Seems like quite a few crazies,” said the president.
A little more than three weeks before rioters and revelers stormed the Capitol on January 6, several thousand Trump fans and fanatics gathered in Washington, D.C. There were the Proud Boys in elaborate dress, ZZ Top beards, and tie-dyed kilts — Enrique Tarrio, a Proud Boy organizer, got in line and took a public tour of the White House — who seemed to have appointed themselves Trump’s protectors and vanguard, as the Hells Angels had once done for the Rolling Stones. There were Trump impersonators and a wide variety of other made-for-the-cameras MAGA costumes. There were veterans — or people in military gear trying to suggest patriotism and firepower. There were older men and women, too — more Las Vegas than Altamont. Virtually all without masks.
“It’s like Let’s Make a Deal,” said Trump the next day to a caller, referencing the long-running game show from the 1960s — many of his references have never left this psychic era — on which audience members dressed up in foolish costumes to get the attention of the host.
The speakers at the December 12 event were themselves a retinue of Trump attention seekers: Michael Flynn, the former general who had briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser before being rolled out of office for lying to the FBI, had, after pleading guilty, reversed himself and abjectly reaffirmed his Trump loyalty, finally getting his pardon just days before the rally. Sebastian Gorka, a figure of uncertain provenance and function in the Trump White House during its first months, was one of the early oddballs to be pushed out when John Kelly became chief of staff and had pursued a Trump-based media career ever since. Also speaking: MyPillow entrepreneur Mike Lindell, a former drug addict and a current fevered conspiracist.
Four people were stabbed and 33 arrested, most in the several-hour mêlée that took place after sundown. This was, in hindsight, a run-through. But it was also a pretty good insight into Trump’s relationship to his army of supporters. The president often expressed puzzlement over who these people were with their low-rent “trailer camp” bearing and their “get-ups,” once joking that he should have invested in a chain of tattoo parlors and shaking his head about “the great unwashed.”
The fan base had always been peculiar to him. For most politicians, vox populi is a pretty remote concept, one brought home only with polling, press, and elections. Trump’s regular and, during some periods, nearly constant performances at stadium rallies gave him a greater direct route and connection to his base than any politician in the modern television age. It was adulation on a par with that of a pop star — a massive pop star. (“The only man without a guitar who can fill a stadium,” he liked to say about himself in another of his 1960s-stuck references.) Stars like him needed fans, but this did not mean that a fan was not a strange thing to be. The more devoted the fan, the odder the fan. Like any megastar, Trump saw his fans from a far distance out. Certainly, there was no personal connection. A star could not assume responsibility for his fans, could he?
By dawn on January 6, the crowd of great unwashed was building, with the various organizers of the various events each pulling in larger-than-expected numbers. From the perspective of the White House, the protest was still just background noise, a tailgate party before the main event: Vice-President Mike Pence counting, and they hoped rejecting, the electors representing the final tally of the November vote. That would begin at 1 p.m.
The remaining group of aides around the president that morning in the White House was down to Mark Meadows, the chief of staff; Eric Herschmann, one of Trump’s on-call lawyers; and Dan Scavino, his social-media alter ego, with Jason Miller, Justin Clark, Alex Cannon, and Tim Murtaugh, the last employees from the campaign, either working from home or, in the case of Clark, heading to a Republican National Committee winter meeting in Florida. All of them had woken up with something close to the same thought: How is it going to play when the vice-president fails to make the move the president is counting on him to make? And make no mistake: Each fully understood Mike Pence was not going to make that move.
Just as relevant, none of the seven men had precisely told the president this. They, along with almost everyone else in the White House, as well as those who had slipped out, just wanted this to be over.
This was not an uncommon feeling in the final days of the Trump presidency. There was the world within shouting distance of the Oval Office — privy to the president’s monologues, his catalogue of resentments, agitation, desires, long-held notions, stray information, and sudden inspirations with little practical relationship to the workings of government — and then there was the more normal world beyond that. Early in Trump’s presidency, aides noted that a second-floor office, where the likes of Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway worked, meant a degree of exclusion but also protection: Trump would never climb the stairs (and, by the end of his term, he never had).
