trigger to a national security catastrophe. Cohn was worried Trump would sign the letter if he saw it.
Cohn removed the letter draft from the Resolute Desk. He placed it in a blue folder marked “KEEP.”
“I stole it off his desk,” he later told an associate. “I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”
In the anarchy and disorder of the White House, and Trump’s mind, the president never noticed the missing letter.
Ordinarily Rob Porter, the staff secretary and organizer of presidential paperwork, would have been responsible for producing letters like this to the South Korean president. But this time, alarmingly, the letter draft had come to Trump through an unknown channel. Staff secretary is one of the low-profile but critical roles in any White House. For months, Porter had been briefing Trump on decision memos and other presidential documents, including the most sensitive national security authorizations for military and covert CIA activities.
Porter, 6-foot-4, rail-thin, 40 years old and raised a Mormon, was one of the gray men: an organization man with little flash who had attended Harvard and Harvard Law School and been a Rhodes Scholar.
Porter later discovered there were multiple copies of the draft letter, and either Cohn or he made sure none remained on the president’s desk.
Cohn and Porter worked together to derail what they believed were Trump’s most impulsive and dangerous orders. That document and others like it just disappeared. When Trump had a draft on his desk to proofread, Cohn at times would just yank it, and the president would forget about it. But if it was on his desk, he’d sign it. “It’s not what we did for the country,” Cohn said privately. “It’s what we saved him from doing.”
It was no less than an administrative coup d’e’tat, an undermining of the will of the president of the United States and his constitutional authority.
In addition to coordinating policy decisions and schedules and running the papenwork for the president, Porter told an associate, “A third of my job was trying to react to some of the really dangerous ideas that he had and try to give him reasons to believe that maybe they weren’t such good ideas.”
Another strategy was to delay, procrastinate, cite legal restrictions. Lawyer Porter said, “But slow-walking things or not taking things up to him, or telling him rightly, not just as an excuse, but this needs to be vetted, or we need to do more process on this, or we don’t have legal counsel clearance, that happened 10 times more frequently than taking papers from his desk. It felt like we were walking along the edge of the cliff perpetually.”
There were days or weeks when the operation seemed under control and they were a couple of steps back from the edge. “Other times, we would fall over the edge, and an action would be taken. It was like you were always walking right there on the edge.”
Although Trump never mentioned the missing September 5 letter, he did not forget what he wanted to do about the trade agreement. “There were several different iterations of that letter,” Porter told an associate.
Later in an Oval Office meeting, the South Korean agreement was being heatedly debated. “I don’t care,” Trump said. “I’m tired of these arguments! I don’t want to hear about it anymore. We’re getting out of KORUS.” He started to dictate a new letter he wanted to send.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, took Trump’s words seriously. Jared, 36, was a senior White House adviser and had a self-possessed, almost aristocratic bearing. He had been married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka since 2009.
Because he was sitting closest to the president, Jared started writing down what Trump was saying, taking dictation.
Finish the letter and get it to me so I can sign it, Trump ordered him.
Jared was in the process of turning the president’s dictation into a new letter when Porter heard about it.
“Send me the draft,” he told him. “If we’re going to do this, we cannot do it on the back of a napkin. We have to write it up in a way that isn’t going to embarrass us.”
Kushner sent down a paper copy of his draft. it was not of much use. Porter and Cohn had something typed up to demonstrate they were doing what the president had asked. Trump was expecting an immediate response. They wouldn’t walk in empty-handed. The draft was part of the subterfuge.
At a formal meeting, the opponents of leaving KORUS raised all kinds of arguments, the United States had never withdrawn from a free trade agreement before; there were legal issues, geopolitical issues, vital national security and intelligence issues; the letter wasn’t ready. They smothered the president with facts and logic.
“Well, let’s keep working on the letter,” Trump said. “I want to see the next draft.”
