Taking readers into secret strategy calls and closed-door meetings from the House to the White House, Politico Playbook writers Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer trace the gamesmanship and the impulsiveness, the dealmaking and the backstabbing, in a blow-by-blow account of the power struggle that roiled Congress.
Moving from the fights for advantage between Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer; to Mitch McConnell’s merciless, Machiavellian handling of the sexual assault accusations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh; to Paul Ryan’s desperate, failed attempts to keep Mark Meadows from pushing Trump into a government shutdown over immigration, The Hill to Die On bristles with fresh news and tells the story of what really happened in some of the most defining moments our era.
Like The West Wing for Congress, or Shattered meets This Town, The Hill to Die On tells an unforgettable story of politics and power, where the stakes going forward are nothing less than the future of America and the lives of millions of ordinary Americans.
Praise for The Hill to Die On
“[Sherman and Palmer] go deep inside the halls of Congress to document the deal making, backstabbing, power struggles and political knife fights that have roiled the nation’s capital during President Donald Trump’s first two years in office. . . . Anything but boring.”—USA Today, “5 Books Not to Miss”
“[The Hill to Die On] painstakingly chronicles the return to divided government and the restoration of an institutional check on a mercurial chief executive. . . . The book depicts a foul-mouthed president in love with his own reflection, a House GOP encased in the amber of self-delusion, and Nancy Pelosi’s unblinking focus on twin prizes: recapturing the House and returning to the speaker’s chair.”—The Guardian
“If you are one of the many Americans who hates Congress, this book is for you. In the Washington depicted in Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer’s new book, there are no heroes—only winners and losers. . . . With these lawmakers, Sherman and Palmer get inside their heads and capture what they’re thinking in real time.”—The Washington Post
|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It was as if Mark Meadows were watching a political car crash in slow motion. In November 2018, when House Republicans lost their legislative majority, it rendered him a bit player in Donald Trump’s Washington. Then in late November and early December, a more paralyzing fear began to creep into his mind: Republicans were going to fold and keep the government open without delivering on the president’s promise to fund the border wall with Mexico. Unthinkable. Unconscionable. He had to stop it.
As he entered a divided government, Meadows believed that finally this was Trump’s hill to die on. “It’s a symbol of the dysfunction of government overall, and it’s bigger than just the wall, and it’s why the two sides are dug in,” Meadows told us in January. “It’s who’s going to decide what happens in the next two years under this administration . . . We’re trying to figure out who’s going to be the most powerful person in Washington, D.C., and bottom line is, it’s either going to be Nancy Pelosi or it’s going to be Donald J. Trump. And that’s what this comes down to.”
Months after the 34-day standoff that followed, the full story of how the president was pushed into the shutdown is a lesson in how to take the reins in Trump’s Washington. The lawmakers around Trump who wanted a shutdown knew exactly how to bring the president around to their side: threaten that others might perceive him as weak and push that threat around Capitol Hill and, eventually, all the way to Fox News. It helped to have a man on the inside, too—in this case, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. As Meadows was about to find out, following this playbook was enough to get inside the head of the most powerful man in Washington, and use him to get what Meadows and his allies wanted.
With Republican Washington taking its last gasp and Democratic D.C. rearing its head, the president was ready to take the plunge. On November 27, during an interview in the Oval Office for Politico, Trump laid out his demands: He wanted at least $5 billion for his wall and more money for border security.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called each member of his Democratic Caucus to tell them that they could not let Trump get $5 billion. “There’s an endgame,” Schumer said in an interview days before the White House meeting. “January 3, Nancy is going to pass a [funding bill] without the wall, and we will be all for it, and it will be Mitch McConnell keeping the government closed.” He added: “We believe we have the upper hand.”
Schumer was right. On December 11, he and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went to the White House for an immigration meeting with the president. Before long came the moment that would leave Republicans grimacing. Badgered by Schumer over who would be responsible if the government shut down, Trump decided to own it. “I’ll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems, and drugs pouring into our country,” the president said. “So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.”
The meeting was a smashing success for Democrats and an undeniable train wreck for Republicans; there was near unanimity about that on Capitol Hill, even among many of the president’s aides. The president had a different view. After the meeting, Trump told House Speaker Paul Ryan that the “ratings were great. This is why I was so good at The Apprentice,” he said.
“There are ratings for this stuff?” Ryan asked, seemingly baffled by the remark.
“There are ratings for everything,” Trump said.
* * *
Just over a week later, as Meadows was on the House floor exhorting Republicans to keep a stiff spine, his fears of a GOP fold were coming to fruition on the other side of the Capitol dome. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was preparing a bill to fund all of the government through February 2019. This would be a way to avoid a shutdown, and it had the added benefit of disrupting the early days of Pelosi’s speakership with a wall crisis—a skirmish Republicans thought they could win.