To the degree that Trump had, for four years, been running the government with scant idea of the rules and practices of running the government, he was now doing it virtually without anybody who did have some idea and desire to protect both him and themselves from embarrassment or legal peril. Jared Kushner was, to his own great relief, in the Middle East, wrapping up what he saw as his historic mission: his peace deals. The president had all but banished the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone (who was grateful to be banished), and was speaking instead to Herschmann. Herschmann, believing he understood how to move the president, tended to offer objections that sounded awfully like the plaudits of a yes-man. Kayleigh McEnany had been strategically missing in action for several weeks. The remaining campaign officials (Jason Miller, Clark, Cannon) tended to be merely on the receiving end of Trump’s calls and opinions. And everybody else was, effectively, cleared out. White House wags noted that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had fled as far as Sudan — where he was negotiating a good-behavior economic pact with the former terrorism-sponsor nation — to get distance from this last election gasp. The one person Trump did have at his side, Rudy Giuliani, was drinking heavily and in a constant state of excitation, often almost incoherent in his agitation and mania.
Almost everyone who remained around the president understood that he, along with Giuliani, did in fact actually believe that there was yet a decent chance of upsetting the electoral count and having Trump declared the Electoral College winner or, failing that, prolonging the election and returning the fight to the disputed states. The president’s aides (and family) understood, too, that he was the only one (along with Giuliani, which only made the situation more alarming) in any professional political sphere to believe this. Hence — although they did not call it such and tried to see it as more nuanced — derangement.
There had been hardly a waking hour in the past 48 during which he and Giuliani had not been on the phone in pent-up nervousness and excitement over the coming battle in Congress on January 6. They were two generals poring over a map of the battlefield. Both men, egged on by hypotheticals ever nearer to fantasy and after exhausting all other options, had come to take it as an article of faith that the vice-president could simply reject Biden electors in favor of Trump ones and thereby hand the election to Trump; or, falling short of that, that the vice-president could determine that a state legislature ought to give further consideration to possible discrepancies in the state’s vote and send back the questioned electors for a reconsideration of their certification.
“There is no question, none at all, that the VP can do this. That’s a fact. The Constitution gives him the authority not to certify. It goes back to the state legislatures,” said Giuliani, as though on a loop. He kept repeating this to the president and to the others who were part of the continual conversation on his cell phone. (“Yes … Yes … Yes … Here’s the thing … Hold on a second … Hey, let me get back to you …”)
The president, in his own loop, kept similarly repeating this back to Giuliani.
And they both similarly repeated this to everyone else with such insistent determination that it overrode any opportunity to disagree with them or even engage in the conversation. Throughout, they continued to weigh the odds that the vice-president would come along: sometimes 50-50, sometimes as much as 60-40, even somewhat more. At the grimmest, 30-70. But always a solid shot.
The rest of the president’s aides gave it essentially no chance. They weren’t putting much stock in the January 6 rally, which looked to those around Trump less like a way to keep the president in power than a way to make money afterward.
Here was the math: He was going to lose the White House; that was certain. But he was going to be left with enormous reach and sway and influence. As the great unwashed were gathering, on the evening of January 5, there was another gathering, at the Trump Hotel, of ranking Republicans, all primarily there to plan and to fund-raise for 2022. This included a circle of top-draw Trump celebrities, Don Jr., Flynn, and Corey Lewandowski among them, and presentations by groups such as the Republican Attorneys General Association.
The primary organizer was Caroline Wren, the most prodigious fund-raiser in the Republican Party. On the eve of a protest over the 2020 election, Wren had assembled 30 to 40 major Republican donors. The organizers of the rally where the president would speak included Amy Kremer and her daughter Kylie Jane Kremer, tea-party and pro-Trump super-PAC activists, organizers, and fund-raisers; Ali Alexander, another right-wing organizer and Trump fund-raiser; and Alex Jones, the conspiracist media personality — each of them with a direct financial interest in the day’s events and in future dealings with the Trump money machine.
