It was the summer of 2016, and the Republican Party was about to nominate Donald Trump for president. Until then, many party members had aggressively opposed his candidacy. "I think he's crazy," Senator Lindsey Graham, South Carolina, said earlier that year. "I think he's unfit for office."
But faced with the inevitable reality of Trump, the party was forced to perform what the British tabloids call a "reverse-ferret" " a messaging U-turn in which you abruptly take the opposite position of the one you espoused a moment earlier.
Contrary to what they said before, Republicans announced, Trump was totally suited for the presidency. He would rise to the occasion. Being president would render him, tautologically, presidential.
In any case, at least he would be surrounded by adults who would steer him in the right direction.
"It began to dawn on me," Anthony Scaramucci, who went on to (briefly) work in the Trump White House, wrote of hearing about the then-candidate's tax proposals. "Donald J Trump wasn't the extreme, unhinged, unserious candidate that I thought he was."
Scaramucci spent just 11 days as the White House communications director in 2017 before being unceremoniously removed, a victim of his own operatic ineptitude as well as the dysfunction of the White House. He now regrets the error, as he sees it, of ever having admired Trump. "The guy stinks," he said recently.
As it happens, Scaramucci wrote a book about his brief, unhappy White House experience, joining a large club of Trump administration evictees who have turned their bracingly bad experiences into a new genre of political revenge literature.
These include James Comey, former FBI director; Omarosa Manigault Newman, former assistant to the president; Andrew McCabe, former deputy FBI director; John Bolton, former national security adviser; Cliff Sims, former White House communications aide; and Anonymous, current senior figure, at least by his or her own account, in the Trump administration.
(There's also Sean Spicer, former press secretary, who wrote a mostly complimentary book about his fleeting White House tenure; and Mary Trump, not an ex-staffer but the president's niece, whose scathing portrait of Trump family pathology came out in July and sold 1.35 million copies across all formats in its first week. That book is currently No. 1 on hardback nonfiction bestseller lists in the United States, Britain, Canada and Ireland, and No. 2 in Australia.)
Taken en masse, the books paint a damning portrait of the 45th President of the United States. But the sheer volume of unflattering material they contain can have the paradoxical danger of blunting their collective impact. After the 10th time you read about Trump's short attention span, your own attention is in danger of wandering.
"There is only so much the public can absorb," Anonymous writes in "A Warning."
There are even more memoirs scheduled for the fall: one by Michael Cohen, the president's disgraced ex-personal lawyer, which federal officials tried to block but then said could proceed, and another by HR McMaster, who was Trump's second national security adviser and is no fan of the president.
But at this point, nearly four years in, is there anything left to say about Trump that might surprise us? Or, as McCabe writes in "The Threat": "What more could a person do to erode the credibility of the presidency?"
Reading all these books, one after the other, is like swimming for days in a greasy, brackish canal whose bottom is teeming with shards of broken-down old industrial equipment. The experience is not pleasant, you might hurt yourself, and it leaves you covered in grime. The picture they paint of their protagonist " Trump " is so outrageous that if they were fiction they would be dismissed as too broad, too much of a caricature.
As different as the authors are, the books share a number of common observations about the president. And so, with the Republican Party set to renominate him this month, here is a reminder of what sort of leader Trump has turned out to be, according to his growing band of disgruntled former employees.
Trump vs his employees
Trump is universally presented in the memoirs as a flamboyantly mean and intemperately indiscreet boss, wrong-footing and humiliating Cabinet members and aides with constant criticism, sometimes to their faces, sometimes behind their backs.
The president dismisses Jim Mattis, his first secretary of defense as "a liberal Democrat," yells at him in meetings and notes that "I never really liked him." ("I felt sorry for Mattis, not to mention the country as a whole," Bolton writes.)
He derides Kirstjen Nielsen, his second secretary of Homeland Security as ineffectual and "not mentally able" to handle her job and then, in a fit of pique, futilely attempts to reassign her responsibilities first to Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and then to Bolton.
