America’s Great Divide: Cliff Sims Interview | FRONTLINE
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America’s Great Divide: Cliff Sims Interview | FRONTLINE


Describe what you were thinking when you joined the campaign, why, and what was important about what the president— the to-become president, would-be—and that’s the reason why you joined up. Yeah. Well, I think I and many people who joined the campaign from kind of the more traditional, conservative, evangelical wing of the party came into this with eyes wide open, knowing who Donald Trump was, knowing his character traits, his character flaws, kind of the whole deal. And for a lot of us, myself included, we looked at the balance of the Supreme Court as kind of this generational moment. And we’ve already seen the president has had two Supreme Court justices. He may end up having a couple of more before it’s all said and done, and particularly if he wins reelection. And so, you know, I don’t like the fact that the Supreme Court has become so powerful in our country. I think it’s a distorted—it has distorted what the Founders’ intent was for that branch of government. But the reality is, it is that powerful. And so for myself and others, the balance of the Supreme Court was really a decision, or really a major reason why we got in so strong behind Trump, because we knew what we were going to get from Hillary Clinton. We didn’t know what we were going to get with Donald Trump, but we knew what we were going to get with Hillary Clinton. And to his credit, he’s delivered on the promise that he made on the Supreme Court. So during the campaign, when he put out that list, the list the Federalist Society had signed onto, that was an important point, you think? Oh, sure. Yeah, definitely, because to that point, we had heard promises of “These are the type of justices that I would appoint.” But then we get to see this list, and you start going through it, and you’re like, “This is exactly who we would want.” And so yeah, that was a big moment for a lot of conservatives. And for the evangelical community, the irony, to some extent, that this is not a very “religious,” quote/unquote, president, and yet their support—define that for an audience that might not be, you know, in the evangelical community. Yeah. Well, I think Franklin Graham probably said it better than ever—than I ever could, and that is that Donald Trump is not a great picture of the Christian faith, but he has been a great defender of the Christian faith from a policy perspective. And I think, whether it’s the pro-life justices, he’s governed as a pro-life president. If you look at telling the Department of Justice to no longer go after faith-based organizations’ tax-exempt status, that’s a big deal for a lot of churches and faith-based organizations out there. I mean, policy after policy after policy, the president may not understand at a real gut level inside himself why these issues are so important to evangelicals, but he does understand evangelicals as a political constituency, and he has been very faithful to that political constituency. … I mean, we interviewed [Sean] Spicer, not specifically for these projects, but in the past, and he talks about the crowd, the inauguration-crowd story. But you tell that story in a detailed manner that I’d never seen before in the book, and it—and it resonates. So talk a little bit about day one. The president has a mission for Spicer. Talk about what happened and the discussion you all had in the press offices about what had to be done. Well, you have to remember, when we—the first day we get to the White House, most of us had never been there before, certainly never been in the West Wing. I mean, I’d gone on like a White House tour with thousands of other people every day, but in the West Wing. And so you walk in, and you’re in this historic environment, and you’re just trying to soak it all in. But within the first, you know, five minutes that I’m in the building, there’s this kind of crisis moment, where the president is frustrated with the coverage of the inaugural celebration. And it’s two things. One, it’s in the Oval Office, a Time magazine reporter had said that he had taken the MLK bust out of the Oval Office. He hadn’t. It had actually just been obstructed behind a door, so the reporters couldn’t see it. And then, two—and this is the one that really got at him—was that they were reporting— there was a lot of reporting that the inaugural crowds for him were not as big as the inaugural crowds for Obama. That is the equivalent for Donald Trump of a schoolyard fight, somebody throwing out a “Your mama”— a “Your mama” joke kind of thing. So they were really coming after him, hitting him where it hurts, I think. And so it was pretty clear the president wanted Sean to go out and do something. It wasn’t entirely clear what, but like, “Handle this.” Sean, first day on the job, is thinking to himself, here’s my chance to kind of show I’m tough. I’m not going to back down from the press corps. The president likes to punch back on this stuff; I’m going to punch back 10 times harder than they hit us. Let’s figure out how to do that. I grab a computer, start, you know, pecking out a statement. And we had some people from the inaugural committee were there, and they were throwing out all kind of numbers about, you know, Metro ridership and things about the magnetometers that, oh, it was harder for people to get through than it was for Obama, so it just took a little bit longer for them to get in there. And oh, it looks worse than it is because if you look at the ground, for us they had these white mats over the grass on the National Mall, and so it really pops when there are not people there, whereas for Obama, they didn’t have those white mats there. I mean, one thing after another after another, and I’m taking down all of these different facts. And, of course, we come to find out that these facts were not really—not really facts. They were definitely inaccurate. And there’s this moment where Reince Priebus comes in to Sean’s office, where we’re all sitting there crafting this statement, and he’s kind of confused; he says: “Why are you rushing so much? Like, why is everyone here so manic to get out to like— the president’s not sitting up there like, biting his nails, waiting for you to go out and do this press conference.” And Sean kind of shoos him away and says, “We’ve got this taken care of,” kind of thing. And I realize, after the fact, that Sean was basically like, marching out to his own death there, that at least his credibility’s death. And only a fool would have gone out there kind of half-cocked the way that we did. And we were those fools. And that’s what I write in the book, is you know, we were so caught up in the moment, and Sean’s trying to impress the president, and I’m being told facts that end up not being true, which we didn’t vet properly—one thing after another after another. And look, we’re not blind. We knew that the crowd in those side-by-side pictures for Obama versus Trump, Obama’s was bigger. So I was really leaning into this idea that with the proliferation of the internet, globally, more people are watching online than at any time in history. And that’s true. That’s probably true. Sean really leaned into the online and in-person part of that, and I think that’s what really bit him. That chaos that was—that was happening in that moment seems to have not gone away at the White House. And in fact, you write about the fact that the president sort of feeds off of chaos. Describe the—that philosophy, because it gives him an advantage, he thinks, and sort of what— how it was perceived by you guys in the White House, and how chaotic was it, just the general sort of ambiance of the White House during that period of time and what it meant. So I have a lot of thoughts on this. One, when people think about Trump Organization, and if you look on Wikipedia, you will see the Trump Organization is this—this company with tens of thousands of employees. That’s actually a little bit—it can distort your view of the Trump Organization, because if you think about it, those employees are all kind of in self-contained entities. They’re at a hotel; they’re at a golf resort; they’re at a—you know, whatever. When the president thinks about Trump Org, and the reality of Trump Org, is it’s a couple of dozen people on a floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan. It’s a family business. And so there hasn’t been this kind of hierarchy inside of Trump Organization the way there maybe are in more traditionally run organizations of—of that size. And so it creates this kind of hub, Trump, and kind of spokes off of it, which is basically everyone he knows, and they all kind of report to him directly. And he writes about it in a lot of his books, that he likes to get up in the morning, not have a lot of structure, start making phone calls, let’s see what happens. He approached the White House exactly—exactly the same way. There wasn’t a hierarchical structure like there had been in the past. He was the hub. Everyone else was the spoke off of him. At least his West Wing staff were these kind of spokes off of him. And he kind of didn’t like the structure that came with that. I mean, very early on in the White House, there were attempts to have a really regimented schedule, blocks of time, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, going to go through all these meetings and all these different things. It became very apparent very quickly the president was not going to allow that to happen. He would, you know, purposefully come to meetings late, or he wasn’t paying attention to the schedule that he had a little pocket card that they would print out for him every day with his schedule on it. He just kind of like: “Whatever. I’ll get there when I get there.” And so, you know, the result of that was meetings start happening later and later in the morning, because he likes to start the morning by: “Let’s take in what’s on the news that day. Let me kind of think what I want to push message-wise today.” He’ll start making phone calls in the morning. And he may not end up coming down