Cohn and Porter did not prepare a next draft. So there was nothing to show the president. The issue, for the moment, disappeared in the haze of presidential decision making. Trump got busy with other things.
But the KORUS issue would not go away. Cohn spoke to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the retired Marine general who was perhaps the most influential voice among Trump’s cabinet and staff. General Mattis, a combat veteran, had served 40 years in the Corps. At 5-foot-9 with ramrod-straight posture, he had a permanently world-weary demeanor.
“We’re teetering on the edge,” Cohn told the secretary. “We may need some backup this time.”
Mattis tried to limit his visits to the White House and stick to military business as much as possible, but realizing the urgency he came to the Oval Office.
“Mr. President,” he said, “Kim Jong Un poses the most immediate threat to our national security. We need South Korea as an ally. It may not seem like trade is related to all this, but it’s central.”
American military and intelligence assets in South Korea are the backbone of our ability to defend ourselves from North Korea. Please don’t leave the deal.
Why is the US. paying $1 billion a year for an antiballistic missile system in South Korea? Trump asked. He was furious about the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, and had threatened to pull it out of South Korea and move it to Portland, Oregon.
“We’re not doing this for South Korea,” Mattis said. “We’re helping South Korea because it helps us.”
The president seemed to acquiesce, but only for the moment.
In 2016, candidate Trump gave Bob Costa and myself his definition of the job of president: “More than anything else, it’s the security of our nation. . . . That’s number one, two and three. . . . The military, being strong, not letting bad things happen to our country from the outside. And I certainly think that’s always going to be my number-one part of that definition.”
The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader. Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses. It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.
What follows is that story.
In August 2010, six years before taking over Donald Trump’s winning presidential campaign, Steve Bannon, then 57 and a producer of right-wing political films, answered his phone.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” asked David Bossie, a longtime House Republican investigator and conservative activist who had chased Bill and Hillary Clinton scandals for almost two decades.
“Dude,” Bannon replied, “I’m cutting these fucking films I’m making for you.”
The 2010 midterm congressional elections were coming up. It was the height of the Tea Party movement and Republicans were showing momentum.
“Dave, we’re literally dropping two more films. I’m editing. I’m working 20 hours a day” at Citizens United, the conservative political action committee Bossie headed, to churn out his anti-Clinton films.
“Can you come with me up to New York?”
“ For what?”
“To see Donald Trump,” Bossie said.
“He’s thinking of running for president,” Bossie said.
“Of what country?” Bannon asked.
No, seriously, Bossie insisted. He had been meeting and working with Trump for months. Trump had asked for a meeting.
“I don’t have time to jerk off, dude,” Bannon said. “Donald Trump’s never running for president. Forget it. Against Obama? Forget it. I don’t have time for fucking nonsense.”
“Don’t you want to meet him?”
“No, I have no interest in meeting him.” Trump had once given Bannon a 30-minute interview for his Sunday-aftemoon radio show, called The Victory Sessions, which Bannon had run out of Los Angeles and billed as “the thinking man’s radio show.”
“This guy’s not serious,” Bannon said.
“I think he is serious,” Bossie said. Trump was a TV celebrity and had a famous show, The Apprentice, that was number one on NBC some weeks. “There’s no downside for us to go and meet with him.”
Bannon finally agreed to go to New York City to Trump Tower.
They rode up to the 26th floor conference room. Trump greeted them warmly, and Bossie said he had a detailed presentation. It was a tutorial.
The first part, he said, lays out how to run in a Republican primary and win. The second part explains how to run for president of the United States against Barack Obama. He described standard polling strategies and discussed process and issues. Bossie was a traditional, limited-government conservative and had been caught by surprise by the Tea Party movement.
It was an important moment in American politics, Bossie said, and Tea Party populism was sweeping the country. The little guy was getting his voice. Populism was a grassroots movement to disrupt the political status quo in favor of everyday people.