Meadows didn’t like any of this. Why in God’s name would Republicans have more leverage once Democrats took back the House? he thought. Start the fight now. After he got off the House floor, he headed to the Capitol Hill Club with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and fellow Freedom Caucus stalwart Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.). They were there to meet Mulvaney, their old colleague who had recently been named acting White House chief of staff, for a bite to eat. Whether they planned it or not, the private club meeting became the jumpoff point for the longest shutdown in American history.
At around 10 p.m., a few blocks away on Capitol Hill, McConnell did exactly what Meadows predicted: He took up the funding bill in the Senate, with little fanfare. The Senate was ready to give up. They passed the bill by voice vote, a rare method of passing a piece of legislation without a single senator having to cast a recorded vote. It showed just how uncontroversial this was in the Senate.
Then, with one phone call, the situation started spinning out of control for McConnell and Ryan. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy called Ryan with very bad news. He had spoken to Trump and got the sense that he was getting cold feet about supporting the spending package. The president had been watching cable news—Fox, mostly—and was getting lambasted. Another big-ticket spending bill with no wall money. That was the narrative Meadows and Jordan had teed up, and it worked: That’s what the president was hearing and seeing.
Then Ryan got a call from Trump himself and heard the bad news straight from the president’s mouth: Trump told Ryan he was getting beat up on cable television, didn’t like it and was turning against the spending plan.
Ryan had little patience for this type of bullshit. You always suffered somewhere for making big decisions. Ryan had been a darling of the right wing before he became speaker and gave that up when he got into leadership. That’s just what leaders do, Ryan thought. You take the flak and move on. Trump, in Ryan’s view, was never able to do that.
“That’s how this always works,” Ryan told the president. He explained that a compromise bill to keep the government open would, indeed, anger the talkers on Fox News, but they would eventually get over it. The speaker tried to explain to Trump that a shutdown was not in his interest, but he wasn’t making much progress. “There’s no endgame,” Ryan said of shutting down the government. “You’ll just help the Democrats.”
“OK,” Trump said. “Let’s just talk in the morning.” Ryan hung up the phone feeling a bit better.
But back at the Capitol Hill Club, Meadows and Jordan were stirring up trouble. This was the moment, they were telling Republicans: The party should finally have the fight it had been waiting for for two years. Build the wall! Remember that? Jordan and Meadows did. And they were going to hold Trump to it. Mulvaney, a Freedom Caucus man at heart, began wheeling around the club, expressly threatening that the president might veto the package.
By the next morning, the entire GOP sounded like Meadows and Mulvaney. In a closed full-party meeting, House Republicans burst into revolt. It was immediately clear that Meadows’ brush fire had spread far and wide. Republicans wanted to fight.
Ryan and McCarthy walked into the meeting with what they thought was a manageable goal: try to persuade just half of the GOP membership to vote for the Senate-passed bill. But it was abundantly clear the game had slipped away from them. McCarthy told his colleagues that Trump’s request for $5 billion in wall funding could not pass the House, but they just booed and hissed at him.
As his fellow Republicans raged, Ryan’s phone rang. It was the president. Ryan stepped out of the meeting and into a small office next to the party’s Capitol meeting room to take the call. It was as if his conversation with Trump from the night before had picked up exactly where it left off: Trump was once again telling Ryan that he was getting killed on television.
Again? Ryan was pissed. He knew that Meadows had gotten to the president. Look, he told Trump, “this is some Fox News people, this is some Freedom Caucus guys and that’s it.” Ryan wanted Trump to see that the opposition was limited. “What’s your endgame?” Ryan quizzed him once again. “How do you get out of this? It’s like you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
Ryan tried to make the case to Trump to hold off this fight until February 2019. He urged the president to sign the package and then spend the next two months building the case for an immigration deal that would trade DACA protections for a big border wall. He and McConnell separately had been trying to explain to Trump that when Pelosi took over, he would have no leverage over her at all. But it was all falling on deaf ears.
Ryan hung up the phone with the president after 45 minutes, having made no headway.
Table of Contents
Note on Sources vii
Preface in the Oval ix
Prologue The Hill 1
1 Not a Trump Guy 11
2 "Fire Pelosi!" 32
3 Trump's Washington 44
4 Follow the Money 56
5 The Limits of Mitch McConnell's Power 69
6 McCarthy and Scalise 92
7 "Three, Three, Three" 110
8 Zero Tolerance 133
9 The Tax Bill 150
10 The President's Watchmen 173
11 Purity 185
12 "I'll Take the Heat" 194
13 Family Discussions 214
14 Storms Brewing Offshore 234
15 The Discharge Petition 254
16 Left and Center 270
17 Going Negative 283
18 The Second Seat 301
19 October 325
20 Election Day 345
21 The Speakership 354
22 Shutdown 372
23 "Just Not Worth It" 400