from the residence until 11:00. And that doesn’t mean that he’s— you know, I think people have a little bit of a misconception that he’s, oh, he’s just sitting there watching TV in his PJs. That’s not it. He’s up there working. He’s just not doing this kind of regimented schedule of back-to-back Oval Office meetings. You know, I’ve read a lot about George Bush, who, very regimented time schedule, gets there very early in—in the morning. If a meeting is over at 7:00, when 7:00 hits, he stands up, whether that meeting’s over with or not, and we’re kind of onto the next one. It’s just the exact opposite of the way that Trump operated. Now, when we talk about chaos in the Trump administration, often it is put into the context of a couple of things. One is he says something that the public perceives as being crazy, and it creates this kind of chaotic media environment around him, and the best example is “fire and fury.” So he walks out in front of all these reporters, and he says, “If North Korea doesn’t get their act together, they’re going to experience fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.” Well, we’ve never seen a president talk like that. And so, even in the White House, you’re watching this happen, and you’re like: “Whoa. Like that’s—that’s pretty hot.” Well, then there’s a scene in my book where I talk about the president is kind of responding to this negative media coverage of that, and he says, I think a very good point, which is: “We’ve always looked at North Korea and said: ‘Are these guys rational actors? Are they crazy?’ We don’t really have good insight. We’ve always been the exact opposite, very predictable. They do this; we do that. They do this; we do that.” Trump said: “Now they’re looking at me and saying the same thing: ‘Is this guy a rational actor? We’re having trouble making sense of this president.’ And next thing you know, they want to sit down and have a conversation to find out, you know, what’s going on.” He basically felt like he had turned the tables. So I think that’s an example of the world perceives this as chaos or madness. He says: “I’ve got a method to my madness. I’m just not going to tell them what it is.” So there is—there are times where it seems chaotic, where he has really— he does have a plan. And then there are other times— Well, it’s also—it seems like it’s always his way of operating. He seems so comfortable within chaos. Is there something to that? Yeah. Well, that’s—he is betting, when he creates these chaotic environments, that one, he is going to be more comfortable in that than whoever is sitting on the other side of the table than he is, and two, that he’s going to be able to last longer in that chaos than they are. So he basically grinds his opponent down. And that is a core operating principle of Donald Trump. This—this chaos that the world thinks is so insane, from the outside looking in, is so insane, he thrives in that environment in a way that I’ve never really seen a person be able to do. And it works to his advantage in some of this, particularly when he’s dealing with foreign leaders on trade negotiations, where he publicly shames companies. And CEOs are, you know, very buttoned down, and the next thing you know, they’re in the news every day, and the president of the United States is attacking them, and they get very uncomfortable in that moment. And he’s like, “I’m going to outlast them, because they can’t deal with— they’re not used to this PR environment that I have lived in for the last 30 years.” It’s a big advantage for him. But even with the staff, it seems that he—he liked to have staff going at each other, which you write about, you know, caused some problems, including leaking. Yeah. So the staff-on-staff violence, as I call it, the way that the president operates actually could lead to better decisions, which is, you have extreme ideological diversity in the White House. You have Gary Cohn on one side of a trade debate, who doesn’t want any tariffs on anything, total free and open trade. You have Peter Navarro on the other side of that, who wants to slap a tariff on everything that moves. You put these two guys in front of Donald Trump, they argue out an issue, and then the president makes a decision, and that could be a—lead to better decision making, because a lot of White Houses, there’s not ideological diversity in that way. The problem is in the process after that decision is made. When the president—I saw, when the president would have these two staffers argue it out, he makes a final decision. They walk out the door, there was no process by which those decisions were implemented. Instead, what happens is the losing side of that debate leaks the president’s decision, hoping that the backlash causes him to change directions, or they just flat refuse to implement the decision. And he—you know, the trade debate is really the perfect example of this. We would come in time and time again, and Trump would say: “We already talked about this. I already said I want tariffs on X, Y, Z. Where are the tariffs?” And it would have been that they had just walked out and not implemented the decision that he had made. And so that was the part that I thought was, one, not right, not fair to the president. The president’s got to be the ultimate decision maker, and if people cannot come to terms with the decision that he has made, they have two options. They can subordinate their views to his and get onboard, or they can quit. And either one of those is fine. The problem was, you had this kind of concept of the resistance inside that has manifested itself in different points during the administration, and I think that’s incredibly unfair. And I think that that’s an incredibly dangerous precedent to set, that there is somehow honor in undermining the duly elected president of the United States. I think there can be honor in quitting if you disagree with him so profoundly that you just can’t bring yourself to do what he’s wanting you to do. I think Jim Mattis is a great example of that, with the Syria decision. The secretary of Defense said: “I can’t do this for you. You deserve someone who could. And therefore I’m going to quit.” I have no problem with that. That didn’t happen very often in the Trump administration. More often than not, it was this idea—again, I think a pervasive and—and really dangerous idea— that somehow there is honor in being the person who’s going to save the country from the president. And I think that that is a reality inside the Trump White House for some people. That’s the way they approach their job every single day is, “I’m here to protect the country from this man.” … Let’s talk about Steve Bannon then. Define Steve’s relationship with the president, I mean, how important he was as sort of the intellectual base, to some extent, of what would become policy, but also why it—why it all went awry. So if you think back to the time when Steve Bannon comes in to the campaign, this was an important moment in the campaign. Things had kind of lost their way a little bit. Steve comes in and I think really deserves some credit for being someone who kind of focused the candidate’s attention on a few core issues that he felt like the race was going to be decided by: immigration, trade, foreign policy especially. And you had Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, and to a lesser extent but to an important extent, Stephen Miller, who basically built this intellectual framework around Trump’s gut instincts. Trump is who Trump is. He believes what he believes, especially on those kind of core issues: immigration, trade, foreign policy. He’s had the same views on those for 30, 40 years. And these are the people who put the intellectual framework, Steve being the leader probably of that group, around Trump’s gut instincts. That was important. That was an important role that he played during the campaign. And then coming into the White House, the importance of Steve in the White House was that he was always a voice in the room encouraging Trump to deliver on the promises that he made. Now, that’s really important to Trump, and I write in the book that, if you want to win an argument, a policy argument in front of the president, put in front of him what he said he was going to do in the campaign. The Paris Climate Accord is a perfect example. He had a lot of people in the White House who were trying to get the president turned around, to change his mind, to stay in the Paris Climate Accord. And Steve had Andy Surabian, his deputy, print out this giant stack of papers that every time during the campaign where the president said he was going to pull out. Steve walks into the Oval Office, puts that stack of papers down on the desk, and Trump basically said: “I have to do this. I have to do this. I’m getting all these calls from CEOs. I’ve got these different staff members telling me I can’t do this. I have to do this. Look at all the times that I said that I was going to do it.” When Steve was gone, that voice was no longer in the Oval Office. Just an ever-present reminder of “Let Trump be Trump,” so to speak, as some people have said it. But I think that the president chafes at this idea of Steve as this kind of Svengali that was manipulating him, and puppet master. And I think I understand why he does, because I don’t think that that was accurate. Steve was not saying, “Do this thing that I want you to do.” He was saying: “Do what your gut tells you to do, and don’t allow yourself to get caught up in all this wave after wave of people coming in here, telling you you can’t do this because that’s not the way that it’s been done before; it’s never been done this way before, so you can’t do it either; you can’t kind of upset the apple cart.” And so Steve played an important role in the White House in that. On specific policy issues, Steve was the hawk on China. I think that what we are seeing happen with the Chinese trade negotiations would have been dramatically different had Steve been there. You still have a lot of China hawks in the room. You have Robert Lighthizer. You have Peter Navarro. You have John Bolton, who I think has a clear-eyed view of what China