About the Book by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser Titled “The Divider: Trump in the White House 2017-2021

From a New York Times review by David Greenberg of the book by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser titled “The Divider: Trump in the White House 2017-2021”:

“His job wasn’t to get things done but to stop certain things from happening, to prevent disaster.” This line from Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s detail-rich history of the Trump administration, “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021,” technically applies to his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. But in truth it describes any of several dozen beleaguered helpmates to the former president, whose propensity for petulant rage kept Washington in a fit of indignation and the White House in a mode of perpetual damage control for the better part of four years. Comprehensively researched and briskly told, “The Divider” is a story of disasters averted as well as disasters realized.

Squeezing the tumultuous events of the long national fever dream that was the Donald Trump presidency between two covers — even two covers placed far apart, as is the case with this 752-page anvil — would tax the skills of the nimblest journalist. Yet the husband-and-wife team of Baker and Glasser pull it off with assurance. It’s all here: the culture wars and the corruption, the demagogy and the autocrat-love, the palace intrigue and the public tweets, the pandemic and the impeachments (plural).

To be sure, asking readers in 2022 to revisit the Sturm und Drang of the Trump years may seem like asking a Six Flags patron, staggering from a ride on the Tsunami, to jump back on for another go. But those with strong stomachs will find a lot they didn’t know, and a lot more that they once learned but maybe, amid the daily barrage of breaking-news banner headlines, managed to forget.

Baker, The New York Times’s chief White House correspondent,and Glasser, a staff writer at The New Yorker, are the perfect pair to write this book, with a combined 60 years of Washington reporting experience and two other jointly authored books to their names. (I know both of them through professional circles; when Glasser edited Politico Magazine, she hired me to write a history column.) For a book produced so quickly, they draw on an impressively broad array of materials: hundreds of original interviews, reams of contemporary daily journalism, and an already-fat library of memoirs and journalistic accounts of the Trump years, including those by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, and Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin.

Even while cataloging Trump’s most outrageous behaviors, Baker and Glasser strive to maintain a professional, dispassionate tone: analytical but not polemical. Inevitably, however, their low opinion of Trump shines through, occasionally garnished with a soupçon of snark. Of the president’s curiosity about whether nuclear bombs might deter tropical storms, they write, “Trump’s plans to deal with Hurricane Dorian thankfully did not involve atomic warfare.”

Apart from the landmark Abraham Accords of 2020, which opened diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab nations, they devote only fleeting attention to Trump’s concrete achievements, of which even critics must concede there were a few. The strength of the pre-Covid economy — for which Trump doesn’t deserve full credit but which still helped millions of voters look past his failings and failures — is little discussed. Trump fans will surely object to the consistently negative judgments about their tribune.

But the authors are persuasive in arguing that in this White House, “impulse and instinct ruled.” Given the sheer number of crises and conflicts that erupted on Trump’s watch, herding them all into a narrative isn’t easy. To impose order on the chaos, the authors center each chapter on its own topic or story line — Trump’s rocky relationship with foreign allies, for example, or the 2018 budget battle over the Mexico wall. Other chapters focus on key supporting players, who are rendered with deft portraits, such as Jared Kushner, Trump’s widely reviled but fireproof son-in-law, or the president’s antagonist-turned-sycophant, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Some of the weightiest chapters take up Trump’s relationship with Russia. Former Moscow correspondents and longtime Russia jocks, Baker and Glasser eschew the wilder conspiracy theories that were bandied about in left-wing circles during Robert Mueller’s probe of the 2016 campaign’s Russia connections.

Instead, “The Divider” soberly and carefully reconstructs events to reveal anew Trump’s shocking deference to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin — notably at the 2018 Helsinki summit, where, the authors pointedly write, “Trump acknowledged that he would accept the word of Putin over that of his own intelligence agencies.” The chapters on the 2019 Ukraine scandal, when Trump linked aid to its government to delivery of dirt on Joe Biden, re-establish the gravity of the first impeachment, which has since been overshadowed by the second.

If “The Divider” has a dominant theme, it may be the struggle within the “almost cartoonishly chaotic White House” by people more reasonable and ethical than Trump to rein in his most dangerous instincts. Because everyone had different ideas about where to restrain and where to encourage Trump, the White House became a den of “ongoing tribal warfare,” they write — an “Apprentice”-style reality-TV show in which the parties vied to win Trump’s favor and outlast their rivals, even while at times sabotaging the president’s agenda as they saw fit.

The dishy gossip and mocking nicknames the Trumpies coin for one another (Kushner is the “Slim Reaper,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen “Nurse Ratched”) make for amusing reading; they also highlight a dysfunctionality rare for even the Washington freak show. Every chapter, it seems, has a sentence like this: “While Priebus, Bannon and Kushner disliked each other, the one thing they agreed on was they all loathed [Kellyanne] Conway.” Or: “In public, Mattis, Tillerson and McMaster were portrayed as fellow members of the Axis of Adults. In private, there was pettiness that at times suggested a middle school cafeteria.”

The backbiting — and the sub rosa efforts to thwart their own president — led to constant personnel turnover, a dreary parade of firings, resignations and defenestrations. Trump would cashier one aide in favor of someone presumably more compliant, only for the new guy to find that Trump was even more willful and heedless of rules than he had dreamed. Time and again, staffers debate whether to stay put in hopes of mitigating Trump’s basest impulses or to run screaming from the room. Even more stunning is the number of onetime loyalists who, after their tours of duty, emerged as among the president’s most strident critics.

Many Trump aides — even some, like National Security Adviser John Bolton or Attorney General William P. Barr, who might deserve harsh criticism on other grounds — did intervene valiantly at times to keep Trump in check. Without their small acts of resistance, things could have gone even worse. Yet Baker and Glasser seem to endorse the view of the Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, who, during the first impeachment, warned Republicans, “You will not change him, you cannot constrain him.”

They write: “So many had told themselves that they could manage the unmanageable president, that they could keep him from going too far, that they could steer him in the direction of responsible governance. … They had justified their service to him or their alliances with him or their deference to him on the grounds that they could ultimately control him. And what Schiff was saying is that three years had shown that was not possible.”

In this instance, Schiff was talking specifically about Trump’s plans to “compromise our elections,” and his words proved tragically prescient. “The Divider” concludes with a riveting few chapters on Trump’s mad scheming to hold onto power after his November 2020 defeat — resulting in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol.

In the book’s final passages, we see Trump lurking in exile in Mar-a-Lago like a movie villain, having escaped Washington by the skin of his teeth, defeated but not altogether vanquished. In Hollywood, such endings serve to leave the door open to another installment. But as good as this book is, let’s hope Baker and Glasser won’t be writing a sequel.

David Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. He is writing a biography of the late congressman John Lewis.

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