Early in the morning, Jason Miller called Boris Epshteyn, the shuttle between the Giuliani camp and the Trump aides, for a reality check: “So … how exactly do we think this is going to go today?”
“Short answer: We have no idea.”
“How many states are teed up?” The number of states receiving House and Senate objections would determine how long and how pitched the day’s events would be.
“We’re still not sure.”
“And the chance of anything going anywhere? Really, ballpark me.”
“And then what?”
“Then it’s over.”
When Miller spoke to the president at 8 a.m., he was looking for a reaction to the loss of the Senate in Georgia — counting from the day before was only just finishing. As per their usual routine, the president, who had seen that morning’s coverage, asked Miller to recap it. Who was getting blamed? But of course the president right away told Miller the answer to what he was asking.
“It’s all about the $2,000 — if Mitch had just cut those checks. Do people get this? The Dems’ closing ads were all about those checks,” the president said. He asked Miller what he thought Pence would do and then told Miller that Pence would do the right thing.
The family arrived at the White House shortly before 10 a.m. Don Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, Eric and Lara, and Ivanka, on her own — Jared was on his way back from the Middle East. It was a good-feeling gathering, even a bit of a party. The president might still be dug in, but his family was moving on — and wanting to acknowledge this most remarkable four years they had experienced. No regrets. Come on — who would have expected any of this!
One curious point of consideration for the family that morning — prescient of the events that would shortly unfold — was a follow-up to a discussion initiated some months before by aides and family. Trump representatives, working with Trump-family members, had approached Parler, the social network backed by Bob Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, far-right exponents and large Trump contributors. They had floated a proposition that Trump, after he left office, become an active member of Parler, moving much of his social-media activity there from Twitter. In return, Trump would receive 40 percent of Parler’s gross revenues and the service would ban anyone who spoke negatively about him.
Parler was balking only at this last condition.
This was now being offered by the family as a carrot to entice the president out of the White House (it was also a potential future family revenue stream): Trump could do what he loved to do most and potentially make a fortune off it. It was a given in the Trump White House that he was one of social media’s most valuable assets and that he would like nothing better than to share, monetarily, in that value.
Giuliani left the Willard with John Eastman, a right-wing constitutional scholar whom Giuliani had recruited to argue the vice-president’s wide latitude in accepting or rejecting presidential electors; Bernie Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who went to prison on federal tax-fraud charges and to whom, at Giuliani’s urging, Trump granted a full pardon; and Epshteyn at a little before 10 a.m. Giuliani was now in hyperdrive over Pence. To the president, Giuliani was still offering good odds that the vice-president would come through. To others, he was saying that Pence just didn’t have the balls to do what could be done.
On the evening of January 4, as both the president and the vice-president were returning from a campaign swing in the runoff Senate races in Georgia, Giuliani arranged yet another come-to-Jesus meeting for the president and vice-president on the subject of the VP’s ability to upset the election — this time with Eastman in attendance. Marc Short, the VP’s chief of staff, believed they had made it absolutely clear that the vice-president believed he had no discretion in the electoral count and was reluctant to reprise the discussion. He agreed now to the meeting only to avoid insulting the president — and only on the understanding that Giuliani, whom Short considered unhinged, would not be present.
The next day, the president again called Pence on the carpet — the meeting at which the president famously asked Pence, “Do you want to be a patriot or a pussy?” At other points, he was more politic. “You want to do the right thing,” said the president. “I very much want to do the right thing,” said the vice-president. “That’s all I want to do.”
Giuliani had spent weeks telling everyone that they knew exactly what was going to happen, that they could depend on Pence, no question at all about that.
Coming out of the Willard, Giuliani ran into Roger Stone in the lobby. When Giuliani asked if he was going to the rally, Stone said he hadn’t been invited. He didn’t even know who had organized it, he said.
The four men were let out of their car and had to walk across the grass to the Ellipse. They were already freezing by the time Giuliani went on at about 10:50.
