Istill remember the moment on Brexit referendum night when it became clear that the result was only going one way. It was about 2 a.m. and although many votes were still to be counted, Vince Cable, talking to Emily Maitlis on the BBC, accepted that the British people had decided to leave the European Union. No one else had dared to say it, but if the Lib Dems were prepared to call it then it was time to face facts. The moment was both thrilling (for someone who studies politics for a living) and chilling (for a Remainer). Something similar happened on US election night four months later. In the middle of the night UK time the steady drumbeat of surprisingly strong numbers for Trump morphed into a shocking new reality: he was actually going to win. Corey Lewandowski, his one-time campaign manager, was on CNN all evening saying that Trump’s performance would surprise everyone. His hosts had been nervously humouring him. Suddenly the tone of their questions changed. How on earth, they wanted to know, had he done it? This time it was all chills.
At around 3.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 4 November 2020 (which was 10.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 3 November in Washington DC) it looked as if it was happening a third time. Trump was going to win Florida, despite the millions of dollars spent there by Michael Bloomberg, and he was storming ahead of his 2016 numbers in Ohio. The other swing states were closer, but they seemed to be moving his way. On CNN I registered the same dramatic shift in mood. A couple of talking heads looked to be on the verge of tears. Jake Tapper was ashen. I switched to the Oddschecker betting site to see what the money was saying. Trump, who had started the night with at best a 30 per cent chance of re-election, was now touching 90 per cent. I let out a primal scream – scaring my 17-year-old daughter, who was watching with me – and went to bed.
When I woke again a couple of hours later, things had changed dramatically. Arizona had been called for Biden by Fox News and the betting markets were moving back his way. Calmer heads – including the data analysts at FiveThirtyEight – were pointing out that there was a long way to go in the counting for the other swing states, given the number of postal ballots involved. The 2016 vote was no guide because the turnout this time was so much higher. Trump’s numbers had probably peaked and the counties still to be called tended to lean strongly towards Biden. My immediate response to all this was a mild sense of panic. If I – along with so many others – had experienced a wobbly moment when I believed that Trump was going to win, the man himself must surely have thought the same. Who was going to tell him he was wrong?
The answer, according to Michael Wolff’s relentlessly lurid Landslide, is no one. It turns out that 10.30 p.m. on 3 November was the pivotal moment in the Trump presidency. When the early results came in favouring their man, Trump’s campaign team, including members of his immediate family, had competed with one another to bring him the good news. As with a king, no one wants to be the bearer of grim tidings, but everyone wanted to be the one to say this was going to be huge. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, phoned him early to report: ‘It’s happening.’ Jason Miller, his senior election adviser, tweeted: ‘It’s happening.’ By 10 p.m. Trump was convinced he had triumphed, with plenty to spare. At 10.30 he took a call from Karl Rove, former election guru to George W. Bush, congratulating him on his win. This sealed his mind against all remaining doubt. As Wolff writes: ‘Why would Rove – a man as in with the Beltway Republican establishment as anybody, who didn’t like Trump much and who, to be honest, Trump didn’t like – call to say he’d won if he hadn’t?’ Even the turncoats were coming to pay their respects.
Fifty minutes later it had all changed. The decision by Fox to announce Arizona for Biden, when other networks still had the state as too close to call and Trump’s people were telling him it was a solid win, came from the very top. The Murdoch clan had long loathed the Trumps. Rupert Murdoch detests the man himself, and blames him for difficulties he has had with his own children, two of whom (Elisabeth and James) turned against the family company because they could no longer stomach Fox’s daily obeisance towards Trump. When the son who stayed, Lachlan, got notice that the Fox analysts had Arizona for Biden, he phoned his father to ask what they should do. Did he want to make the early call? ‘His father, with signature grunt, assented, adding: “Fuck him.”’ Trump, certain by this point that he had won, now saw evidence only that the steal was underway. ‘There was a Rashomon version of the president’s call with Karl Rove that evening,’ Wolff writes.
In this, it didn’t take place at 10.30 p.m., but long after Fox’s Arizona call at 11.20. Kushner reached out to Rove and said the president was coming apart about Fox, and could Rove call him and say there was still a long way to go. Rove made the call and told the president to hang in there. This wasn’t congratulations. It was solace.
That’s not how it happened. Once Trump had been told he had won, and then that he hadn’t, there was no solace to be had. There was only blind rage.
