'Stable Genius' Authors Describe Trump Presidency As A 'Den Of Dysfunction'
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. As the impeachment trial gets underway in the U.S. Senate, we take a look at the Trump presidency through the eyes of two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters from The Washington Post. Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig's new book is an unsettling look at the first 2 1/2 years of the Trump administration. There's the moment when a raging President berates his senior military leaders, calling them losers, another where he appears not to know what happened at Pearl Harbor and many instances of erratic decision-making, driven by the whims of a president with little patience for the details of public policy. They write that by 2018, White House advisers had come to expect crises because the president placed so much value in cable news musings and so little in the expertise of his own government.
Carol Leonnig is a national investigative reporter for the Post. She won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on security failures and misconduct inside the Secret Service. Philip Rucker is The Post's White House bureau chief. He and a team of reporters won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The title of their book is taken from words President Trump has used to describe himself. It's called "A Very Stable Genius."
Well, Carol Leonnig, Philip Rucker, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about some of the - what you reveal in the book. And I think one of the things that's gotten the most headlines so far are details on a briefing for the president in July of 2017 in the Pentagon. And some of the things the president said have been - gotten a lot of attention. But I want you to begin by just telling us - because I find this also interesting - who set up the briefing, why they wanted to do it and how they structured it to get the president and keep the president's attention.
PHILIP RUCKER: Yeah. Dave, this meeting was a really important inflection point for President Trump. It was about six months into the administration. And his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, the top economic adviser, they were really alarmed by the president's lack of knowledge about the world, by his lack of understanding about military deployments and bases all around the globe and felt like they needed to basically school him, to tutor him. So they arranged for this meeting at a sacred space in the Pentagon. It's the tank. That's what they call it. It's a private room where decisions of war and peace are determined by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They brought the president there. And they went through a slideshow explaining, you know, where our troops are deployed, why we have the alliances we do, what does NATO do, why do we have so many troops in South Korea in the Korean Peninsula to fend off the threat of North Korea. And the president got irritated by this "Schoolhouse Rock!" vibe in the room. And he ended up barking at the generals in the room and the other advisers. He said, you're a bunch of dopes and babies. Those are his words. He said, I wouldn't go to war with you people. And it was a really harrowing moment. It was emotional - generals who had to cover their eyes because they were so worried about this moment.
Vice President Pence didn't say anything, even though his son is in the military. Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, was the only one to stand up to confront the president. And after the meeting ended, he said that the president was an effing moron. And this was so important because now we're at the precipice of a possible war with Iran. And President Trump, if this is how he respects - or disrespects, rather - the military leaders, the relationship he has with the people, he's going to be counting on to lead Americans into battle, that is alarming for those in the military, according to the people we spoke with.
DAVIES: Right. He said I wouldn't go to war with you people, you're losers, right?
RUCKER: That's right. And he called the war in Afghanistan a loser war.
DAVIES: Now, you know, you have direct quotes here, pretty extraordinary quotes, and there's no recording or transcript. How can you be sure of what he said?
CAROL LEONNIG: We talked to multiple people who were either eyewitnesses to this event or briefed on it later. We had people in the book review their contemporaneous notes, their diaries, their own reflections. We worked our tails off to be sure that we caught as much of this scene as we could as accurately as we could. And so many people consistently, Dave, described this. And I will add one more thing about the comment that the president made. Many of the people in this room thought that that was the worst insult that anyone could ever say in the tank - I wouldn't go to war with you people - and many of them vowed never to talk about it publicly until ultimately they shared it with us for this book.
RUCKER: And it's worth adding, Dave, that the dialogue - and we say this in the author's note of the book - cannot necessarily be exact, but it's the absolute best version of the truth that Carol and I were able to determine based on all the reporting, the rigorous reporting that we did with these firsthand sources.
DAVIES: Take us a little bit more inside the give and take here because the idea was to provide him with some basic information. Give us a sense - I mean, before these explosive comments were exchanged - kind of how the president reacted to this tutorial.