At 11:45 a.m., the White House entourage, including Meadows, Herschmann, and Scavino, piled into the Beast, the presidential limo, and the follow-on vehicles for the two-minute ride to the rally-staging area (mostly the president liked to ride alone with the rest of the entourage following). The Trump family was already there. The greenroom tent was almost giddy. Nostalgia was beginning. Don Jr. had his phone out, filming the moment.
A few days before, rally organizers had amended their estimate of the crowd’s size from 5,000 to 30,000. Various media reports were now putting it at more than 10,000. The best estimate put the crowd somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 — a righteous cold-weather turnout for a defeated president. During his speech, the president would pause to observe that he reckoned there were 250,000 people there. In days to come, he would raise his estimate to 1 million.
He came onstage to his standard anthem, “God Bless the U.S.A.,” but with less swagger than usual — slower, less sure, even. He was in a black overcoat and black gloves: a strongman look.
The speech, shortly on its way to becoming the most notorious of his presidency, and the key piece of evidence for his imminent second impeachment, was a B-grade delivery. Not long into it, Giuliani and his crew, with freezing toes, left and went back to the Willard. They had heard it all before.
At about 12:30 p.m., midway through Trump’s speech, the vice-president’s office released a two-and-a-half-page letter explaining that “after a careful” study, the vice-president had concluded that he was not able to reject votes unilaterally or, in effect, to do anything else, beyond playing his ceremonial role, that the president might want him to do.
“Oh, shit,” noted Miller at home, sending the statement to Giuliani, Epshteyn, and Scavino and leaving it to one of them to tell the president. Everybody else thought Oh, shit, too.
At the Ellipse, Trump’s delivery was more singsong than bombastic and explosive. He was rushing through it. Ordinarily, he’d have thrown some red meat out and waited for the reaction — always, clearly, the moments of his keenest enjoyment — but now he was just plunging forward. “After this, we’re going to walk down — and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down. We’re going to walk down any one you want, but I think right here. We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
He had added that part: the walk. After this, we’re going to walk down — and I’ll be there with you. The walk wasn’t in the text. The entourage heard little else — the hundreds upon hundreds of hours of Trump rallies that they all had been subjected to blurred into the usual blah-blah, but they heard that line: the walk. He did not mean this, of course. Trump didn’t walk anywhere.
Meadows and Scavino had slipped out and weren’t listening to the speech. One of the Secret Service agents hurried to get Meadows aside and tell him the president said he was planning to march to the Capitol with the protesters.
“No. There’s no way we are going to the Capitol,” said Meadows.
Meadows confirmed this with the president as soon as he came off the stage at 1:11 p.m.
The president seemed unsure what Meadows was talking about.
“You said you were going to march with them to the Capitol.”
“Well — ”
“How would we do that? We can’t organize that. We can’t.”
“I didn’t mean it literally,” Trump said.
By 1:30, the president was back at the White House, his family returning with him. Lunch was waiting.
Don Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle and Eric and Lara Trump left, and Ivanka hung around.
Trump was back on the phone trying to get new information on Pence. The Joint Session had convened at 1 p.m. Arizona was the first objection.
The state had occupied a special place in the president’s paranoia ever since Election Night, when Fox News had called it for Biden much earlier than its competitors — and much earlier than Trump’s data team had believed was plausible.
The president was looking for coverage of the breakout sessions in Congress, when both the Senate and the House would return to their respective chambers and debate the challenges to the various states. But only C-SPAN seemed to be on it. Giuliani, calling from the Willard, where he had watched the remainder of the president’s speech and was just seeing the first mentions of disorder in the streets, gave him a breathless report on Pence but without any new information. That said, he was also promising that as many as six states would be contested, hence a volatile situation — We just didn’t know what’s going to happen (his breathlessness was only increasing). Meadows was in close touch with Jim Jordan. But the details Jordan was offering were unsatisfying. The president was, in theory, waging an extraordinary legislative fight, one with hardly any precedent — the culmination of a two-month battle in which he had considered little else and on which both his immediate future and his place in history depended. But other than via his own tweets and fulminations and his meeting the day before with the vice-president, nobody in the White House was much participating or even present.