He muses aloud on multiple occasions about dumping Vice-President Mike Pence from the ticket in 2020 and replacing him with Nikki Haley, the UN ambassador. "Did we make a mistake with Gina?" he asks, referring to his decision to make Gina Haspel director of the CIA.
"Rex was terrible," he says about Rex Tillerson, his original secretary of state. "What good is he?" he asks rhetorically about Steven Mnuchin, his Treasury secretary. "I thought we had the right guy at Treasury. But now I don't know."
He yells at his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, when Navarro attempts to show him a complicated chart outlining a policy point. ("I have no idea what I'm even looking at," the president snaps.) He tells Kushner in meetings: "Jared, you don't know what you're talking about." He mocks his original chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, as a "globalist," elongating the "O" in a sneering tone, as if the word were akin to "antifa member."
Just as the president uses derisive nicknames for his political enemies, so he does for his own subordinates. He mocks Jeff Sessions his first attorney general, as "Benjamin Button." He calls Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, "Ditzy DeVos." "This place is really taking a toll on Kellyanne," he says of Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, implying that she looks tired and worn out.
The president and the truth
The Trump administration surged into life with a whomping great Trumpian untruth: that Trump's inauguration crowd was the largest in history. Even Spicer did not believe it, though he had to pretend otherwise.
"It was hard to keep a straight face as Sean proceeded to lie to the American people," Manigault Newman writes.
All the memoirists present Trump as supremely untrustworthy.
He is "a deliberate liar, someone who will say whatever he pleased to get whatever he wishes," McCabe writes. "People who've known him for years accept it as common knowledge," Anonymous writes.
Sometimes Trump asserts one thing and then, a few minutes later, just the opposite.
On other occasions, he conjures pieces of misinformation designed to bolster his thesis, as when he insisted that "3 to 5 million people" voted illegally in the 2016 election. He has a habit of plucking figures from thin air " first $20 billion, for instance, then $38 billion, to drive home his point about trade deficits in a meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea " regardless of the numbers' relationship to fact.
The memoirists have different ways of dealing with all this presidential slipperiness. Comey and McCabe start keeping detailed logs of their encounters with the president, the way you would if you had an unstable spouse and wanted to catalog his erratic behaviour for use in future divorce proceedings.
Too bad, is the apparent view of Reince Priebus, the original chief of staff.
"The directive came down from Reince," Manigault Newman writes, "that our default position was to back up whatever the president said or tweeted, regardless of its accuracy."
How to describe the experience
Striving for new ways to characterise the head-spinning unreality of the Trump White House, the authors of the memoirs turn to a variety of vivid figures of speech.
Spicer: "I sometimes felt like a scuba diver, abandoned in the middle of the ocean, treading water."
Comey: "The demand was like Sammy the Bull's Cosa Nostra induction ceremony " with Trump, in the role of the family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a 'made man.'"
Manigault Newman: "The selection process for his cabinet was like an episode of 'The Bachelor.'"
Bolton: "It was like making and executing policy inside a pinball machine."
Anonymous: Working for Trump was like "showing up at the nursing home at daybreak to find your elderly uncle running pantsless across the courtyard and cursing loudly about the cafeteria food."
Trump as instigator
To read these books is to read of a chaotic, paranoiac workplace, where the boss delights in fomenting discord and instability among the employees.
He encourages them to keep tabs on one another. "Give me their names," he tells Sims, wielding a Sharpie and a White House note card, vowing to rid the White House of non-loyalists.
He praises their rivals. "Keith Kellogg knows all about NATO," the president says airily to Bolton, speaking with ominous intent of Pence's national security adviser. "He never offers his opinions unless I ask."
