Book Review: ‘I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year’

(C) 2021 Penguin Press/Penguin Random House

I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year (2021)

Written by: Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker

Publisher: Penguin Press (a division of Penguin Random House)

Category: Domestic Politics

Format: Hardcover

No. of Pages: 592

Publication Date: July 20, 2021

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible. Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape! @CDC.gov…” – Donald Trump, via Twitter, February 26, 2020

“The only thing that can beat Donald Trump (in the 2020 Presidential election) is coronavirus.” – Benjamin Netanyahu, then Prime Minister of Israel, to Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio, late February 2020, quoted in Chapter Four – Seeking Revenge, I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year

On Tuesday, July 20, Penguin Press published I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, a non-fiction account of the last 12 months of the disastrous Presidency of Donald John Trump. Written by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, I Alone Can Fix It chronicles how the bombastic, egocentric, boastful, and arrogant Trump failed to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic – his first real crisis as President – and his attempts to reverse the results of the 2020 Presidential election, which culminated in the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters who believed in Trump’s “Big Lie” about massive voter fraud by his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden.

Based on hundreds of interviews with eyewitnesses, former members of the Trump Administration who were willing to be “on the record,” and a wealth of news reports and archived social media posts by Trump and his cronies, I Alone Can Fix It is a riveting, if often frightening, account of a dysfunctional White House led by a President whose ultimate allegiance was not to the nation he claimed to serve or the Constitution he swore to uphold as it careens from one disaster to another in a pivotal election year marked by a public health crisis, a plummeting economy, protests against police brutality and racial injustice, and the growing reality that Trump’s façade of invincibility cracked in the face of an invisible yet implacable foe, the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2

From the Dust Jacket

(C) 2021 Penguin Press

The true story of what took place in Donald Trump’s White House during a disastrous 2020 has never before been told in full. What was really going on around the president, as the government failed to contain the coronavirus and over half a million Americans perished? Who was influencing Trump after he refused to concede an election he had clearly lost and spread lies about election fraud? To answer these questions, Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig reveal a dysfunctional and bumbling presidency’s inner workings in unprecedented, stunning detail.
 
Focused on Trump and the key players around him—the doctors, generals, senior advisers, and Trump family members— Rucker and Leonnig provide a forensic account of the most devastating year in a presidency like no other. Their sources were in the room as time and time again Trump put his personal gain ahead of the good of the country. These witnesses to history tell the story of him longing to deploy the military to the streets of American cities to crush the protest movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, all to bolster his image of strength ahead of the election. These sources saw firsthand his refusal to take the threat of the coronavirus seriously—even to the point of allowing himself and those around him to be infected. This is a story of a nation sabotaged—economically, medically, and politically—by its own leader, culminating with a groundbreaking, minute-by-minute account of  exactly what went on in the Capitol building on January 6, as Trump’s supporters so easily breached the most sacred halls of American democracy, and how the president reacted. With unparalleled access, Rucker and Leonnig explain and expose exactly who enabled—and who foiled—Trump as he sought desperately to cling to power.
 
A classic and heart-racing work of investigative reporting, this book is destined to be read and studied by citizens and historians alike for decades to come.

Between the Covers

 I Alone Can Fix It: The Catastrophic Final Year of Donald J. Trump is divided into four parts and twenty-two chapters. It also includes a prologue, an epilogue, and the usual mix of acknowledgments, endnotes, and index that are found in most history books. Not including the appendices, I Alone Can Fix It has 521 pages’ worth of narrative, including the Prologue and the Epilogue.

Excerpt

(From Chapter Eight – Staring Down the Dragon)

After accompanying President Trump on his triumphant walk across Lafayette Square on June 1, Mark Esper and Mark Milley surveyed the streets of Washington late into the night, talking with National Guard soldiers, learning where they were from and what they had seen. When they returned to the FBI’s Washington Field Office after 10:00, they finally put together all the pieces of what had happened. They had dragged the military into an ugly scene and there would be a fierce backlash. They realized they had to explain themselves to the public, even if doing so would rupture their relationships with the president. They had to make clear that they did not condone the use of force against people exercising their constitutional right to protest. That night, Esper instructed his spokesperson to ready a statement he wanted to send out to thank the force, stressing their important role defending those rights and staying above politics.

On June 2, NBC News and other media reported that Esper thought he was walking with Trump to visit a vandalized bathroom in Lafayette Square, but not whether Esper knew that the walk was a staged photo opportunity or whether law enforcement had been ordered to clear the park. Esper’s bathroom explanation became a punch line of sorts on cable news, with some analysts poking fun at the idea of the defense secretary inspecting toilets. Meanwhile, the president had only ramped up his rhetoric about bringing in the military to put down the “thugs.”