means. But Steve Bannon was, you know, on trade or national security, he was such a strong and powerful force on those issues. I don’t know if we’re quite where we are right now in China trade negotiations in terms of the real possibility of there being a deal if Steve was still in the White House. … And so I think Steve is in—the perception of Steve from the outside is in this— at this weird moment, where he is simultaneously undervalued and overvalued. Steve was not the Svengali; Steve was not the puppet master, but Steve had a very important voice in the room, and without him there, things are undeniably different. So what happened to him? You talk a little bit about his self-destructive nature that sort of got the better of him. What happened? And you also talk about how angry the president was, angrier than you’d ever seen I guess, when he felt that he, you know, had been disloyal with the [Michael] Wolff book and stuff. … There’s this theory of history, the great man theory of history, where in this theory, great men rise at certain times in history, and the whole arc of the universe bends to their will— you know, Napoleon, Alexander the Great. I mean, these just—these historical figures that we know, Abraham Lincoln, you know, rise at these certain moments. Steve Bannon believes he is one of those men. And so when you see Steve gallivanting all over the world, meeting with, you know, foreign leaders and talking about these populist movements and uprisings that he is, you know, creating or fostering or whatever, Steve believes that we’re at this moment in history where he, a great man, is rising to meet the moment and is going to make these things happen. The problem is that Donald Trump views himself in really much the same way, and so when you have the president and a staffer, both of whom view themselves as these historical figures, at some point there is going to be an irreconcilable conflict of who is the kind of great man in this situation. And I do think that Steve had a very difficult time subordinating himself to anyone and allowing anyone to get the credit for what he viewed as his role in history here, and the president being someone who is not going to allow that from anybody, much less at that level. And so at some point, that was just not going to work, and it didn’t. And Steve kind of blew himself up by, you know, the Fire and Fury book, clearly being a source for that and saying the things that he did. … And the president’s reaction was what, to the Wolff book and such? Yeah. Visceral anger. Very angry about that. I think at first, confused. “Do we think Steve— does he really say that? Did he believe that Steve—would Steve really do that?” And it very quickly moved from that to “He did say that,” and very, very angry. And there is a scene in the book where—I mean, look, those of us who are on the press and comms team were getting all this incoming—not just from the press but also the president’s allies who go on TV and that kind of thing, and they’re saying, “What are we supposed to say about this?” And so I go into the Outer Oval, where Hope Hicks’ desk is, and I basically say, “What do you want me to tell these people?” And the president, who is sitting at the Resolute Desk, about, you know, 30 feet away, hears me ask this, and he says, “You tell them that they’re either with Steve or they’re with me, and there’s no in between.” And so that was, you know, one of the very few moments where I’ve seen the president be that explicit about a former staffer, that this person is being excommunicated in a really profound way. … Let’s talk about Gen. [Michael] Flynn. The relationship that had developed was very close with the president during the campaign. … What was going on with that relationship, and how do we—why do we end up with the eventual firing of Flynn, and what the president, from anything that you remember from those days sort of how he felt about that? Was he forced into it? What was going on with Gen. Flynn? One of the things you have to realize about the way that Trump operates is it’s pretty much nonstop triage: We’ve got 1,000 problems; which one are we going to solve right now? And at that point in time, the point in time where, in the campaign, where Flynn becomes very close to Trump, we were trying to solve this problem—I say “we”; I wasn’t there yet. But the campaign was trying to solve this problem that his national security bona fides, he didn’t really have a lot of national security advisers, foreign policy experts, that would come from the foreign policy establishment who were willing to sign onto his campaign. And then here comes Michael Flynn, a general, a guy who served all over the world, served his country faithfully, a hero, and he’s willing to go out there and say, “Donald Trump is my guy.” Well, very quickly, that solves a problem, to some degree, for Trump. Now, what happens down the road, we’ll figure that out. “Is Flynn the right guy to do this job or that guy? Don’t really know, but right now he solves a really important problem for me.” So that’s how they get close. And I think Trump tried to be a little bit of a, you know, “I’m going to dance with the one who brung me” kind of guy, once we get to the transition. “Michael Flynn wants to be national security adviser. He was with me when nobody else was. I think I’ll make him national security adviser.” That, I think, really explains that relationship. Now what happened after that, I’m probably not the best person to ask, because I just wasn’t in the room for a lot of those things. I wasn’t close to Flynn. I wasn’t, you know, involved in that decision making. I didn’t see behind the scenes of like, are we going to fire Flynn? Like those kind of things, I just wasn’t there for that. So I’m not really sure I would have any good insight into that. But I think that is—does explain at least why he came in. So you didn’t see any reaction of the president, or when he was firing him, he wasn’t mad at him, certainly. He sort of was backing him up, and you know, the [James] Comey story later on, where he’s asking Comey not to—not to go forward with the investigation. I mean, any of that surprise you? My impression was that Trump—Trump realized that he had to fire this guy, but he still kind of held this underlying appreciation for what he had done for him. He still liked the guy personally. He didn’t want the guy to be embarrassed, and so he was kind of reticent to do what he knew that he had to do. It’s all about loyalty? Yeah. I do think that Trump, one of the reasons why he bristled at having to fire Flynn is because Flynn had been loyal to him at a time when there weren’t a lot of people around. And so loyalty does matter a lot to Trump, and Flynn was a guy who had stood by him during a difficult period, and he didn’t want to abandon him publicly in the way that he did, but he was kind of boxed in. Attorney General Sessions. Talk a little bit. I mean, you define him as the “intellectual godfather” in a lot of ways of Trumpism. Here is a guy who also was very—had always, you know, a goal of [his] was attorney general. To him, that was probably the utmost goal in a lot of ways. Discuss Sessions, discuss his role, and then we’ll talk about what happens afterwards. When I say that Sessions is the intellectual godfather of Trumpism, really, all you have to do is go back and look at Jeff Sessions’ Senate floor speeches for the past 20 years and then look at him side by side with the things that Donald Trump was saying on the campaign. You almost can’t tell the difference between the two. Certainly Trump, more of a gregarious personality, and the kind of his force of personality behind those ideas is what kind of brought them to the forefront the way they did, but Sessions was saying these really same things for a long time. And Sessions, the first time Jeff Sessions met Donald Trump, the United Nations building in New York City was going to be renovated. And Sessions, one of his committee assignments, this renovation of the U.N. building, fell under their jurisdiction. And so Donald Trump decides he wants to come in and testify. And he’s very frustrated, because he says: “Whoever this person is that’s renovating this building is totally incompetent. They have no idea what they’re doing. Just give me a chance. I’ll come in here. I’ll do it at half the cost. I’ll do it way better than they could ever do it.” And if you go back and look at this testimony, it’s this kind of virtuoso performance from Trump. And Sessions is really sitting there, and you can just see it in his eyes; he just loves this guy who’s willing to come in here and just look at the guy who’s—you know, “This guy right here doesn’t know what he’s doing,” and kind of that really brash New York Manhattan real estate guy. And so they ordered Subway sandwiches after the hearing, and they sit in Jeff Sessions’ Senate office, and they just hit it off. Now, there’s years’ gap between that happening and then Trump deciding to run for president, but they kind of— that was when the idea of Trump running for president first came— that’s what Sessions thought of, was the time that he had met him in that committee hearing. And Sessions is another guy who, before anybody, literally before any other senator, was willing to stand up and say, “I’m for Trump.” And that was an important moment in the campaign. I remember being an Alabamian and watching this happening. And I had Sessions come on my radio show that I was hosting at the time, and I was saying: “Help me understand this, because Ted Cruz is also in this race. Ted Cruz is a colleague of yours. He’s been with you on a lot of these tough issues that you really care about, the immigration stuff especially. Help me understand why you’re throwing in with Trump.” And the way I asked the question of him was about the character side of Donald Trump. I mean, how do you—how do you reconcile that with who we are as Alabamians, as Christians, and that kind of thing? And Sessions was almost apologetic, where he was saying, you know, “I understand that, and I care about those things too.” And he did, on the other side, say, “But Donald Trump hasn’t ever drank in his