Trump’s view of the election result remained frozen in time. He believed the votes counted after 10.30 p.m. on 3 November could only be part of a plot to undo what had already been done. This conviction derived in part from his long-standing, strategic paranoia. His entire life had been built around the principle that the best way to claim what was rightfully yours was to insist that others had stolen it from you. But it also stemmed from his notoriously loose relationship with numbers. He didn’t make the numbers up. But he took the numbers he found most convenient and made them the only ones that counted. ‘In the Trump political world, like the Trump business world,’ Wolff says, ‘you focused on the bragging rights of gross rather than the harsher reality of net.’ The question was never what you could do with what you were left with, it was always what you could insist you were owed in the first place.
One number that Trump fixated on was 66 million. He had been told by the pollster John McLaughlin that if he could beat the 63 million votes he received in 2016 by three million then he was ‘absolutely guaranteed’ to be re-elected. In the event he got more than 74 million votes. He was so far ahead of what he should have needed to win that it was impossible for him to lose. The fact that his opponent got more than 81 million votes was neither here nor there. Trump was still harping on this fact on the morning of 6 January 2021 in the speech he gave in Washington to a ragtag crowd of his supporters, assembled to protest against the ratification of Biden’s victory. ‘Almost 75 million people voted for our campaign,’ the president told them,
the most of any incumbent president by far in the history of our country, twelve million more people than four years ago. I was told by the real pollsters – we do have real pollsters. They know that we were going to do well, and we were going to win. What I was told, if I went from 63 million, which we had four years ago, to 66 million, there was no chance of losing. Well, we didn’t go to 66. We went to 75, and they say we lost. We didn’t lose.
This was the speech that ended with Trump enjoining the crowd: ‘So let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue …’
F0r a while on election night, Trump was ahead in some of the key states he would go on to lose. Those early numbers became the true numbers – the gross reality. Later numbers had to be wrong. In the call Trump made on 2 January to Brad Raffensperger, secretary of state for Georgia, in which he asked him to find an extra 11,780 votes to overturn his margin of defeat in the state (‘You don’t need much of a number because the number in theory I lost by, the margin would be 11,779’), he pointed out that the ballot box was not the only measure of who won an election. ‘I think it’s pretty clear we won,’ he said. ‘We won very substantially in Georgia. You even see it by rally size, frankly. We’d be getting 25-30,000 people a rally and the competition would get less than a hundred people. And it never made sense.’
So where did Biden’s extra votes come from? In the weeks following the election Trump would listen to anyone who had an explanation, no matter how far-fetched. These were dead people, they were illegals, they were harvested postal ballots, they were phony figures from voting machines that had been tampered with. Who was behind it? The Chinese, Chavez, Big Tech, Democrat election officials, the Murdochs. This wasn’t a conspiracy theory because there was no theory. It was simply a statement of the obvious: if Trump had lost because of votes that were counted after he had already won, someone was responsible.
The result was that any official who didn’t accept this version of events could no longer work with the president. Trump’s last two months in office saw an extraordinary exodus of people who had been loyalists but were unable to stomach what was now required. They were replaced by anyone who was prepared to tell the president what he needed to hear. First among them was Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York and one-time presidential candidate, the cheerleader for Trump’s most outlandish convictions about the plot against him. Keeping Giuliani away from the boss had long been a key task for the gatekeepers of the Trump White House: lawyers, aides and family members. But once the gatekeepers were gone, Giuliani could say what he liked and be sure of an audience. He told Trump that the way to fight back was to take his case to the courts, and ultimately to the Supreme Court, where Trump’s three appointees (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett) would be sure to tip the balance in his favour. That there was no case – at least no case that could get a serious hearing – didn’t matter. What mattered was to keep up the pressure until the other side cracked. Challenge everything, dispute everything, inflate everything: that was the Trump way. All he needed were lawyers willing to do it with a straight face. Giuliani, often drunk, frequently flatulent, rarely coherent, was a long way from the steely district attorney and heroic post-9/11 mayor he had once been. Wolff calls him ‘a figure who seemed to have come loose in history – irrepressible, uncontrollable, reckless, runaway, daft’. But he possessed the two qualities that mattered to Trump. ‘He could be counted on to fight even when others wouldn’t. And, too, he would work for free.’