The night of June 2, Esper decided that he had to correct the record in his own words. He told confidants that he was motivated by a sense the country was out of control like a runaway car, and somebody needed to grab the wheel. Trump had inflamed the Floyd protesters, and set the country on edge with the events of June 1. Esper feared what fresh violence might be set off in this volatile moment and would later tell associates he felt he needed to “break the fever.” He stayed up until 2:00 a.m., trying to strike the right notes. The morning of June 3, he gathered Milley; General John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, and a few other trusted advisers around a table, with some joining in by phone, to help him get his message just right. Esper knew Trump would not like what he had to say. Milley said, “This is the right thing to do and you’re going to hit it out of the park.”

Later that morning, Esper stood before reporters in the Pentagon’s press briefing room and began to speak. He first offered his condolences to George Floyd’s friends and family and said the police officers on the scene “should be held accountable for his murder.” Then Esper stressed that the military values diversity and that the right of people to protest systemic racism is part of the Constitution that “every member of this Department has sworn an oath to uphold and defend.”

***

Esper also touched on what had happened at Lafayette Square and that some of the reporting on his role had been flawed. “I did know that following the president’s remarks on Monday evening that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park and at St. John’s Episcopal Church,” Esper told reporters. “What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going when I arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there.

In other words, Esper didn’t know the walk was staged as a presidential photo op and didn’t know officers had used force to clear the protesters. “Look, I do everything I can to stay apolitical and try to stay out of situations that may appear political,” Esper said. “And sometimes I’m successful at doing that, and sometimes I’m not as successful, but my aim is to keep the department out of politics, to stay apolitical.

My Take

I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year is a sequel of sorts to the authors’ A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (Penguin Press, 2020). It derives its title from the former president’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention when he accepted the party’s nomination as its candidate for that year’s election. On that occasion, Trump said, “I am your voice, I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order.”

For much of his Presidency, Donald J. Trump bobbed and weaved in the arena of high-stakes politics, evading blows that would have sunk politicians with a less fanatical base of supporters. He was a ruder, cruder version of a ‘Teflon President” from a previous generation of Republican leaders; during his two terms in office, the late Ronald Reagan had weathered several political scandals, including the infamous Iran-Contra affair and the dealings of various members of his Administration that tarred others – including Marine Corps  Lt. Col. Oliver North and CIA director William Casey – but never touched the popular Reagan directly. In his first three years as president, Trump had weathered a probe into his campaign’s dealings with Russia prior to and during the 2016 elections; the firing of his first National Security Adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn for issues related to the Russian interference in the elections; the lowest public support ratings for a modern president; Trump’s refusal to fully and clearly denounce white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups after violence broke out at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA on August 11, 2017; and his impeachment (his first) for trying to pressure the president of Ukraine to dig up any dirt on the alleged business deals of former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s most likely Democratic challenger in 2020, and his son Hunter in Kyiv during a now-famous phone call on July 25, 2019.

Of course, Trump did not evade the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune alone. He had many enablers within and outside the halls of power in Washington, including Rupert Murdoch, the staunchly conservative co-founder and owner of Fox News Channel and its parent company Fox Corporation; billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughters; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer; then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who ensured the Senate would not convict Trump at the 2020 impeachment; and a cast of assorted toadies and family members, including Ivanka Trump Kushner, her husband Jared, and Special Assistant to the President Kellyanne Conway, the first woman to run a winning presidential campaign and the creator of the phrase “alternative facts.”

Without this small army of advisers and sycophants, and without the megaphone of social media and right wing outlets such as One America News, Breitbart, Fox News, and CRTV to galvanize the Make America Great Again crowd, a political neophyte like Donald Trump would have been booted out of office or forced to resign. But the post-1996 GOP needed Trump to further its agenda and protected him from public opprobrium or removal from office by any means necessary, including the demonization of the free press and the acceptance of conspiracy theorists and Trump-supporting firebrands like Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia into the GOP’s bosom. So long as Trump gave Republicans and their billionaire donors what they desired (tax cuts for the wealthy, opening up federally-protected land for oil exploration and exploitation, and eroding regulations that “strangled” business), Trump was the voice and face of the conservative movement.

I Alone Can Fix It chronicles how a “perfect storm” of events – the coronavirus pandemic, the protests against police brutality that sprung up like weeds after George Floyd’s murder by three Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020, and Trump’s efforts to stay in power by any means necessary – finally led to Trump’s defeat at the polls on Election Day, his refusal to concede to President-elect Joe Biden, and Trump’s unprecedented attempt to reverse the election results between November 3, 2020 and January 6, 2021 – and the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol by an angry mob after a Trump-led Stop the Steal rally.

