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3 Years In, 'A Very Stable Genius' Authors Say Trump Decisions Are 'More Chaotic'

After three years of covering the Trump administration, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, longtime and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters for The Washington Post, were dizzy.

"It's been such an exhausting three years, I think, for all of us — for all Americans," said Post White House bureau chief, Philip Rucker, in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered on Friday. "The news is sped up so much."

So Rucker and Leonnig decided to step back from the daily hurricane.

"We both wanted to just hit the pause button and say: 'How do we make sense of this administration and this unprecedented presidency, for ourselves and for readers?' " said Leonnig, a national investigative reporter for the Post.

They searched for patterns that would help them form a clearer picture of Trump as a person and a president and of this moment in history, ultimately emerging with a new book. A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America charts the first three years of Trump's tenure.

In their own words, Leonnig and Rucker said, "The result is a deeply reported portrait of a president like no other: a success, a master in some ways, and also a chaotic, undisciplined, impulsive leader."

Through an aide, President Trump declined to speak to the journalists for the book, Leonnig said. Relying on more than 200 unnamed sources — many of whom were at Trump's side during defining moments of the presidency — Rucker and Leonnig build scenes that paint Trump as dangerously uninformed as he is self-congratulatory.

One such episode occurs six months into his presidency, during a Pentagon meeting in which, the journalists report, Trump called senior military commanders "a bunch of dopes and babies." Leonnig and Rucker cite the anecdote as a climactic "inflection point," marking Trump's determination to drive away those who try to offer him counsel.

"The guardrails are gone, and increasingly the decisions have become more chaotic," Leonnig said. "And the people that he's surrounded by are increasingly those who think their mission is to tell him, 'Yes.' "

Interview Highlights

On Trump's 'tirade' in the Pentagon room meeting

Carol Leonnig: In July 2017, a group of very, very senior Cabinet members and advisers decided: We need to give a tutorial, in effect, to Donald Trump. They'd been having a lot of arguments with him, disagreements about where troops and bases were, trade policy, et cetera. And he was resisting them time and time again.

This tutorial did not go well. Donald Trump was bellowing and howling and, at one point, so angry and in such a tirade that he was trying to catch his breath to continue howling at this group about how they were losers, they didn't know how to win anymore. And actually, the last thing that he said was something almost everyone in that room promised they would not talk about publicly, it was such an insult. And that was: "I would never go to war with you people."

In the room, Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson, who's one of the architects of this meeting, is so upset and he's watching the military leaders, including the secretary of defense, just bow his head and say nothing. And he finally stands up and tells the president, "You're wrong, Mr. President. That's not how it is."

Rucker: This became a real inflection point for the presidency, because after this moment, Trump started to shut out his advisers, the seasoned hands who were trying to steer him in a different course, and started to really try to execute his own wishes, his own orders.

On critics who say a book highlighting Trump's blunders is snark

Rucker: I think the tone of the book is really anything but snarky. It's deadly serious. You know, we're chronicling what this president has done in office for three years, how he comports himself behind the scenes, how he leads our military, how he leads our domestic policies.

We tried to write from a bit of a distance. And what I mean by that is these are not opinions that we're expressing, we're unearthing the truth that we discovered in our reporting. And that leads to some conclusions that might be difficult for some of the president's supporters to hear. But they're real and they're accurate and they're serious.

On the book title [Trump has referred to himself as a "very stable genius"]

Leonnig: We didn't want to mock the president, but we wanted to use his own words to sort of hold that up as a stress test about this presidency.

We thought that it was important to sort of take that mirror and turn it back to him and find out: What were those folks serving him? What did they think about that?

On whether Trump's fourth year in office will look different from his first three

Rucker: Based on the patterns we've seen so far in this presidency that we document in the book, I don't know that it will look that different. You know, Donald Trump is not a man who changes easily.

The one thing that might change is the extent to which he feels under siege and he feels needing to punch back and be aggressive on the offensive. And a reason for that is, he's facing reelection, which is a huge test and hurdle for him.

When he feels up against a wall and under siege, we've seen him again and again lash out, do sometimes self-destructive actions. And there's a possibility, of course, that as we get closer to the November election, some of those characteristics will come into the fore.

NPR's Sam Gringlas and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.