LEONNIG: So keep in mind, as Phil described, that these three very senior people in the administration are hopeful about guiding a novice president. They're excited about the opportunity to help teach him. They have been frustrated, to be clear, because he doesn't seem to know, you know, why it's important to have these bases that basically, as Mattis said numerous times in this meeting, this is what keeps us safe, Mr. President. And they wanted to help him. But there's something really interesting that comes out in this scene and is repeated over and over again with President Trump, which is he doesn't like people telling him what's going on or what's true or what they - what expertise they bring to bear on a subject. That almost is an insult to him. And he says, you know what? I don't need to hear anymore. I know. I have good instincts. And that is basically his reaction in this room.
He doesn't enjoy hearing that there should be bases on the Korean Peninsula. He talks about how they need to make some money, why foreign countries need to pay our military to be where they are based to protect the Middle East or protect Western Europe. He is saying, you know, we need to make money off this. And that is something that just drives so many people in the room bonkers to the point that Rex Tillerson stands up and says, that's not why people put on a uniform, Mr. President. They're protecting our freedom. It's not about making money. It's not about making a buck.
DAVIES: It was remarkable that Tillerson was the one figure in the room who directly contradicted the president.
LEONNIG: You know, one thing about that moment is - that both Phil and I found so chilling - is that many in the room are waiting for someone to say something, palpably waiting. Mike Pence is like a wax figure. He says nothing, and that really troubles some of the people in the room. Many are waiting for Mattis to say something, but his head is kind of bowed, and it's almost like he's just taking it, taking it on the chin. And when he doesn't say anything, that's when Tillerson says, look, I'm going to have to step in. They all kind of come to some sort of silent acknowledgement that the - basically the Pentagon brass can't speak back to their commander in chief.
DAVIES: The other thing that I found interesting about this anecdote is that when these officials - you know, Defense Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn - were planning this, they took a lot of care to craft a presentation which they thought would capture and hold the president's attention. What kind - how did they do that?
RUCKER: You know, that far into the administration, the advisers learned that the president didn't take briefings like any other president. He doesn't read the intelligence book. He doesn't like to listen to long lectures or explanations about what the intelligence is. He likes to see graphics, videos, charts, dollar signs, his own name. And so what Mattis and Cohn and Tillerson did is they put together a slideshow presentation that would accentuate all of those, features that would have, you know, a map of the world and lots of dollar signs and facts and figures and make it much more readable in a way, easier for President Trump to comprehend and not get distracted or bored by. Early in the administration, I interviewed Mike Pompeo, who was then the CIA director, and he said, you know what the president likes? And these are Pompeo's words - killer graphics. And that's the way they learned to deliver intelligence to him.
DAVIES: And Trump's name was on every screen.
RUCKER: Well, not on every screen, but they found as many opportunities as they could to sort of make it about him and make him feel connected to the presentation and the briefing.
DAVIES: There's a lot in here about his relationship with President Putin. Wanted to - what insights did you get into how Trump thought he could deal with Putin and how Putin regarded President Trump?
RUCKER: You know, it's interesting. From the very beginning - this was right after the election, during the transition period, when Trump was trying to staff his cabinet. He was in an interview, a job interview, with one of his secretary of state candidates. And he turned to Reince Priebus, who was set to become the White House chief of staff, and asked Priebus, you know, when can I meet Putin? (Laughter) I want to meet Putin. Can I meet him before my inauguration?
And that would have been such an extraordinary breach of protocol, to be meeting with the Russian president before having met with the NATO allies, before being inaugurated, while President Obama was still in office. But it was indicative of Trump's burning desire to have a relationship, a friendship, a bromance with Vladimir Putin. He saw Putin and still sees Putin as a strongman, as someone who has the leadership abilities and kind of muscular machismo that's to be admired. And throughout the book, there are moments where Trump is admiring of Putin.
And he actually finally had his first meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit. And he met for about two hours in private with Putin, and afterwards, he told Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state - who, by the way, has years of negotiating with Putin as the head of ExxonMobil - Trump told Tillerson, I've got this. I understand Putin. I just spent two hours with him. I know more about him than you do. You don't need to advise me anymore. I got it under control.