life.” He’s got, you know, a couple other things that are, you know, sterling parts of his character to try to contrast those with yes, there are some bad things, but he’s not all, you know, this kind of low-character individual across the board. And I could hear—almost hear the wheels turning inside of Sessions’ head, where it wasn’t— he couldn’t quite explain it yet, because I would say, “I,” and I don’t think many people realized this moment that we were at in our country, this kind of populist revolt that was happening, that was bubbling below the surface, that Sessions had been giving voice to for decades. He felt that we were at a moment, and only Donald Trump was going to be able to bring those issues to the forefront. You have to remember, immigration had been an important issue inside the Republican Party for several years at that point, with the Gang of Eight immigration bill and all that. But trade, we were still at a point where Republican orthodoxy was free trade, and Donald Trump was the only one saying: “Uh-uh. You know, we’re going to stand up to China and currency manipulation and trade and intellectual property debt and all these things.” And then there was bipartisan consensus in the foreign policy space about this kind of robust, you know, “We’re going to be all over the world” type foreign policy. And so Sessions basically said, “Yes, Ted Cruz was with me on immigration stuff, but on trade, on foreign policy, Donald Trump is the only one saying these things.” And so that’s how he defended, in the moment, his getting behind Trump. So I remember riding on the campaign plane with Sessions, Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and watching these guys talk about these issues that they had all cared about for so many years. They suddenly had this vessel in Donald Trump, who was a larger-than-life figure, who was taking those issues from the back bench of the U.S. Senate to the very middle of the presidential race. And they were giddy. I mean, they were really excited. “This is our moment. This is our historical moment.” And I think Trump sensed that, too. And so he had a camaraderie with Sessions and Bannon and Stephen Miller that he didn’t have with a lot of people. And so that comes into the transition, where Trump says to Jeff Sessions, “What do you want?” And Sessions had wanted to be attorney general of the United States for a long, you know, his whole life. He had worked as a U.S. attorney. You know, he was attorney general of Alabama. I mean, he loved the Justice Department, the justice system. It was a dream come true for him. And so you hit the ground running, right out of the gate. He’s taken a lead on these immigration issues, on the crackdown on drugs and gangs, this kind of “no tolerance” policy on the criminal justice side, and really implementing, in a very systematic way, the Trump agenda, in a way that other departments and agencies were kind of bristling at. I mean, there was a lot of pushback when we first got there across the agencies with some of the things that were kind of core tenets of the Trump agenda. Jeff Sessions didn’t have to be told: “Crack down on crime. Crack down on drugs. Crack down on gangs. Crack down on immigration.” That’s what—he was all in on that. And so that’s kind of glossed over now. People forget that, because this moment comes where Jeff Sessions recuses himself. Stop there, and we’ll take this step by step. Are you on the aircraft carrier when the president is talking about his faith in Sessions and such? That’s the day he recused himself? Yeah. Yes. So talk about that moment—why that comes about, what the president says, and how ironic, because what happened is then the speech. Yeah. People ask me what is—the people ask me all the time, “What is the coolest day you ever had in the White House, and what’s the hardest day you ever had in the White House?” And they are actually the same day, because we got up this March morning, and we go to Joint Base Andrews. We get on Air Force One, fly to Virginia. We land. We get on an Osprey helicopter. We land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford. We go down this giant elevator that’s made for planes to get from the flight deck down to the hangar bay. And it’s like WWE wrestling. It’s, you know, here I am, this kid from Alabama, with the president of the United States. We’re going down this giant elevator on an aircraft carrier, and there’s thousands of sailors waiting for him, and they’re chanting his name, and they’re screaming. It’s this amazing moment. The president delivers this great speech in front of this raucous crowd. And we do the whole thing in reverse. We go back up the elevator, back on the Osprey, back on Air Force One, back to Joint Base Andrews, back to the West Wing of the White House, and it’s one of those, like, pinch-yourself days. The problem is, we get to—close to Joint Base Andrews, and we’re watching TV on Air Force One, and all the chyrons at the bottom of the screen are saying, “Jeff Sessions’ press conference imminent.” What’s this all about? Well, at this moment, there is a lot of conversation surrounding Jeff Sessions overseeing this, you know, anything— any investigation that may have to do with the campaign. And Trump is being asked about this, and even that day—and he’s saying: “I see no reason that Jeff Sessions would have to step aside. He’s an honorable man. He’ll do a good job. He’s totally, you know, unbiased. He’ll let justice be done. And so I have great confidence in Jeff Sessions.” Well, as we watched things unfold, Jeff Sessions comes to the microphone, and he starts talking. He says something like, “After getting counseled by these career Justice Department officials,” and I’ve seen— I’ve seen hundreds of Jeff Sessions speeches, and I can tell by the cadence of his voice, the way he’s looking down, that he’s about to say something that he doesn’t—that hurts. And I realize he’s about to recuse himself. And sure enough, he says, “I have decided, based on this advice I’ve been given from career DOJ officials, I’m going to recuse myself from anything — any investigation, anything that has to do with the campaign.” Now, I’m no attorney. There weren’t a lot of attorneys in that kind of small group there, so we weren’t fully cognizant of the implications of what was happening in that moment. We just knew it wasn’t good. And the president was very upset, because he felt like he was being abandoned. And if you get yourself inside—if you give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt—it’s a big “if”—but if you do, here is a guy who won the presidency of the United States, who every single day wakes up, and people are saying, “He did it in collusion with some foreign—foreign government,” and undermining his election, undermining his ability to do his job, and now you’re wanting to investigate him for all these things. Now, if you give him the benefit of the doubt, and [believe] that he did nothing wrong, you’d probably be frustrated, too. And so that’s where his head was at. “Now I have this guy who I gave the dream job, the job of his lifetime to, and he’s abandoning me in this moment?” That’s the way he perceived that. Now, if you’re Jeff Sessions, and you love the Justice Department, and you love the rule of law, and you feel like that the DOJ had become very politicized under the Obama administration, and you want to remove any even hint of impropriety, you don’t think anything was done wrong. But you’re going to remove even the appearance of potential impropriety and step aside, and you’ll be exonerated, won’t be any big deal, and we’ll be done with this. That’s where he’s coming from on that. So in his mind, he’s helping Donald Trump, that we’re going to remove even the appearance of impropriety. And this is going to—oh, you’re going to come out fine, and [it will] be no big deal. So you have these two views of this important moment in American history, but certainly an important moment in the Trump presidency, that are diametrically opposed to each other. And that afternoon, we sat on the tarmac of Joint Base Andrews much longer than we ever had before. Normally, the way the rhythms of presidential movements are, if you’re a staffer, you’d better be moving, because we’re in the car. As soon as the president is in the car, everybody—you know, we’re moving. You can get yourself left behind. Everything stopped. Everything stopped. It’s one of the few days in the White House where there was a moment where just suddenly everything came to a screeching halt. And Trump is very angry, very frustrated. And he’s about to walk off this plane in front of the whole press corps, and everybody’s going to see him. So he’s got to kind of, you know, get himself ready to go out there and face this crowd, even though he’s extremely angry about this. And so it took him a little time to get to that moment. And then we leave, and Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump’s relationship was never the same after that. I think that Jeff Sessions is a good man, an honorable man. I have seen Jeff Sessions for years before he was this national figure, had dinner with he and his wife in numerous times, and heard the way that—you know, saw the way that he treats his wife and his family and his grandkids, and know he cares about doing the right thing. He was genuinely trying to do the right thing. And I’m standing outside of the Oval Office a day or two after he recuses himself, and Lindsey Graham calls Jared Kushner on his cell phone, and he wants to talk to Trump. So Jared hands him the phone and put him on speaker phone, and Sen. Graham says: “Mr. President, Jeff Sessions had to do this. He had to. There is no way that he could oversee an investigation of the campaign that he was involved in.” He’s kind of giving him this kind of pitch of why he had to do this. And Trump says to Lindsey Graham, “Lindsey, if he was going to do this, if he was going to abandon me, if he was going to recuse himself, I would have given him another job. He could be down on the border right now at DHS [Department of Homeland Security] handling stuff for me there. You know, I didn’t have to put him at