In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, Aaron Burr sings about the desire of all politicians to be ‘in the room where it happens’. During the dog days of the Trump presidency the opposite impulse was in full effect. Almost anything was better than finding yourself near enough to the action to be implicated in it. When Trump appointed Dave Bossie – ‘right-wing gadfly, organiser and attack man, a Yosemite Sam figure ever blasting at liberal rabbits’ – to oversee Giuliani’s legal challenge to the election results, his lack of any legal qualifications didn’t bother his boss, though they bothered the man himself. ‘I don’t know if congratulations or condolences are in order,’ one campaign aide wrote to him. ‘I want to fucking kill myself,’ Bossie replied. On 14 November Giuliani had convened a meeting in campaign HQ to put together a team to start issuing lawsuits against all and sundry. He had trouble getting more than a few diehards to attend. ‘The room had not been cleaned since Election Day, eleven days before. Refuse filled the trash cans and overflowed onto the floor. There was a heavy sour or rotting smell – in the trash was a week-old Buffalo chicken sandwich – mixed with Giuliani’s reliable farting.’ No sane person wanted to be in that room. Apart from anything, it was a potential superspreader event, because no one was masked. As Covid took its inevitable toll on what remained of Trump’s people – eventually including Giuliani himself – there was at least the consolation that a positive test was an excuse to stay at home. Better to catch the virus than to get caught up in the madness.
Giuliani’s strategy appealed to Trump because it appeared to be win-win. File quixotic suits in the lower courts demanding recounts, the disbarring of election officials, whatever. If successful, so much the better. But if not, at least the process would reach the Supreme Court, which everyone knew was the ace in the hole. It was a sign of how far removed Giuliani was from his former self that he seemed genuinely to believe this. ‘The old Rudy – Rudy the Justice Department hand, Rudy the prosecutor, Rudy the occasionally diligent student of government – would have known that even a stacked [Supreme] Court was going to go out of its way not to cast its fate with this mess, this crazytown mess, that the rule of institutional self-protection would surely win out.’ In the end, no court would countenance Giuliani’s antics and the legal strategy went nowhere.
Attention then turned to Congress: surely Republicans in the Senate could see their way to block the ratification of the election results. But institutional self-protection was as strong there as anywhere. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, had no appetite for indulging more of Trump’s fantasies. He had come to despise his president and like everyone else who wanted him gone he had endured what Wolff calls ‘a worrisome hour or so’ on election night. But once it became clear that Trump didn’t have the votes, it was as absurd to think that Congress would magic them up as to imagine that the Supreme Court would throw in its lot with Giuliani and his team of buffoons. The last hope was Mike Pence. Trump and Giuliani convinced themselves that the normally dutiful vice president had the power to replace Biden electors in the electoral college with Trump ones. All he lacked was the nerve. But in fact, he lacked something else too: a political death wish. No one who had anything substantial to lose would take Trump’s side. That meant the only people he had left were already losers. It was a lost cause from the beginning.
Landslide is Wolff’s third book about the Trump White House and it reinforces and deepens the theme of the previous two. Neither Trump nor the people around him were part of a sinister plot to subvert and ultimately take over the democratic institutions of the United States. They didn’t possess even the minimum competence for that. Trump’s presidency was a kind of vacuum of seriousness: the relationship between means and ends was practically non-existent. If Trump had wanted Congress to do his bidding and reverse the result of the election it would have taken a monumental strong-arm operation of persuasion and coercion, the sort to make even Lyndon Johnson quail. Instead, he threw the case to people who didn’t even know the phone numbers of the people they needed to call.
It really was one of those what-if moments. Not: what if the president of the United States were revealed to be an evil despot, moving the nation to the type of fascistic dictatorship hotly anticipated by MSNBC. But rather: what if, stripping all protection and artifice away, he were revealed to be incapable of separating the fantasy of what he thought possible from the practicalities of accomplishing it? Indeed, aides noted that, on the eve of a consequential legislative battle, the White House would ordinarily have been hammering the phones, but Giuliani, in effect the president’s single operative, barely had contact information for most people on the Hill.
Institutional self-protection is relatively easy under these circumstances: all you need to do is wait for the noise to die down. McConnell had to endure a long, abusive, expletive-laden call from Trump demanding that he rally Republicans in the Senate behind him. ‘It was a road-rage confrontation, escalating in seconds from zero to sixty, with Trump heaping obscenities on the Republican leader and assailing his honesty, competence, patriotism and manhood.’ McConnell was forced to listen to all this. But then he could just put down the phone. He never heard from Trump again.
