New Yorker staff writer and CNN global affairs analyst Susan Glasser co-authored The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 with her husband, New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker. (The pair also wrote The Man Who Ran Washington and Kremlin Rising.) Glasser, 53, grew up in Montclair, where her mother still lives, and often returns to visit. She and Baker live in Washington, D.C., with their son.
We recently spoke with Glasser via phone.
Why did you and your husband want to write this book about Donald Trump?
Originally, the idea was to do something on what turned out to be Trump’s first impeachment because we thought, incorrectly, that that would be the defining story of his presidency. And then when events went from that first impeachment very quickly into the global pandemic and the incredible disruptions of 2020, we realized that a more ambitious book was in order. We decided to take a crack at the four-year history of the Trump presidency. We didn’t start to work on it until after he left office and after [his] second impeachment. By that point, the mission had evolved into not only [writing] a book of history, but also seeking to understand the sort of catastrophic ending of the Trump presidency. We wanted to go back and look at it as much more of his four-year war on institutions, and arguably its culmination on January 6th, and the election denial, and all that happened in 2020.
So you wanted to write a historical document of what happened?
That’s right—it’s a first crack [at] history. I think it’s extremely important to debrief people and do exit interviews wherever possible. Every presidency has a book like this. Lou Cannon wrote the classic book on the Reagan presidency, so that in part was our aspiration. But since Trump has not left the political scene in a way that other former presidents have, we came to see that it was both a work of history [and] also a story about the president and potentially the future of American politics.
As I was reading your book, I was thinking, This is even worse than I thought!
That is a consistent theme, by the way—that it was worse than you thought. There’s actually a quote in the book from Jim Mattis, the former defense secretary, after he finally throws up his hands and quits in protest of the Trump presidency in December of 2018. He has a meeting not that long afterwards, and that’s exactly the quote—he says, “It was even worse than I thought.” And I have to say that throughout the Trump years, as people cycled out of the White House or that administration, that was always what we heard. That was the line. It’s even worse than they thought—which, by the way, would’ve been a good title for the book.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered while you were researching and reporting this book?
Some of them are little revelations, or stories that we thought we knew but didn’t really know, ranging from the ridiculous to the truly scary. One of my favorite details, because it’s just so telling and so Trump-y, was about how Trump valued his North Korea diplomacy with Kim Jong-un so much that he called it his love affair. We knew that he saw it as his chance to achieve his moment of geopolitical immortality. We also found out in reporting the book that he personally asked [the late] Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan [at the time], to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize over a private dinner at the Trump Tower in New York in September 2018. To me, that’s the quintessential Donald Trump story, right? And then he bragged about it endlessly at his rallies that he’d been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Shinzo Abe.
There must be a lot more stories like that one?
The really striking thing is that we maybe too often focused on the kind of clown-show theatrics of his presidency. But when you put it all together and lay it out across four years, what you see are Trump’s really sustained attacks on institutions, and his efforts to politicize them for his own benefit. That’s obviously true of the justice system and of the national security apparatus. His conflicts with the joint chiefs didn’t begin with [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mark Milley, although they certainly reached an extraordinary level that was shocking to me when I first found out about it while reporting the book. I mean, the extent to which the uniform leadership of the American military considered Donald Trump to be the most serious national security threat to the country—wow. It’s an amazing thing.
What do you think people don’t understand about Trump?
I think that the constant, purposeful lying and repetition of lies, and his implanting of narratives, is both his great genius and the great damage that he’s wreaking on American politics. You know, even those who believe they’re in disagreement with Trump often accept some of what he’s saying. So, you have two-thirds of Republicans in the midterm election saying they do not consider Joe Biden to have been legitimately elected president. And that is a concoction directly out of Trump’s fever dreams, and it is a very calculated effort. It was not some spontaneous act of fury at losing the election. In fact, it was a carefully prepared undermining of the election that took place months before the election even occurred. The very first time Donald Trump tweeted that the 2020 election was going to be a, quote-unquote, “rigged election” was in May of 2020. And yet, again and again and again, for a variety of reasons, people end up buying into at least part of his story. It’s extraordinary. Donald Trump has said that every contest in which he ever participated was rigged—if he didn’t win.
Let’s talk about the midterms and what the results mean now for Trump. People are saying that maybe his time as leader of the Republican Party is over. What do you think?