“I’m a business guy,” Trump reminded them. “I’m not a professional ladder-climber in politics.”
“If you’re going to run for president,” Bossie said, “you have to know lots of little things and lots of big things.” The little things were filing deadlines, the state rules for primaries, minutiae. “You have to know the policy side, and how to win delegates.” But first, he said, “you need to understand the conservative movement.”
“You’ve got some problems on issues,” Bossie said.
“I don’t have any problems on issues,” Trump said. “What are you talking about?”
“First off, there’s never been a guy win a Republican primary that’s not pro-life,” Bossie said. “And unfortunately, you’re very pro-choice.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have a record of giving to the abortion guys, the pro-choice candidates. You’ve made statements. You’ve got to be pro-life, against abortion.”
“I’m against abortion,” Trump said. “I’m pro-life.”
“Well, you’ve got a track record.”
“That can be fixed,” Trump said. “You just tell me how to fix that. I’m-what do you call it? Pro-life. I’m pro-life, I’m telling you.”
Bannon was impressed with the Showmanship, and increasingly so as Trump talked. Trump was engaged and quick. He was in great physical shape. His presence was bigger than the man, and took over the room, a command presence. He had something. He was also like a guy in a bar talking to the TV. Street-smart, from Queens. In Bannon’s evaluation, Trump was Archie Bunker, but a really focused Archie Bunker.
“The second big thing,” Bossie said, “is your voting record.”
“What do you mean, my voting record?” “About how often you vote.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well,” Bossie said, “this is a Republican primary.”
“I vote every time,” Trump said confidently. “I’ve voted every time since I was 18, 20 years old.”
“That’s actually not correct. You know there’s a public record of your vote.” Bossie, the congressional investigator, had a stack of records.
“They don’t know how I vote.”
“No, no, no, not how you vote. How often you vote.”
Bannon realized that Trump did not know the most rudimentary business of politics.
“I voted every time,” Trump insisted.
“Actually you’ve never voted in a primary except once in your entire life,” Bossie said, citing the record.
“That’s a fucking lie,” Trump said. “That’s a total lie. Every time I get to vote, I voted.”
“You only voted in one primary,” Bossie said. “It was like in 1988 or something, in the Republican primary.”
“You’re right,” Trump said, pivoting 180 degrees, not missing a beat. “That was for Rudy.” Giuliani ran for mayor in a primary in 1989. “Is that in there?”
“I’ll get over that,” Trump said.
“Maybe none of these things matter,” Bossie said, “but maybe they do. If you’re going to move forward, you have to be methodical.”
Bannon was up next. He turned to what was driving the Tea Party, which didn’t like the elites. Populism was for the common man, knowing the system is rigged. It was against crony capitalism and insider deals which were bleeding the workers.
“I love that. That’s what I am,” Trump said, “a popularist.” He mangled the word.
“No, no,” Bannon said. “It’s populist.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Trump insisted. “A popularist.”
Bannon gave up. At first he thought Trump did not understand the word. But perhaps Trump meant it in his own way, being popular with the people. Bannon knew popularist was an earlier British form of the word “populist” for the nonintellectual general public.
An hour into the meeting, Bossie said, “We have another big issue.”
“What’s that?” Trump asked, seeming a little more wary.
“Well,” he said, “80 percent of the donations that you’ve given have been to Democrats.” To Bossie that was Trump’s biggest political liability, though he didn’t say so.
“There’s public records,” Bossie said.
“There’s records of that!” Trump said in utter astonishment.
“Every donation you’ve ever given.” Public disclosure of all political giving was standard.
“I’m always even,” Trump said. He divided his donations to candidates from both parties, he said.
“You actually give quite a bit. But it’s 80 percent Democratic. Chicago, Atlantic City . . .”
“I’ve got to do that,” Trump said. “All these fucking Democrats run all the cities. You’ve got to build hotels. You’ve got to grease them. Those are people who came to me.”
