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When The Wall Street Journal‘s Michael Bender wrote his book about former President Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat, one section stuck out as particularly difficult: telling the story of what Bender dubbed “Hell Week and a Half.”
“It was the 10 days in 2020 that started with the superspreader event in the Rose Garden, included Trump’s disastrous debate with Joe Biden in Cleveland, and then Trump himself obviously testing positive for COVID a few days later,” Bender said.
It’s not just that it was a lot to fold together; it’s that simply figuring out what happened was maddening.
“How early he tested positive, how sick he was during that time — I mean, these are serious questions with national security implications that very few people knew or had firsthand knowledge of, and I had competing versions from senior officials, serious people who all were telling me different versions of that story,” he said.
Bender’s Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost is one of many books trying to pull order from Trump’s chaos, and that struggle to discern the truth, he explains, is emblematic of the Trump administration.
“The deception wasn’t just with the public. It was literally from person to person inside the West Wing,” he said. “And that’s the story — not necessarily worrying about exactly what happened, which will have to come out at some later point, if it ever does.”
Former officials are judging Trump’s election lies and pandemic response poorly
Judging from the excerpts that have been released, this first wave of post-presidency books is filled with behind-closed-doors details — such as, for example, how gravely ill Trump was with COVID-19, or former Attorney General William Barr’s blunt assessment about Trump’s claims of a rigged election: “My suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. That it was all bulls***,” as ABC’s Jonathan Karl recounts Barr saying.
But the challenge of telling this chapter of American history is not just about recounting newsmaking moments — the racist statements, the allegations of sexual assault, the impeachments — but making sense of it.
Yasmeen Abutaleb, who co-authored the forthcoming Nightmare Scenario with her Washington Post colleague Damian Paletta, agreed it was hard to discern the truth from dozens of conflicting stories from within the White House.
But that made it all the more striking when they did find consensus on the Trump White House’s coronavirus response. “Of the more than 180 people we spoke to, there wasn’t a single one who defended the collective response,” she said.
Writing this book, she added, allowed her and Paletta to come away with a clearer assessment of the Trump White House’s pandemic response than they gleaned from their day-to-day coverage last year.
“Coronavirus was going to be a challenge no matter who was in charge,” Abutaleb said. “But when we looked at the number of opportunities there were to turn the response around, many of which we didn’t know about at the time or couldn’t learn it at the time, I think we were shocked at the number of opportunities there were and how they weren’t taken.”
In addition to the challenge of telling complete, ordered stories of a chaotic presidency, there is also the challenge of placing that presidency into historical context, said Princeton University presidential historian Julian Zelizer. He’s working with a team of historians to pull together a history of the Trump administration.
“Why did America’s political system have room for so much chaos over a four-year period? Which is this big puzzle I don’t think everyone’s totally grappled with,” he said.
It’s not just journalists and historians. Trump administration insiders will try to explain their place in history. That’s according to Keith Urbahn, a co-founder of Javelin, a literary agency that represented Bender, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and former FBI Director James Comey, with more to come.
“I think it does require for people who worked in the Trump presidency to wrestle with some of the moral compromises that they had to make by serving in that administration,” he said.
Post-Trump chaos is rippling through the publishing world
Writing the history of a leaky, live-tweeted presidency has been unusual for a variety of additional reasons. There’s book industry tumult — Simon & Schuster employees protested the publishing giant over printing former Vice President Mike Pence’s book.
In addition, Trump could still run for president again, which may be why he has given at least 22 book interviews, Axios recently reported. (He has also said he is writing the “book of all books,” though some major publishers are hesitant about publishing it, Politico has reported.)
The Trump era was also unusual for the book industry in another way.
“We can honestly say that the four years of the Trump administration were four of the strongest years cumulatively for political books since we’ve been tracking books, which started in 2001,” said Kristen McLean, executive director and industry analyst at market research firm NPD.
Now, however, those sales are moving back toward a pre-Trump normal — political book sales are down 60% from the second half of 2020, McLean said.
But that doesn’t mean interest will disappear, according to Javelin co-founder Matt Latimer.
“For example, next year there are a dozen or more books coming out about President Nixon,” he said. “I mean, I think long after we’re all gone, people are going to be trying to figure out what the hell this was all about.”
It’s been nearly 47 years since Nixon resigned. By that same math, we’ll be reading new Trump books into the late 2060s — and probably beyond.