Last Tuesday, Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate that he had sat for interviews for the recent books by Bob Woodward, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, and Michael C. Bender about the final days of the Trump administration. Asked if the books depicted what happened accurately, Milley responded, “I didn’t read any of the books.”
Over a recent six-day period, however, I read all three, along with Michael Wolff’s Landslide, a total of 1,632 pages, in a somewhat mind-bending exercise of reading accounts of the same events in close proximity, to find out where they link up and where they don’t, who is present in these stories and who is absent, and to try to make further sense of the surreal period between when Donald Trump lost the election and when a mob tried to ransack the Capitol.
When I say the mind-bending effect of reading about the same events, consider this: On Nov. 9, 2020, Hope Hicks told Trump what he didn’t want to hear: “Look, sir, I’m sorry,” she said, according to Leonnig and Rucker’s book, I Alone Can Fix It. “You’re not going to be able to win it back. There’s no way for you to win.”
Trump told her she was wrong — she didn’t know the real story. “People are telling me about all the evidence.”
But maybe this instead happened on Nov. 10, and actually Hicks emphasized his legacy, and instead of talking about evidence, Trump told her, as he does in Peril, the new book by Woodward and Robert Costa, “It’s not in me to do that. I don’t care about my legacy.”
Unless it was Nov. 7, the day the AP called the election, like in Bender’s book Frankly, We Did Win This Election, and Hicks was one of the people saying they should move on during a staff discussion. But she never got anywhere with it because the Trump sons shut her down: “What you’re talking about isn’t even an option.”
Or maybe it happened more like Wolff’s Landslide, in which Hicks both talked early in staff meetings about moving on — like in the Bender book — and heard about Trump’s claims of evidence, like in I Alone Can Fix It. But rather than broaching the subject with Trump, in Landslide, he broached it with her: “You know what I think,” she replied. “I don’t think this is going to work.” To which he said, “You’re wrong. It’s going to work.”
I point out these little distinctions not because the books are bad — they’re major reporting efforts with real value — or because I doubt that Hicks thought Trump should concede — she surely did think so, however she did or did not convey it — but because even with this person-to-person exchange, there are four similar but slightly distinct versions. It’s an illustration, on some level, of how hard it will be to pin down every last moment.
For the rest of our lives probably, we’ll periodically learn new facts or hear new accounts of the period between Trump contracting COVID and Joe Biden’s inauguration in January. First, there will be books like these. Then, revelations from the ongoing civil litigation against some of the key players if they survive efforts by Trump and others to get them tossed out of court. Then, the testimony during hearings and the documents, text messages, and emails likely to be released by the congressional select committee investigating Jan. 6. Then we’ll get items in periodic waves, brought about by expired executive privilege, or posthumous releases of interviews, memoirs, and documents, or a new posture on security footage from inside the Capitol, which largely remains unreleased. And learning details about one thing can make you wonder about the things you can’t see.
Jan. 6 is an event that played out in public, after Trump said the election was stolen in public. There’s no real mystery about what happened or why; Trump refused to concede, and people listened to what he said and acted accordingly. Which makes it a weird event to learn secret details about. Does it matter, really, whether Hope Hicks told Donald Trump to give it up on Nov. 9 or Nov. 10, or if he put it to her, and what exactly Trump said in response, or if she never made it into the room? Knowing that this or that memo circulated will not change the public dynamic. And it’s not like it was a group of nuns up at the White House, and this is a story about Washington, DC, so there will always be some heroic stories told by the heroes, on background.
Conversely, definitionally, we lived through a historical event in real time, and trying to fill in every last detail might help us understand what happened on the deeper level, and what can and should happen in the near future. There’s still not a great picture of exactly why it took so long for reinforcements to arrive on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, and who made what decision when concerning them; nobody knows who planted the bombs outside the Republican and Democratic National Committee headquarters; we don’t have a precise sense of what congressional leaders were doing the entire day, whom they spoke to and when, how they and military leaders did or did not work with Mike Pence, and we have even less a sense of what Trump did that afternoon besides watch television. And that leaves out all the other strange things that might have happened inside the vast federal government that day and in the months leading up to it, unrelated to the election. It’s been such a strange two years that it’s hard to make sense of even the parameters.