DOJ. He asked for that job. And basically, now I feel abandoned.” And so this is one of those instances where I actually see both perspectives, and I understand the view of both men. I understand why Donald Trump, you know, if you give him the benefit of the doubt, he did nothing wrong, why he feels abandoned, and why he’s frustrated by this whole thing. I also understand why Jeff Sessions felt like he had to do what he did. And so it’s really unfortunate, and really, I think people focus on the Steve Bannon-Donald Trump split. What’s perhaps a more important moment is the Donald Trump-Jeff Sessions split, because ultimately, Steve Bannon is just a staffer. Jeff Sessions is the attorney general of the United States and overseeing a massive chunk of core issues for the Trump administration, for that president. And when he—when they were suddenly on the outs, things changed. … One little thing you didn’t talk about is, in the book you talk about the fact that the personal side of the decision making by the president here is that everything for him is personal. What do you mean and why that’s important? So this is another core operating principle of Donald Trump. Everything is personal. Every decision, every interaction, it’s all personal. You usually see this manifest itself in foreign leader interactions. And people said, “I don’t understand how can Donald Trump be so anti-China, be so hard-core on all these Chinese issues, but he spends all his time on Twitter talking about how great President Xi is and how he’s this great man, and we just— we’re such good friends, or Kim Jong Un, saying all these glowing things about this dictator from—from North Korea.” And what people need to understand is, everything is personal for him. So he thinks that his personal relationship with these individuals can supersede everything, including like, geopolitical interests. So even when our interests are opposed, if my—by sheer force of personality, I can sit down with this person and have a great relationship, that we can overcome some of those things. And so it creates this weird kind of cognitive dissonance at times That also manifests itself at the staff level or with Cabinet members, that this personal betrayal from Jeff Sessions supersedes whatever policy reasoning you may have for doing what you just did. So he took it as a personal affront to him, and that’s why that relationship could never recover, because it was so personal for Trump. Which leads us into James Comey and, you know, his attitude about James Comey and the fact that decisions to come, which we’ll get to, are so eventually detrimental. I mean, Bannon, of course, tells the story that he told him from the very beginning, that this is insane; you can’t fire Comey. It’s going to—and then later, believing that this is going to lead to a special counsel. And yet he was ignored because it was a personal decision. I mean, it goes back, I guess, to that—that dinner, you know, the one-on-one dinner that he has early on after inauguration with Comey, and the asking for him to be loyal, and the way Comey took that. Talk a little bit about—if you know anything about the dinner, that would be fine. Otherwise, don’t worry about it. But this question of the need for loyalty, his attitude towards James Comey from the very beginning. So I think, first of all, it’s important that we do not start from a premise that we don’t know whether it’s true or not. I have no idea—no one knows if Steve Bannon was really in Trump’s ear, telling him firing Comey would be the worst thing he could possibly do. James Comey and Donald Trump were the only two people in the room in that dinner. We will never know for certain what happened in there. I can say, from what I saw, the day that James Comey was fired was a day like any other at the White House for most people. When you talk about the chaos inside the White House, you have to understand that things unfold in dramatically different ways for different people inside the White House. There is the small group of people that are around Donald Trump. There’s the broader West Wing, 50 people. And then there’s the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where 300 or 400 presidential staffers work. And for each of those group of people, things are dramatically different. And the James Comey firing is perhaps the best example. I’m sitting at Hope Hicks’ desk, just outside the Oval Office, waiting to talk to her about something. I can’t even remember what it was. She comes in and says: “I can’t talk about this right now. I’ve got something going on. I just can’t deal with this right now.” I said, “OK, no big deal.” And as I’m walk—as I’m getting ready to walk out, the president says to his executive assistant, “Get me House and Senate leadership, Republican and Democrat, on the phone.” And [Sen.] Chuck Schumer, the first one’s on the phone. And I hear Chuck Schumer say something to the effect of, “This is a big mistake what you’re doing here.” And I remember thinking, this must be great. If Chuck Schumer’s not for it, whatever it is, I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it’s probably good. I go back and sit down at my desk, which is only separated from the Oval Office by the Roosevelt Room. So I’m about as close as you can be to the Oval Office. And I sit back down and go back to work. And I look up at the TV a few minutes later, and the all-caps chyrons at the bottom of the screen say, “Trump fires FBI Director Comey.” I had just been sitting 10 steps from the Resolute Desk, and I had no idea. Imagine if you’re sitting anywhere else in the West Wing, much less anywhere across the street, in the EEOB, you experience this just like soccer moms picking up their kids from practice and happen to turn on the radio and hear the president’s fired James Comey. Or you’re sitting in an office building in Tucson, and you look up at the muted TV screen in your office and see this chyron that the president’s fired the FBI Director. That’s how most of us experienced the firing of James Comey. To the point that we were—we stopped to watch this happen to the point that we forgot we had a job to do. There’s this moment where I’m in the hallway in the West Wing, and Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway are talking, and Hope Hicks bursts through the door and says, “What are we doing?” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” “What are we doing? The president’s frustrated because there’s no one out on TV defending his decision to fire Comey.” It’s like we—first of all, we didn’t know that this was coming, so it was kind of hard to prepare for something we didn’t know that was coming. But we got so wrapped up in it, we forgot we’re kind of like supporting actors in this whole thing, and so we kind of jump in, jump to work there. I start typing up talking points for why we did this. They start organizing who’s going to go on TV and what are we going to say. And so it’s this weird kind of sequence of events. It was a very unique day, unique day in the White House, that there was really nothing else quite like that one. How do you know what to define as the reasons why he was fired? So this starts with, OK, from the White House counsel, this is a legal issue. It’s a DOJ issue. Tell us what to say. So that’s part of it. So we knew that we had letters from Rod Rosenstein, from Jeff Sessions, that had told the president that they think that he should fire James Comey. So we knew that that was a starting point. And then we go onto, you know, just talking points that are things that, you know, having written so many things for the president or having heard the way that he talked about issues so many times, there were other things I knew I could pivot to, like, you know, we want to restore the honor and integrity of the crown jewel of American law enforcement, which is the FBI, and we feel like James Comey has tarnished the reputation of the FBI. I mean, different things like that. And so it’s a combination of inputs from White House counsel’s office, looking back at the way the president has talked about these issues in the past, package up a talking-points document, and about two hours, I think, if I remember correctly, after he fired him, I blasted that out to all of Capitol Hill, all the people internally in the administration, all the people who were going to go out on television. And that’s kind of how they decided how to go on TV and talk about it. So that’s what people run with. Mm-hmm, that’s right. One of the things, one small thing is, when Hope Hicks comes in, she goes— she tells you, according to the book, Trump is fixated on the TV coverage, and then that none of you are doing anything. Talk just one more time about that moment. How does—how does Trump know about how this is being perceived, how it says, to some extent, how he is in charge of even the message going out, and so therefore he’s got to see first what’s going on? Just a little bit more about that. Yeah. So there’s this moment after the Comey firing where we all kind of become spectators, and we’re watching this happen. And Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer are standing in the hallway, and Hope Hicks bursts in the door and says: “The president is watching TV. He’s watching the coverage of the Comey firing, and there’s no one out there to defend him. You guys aren’t doing anything to fix this.” And this is a moment where you really understand the feedback loop that Trump kind of thrives on, which is: “I send out a tweet, or I make a decision, or I say something, or whatever it may be, and then I’m able to immediately go and watch the reaction. What are the talking heads saying about this? How is it being framed? How is it being covered by the media?” And so that’s why he spends a lot of time in the private dining room just off of the Oval, where this TV is, and I don’t think he’s unique in this desire to understand how things are being covered, but he has taken it to a level that we’ve never seen before from a president, I think. And so he’s watching this happening, and he doesn’t like that there—he certainly doesn’t like negative coverage, but what he really