“Listen,” Bannon said, “here’s what Dave’s trying to say. Running as a Tea Party guy, the problem is that’s what they are complaining about. That it’s guys like you that have inside deals.”
“I’ll get over that,” Trump said. “It’s all rigged. It’s a rigged system. These guys have been shaking me down for years. I don’t want to give. They all walk in. If you don’t write a check . . .”
There was a pol in Queens, Trump said, “an old guy with a baseball bat. You go in there and you’ve got to give him something, normally in cash. If you don’t give him anything, nothing gets done. Nothing gets built. But if you take it in there and you leave him an envelope, it happens. That’s just the way it is. But I can fix that.”
Bossie said he had a roadmap. “It’s the conservative movement. Tea Party comes and goes. Populism comes and goes. The conservative movement has been a bedrock since Goldwater.”
Second, he said, I would recommend you run as if you are running for governor in three states, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. They were the first three caucus or primary states. “Run and sound local, like you want to be their governor.” A lot of candidates made the huge mistake of trying to run in 27 states. “Run three governor’s races, and you’ll have a really good shot. Focus on three. Do well in three. And the others will come.”
“I can be the nominee,” Trump said. “I can beat these guys. I don’t care who they are. I got this. I can take care of these other things.”
Each position could be revisited, renegotiated.
“I’m pro-life,” Trump said. “I’m going to start.”
“Here’s what you’re going to need to do,” Bossie said. “You’re going to need to write between $250,000 and $500,000 worth of individual checks to congressmen and senators. They’ll all come up here. Look them in the eye, shake their hand. You’re going to give them a check. Because we need some markers. You’ve got to do one-on-ones so these guys know. Because later on, that’ll be at least an entry point that you’re building relationships.”
Bossie continued, “Saying, this check is for you. For $2,400”, the maximum amount. “It’s got to be individual checks, hard money, to their campaign so they know it’s coming from you personally. Republicans now know that you’re going to be serious about this.”
All the money, Bossie said, was central to the art of presidential politics. “Later that’s going to pay huge dividends.” Give to Republican candidates in a handful of battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.
In addition, Bossie said, “You’re going to have to do a policy book. You ought to do a book about what you think about America and these policies.”
Bannon gave an extended brief on China and its successful efforts to take jobs and money from the United States. He was obsessed with the threat.
“What do you think?” Bossie later asked Bannon.
“I’m pretty impressed with the guy,” Bannon said. As for running for president, “Zero chance. First off, those two action items. The fucker will not write one check. He’s not a guy who writes checks. He signs the back of checks” when they come in as payments to him. “It was good you said that because he’ll never write a check.”
“What about the policy book?”
“He’ll never do a policy book. Give me a fucking break. First off, nobody will buy it. It was a waste of time except for the fact that it was insanely entertaining.”
Bossie said he was trying to prepare Trump if he ever did decide to run. Trump had a unique asset: He was totally removed from the political process.
As they walked on, Bossie found himself going through a mental exercise, one that six years later most Americans would go through. He’ll never run. He’ll never file. He’ll never announce. He’ll never file his financial disclosure statement. Right? He’ll never do any of those things. He’ll never win.
“You think he’s going to run?” Bossie finally asked Bannon.
“Not a chance. Zero chance,” Bannon repeated.
“Less than zero. Look at the fucking life he’s got, dude. Come on. He’s not going to do this. Get his face ripped off.”
Six Years Later
It is almost certain that if events had not unfolded in the following unlikely, haphazard, careless way, the world would be vastly different today. Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination on July 21, 2016, and his quest for the presidency took a significant turn early the morning of Saturday, August 13, 2016.
Steve Bannon, now the chief of the right-wing Breitbart News operation, sat on a bench in Bryant Park in New York City and huddled with his newspapers, his Saturday ritual. He first thumbed through the Financial Times and then moved to The New York Times.