The four recent books offer pretty different mandates: Rucker and Leonnig’s book I Alone Can Fix It is a sober, chronological account of 2020 at the cabinet level of US government, from COVID to the protests after George Floyd’s murder to Jan. 6. Bender’s Frankly, We Did Win This Election goes more for the traditional campaign kind of book: the aides, advisers, strategic decisions, past and present, with some of the surreal excess that categorized living through the Trump years, like Trump handing an adviser’s kid a White House ashtray and telling him (the kid) to put it on eBay. (Bender’s book contains an unexpected element too: vignettes of some Trump superfans, the people who’ve attended dozens of rallies, including fights within the group about COVID-19, and one’s account of the Jan. 6 crowd’s reaction to Mike Pence’s statement that he would certify the election results: “If Mike Pence would have come out of that building, I guarantee he would have died. And if it wasn’t by gunfire, he would have been pummeled. They were going to kill him in the street.”)
Wolff, who’s probably got the sharpest handle on some of the political questions at play, chose to focus almost exclusively on the period between Election Day and Jan. 6; Woodward and Costa did not, and probably more than half of Peril is about Biden. The biggest contribution of Peril to the greater understanding of Jan. 6 comes from the experiences of Sens. Lindsey Graham and Mike Lee, and the documents sent to them by the Trump White House and allies, as well as some more detailing of what congressional leaders were doing on Jan. 6 and in the days after. Multiple books end with Trump interviews at Mar-a-Lago. All four books use the third-person narrative form that gives the reader a loose but imprecise view of who the interviewees and sources are (there are only so many people who can speak to how one person feels about a two-person conversation); if that narration occasionally feels a bit credulous in some of the books for certain subjects, you’re still getting a general approximation of a key player’s public view of the situation.
The A-or-B, 1-or-2 optometry effect of the Hicks anecdotes also repeats across some of the central moments in the unraveling. Wolff, Bender, and Rucker and Leonnig all describe the Nov. 7 meeting where campaign lawyer Justin Clark told Trump, after the AP called the race, that there was only a 5% to 10% chance of success on challenging the results. In Rucker’s book, Trump is calm and collected about the odds (“He wasn’t even displeased, honestly”). In Bender’s book, two advisers feel Trump gets the point (it’s nearly hopeless) and believe he would behave in a “relatively realistic” way. In Wolff’s book, the advisers’ we’ll-break-it-to-him verve wilts; and they end up chatting about dead voters over meatballs with an angry Trump, and leaving the building in grim silence. And these (basically) could be a few people’s complementary views of the same meeting.
The general arc of these stories, however, follows the one set out by Jonathan Swan in his multipart Axios series from January: Trump refused to concede, most of the more serious officials and aides got the hell out of the way (or came down with COVID) after putting up varied levels of resistance to Trump or helping him out with his claims, and Giuliani et al entered the void from off the fringe. The final days of the Trump White House and campaign broadly read pretty threadbare and desperate. People quit or stopped showing up; Trump served up the likes of Giuliani because he said what Trump wanted to hear. To say the White House was incompetent at actual Washington-style coordination doesn’t lessen the severity of the situation; many Republican lawmakers in the House did what Trump asked without much apparent lobbying. As Jamelle Bouie recently asked someone making my own point about incompetence to consider: “Trump’s incompetence and insatiable will-to-power are precisely what make him so destabilizing.”
There is also a lot of reporting about certain events, meetings, or days — from the initial reaction to Fox News calling Arizona for Biden, to a hysterical meeting in late December at the White House featuring lawyers Sidney Powell and Giuliani, to the meetings between Trump and Pence about the election certification. But what about Nov. 16 or Christmas Eve? Or the phone call between two people who won’t talk for a long time? I can tell you so much about things that happened on certain days or in certain meetings, but reading about Graham going up to the White House on Jan. 2 in Woodward’s book made me wonder about all the other days.