DAVIES: And he expressed the opinion that, you know, Putin does not have an agenda of undermining U.S. interests, right? You can be friends.
LEONNIG: That was definitely what the president said repeatedly to all of his aides. Tillerson, Pompeo, the entire national security firmament, the intelligence community was constantly trying to brief this president about the ways in which Putin tries to exploit American vulnerabilities and leap into situations where he can take some advantage.
In fact, Rex Tillerson was trying to school the president gently, not in a patronizing way, but gently school him about here's what Putin is doing every morning when he wakes up; he's looking for where we've got a hole, and he's going to dash over there, and we won't be fast enough to take advantage of it and stop him. And the president repeatedly rejected this, including rejecting the intelligence that he was brought constantly about the fact that Putin had directly, intentionally interfered in the 2016 election. President Trump said, yeah, I don't think he's really doing that.
DAVIES: You write - this is the two of you in the book - (Reading) Putin had developed a knack for manipulating Trump, making him believe that the two of them could get big things accomplished if they ignored their staffs and worked one-on-one. National security aides feared Putin knew how to feed the unusual combination of Trump's ego and insecurity and how to cultivate conspiracies in his mind.
LEONNIG: You know, there is this moment when Putin says to President Trump, you know, we could have a great relationship, but the people, the little people below us, they're against it. It isn't exact quote. I want to be careful in what I say about this, but the paraphrase is, basically, if we just - you know, the little people are rooting against us in our government. I understand that. And it totally speaks to Donald Trump's conspiracy theories about the deep state.
You know, he believed his intelligence community, his national security community, his State Department, his Justice Department should be working for him and defending his image and his political, you know, power. But he also believed that they were out to get him. And it all started, honestly, with the FBI investigation of his campaign to try to figure out if any of the members of his campaign were coordinating in any way or encouraging Russian interference.
DAVIES: There's a fair amount in here about President Trump's temper. Give us an example.
LEONNIG: There are a lot of examples. You highlighted one about the tank, which we also found really striking. But there are many of them. And one that I can think of that really got me was when he goes to Paris, and he's on this trip with his chief of staff and the rest of his aides. And there is a special memorial event to honor the American dead at a memorial outside of Paris. And it's rainy. It's a - the president has just lost the midterms. He doesn't admit that he lost the midterms, but Republicans took a shellacking in the House and the Democrats took control. And he is angry and brooding. And in Paris, it's raining and miserable, and he decides not to go to this particular scheduled event. Instead, John Kelly goes in his place, and there's a lot of videotape of - and television coverage of the chief of staff taking a moment to honor the dead Marines who fought for America and lost their lives in Europe. And he gets wonderful coverage, and there's a ton of criticism of why Donald Trump opted not to do this beautiful and generous thing. He berates John Kelly and said it's all his fault that he's getting this bad press when Kelly returns from the visit. And he tells him this was a huge mistake, why did you let me do this, never really acknowledging that it was Donald Trump's decision that he didn't want to go to this event.
DAVIES: I think it's only fair to point out that it's a high-pressure job, and there are other presidents known for rages directed at their staff and others.
RUCKER: That's right. Although I would add, Dave, that this is a character trait that Trump has. We interviewed one of his former executives at the Trump Organization who described a scene when Donald Trump, then real estate mogul, purchased the Plaza Hotel and was renovating it in New York and just blew up at her and some of the other employees over the redesign of the bathroom. He thought that the marble, the green marble, looked really cheap. He thought that the wooden doors of the armoire looked cheap. And he was yelling at them. It turns out, of course, that Donald Trump is the one who approved the selection of marble and the furniture. But, you know, he's famously short-tempered throughout his life, not only as president.
DAVIES: One of the things that's fascinating about reading the book is you get an inside look of circumstances in which the White House is dealing with a complicated issue. And there's just a level of confusion and disorganization that puts people in some very awkward spots. And one of the most remarkable is in the first year, early on, and it deals with immigration where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and John Kelly, who was then secretary of Homeland Security, are in Mexico to kind of - you know, kind of patch up a rocky relationship that's been created by President Trump's insistence that they will pay for a border wall or face big tariffs. Things seem to be going well, and then the unexpected happens. You want to just tell us the story.
