Reviewed 8/12/2020

A Very Stable Genius, by Philip Rucker & Carol Leonning

Donald J. Trump's Testing of America
Philip Rucker & Carol Leonning
New York: Penguin Press, January 2020




ISBN-13 978-1-9848-7749-9
ISBN-10 1-9848-7749-6 465pp. HC $30.00

"What follows is a chronological account of Trump's vainglorious pursuit of power in his first term, one that seeks to make meaning by finding patterns in the seeming chaos. There are rages and frenzies but also moments of courage and perseverance. The narrative is intended to reveal Trump at his most unvarnished and expose how decision making in his administration has been driven by one man's self-centered and unthinking logic—but a logic nonetheless. This is the story of how Trump and his advisers have scrambled to survive and tested the strength of America's democracy and its common heart as a nation."

– Page 8

The authors hew very closely to that plan, taking events in sequence. To use a rough analogy, other books are more like a series of snapshots, while this one resembles a documentary film. A better analogy for this book is probably the PBS program Frontline. If you're familiar with that (and you should be), note how the authors' narrative resembles Frontline's dialogue. That said, my analogy applies better to individual chapters, for the sequence of events is not strictly chronological across the entire book.

At times the wealth of detail can be daunting. An example is Chapter Six, "Suiting Up for Battle," which describes Trump's process of assembling his team of lawyers (both personal and White House Counsel.) Such is the number of legal eagles that they are hard to keep track of. But this is the exception; in general the narrative is very easy to follow. The authors succeed in conveying their main message: that Trump is neither stable nor a genius. They do this by paying careful attention to detail in relating the episodes they describe, providing dates and times and identifying each player they introduce, and also by judicious use of recorded dialogue and reconstructed feelings and motivations.

This excerpt will give you an idea of that.

Trump's lawyers closely studied the backgrounds of Mueller's hires and saw a pattern. Though Mueller was registered as a Republican and appointed FBI director by Bush, many of the lawyers joining his team were Democrats, and some had given money to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. Trump's lawyers also thought there was a decent legal argument that Mueller was conflicted out of being special counsel because he had met with Trump the day before his appointment for what the president claimed was a job interview. Mueller could have learned Trump's thinking about the probe and and whether Trump implied he required loyalty in his next FBI director. Either way, he would be a witness who had an improper window into the mind of the investigation's key subject.

Marc Kasowitz and Mike Bowe shared this information with Trump during a meeting with his legal team, and he was elated. A one-two punch, he thought. The special counsel's team was politically biased, and Mueller himself could be disqualified from leading the probe. The president became particularly enamored with the idea that Mueller was conflicted because the two men had what he called a "business dispute." Mueller once belonged to Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia and sought to recoup some of his membership fees when he moved. Trump's lawyers tried to get their client to realize this was not a strong case of a conflict of interest, but the president could not be persuaded. He wouldn't stop mentioning the business dispute as a fatal flaw in Mueller's appointment.

Testifying June 13 before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who officially oversaw the special counsel probe, tried to assuage fears building in Washington that Trump intended to terminate Mueller. "I'm not going to follow any orders unless I believe those are lawful and appropriate orders," Rosenstein said. He added, "Special Counsel Mueller may be fired only for good cause." Rosenstein's remarks were intended to affirm the Justice Department would uphold the rule of law, irrespective of any impulsive decree by the president. But they did not persuade Trump to drop the issue.

Around 7:00 p.m. the next day, June 14, The Washington Post reported that Mueller had expanded his Russia probe to include an examination of whether Trump had attempted to obstruct justice. Trump himself was now under investigation, which was precisely what he had spent the spring pressuring his FBI director and intelligence agency heads to publicly deny. The administration was stuck in an unremitting season of investigations and the president was enraged. Around this time, he called Chris Christie.

"Should I fire Mueller?" Trump asked the New Jersey governor.

"Mr. President, if you fire Mueller, you're going to be impeached," Christie replied. "Sure as day follows night, you will be impeached."

"Do you really believe that?" Trump asked.

"I absolutely believe that," Christie said, arguing that even Republicans in Congress could vote to impeach him for terminating the special counsel. "If there's anybody who's encouraging you to fire Mueller and somehow that will end your problems, it will only compound your problems. Don't do it."

– Pages 96-97

This is one of many cases that point up Trump's bad judgment. He remained determined to fire Mueller, and tried twice to get it done.1 He failed only because Don McGahn, his original White House Counsel, threatened to resign.

Readers will no doubt be familiar with many of the incidents the authors cover. They do not cover the pandemic, because the book went to press before it struck. But the wrangling over Trump's border wall is here — as are his series of Muslim bans, his blunders with Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, his counterproductive tariff wars, the security-clearance SNAFU, his attempted shakedown of Ukraine's President Zelenskiy, the start of his impeachment, and much else.

The book is very well written and edited; I found only two grammatical errors (and one more possible.) It has extensive endnotes and an excellent Index; these features, along with its deeply researched account, make it an excellent reference. I give it top marks and rate it a must-read. However, owing to the fact that so many accounts of Trump's reign of error preceded it,2 I cannot call it a keeper.

1 The other instance, not mentioned in the book, also happened in the summer of 2017. Trump asked Corey Lewandowsky to have Sessions fire Mueller. Trump also told Lewandowsky to fire Sessions if he refused to discuss the issue. Lewandowsky was not a member of Trump's administration, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had correctly recused himself from the Russia investigation. So neither man had any official power over Mueller.
2 I've compiled my own list.
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