“The Failing Inside Mission to Tame Trump’s Tongue,” read the headline on the Times front page. The presidential election was three months away.
“Oh, my God,” Bannon thought.
The first act of the Bannon drama is his appearance, the old military field jacket over multiple tennis polo shirts. The second act is his demeanor, aggressive, certain and loud.
The reporters of the Times story said they had 20 Republican unnamed sources close to Trump or in communication with his campaign. The article painted Trump as bewildered, exhausted, sullen, gaffe-prone and in trouble with donors. He was in precarious condition in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, battleground states that would decide the election. It was an ugly portrait, and Bannon knew it was all true. He calculated that Trump could lose to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by perhaps as many as 20 points, certainly double digits.
Trump was a media spectacle for sure, but he still had no operation beyond what the Republican National Committee had supplied. Bannon knew the Trump campaign was a few people in a room, a speechwriter, and an advance team of about six people that scheduled rallies in the cheapest venues, often old, washed-out sports or hockey arenas around the country.
Despite that, Trump had won the Republican nomination over 16 others and was a big, profane, subversive presence, out front seizing the nation’s attention.
Bannon, now 63 years old and a Harvard Business School graduate with fervently nationalistic, America first views, called Rebekah Mercer.
Mercer and her family were one of the biggest and most controversial sources of campaign money in the Republican Party and money was the engine of American politics, especially in the Republican Party. The Mercers were a bit on the fringe but their money bought them a place at the table. They also had an ownership stake in Breitbart.
“This is bad because we’re going to get blamed for this,” Bannon told Mercer. Breitbart had stood by Trump in his darker hours. “This is going to be the end of Breitbart.”
“Why don’t you step in?” Rebekah said.
“I’ve never run a campaign in my life, Bannon replied. Not even close. The idea was preposterous.
“This guy Manafort’s a disaster,” she said, referring to the Trump campaign manager, Paul Manafort. “Nobody’s running the campaign now. Trump listens to you. He’s always looking for adult supervision.”
“Look,” Bannon said, “I’ll do it in a second. But why would he do that?”
“He’s been an outsider the entire time,” she said, and mentioned the New York Times article. “This thing’s in panic mode.” In short, Trump might hire Bannon because he was desperate.
The Mercers contacted Trump, who was going to be at the East Hampton, Long Island, home of Woody Johnson, the New York Jets owner, for a fundraiser. Normally the Mercers wrote the checks and said they didn’t even need to see the candidate. This time they wanted 10 minutes with Trump.
In a small sunroom, Rebekah, a tall redhead, let loose. Her father, Bob Mercer, a high-IQ mathematician, barely talked. He was one of the brains behind a fabulously successful hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, that managed $50 billion.
“Manafort has got to go,” she told Trump. She said it was chaos.
“What do you recommend?” Trump asked.
“Steve Bannon will come in,” she said.
“He’ll never do it.”
He “definitely” would, she answered.
Bannon reached Trump that night. “This thing is embarrassing in the paper,” Bannon said, referring to the New York Times piece. “You’re better than this. We can win this. We should be winning this. It’s Hillary Clinton, for God’s sake.”
Trump went off on Manafort. “He’s a stiff,” he said. He can’t do TV effectively.
“Let’s meet tomorrow and put this thing together. We can do this,” Bannon gushed. “But let’s keep it totally quiet.”
Trump agreed to meet the next morning, Sunday.
Another worried political figure that day was Reince Priebus, the 44-year-old chairman of the Republican National Committee, and a Wisconsin lawyer. Priebus had been Mr. Outreach and Mr. Networker in his five years as chairman. His cheery demeanor masked an empire builder. Priebus made the party’s finance decisions, hired the field staff of 6,500 paid workers, appeared on TV regularly and had his own communications operation. He was in an awkward position.
Privately, Priebus viewed the month of August as a catastrophe. “A constant heat lamp that wouldn’t go away.” And the person responsible was candidate Trump.
