The inside story of the four years when Donald Trump went to war with Washington, from the chaotic beginning to the violent finale, told by revered journalists Peter Baker of The New York Times and Susan Glasser of The New Yorker—an ambitious and lasting history of the full Trump presidency that also contains dozens of exclusive scoops and stories from behind the scenes in the White House, from the absurd to the deadly serious.
The bestselling authors of The Man Who Ran Washington argue that Trump was not just lurching from one controversy to another; he was learning to be more like the foreign autocrats he admired.
The Divider brings us into the Oval Office for countless scenes both tense and comical, revealing how close we got to nuclear war with North Korea, which cabinet members had a resignation pact, whether Trump asked Japan’s prime minister to nominate him for a Nobel Prize and much more. The book also explores the moral choices confronting those around Trump—how they justified working for a man they considered unfit for office, and where they drew their lines.
The Divider is based on unprecedented access to key players, from President Trump himself to cabinet officers, military generals, close advisers, Trump family members, congressional leaders, foreign officials and others, some of whom have never told their story until now.
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On the afternoon of January 20, 2017, just hours after taking the oath of office, Donald John Trump strode into the Oval Office for the first time as the forty-fifth president of the United States. In that profound moment of transition, he was not moved to comment about the history of the room or the burden he had just assumed. He did not ruminate out loud about the weighty decisions that had been made there nor his ambitions for the next four years.
Instead, the first thing that struck him as he looked around the storied space once occupied by Roosevelt and Kennedy and Reagan was the fantastic illumination.
“How do they get the lighting to do that?” he wondered.
Then he invited his daughter Ivanka Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to take pictures with him.
Trump, America’s first reality television star turned president, had long fixated on lighting. Wherever he expected to be photographed, he evaluated the angles and shadows and brightness of the sun or artificial bulbs that would frame the shot. As he entered the White House, he did not know much about government or health care policy or foreign affairs. But he knew a lot about lighting.
Trump preferred not to allow artificial illumination when cameras were on him. The harsh light changed the ever-shifting color of his hair and highlighted the caked-on makeup that gave his skin an orange tint. He hated artificial lighting so much that news photographers were reproached for using a flash in his presence. Trump’s preference for natural lighting would soon lead him to hold many of his encounters with reporters outside on the White House’s South Lawn on the way to his helicopter. Never mind that the roar of the rotor blades made it hard to hear what he was saying—it was the visual that counted. He studied iPad images of himself before television interviews to check the best angle, preferring to be shot from his right side so the part in his hair did not show. And if he did not like a picture on the front page of the newspaper, he sometimes called the photographer to complain. “That made me look horrible,” he would grouse.
All presidents are image conscious. But Trump was something different, the first president for whom the shaping of reality to fit his demands became the preoccupation of his presidency. He would spend exhaustive amounts of time each morning combing and twisting the long strands of his awkwardly colored hair into place, a three-step process that “required a flop up of the hair from the back of his head, followed by the flip of the resulting overhang on his face back on his pate, and then the flap of his combover on the right side,” as his lawyer Michael Cohen once explained. Trump cemented it with TRESemmé TRES TWO hair spray (extra hold). An aide carried a travel-size can everywhere they went. When the wind was strong, Trump wore one of the red Make America Great Again baseball caps that had become a signature of his improbable candidacy. When his hair was not done, it fell over the right side of his head below the shoulder, making him look “like a balding Allman Brother or strung out old ’60s hippie,” as Cohen put it. Trump cut it himself with giant scissors, like the kind used at shopping mall ribbon cuttings.
Trump was also sensitive about his weight. He did not like being photographed from below, fearing that would make him look heavier than the 236 pounds he claimed to weigh. Hope Hicks, his communications adviser, had issued an edict during the campaign barring news cameras from the buffer zone in front of the stage beneath Trump; only after vociferous complaints did she finally allow photographers there for just a few minutes. For that matter, Trump did not like being shot from above either. The angle had to be on the same plane as he was, because he felt it looked better on television.