"As Pompeo and I reflected later, this statement told us exactly who my likely replacement would be if I resigned soon," Bolton writes. "I said, 'Of course, if you resign, maybe Keith would be Secretary of State.'" To which Pompeo responds: "Or, if we both resign, Keith could become Henry Kissinger and have both jobs.'")
The president's verbal style
Trump likes to talk, the memoirists agree, and he does not like to listen.
He meanders from topic to topic, loops back around, adds new topics, repeats himself, boasts, mixes facts with fake facts, throws in his latest obsession, continuing on and on according to some labyrinthine stream-of-consciousness impulse in which whatever is on his mind is worthy of public utterance. He does this in rallies and at campaign events; he also does it in briefings, in one-on-one conversations and at policy meetings.
"I don't use the word 'conversation' because the term doesn't apply when one person speaks nearly the entire time," Comey writes of the experience.
The presidential attention span
It is true that Trump successfully repeated the words "person, woman, man, camera, TV" on television in an effort to demonstrate the superiority of his mental acuity, but it is also true, the books argue, that he rarely reads, gets bored easily, is irritable and distracted, has trouble remembering complicated things, has no intellectual curiosity and is ignorant not just about his job but about things generally considered common knowledge.
With his short attention span, he is averse to learning anything at briefings if he finds the information difficult to follow, boring, or in contravention of what he already thinks. Staff members are told to stick to a single point and repeat it often, and to boil complex proposals down to a single page " or, better, a single paragraph. They are told not to present Trump with too-long briefing papers, lest he shout at them, or with too many slides, lest his eyes glaze over.
"Any time somebody new came in to brief him, he'd get angry and say, "Who's that guy? What's he want?" Manigault Newman writes.
The presidential schedule
The president keeps unconventional office hours, is often late to meetings and events and watches a lot of TV.
"At 9:35 I called Trump, who was as usual still in the residence," Bolton writes.
"He often doesn't start the day in the Oval Office until 10 or 11 am," Anonymous writes. He is "channel-surfing his way through the presidency."
"His official schedule was more of a loose outline than a strict regimen," Sims writes.
The presidential ego
In "Too Much and Never Enough," Mary Trump describes her uncle as "a savant of self-promotion" with a "delusional belief in his own brilliance and superiority" stemming from a bottomless insecurity that needs to be assuaged with a constant stream of ego-boosting compliments.
That is why the president often asserts that he is the best at everything.
"It was the most presidential act in decades," he says, after he directs the Pentagon to bomb Iran and then calls it off at the last minute. (Bolton has a different take: "In my government experience, this was the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any president do." )
"They say I might be the world's greatest brander," he says to Sims, before unveiling his marketing idea for his tax-cut plan: calling the legislation the "Cutting Cutting Cutting Bill" (it ended up being called something else).
Several memoirists describe how Trump, to soothe a wounded psyche bruised by his failure to win the popular vote in 2016, continually invited visitors to admire posters illustrating how he had won the election anyway.
"Trump kept big charts in his private dining room, in his den, in his study, that showed the electoral map color coded in red and blue," Manigault Newman writes. "When anyone walked in, he'd point to the chart and talk about the election results."
Anonymous was familiar with the maps, as well. "Trump carried around maps outlining his electoral victory, which he would pull out at odd times," he writes. "He would beckon guests, as well as aides, advisers and incoming cabinet officers, to gaze at the sea of red on the map."
Does Trump use a tanning bed?
"His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles," Comey writes.
Manigault Newman mentions the tanning-adjacent chatter around the abrupt firing of Angella Reid, chief usher of the White House, several months into Trump's administration.
"Allegedly, Trump didn't approve of her handling of his tanning bed," she says. "I'd heard he was unhappy with her efforts to procure the bed, to bring it into the East Wing securely, to find a discreet place for it, and to set it up properly."
Aides on the president's conduct
The memoirs paint a picture of the West Wing as a place of baroque workplace dysfunction, where workers gather to trade "Guess what he did now" stories about their boss and to save him (and themselves, and the country) from his worst impulses.
