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'I Alone Can Fix It' Chronicles Trump's Chaotic Final Year In Office

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In January of 2020 - a lifetime ago, it feels like. So much has happened since - I sat down with two of Washington's most seasoned political reporters, Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker of The Washington Post. They had a book out about the first three years of the Trump presidency, which was all we had at that point. And I ended our book interview asking whether the fourth year of that presidency was likely to look much different from what had come before. Well, Rucker took the question. He said, no, probably not, except if the president was feeling under siege.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PHILIP RUCKER: When he feels up against a wall and under siege, we've seen him again and again lash out, do sometimes self-destructive actions. And there's a possibility, of course, that as we get closer to the November election, some of those characteristics will come into the fore.

KELLY: Phil Rucker, a possibility those characteristics will come to the fore.

RUCKER: And how real that was, Mary Louise. You know, the beginning of 2020, Trump faced his first true crisis. And that, of course, was the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. And what we saw and what Carol and I reported in this - these deeper interviews for our new book is that the characteristics of President Trump's management style that were so evident from Day 1 - his mismanagement, his chaos, his cruelty - they had downright deadly consequences in this fourth and final year because of the pandemic. And time again, we saw that Trump put his personal and political fortunes ahead of the country that he was elected to lead.

KELLY: Well, as you can hear, we have got Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig back on the line because they have got an update - a new book. "I Alone Can Fix It" is the title of their chronicle of the final year of Trump's presidency.

Carol, president - former President Trump would not give you an interview for the last book. For this one, he did. He's actually one of the very few people on the record in this book. Why do you think he wanted to talk to you?

CAROL LEONNIG: You know, I think the answer is right in front of our faces. President Trump likes an audience. He was out of office. He lost an important series of platforms in a one, two, three punch. He was no longer able to issue proclamations from the South Lawn or come out into the driveway and talk to reporters every day, which he would want to do. And he was also off Twitter. As he said goodbye to us, Mary Louise, or as he greeted us outside Mar-a-Lago on his dining table, he said, I have a sickness maybe, but I really enjoyed it. I mean, he knows that we're hard-edged reporters. He knows that our work is not going to be an effort to flatter him. It's going to be to provide facts. But he wants to provide his facts. And while they don't square with reality many times, he wants to get out his version of reality, and we share it.

KELLY: One of the most interesting figures, to me, that emerges on these pages is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley - interesting in part because he's one of the few people still at the same job he was doing then. He's still chairman today. How close does Milley believe the country came to a coup, to non-democratic forces taking control there right at the end of the Trump presidency?

RUCKER: Very close. You know, our reporting shows that Milley became increasingly on edge after the election. He saw parallels to the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s in Germany. He thought America might be on the cusp of something very dangerous. He thought Trump could potentially execute a coup in order to stay in power, despite losing the election. And actually, at Biden's inauguration, he got a chance to interact with Barack and Michelle Obama, the former president and former first lady. And they were wearing masks, of course, because of COVID. But Milley said to Michelle Obama, I'm smiling under my mask, because he felt such a relief that the Trump presidency was over.

KELLY: There's great detail in here. There's all kind of anecdotes I hadn't heard. But did you learn something, anything that fundamentally changed your measure of the man or of his presidency?

LEONNIG: I think we absolutely were stunned every time we sat down with another person. You know, we are rigorous and excruciating in our reporting for The Washington Post, to give the public the answers that they need in real time. But when we went back, we found even more in that archaeological dig. So, for example, to me, I had no idea how upset Bill Barr was with the president over key issues. Phil and I also were stunned to learn about the military's fear.

Towards the end of 2020, all of the Joint Chiefs started meeting together to talk about a plan to try to block President Trump from his worst impulses, and those were to use the military to burnish his own image as a tough guy or create a sense of chaos that consolidated his power. Those Joint Chiefs met and started plotting basically the reverse of a Saturday Night Massacre. What shall we do? Serially resign one by one to basically keep him from getting his hands on the levers of the military.

KELLY: You two have a bestseller on your hands already, and you don't even publish till tomorrow. What does that tell us about the appetite for Trump news, that after more than four years of him utterly dominating the news cycle, people still seem to want more? Phil.

RUCKER: You know, Mary Louise, this was a presidency like no other, and the year 2020 was a year like no other for all of us. We've all lived it. And he's no longer in office, but I think the demand for this new reporting and to read this book tells you that this is not just history. This is current events. Donald Trump remains the most powerful figure in the Republican Party today. He's talking about running for president again in 2024. If the primaries were held tomorrow, he would probably be the Republican nominee. And so understanding what really went on behind the scenes in 2020 is so essential in thinking about the future of Republican politics and in thinking about, you know, what could really happen if he were to get elected and serve another term as president. And, you know, a lot of the people who served with him are frankly pretty fearful of that possibility.

KELLY: Carol, I wonder, too, if it's partly all of us are still trying to process what we just lived through. This book - in a way, it's almost like therapy to read it and have somebody trying to document and make sense of it.

LEONNIG: Well, I'm so glad you said that because that is exactly what Phil and I had as our goal, and Penguin Press as well - to make sense of it. You know, you are so right that you remember key moments. But what was going on behind the scenes? What motivated it? What allowed the president to basically get away with a lot of authoritarian moves that many, many students and scholars of American history thought would be impossible? You know, as Milley told some of his aides, the good story here is that democracy did hold. But it was tested, and I think one of the stunning things is how close it came to going off the rails - something I also didn't know when we began this reporting. It was much more fragile than we realized.

KELLY: Investigative reporter Carol Leonnig and senior Washington correspondent Phil Rucker of The Washington Post talking about their book chronicling Donald Trump's final year as president. It's titled "I Alone Can Fix It," and it's out tomorrow. Thanks to you both.

RUCKER: Thank you so much.

LEONNIG: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAMATIK'S "MUY TRANQUILO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.