The little details on the edges can be interesting in panorama, too. For instance: On Jan. 6, Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan called Gen. Mark Milley at 3:15 p.m. to get him to agree that Capitol Police moving lawmakers to a second location could pose security risks (per Rucker and Leonnig); Democratic Rep. Adam Smith called the general at 3:22 p.m. (per Rucker and Leonnig); and Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin called him at 3:29 p.m. (per Woodward and Costa). A spokesperson for Smith told me the timing — three calls in a 15-minute period, after the chambers were evacuated — was coincidental given the extreme circumstances.
It’s the kind of detail that opens up the day, in a way: There are just 15 minutes of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chair’s Jan. 6. How many calls for guidance, strategy, or help went out from the Capitol that afternoon if that’s just Mark Milley’s phone? How many calls did Milley get? How many did he and others make? Bender reports DC Mayor Muriel Bowser called Kellyanne Conway and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for help with the National Guard.
Or take one of the memos from Woodward and Costa’s book: Counsel for Graham, Lee Holmes, breaks down the inaccuracies and fraudulent claims about fraud in memos from Giuliani sent to the senator in early January:
Holmes was stunned at the blatant discrepancies in Giuliani’s submission. As best he could tell, nearly all the 789 dead people who allegedly voted in Georgia had properly received their ballots before they died. The sourcing was unclear. He could not figure out which government documents had been used. Some people in Georgia no doubt voted and then died. This proved nothing.
The memo sounds at least somewhat similar to a strange memo (“Five States and the Illegal Votes: Why the November 3, 2020 General Election Was Not Won by Biden”) described in Wolff’s book that appeared under Jason Miller’s name in early December (he says he didn't write it):
The booklet outlined a series of specific claims, including 66,247 underage voters in Georgia and 305,701 people who had applied for absentee ballots prior to the eligibility period; in Michigan, 500,000 mail-in votes were counted without “meaningful” Republican observation; in Pennsylvania, it was 680,000 mail-in votes that had been counted without Republican observation.
Those first two claims about Georgia and the Pennsylvania claim also (approximately, the numbers are close but slightly different) appear in the memos Graham received in January, according to Woodward and Costa. So even if this was a different document, at the very least, a handful of poorly constructed claims were floating around in writing for a month.
What’s outside the panorama takes a second to really feel out, though. Even in the elaborately told set pieces, you get these movie jolts of realizing a third or fourth person may have been in the room the entire time when you’re on a third or fourth account. The most jarring one (for me) came on election night itself. Wolff (derisively) describes a woman weeping during one of the meetings in the White House residence after Fox News called Arizona for Biden — a memorable detail, like from a Greek play, that does not appear in the other books.
And then there are entire landscapes you haven’t quite explored. Former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and then-acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf don't appear that much in the four books, particularly after the election. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears just a handful of times; he met with Milley “shortly before the election” per Rucker and Leonnig and said that the “crazies” were taking over. On Jan. 7, according to Rucker and Leonnig, he warned Meadows and Milley, “The two of you realize it’s just us and Pat [Cipollone] now, right? We have to stay steady.” (Pompeo denies he said anything of this nature in multiple books.) But generally speaking, the secretary of state was probably up to more than making two (reported and denied) comments over three months. Trump adviser Stephen Miller — a force in using executive power during the Trump administration — doesn't appear much after the election in these books either.
We live in a pluralistic society, and books can be pluralistic too; not every book should try to do everything, and these four provide far more information about the period than I could hope to learn on my own, to be held up to the light and compared, corroborated, or knocked down, as more and more comes out. The big story is still the same. This is just the general problem with trying to wrap your head around Jan. 6: When you fill in some gaps, more appear. ●