A Very Stable Genius - inside Donald Trump's presidency

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 4 February 2020

Philip Rucker is a one half of a duo of Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists who have spent the last three years intensively reporting on the Donald Trump presidency for the Washington Post.

Rucker is the Post's White House bureau chief, his colleague Carol Leonnig is its national investigative reporter focused on the White House.

US President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the 47th annual "March for Life" in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2020.

Photo: AFP

The pair have just published a book on Donald Trump - called A Very Stable Genius.

It's a term Trump used on Twitter, in reference to himself, a year into his presidency, in response to questions about his fitness for office and psychological house.

Philip Rucker talked to Kathryn Ryan about the insights they had gained. 

For Trump, the need for loyalty goes deeper than your run-of-the-mill politician, Rucker says.     

“What we found in our reporting about President Trump is that he demanded an intensity in the loyalty, he demanded loyalty above all else and not loyalty to the country necessarily or to public service, but rather loyalty to Trump, the man Trump, the brand Trump, the president, he looked for advisors who would help fluff his own image who would always defend him even if it meant lying on his behalf to the public - people who would never betray the president.

“And when there was somebody who betrayed him, in his estimation, they were vanquished, they were out, cast away. There was really zero tolerance for any absence of loyalty at any moment.”

The president is most comfortable in fight mode, Rucker says.

“When he's scrambling for survival to defend himself, that is when he can be the most effective in his view, and in the estimation of his close advisers and allies. And this has been a trait for him that pre-dates the presidency.

“He loves to have an opponent, somebody he could brawl with and tear down and he views the presidency the same way. He doesn't have much of a long range, strategic vision as president, rather he kind of scrambles every day, to win the news cycle, to survive, to live on to the next day.”

When Trump first came to power there were two types of people who stepped into the new administration, Rucker says.

“In the category of people who are trying to protect the country, and what they saw as the nation's time-honoured values and norms and traditions against the erratic nature of this president, I would put Jim Mattis; the Defence Secretary, Rex Tillerson; the Secretary of State, John Kelly; the Chief of Staff, and others.

“What we found in our reporting for this book is that their influence waned over time. So, in the first year of the presidency they really tried to prevent bad decisions from happening, to try to rein in the president, to teach him, to counsel him, to tutor him, so that he would understand the world better than he did.”

Those people are all gone now, he says.

“This has become in some ways a presidency of one, where President Trump's decisions and instincts and impulses rule the day no matter what, and the people who are working for him are no longer Mattis, Tillerson and Kelly. The guardrails are gone, the adults are out of the room.

“And what you have now is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and others who see their jobs as trying to execute exactly what he wants done, and whichever way they can do it.”

When it comes to decision-making the president trusts his instincts and has little time for counsel, says Rucker.

“He prides himself, Trump does, in having a good gut for decisions and being able to survey the landscape quickly and arriving at a conclusive point of view right away.

“And he doesn't value counsel from others the way other presidents have. Trump believes that his own knowledge, his own fact base, his own information is superior to that of everyone else. So, he tunes out his briefers, he doesn't want to read the intelligence report, he's not really interested in having his advisors give him long lectures and presentations about matters of the world about which he's frankly unfamiliar, but rather he likes to size everything up in the moment in the instant and make a quick decision.”

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Photo: supplied

This can lead to administrative chaos, he says.

“You then have a cabinet and a government that's playing as one person called it ‘whack a mole’. Just trying to put out fires everywhere and prevent some of these Trump decisions from becoming calamities that endanger people in the country.”

In the field of foreign affairs this erratic behaviour can be a strength, Rucker says.

“However, that's part of his advantage as a president in negotiating with foreign allies and adversaries that other countries’ leaders don't know what to expect. And he keeps everybody off guard and keeps changing equilibrium in a way that is advantageous to the United States.”

Although others believe the president has just been lucky, Rucker says.

“Advisors who we interviewed for this book, who are more critical of this strategy, pointed out that he's been lucky, America has been lucky. There's not been September 11-style terror attack on the United States while he's been president.

“The economy has been quite robust and strong, so he's not been tested in that realm either. And there's not been a foreign policy catastrophe. You know, North Korea has not yet - knock on wood - done anything to provoke us or to threaten and endanger lives. And so they say America is doing fine in spite of the President's erratic decision making, not because of it.”

The strength of the US economy is likely to serve the president well in this year’s election, and he has forged a deep connection with his supporters, Rucker says.

“One of the reasons why Trump stands a very strong chance of winning re-election in November is the intensity that he has within his supporters. His connection, his emotional bond with the Conservative base is unlike any that we've seen in politics in a generation at least.

“And Trump has been a master at keeping connected with those people and making them feel listened to and heard, and championed in the White House.”

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