Whatever the circumstances, he almost always appeared in public in a dark suit with a tie knotted all the way to the top and hanging below his belt in a way that he thought was slimming—not for him the casual bomber jacket and blue jeans that George W. Bush and Barack Obama donned for photo ops. Even in Florida, in hundred-degree heat, Trump kept the suit on, usually an off-the-rack Brioni costing several thousand dollars and worn extra-baggy so that the pants flopped around his legs. The only time he did not wear the suit jacket typically was on the golf course, but even then he tried to stymie photographers from recording that image, ordering palm trees planted to block the view on his Florida golf course after television networks managed to shoot too many pictures of him there. Perhaps even more important than the suit was what aides called “the stare.” Trump did not smile often for the cameras; he preferred an intense, slightly menacing glare, which he thought made him look more imposing. “How’s the look?” he would ask aides.
It was all part of maintaining his own cartoonish mythology. In Trump’s telling, the new occupant of the Oval Office was an American superman—physically strong, mentally gifted, healthy as a horse, rich as sin, and a magnet for beautiful women. He worked around the clock and barely slept. He was not fat, his hair was natural, his skin color perfectly normal, his hands were not small and neither was any other part of his anatomy. The fact that he had an uncle who had taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology meant that he too must be brilliant. “It’s in my blood,” Trump once said. “I’m smart.” The fact that he went to an Ivy League university attested to his erudition. “I’m very highly educated,” he assured supporters. “I know words. I have the best words.” During the campaign, he secretly ordered up a much lampooned letter that he got his personal doctor to issue under his own name declaring that Trump’s “physical strength and stamina are extraordinary” and predicting he “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
No one was to admit anything to the contrary. In the West Wing, it became clear that aides should never acknowledge any human frailties on the part of the president even to each other, much less to the American public.
“He looks exhausted,” a worried Madeleine Westerhout, Trump’s executive assistant, told Hope Hicks one day.
Hicks promptly corrected her. “Donald Trump is never tired,” she said, “and he is never sick.”
From his first day in office, the new president wanted to project himself as the hero America had been waiting for, a strong man for troubled times. Even those working for him were not entirely sure what to make of it. Were these merely the weird quirks of a vain septuagenarian? Or the menacing affectations of an aspiring dictator?
After his upset victory, many in Washington simply refused to believe that Trump could be as self-absorbed, ignorant, untruthful, and dangerous as he had made himself out to be in the 2016 campaign. An American president who admired Vladimir Putin and declared NATO “obsolete”? A businessman who would flout the rules that applied to the rest of the federal government and take payments from foreign governments and lobbyists while in the White House? It was unthinkable, and therefore easier somehow to deny that it was actually happening. He was an accidental president but, it was assumed, he would learn. And if he did not, well, this was what checks and balances were for. Congress would push back; the courts would push back; the media would push back.
A few days after the inauguration, Trump sat down for the first time with his national security team in the Situation Room, the nerve center in the basement of the White House where the nation’s most sensitive decisions are made. The idea was a formal introduction to the problems facing the country around the globe, but Trump had neither the patience nor the preparation. Instead, he took off on tangents that would soon become familiar rants: He complained about NATO. He complained about faithless allies like South Korea, and even about how much they charged his hotels for their televisions. He talked, his aides talked, the meeting degenerated into a free-for all. When it was finally over, Reince Priebus, the new White House chief of staff Trump had hired from the Republican National Committee, asked several of the participants to follow him upstairs to his corner office to figure out what to do next.
General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the only holdover who had been present for Barack Obama’s National Security Council meetings. A brainy, by-the-books Marine in his fifth decade of service to the country, Dunford had observed Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama at close range. Although stunned by what he had just witnessed, Dunford struck a calming note.
“Listen, I don’t think we ought to be too concerned about today’s meeting,” Dunford told the others in Priebus’s office. “Once we understand the Trump Doctrine and the new president’s approach to the world, we’ll be able to anticipate what he’s looking for—and we’ll be able to frame these problems in a way that helps him.”
