There are so many books about Donald Trump and his presidency that they could fill Mar-a-Lago and then spill out onto the lawn, but if you are going to read just one of them (and you should), please pick up The Divider, a best-seller last year that comes out in paperback later this month. Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, and Susan Glasser, who writes for The New Yorker, are the authors, and the fact that this is their third book together and they also remain married to each other is a testament to a power that surely must be stronger than love. How many couples do you know who need to talk about Trump 24-7, other than perhaps Donald and Melania? Read this book and, trust us, you will be well prepared for what is at stake in 2024.
JIM KELLY: In the new afterword to your excellent book, you point out that Donald Trump’s rationale for seeking a second term is revenge, and in that quest he has even declared his willingness to cancel the Constitution. These would be clear signals to any sane person to steer clear of him, yet he remains the front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination by a wide margin. I wonder if there is a dynamic going on here, where Trump says something outrageous, only the press takes it seriously and lambastes him, which makes him attract even more supporters. Obviously, the Constitution is not going to get canceled.
PETER BAKER & Susan glasser: It’s a good question. When a former president and front-running candidate for his party’s nomination advocates “termination” of the Constitution in order to throw out the current president and re-install himself in power, that sounds both absurd and also like the kind of thing that should be taken seriously. Even if it would never happen, it speaks to a view of democracy that is, fair to say, different from every president we’ve had before. And while it’s true that Trump often says outrageous things that he never pursues, one thing we learned during his four years in office is that sometimes he says outrageous things that he does pursue—like trying to overturn an election that he lost by disqualifying votes from states that supported his opponent.
J.K.: Trump’s mug shot is the very picture of defiance, and clearly all these prosecutions are being used by him to gin up support. Without getting into all the intricacies of the legal proceedings against him, it seems that the case that is easiest to understand and easiest on which to gain a conviction is the handling of classified documents. Your thoughts?
P.B. & S.G.: That may be right, yes. Anyone else taking war plans and other secret documents, stashing them in a bathroom or other unsecured place, and refusing to return them even after being subpoenaed would very likely be charged. So it’s not a novel prosecution in that sense. Mishandling classified information and obstructing justice are crimes that are prosecuted frequently and, in many cases, even when violations are far less egregious than those Trump is alleged to have committed.
The other three cases against Trump, by contrast, have less extensive precedents, and no wonder—we’ve never had a sitting president try to overturn an election he lost before. But there is hardly an argument about the facts in those cases. Trump is not so much denying that he did what he was charged with doing as arguing that it’s unfair to prosecute him for doing it.
“While it’s true that Trump often says outrageous things that he never pursues, one thing we learned … is that sometimes he says outrageous things that he does pursue.”
J.K.: Let’s consider this nightmare scenario: Trump is convicted in at least one of his trials before November 2024, but apparently that would not preclude him from serving as president if elected. Can he pardon himself? And if he cannot, and loses on appeal, can he actually serve as president from what surely will be dubbed the Oval Cell? Is any of this even remotely possible?
P.B. & S.G.: Well, a president cannot pardon anyone for state crimes, meaning the criminal cases in New York and Georgia would be beyond his clemency power if he were to win the election. Both involve felonies and presumably jail time in the case of a conviction.
Whether a president could pardon himself for federal crimes is murkier—the Constitution does not say explicitly, and no one has ever tried to do so. Some legal scholars say he could not, but it’s not clear how that would be adjudicated since, presumably, Trump’s own Justice Department would be unlikely to go to court to overturn a pardon, nor is it clear who, if anyone else, would have standing to ask the judicial branch to intervene.
Putting aside the pardon question, if Trump were convicted of either state or federal crimes but then elected, some legal scholars suspect the courts might postpone any sentence until after he leaves office. But this is all speculative—because until Trump, all of this would have been unthinkable.
J.K.: Your book is an even more persuasive indictment against Trump than the legal ones, and despite all the anecdotes about his narcissism and his lying, the ones I found most shocking are those that illustrate his ignorance. Forget about his musings that a nuclear blast might defeat a hurricane. Here is someone who in a meeting with the leaders of the three Baltic countries mixes up their nations with the Balkans, with his own unique take on World War I! Do you have a favorite anecdote or two about his special grasp of history?