Priebus had tried to navigate the campaign from the beginning. When Trump called Mexicans “rapists” in the speech announcing his candidacy on June 16, 2015, Priebus called him and said, “You can’t talk like that. We’ve been working really hard to win over Hispanics.”
Trump would not tone it down, and he attacked anyone who attacked him. No national party chairman had ever dealt with a headache quite like Trump.
Senator Mitch McConnell, the wily Republican majority leader, had called Priebus confidentially. His message: Forget Trump, divert Republican money to us, the Senate candidates, and shut off the money faucet to Donald Trump.
But Priebus wanted to preserve a relationship with Trump, and he decided to plant himself firmly in the middle between Trump and McConnell. It was tactically sound, he thought. Survival for the party and him. He had told Trump, “I’m with you 100 percent. I love you. I’m going to keep working for you. But I have to protect the party. I have a responsibility that’s different than just you.”
Priebus had agreed to come out and campaign with Trump and introduce him at rallies. He saw it as extending a hand to a drowning man.
The Times article about the failure to tame Trump was a jolt. “Holy shit!” Priebus thought. This is really bad stuff.” The campaign was falling apart. “It wasn’t a campaign,” he had concluded. “They were a joke.”
There was so much talking in the Times article that Priebus realized the 20 sources were either trying to sabotage the campaign or, as usual, make themselves look good.
Perilous times, maybe the worst, for Trump and the party, Priebus thought. There was only one path forward: escalation on all fronts. Maximize aggression to conceal vital weakness.
That Sunday morning, Steve Bannon arrived at Trump Tower in Manhattan and told security he had a meeting with Mr. Trump.
“That’s terrific,” the security guard said. “He’s never here on weekends.”
Bannon phoned Trump.
“Hey,” the candidate explained, “I’m in Bedminster”, where Trump National Golf Club was located. “Since you’re not here, I’ll go play golf. Come out here, we’re having lunch. Be here, like, one o’clock.”
He proceeded to give detailed instructions for the drive 40 miles west of New York City.
“1’“ find it,” Bannon said.
No, turn right on Rattlesnake Bridge Road, then take a right for about a mile.
“I’ll find it. It’s your Trump National.”
No, Trump persisted, you’ve got to understand. Trump provided full driving instructions with more detail than Bannon had ever heard him give on anything.
Bannon had a driver take him to Bedminster to arrive at noon to make sure he was on time. Inside the clubhouse, he was shown to a table set for five.
You’re early, said someone from the staff. The others won’t be here until 1 pm.
The others? Bannon asked.
Roger Ailes, Governor Chris Christie and “the Mayor”, Rudy Giuliani-also were attending.
Bannon was pissed. He was not there to audition in front of anyone. He and Trump had agreed, made a deal which should not be reviewable.
Ailes, the founder and head of Fox News and longtime Republican political operative, going back to Richard Nixon, came in first. He had been a mentor to Bannon.
“What the fuck?” Ailes said, and launched into a criticism of the campaign.
“How bad are the numbers?” Bannon asked.
“This is going to be a blowout.”
“I talked to Trump last night,” Bannon said. “The Mercers talked to him. I’m supposed to be coming in and taking over the campaign, but don’t tell the other two guys that.”
“What the fuck?” Ailes said again. “You don’t know anything about campaigns.” It was out of the question.
“I know, but anybody could get more organized than this thing is.”
Though Bannon had known Ailes for years, he would not appear on Ailes’s Fox News network.
Bannon once said, “I’ve never been on Fox because I didn’t want to be beholden to him. . . . Never be beholden to Roger or he fucking owns you.”
This contrasted sharply with his relationship to Trump, who, in his view, was a supplicant. Trump had appeared on a series of Breitbart News Daily radio interviews with Bannon on SiriusXM between November 2015 and June 2016.
Ailes said they were there for their weekly debate prep. The first presidential debate against Hillary Clinton was a month and a half away, on September 26.