I think that in American politics, we generally look forward and not back. And that’s why there’s only been one president in American history who has ever come back to office—Grover Cleveland. And so history argues against Trump being able to make a successful comeback. But in this very polarized environment, I think the people who are kind of writing him off now—well, it’s worth just taking a deep breath, because the people who decide who’s going to be the Republican nominee is the Republican electorate, and those are the people who have not, by and large, soured on Trump yet. He’s not proven successful in general elections, but that doesn’t necessarily disqualify him for the Republican electorate, or they would’ve abandoned him long ago.
Trump is talking about announcing his candidacy for president. Do you think he has a chance of winning the nomination?
I think he does have a chance of winning the nomination. Absolutely. Remember, he won the Republican primary in 2016 by beating out a crowded field of 17 other candidates. And in that situation, you don’t need 51 percent of the Republican votes. You just need more than the other guy. And, you know, that’s perfect for a political figure as divisive as Trump is, who has a passionate core following. When there are other candidates splitting up the rest of the vote amongst themselves, [that benefits Trump], and so I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.
What about the presidency? Could he win again?
Again, the weight of history is against it, and Trump having twice lost the national popular vote—it’s hard to imagine that there are a lot of people who would for the third time around say, “Oh, he’s what I want.” Especially after deciding twice before that he wasn’t what they wanted. So it’s a hard sell, and that’s why it would be a very risky bet for the Republicans to go with him for a third time.
What do you tell people who say they’re tired of reading or hearing about Trump?
I think it’s understandable. His version of politics was to be in our heads and in our minds and on our television screens and in our social media feeds 24 hours a day. And that’s his view of politics. And it was a me, me, me view of politics that sucked us all in. So I’m totally sympathetic to that. But, you know, we felt with The Divider that it was extremely important to record this history, and that there was a lot more to be learned. I’m sure that people will be writing books and learning more about this extraordinary four years for decades to come. In the same way that there are new Watergate and Nixon books coming out every year. Even now, Donald Trump is this incredible test and trial of the American political system and its institutions. And he revealed a lot of weaknesses in those institutions and in our politics. And understanding that more, I think, was what really animated us. There was a lot of crazy stuff that happened. If you’re trying to understand what’s going on behind the scenes of the American presidency—well, this is pretty incredible stuff. If it was in a screenplay or a novel, you wouldn’t believe it.
I guess it’s something that we always tell our kids—that the reason for learning history is to not repeat it?
Exactly. Well, in fact, that was another reason that Peter and I wanted to do this book. We thought that in 10 or 20 years from now, when your kids or your grandkids say, “Are you kidding me? Donald Trump—what was that like?”—we really wanted [there to be] a book that you could still read, and that it would make sense to you 10 or 20 years from now. Many of the books and things that have been written about Donald Trump were sort of just bits and pieces of the story, or they were written in the middle of his presidency.
To bring it back to New Jersey, Trump’s golf course in Bedminster has been the center of some controversy, from the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tournament that was held there to Trump’s alleged underpayment of property taxes on the land. How do you think New Jerseyans feel about having what has turned into a sort of Trump headquarters in our state?
It is funny that Bedminster has become his sort of non-Florida home base. You know, Trump Tower is the iconic representation of Trump, but yet basically he’s persona non grata in New York City. So he’s increasingly spent his time in Bedminster, which is kind of amazing. It seems so accidental. The backstory on that is just that he thought he got a good deal on the property. And Donald Trump likes nothing more than a good deal. One of the things we’ve all learned over the last few years is that the standards for accountability and transparency that we hold our businesspeople to might not translate to what we would hold the leaders of our country to. Donald Trump was used to operating in worlds in which he was able to get away with an awful lot, and he did that in New Jersey. I’d like to know what the people in Atlantic City feel about Donald Trump as a person or as a human being.
What do you hope people will take away from this book?
There are so many questions that people have about a second Trump term, and I feel like if you want to understand what that might be like, this is a good place to start. It’s a deep dive into what the first term actually was—and the takeaway, I think, is [it’s] pretty clear that a second term would be much more disruptive and potentially more dangerous to American institutions than the first was. He would not have the constraints of, quote-unquote, “adults” in the room who dominated the early part of his tenure. My hope is that people will understand what the real stakes are now.