doesn’t like is negative coverage with nothing on the other side, with no one saying, “OK, but here’s why he’s did it,” or, “OK, here is why he’s right.” And so there was nobody on TV from the administration; none of our external allies were out on TV, on these panels, giving his perspective. And all of them were waiting. They didn’t know what to say. It was just like, they would go out, but they didn’t know what to say to this yet, so they were waiting for a direction. And so we kind of had to jump in and give them some direction on that. But that is a really clear picture of this feedback loop that he experiences with every decision. And so Sean goes out to the driveway in front of the White House and gives this little thing and focuses on Rosenstein’s letter. Kellyanne goes on television soon after and again basically the same—same points that you sort of have defined. So that’s—that’s the pitch. That’s—that was the decision to go forward? Yeah, that’s right. I think there was a lot of people focusing on, from a media perspective, focusing on the president’s reasoning behind this and, “Oh, he’s only doing it because of investigations into him,” and things like that, and the White House was trying to position it as: “No, there are plenty of justifications for this that have nothing to do with that. In fact, here’s a letter from Rod Rosenstein that sums that up. Here’s a letter from Jeff Sessions that sums that up.” So that was the attempt to message that in that way. So when the president then goes on NBC, and he defines to Lester Holt that he was going to fire Comey anyway, no matter what, you know, what letters he got, and then he talks about the Russian investigation as being on his mind when he decides that he’s going, what is that— what tremors does that send through your offices? Because you guys have basically been kind of selling a slightly different story. Well, this is, you know, the reality of being a comms person, particularly for those that are public-facing communicators— the press secretary, deputy press secretary, Kellyanne—who go out on TV. Every time that you go out and say something, there is a chance that the president is going to come behind you and completely blow up whatever you just said and take it in a different direction or change his mind or whatever it may be. And it’s just a reality of working there, and it’s one of the reasons why I never really had a desire to go on television, because that’s a—you’re going to have that happen at some points. And so people look at these things, these statements that members of the press team say versus things that Trump [says], and they assume that you just went out there and lied. The reality is, you went out there with the best information that you had, thinking that you were on the same page, and then he came and he changed his mind, and he did something—something else. And so people, I think, often assign nefarious intent behind, you know, an unfortunate reality of what it’s like to be a public spokesperson for Trump. … The other thing that happens the next day is the meeting in the Oval Office with the Russians, with [Ambassador Sergey] Kislyak and [Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov, and then eventually, not that long after, the Russian leak or hand out the video and photographs. And here he is, sort of, you know, laughing about, to some extent, with them and everything, and then making the statements that he says about the relief that Comey is gone, and now that— that will allow for relations to flourish more. When you guys see that, I mean, you know, you’ve got a job to do. It’s not an easy job, especially when you don’t always have the same messaging as the president has. What’s the discussion like behind closed doors, you know, after that meeting becomes public? I don’t—it’s another one I don’t remember. And I think that probably—I may not have been involved in that one. And part of it is, look, there are not a lot of rules in the Trump White House, but one of the unspoken rules that a lot of people try to abide by is when it comes to Russia, we just don’t talk about it. And so, I mean, literally, people leave the room if that topic comes up. And so I think the circle of people who have conversations about that is—is very small, and— and not that there aren’t legitimate conversations to be had, to your point, OK, how are we messaging this? You know, whatever. It’s a legitimate conversation. But I just wasn’t involved in a lot of those things. Why is it—why is it that people left? Why the uncomfort? Well, because I think you have a lot of staffers there, particularly at the kind of midlevel and junior levels, who—these are not wealthy people. These are government workers, a lot of them on the upswing of their careers, and they don’t want to have— they don’t have anything to do with any of this, and the last thing they want is hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills where they have to recount some innocuous conversation that—you know what I mean? So I think that’s—that’s certainly part of it. The Russia—the Russia issue more broadly speaking in the White House is one that sometimes I have a hard time wrapping my head around, because on one hand, you give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt. The guy says that he wants to have a better relationship with Russia. OK, that’s not a bad thing. I think all of us could agree it would be good if we— two nuclear powers could have a decent working relationship with—with each other. That being said, I think most of us are very clear-eyed on this is an adversary. They are not a—a good actor on the world stage. And so these things can be in conflict sometimes, when you want to have a— sincerely want to have a better relationship with a country who is your adversary, you try, but if they continue acting in bad faith, then that really changes the way that you have to deal with them. And so while I was not in the White House when this happened, when the president had that press conference with Putin, where they stood side by side, and I, as an American, I felt uncomfortable watching that. I’d never seen an American president interact that way with the leader of a foreign adversary at that—at that level. Now, again, I’m predisposed to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on a lot of these things, because I never saw any evidence whatsoever in any conversation or anything that made me think that there is some kind of nefarious something going on between he and Russia, the campaign and Russia, anything like that. But I also think that this goes back to everything being so personal for him, that this Russia issue has become so personal for him that he’s willing to stand on stage with Vladimir Putin and interact with him the way that he did, to thumb his nose at the establishment, who says— who’s going to be appalled and outraged by this. “You guys want to make Russia a big issue? Watch how I stand on stage with the president of Russia. Watch the way that I act.” So it’s almost like his personal feelings about this supersede the geopolitical aspect of the job of being the American president. But that moment, where he is saying basically that he— that he believes Putin when he’s talking about what did or did not—the Russians did or did not do in the election, and ignoring basically what the intelligence services all, you know, under his command are saying, it was an extraordinary moment. It really was. And again, this goes back to it being so personal for him, that in his mind, which is always focused on PR and messaging and communications, if he even concedes, if he even concedes that Russia did what they are accused of doing, that that somehow, in his mind, I think, makes him—it undermines his premise, which is that none of this stuff ever happened; we didn’t have anything to do with them, you know, because there is no nuance left in American politics. Part of that is the way Trump communicates; part of that is the way that the media covers things. But I think in his mind, trying to oversimplify things, or simplify things, there—he didn’t feel like he could say, “Yes, they did this, but I didn’t have anything to do with it,” because all the headlines in his mind are going to be, “Trump concedes Russia hacked the election,” or whatever it is. … The pressure in general of the [Robert] Mueller investigation on the White House and how that affected the president, and the fact that he would constantly be coming on saying “witch hunt” and always focusing on it and shifting the attention away from other things that were more positive to this frigging investigation again and again, did that have an effect on the staff? I think it, in some ways, it did have an effect on the staff, but in ways that you don’t fully understand until you’re gone, because if you had asked me while I worked in the White House, “Are you stressed?,” I would have said, “No.” It’s because you get used to anything. It’s like part of the human condition. You can be in any situation, and you can get used to it. And so I think it became just such a part of the White House operations, the way things went, the way the president operated, the way he talked, that in the moment, I never really thought about it that much. And I think it’s probably that way for a lot of people there. But in retrospect, certainly I remember, because I was running the messaging for tax reform, for instance, that when we were going on a trip to Missouri today to promote the tax bill, there’s always a chance that he is going to decide he wants to go back to the plane and have a gaggle with the press, or he’s going to get out there on the stage and, you know, decide he wants to talk about something completely different, including the investigation, and hammer on Mueller. And then all the headlines that day are about that instead of this policy issue that we’re trying to push. And so that was difficult sometimes, especially when you have, you know, people put in a lot of work into, you know, whatever the so-called message of the day is that we’re pushing in all these events and things that go around that. And the president can take it—it’s his