One of the first calls I made as I watched the rioters move toward the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, was to John Kelly, the retired four‑star Marine general who previ‑
ously had served as President Trump’s first chief of staff. More than a year before the 2020 election, as I was finishing Front Row at the Trump Show
, I had asked Kelly what would happen if Trump lost the election and refused to concede. Back then the question was a hypo‑ thetical one, but it was one I had been thinking about for a long time. What if Trump tried to stay in the White House? How would this all end?
“Oh, he’ll leave,” Kelly told me back then. “And if he refuses to leave, there are people who will escort him out.”
As chief of staff, Kelly had seen firsthand how Trump operates and he knew how the White House really functions. Clearly he had thought about this before and had played out the scenario in his mind.
“If he tried to chain himself to the Resolute,” Kelly told me, refer‑ ring to the enormous desk in the Oval Office, “they would simply cut the chains and carry him out.”
Kelly has a deep and commanding voice befitting a retired four‑ star Marine general. He said these words with authority, as if he was speaking an immutable truth that needed no further discussion. To Kelly it wasn’t complicated. If Trump loses, he’ll be gone at noon on January 20, 2021. That’s what the Constitution dictates. It’s as simple as that. I didn’t ask any more questions, but I still had a few. Who would escort him out? Who would cut the chains? Who were “they”? Would it be the Secret Service? Would it be the Marine who stands sentry at the entrance to the West Wing? The image Kelly described was a crazy one: a defeated president getting dragged from the White House while he refuses to admit defeat. Since John Adams lost reelec‑ tion to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, every defeated president has ac‑ cepted the results and voluntarily left office. The scenario described by John Kelly seemed too disturbing—and too absurd—to consider any further. I tried not to think about it again.
By January 6, the question was no longer hypothetical. Trump wasn’t due to leave the White House for two more weeks, but for nearly two months he had been denying the results of the election. And now his supporters were storming the Capitol and trying to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
I broke off from ABC’s live coverage of the terrifying scene un‑ folding on Capitol Hill, and I called Kelly.
“This isn’t America,” he told me.
Like any rational person in America, he was angry about what was happening. And he was clear that the man he had served as chief of staff was to blame.
“If he was a real man, he would go down to the Capitol and tell them to stop,” he said, telling me that it was time for the Trump cabinet to step in and save the country by declaring Trump mentally unfit and removing him from office.
“If I was still there, I would call the cabinet and start talking about the Twenty‑Fifth Amendment.”
Invoking the Twenty‑Fifth Amendment and getting a majority of the cabinet to agree the president is unfit for office is the equivalent of cutting the chains and forcibly escorting the president from the Oval Office. There would be more talk of the Twenty‑Fifth Amend‑ ment that night and over the coming days, but the first mention of it I had heard on January 6 was from Donald Trump’s former chief of staff, while the rioters were still inside the Capitol building.
Kelly’s views were shared by many who had supported and served Trump, and by more than a few who were still serving in positions of authority in his administration. I spoke to people close to Trump during his final days and weeks in office who told me they thought Trump was mentally unstable—that he had literally gone mad.
Members of his cabinet began talking about invoking the Twenty‑ Fifth Amendment during the evening of January 6. They may not acknowledge this fact publicly while Trump is still a political force, but they were. Lawyers were asked to quietly look into whether the Twenty‑Fifth Amendment made it possible for the cabinet to remove Trump from office under the current circumstances and whether such an action would survive legal challenge. When the Twenty‑Fifth Amendment option was deemed unworkable—there were several un‑ answered questions, including whether all the acting secretaries in Trump’s cabinet would have a vote—a couple of cabinet secretaries resigned. Others made a pact among themselves to keep the president they served from doing more damage to the country.
Even as I wrote this book, attempts to whitewash the history of Trump’s final days in office had begun. There are those who say Trump didn’t really want his supporters to storm the Capitol building or vio‑ lently disrupt the certification of the election results. Although, as you will see later in this book, Trump himself made it clear to me that he looks back on January 6 fondly and believes that if events just had played out a little differently, he’d still be president. There are also those who say the violence that day has been exaggerated, that there was no real threat to our democracy, that it was just a protest that got a little out of hand. That’s a lie. January 6 was an attempt to overturn a presidential election; it was an assault on democracy itself.