P.B. & S.G.: Probably the most chilling was when he asked his chief of staff, John Kelly, why he and other current and former military officers weren’t more subservient. “You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?,” Trump asked, referring to Hitler’s military chiefs. Kelly was stunned. “You do know that they tried to kill Hitler three times and almost pulled it off?” he replied. But Trump refused to believe it. “No, no, no, they were totally loyal to him.” Just as he wanted American generals to be totally loyal to him.
“Trump is not so much denying that he did what he was charged with doing as arguing that it’s unfair to prosecute him for doing it.”
J.K.: When Trump was elected president, Peter was already starting a stint as Jerusalem-bureau chief for the Times and Susan was about to join him there. Even before Trump declared victory, Susan sent an e-mail to Peter saying, in its entirety, “Do you want to come back to D.C. for Trump?” We know the answer! Any regrets?
P.B. & S.G.: It was the right decision. Trump obviously was (and remains) the biggest story in the world with so much at stake. Staying on the sidelines would have been untenable. But we are definitely sorry not to get more time in Jerusalem, a fascinating place with its own rich and tortured history that we were only beginning to know.
J.K.: You worked as co–bureau chiefs in Moscow for The Washington Post just as Vladimir Putin began his rise, and your 2005 book, about Putin, Kremlin Rising, is remarkably prescient about what is happening in Russia today. One can make some pretty facile comparisons between the two as thugs, though it is unlikely Trump could kill Mitch McConnell the way Putin did Yevgeny Prigozhin. Going a bit deeper, especially since you interviewed Trump, can you talk a bit about just how similar or different their personalities are?
P.B. & S.G.: You’re right that we should avoid taking any comparisons too far, but Trump’s open admiration for Putin invariably raises the question. (“I was the apple of his eye,” the former president bragged recently. Fact-check: not true.)
In personality, they are very different: Trump is impulsive, where Putin is controlled. Trump is a golfer who cheats to inflate his score; Putin is a disciplined practitioner of martial arts. Trump’s public bombast contrasts with Putin’s cold calculation. Both, though, worship displays of naked power. Trump praises Putin’s tough-guy approach. Both consider the word “strong” a big compliment and think nothing of bullying those perceived as weaker.
When we were in Moscow, Putin consolidated power by taking over independent television, eliminating the election of governors, making parliament into a rubber stamp, and prosecuting political enemies, many of whom over the years have died. That’s not a model any other American president has ever extolled.
“In personality, they are very different: Trump is impulsive, where Putin is controlled. Trump is a golfer who cheats to inflate his score; Putin is a disciplined practitioner of martial arts.... Both, though, worship displays of naked power.”
J.K.: I am not going to ask, no matter how much I may be tempted, how a married couple stays married after co-writing three books. But I will ask if, when growing up, there was a book you read or a writer you admired that influenced your decisions to become the kind of journalists that you are.
P.B. & S.G.: For Peter, it remains All the President’s Men, which obviously inspired a whole generation of young would-be reporters to understand the importance of journalism as an independent source of accountability in a democratic society. It’s such a cliché, but it happens to be true. Geek that he is, he re-reads it every year or two.
For Susan, reading books in high school, such as David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, which exposed the failures of Washington that led to the debacle of the Vietnam War, and Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground, his Pulitzer-winning account of the school-desegregation battles in Boston, taught her about the world—and gave her something to aspire to as a journalist. They are both revelatory, ambitious far beyond the scope of daily-newspaper writing, and incredibly well written.
J.K.: Finally, we need to talk about Theo! As a student reporter at Stanford, your son wrote a series of stories about the scientific-research papers done by Stanford’s president that led to his resignation. Did you do anything special when raising Theo to make him such a pro, like training him when he was six to move flowerpots on windowsills or taking him into underground garages to meet sources, à la Woodward and Bernstein? He surely was not lured into the profession by the money.
P.B. & S.G.: Honestly, Theo didn’t need anyone to teach him anything. He taught himself. We don’t even understand the science he was reporting on, but he dug in, tracked down experts to help him, mastered the intricacies of the story, and stood strong in the face of intimidation.
We never expected this—he always told us he would never be a reporter. And even now, he still says he isn’t sure what he’ll end up doing professionally. But whatever it is, we know he’s seen firsthand what it means to hold people in power to account, which to us is journalism at its best. We couldn’t be prouder to be his parents.
Peter Baker and Susan Glasser’s The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017–2021, will be published in paperback on September 19 by Anchor
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor at AIR MAIL