There was nobody on the White House side whipping votes. There was nobody on the White House side who was particularly up-to-date on who might be with them or against them other than from public reports. To the extent that, as the media darkly warned, there was an extraordinary plot to hold on to power — an incipient coup, even — there really were only two plotters, with no one to back them up. Trump had no functioning political staff, the White House counsel’s office had been all but shut down (to the degree the office was still functioning, it was almost entirely focused on vetting pardon pleas), and the leadership of the Justice Department was in disarray.
All the same, the president and Giuliani, in their bubble, remained confident that success was there for them to grab.
At 1:49 p.m., the president retweeted a video of his Ellipse speech. At just about this time, rioters were breaching the Capitol door.
At two o’clock, the president and Giuliani — the president in the White House and Giuliani at the Willard — tried to find Tommy Tuberville, the recently seated senator from Alabama, but they instead mistakenly called Mike Lee, the Utah senator, on his cell phone. Lee, amid the increasing confusion as reports started to come in of mobs breaching the Capitol fences, found Tuberville and put him on the phone. The president and Giuliani seemed to have no idea what was occurring, and Tuberville was either unsuccessful in telling them or thought better of trying.
At about 2:15 p.m., Epshteyn, watching television in Giuliani’s suite at the Willard, was one of the first people in the greater Trump circle to start, with some sense of panic, to take note of what was happening. Epshteyn spoke to Miller, who called Meadows.
“I’m sure you’re tracking this,” Miller said.
“Yeah, I know. Some things are moving here that I can’t get into at the moment,” Meadows said.
Miller assumed the White House was mobilizing the National Guard. By 2:20 p.m., both the House and Senate had adjourned.
At 2:24 p.m., the president, having been informed that Mike Pence had not rejected the Arizona Biden electors, tweeted:
Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!
Reading the tweet in the Capitol bunker, the siege now in progress, Pence and Short, hardly for the first time, noted how far off the president could be from the page everyone else was on. That was the generous interpretation.
In part, the president seemed just not to be grasping the facts as they were coming through — mounting crowds, breached barricades, protesters entering the Capitol. Or maybe he was simply disagreeing with them: These people were protesting the election, he was still repeating as late as 2:30. The protesters wanted Pence to do the right thing. These were good protesters: his protesters.
Meadows, Herschmann, and Scavino began pressing the president to make some public acknowledgment of what was happening and to admonish the protesters, but his attention was elsewhere, still focused on the vice-president. Fourteen minutes after his tweet attacking Pence, at 2:38 p.m., the aides managed to get a tweet out from the president composed by Scavino: “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”
Approaching 3 p.m., the pressure for the president to say something quickly mounted.
Ivanka Trump had been floating around the West Wing, chatting to a variety of people. Her children had gotten into private school in Florida, and she was pleased about this — an excited topic of conversation. She was pulled away from her discussion about schools to join the increasingly tense debate about how to respond to the news.
The president, though, was digging in his heels. He remained singularly focused on the electoral challenge and had blinders on to everything else — at least, that was how everybody was rationalizing something close to his total failure, willful or not, to understand what was going on. At the same time, no one in the White House was seeing this as the full-on assault on the Capitol and the nail in the coffin of the Trump administration that the world would shortly understand it to be; they were, for perhaps another 90 minutes or so, still treating this as “an optics issue,” as Ivanka was putting it.
It wasn’t until later in the three o’clock hour that Trump seemed to begin the transition from seeing the mob as people protesting the election — defending him so he would defend them — to seeing them as “not our people.” Therefore, he bore no responsibility for them.
Giuliani and Epshteyn were still watching television reports from the Willard. Giuliani was on the phone with the president, relating, with growing concern, what he was seeing on television, but both men were still talking about the vice-president and what might happen in the electoral count.
Ivanka wasn’t casting off the protesters entirely — here was the base. “American Patriots,” she addressed them directly in a tweet at 3:15, which she would shortly delete, “any security breach or disrespect to our law enforcement is unacceptable. The violence must stop immediately. Please be peaceful.”
The debate about putting the president out there to say something — something calming — continued for as much as an hour.
