Book Review: ‘A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America’

(C) 2020, 2021 Penguin Random House

A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (2020 hardcover, 2021 paperback)

Written by: Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig

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

Category: Domestic Politics

Format: Paperback

No. of Pages: 512

Publication Date: Hardcover: January 21, 2020; Paperback (Updated with New Reporting): February 23, 2021

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“This taut and terrifying book is among the most closely observed accounts of Donald J. Trump’s shambolic tenure in office to date.”– Dwight GarnerThe New York Times

(C) 2020, 2021 Penguin Random House

On January 21, 2020, Penguin Random House published the first edition of A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America. Written by The Washington Post’s senior White House correspondent Philip Rucker and his colleague Carol Leonnig, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the Post, A Very Stable Genius examined the first two tumultuous years of Donald J. Trump’s Presidency up to the eve of his first impeachment for trying to influence the President of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Trump’s likely Democratic opponent in the 2020 elections, Joe Biden.

A little over a year later, on February 23, 2021, Penguin Random House published the paperback edition of A Very Stable Genius, which was updated with new reporting by Rucker and Leonnig to cover the last months of 2019 and connect the book to its sequel, I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year.

Based on hundreds of interviews with eyewitnesses, including many individuals who worked in Trump’s White House and spoke to Rucker and Leonnig anonymously for fear of retribution by the then-sitting President, as well as a plethora of contemporary news accounts, A Very Stable Genius is a window into a White House divided against itself as dedicated civil servants – some appointed by Trump, others not – tried to curb the 45th President’s reckless, feckless, and corrupt impulses, while a core group of right-wing nationalists – led by Stephen K. Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka – and Trump’s closest advisors – daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and senior Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway – served as Trump’s toxic enablers as he set about dismantling the very institutions he was Constitutionally bound to protect and defend as President of the United States.

From the Publisher

Philip Rucker talks to Judy Woodruff on PBS News Hour about the book when it was published in 2020. (Note the difference in covers between the hardcover and the 2021 edition.

Washington Post national investigative reporter Carol Leonnig and White House bureau chief Philip Rucker, both Pulitzer Prize winners, provide the definitive insider narrative of Donald Trump’s presidency

“I alone can fix it.” So proclaimed Donald J. Trump on July 21, 2016, accepting the Republican presidential nomination and promising to restore what he described as a fallen nation. Yet as he undertook the actual work of the commander in chief, it became nearly impossible to see beyond the daily chaos of scandal, investigation, and constant bluster. In fact, there were patterns to his behavior and that of his associates. The universal value of the Trump administration was loyalty—not to the country, but to the president himself—and Trump’s North Star was always the perpetuation of his own power.

With deep and unmatched sources throughout Washington, D.C., Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker reveal the forty-fifth president up close. Here, for the first time, certain officials who felt honor-bound not to divulge what they witnessed in positions of trust tell the truth for the benefit of history.

A peerless and gripping narrative, A Very Stable Genius not only reveals President Trump at his most unvarnished but shows how he tested the strength of America’s democracy and its common heart as a nation. – From the book’s back cover

Between the Covers

A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America Is divided into five parts and 27 chapters. It includes an authors’ note, prologue, an epilogue, an acknowledgments section, notes on sources, and an index. Of A Very Stable Genius’ 512 pages, 450 are devoted to the narrative of Trump’s Presidency up to the President’s ringing in 2020 at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, Florida.

Excerpt

In the helter-skelter, unstructured rhythms of the transition, a trio of campaign power players jockeyed for influence: Kushner, Bannon, and Reince Priebus. Kushner had exalted status as Trump’s son-in-law, while Priebus and Bannon were appointed early on as White House chief of staff and White House chief strategist-a unique arrangement in which they had coequal footing atop the organizational chart.

Trump tapped Priebus, who had been the Republican National Committee chairman, partly as a thank-you present for the foot soldiers and state-by-state organization that the RNC built for Trump to compensate for his campaign’s almost-nonexistent ground game. Well connected in Washington, Priebus was considered by GOP leaders to have the most capable set of hands among Trump’s aides.

Bannon, meanwhile, was impolitic, gruff, and unkempt. He had proven his loyalty in the trenches with Trump during the toughest stretch of the campaign. Bannon had previously run the conservative website Breitbart and pitched himself to Trump as the essential conduit to his indispensable base, which he affectionately referred to as “the deplorables,” a reference to Clinton’s infamous gaffe about Trump’s “basket of deplorables. . . . The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic-you name it.”

Priebus set about installing former RNC staffers and other trusted figures in key West Wing roles, while he, Bannon, and Pence focused on cabinet positions. They paid special attention early on to national security roles and had their eyes on Mike Pompeo to lead the CIA. Pompeo had been elected to Congress as a Kansas Republican in the Tea Party wave of 2010, and when he arrived in Washington, he quickly established himself as a hard-line conservative and a sharp partisan. From his perch on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Pompeo had hounded Clinton over Benghazi, making him a Breitbart favorite.