LEONNIG: Dave, this is a moment that is striking for a lot of reasons, but one of them is while two very senior Cabinet members are trying to clean up for Donald Trump, they find themselves undercut by Donald Trump on live television. It's February of 2017, so very early in the administration. Both of them have a lot of experience and exposure in Latin America and Central America and a lot of relationships in Mexico, especially John Kelly, who had been in charge of Southern Command. And they're down there to meet with the president of Mexico, also to meet with some of his members of his Cabinet in his government, to tell them, look, we are not at war with you. Yeah, there's this big fight about the border, but we want to be partners and allies. We want to support you, and we need your help, too, because if you can help us stop the illegal flow of immigration, we can try to help you do that. So this is what they're working on, and it's very friendly.
And while they're on their way to one of the most important meetings, they're leaving their hotel in Mexico City and heading together out of the hallway towards their motorcade, Tillerson turns to John Kelly in the hallway and says, you're never going to believe what the president just said. Up in Washington, the president, who's gotten now in the habit of having live televised crews film his Cabinet meetings, is meeting with a group of business leaders, and he's telling them that this situation on the border is out of control, and he's going to stop it, and it's now a military operation, essentially leaving people with the impression that he's about to send troops down to the border, which is obviously not true. Kelly hears this from Tillerson and goes into overdrive, immediately starts getting a pen - a red pen - and remarking all of his comments that he's going to make at the press conference that's coming up with his Mexican counterparts because he knows he's going to have to address what the president just said.
The two of them are really flummoxed and angry, and they're cursing. John Kelly hits his forehead with his hand and says a curse word. And they head off. And it is - it falls to John Kelly to give a - basically a speech about how, look, we're not selling - we're not sending troops to the border. He does it in a very deft way, though, Dave, which is he doesn't actually, again, confront his boss on international television. He says, you know, you people in the press, you need to make sure you get this right. It's not a military operation. You guys have been confused about this in the past. Just want to reiterate - this is not a military operation. There are going to be no troops. He can't be more emphatic, but he's not pointing the finger at the boss.
DAVIES: Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker's new book is "A Very Stable Genius." We'll hear more after a break. And we'll remember Monty Python co-founder Terry Jones. He died yesterday at the age of 77. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. My guests are Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig. Their new book is an unsettling look at the first 2 1/2 years of the Trump presidency, based on more than 200 interviews with administration officials, Trump confidants and other firsthand witnesses to key events. It's called "A Very Stable Genius."
You both covered government for public officials for a long time. And, I mean, I know the standards that you impose on yourselves as reporters of government and politics and that when you cover officials, I mean, there are some tough stories, and there are also times you give people credit for doing the right thing or at least good-faith efforts. And I know how important it is for you to talk to all sides of an issue, to be thorough and fair and open-minded.
But on the last page of your book you have this statement about Trump - (reading) By the fall of 2019, Trump was acting as if he were convinced of his own invincibility, believing he could wield the vast powers of his office in pursuit of his personal and political goals without accountability. He genuinely believed that his interests came first and that, as president, he was above the law.
And I'm wondering, what is it like to cover a public official? After you rendered such a harsh judgment about his fitness for office, is it a different experience?
LEONNIG: I don't think Phil and I have come to a conclusion about the president's fitness for office. What we have come to a conclusion about is that so many people who served at his shoulder for months and years are very worried about his fitness for office. We all know, as a point of fact, that he had no experience in public service before, nothing to speak of. And that's not absolutely unique for a politician; it's kind of unusual for a president.
We feel strongly that our role as journalists is to share with you everything that we've learned from the people who knew him best. We choose this title, "A Very Stable Genius," because it's the president's own words about himself. Now we hold that mirror up to the president, and we stress test it with the people who worked for him, the people he confided in, the people who saw him day in and day out in a way that we didn't, and this is really their judgment.
