In another Trump book, journalist’s belated realization steals the show

Given his formidable CV, veteran Beltway journalist Jonathan Karl shouldn’t come as a surprise so easily. “Karl has covered every major beat in Washington, DC, including the White House, Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the State Department,” notes his author bio, “and has reported from the White House under four presidents and 14 press officers ”. Until recently, he was the chief White House correspondent for ABC News – a perch that placed him, as he put it in the title of his previous book, “Front Row at the Trump Show.”

Yet in his new book, “Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show,” Karl comes across as almost ingenious and polite at fault, repeatedly bewildered by what he has seen over the past year of the Trump administration. “Front Row,” which had the unfortunate moment of being published in March 2020, before the consequences of Trump’s governance were fully laid bare, began with a solemn tribute to “objectivity and balance “and a complaint that” mainstream media coverage of Donald Trump is relentlessly and exhaustively negative. Barely a year and a half later, after 750,000 Americans died from Covid and an attack on Capitol Hill, Karl admits that the “Trump show ”may in fact have been more sinister than just directing after all.

“I have never deviated from my belief that journalists are not the opposition party and should not act as we are,” argues Karl in “Betrayal”. “But the first obligation of a journalist is to seek truth and accuracy. And the simple truth about the last year of the Trump presidency is that his lies have turned deadly and shook the foundations of our democracy. “

“Betrayal” is presented as a snapshot of what happened in the last few months of Trump’s White House, starting February 10, 2020. At the time, news of a novel coronavirus in China was spreading through all over the United States, but White House staff members seemed more immediately threatened by Johnny McEntee, a 29-year-old college quarterback who went from carrying President Trump’s bags to becoming director of the presidential personnel office – “responsible for the hiring and firing of more than 4,000 politicians. appointees across the federal government.

McEntee considered it his duty to purge from the executive any person deemed insufficiently loyal to the president; Less than a year later, on January 1, McEntee would text Mike Pence’s chief of staff insisting the vice president had the power to overrule the November election results. He speciously pointed to an episode involving Thomas Jefferson as an example.

The full (and absurd) text of the memo is one of the many scoops Karl offers in this book, along with another memo from McEntee’s office, sent less than a month before the election, explaining why the secretary of the Defense Mark Esper should be sacked. (Esper’s alleged transgressions included focusing the department on Russia and “actively pushing for“ diversity and inclusion. ”) Karl also says Trump threatened to create his own political party, only backing down when Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, responded by threatening to give away the valuable mailing list of her 40 million supporters for free – “which effectively makes it impossible for Trump to make money by praising him.”

Credit…ABC News

McDaniel and Trump have since denied such a standoff – Trump even denied it in front of Karl, in one of the last interviews he gave for “Betrayal.” In the same interview, Trump recalled the speech he gave on January 6, 2021, shortly before the attack on Capitol Hill, calling it a “great time with extremely loving and friendly people.” Karl, at least inwardly, was appalled. “I was surprised at how much he remembers a day that I will always remember as one of the darkest I have ever witnessed,” he wrote, adding that Trump seemed to justify the threats of death uttered against his own vice-president. “It blew me away,” said Karl.

It made? The author’s expressions of surprise are so frequent and exaggerated that they are perhaps the most surprising parts of this book. “Betrayal” is less insightful about Trump’s White House and more indicative of Karl’s own progressive and extremely belated realization that something in the White House could actually go wrong. Events seem “crazy”, “crazy”, “crazy” to him. He delves into the wacky conspiracy theories surrounding the presidential election, seriously explaining why each of them is wrong. He gets a number of official interviews with Trumpworld insiders – nearly all of whom insist that even though they publicly sided with Trump, they were courageously telling the president some very hard truths in private.

Karl remembers September 10, 2020 as a turning point for him: the day he asked “the most violent question I have ever asked of a president – or any other political leader.” At this point, Trump had been playing down the pandemic for six months, insisting that the coronavirus “affects virtually no one.” Karl, who until then had “cringe” at hearing other reporters use the word “lie”, sat in the front row at a briefing and urged Trump: “Why did you lie? to the American people, and why should we trust everything you have to say now? “

It was a good question, although it just turned, like so many exchanges during these briefings, in addition to Trump theater, with the president scowling and calling Karl “a disgrace to the ABC television network” . You also wonder how Karl, who in his previous book mentions that George W. Bush took the country to war with Iraq under false pretenses, spent two decades covering politics without asking for anything so “forcefully.” confrontation ”before. “Front Row” includes a conversation in which Karl informed Trump that calling the press “the enemy of the people” might be dangerous: “A sick person could take your words to heart,” I told him. “I hope people take my words to heart,” he said, failing to understand that I was warning against possible violence against journalists. “

Or maybe it wasn’t Trump who was missing the point of this exchange – something that didn’t seem to happen to Karl, seemingly so entrenched in his institutional assumptions that until very recently he was simply considering some possibilities quite distressing. unfathomable. More than a year before the 2020 election, Karl asked John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, what would happen if Trump lost and refused to give in. Kelly was sure Trump would leave – and “if he tried to chain himself” to his Oval Office, “they would just cut the chains and win.”

Karl remembers being impressed by Kelly’s confident authority tone. “I didn’t ask any more questions, but I still had a few,” he wrote – a strange admission to the chief Washington correspondent of a large network. “The scenario described by John Kelly seemed too disturbing – and too absurd – to go into depth. I tried not to think about it anymore.

The Trump era left a hole in all kinds of institutional norms and assumptions, revealing vulnerabilities and blind spots. This is probably a testament to Karl’s decency as a person that he did not want to consider something so terrible, but despite all the noble talk in his books about the journalistic search for accuracy, he gives little guidance. that he had the imagination to handle the truth.

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