Jared Kushner, the ranking relative in a White House that Trump meant to run like his family business, looked at Dunford like he just did not get it.
“Well, that’s never going to happen,” Kushner said. “That’s not the way it works.”
And of course he was right. Trump was Trump—only now with the whole world watching. He would not learn. He would not change. There would be no doctrine, no process, no pivot. The general’s misreading of the new president showed how much official Washington had yet to absorb the new reality.
If they had heard Barry Sternlicht, they would have understood better. The day before the inauguration, Sternlicht, the billionaire cofounder of the Starwood hotel chain and a longtime golfing buddy of the new president, had explained the essential facts of Trump to an audience of power players at an off-the-record gathering in New York’s Metropolitan Club. Trump, he said, had been a friend for decades. “He’s the last friend who should be president,” Sternlicht confided.
Trump’s mind was “unusual,” Sternlicht said. Something was “wrong” in his head. He could not pay attention, could not do details, was not bothered by inconsistency. “He hasn’t read a book in thirty years,” Sternlicht said. “He’s not encumbered by the truth.” To golf with him was to see the real Trump. “Anyone who’s ever played with Trump knows the rules are for suckers,” he said. Trump would take the regulator off the golf cart so he could go faster. He sometimes raced off even before his partners took their swings. Trump always insisted that he won, whether he did or not. He did not even think of it as cheating.
Trump’s New York friends knew what Washington would find out: he planned to live in his own reality in the White House just as he had in Trump Tower. The uncomfortable truth for those encountering him for the first time—including much of his own staff—was that Trump really was what he seemed to be, and he had come to office without a plan for the four-year term that neither he nor his campaign had expected to win. It was an oft-cited fact that Trump was the only president never to have served a single day in either government or military service before being elected. If anything, that understated how unprepared he was for the business of governing. He was probably the least knowledgeable new president in the modern era.
He did not know that Puerto Rico was part of the United States, did not know whether Colombia was in North America or South America, thought Finland was part of Russia, and mixed up the Baltics with the Balkans. He got confused about how World War I started, did not understand the basics of America’s vast nuclear arsenal, did not grasp the concept of constitutional separation of powers, did not understand how courts worked. “How do I declare war?” he asked at one point, to the alarm of his staff, who realized he was unaware that the Constitution prescribes that role for Congress. He seemed genuinely surprised to learn that Abraham Lincoln had been a member of the Republican Party. “He knew nothing about most things,” observed one top aide. Advisers soon realized they had to tutor him on the basics of how government worked.
As he settled into the Oval Office, Trump believed he had more power than he did, expecting to rule as he always had in the Trump Organization, a family-owned company with no shareholders where he called all the shots. He never liked the idea of sharing power. “Making choices is a lot easier when you have to answer only to yourself,” he once said. To the extent that government would be different than the private sector, he assumed he could run the country like the municipal chieftains he knew who ran New York. He often told the story of a Democratic Party boss in New York who kept a baseball bat under his desk to enforce his decisions. Trump figured he could do the same, laying down the law, dictating deals, and forcing others to bow to his will.
Nor did Trump show much inclination to learn on the job. He famously would not read briefing papers longer than a single page. He unashamedly boasted that he got most of his understanding of the world from television. Asked once where he turned to for military information, he said, “Well, I watch the shows.” Where other presidents received an intelligence rundown every workday and often on weekends too, Trump met with his briefers on average two and a half times a week in his first five weeks in office.
Barack Obama reviewed the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, the compendium of information solicited from the nation’s spy agencies, each night on a tablet computer. That was too much for Trump, who insisted his PDB be printed out in hard copy, yet still did not look at it in advance. “He doesn’t really read anything,” recalled Ted Gistaro, his first intelligence briefer. He would “fly off on tangents,” said James Clapper Jr., the holdover director of national intelligence who briefed the incoming president during the transition before later becoming a prime target of Trump’s ire. “There might be eight or nine minutes of real intelligence in an hour’s discussion.”