prerogative. He can do what he wants to do, but it does sometimes make it difficult to work in that environment. … The Mueller investigation in general, what do you see? What’s at stake here? Well, on one hand, what’s at stake is about as big as it gets: Was the president of the United States elected in concert with a foreign power? I mean, I don’t know if it gets more fundamental to the republic than that. So the premise of the investigation is massive. But I just don’t think that’s true. And I don’t think that we’ve seen any evidence in a couple of years that—that that is true. And all of the indictments that have come down have nothing to do with that. It’s not to say that there weren’t bad things that these people did, and they deserve to be indicted, and, you know, whatever. So it’s not—so I don’t view it as a witch hunt in quite the same way the president does, I think, because there are legitimate things that they have found. At the same time, if they don’t find anything that really touches the president, what an extraordinary amount of damage has been done to our democracy by spending two years under this giant cloud over the whole country. So in a way, it’s a massive moment in American history either way. It’s a massive moment in American history if they find some evidence, which I don’t think they will, that Donald Trump or people close to him colluded with a foreign power to get him elected. It’s a massive moment if they don’t, because of the time, money, effort, and really just the national consciousness that has been wrapped up in this thing for a couple of years, in a way that maybe for my parents’ generation the Watergate stuff eroded trust in American institutions to a degree that we’d never seen before. Whether Mueller finds something or not, it has eroded trust in vital American institutions. If he doesn’t find anything, it’s eroded trust in the very system of justice, the rule of law, that is the cornerstone of our democracy. And John Adams famously said, “We’re a nation of laws, not of men.” And so that’s going to really hurt that institution. And the president has participated in that, beating up on the DOJ the way that he has. If they do find something, then it’s eroded trust in the most readily identifiable symbol of American democracy, which is the office of the president of the United States. So either way, it’s a profound moment in American history. I think you’re right. I mean, it—it really is about trust and the effect on trust in either direction, essential for, for instance, the institutions of the DOJ and the FBI. They can’t operate without trust. The president really can’t operate without trust. To a large extent, it’s whoever wins, trust has taken a beating. There are no winners. There are no winners. However this comes out, the United States of America lost for the last two years having been spent wrapped up in this investigation. So one way or another, we all lost. Because? Because of what we just talked about. Because … it creates a question of whether or not American democracy really is what we were raised to believe that it is. I mean, this is like really foundational principles that are being brought into question in a way that they haven’t in my lifetime. And so we’re all losers for that having to be a conversation. … Let’s talk about Charlottesville, because you write about it. So the famous Trump Tower presser after the couple of statements, and then, you know, the first statement which caused a ruckus, and then the second statement, which was prepared by the White House and sort of soothed things, and then the Trump Tower presser. He defends his Charlottesville stance, the “blame on both sides” statement. And you write the fact that the anxiety amongst the staff was like anything you hadn’t seen since the Access Hollywood thing. Talk about that moment and sort of what was going through your heads, why— why the anxiety, and sort of what your overview of it is. Well, I’m from Alabama, so when we talk about the issues that are kind of underpinning the Charlottesville moment, I’ve dealt with those issues for a long time. It’s part of Alabama history as well. And I think that while the president handled this certainly not in the way that I would have handled it, and it was a PR nightmare, I also think that it’s yet another instance where it’s like the country, we’re all watching the same movie, but there are two completely different things on the screen, depending on what our perspective is. So if you give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt, and he says, you know, this comment that there were “good people on both sides,” what does he mean by that? Well, what he means is, there are—you know, the monument debate. Should we have Confederate monuments? There are good people out there who say: “I hate racism. I hate slavery. But I also think that these monuments are a reminder of a very dark period of our history that we should not erase. We should remember these bad parts of our history as well.” And then there are good people who say: “We shouldn’t have monuments to slavery. We shouldn’t have monuments to racism. And that’s what I think they are, and I think they should go.” I think reasonable people can agree that on both sides of that conversation, there could be good, well-meaning, decent people. If you think Donald Trump is a racist, then you think that he just said there are good people on both sides, meaning there are good white supremacists out there and good non-white supremacists out there. You know, whatever. It just depends on your perspective on it. But the blowback to Charlottesville was so severe that it was really the first time that I heard, especially among more junior staffers, people asking the questions: “What does this mean for the rest of my career? Am I now inextricably tied to Donald Trump in a way that’s going to keep me from being able to get a job in the future?,” or, “Am I so offended by what I just heard that I have to leave out of principle?” Not since Access Hollywood had those conversations happened. When Access Hollywood happened, same kind of thing: “Do I have to leave now because of this?” … But there’s a lot of people that sort of say those comments that he makes— this is after self-proclaimed Nazis are marching in the streets, with torches, screaming about their attitude towards Jews very clearly; this is after one of the white supremacists rams down the crowd, killing one woman. Bannon said this to us yesterday also, is that it— well, it’s all about statues; it’s all about the statues. Well, that wasn’t—why wasn’t this president able to clarify that immediately and sort of— he didn’t say that during that press conference. Well, in some ways, I do think that he gets a raw deal sometimes from the media on things like this, that lack of nuance. That he speaks with a lack of nuance, they cover it with a lack of nuance. And you put those two things together, and you’ve got a recipe for everyone misunderstanding everybody else. That being said, the race issue in general, and Charlottesville being the most obvious example, is one where Donald Trump has not been able to bring himself to lead in a way that brings racial reconciliation and healing, and I think that has been a failure of his. So I do think he gets a raw deal on the—on the Charlottesville, what he said, and people assign nefarious feelings to that, and I don’t think that that’s fair to him. But I do think it’s totally fair to criticize him for not leading on the issue of race in a way that is healthy for our country. Why he is not able to lead on that issue, I don’t know. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I—and I do not know. And Steve Bannon’s role in all that? You write about that. … Steve would be the first one to say behind the scenes that these people are a joke; they’re a sideshow; this is such a small element of this country; these people are a disgrace. He would condemn them privately and say that, you know, whatever. But the—but the issue of standing up for our heritage, so to speak, which was the—these monuments, the willingness to say that you are not a racist just because you think that we should remember our—our history, Steve thought that this was an important cultural moment, because you have to remember, if Trump showed anything, and I think Steve Bannon is a huge believer in this, it’s that the culture always supersedes the political. So if you could have a cultural debate, you can control and dominate the conversation in a way that you never could talking about policy. And so Steve, I think, viewed Charlottesville as a cultural flashpoint that could have political ramifications, not as a political debate. Same thing with [Colin] Kaepernick, with the kneeling for the national anthem. That’s a moment to insert yourself into the culture in a way that most politicians never do, because culture— the politics always follows culture. … But the thing is, the confusing thing is, is that if you’re thinking about it politically, the numbers don’t work, because what you’re doing is you’re chasing away a lot of folks in the middle ground, which is the only way you win elections, and you’re catering to—to a base which is, you know, 35 to 40% of the mob. Yeah. Now again, I’m not saying that I agree with this. I’m trying to help you understand it a little bit, though. Steve is a believer that energy is more important than raw numbers; that if you can really energize 35% of the country and get them to turn out to vote, that you can— that the mushy middle is not going to feel inspired to go vote anyway. … People talk all the time about everything that Trump does politically is a base play, he’s playing to his base, and Steve Bannon being the example of the one who encourages him to, you know, “Let’s play to the base; let’s play to the base; let’s play to the base.” They feel vindicated that 2016 showed that if you energize a sliver of the country that that can be more powerful than kind of having this, you know, more even-keel message that we’re going to appeal to a little bit of everyone, and we’ll— we’ll get liberals and moderates and conservatives, and they’ll kind of come together. This