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'Peril' Co-Author Robert Costa Describes The Fraught Transition From Trump To Biden

Sep 20, 2021
Originally published on September 20, 2021 1:20 pm

Updated September 20, 2021 at 12:03 PM ET

Bob Woodward is back with another book about former President Donald Trump, this time co-authored with fellow Washington Post reporter Robert Costa. This book focuses on the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations.

Peril has already made headlines for an early and explosive revelation: Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly called his Chinese counterpart to reassure him that the U.S. was not planning an attack in the final months of Trump's term. The report also details Trump's response to the Jan. 6 insurrection, his efforts to challenge the presidential election results and other scenes from inside the White House.

But NPR political correspondent and editor Ron Elving writes the book "turns out to be just as much about President Biden and how he got to be Trump's successor."

Costa spoke to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about the book and what he learned from taking an inside look at the fraught transfer of power.

"It's important to understand, based on spending the last nine months doing this with Bob Woodward, how much of a national security emergency this country faced during the transition, around Jan. 6," Costa said. "Our book carefully documents how Chairman Milley, within the bounds of his responsibility, was trying to contain a situation that he felt could fall way out of the norm: that the Chinese could misinterpret what was happening, that President Trump — he believed, based on our reporting — was in serious mental decline. This was a situation that we all know was a domestic crisis but also a security crisis."

Some of the other topics Costa and Inskeep covered include former Vice President Mike Pence's election certification dilemma, former Attorney General William Barr's relationship with Trump and what various prominent Republicans think about Trump's role in GOP politics.

Costa noted that politicians such as Sen. Lindsey Graham still see the former president as the future of the party despite their earlier criticisms.

"That's partly why we called the book Peril," he said. "Woodward and I realized that this system, the American system and also the Republican Party, [were] tested to the brink, and that peril remains. President Trump's a political figure who remains on the scene with immense political capital."


This story originally published in the Morning Edition live blog.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new book explores the fraught transition between President Trump and President Biden. The book on two presidents comes from two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. It made news about the president's top military adviser, as we heard last week. After the attack on the Capitol in January, General Mark Milley called his counterpart in China to say that he need not worry about a U.S. attack. Milley also told U.S. officers to follow procedure if they received a sudden order to use nuclear weapons. Milley has said he followed his constitutional role, by the way, and he accurately says that U.S. officers call their foreign counterparts all the time.

That was the opening scene of the book called "Peril," which also reports on the Republicans around Donald Trump in the last days of his presidency and beyond. And one of the co-authors, Robert Costa, is with us. Robert, good morning.

ROBERT COSTA: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And welcome. I just want to mention - great respect for your co-author Bob Woodward, but we wanted to talk to you because you've been on this program since your very early days as a reporter. So it's great to see this. Now, I want to work through a few of the Republican players, and let's start with a critical player on January 6. What was Mike Pence's dilemma, and how did he manage it?

COSTA: What a story. And just reporting it out, you - we were able to encounter the agony, the uncertainty that Vice President Pence had as he navigated this dynamic during the transition period. He is someone who wanted, for his political future, to help President Trump. But he knew it was his duty as a conservative but constitutionally more important to certify the election for President-elect Biden. But he consulted with people - his lawyers, his advisers, even former Vice President Dan Quayle - trying to get to where he ultimately ended up.

INSKEEP: He was asking these people, is there any way I can get out of this? Is there any way I can do what President Trump wants and not certify the election? Is that correct?

COSTA: And he was - that is correct. He was asking around about what were his options here. And he was also under intense pressure. The scene in the book January 5, hours before the insurrection on January 6, in the Oval Office with President Trump, the temptation of power. President Trump says to Vice President Pence, based on our reporting, wouldn't it be cool to have the power to stop a certification of an election? Wouldn't it be great if these people outside in the streets wanted you to do it? Do it for me, Mike. Do it for me.

INSKEEP: And we should note what we all know from the news of January 6 - that Pence resisted that and did certify the election as the law required. You also report on the attorney general until the last days of the Trump administration, Bill Barr, who was fiercely criticized. He was seen for years as an enabler of the president. But did he seem that way on the inside?

