The first crack at a comprehensive history of the four years of the presidency of Donald Trump reads at times less like history and more like a warning.
The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser and just published today, is based on their time covering Trump — Baker for the New York Times, Glasser for the New Yorker — as well as more than 300 original interviews done specifically for the book. As exhaustive as this volume is, as compelling as it is, and as many dishy, scoopy, newly reported pieces of information as there are, this doorstop of a work in the end is not only and maybe not even principally about the just-past past but rather the potential and imminent future.
“Donald Trump was, by many measures, the most politically unsuccessful occupant of the White House in generations,” Baker and Glasser write. He lost the popular vote twice. He was impeached twice. In four years, he lost the House, lost the Senate — lost the White House. He is the only president in the history of the Gallup poll to never have had the support of a majority of Americans — not for one day in his one term. And yet he remains, they note, “the undisputed frontrunner” to be the 2024 GOP nominee. And if he became president again? “In a second term,” they say, “many of the restraints that inhibited Trump in the first would be gone.”
“The historical record in this live-action threat to American democracy needs to be filled out,” Glasser told me. “We have to understand it as fully as possible.”
“We want this to be for history, but it has very real-world relevance today,” Baker said. “What’s past is prologue. This is the ultimate case study of that. You can see what the next term would be like.”
This is the third book by this all-star husband-and-wife team. (Full disclosure: Glasser hired me when she was editor at HEADLINESFOREVER.) Their last one, which came out in 2020, was about James A. Baker III — The Man Who Ran Washington. Their first one, though, from more than 15 years back, was about Vladimir Putin and “his successful assault on the fledgling Russian democracy.” In their introduction to this new book about the arrogant, insecure, ignorant, impulsive, systems-testing and -wrecking Trump, Baker and Glasser end with a recollection from early in their time as foreign correspondents in Russia.
At an event in Moscow, they write, a reformist politician was asked about the unsteady state of the country’s democracy at the time. He answered with an old Soviet anekdot about a driver of an ambulance who picks up a patient.
“Where are we going?” the patient asks.
“The morgue,” replies the driver.
“Why? I’m not dead yet,” the patient protests.
“We’re not there yet,” the driver responds.
“Two decades ago, that was a mordant joke about where Russia was headed,” write Baker and Glasser. Now it “could also serve as commentary on the health of American democracy after four years of President Trump: We’re not there yet, but it does not look good.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Michael Kruse: This book strikes me as kind of the first comprehensive effort to put those four years between two covers.
Susan Glasser: Absolutely. We really wanted to do this as kind of the first take at an authoritative four-year history of Trump. There have been a lot of books, many of them great. There’s a lot more still to learn, but we felt that it was really important to take an accounting of the four years and see the trajectory and that hasn’t been done by anyone.
Kruse: What is the value in doing this kind of work right now?
Peter Baker: This is not the last history that will be written about this presidency. But there’s a value in doing it in the short term, in capturing people’s memories while they’re fresh, capturing people while they’re still around to make sense of the whole thing. If you do histories 20 years after presidency, memories have faded, and divisions and issues and debates have softened, and people have rewritten history, in effect, in their minds. Today, everything’s still sharp and very real. And I think the other important thing is it’s not over, right? This is history. At the same time, it’s also a very live-action situation. And there’s a reason why the book title has “2017 to 2021” — because it may not be the last we see of him, right? And therefore, to understand what another term might be like, it’s super-important to understand what the last one was like.
Glasser: There’s a reason in the introduction, I think, we called it “an active crime scene.” This is really important because that’s exactly the reason why we spent 18 months after Trump leaving office, doing original reporting for this. The historical record in this live-action threat to American democracy needs to be filled out. We have to understand it as fully as possible. And this notion that exists that, somehow, everything was already known about Donald Trump is, of course, ridiculous from a historical point of view. And more importantly, I think we learned in the course of doing reporting for this book the extent to which many of the things that seemed part of the Trump circus and the insane daily news cycle actually — especially when it came to national security — were much more threatening, serious, sustained and long-term threats to institutions than we understood.
And that I believe is the real story of the book — the real story of the Trump presidency — is war on American institutions. And when it came to national security, sure, we had a sense that there was friction between, say, Trump and the Pentagon. But to understand that it’s not just about how many troops there should be in Afghanistan, to understand that the sitting chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and others came to believe that Donald Trump was a threat to national security, that he was “ruining the international order,” that he did not subscribe to many of the principles that the United States fought for in World War II — you know, that’s the language in the resignation letter that Mark Milley did not send to Donald Trump, which we obtained in the course of reporting for this book after Donald Trump had left office — these are extraordinary and important things that belong in the historical record.