idea that people come together and elect a candidate, Steve Bannon I think rejects that premise, and he says that, “I’m all about energizing this sliver,” and that that’s the way to win. And he sees 2016 as a vindication of that. And so some of the political decisions that, to your point, don’t seem to make sense from a raw numbers perspective, if you’re just talking about 51% of the country thinks this, 49% of the country thinks this, or maybe 60% of the country thinks this and 40% of the country thinks that, Steve doesn’t care. He says immigration—great example. If you poll the immigration issue, it’s often— Trump is often upside down on that, with whatever the specific policy would be. But if you poll it in a way that you find out what is the number one issue for someone, or what issue do they not really care about, for a—I don’t know what the number is—quarter of the country, the immigration issue is the most important issue, and so if Trump is all in for them, they’re going to vote. They’re going to be with him. Now, for 75% of the country, maybe they care about immigration. Maybe they’re like: “Whatever. It’s not in my top 10, and so even though I don’t like Trump on that, you know, there’s all these other issues that I really care about.” So that’s what he’s trying to get to, is if he can be these—maybe not one-issue voters, but they care about one issue more than another, go all in on those slices of the pie. And the energy that is created by being all in on people’s top issue, whatever it may be, outdoes this kind of broader strategy that a lot of politicians take. … And immigration as an issue, I mean, that was so important all the way through, from the campaign to— to throughout the last two years, motivation for Trump in that issue, and being so hot on it? I understand that Sessions was always there and on that, and certainly Steve Bannon was as well. The political move? Why? Why was immigration so key, and this wall issue is just so always there? So immigration in general, I find it very interesting that Donald Trump seems to have intuitively understood the immigration experience for Middle America in spite of being this guy that lives in a—almost a literal ivory tower in Manhattan. And I don’t know how or why. It may be that, because he worked in the construction industry, that he was exposed to the impacts of the immigration issue on construction workers. That’s maybe different than what a normal executive might experience. But I saw this during the primary. You know, I was working at a news outlet at—at the time, and when I went to a Marco Rubio rally or a Marco Rubio event, the people in the crowd looked a lot more like me. They had a suit on, and a tie. And they probably—you know, they were white-collar folks. And I would go to a Donald Trump rally, and to a lesser extent, but still like a Ted Cruz rally, and you saw working-class people. And immigration specifically affects those two groups in a profoundly different way. If you’re a white-collar worker in this country, with the exception of now in the tech space, where we’re seeing a lot more H-1B visa impact on some people in the tech sector, but for the most part, you view immigrant labor as a good thing because you’re having access to lower-cost labor. If you are a working-class American, you’re seeing this happen, especially with—with lower-skilled labor, where they’re—you view it as chopping the bottom rungs off of the economic ladder, that you’re trying to climb your way up, and you think you ought to be making 15 bucks an hour, but because the immigrants are coming in and taking these low-skilled jobs, suddenly that job is a $9-an-hour job, or whatever it may be. And so we talk about raw numbers. There are a lot more people who are impacted negatively, at least in their minds. These aren’t economic theorists that we’re talking about, that, oh, well, actually, bringing in immigrant labor does X, Y, Z to the economy, and it helps you in this kind of secondary or tertiary way. All they think is, that person just took my job. That person just took my friend’s job. Or I should be making 15 bucks an hour, but instead I’m making nine bucks an hour. Donald Trump could see that, and it’s kind of shown in the crowds that are out there, that a lot more people are directly impacted negatively, working-class folks, from influx of immigration, than the smaller group of white-collar people, who get access to lower-cost labor, the kind of chamber of commerce crowd. … …We talked about loyalty a lot, and one of the things you write near the end of the book is you realize at the end that the bottom line is loyalty only goes one way with Trump; that everybody is disposable, including yourself. What—what did you learn about loyalty and the president, and what does it say about Donald Trump? So loyalty and Donald Trump. There’s no question that loyalty is extremely important to him. The type of loyalty that matters the most to him is the type of loyalty that means that you’re willing to go out there and fall on a sword for him publicly. Something happens, go out on TV and defend him to the death. … And the thing that I—that I learned, though, was for Trump, loyalty is a one-way street; that when he’s in a difficult moment, he expects, he demands for you to put yourself on the line for him. But when you’re in a difficult moment as a staffer, or, you know, whatever, somebody in his orbit, he is not going to do that for you. He—so loyalty, in my view, now, my view of loyalty I think has really changed, because I think it’s something that good leaders earn, loyalty, because there’s mutual trust. And their character deserves, you know, you being loyal to them. So when there’s a difficult moment, you don’t abandon people; you stick by their side because they’ve earned that loyalty. And then there is the Trump loyalty, which is, it’s just expected of you; it’s demanded of you; that you stick by me through anything, and if you waver in any one second, I will throw you off this boat. And that’s—that is why I think—that’s part of the reason why there’s been such high turnover in there; that at some point, people can’t endure this working environment, and they leave, and they’re kind of like, thrown overboard. And so that was kind of how I felt, was I just thrown overboard. When it was no longer convenient for me to be around, and you know, you know, whatever, he was going to have to expend a little bit of energy to help me out, I wasn’t worth it. And I took that personally at first. But the more I look at it, the more I realize, I’m just one of many. You know, there are tons of people like me or anybody else. I mean, go down the list of people who have been thrown overboard at one point or another, that’s just how he—that’s just how he operates. And I don’t know. It was tough to—tough to come to terms with being unceremoniously abandoned by the president of the United States. But again, I’m far from the only person who’s experienced that. The one other thing that you talk about at the end of the book is the—you know, it’s clear that, you know, when he brought on [Rudy] Giuliani, I mean, the tactics that they’re using to protect him from the potential impeachment and such is to undermine institutions, undermine the investigation, undermine Comey, undermine Mueller, whatever. But that does some—some damage in the long run. You talk a little bit about whether he has the ability to rebuild after. Just give me a short synopsis of sort of your overview of the damage to institutions and what’s going on. So if you think back to the founding of our country, there was this moment in history where the old way was torn down, and this new world was built. But if you look at the people who were involved in those two things, they’re not always the same people. There were some people who were great at tearing down the monarchy, and they did not happen to be great at building a new world. And we are at this moment right now where Donald Trump is tearing down a lot of these old institutions. And one of the things I think we’ve realized is, the fact is, a lot of them were—a lot of them were— had corroded from the inside out; that there is real corruption. I mean, the swamp is a real thing. And so, you know, this concept of draining the swamp and everything that goes along with it, there’s a lot good that could come from that. But—but it’s sometimes difficult to watch. We talked earlier about, you know, the president of the United States standing next to the president of Russia and, you know, conducting himself the way that he did. The attacks on the Department of Justice, justified as some of them may be, have a— a very tough effect on people’s belief in the rule of law in our country. The way that he has attacked members of the judiciary is unprecedented. We’ve never seen that before. The way that he attacks his political opponents, that they’re—you know, I don’t think we’ve ever been at a point in this country— I think we have an overly rosy view of the past of American politics, that it was always this high-minded debate. Like, give me a break. It’s always been tough, but I think he has taken it to a level that we’ve never seen before. So the question is, after he tears this all down, can he build it back up, or is that going to be left to somebody to do behind him? If he gets a second term, maybe we’ll find out. But right now it’s unclear. And your overview? What do you think? Can he, or can’t he? I don’t know if it is in Donald Trump’s DNA to be a uniter in that way. I don’t know if that’s the way he operates. But he’s got an extraordinary opportunity, almost a Nixon-in-China-type opportunity, because to go to be such a divisive figure, if he were to pivot and suddenly become a uniter, a lot of the people who have been with him now would stick with him through that, and he would have a chance to do things that maybe no president has ever done before. But he loves fighting. He just loves the fight. And so I can’t imagine him not operating that way. I just can’t see it. So I think it probably is going to be left to whoever is next to bring the country back together.

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