There were three views: that he must, as fast as possible, say something — it was getting serious (though no one yet was seeing this as the defining moment of his presidency); his own view, which was that he should say nothing — it was not his fault or responsibility, and he certainly didn’t want to give a speech that might imply it was; and, lastly, that anything he said, instead of helping to address the problem, might well make matters much worse, as it did when he was forced to make a speech condemning the racist protesters in Charlottesville.
Aides put in front of the president two suggested tweets, written in Trump’s voice, which they hoped he might accept:
Bad apples, like ANTIFA or other crazed leftists, infiltrated today’s peaceful protest over the fraudulent vote count. Violence is never acceptable! MAGA supporters embrace our police and the rule of law and should leave the Capitol now!
The fake news media who encouraged this summer’s violent and radical riots are now trying to blame peaceful and innocent MAGA supporters for violent actions. This isn’t who we are! Our people should head home and let the criminals suffer the consequences!
Trump either rejected them or ignored them (other than Dan Scavino, Trump didn’t like anyone else writing his tweets).
The challenge now became how to use Trump’s own arguments to convince him that he had to do something — what passed for the Socratic method in the Trump White House. He had often said what he needed to say, so just say it again: He and the Republican Party represented law and order, so how could he not speak out about lawlessness? He should urge his people, the good people, to go home and leave the bad people.
Still, he did not see the necessity of speaking out. It wasn’t as bad as the media were saying it was. People were saying it was bad just to blame it on him. It took 35 minutes from his “Stay Peaceful” tweet to get him to go further — with Scavino as the author:
I am asking for everyone at the U.S. Capitol to remain peaceful. No violence! Remember, WE are the Party of Law & Order — respect the Law and our great men and women in Blue. Thank you!
The entire narrative of the election — and indeed the Trump presidency — was quickly being transformed: The Capitol was under siege; the “steal” was moot. But Trump remained fixed in his obsession: The election had been taken from him, and whatever happened, someone had to give it back; he could not see or think or imagine beyond this.
By 3:30 p.m., he was telling callers that, yes, he had decided to say something. He was going to speak. But he was still repeating that the election had been stolen and was seeking assurances from each caller that the protests were overblown — that it was mostly a peaceful protest, wasn’t it?
Every one of the people yet in the White House as well as those who had slipped out, along with the president’s large traveling retinue, his family, the many members of Congress seeking photo ops with him, and the legions of favor seekers, had all been at rally after rally and, over and over again, seen vivid demonstrations of the exotic, self-dramatizing, out-from-under-a-rock Trump fan base. But now, to a person, to a political professional, they were dumbfounded and awestruck — revulsion competing with incomprehension.
In part, the radically faithful had simply been concentrated. The merely eager party types, and the Las Vegas audience sorts, and the local business proprietors, and the family-outing Republicans, and the VFW-post members, and various church groups, the salt of the Republican earth, more or less in normal dress, all had mostly self-selected out, leaving what was generally, if abstractly, referred to in the Trump circle as the “hard core.” But no one had ever come so clearly face-to-face with this pure hard core as was happening now and would happen, in video footage and in indictments, in the weeks to come. Even Trump himself, the clearest channel through to this fan base, was growing confused.
As he went upstairs to the residence, he seemed, said some of the people talking to him there by phone, at a terrible loss. The monologue slowed and even paused, with a few people not even sure that this otherwise-unstoppable monologuist was still on the line.
At about this time, Scavino informed Trump that he had been booted off Twitter — still a temporary suspension. For more than four years, he’d been told that this was always a possibility, and every time, he’d responded that Twitter needed him more than he needed it.
The doubtless president was, at least for a moment, someone else. “I don’t know what to do here,” he said to one caller not long after 7 p.m. — as stark a sense of uncertainty and even crisis as the caller had ever heard the president express.
The notable thing is that he seemed to have finally recognized that the main event, the certification of the electoral votes, was now far from the main event. He may even have realized that after 64 days of struggle, it was over.