DAVIES: I also wanted to ask about the use of anonymous sources. You know, I covered - I was a daily newspaper reporter for 20 years covering government at state and local level. And I kind of had a guideline that I would certainly use confidential sources for information, and if they showed that, you know, a politician was lazy or incompetent, I would report the information, but that if you wanted to render a judgment about somebody's character or competence, you kind of got to have your name on it for me to use that in the newspaper.
And in the book, you have a quote attributed to - I guess it's a senior-level administration official saying, the guy is completely crazy; the story of Trump, a president with the horrible instincts and a senior-level cabinet playing whack-a-mole. Another national security official you quote saying, I've served with the man for two years; I think he's a long-term and immediate danger to the country. Do you have any qualms about anonymous quotes that are that - you know, these ad hominem attacks, and is it different with this president?
LEONNIG: You know, Dave, I think Phil and I have a very similar rule of thumb to yours about this issue of judging someone's character in an anonymous quote. I'll tell you why I feel that both of us were comfortable with this one, which is that it was illustrative of something we heard time and time again. This idea of the cabinet playing whack-a-mole with bad ideas that the president made without good information, without discipline, without a real process for assessing the best path forward - if we counted up how many times we heard something like that, it would be a large, large number.
And I think that one of the important things about the anonymous sources here that you have to keep in mind is that some of these people did not speak to us in real time when these events were unfolding for a couple of reasons. They were, one, afraid of Donald Trump and his ability to retaliate against them, as he's proven very adept at with his very large Twitter megaphone.
And another reason was some of them, in their DNA as national security or intelligence officials, they don't talk to reporters, and they don't criticize a sitting president, but when we came around with a book, and we said this is for history, when we said this is going to be the tome that explains Donald Trump's presidency, they felt compelled - while fearful, they still felt compelled to try to help us get it right, get history right, and that's why they came forward. And it took a lot of work, but I think the product is here now, and readers can make their own judgment about whether they feel it rings true. We know we're confident in it.
DAVIES: This is an administration that doesn't have a very active press office in terms of disseminating information. Are there more leakers than in under other administration? Does more information come out the sides?
RUCKER: Yes, but I wouldn't call them leakers. I would say there are more people inside the administration - and not just in the West Wing, by the way, among political aides, but throughout the administration, at the Pentagon, in the national security apparatus, at the State Department and elsewhere, at the Justice Department - who are more willing, I think, now to talk to reporters in part because they are so alarmed by what they see happening, not only by the president but by others in the administration.
There is dysfunction so often around policies, around the agenda, around action items, and I think there - that has created more truth-tellers in the administration. It has meant, for us as reporters, that we have more sources we can go to, but it's also meant we have more of a challenge to sort of find the truth. When we hear something, it's not always right, and we've got to, you know, talk to a range of people, a range of sources with different perspectives to really understand what truly happened and understand the fact.
LEONNIG: That's right. And, you know, I would add one thing, which is that in this den of dysfunction, the president has really encouraged, you know, rival gangs to go up against each other, as evidenced by the fights he sort of cheers on. And some of those people are trying to dime the other ones out, and we've got to ferret through that, as Phil described. We've got to be very careful that we're not getting pushed and manipulated by their different agendas.
DAVIES: Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker are both Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters for The Washington Post. Their new book about the Trump administration is "A Very Stable Genius." We'll take a break here and then talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig. Philip Rucker is the White House bureau chief for The Washington Post. Carol Leonnig is a national investigative reporter at the paper. They've both won Pulitzer Prizes. And they have a new book about the Trump administration called "A Very Stable Genius."
The president is known for frequent misstatements of fact. Not every misstatement of fact is a lie, right? Sometimes you can be mistaken. How do you use your judgment in how to characterize these things?
RUCKER: You know, we follow the advice of our executive editor, Marty Baron, who feels like, to call a statement of the president's a lie is a big hurdle. To call something a lie, we have to know what the president's intent was. Did he intend to mislead and misinform and, in effect, lie? You know, so many of the things that he says, we're more comfortable calling them misstatements or falsehoods because we don't necessarily know that he knows that they're false. We don't necessarily know what's in his mind.