“Debate prep?” Bannon said. “You, Christie and Rudy?”
“This is the second one.”
“He’s actually prepping for the debates?” Bannon said, suddenly impressed.
“No, he comes and plays golf and we just talk about the campaign and stuff like that. But we’re trying to get him in the habit.”
Campaign manager Paul Manafort walked in.
Bannon, who regularly called himself “a fire-breathing populist,” was disgusted. Manafort was dressed in what could pass for yachting attire, with a kerchief. Live from Southampton!
Trump arrived and sat down. Hot dogs and hamburgers were laid out. The fantasy diet of an 11year-old kid, Bannon thought, as Trump wolfed down two hot dogs.
Citing the New York Times story about the failure to tame his tongue, Trump asked Manafort how such an article could appear. It was one of Trump’s paradoxes: He attacked the mainstream media with relish, especially the Times, but despite the full-takedown language, he considered the Times the paper of record and largely believed its stories.
“Paul, am I a baby?” Trump asked Manafort. “Is that what you are saying, I’m a baby? You’re terrible on TV. You’ve got no energy. You don’t represent the campaign. I’ve told you nicely. You’re never going on TV again.”
“Donald . . .,” Manafort tried to respond.
Bannon suspected this familiar, first-name, peer-to-peer talk irked Trump.
“One thing you’ve got to understand, Mr. Trump,” Bannon said, “the story had a lot of these unnamed sources, we don’t know the veracity.”
“No, I can tell,” Trump replied, directing his fire at Manafort. “They’re leakers.” He knew the quotes were true.
“A lot of this is not for attribution,” Bannon said. No one by name, all hiding. “The New York Times is, it’s all fucking lies. Come on, this is all bullshit,” Bannon continued his full-body, opposition-party pitch, though he knew the story was true.
Trump wasn’t buying it. The story was gospel, and the campaign was full of leakers. The assassination of Manafort continued for a while. Trump turned to a few war stories for half an hour. Manafort left.
“Stick around,” Trump told Bannon. “This thing’s so terrible. It’s so out of control. This guy’s such a loser. He’s really not running the campaign. I only brought him in to get me through the convention.”
“Don’t worry about any of these numbers,” Bannon said. “Don’t worry about the 12 to 16 points, whatever the poll is. Don’t worry about the battleground states. It’s very simple.” Two thirds of the country thinks we’re on the wrong track, and 75 percent of the country thinks we’re in decline, he argued. That set the stage for a change agent. Hillary was the past. It was that clear.
In a way, Bannon had been waiting all his adult life for this moment. “Here’s the difference,” he explained. “We’re just going to compare and contrast Clinton.
Here’s the thing you’ve got to remember,” he said, and recited one of his mantras: “The elites in the country are comfortable with managing the decline. Right?”
Trump nodded agreement.
“And the working people in the country are not. They do want to make America great again. We’re going to simplify this campaign. She is the tribune of a corrupt and incompetent status quo of elites who are comfortable managing the decline. You’re the tribune of the forgotten man who wants to make America great again. And we’re just going to do it in a couple of themes.
“Number one,” Bannon went on, “we’re going to stop mass illegal immigration and start to limit legal immigration to get our sovereignty back. Number two, you are going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country. And number three, we’re going to get out of these pointless foreign wars.”
These weren’t new ideas for Trump. In an August 8 speech to the Detroit Economic Club a week before, he had sounded all these notes and hammered Clinton. “She is the candidate of the past. Ours is the campaign of the future.”
“Those are the three big themes that she can’t defend against,” Bannon said. “She’s part of the thing that opened the borders, she’s part of the thing that cut the bad trade deals and let the jobs go to China, and she’s the neocon. Right?”
Trump seemed to agree that Hillary was a neoconservative.
“She’s supported every war out there,” Bannon said. “We’re just going to hammer. That’s it. Just stick to that.”
