THE DIVIDER: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021
Author: Peter Baker and Susan Glasser
“His job wasn’t to get things done but to stop certain things from happening, to prevent disaster.”
This line from Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s detail-rich history of the Trump administration, The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, technically applies to his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. But in truth it describes any of several dozen beleaguered helpmates to the former president, whose propensity for petulant rage kept Washington in a fit of indignation and the White House in a mode of perpetual damage control for the better part of four years. Comprehensively researched and briskly told, The Divider is a story of disasters averted as well as disasters realised.
Squeezing the tumultuous events of the long national fever dream that was the Donald Trump presidency between two covers — even two covers placed far apart, as is the case with this 752-page anvil — would tax the skills of the nimblest journalist. Yet the husband-and-wife team of Baker and Glasser pull it off with assurance.
Baker, The New York Times’s chief White House correspondent, and Glasser, a staff writer at The New Yorker, are the perfect pair to write this book, with a combined 60 years of Washington reporting experience and two other jointly authored books to their names. (I know both of them through professional circles; when Glasser edited Politico Magazine, she hired me to write a history column.)
Even while cataloguing Trump’s most outrageous behaviours, Baker and Glasser strive to maintain a professional, dispassionate tone: Analytical but not polemical.
Apart from the landmark Abraham Accords of 2020, which opened diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab nations, they devote only fleeting attention to Trump’s concrete achievements, of which even critics must concede there were a few. The strength of the pre-Covid economy — for which Trump doesn’t deserve full credit but which still helped millions of voters look past his failings and failures — is little discussed. Trump fans will surely object to the consistently negative judgments about their tribune.
Given the sheer number of crises and conflicts that erupted on Trump’s watch, herding them all into a narrative isn’t easy. To impose order on the chaos, the authors centre each chapter on its own topic — Trump’s rocky relationship with foreign allies, for example, or the 2018 budget battle over the Mexico wall.
Some of the weightiest chapters take up Trump’s relationship with Russia. Former Moscow correspondents and long-time Russia jocks, Baker and Glasser eschew the wilder conspiracy theories that were bandied about in left-wing circles during Robert Mueller’s probe of the 2016 campaign’s Russia connections.
Instead, The Divider soberly and carefully reconstructs events to reveal anew Trump’s shocking deference to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin — notably at the 2018 Helsinki summit, where, the authors pointedly write, “Trump acknowledged that he would accept the word of Putin over that of his own intelligence agencies.” The chapters on the 2019 Ukraine scandal, when Trump linked aid to its government to delivery of dirt on Joe Biden, re-establish the gravity of the first impeachment, which has since been overshadowed by the second.
If The Divider has a dominant theme, it may be the struggle within the “almost cartoonishly chaotic White House” by people more reasonable and ethical than Trump to rein in his most dangerous instincts. Because everyone had different ideas about where to restrain and where to encourage Trump, the White House became a den of “ongoing tribal warfare,” they write.
The dishy gossip and mocking nicknames the Trumpies coin for one another (Kushner is the “Slim Reaper,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen “Nurse Ratched”) make for amusing reading; they also highlight a dysfunctionality rare for even the Washington freak show. Every chapter, it seems, has a sentence like this: “While Priebus, Bannon and Kushner disliked each other, the one thing they agreed on was they all loathed [Kellyanne] Conway.” Or: “In public, Mattis, Tillerson and McMaster were portrayed as fellow members of the Axis of Adults. In private, there was pettiness that at times suggested a middle school cafeteria.”
The backbiting led to constant personnel turnover, a dreary parade of firings, resignations and defenestrations. Even more stunning is the number of onetime loyalists who, after their tours of duty, emerged as among the president’s most strident critics.
Many Trump aides — even some, like National Security Adviser John Bolton or Attorney General William P Barr, who might deserve harsh criticism on other grounds — did intervene valiantly at times to keep Trump in check. Without their small acts of resistance, things could have gone even worse. Yet Baker and Glasser seem to endorse the view of the Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, who, during the first impeachment, warned Republicans, “You will not change him, you cannot constrain him.”
In this instance, Schiff was talking specifically about Trump’s plans to “compromise our elections,” and his words proved tragically prescient. The Divider concludes with a riveting few chapters on Trump’s mad scheming to hold onto power after his November 2020 defeat — resulting in the January 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol.
In the book’s final passages, we see Trump lurking in exile in Mar-a-Lago like a movie villain, defeated but not altogether vanquished. In Hollywood, such endings serve to leave the door open to another instalment. But let’s hope Baker and Glasser won’t be writing a sequel.