MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Here in Washington, our news cup runneth over, which isn't necessarily a good thing.
PHILIP RUCKER: You know, it's been such an exhausting three years, I think, for all of us and for all Americans, frankly, because the news is just sped up so much. There's so many crises around every corner.
KELLY: That is Washington Post White House bureau chief Philip Rucker. Rucker and Washington Post investigative reporter Carol Leonnig decided to step away from the daily hurricane and go back through these last three years of Donald Trump's presidency to look for patterns to help people better understand him and this moment in history.
The result is a new book called "A Very Stable Genius." Rucker and Leonnig interviewed more than 200 sources, many of whom were in the room at key moments of the presidency. I asked them to describe one of these key moments - a Pentagon briefing in which Trump called his defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and other senior military commanders in the room, quote, "a bunch of dopes and babies."
CAROL LEONNIG: In July 2017, a group of very, very senior cabinet members and advisers decided, we need to give a tutorial, in effect, to Donald Trump. They'd been having a lot of arguments with him, disagreements about where troops and bases were, trade policy, etc. And he was resisting them time and time again. They basically wanted to have a class and explain to him how things work, how we protect the nation.
KELLY: And the place they chose to do this was in the Tank.
LEONNIG: In the Tank.
KELLY: In the conference room of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
LEONNIG: That's right. And this is a sacred space in the military. It's where decisions of war and peace are made and have been since the 1800s. This tutorial did not go well. Donald Trump was bellowing and howling and, at one point, so angry and in such a tirade that he was trying to catch his breath to continue howling at this group about how they were losers. They didn't know how to win anymore. And actually, the last thing that he said was something almost everyone in that room promised they would not talk about publicly, it was such an insult, and that was, I would never go to war with you people.
In the room, Secretary of State Tillerson, who's one of the architects of this meeting, is so upset, and he's watching the military leaders, including the secretary of defense, just bow his head and say nothing. And he finally stands up and tells the president, you're wrong, Mr. President. That's not how it is.
KELLY: What is your read on that - that Tillerson, as then secretary of state, was not in the military chain of command, so maybe felt in a better position to speak up to his commander in chief?
RUCKER: Perhaps. But he wasn't alone in being disturbed. There was a woman in the room who had tears in her eyes. There were other members of the military brass who kind of raised their hands to cover their eyes so that their emotions would not be seen by the president or by the others in the room. And this became a real inflection point for the presidency because after this moment, Trump started to shut out his advisers, the seasoned hands who were trying to steer him in a different course, and started to really try to execute his own wishes, his own orders.
KELLY: And you've corroborated this with multiple sources who were in the room, who have similar accounts of how this unfolded next?
RUCKER: That's correct.
KELLY: Do you believe President Trump's relationship with the military has recovered?
LEONNIG: You know, one of the interesting things, Mary Louise, about the trajectory of this presidency is that it's increasingly the case that Donald Trump has driven out the people who've tried to give him counsel. The guardrails are gone. And increasingly, the decisions have become more chaotic, and the people that he's surrounded by are increasingly those who think their mission is to tell him yes.
KELLY: Would President Trump speak to you for the book?
LEONNIG: He declined through an aide.
KELLY: Some of the episodes that you chronicle in the book, they're great copy. You describe a moment where he shocked India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi by telling him, you don't need to worry about China because it's not on your border, which, of course, if you look at a map, there is...
RUCKER: It's a long border (laughter).
KELLY: There is a long border between India and China. My question for supporters of the president, for admirers of the president, who may pick up your book and say, this is just two Washington Post reporters trying to be snarky, pointing out embarrassing blunders, why do events like this matter if you are trying to do a history of the Trump presidency thus far?
RUCKER: You know, I think the tone of the book is really anything but snarky; it's deadly serious. You know, we're chronicling what this president has done in office for three years, how he comports himself behind the scenes, how he leads our military, how he leads our domestic policies. And this is real. I mean, this is the history that we've been living for the last three years.
And, you know, we tried to write from a bit of a distance. And what I mean by that is these are not opinions that we're expressing; we're unearthing the truth that we discovered in our reporting, and that leads to some conclusions that might be difficult for some of the president's supporters to hear. But they're real, and they're accurate, and they're serious.
KELLY: Why - the title of the book, "A Very Stable Genius," why did you name it that?
LEONNIG: We didn't want to mock the president, but we wanted to use his own words to sort of hold that up as a stress test about this presidency. And what we learned...
KELLY: He's referred to himself as a very stable genius on more than one occasion.
LEONNIG: On more than one occasion. He's also said, in my great and unmatched wisdom. And we thought that it was important to sort of take that mirror and turn it back to him and find out what were - those folks serving him, what did they think about that?
KELLY: Is there a little bit of irony in the title, Phil? President Trump references to his own great wisdom, and yet you document multiple examples in the book where he insisted he knew more than one of his advisers about something when it's not clear he did - contradicting Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, about how to read Vladimir Putin, for example.
RUCKER: And that's one of the most telling moments of the book, I think, because Rex Tillerson came into the job as secretary of state having negotiated with the Russians for years. As the CEO of ExxonMobil, he met with Vladimir Putin numerous times face-to-face, and he tried to teach President Trump about Putin, to explain to Trump that Putin is not just the strongman that you want to become buddies with and get to know personally, but is a threat to the United States.
And then after Trump had his first meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany, he said to Tillerson, look - I've spent two hours with him. I've got it. I understand Putin now. I don't need your advice anymore. And that was really illustrative of the way the president treated the career intelligence and other national security figures who were trying to counsel him, trying to bring him information.
KELLY: Your book chronicles the first three years of the Trump presidency, and we're sitting here talking in January 2020. Since you've wrapped this book, he's been impeached. We're now on the cusp of an impeachment trial that will get underway in earnest next week. None of us have crystal balls, but do you believe this fourth year of his presidency, fourth year of at least his first term, will it look very different from the first three?
RUCKER: You know, based on the patterns we've seen so far in this presidency that we document in the book, I don't know that it'll look that different. You know, Donald Trump is not a man who changes easily. The one thing that might change is the extent to which he feels under siege and he feels needing to punch back and be aggressive. And the reason for that is he's facing reelection, which is a huge test and hurdle for him.
When he feels up against a wall and under siege, we've seen him again and again lash out, do sometimes self-destructive actions. And there's a possibility, of course, that as we get closer to the November election, some of those characteristics will come into the fore.
KELLY: That is Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post. Their new book is "A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing Of America."
Thanks, you two.
RUCKER: Thank you.
LEONNIG: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOHEAD'S "KID A")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.