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'Peril,' Latest Book About Trump, Also Examines Biden's Style Of Policymaking

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A new book explores the fraught transition between ex-President Trump and President Biden. The book on two presidents comes from two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. It's made news about the president's top military adviser. We discussed this on the program last week.

After the attack on the Capitol - January 6, you will recall - Gen. Mark Milley called his counterpart in China to say he need not worry about a U.S. attack. Milley also told officers to follow procedure if they received a sudden order to use nuclear weapons. Gen. Milley has said he followed his constitutional role and accurately says that U.S. officers call their foreign counterparts all the time. That was one scene in the book called "Peril," which also reports on Republicans around Donald Trump. So there is more to discuss this morning.

And NPR's Ron Elving has been reading. Ron, good morning.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: I just want to work through a few Republican players, starting with a critical player on January 6. What was Mike Pence's dilemma?

ELVING: Well, Mike Pence's job includes presiding over the Senate. Now, he really only does that on ceremonial occasions. But one of those occasions is when the Electoral College reports every four years. And under a procedure that's been in place for 140 years, it's a pretty much pro forma thing, where the vice president just reads off the numbers from the states.

And, you know, President Trump didn't want him to do it. He kept saying, Mike, you don't have to do that. You can do this. You can send it back to the states. And then we win. And if you won't do that, you won't be my friend.

INSKEEP: Now, we know that Pence, in the end, did what the law required and did not attempt to do something that the law didn't allow him to do. But now we have this inside story. How hard did Pence try to work out what to do?

ELVING: He worked pretty hard at it. He was perhaps the most ambivalent character in the entire book, perhaps in the entire administration at that point. He struggled mightily with this decision for January 6. Every expert he turned to - and his chief of staff tried to pull together a whole constellation of conservative legal stars - some of the absolute big names among federal judges and among constitutional scholars and top universities - and they all said, Pence, you have no role but to open the votes from the states and announce the result.

INSKEEP: Didn't he even call his fellow former vice president from Indiana, Dan Quayle?

ELVING: (Laughter) That's right. He - Trump kept insisting that no matter what all the experts were saying, that Pence had this power to send the whole election back to the states. And so Pence called Dan Quayle and said, Dan, you were the vice president. You had this job at the end of a four-year term. Your ticket had lost. Did you have any kind of option here? And Quayle said, absolutely not. Forget about it. Put it away. There's just - you can't do this - over and done.

So in the end, when Pence had done his job, he had to hear rioters chanting hang Mike Pence as they burst into the Capitol. So reflecting on all of that, now he's got to be wondering what future he has in the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: What has been the role of another top Republican, the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell?

ELVING: McConnell, as the Republican leader in the Senate, is the most powerful Republican and possibly the second most powerful person in Washington. He could do a great deal for a president he was trying to help, like Trump. He can do a great deal to help a president such as Joe Biden, whom he is trying to inhibit, if not shut down entirely. So he helped Trump get elected in 2016. He helped Trump's judges get confirmed. He got his tax bill passed in the Senate.

But he was disturbed by what happened on January 6. He denounced Trump that night. But he also ultimately voted against the second effort to impeach Trump over what happened that night, saying it didn't make any sense to impeach a president who had already left office.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm trying to figure out McConnell's role now. After January 6, George F. Will, the noted conservative columnist - former Republican, I should say, because he's opposed to Trump - said that he felt McConnell was trying to, in a very professional way, read Trump out of the Republican Party. Is that what McConnell seems, in fact, to have been doing these last several months?

ELVING: In a sense, you could read it that way. His wife was in the Trump cabinet. Elaine Chao was the transportation secretary. And she just quit outright. She said, I can't serve in this cabinet. But it's not as easy as procedure might suggest - or a simple resignation or any one person, even as powerful a person as Mitch McConnell - to break into this extraordinary - or break up this extraordinary relationship between Donald Trump and the party's hardcore base, voters and, I should add, the party's most significant donors. This is a group of people who want Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: Well, does McConnell still need Donald Trump?

ELVING: Yes. He specifically needs Donald Trump to help him win Senate seats in 2022 and make Mitch McConnell the Senate majority leader instead of minority leader once again.

INSKEEP: There's also reporting in this book about Sen. Lindsey Graham, who, of course - his role has been very, very public for years - his relationship with Donald Trump. But what role has he been playing behind the scenes?

ELVING: Lindsey Graham - such an interesting character in this particular book and throughout the last five years - at first, he was a rival in 2016 - a bitter critic. Then he became an ally in 2017, did a lot to make it possible for Trump to accomplish what he did in those four years. And he was expected to be part of whatever was going to go on on January 6 to object to some of these results.

But he turned against Trump that night. He was so disturbed by the riot, yet he was very soon back in Trump's confidence - golfing with him, trying to rein him in, trying to redirect his energy toward helping other Republicans win and trying to get him to call Joe Biden and just help with the transition and move on - smooth the transition and start thinking about 2022 and 2024. But that phone call never happened.

INSKEEP: I wonder what Lindsey Graham is encouraging him to think about 2024 - to step aside and let another Republican run or to run himself?

ELVING: There may be many Republicans who feel that it would be better for Trump to step aside and then put all of the weight of his considerable influence behind whomever the Republican Party nominates in 2024. But I think Lindsey Graham knows as well as anyone that that's not the Donald Trump that we have seen over the last four or five years, the person who is clearly the sun in his own solar system.

INSKEEP: How's this book end?

ELVING: Well, the last hundred pages or so, we get a sense of life in the new Biden White House - the new power players, the struggles with the Senate, first over the COVID rescue package and then on Afghanistan - the first turning into a success story, the other a looming disaster in the making.

INSKEEP: Although I guess the book ends a little bit before the disaster - (laughter) we learn how that disaster ends.

ELVING: In the making - exactly - we get a picture of just how difficult the Afghanistan situation is for the Biden administration to have inherited, with the deadline of May 1 for the pulling out of all the American troops but no actual plan for doing so and the difficulty of knowing how are they going to get all those people out of there, given all of the restraints of the agreement that have been reached by the Trump administration with the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. The book is called "Peril" by Woodward and Costa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAZER'S "BABEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.