Less than a month out from the US presidential election and the polls are predicting a comfortable win for Joe Biden with a ten point lead and just 25 days to go. There is no precedent for a candidate recovering that much to win in such short time but as 2016 showed us ruling out Donald Trump is fraught with hazard. Maybe COVID can do what Hillary Clinton and bring Trump down with would-be elderly supporters in the key state of Florida deserting him as they watch their friends die and worry about their own survival in the face of federal incompetence. Bob Woodward’s recent book Rage charts how in private Trump knew exactly how bad the pandemic was while ignoring or downplaying it in public.
But I’ve just finished reading Woodward’s earlier book (2018) Fear: Trump in the White House which charts how Trump got elected in 2016 despite seeming in a hopeless position a few months out from the election. Unlike Rage, Trump did not consent to be interviewed for Fear, but Woodward cobbled together a compelling story based on hundreds of hours of interviews with many other key participants, mostly on “deep background” which meant the material could be used but not directly attributed to the source.
In August 2016, three months out from the election, Trump was the Republican nominee but his campaign was in deep trouble 10-20 points behind Clinton with unnamed sources close to him saying he was bewildered, exhausted, sullen, gaffe-prone and in trouble with donors. Trump had called Mexicans “rapists” and the RNC was looking at shutting off funding for Trump to save Senate candidates. Desperate to change tack, Trump turned to Steve Bannon.
Bannon was the chief of right-wing Breitbart News with a strong America First focus and a supporter of Trump from the wings. But now he was front and centre, brought in to replace the hapless campaign manager Paul Manafort. Bannon’s strategy was simple: Forget Trump – put the focus on Hillary Clinton. Bannon’s three main themes would be to stop mass immigration, to bring back manufacturing jobs, and to get America out of endless foreign wars. Bannon said Clinton couldn’t defend against these themes. “Just stick to that,” he advised Trump on their first meeting.
Bannon knew Trump had another advantage – he didn’t sound like a politician. Trump had built a movement – he sounded authentic and angry in comparison to Clinton and the campaign would put up Kellyanne Conway as the feisty front for the daily news. Conway told Trump people wanted specifics and they also wanted assurance the businessman could deliver on his promises. Unlike the RNC but like Bannon, Conway believed Trump could win the election.
Bannon’s first day on the job involved dealing with another scandal, as the New York Times showed $12.7m in payments to Manafort from a pro-Russian Ukrainian party. That was the official end for Manafort and Bannon got to work on RNC chair Reince Preibus who had control of the money. Preibus had learned from Obama to rebuild the RNC into a data-driven organisation staffed with armies of volunteers. They identified hidden Trump voters across the battleground states that would be critical to win the electoral college.
Bannon’s three phase approach was to halve the gap to five points before the first debate, then avoid too much damage in the actual debates against a seasoned debater, and finally use Trump’s own money in the final weeks to sway the swing states: Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. On August 19, 2016 as Manafort left the building, it all seemed like a giant fantasy.
Yet Trump did gradually claw back the lead and Clinton did not land a hammer blow in the first debate. Endless rallies had turned Trump into a rock star. Then on October 7, ahead of the final debate the Washington Post published a hammer blow. “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation About Women in 2005” The story had audio outtakes from NBC’s Access Hollywood with Trump making crude remarks like “Grab them by the pussy”. Trump issued a brief statement calling it “locker room banter” and said Bill Clinton had said far worse to him on the golf course. But donors dived for cover, VP candidate Pence had distanced himself from the remarks, with prominent Republicans talking of him running for president with Condi Rice as VP. Even Priebus said “it’s over.”
But Bannon refused to bend. “Your supporters will still be with you,” he told Trump. The comparison with Clinton was handy and instead of apologising they needed to go on the attack. Trump took to Twitter (where he called himself the “Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters”) and tweeted: “The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly – I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN! #MAGA” and then at the last minute cancelled an ABC interview ahead of the debate as he refused to read a prepared apology speech written by Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie and instead went off to the debate where four women were present that said they were attacked by Bill Clinton.
Bannon did his bit with Breitbart writing stories about the Clinton accusers all day and Trump dutifully tweeted them all. When asked about the tape in the debate, he again referred to it as “locker room talk” but was nothing compared to ISIS “chopping off heads” and he would deal with them if elected. He pointed out Bill Clinton had done far worse and named two of the former president’s accusers in the audience. “When Hillary…talks about words I said 11 years ago, I think it is disgraceful and she should be ashamed of herself.” The moderator had to interrupt the applause to allow Clinton to speak.
It worked. The religious right vote closed ranks behind Trump. In swing state North Carolina conservative women chartered a bus urging women to vote for him. “The evangelical vote is out. We’ve got this,” Bannon was reassured when he visited the state. They also used Mike Pence well with numerous appearances in the swing states where they urged him to campaign on local issues as if he was running for governor.
Still on election day, the New York Times gave him just a 15pc chance of winning and exit polls suggested a Clinton victory. But all along it seemed as if the US was performing its own version of “shy Tory factor” and people were lying to pollsters about their true voting intentions. Clinton’s problems were exposed quickly as voting came in and African American and Latino turnout was down. Ohio was was called for Trump at 10.36pm, Florida 15 minutes later, then North Carolina and Iowa on midnight.
Obama called Clinton to say another uncertain outcome like 2000 would be bad for America and advised her to concede early. When Wisconsin was called for Trump at 2.29am, he had won the college, and improbably, the presidency. Clinton conceded shortly after. Bannon was convinced Trump was stunned having no idea he would win. “He never thought he would lose, but he didn’t think he would win. There’s a difference.”
That difference was quickly exposed with a total lack of a transition team. They had 4000 jobs to fill in 10 weeks and no one to manage it. If the election was chaotic, then it was only going to get worse. The rest of the book looks at the tensions in the White House between Trump and his family on one side (daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kuschner had free reign of the building and did not report to the chief-of-staff but had direct access to the new president) and the establishment Republican figures they needed to fill positions in the new administration.
The biggest clash was with Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn who Trump appointed head of the White House National Economic Council. Cohn wanted tax reform and less regulation as did Trump but Cohn was a globalist who believed in free trade which Trump hated. Cohn spent most of his time trying to talk Trump out of reneging on NAFTA and the free trade agreement with South Korea. Trump hated trade deficits and and try as Cohn might he couldn’t convince Trump they were good for America. For the first 12 months of his presidency the free traders relied on the fact Trump kept no task list and as long the matter did not land on his desk – or was discussed on the news channels he watched constantly – he would forget about it.
Eventually they ran out of time to convince Trump on trade. He wanted tariffs. Cohn buried him in data showing how tariffs on imported steel would hurt America. He showed him the tiny amount of revenue it raised when George W Bush imposed them for similar reasons. He told him tens of thousands of jobs would be lost in industries that consumed steel. Look, Trump said, if it doesn’t work, we’ll undo it. Cohn said that might not be possible, “it either works or you go bankrupt”. But he knew Trump had gone personally bankrupt six times and bankruptcy was just another business strategy. Walk away, threaten to blow up the deal. Or as Trump himself put it, real power is fear.
Trump’s exasperated advisers had to deal with the back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring and the “fake news” indignation but none of them, nor the media that reported on them, could bring them to say to the president, as Woodward said in his final crude line in the book: “You’re a fucking liar.” Joe Biden didn’t swear but perhaps that was the one line about Trump that did cut through from their chaotic debate. Four years in, everyone knows Trump is a liar.