On Tuesday, CNN reported on some of the issues covered in the upcoming book Peril, from Bob Woodward and Washington Post reporter Robert Costa. The headlines from that article have so far dealt with the concerns that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, convinced that Donald Trump was not only incompetent but also “crazy,” worked to put barriers in place to stop Trump from launching a nuclear war.
Whether Milley deserves plaudits for protecting the nation or a court-martial for violating the chain of command, remains an open question. The answer can be “both.”
But it’s the other excerpts that are really the most jaw-dropping. For example, there is this exchange in which Trump is attempting to convince Mike Pence that he has the power to simply overturn the results of the vote count on Jan. 6.
Trump: "If these people say you had the power, wouldn't you want to?"
Pence: "I wouldn't want any one person to have that authority."
Trump: "But wouldn't it be almost cool to have that power?"
Pence: "No. I've done everything I could and then some to find a way around this. It's simply not possible."
Trump: "No, no, no! You don't understand, Mike. You can do this. I don't want to be your friend anymore if you don't do this."
This segment brings home what may be the most astounding realization possible: We’ve all overestimated the emotional maturity of Donald Trump. Everyone who ever compared Donald Trump to a third-grader needs to start writing now, because there are a lot of third-graders in this country, and they all deserve a personal apology.
Trump’s response to learning that Pence wouldn’t break the Constitution for him is a threat that most people haven’t heard since they were old enough to switch from regular diapers to pull-ups. Not only is there an amazing level of infantile petulance in this “I don’t want to be your friend anymore” ploy, the fact that Trump said this aloud, in front of other people, displays a level of self-awareness that’s usually reserved for animals that can’t recognize their own face in a mirror.
Trump didn’t even let up after deploying his sandbox-worthy threat. He phoned up Pence as the Jan. 6 rally was about to get underway, and as the Congress was about to get around to logging the count of Electoral College votes, and tried a different angle.
"If you don't do it,” said Trump, “I picked the wrong man four years ago. You're going to wimp out,"
This would be the moment in which Trump attempts to shame Pence for briefly placing the Constitution ahead of his personal loyalty to Trump. For Trump, failing to bring down the Republic if you have an opportunity to is “wimping out.”
But, believe it or not, there’s a moment that comes between these two Trump-Pence interactions that may be even more frightening. That’s because Pence seems to have seriously considered the idea of using his non-existent power to halt the count. In fact, under pressure from Trump, Pence seems to actively seek ways in which he can disrupt the process and overturn the election.
However, the truth is that Pence’s power in the process is purely ceremonial. Unable to come up with a means to give Trump what he wanted, Pence sought out someone he knew who had been in a similar situation … former vice-president Dan Quayle.
According to Woodward and Costa, Pence asked “over and over” if there was “anything he could do” to give Trump the outcome he wanted on his call to Quayle.
Quayle: "Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away.”
Pence: "You don't know the position I'm in.”
Quayle: "I do know the position you're in. I also know what the law is. You listen to the parliamentarian. That's all you do. You have no power."
On the one hand, there’s a deeply black comic moment in thinking that the future of the nation rested with Dan Quayle in January of this year. However, the truth is less comedic and a good deal darker.
What these conversations show is that Trump’s playground taunting of Pence worked. Pence didn’t do the right thing out of some finally tapped well of moral resistance; he did the right thing only after exhausted every way he could do the wrong thing. Pence didn’t stand up to Trump; he tried “over and over” to find a way to give Trump exactly what he wanted.
Mike Pence tried to throw the nation to the same mob that was outside chanting for his death. He didn’t suddenly develop a trace of a spine. He didn’t discover his inner love for the Constitution. He just couldn’t think of a way to turn his ceremonial role into the democracy crush that Trump wanted.
And Dan Quayle … Dan Quayle is a heroe.
Author’s note: Though I couldn’t resist the joke, the truth is that screwing up the spelling of a single word is probably the worst possible reason to dislike or make fun of Dan Quayle. There are a lot of reasons not to like Quayle. A lot. That’s just not one of them.