On the Friday after the 2020 election—you know, the one Trump lost?—two teams of Trump acolytes gathered in a conference room at Trump-campaign headquarters in Virginia to discuss what they could or should still do to win.
In one group were officials of the campaign, including First Son-in-Law Jared Kushner and campaign manager Bill Stepien. The other was a team who actually became known in the campaign as “the crazies,” led by Rudy Giuliani, who dominated the meeting.
“The election was being stolen right before their eyes, he said, and it needed to be stopped,” Jonathan Karl writes midway through Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show, a follow-up to his best-selling Front Row at the Trump Show. “Dead people had voted. Trump ballots had been destroyed. Sidney Powell chimed in about rigged voting machines. The fraud was massive and all over the place. As wild as the allegations were, it was clear Giuliani had neither evidence nor a coherent legal strategy.”
So what did the officials of the campaign do in response to his mad rant? “Kushner excused himself to take a call. A few minutes later Stepien got up and left, along with … the others who didn’t come in with Giuliani. Before long there was nobody left in the conference room, except Giuliani … and the rest of the former mayor’s entourage.”
There are more books now about Trump and the calamity of his final year in office than all but obsessed QAnon followers and paid (underpaid) book critics could consume. None get closer than Karl’s to the crucial Trump phenomenon of how bad triumphs when good people do nothing, to borrow a thought from John Stuart Mill.
“As wild as the allegations were, it was clear Giuliani had neither evidence nor a coherent legal strategy.”
Or, to add a nuance Karl delves into in detail: bad triumphed when people who wanted to think of themselves as good said nothing because they believed they could manage Trump and keep him from doing even worse. Over and over, Karl describes the, oh, what to call it? Conundrum? Dilemma? Pact with the devil? Let’s just call it the self-inflicted plight of people who, having chosen to be close to Trump, find themselves at a crossroads.
“Kushner’s disappearance was extraordinary,” Karl writes of that post-election meeting, where, perhaps, a firmer hand might have contained the “Stop the Steal” movement before it transmogrified into the deadly ransacking of the Capitol two months later. “He had been effectively running the campaign, and now that things were about to get really bad, he simply checked out.”
As the chief White House correspondent for ABC News, Karl gets close enough to Trump aides and allies to see them sweating over the moral conflict that working for Trump seemed inevitably to induce.
Over and over, Jonathan Karl describes the, oh, what to call it? Conundrum? Dilemma? Pact with the devil? Let’s just call it the self-inflicted plight of people who, having chosen to be close to Trump, find themselves at a crossroads.
There was David Bossie, for example, who was supposed to lead the legal fight to overturn the election results until he came down with the coronavirus, to his great relief. “He later told friends getting infected with the deadly disease was one of the best things ever to happen to him,” Karl writes, “because it forced him to drop out of the effort to challenge the election results just as Trump’s legal team was going off the deep end.”
Then there was John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, who was being pressed by the president to investigate a wacky theory (offered by Giuliani) that a counting glitch in Upper Michigan actually revealed the global conspiracy to rig vote-counting software. “So Ratcliffe did what so many others around Trump did in similar situations,” Karl reports. “He passed on the absurd request for somebody else to deal with, placing a call to F.B.I. director Christopher Wray.”
The F.B.I. found nothing, of course, but that’s hardly the point. The bureaucratic bobbing and weaving, the blame-shedding, the ghosting of meetings and dodging of responsibility created a moral vacuum that enabled Trump and the crazies to come closer than anyone had before them to overturning the legitimate outcome of a presidential election.
One explanation for the deer-in-the-headlights behavior of so many officials is suggested in Karl’s description of the political-purity program run by the Presidential Personnel Office in Trump’s final year. Trump installed as head of the office his former body man Johnny McEntee, a strapping 29-year-old former college quarterback whose only apparent qualification was his blind devotion.
McEntee, in turn, hired a number of even younger, better-looking staff, mostly women, including a former Rockette, and sent them forth “to dig in and conduct a full, old fashioned witch hunt.” The outcomes ran from the profound (the expulsion of National Intelligence Director Joseph Maguire for cooperating with Congress) to the ridiculous (a personal assistant to the Housing and Urban Development secretary was brought under suspicion for “liking” an Instagram post by Taylor Swift).
“The message was that everybody needed to be completely and totally loyal to the president and that any hint of treachery would be noticed.”
At the very top of Trump’s list of loyalists who just weren’t loyal enough is Vice President Mike Pence. “He had never once publicly disagreed with President Trump,” Karl writes. “Not once.”
Until January 6. Which is when he rebuffed Trump’s pressure to use his ceremonial role presiding over the electoral-vote count to suppress the ballots from Georgia, Arizona, and other states Trump claimed he won but actually lost. The insurrectionists scoured the Capitol that day in search of Pence, who was sheltering in a truck bay.
Months later Karl went to interview Trump in exile in Mar-a-Lago and asked if he’d been worried about his vice president, “because you heard those chants.”
Trump: “Well, the people were very angry.”
Karl: “They were saying, ‘Hang Mike Pence!’”
Trump: “Because it’s common sense … ”
“Pence had a choice between loyalty to Trump and loyalty to the Constitution,” Karl concludes. “He chose not to break the law, and, for that, Trump would forever consider him a coward and a traitor.”
Karl ends his book with an appeal: “The continued survival of our republic may depend, in part, on the willingness of those who promoted Trump’s lies and those who remained silent to acknowledge they were wrong, that it was a terrible mistake to put one man’s ego above the truths we all should hold self-evident.”
Sadly, the reported evidence of the rest of his book argues that this is unlikely to happen.
Jonathan Karl’s Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show will be published on November 16 by Dutton
Michael Oreskes is a co-author of The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country—and Why It Can Again