Bannon added that Trump had another advantage. He spoke in a voice that did not sound political. This was what Barack Obama had in 2008 in the primary contest against Clinton, who spoke like the trained politician she was. Her tempo was overly practiced. Even when telling the truth, she sounded like she was lying to you.
Politicians like Hillary can’t talk naturally, Bannon said. It was a mechanical way of speaking, right out of the polling and focus groups, answering the questions in political speak. It was soothing, not jarring, not from the heart or from deep conviction, but from some highly paid consultant’s talking points, not angry.
Trump said okay, you become the Chief Executive Officer of the campaign.
“I don’t want some big brouhaha story about palace intrigue,” Bannon said. “Let’s keep Manafort in as chairman. He’ll have no authority. Let me manage that.”
They agreed that Kellyanne Conway, a feisty, outspoken Republican pollster who was already helping the campaign, would be designated campaign manager.
“We’re going to put her on television every day as the female friendly face on the thing,” Bannon proposed. “Because Kellyanne is a warrior. And she’ll just take incoming. But people like her. And that’s what we need is likability.”
In a moment of self-awareness, he added, “I’ll never be on TV.”
Conway had never run a campaign either. That made three of them, the shiny neophyte candidate, the campaign CEO and the campaign manager.
Kellyanne Conway was supervising the filming of some campaign ads that month.
“Am I paying for these people?” Trump asked her.
He complained about the camera setup. The equipment seemed old and he didn’t like the lighting.
The shoot wasn’t high-definition (HD). He groused about the camera crew. “Tell them I’m not going to pay.” It was a standard line.
Later he said, “I want everyone to leave except Kellyanne.”
“Everybody tells me that I’m a much better candidate than Hillary Clinton,” he said, half-asking for her evaluation.
“Well, yes, sir. No poll necessary.” But they could do some things different. “You’re running against the most joyless candidate in presidential history. And it’s starting to feel like we are that way as well.”
“No we’re not.”
“It just feels that way. I used to watch you during the primaries, and you seemed much happier.”
“I miss the days when it was just a few of us flying around doing the rallies, meeting the voters,” Trump said.
“Those days are gone,” she acknowledged. “But in fairness to you, we should be able to replicate them to a general election strategy and process that allows you to maximize those skills and the enjoyment.”
She took a stab at candor. “You know you’re losing? But you don’t have to. I’ve looked at the polls.” CNN that day had him down five to 10 points. “There’s a path back?
“What is it?”
She beiieved that he had done something without realizing it. “This fiction of electability that was sucking the lifeblood out of the Republican Party,” that somehow he could not win and was not electable.
The voters were disillusioned with Republican presidential nominees. These arguments went, “You have to get behind Mitt Romney. He’s the only one who can win. You have to support John McCain. He can win. Jeb can win. Marco can win. This one,” Trump, you, “can’t win. The people decided. I will not be fooled again,” and he had won the Republican nomination.
“You get these massive crowds where you have not erected a traditional political campaign. You have built a movement. And people feel like they’re part of it. They paid no admission. I can tell you what I see in the polling. We have two major impediments.” She said they should never do national polling, ever. “That is the foolishness of the media,” which did national polls. Winning obviously was all about the electoral college, getting the 270 electoral votes. They needed to target the right states, the roughly eight battleground states.
“People want specifics,” Conway said. It had been great when Trump released his 10-point Veterans Administration reform plan in July, or a planned fivepoint tax reform plan. “People want those kinds of specifics, but they need them repeated again and again.
“The second vulnerability I see is people want to make sure you can actually make good on your promises. Because if you can’t deliver, if the businessman can’t execute and deliver, you’re just another politician. And that’s who you’re not.”
It was a sales pitch, a path forward that Trump seemed to embrace.
“Do you think you can run this thing?” he asked.
FEAR. Trump in the White House
by Bob Woodward
get it at Amazon.com