Though he had known Priebus, Bannon, and Pence for years, Pompeo was an outsider to Trump’s world. In fact, he had campaigned vigorously against Trump in the primaries as a Marco Rubio surrogate. During the March 5 Kansas caucuses, Pompeo had warned that Trump would be “an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution,” and he urged his fellow Kansans to “turn down the lights on the circus.”

But Pompeo was eager to join the circus now. Bannon knew that it would be hard to sell a small-state congressman he regarded as “a warrior’s warrior” as a potential CIA director to the elites he dubbed “the Morning Joe crowd,” given Pompeo’s Benghazi bludgeoning. But Pompeo wanted the job.

On November 16, Pompeo traveled to New York to meet with the president-elect. Priebus had prepped Trump on Pompeo’s credentials, and Bannon had given Pompeo a pep talk, telling him something along the lines of “We’re just going to go in, I’m going to reiterate you’re number one in your class at West Point, number one in your class at Harvard Law School, you’re the best guy intelligence ever had. I’m going to tee you up-and don’t wait for him to say anything. You just rip. Do not wait for a question, because there won’t be a question. He doesn’t even know what intelligence is. Just rip.”

The meeting went off without a hitch. After others fluffed him up before the boss, Pompeo talked about restructuring the CIA. He and Trump chewed over problems with the Iran nuclear deal. As a West Point and Harvard Law graduate, Pompeo easily checked the credentials box. The former army captain, beefy and hulking as he works a room, also had the imposing, tough-guy image Trump desired.

Before the meeting concluded, Pompeo had the job. Trump shook his hand, turned to Bannon and Priebus, and said, “I love it. Let’s do it.” Two days later, Pompeo was formally announced as Trump’s nominee for CIA director. Pompeo would become one of the more respected members of the administration, but Trump offered him the CIA directorship based on a single interview. – Pages 15-17, A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (2021 paperback edition)

My Take

(C) 2020, 2021 Penguin Random House

Before the 2016 Presidential election, I was not a particularly political person. I was not apathetic; I registered to vote in Miami-Dade County just in time for the 1984 election cycle, and since then I have voted in almost every local, state, and federal election. And since I studied journalism in college – a place where I noticed for the first time the impact that politicians make on our daily lives [1]̶  I knew it was folly to not pay attention to what goes on in government.

Still, I shied away from purely partisan politics. Even in my youthful flirtation with conservatism – I was a Cold War era kid who detested Marxism-Leninism and supported Ronald Reagan’s strong stance against the Soviet Union – I never joined either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. I also never voted “straight ticket.” I always made it my business to learn about the candidates on each side and voted for the ones I thought were most qualified, not caring whether they had a D or an R to the right of their names.

As I grew older, I started leaning more and more toward the Democratic/liberal side of the aisle. Partly because I resented the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature for its penny-pinching ways with spending, especially when it concerned public schools both at the K-12 level and the state’s post-secondary institutions. I still recall, for instance, how the politicians in Tallahassee, the state capital, promised that they would not cut spending on the general budget for education if voters approved the Florida Lottery, which was supposed to help finance enhancements to the schools and pay for such nice things as music and art classes, magnet schools, and computer labs in every school.

Of course, once the voters approved the Florida Lottery in 1986, the Legislature began cutting the general education budget, which its Republican leaders had sworn they would not do.

I mention all of this personal history to offer some context as to why, finally, I decided to change my party affiliation in 2018 after I moved from Miami-Dade County to the Gulf Coast and had to renew my state ID card. Before 2018, my affiliation was listed as NPA (No Party Affiliation) or Independent. And, for practical matters, that’s how I still intend to vote in future elections even though I am now a registered Democratic Party voter.[2]

I did not vote for Donald Trump because I am Communist, anti-American, or any of the labels that the right wants to put on their opponents. I don’t agree with the more extreme left wing of the Democratic Party – you know, the fringe group that promises such pie-in-the-sky items as free college education or sharp reductions on our defense spending. I do support many planks in the Democratic Party platform, and my views about sex, gender equality, and women’s rights align with most liberals’ ideology,

I didn’t vote for Trump in either of the two elections he was nominated as the Republican candidate for one reason: I believed then, and I believe now, that he was morally, ethically, and psychologically unfit to hold any political office, let alone the Presidency of the United States.

In A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig confirm all of my perceptions of Trump as a man and president. He ran for office with no intention of governing a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation with a population of over 300 million men, women, and children. He ran, essentially, on an ego-boosting lark to enhance the Trump brand and make millions in the process. There’s ample evidence that, despite his pugnacious nature, Donald Trump did not expect to beat former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – and that he was just as surprised as everyone else when he did.

Although Trump’s Make America Great Again fanbase dismisses The Washington Post as a liberal rag with no credibility – Fox commentator Greg Kelly, a retired Marine Corps officer and Trump fan, called Rucker and Leonnig’s sequel I Alone Can Fix It “fake news – the authors’ examine the tumultuous period between Trump’s election victory in November 2016 and the first hints of the crisis that denied him a second consecutive term in the White House – the coronavirus pandemic.

In A Very Stable Genius, we see that Trump was obsessed with image over substance, ego over civic service, and division and strife over conciliation and just governance. For “The Donald,” what mattered the most was appearing to be strong, firm, and most of all, feared by his opponents, both at home and abroad.

