William Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, said “we are a government of men and not law. The law has no force without people who are willing to enforce it.” That is the underlying theme of Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s new book, “A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America.” The test: How far can one person — in this case, a self-declared “stable genius” and the leader of the world’s longest-running democracy — repeatedly stretch or ignore the legal norms of a democratic government before a breaking point is reached? The ongoing Republican-controlled Senate trial of President Donald Trump will answer that question.
Rucker and Leonnig interviewed more than 200 sources for the book — most were conducted on condition of anonymity. (Trump turned down their interview request.) Their chronological account of his first term in office is an insider’s view of what they describe as his “vainglorious pursuit of power.”
In the Trump administration, the authors said, the universal value is loyalty — not to the country or its laws but to Trump personally. Among multiple examples, one that stood out was his attack on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This law does not allow U.S. companies, like real estate developers, to bribe foreign governments to secure special services for their business. Trump asked former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “to get rid of that law.” Tillerson said he’d have to work with Congress. Unsatisfied, Trump turned to his senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, to draft an executive order repealing the law.
Besides demanding loyalty, Trump delighted in abusing those he felt resisted his proposals. For instance, he ridiculed national-security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster’s work performance in front of other White House staffers for delivering boring briefings with too much detailed paperwork. McMaster’s aide said, “The president doesn’t fire people, he just tortures them until they’re willing to quit.” Both Tillerson and McMaster were eventually pushed out.
The chief executive also wants loyalty to extend to his staff and federal executive agencies, like the Department of Justice, which he referred to as “my” Justice Department. At one point, he couldn’t understand why the body would not release a pro-Trump memo, saying “They are supposed to be my people.”
The text suggests Trump does not understand or care how government works, and he is suspicious that agencies that disagree with him are part of the anti-Trump “deep state.” The authors show how Russia’s autocratic president, Vladimir Putin, manipulated Trump by telling him his ideas were brilliant — and warning that he couldn’t trust just anyone in his administration to execute them. When the Department of Justice indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers for hacking Democratic emails around the 2016 presidential election, Trump came to Russia’s defense after Putin personally told him they didn’t order the digital attack.
And Trump also admires how other leaders can control their governments, like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who got his people to “sit up at attention” when he spoke. Trump called Kim “very talented” and “very smart,” and said Kim “felt very badly” about Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American college student who died following 17 months in a Korean prison. Kim told Trump he didn’t know about Warmbier. Trump’s response: “I take him at his word.”
This book should be read by students in business management. It illustrates how a new CEO with prior successes can bring ideas that worked elsewhere but were not matched to the new company, not unlike Trump telling his generals, “We need to make a profit …” on U.S. troops stationed around the world.
While Trump rightly boasted he was a megastar in the real estate and entertainment businesses, the authors declare that Trump is a chaotic, inconsistent and ignorant manager over this nation’s federal government. Some of his staff recognized these weaknesses and provided him ways to limit his impulsive decisions, so laws were not broken. “A Very Stable Genius” repeatedly shows how these professionals were worn down by what they considered the inanity, impropriety and illegality of his ideas and directives.
One of Trump’s longtime friends defends the president, saying he “has genius characteristics … Like all savants he has edges … he has a kind of brilliance and charisma that is unique, rare and captivating, although at times misunderstood.” That would explain how he attracts new acolytes to replace those he tortured and then summarily dismissed.
Would the potentially wide circulation of this book, which sketches out a damning portrait of Trump’s personal flaws, impact his reelection bid? Will the voters care? If not, then it provides a glimpse of what to expect in the next four years.
“A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America” by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, Penguin Press, 480 pp., $30
Author appearance: Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig will discuss “A Very Stable Genius” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 29, at Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway, Seattle; 206-934-3052; admission is $8.69 with fees.