You know, when he was on his birtherism crusade about President Obama and insisting that he was born in Kenya or at least not born in Hawaii, that was clearly a lie. There was a clear political motivation there. He had been clearly proven wrong by the facts, by the actual birth certificate. That was a lie. But a lot of the statements that the president makes that are not true, we don't apply that label to it because we just can't discern what his motivation is.
DAVIES: What have your personal interactions with the president been like?
RUCKER: I started covering Donald Trump's campaign very early on and interviewed him numerous times at Trump Tower and over the course of that campaign and then several times in the White House.
And, you know, he actually called me on the phone on a Saturday morning as - early on in this project, when Carol and I started working on it. And I took the opportunity to explain to him the book and what we're doing, and, you know, he was supportive. He said, I want a proper book done. I know you're a serious person. You should come in. I'll do an interview. I'll do it. And unfortunately, the relationship devolved, you know, in the months that followed because he was - had such hostility with the news media and with The Washington Post in particular.
But I've always found in my interactions with him, including on Air Force One, when he'll sometimes come back to the cabin to chitchat, that he's always seeking our approval - and not just me, of course, but the other reporters in the press corps. He wants to impress us. He wants to have an impact on our thinking, change the way we view him and his administration and his policies.
I was with him in London in December for the NATO summit. And I don't know if your listeners will remember, but he had a day where he had three back-to-back foreign leader meetings. And normally, there are photo ops there, where you just come in for about two or three minutes and get a picture of the president with his foreign counterpart, and then you leave. And in each instance, he talked to us for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, taking question after question after question. And he would repeatedly, like, look at me and say, do you have any more? Do you have any more? Give me another one. He seemed to enjoy it.
And so, you know, he tweets what he tweets, of course, but deep down and when you're in a little bit more of a private setting, he very much craves our approval.
DAVIES: Yeah, I've often wondered if reporters who have personal experiences with the president, when they are in rallies and the president is, you know, berating the fake news media, that you wish some of those hearing this and cheering could actually see him interacting with reporters at a personal level. It's really a different attitude.
RUCKER: It's very different. And, you know, this is true before he became president, but it's especially true now - he views the media and especially the mainstream media as his oxygen. He wants to be on the front page. He wants to be taken seriously, like a credible figure. He brags privately about how many front-page stories he's on in The New York Times, which is of course his hometown paper. Now we're the hometown paper, The Washington Post. But it's a very different mindset than the one that he projects publicly to his supporters.
DAVIES: You know, I'm sure when you began this project, you had no idea that it would be published just as a trial would be beginning in the Senate for the president's impeachment.
RUCKER: No way.
DAVIES: How has that affected, you know - I don't know - the impact, the reception of the book?
LEONNIG: In a weird way, Dave, the - all the reporting that we did and all the new things we found out, the themes of what this - what motivates this president, how he runs his shop, they all foreshadowed this moment in a way. I'm not saying they foreshadowed obstruction or they foreshadowed abuse of office; what they foreshadowed was a theme throughout the presidency - Donald Trump is interested in perpetuating his own power. It's a presidency of one, and it's escalating in the direction of lack of discipline and chaos - a den of dysfunction, as Phil Rucker put it once in a story.
And here we are at this moment. Why is the president in so much hot water? Because the guardrails are gone. He was relying on Rudy Giuliani, who told him, hey, we can get some dirt on your No. 1 political opponent, Joe Biden, in Ukraine. And the president asked the Ukraine president for a favor on a telephone call, and the favor was for the perpetuation of his own power. And that was to help him in his reelection and get some dirt on his then-No. 1 foe.
DAVIES: Philip Rucker, Carol Leonnig - thank you so much for speaking with us.
RUCKER: Thank you, Dave.
LEONNIG: Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Carol Leonnig is a national investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Philip Rucker is the paper's White House bureau chief. Their new book is "A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing Of America." Coming up, we remember Monty Python co-founder Terry Jones. He died yesterday at the age of 77. This is FRESH AIR.
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Correction Feb. 19, 2020
A previous version of the headline incorrectly referenced a "den of destruction." In fact, the reference was to a "den of dysfunction."