Like most books about domestic political events written by journalists shortly afterwards, I Alone Can Fix It is, by its nature, a “first draft of history” that covers a lot of ground, gives a lot of information and fascinating details, but needs to be supplemented by future works that delve deeply into each of the separate crises that derailed the Trump re-election campaign at great cost in lives – in 2020, 375,000 Americans died of COVID-19 – and exposed how fragile our society and democratic institutions 160 years after the cataclysm of the Civil War.    

Since I Alone Can Fix It covers the events of an entire year, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker have to give as much detail as possible without delving into every possible detail. They have to keep things moving briskly, so just as a newspaper story can’t devote a lot of column-inches to every single participant or eyewitness to report on an event, I Alone Can Fix It does not include every single incident or every utterance spoken by the president, his advisers, or his antagonists between January 1, 2020 and January 20, 2021.

Nevertheless, Leonnig and Rucker do an excellent job of giving readers a glimpse at a White House that is divided against itself under Trump’s lackluster leadership. The president is, of course, a man who puts his needs ahead of those of the nation he professes to love and aspires to lead. Trump’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic was typical of the man; his instincts at first were to not rock the boat with the Chinese government for fear of upending a new trade deal he and Chinese President Xi Jinping to end a round of U.S.-China trade wars Trump himself instigated early in his term. Later, when it was clear that the Chinese had been less than open about the initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan, Trump did a 180 and whipped up a frenzy of Sinophobia that resulted in anti-Asian hate crimes across the U.S.

I Alone Can Fix It has, of course, its cast of inept or unethical characters led by Trump, Stephen Bannon, Roger Stone, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and others. But there are decent, hard-working, and patriotic men and women who served in the Trump Administration or in the armed forces during this time, including Dr Robert Redfield, head of the CDC, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Dorothy Birx, the two most prominent virologists who tried to advise Trump on how to stop the spread of the COVID virus, only to meet stiff resistance from the president himself. Even enablers Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner had a few fleeting moments of lucidity.

Here, Leonnig and Rucker describe Trump’s reaction when Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, reports to the President that the government has signed a $1.2 billion deal with Oxford-AstraZeneca for 300 million doses of its new COVID-19 vaccine:

From his kitchen at home, Azar called Kushner. “Jared, we got it,” he said. “We got AstraZeneca! Three hundred million doses!”

Kushner said that sounded great, but asked Azar to hold on. He was at the White House late with the president. Kushner put Trump on the phone.

“Mr. President, we just got the first deal with AstraZeneca,” Azar said. “It’s the first one ever. It’s incredible.”

Azar explained how sensitive it was.

“It’s going to be announced at four o’clock tomorrow,” he said. “You can’t talk about it. It will be released when the British stock market opens.”

“What?” Trump asked. “It’s a British company?”

“They are the first with a vaccine, Mr. President,” Azar said.

Trump sounded deflated. “I’m going to get killed,” he said. “Oh, this is terrible news. Boris Johnson is going to have a field day with this.”

Azar wasn’t sure what to say about the British prime minister.

“Why aren’t we doing this with an American company?” Trump asked.

“This is the first one that is available,’ Azar explained.

“I don’t want any press on this,” Trump said. “Don’t do any press on this.”

Azar was stunned. He’d been angry and frustrated in this job, many times. But in this moment, he was flat-out depressed. He had imagined the president would thank him. Instead, Trump had acted as though Azar had failed him.

Kushner, Hope Hicks, and Dan Scavino were in the room and heard Trump’s side of the conversation. They were surprised.

“Secretary Azar has just delivered you a vaccine and you just yelled at him,” Hicks told Trump. “Why did you do that?”

“This is great news,” Scavino added. “We should be promoting this.”

Kushner, too, tried to correct the president.

“This is a real big advance,” he told his father-in-law. ‘That was not helpful.”

My only issue with I Alone Can Fix It is that it lacks photo inserts or any illustrations – such as a map of Washington DC or charts showing, say, how the COVID-19 virus spread from China to the U.S. early last year. Not that every history book has photo inserts, but this one sure could have used at least one photo section to help the reader know who is who and put faces to the names mentioned in the narrative.

Aside from that, I Alone Can Fix It is a good example of journalistic writing and reporting at its best. Amazingly, people from Trump’s Administration spoke to Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker on the record, even though in the world of MAGA conservativism the Washington Post is a leftist publication. (Even more amazingly, according to the Epilogue, Trump invited the authors to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, FL and spoke with them for several hours.) It is well-written, fast-paced, informative, and immensely readable.

There will definitely be many, many books written about Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the January 6, 2021 Stop the Steal riot and Trump’s unprecedented second impeachment, but if you want a brisk but thorough overview of how the man who boasted that he alone could fix it didn’t fix anything at all, I Alone Can Fix It is a good book for you.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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