Jason Miller, at home in Arlington, was lying stupefied in bed with his wife, watching the video loops of the day over and over again and hoping there was a plan. But no one called. At 9 p.m., he got out of bed, opened his laptop, and started to write a statement. A statement — the considered language of politics, the true mandarin’s language — was an indication of ongoing business. This meant doing what Trump had refused for the past 64 days to do: acknowledge that Joe Biden would inevitably be the next president.
But there was not going to be an abject or contrite Trump or even a formally defeated one. It was necessary to skip over the fairness of the election and to skip over the Trump-told narrative — the election in his mind would remain stolen, forever stolen. This statement could certainly not be the official, belated concession — at least not to Trump — but it had to establish acceptance, a fait accompli, and put Trump’s stamp on the new, if disagreeable, reality.
Miller was trying to get the headline, the chyron roll: the message from Trump that something had changed.
Not exactly the torch passing, and hardly a round of applause for democracy in action.
That was as far as the president could be moved. He called Kushner and read him the draft.
“Will you call the president?” Kushner smoothly pushed Miller into the fray.
Miller called Meadows, still in the West Wing, and then the president. The president seemed eager to hear from Miller, eager to be on the phone. Most often for Trump, the phone was a one-way instrument: Callers listened.
“How bad is this?” Trump asked, a stark difference from his usual opener, “How are we doing?” — which was not, ordinarily, a question at all but a preface to Trump’s saying how well everything was going.
“Mr. President, today is literally going to change everything.”
“This looks terrible. This is really bad. Who are these people? These aren’t our people, these idiots with these outfits. They look like Democrats. Hold on, our great First Lady is here,” said Trump, switching to speakerphone.
“Jason,” said the great First Lady with a sharp note. “The media is trying to go and say this is who we are. We don’t support this.”
“That’s what we have to make clear,” said Miller, relieved that the president and First Lady were seeing the protesters as bad guys rather than good guys (and not a mix of the two). Pushing through, Miller told the president and First Lady that he had just gotten off the phone with Kushner and Meadows and that they had a proposal for later that evening if Biden reached an electoral majority. He went into reading the statement draft.
The president suggested “peaceful” transition instead of “orderly.” Miller said that that called attention to the fact that it wasn’t peaceful now and might not be peaceful. “Orderly,” Miller did not say, suggested not just an absence of disruption but that all the aspects of government would pass, as they should, to a new administration. “Peaceful” put it in someone else’s hand; “orderly” meant cooperation, too — the Trump White House would cooperate with the incoming Biden White House. It wasn’t just the protesters who needed to stop; Trump needed to extend himself, too. After all, it wasn’t just the recount effort and the election challenge behind the protests but Trump’s personal intransigence.
Trump seemed to appreciate this now, to walk back, even. “The media thinks I’m not going to leave,” said the president. “Do they really think that? That’s crazy.”
“We’ve never laid that out,” said Miller, with some deadpan. “I really can’t stress enough how much we have to make it clear that we’re fully onboard with an orderly transition.”
“We didn’t tell people to do something like this. We told people to be peaceful. I even said ‘peaceful’ and ‘patriotic’ in my speech!”
“I’ll work with Dan on getting this out,” Miller told the president. Saying this, Miller suddenly wondered if they would even have the tools and channels to get it out. Every call — to the wires, networks, and major dailies — yielded variations on the same question: When are we going to hear directly from the president? When is he going to come and talk about it? When is he going to stand in front of us and in front of the American people?
This is over, Miller thought. This is the end of the road. Of all the news outlets, only Fox had never gotten back to him. Even Fox, Miller accepted, was truly over Trump.
Scavino could use only his personal Twitter account to finally, at 3:49 a.m., get out the president’s statement.
If this was an attempted putsch, it had not only failed but shown its leader to be almost a random participant in it, without method or strategy. Disorder had always been his element, and it was now his followers’, too. But he was not so much with them as alone in his own rebellion and desires, a bubble of grievance that somehow floated apart from actual events, even events that were meant to make real the president’s own delusions.
Excerpted from Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency, by Michael Wolff (Henry Holt and Co.; July 27, 2021).