The real danger that Trump posed was twofold. First, because it was easy to ignore him it was also easy to indulge him. What was the worst that could happen? ‘So much of Trump politics was a public bow and a private guffaw,’ Wolff writes. ‘It was always a safe place to be: wave the flag for a symbolic stance that might seem popular but for which, because it would never happen – beyond the tweets, so much in Trumpworld never actually happened – you would never be held to account.’ Since Giuliani’s legal proceedings were so laughably unlikely to succeed, Republicans could safely support them. One hare-brained scheme was to get Texas to sue Pennsylvania for its conduct of the election, a case that was unanimously and perfunctorily dismissed by the Supreme Court on 11 December. It never stood a chance, but that didn’t stop a host of Republican state attorneys general, along with 126 Republican members of Congress, from signing up to it. Why did they agree to do something that left them open to ridicule? ‘They seemed to take two leaps of logic,’ Wolff writes:
In the first, it was obviously ridiculous – ridiculous to anyone with any empirical reasoning capabilities, ridiculous to the various state AGs who had dragged their feet in support of it, ridiculous even to a deeply conservative [Supreme] Court. But, in the second step, it was necessary and productive to support Trump’s asinine and hopeless suit because Trump had mustered so much support among so many voters with no interest in or capacity for empirical reasoning, or, at least, who were preoccupied with other issues.
This leads to the second problem. The institutions of the American republic withstood Trump just as the Founders might have hoped: since federal government is complicated and burdensome and organised around institutional self-interest (‘Ambition must be made to counteract ambition’), it was relatively impervious to his simplistic and lazy rabble-rousing. The name-calling was exhausting and debilitating but it was possible to ride it out. But the one institution that was not able to withstand Trump was the one the Founders thought might destroy the republic anyway: a political party. The Republican Party establishment indulged Trump and then discovered that when it was time to move on his voters were staying put. Having paid lip service to his lunacy, it turned out that they couldn’t undo what they had done.
After the 6 January assault on the Capitol by Trump supporters, who had been riled up by his speech that morning and took him at his word that they should put their case directly to lawmakers (‘We’re going to the Capitol … and we’re going and try to give our Republicans … the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take our country back’), the party leadership in Congress was ready to cut Trump loose. Finally means and ends had come together in a way that no one could ignore: this time the name-calling had led to sticks and stones and broken bones and worse. McConnell let it be known that if Trump were impeached he was ready to see him convicted. But then the results of a poll came in asking Republican voters around the country if they felt the same. They did not. The party establishment was stymied.
Virtually no Republican wanted Trump impeached: nobody even held him responsible. The party – whatever the party was, out there somewhere – hardly felt a hiccup in its awe and devotion. Republicans in Washington had been heady with a new sense of political elasticity, a free-floating change in the political ether, a Prague Spring – when in fact, delivered with a rude slap and abrupt comeuppance, there’d been no change at all. It was still a Trump world.
It turned out that words did indeed have consequences: not Trump’s but those of the party high-ups who had indulged him and those who supported him. Now they were stuck with what they had allowed.
Wolff writes that many of those around Trump attributed to him magical powers. They couldn’t otherwise explain how he could get away with what he did. He appeared to channel the national mood in ways that were inaccessible to mere mortals. He had a sixth sense, and perhaps even a seventh, for political anger and resentment. On election night, when it looked like he would win, his inner circle put it down to his inexplicable gift for riding undercurrents of feeling that other politicians, including McConnell, routinely missed. The campaign had been a disaster, the debates with Biden a series of fiascos, the country was ravaged by Covid and the president was often missing in action, yet here were his people turning out in droves. Trump was wrong when he said that 75 million votes – the highest total for any incumbent in American history – meant that he was certain to win. But he was right when he said that it meant he couldn’t lose. That level of support, undiminished by his repeated failings, ensured that institutional self-protection within the Republican Party worked to keep him afloat.
Trump now presides at Mar-a-Lago and Republican candidates are forced to come to him to seek his blessing. The price of entry is a willingness to sign up to his version of what happened on election night, when the vote-counting continued long after he had already won. Perhaps Republican politicians think that since the election is done, and can’t be reversed, they can indulge him again with relative impunity. The alternative is to risk the wrath of his supporters, who retain the power to turf out of office anyone who stands up to his limitless sense of grievance. That Trump continues to prosper politically, notwithstanding the chaos and degradation of his final months in office, leaves Wolff awestruck, in spite of himself. ‘The fact that he survived, without real support, without real assistance, without expertise, without backup, without anybody minding the store, and without truly knowing his ass from a hole in the ground, was extraordinary. Magical.’ But this is not magic, and Trump has no mystical powers. It’s just democracy, coming apart at the seams.