COSTA: He was an enabler of President Trump, a political ally of President Trump. But like all stories, there are complications. There are different shades here and there. In April of 2020, we have one scene where the attorney general goes in to the president and says, everyone, even your core voters, Mr. President, they think you're an expletive. And he says it right to the president's face as a political ally, not just as his attorney general. And you see Barr trying to get the president to move off of his grievances, away from the election fraud claims. But even Barr, someone who was close to him, was unable to pull the president away.

INSKEEP: And that was not the only vulgarity I think he used in the president's presence. Didn't he make some reference to cows at some point when talking about the president's claims about rigged voting machines and so forth?

COSTA: He did. And I think a reference to cows and expletives for this audience is more than enough. And you see not only Attorney General Barr, but Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Mike Lee - top Trump allies saying to the president that they're doing their own probes of this election fraud claim after the November 2020 election, and they're not finding evidence to back up what the president and Rudy Giuliani are claiming. But the book rockets through the transition. The president, despite all of the evidence, continues to say we need to try to decertify Biden's victory.

INSKEEP: You mentioned Graham. What has Senator Lindsey Graham been doing in recent months now that Trump is out of office but continuing to make these claims?

COSTA: He has been trying to get President Trump to run again. And he is someone - even though he has said publicly - and in our book documents privately - that this election fraud stuff is B.S., he's been trying to get President Trump to get to a better spot. He believes President Trump is the future of the Republican Party, that he could come back in 2024. And that's partly why we called the book "Peril." Woodward and I realized that this system, the American system and also the Republican Party tested to the brink, and that peril remains. President Trump's a political figure who remains on the scene with immense political capital.

INSKEEP: We could paint a damning picture of Donald Trump solely using Lindsey Graham's own words over the years. Why on earth would he want Trump to run again?

COSTA: The question I ask as a reporter is, why do all these Republicans seem to want him to run again? Maybe not necessarily Leader McConnell in the Senate based on our reporting, who says President Trump privately is almost like an off-track thoroughbred, a Kentucky term. But you see the Republicans searching for a way to come back in 2022, 2024. And they see President Trump, with his appeal to his voters, is probably maybe their only horse. But there are others out there who are trying to compete, maybe even Pence.

INSKEEP: Does Mitch McConnell think he still needs Donald Trump for those 2022 elections when he's trying to recapture the majority in the Senate?

COSTA: There's a debate inside of the GOP. Our book captures McConnell debating with Graham, saying, we got to move away from Trump. This is McConnell. We got to start in a fresh direction. We got to keep the party moving more in a traditional Republican direction. And Graham just disagrees flatly and says, we need to stick with Trump.

INSKEEP: Robert, you've now had quite a few dramatic years of reporting. And I want to note that you finally got to pause for a few months anyway. I'm sure you're working pretty hard to crank out a book in a few months, but at least you didn't have deadlines for a little while. And maybe you got a chance to think about what it all means. Do you feel that you understand any better this era, this period that we're all passing through?

COSTA: It's important to understand, based on spending the last nine months doing this with Bob Woodward, how much of a national security emergency this country faced during the transition around January 6. Our book carefully documents how Chairman Milley, within the bounds of his responsibility, was trying to contain a situation that he felt could fall way out of the norm, that the Chinese could misinterpret what was happening, that President Trump, he believed, based on our reporting, was in serious mental decline. And this was a situation that we all know was a domestic crisis, but also a security crisis.

INSKEEP: And do you believe, based on your reporting, that Milley's fears were justified?

COSTA: It's clear that so many people around President Trump, not just Chairman Milley, were highly alarmed about President Trump's conduct, his inability to accept defeat. And this was pervasive inside the administration.

INSKEEP: Robert, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

COSTA: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Robert Costa is The Washington Post's national political reporter and co-author, with Bob Woodward, of "Peril."

(SOUNDBITE OF FAZER'S "BABEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.