When a Republican-led Senate committee issued a nearly 1,000-page report in mid-August that detailed the prodigious extent of the contacts between Russian officials and members of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign team, it felt a bit like a dispatch from a vaguely familiar reality — a pre-pandemic realm when we could mostly agree to focus on foreign interference in American democracy, and when the Trump presidency felt as if it were hanging in the balance while it awaited word from Robert S Mueller III. This is the world that forged Michael S Schmidt’s Donald Trump v. the United States. It vividly resurrects that actually-not-so-distant era by unspooling the occasionally staggering stories of two administration figures who were central to the investigative sagas that dominated the early Trump years, largely thanks to their attempts to constrain him.
The subjects are both all too familiar and, Mr Schmidt implies, underappreciated in their significance in shaping Trump’s presidency. Mr Schmidt recounts with unsparing intimacy James Comey’s arc from the 2016 election to his 2017 firing from the FBI directorship, and he documents the relentlessly uncomfortable White House tenure of the former general counsel Donald F McGahn II, who, he points out, “was in charge of Trump’s greatest political accomplishment, and he found himself caught up as the chief witness against Trump.”
The result is a revelatory portrait of the events that led to the investigation of Mr Trump for obstruction of justice, and his repeated attempts to control the Department of Justice. Mr Schmidt, a New York Times correspondent in Washington who was part of two teams that won Pulitzer Prizes in 2018, including one for coverage of Mr Trump’s Russian-inflected scandals, portrays an administration in which all aides may as well always have a resignation letter ready as a safeguard against an angry, flailing president detached from commonly accepted reality. This is a meticulously reported volume that clearly benefits from the author’s extraordinary access to many of the relevant characters, but also from his subjects’ tendency to record, in detail, their time around Mr Trump.
Whereas recent years have been packed with high-impact reported books about Mr Trump’s erratic behaviour and his administration’s backbiting Donald Trump v. the United States is more closely tailored to the efforts to rein in the president. It adds significantly to the public understanding of the Mueller investigation and Mr Trump’s war against it.
The narrative is sometimes cinematic. It opens with Mr Schmidt chasing down Mr McGahn outside the White House’s front gates and getting him to concede, “I damaged the office of the president; I damaged the office.” It’s a breathtakingly revealing admission from the White House’s chief lawyer and the architect of Mr Trump’s effort to appoint as many conservative judges as possible.
DONALD TRUMP V. THE UNITED STATES: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President
Author: Michael S Schmidt
Publisher: Random House
Mr McGahn, a staunch libertarian, was frequently in over his head with the lawless president he nicknamed “King Kong,” and he struggled with his highly unusual extended contact with Mr Mueller’s team. Still, despite getting close to resigning, Mr McGahn stuck around far longer than his apparent misery and frequent attempts at principled stands would suggest, largely because of his judicial project’s success. It was only after Mr Trump granted a woman clemency at Kim Kardashian’s request that Mr McGahn knew he truly had to leave the White House.
Then, in the annals of unsustainable relationships with Mr Trump, there’s James Comey. His early interactions with the president, like the one-on-one dinner at which Mr Trump requested Mr Comey’s loyalty, have been described repeatedly. But in Schmidt’s granular telling, the relationship was especially agonising because of a fundamental disconnect between the two men.
Donald Trump v. the United States is full of gritty details about what it’s like for a plugged-in journalist to report on Trump’s intrigue, ranging from the time Mr Schmidt shepherded a valued source to and from the airport, to his learning, second-hand, about a Justice Department official soliciting dirt on Mr Comey at a Cinco de Mayo party.
More interesting, however, is the constant flow of shocking anecdotes: Mr Schmidt writes that Mitch McConnell fell asleep during a classified briefing on Russia, for example, and he details the FBI’s shambolic reaction to evidence of the hacking in 2016, including an unresolved disagreement over how to handle the material.
For all its revelations, this is not an inside look at Mr Mueller’s investigation, and over half of Mr Schmidt’s story goes by before Mr Mueller is even appointed. At times, too, it wanders from the obstruction fights at its heart. Still, if the furore around the investigations into Mr Trump’s last campaign feels like ancient history as the nation faces a pandemic, a civil rights reckoning and another election, Donald Trump v. the United States offers one more startling dissection of the Trump presidency. Ultimately this book about “the struggle to stop a president” is, in many ways, a tale of how he survived.
©2020 The New York Times News Service