A Very Stable Genius

Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig

Bloomsbury, £20

Review by Nick Major

In March 2019, Special Counsel Robert Mueller finished his report on Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election.

The report was drafted in two volumes. The first outlined how the Russian government interfered; the second was more controversial. “It documented the evidence the team had gathered on 10 episodes when [Donald] Trump appeared to be seeking to thwart or shutter a criminal investigation of his campaign and himself.”

Mueller was equivocal about whether or not Trump had committed obstruction of justice. His neutral position was – to an extent – forced on him. After all, there are legal constraints around indicting a sitting president. William Barr had recently been appointed attorney general (Jeff Sessions was forced to resign in November 2018 – “if it doesn’t happen now, there will be a tweet,” the then White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told him).

As Washington Post journalists Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker write in this unnerving record of the Trump administration’s first two and a half years, Barr spun Mueller’s report so that it appeared to completely exonerate the president. By June 2019, Trump had declared himself vindicated after the “greatest witch hunt in political history.” It’s no wonder he was ecstatic. The Mueller investigation had enraged and dogged him for two years; he knew it could have ended in impeachment.

So, naturally, a month later, he did something that made him the third president to be impeached in US history: he “effectively asked the Ukrainian government to interfere in the 2020 US Presidential election” and used public funds as a bargaining chip. By the time you read this, the politically partial impeachment trial will probably have ended with Trump being acquitted. Meanwhile, a sane person might ask, why imperil yourself again? It’s a silly question. In Trump’s world, he can do no wrong; moreover, the law exists to help him, not prevent him doing whatever he wants.

In the Spring of 2017, for instance, Trump held a standard Oval Office briefing with White House aides. Out of the blue, he told then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to abolish the Foreign Corrupt Practises Act. “It’s just so unfair that American companies aren’t allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas,” he explained. Again, in May 2018, the President berated Kirstjen Nielson, secretary of Homeland Security, because she could not “shut down” the US-Mexico border. Nielson argued that doing so would be illegal; this didn’t wash with the Commander-in-Chief.

A Very Stable Genius is as much about Trump as it is about those around him who have to run what Senator Bob Corker calls the “adult day care centre.” His aides spend most of their time on damage control, trying to mop-up after another tweet, tirade or botched policy announcement. In this way, the book follows a pattern. Trump makes an unreasonable demand – repeal a law, charge a country for hosting the American Armed forces, randomly pull out of an international agreement – and those around him run around to make it look like they have done his bidding. Ultimately, when Trump realises his diktats have not been carried out, he takes his petty revenge. “The President doesn’t fire people,” one White House aide told the authors, “he just just tortures them until they’re willing to quit.”

The bulk of this book concerns Trump’s paranoid battles with the Justice Department, the Mueller investigation, the FBI and the dreaded “leakers”. On this latter problem, it is worth noting that Trump himself is one of them: in December 2018 he asked Chris Christie to be his Chief of Staff. While Christie was mulling it over, news of his interest appeared on the political website Axios. Christie asked Trump how it happened. “Oh, I did it,” said Trump, and laughed it off.

Rucker and Leonnig are both Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists. Their writing is pellucid and detailed, and they draw on an impressive amount of insider sources. So, it is a shame some issues aren’t fleshed-out more: the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the Iran nuclear deal, Trump’s position on Israel and Palestine, or his stance on climate change (he has redacted environmental safeguards and supports the Keystone Oil pipeline, for instance). Steve Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist until August 2018, mostly stays in the background. We find out that he had a central role in drafting Trump’s racist travel ban, that he had “personal” and “ideological” feuds with senior aides, and was “dismissed” a few days after Charlottesville, but we don’t get a great sense of how he has shaped the administration.

Nevertheless, Rucker and Leonnig set out to provide an historical record of Trump’s administration, “showing him in action rather than telling readers what to think of him.” In this regard, they have done an admirable job. Their account is certainly more meticulous and less gossipy than Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Trump turned down their requests for an interview (although he was initially interested). But we get an excellent sense of the man as President. The title is taken from Trump’s own words. In January 2018, amid discussions about his fitness for office, Trump sent out a tweet declaring himself “a very stable genius.” Later, in another self-aggrandizing tweet, he quotes this earlier one as evidence of his mental prowess. He – obviously – is the only authority worth consulting on himself.

Rucker and Leonnig don’t tell us what to think of Trump, but by the end I had a long list of adjectives to describe him: obtuse, capricious, immature, narcissistic, naïve, impetuous, ignorant. We already knew this, of course.

Although the Mueller report cleared Trump and his team of active collusion with the Russian government, it is not surprising Vladimir Putin was and remains so keen to see Trump in office. Putin is the opposite of Trump: calculating, intelligent and an expert manipulator. For Putin, Trump is easy manna. Many will remember the infamous July 2018 Helsinki summit. Trump emerged from a two-hour meeting with Putin and fawned over the Russian President. “As he held forth with Putin for a 46-minute joint news conference…he said he took the word of Putin over the collective assessment of his own intelligence agencies.” Later, Trump would change his mind and tell everyone he misspoke.

The chaos of Trump’s world means that when it comes to the business of government, his White House is inefficient; and, despite his America First rhetoric, he hasn’t really got a grand plan or vision for the country. He is, however, a powerful vector for mass hysteria. That’s what makes him so dangerous.

The book's release date is prescient, with the Presidential election only months away. What perhaps seems most extraordinary to many outside observers, of course, is the fact that despite everything we know about Trump's behaviour there is little evidence his 2016 voters will desert him this time around. In fact, it appears such behaviour is sometimes why they like him. Even more so now than they did before. Many voters, meanwhile, appear willing to overlook his behaviour and outbursts because they agree with his economic policies.

Leonnig and Rucker appositely quote Edmund Burke in their prologue: “Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.” Just imagine how much “rage and phrenzy” will be unleashed on America (and the world) if Trump secures another four years in office come November? Or don’t, if you want to sleep at night.