And so, in "A Warning," Anonymous writes that Cabinet-level administration officials contemplated "a midnight self-massacre," which would entail "resigning en masse to call attention to Trump's misconduct and erratic leadership."
Many staffers are perpetually on the brink of quitting, keeping resignation letters on hand should the time come. And if his colleagues hate working for the Trump administration, John Kelly, the president's second chief of staff, apparently hates it the most.
"This is the worst" (insert expletive here) "job I've ever had," Kelly tells Sims.
"You can't imagine how desperate I am to get out of here," he tells Bolton. "This is a very bad place to work."
Things Bolton claims people said to him
A striking aspect of "The Room Where it Happened" is how frequently Cabinet-level officials confide incredulously in Bolton about the president's irrationality and narcissism, as if they and the former national security adviser formed a gang of rebellious high school students, quietly plotting resistance against the incompetent autocrats running the school.
"As McGahn often whispered to me," Bolton writes, speaking of Donald McGahn, who served for a while as White House counsel, "This is not the Bush Administration."
"Has there ever been a presidency like this?" Kelly asks Bolton, mentioning that the president has just said, apropos of nothing, that it would be "cool" to invade Venezuela. ("I assured him there had not," Bolton responds.)
"This is getting pretty silly," Mattis says to Bolton as the men listen to Trump rail at Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, about how America's allies mock it behind its back because it pays too much in annual dues.
As for Pompeo, Bolton describes how the secretary of state passed him a snarky anti-Trump note in the middle of the president's summit with Kim Jong-un of North Korea in 2018. And he describes how, after listening to the president yell at Nielsen about border security in a particularly fruitless meeting, Pompeo whispers to Bolton: "Why are we still here?"
Leaving Trump's orbit
"What Donald can do in order to offset the powerlessness and rage he feels is punish the rest of us," Mary Trump writes.
This is clear by the way he behaves when he has fired someone or they have quit, frequent occurrences in an administration with such a high turnover. After he fires Comey, the FBI director, while he is in California, for instance, Trump is incensed to learn that Comey has returned to Washington on the same government plane that he traveled out on.
"That's not right! I didn't approve of that!" he rants to McCabe. Then he decrees that Comey should never be allowed to enter the FBI headquarters again, not even to clean out his desk. "I'm banning him from the building," the president says.
After Mattis resigns as defense secretary, Anonymous writes, the wounded president throws "a temper tantrum," insists that Mattis leave the job immediately, before his successor has been named, and then falsely claims that in fact he fired Mattis, rather than the other way around.
How the Trump administration said 'you're fired'
Comey: Saw the news reported on TV in the back of the auditorium while he was in the middle of making a speech in California.
McCabe: Saw the news on TV, followed by a presidential tweet: "Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI."
Manigault Newman: Called into the Situation Room before the 2017 White House Christmas Party, was informed by Kelly that "there are significant integrity violations related to you," and was not allowed to leave until the stress of the encounter triggered an asthma attack and she went home.
Sims: Submitted his resignation after being told by Kelly: "In the past 40 years, I don't think I've ever had a subordinate whose reputation is worse than yours."
Priebus: Idling in the presidential motorcade after a trip to New York on the day after he had submitted his resignation, learned that his removal was effective immediately when he read on Twitter that Kelly was replacing him. The motorcade went on to the White House; his car peeled away and drove off into oblivion.
Trump on the authors
Comey: "A weak and untruthful slime ball"
McCabe: "A major sleazebag."
Manigault Newman: "Vicious, but not smart."
Mary Trump: "A seldom seen niece who knows little about me, says untruthful things about my wonderful parents (who couldn't stand her!) and me, and violated her NDA. ... She's a mess!"
Sims: "A low level staffer that I hardly knew. ... He is a mess!"
Bolton: A "sick puppy."
Sarah Lyall c.2020 The New York Times Company