I knew that on January 6. We all did. But the more I learned about the events leading up to the day, the more disturbing the story be‑ came. Over the course of my research and reporting for this book, I spoke to many of Donald Trump’s top advisors and closest confi‑ dants, and several members of his cabinet. Many of those conversa‑ tions came in the days before and during January 6. Others spoke to me after it was all over.
The more I learned, the more I became convinced that as horrific as January 6 seemed as the events unfolded, our nation was far more imperiled than most of us realized at the time. It’s something of a miracle that nothing worse happened between the time Donald Trump lost the election in November and when he left office in Janu‑ ary. You will read in these pages that America was dangerously close to being led into a foreign war at least twice after the election by a president who was also flirting with a war at home.
The seeds of our potential peril were sown in early 2020. As a deadly new virus was spreading across Asia, Donald Trump embarked on two campaigns. The first was a reelection campaign designed to win by dividing the country, and, if that failed, to undermine the results. The second campaign, largely invisible to the public, was a campaign to root out disloyalists in the federal government, to seek out and remove anyone in the Trump administration deemed insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump. If there had been anyone around Trump who stopped him from acting on his most destructive tendencies during the first three years of his presidency, they were either purged or side‑ lined by the end. By January 2021, hardly anyone was left to challenge him, to tell him no.
One of the striking things about January 6 is how many of the most senior members of the Trump administration were missing in action as the Capitol was ransacked and the president failed to do anything to stop it. As things went so desperately wrong, most of the people left in the Trump administration who had the standing to confront Trump were running in the other direction. One cabinet secretary was in Qatar. Another was in Khartoum on his way to Is‑ rael. The national security advisor was in Florida. Trump son‑in‑law and senior advisor Jared Kushner was on a government charter flight returning from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There is no evidence any of those people even bothered to speak to the president by phone on January 6 or urged him to condemn the rioters. Most of them didn’t even bring it up to him in the days after the attack. They were either afraid to confront the president they served or convinced it wouldn’t do any good if they tried.
My first book on the Trump presidency, written before the disas‑ trous events of 2020, explored the dilemma facing a journalist report‑ ing on a president who had declared war on journalism, calling real news fake and a free press the enemy of the people. Donald Trump branded reporters and mainstream news organizations as the op‑ position party. He did that to undermine our credibility, to make it possible for him to dismiss negative stories as nothing more than attacks from his political opponents. I wrote in my first book that reporters sometimes played right into the trap set by Trump:
. . . all too often reporters and news organizations have aided and abetted the effort to undermine the free press by openly displaying how much they detest this president—his policies, his blatant disregard for the truth, or his vilification of the press—and behaving like anti‑ Trump partisans rather than journalists striving for fair‑ ness and objectivity. We are not the opposition party, but that is the way some of us have acted . . .
Even through the events of 2020—the reckless and dishonest han‑ dling of the pandemic, the relentless politicization of everything at the White House, the shameful and destructive lies that followed the election defeat—I tried to treat Trump fairly. I have never wavered from my belief that journalists are not the opposition party and should not act like we are. But the first obligation of a journalist is to pursue truth and accuracy. And the simple truth about the last year of the Trump presidency is that his lies turned deadly and shook the foundations of our democracy. That’s the truth. And if that makes me sound like a member of the opposition party, so be it.
The darkness of this time is not diminished by acknowledging that, in 2020, we also saw the two most significant accomplishments of the Trump presidency: the development of a COVID vaccine on a timeline few thought possible, and the signing of an agreement that established diplomatic relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors. Trump didn’t develop the vaccine himself, obviously, and the Abraham Accords didn’t bring peace to the Middle East, but these were real accomplishments made all the more remarkable given the chaos swirling around and through the Trump White House dur‑ ing this time. Trump himself would have received more credit for these feats if he wasn’t also torching everything else around him.
History, rightfully, will focus on how Donald Trump brought American democracy to the brink of destruction. The riot on January 6 was the visual manifestation of this, but it was just one element of the disaster. And the threat did not end when the rioters were re‑ moved or even when Donald Trump walked out of the White House on January 20, 2021—with no need for an escort—for the last time.
Copyright © 2021 by Jonathan Karl. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.