The Divider is the latest in what has become a procession of books about the Trump presidency, but there are reasons to think it arrives right on time.
Even after several Cabinet-level advisors, family members and former staff at various levels have unloaded their recollections, and after some of the biggest names in journalism have weighed in, the husband-and-wife team of Peter Baker and Susan Glasser still tell a story that insists on attention like a fresh wound.
Donald Trump may have lasted only four years in the White House but, unlike other one-term presidents, his era and aura seem unending. His grip on the Republican Party appear as viselike as ever, his insistence on his pre-eminence unabated. He cannot even acknowledge that he lost, and insists he has a right to act as if he hadn’t. And more than a third of the country professes to believe him.
The threat to democracy detailed in these pages did not begin with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, nor did it end there. As the authors of The Divided themselves conclude in their Epilogue, Trump “emerged from a seven-million-vote defeat, two impeachments and the January 6 insurrection as the dominant force in the Republican Party.”
And, as they observe a few pages earlier: “With Donald Trump, it was never over.”
At this juncture, the only question about his running again in 2024 seems to be the date of his official announcement. That is ultimately why such a look back at his term seems as much a look forward to what may be in store.
Baker and Glasser were leading lights at the Washington Post before moving on to The New York Times and The New Yorker, respectively. They have written two previous well-received histories, on Russia’s Vladimir Putin (Kremlin Rising) and America’s James A. Baker III (The Man Who Ran Washington).
In taking on Trump, this team is less obsessed with nuggets of news or undisclosed revelations about Trump’s actions and words while in office. That lode has been mined and, well, in at least a dozen previous works including the hugely popular trilogies by revered reporter Bob Woodward and renowned magazine profiler Michael Wolff. Such salvos have been booming out from big-name authors since early 2018.
Baker and Glasser have a different aim here, and they have produced the first comprehensive look at the full four years as a one-volume history worthy of being called a chronicle. Weighing in at more than 650 pages, the text and notes are daunting to behold.
As a sumptuous feast of astonishing tales, it may hold wonderments indeed for those first contemplating the enormity of the Trump phenomenon. For them, this could be like a child’s first encounter with Harry Potter or an adolescent’s first taste of Tolkien.
But even a reader steeped in years of Trump coverage and well-versed in the precedent literature may be surprised at how compelling this narrative proves to be. The more one reads, the more one wishes to read.
Beginning with Day One
The authors begin with Trump’s first day in the Oval Office, Jan. 20, 2017, the day of the inaugural address that became known as the “American carnage” speech. Upon first entering the Oval, Trump is reported to have been pre-occupied with the quality of the light available for picture taking.
This leads to a discussion of Trump’s careerlong obsession with appearances in general and his own in particular, asking aides: “‘How’s the look.”
The new president, we are told, “wanted to project himself as the hero America had been waiting for, a strong man for troubled times… Were these merely the weird quirks of a vain septuagenarian? Or the menacing affectations of an aspiring dictator?”
Through this and 31 additional chapters, the authors leave little doubt as to their own conclusion. Their tour of the four years hits upon nearly every incident a reader is likely to recall of Trump’s term from the effort to bar arrivals in the U.S. from predominantly Muslim countries to the government shutdown for the sake of a border wall to Trump’s final refusal to attend the inauguration of his successor.
Each chapter has a title that may jog the memory, including Trump’s reference to the top Pentagon brass as “My Generals,” his boasting “I like conflict” and his mocking references to “Russia, Russia, Russia” — his derisive way of conjuring the “witch hunt” into Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign.
They then walk us through a recounting of Trump’s non-stop controversies and crises from the initial effort to ban entrants from predominantly Muslim countries in his first days in office to his final flailing efforts to somehow derail the process of his removal from office, including January 6 and the still-festering sore of his refusal to concede.
Along the way are many touchpoints that seem further back in time than they actually are. Was it just five years ago Trump was erecting legal walls against entrants from Muslim countries and trying to build a real one from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico? Or that he fired FBI Director James Comey, triggering the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the rise of Attorney General Bill Barr and the neutering of Mueller’s report?
We return to all these moments through the eyes of those who participated, trying to restrain the president while carrying out his wishes — trying to meet his constant loyalty tests while honoring their larger commitments to the law, the Constitution and the country.
We learn that some of these officials were in nearly constant turmoil over their Trump-induced conflicts. Examples include Cabinet members Kirstjen Nielsen at Homeland Security and Alex Azar at Health and Human Services, who it is reported agreed to a “suicide pact” by which they would resign together if Trump reinstated the family separation policy instituted by his hardline immigration adviser Stephen Miller.