And, for a man who claims to know a great deal about American history and was the best Commander In Chief in the nation’s history, Trump as President often showed that in those two areas, he was pulling a con on his faithful “deplorables.”

For instance, this is how Leonnig and Rucker describe Trump’s unpresidential views on defense and the military at a July 29, 2017 briefing in a secure conference room in the Pentagon known as “the Tank.”

Before they could debate the Iran deal, Trump erupted to revive another frequent complaint: the war in Afghanistan, which was now America’s longest war. He demanded an explanation for why the United States hadn’t won in Afghanistan yet, now sixteen years after the nation started fighting there in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Trump unleashed his disdain, calling Afghanistan a “loser war.” That phrase hung in the air and disgusted not only the military leaders at the table but also the men and women in uniform sitting along the back wall behind their principals. They all were sworn to obey their commander in chief’s commands, and here he was calling the war they had been fighting a loser war.

“You’re all losers,” Trump said. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”

Trump questioned why the United States couldn’t get some oil as payment for the troops stationed in the Persian Gulf. “We spent $7 trillion; they’re ripping us off,” Trump boomed. “Where is the fucking oil?

As for Trump’s claims that he is knowledgeable about U.S. history, those are as genuine as those made by a snake oil salesman. He is not known for being intellectually curious or genuinely interested in American history. Thus, it’s not a surprise when Rucker and Leonnig reveal that John Kelly, one of his many White House Chiefs of Staff and a four star general in the Marines, had to school the President about one of the nation’s most hallowed grounds – the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor:

The first couple was set to take a private tour of the USS Arizona Memorial, which sits just off the coast of Honolulu and straddles the hull of the battleship that sank into the Pacific during the Japanese surprise attack in 1941. As a passenger boat ferried the Trumps to the stark white memorial, the president pulled Kelly aside for a quiet consult.

“Hey, John, what’s this all about? What’s this a tour of?” Trump asked his chief of staff.

Kelly was momentarily stunned. Trump had heard the phrase “Pearl Harbor” and appeared to understand that he was visiting the scene of a historic battle, but he did not seem to know much else. Kelly explained to him that the stealth Japanese attack here had devastated the U.S. Pacific Fleet and prompted the country’s entrance into World War II, eventually leading the United States to drop atom bombs on Japan. If Trump had learned about “a date which will live in infamy” in school, it hadn’t really pierced his consciousness or stuck with him.

“He was at times dangerously uninformed,” said one senior former adviser.

A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America is a terrifying account of how a man with no military or previous government experience tested the institutions that have served our democratic republic ably – although admittedly imperfectly – for nearly 250 years…and revealed that those institutions – and especially our system of checks and balances – are dangerously fragile.  Trump and his enablers – including his cynical advisers and sycophants – tried hard to undo the ties between the American people and their government, often by exploiting the fissures that exist in our society. In his often fiery rhetoric, Donald Trump inspired white supremacists, anti-immigrant groups, and nationalists intent on returning the U.S. to its myopic, navel-gazing, isolationist ways. Never mind that the post-World War II international order, imperfect as it is, has kept the peace and brought relative stability and prosperity to much of the world.

And as most of us realized on January 6,Trump came close to succeeding. In his narcissistic, selfish, and unpatriotic bid to remain in office after the voters chose Democratic candidate Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, Trump and his allies looked on as thousands of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to prevent Congress from ratifying Biden’s Electoral College win. This assault on democracy failed, but it resulted in loss of life, injuries, and an unprecedented second impeachment for Donald Trump.

A Very Stable Genius is well-written and meticulously researched. Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker are both dogged investigators and persistent interviewers. They are the kind of journalists America needs the most right now due to their hunger for facts and dedication to the truth.

And because they come from the world of newspapers and not academia, their writing style is crisp, spare, and clean. A Very Stable Genius sticks to the 5 Ws and H formula I learned when I started learning journalism in high school: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The authors do not indulge in speculation or put words in people’s mouths that they did not utter. This is history’s first draft, after all, and the authors stray away from rumors and stay as objective as they can.

I recommend this fast-paced and illuminating book to anyone who wants to understand why Trump’s presidency was such a hot mess, and how some members of his own Administration attempted to get the “very stable genius” to learn how to govern – and how Trump’s ego, insecurity, and volatile nature nearly brought American democracy to its knees.  


[1] And not always for the better! I was in college at a time when the Florida Legislature was proposing cuts in funding to public academic institutions such as Miami-Dade Community College (now Miami-Dade College). We depended on state money for such things as the printing costs for the student paper and repairs (but not upgrades) to our office equipment. During my stint on the newspaper staff (Fall of the 1985-86 academic year to Fall of the 1989-90 academic year), we still had to type our “hard copy” on IBM Selectric typewriters, although when I wrote my stories at home after 1987, I used my Apple IIe computer.

[2] Florida is a “closed primary” state, so you have to be a member of a major political party in order to vote in primaries here. I was tired of not having a say about Presidential nominations, so…I registered in March of 2018 as a Democrat.

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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