Nielsen said if she wrote a book about her time serving Trump she would call it Honey, Just Do It — the form his instructions to her often took.
In an alert to issues that have remained salient since Trump left office, the authors devote multiple chapters to the immigration saga, including the elevation of Miller to a kind of ex officio status as the issue’s “czar” within the White House. Miller is quoted talking of his “coronation” and his eagerness to “go full Napoleon” on that front. We also see Trump’s demand for the wall lead to the shut down of much of the federal government for five weeks in early 2019.
Inevitably, several chapters are devoted to the Mueller probe and the frustration that grew from Attorney General Bill Barr’s efforts to interpret it and hide the unredacted original.
The chapters are grouped into sections that do not quite coincide with the four years of the term, in part because two of the five sections are devoted to the protracted struggles of 2020 — first with COVID and then with the results of the election. In both cases, Trump simply refused to accept the reality that confronted him — whether the lethality of the virus or the verdict of the voters.
Much of this is familiar from news accounts, although it is still arresting to see how many people were telling Trump his approach to the pandemic was not only wrong factually but politically wrong-headed. Not only did his informal confidant Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, tell him so, First Lady Melania Trump did too.
“You’re blowing this,” they are reported to have said. But Trump remained unmoved. Whether dealing with the pandemic or the Electoral College, Trump simply insisted he knew better — better than the doctors, better than the election administrators in his own party.
It catches up to him in both instances. Not only does he contract COVID himself, he makes the election a kind of referendum on his handling of it. Not only does he refuse to concede his re-election loss, he risks the general confidence of the public in the democratic process. The nation’s losses due to COVID may have peaked, but the damage from the electoral denial may have only begun.
Heroes and villains
The Divider is a rushing torrent of anecdotes and recollections. A reader may plunge in at any point and pull up a pail of Trump at full tilt.
At the White House in those final weeks, the more realistic of Trump’s inner circle were doing what defeated presidential staffers have always done. They were heading out to find new jobs and make a new plan. In their wake arrived a band of reality spurning denialists who camped out in the Oval Office and persuaded Trump he could ignore the voters, the Electoral College and the peaceful transfer of power.
Baker and Glasser present a clear contrast between heroes and villains in Trump’s ambit, in those final days. Preeminent among the heroes is Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who lends his full rank and prestige in blocking any use of the armed services to overturn the election and keep Trump in office. Milley will be familiar to readers of earlier Trump histories, as the general appears to have been a major source for several authors.
There are also salient figures among the post-election villains, such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and conspiracy-minded lawyer Sidney Powell. And then there is the former Army general Michael Flynn, convicted of lying to the FBI about his foreign contacts but pardoned by Trump. Flynn inserts himself in the White House late in 2020, arguing for imposition of martial law.
Mark Meadows, the last of Trump’s four chiefs of staff, comes off as a pleaser who told all sides what they wanted to hear — that the president was getting more realistic and ready to leave office, or on the contrary that he was ready to fight and keep fighting.
In every case we see individuals whose careers or professional standing had been made, renewed or greatly enhanced by their association with a president. And we see how each of them clung to that rocket even as it returned disastrously to earth.
Critique of method
Like other authors of Trump books, Baker and Glasser have faced criticism regarding anecdotes they might have withheld from publication in real time so as to enrich their book-length offerings (and themselves) in the longer run. That is one reason both authors have emphasized that The Divider is based entirely on the research they did after Trump left office, including nearly 300 interviews. Two of those interviews were with Trump himself, at Mar-a-Lago, and they are extensively reported here.
It has also been said that the focus in these Washington tomes is too much on power plays and power players, with scant attention to the actual policies pursued by the Trump administration or the impact they had on the government and the people. The authors have responded that there are other books devoted to the real-world ramifications of the Trump term, and there will doubtless be many more.
There also remains the question of media responsibility for the rise of Trump, whose fixation on media was surely reciprocated on virtually every platform — whether hostile or supportive. By making Trump the focal point of 2016, the media surely aided in his ascent. Some would prescribe a corrective moratorium on all future discussions of the man and his mania, which seems neither possible nor desirable.
Others maintain the media erred by not reporting on Trump enough, or with enough seriousness, in the earliest phases of his political ascendance. That particular indictment seems to have been answered many times over, even if after the fact. The Divider stands as the latest testament to that resolve.
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