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In 'Betrayal,' ABC's Jonathan Karl asks: 'Must the Trump show go on?'

Then-President Donald Trump points to ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the White House on April 6, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Mnadel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
Then-President Donald Trump points to ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the White House on April 6, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Americans have heard hours of former President Donald Trump's voice on tape, yet even a few minutes more can somehow still trigger disbelief and shock.

That is why in the final week before publication of his new book Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show, Jonathan Karl of ABC News has been sharing a key passage of his interview with Trump recorded in March 2021.

In the interview, Karl has been asking about the rioters who broke into the Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress was acknowledging officially the results of the Electoral College — Trump's defeat.

When Trump casts the rioters in benign terms, Karl notes some of them were chanting "Hang Mike Pence," a reference to Trump's vice president, who had a ceremonial role in the Capitol proceedings. Karl asked if Trump had been worried when he heard those chants.

"No, I thought he was well protected," Trump says. "And I had heard that he was in good shape..."

Pence was in fact being hidden by Secret Service agents in an underground loading dock beneath the Capitol as the riot raged on above.

At this point, Trump defends the rioters, many of whom had heard him earlier that day excoriating Pence for carrying out his ceremonial duty. Trump says "the people were very angry."

And he then adds: "Because it's common sense, Jon, it's common sense, that you're supposed to protect — how can you, if you know a vote is fraudulent, right? How can you pass on a fraudulent vote to Congress?"

Trump's last year as president has already been examined in a stack of book-length personal accounts — each making a substantial, if not equal, impact.

So far, the field has belonged primarily to print journalists (like Bob Woodward andRobert Costa,and Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker, all of the Washington Post, and Michael Bender of The Wall Street Journal) and a few former Trump insiders telling their sides of the story. As a longtime TV reporter, ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl brings an eye for life as presented on screen that is acutely appropriate for the Trump saga.

That alone might justify widening our Trump lit shelf, but Karl also adds substantially to the record of this parlous period — especially in the chaos of its final months. Karl has interviewed key players inside the White House and in Trump's Cabinet who can reveal how the president leaned on them to help him and how he gave himself over to ever-more-exotic legal strategies and advisers.

And as the Jan. 6 investigation goes forward this month in the House of Representatives, seeking testimony from many of the characters in Betrayal, the timing of Karl's report seems fortuitous indeed.

What was Jan. 6 all about?

The overarching theme of Betrayal is that the former president did not merely flirt with defying the 2020 election result, he focused on it obsessively and conducted a months-long campaign to make it possible. This effort began well before Election Day and continued well after the constitutional process had been completed and Trump's opponent had been elected and inaugurated as president.

In fact, as Karl notes often, Trump continues his campaign to invalidate the 2020 election even now. The "Trump show" remains very much on stage, finding an audience and threatening to extend its run.

Karl often relies on insights gleaned from his March interview with the former president at Mar-a-Lago. Trump sat down with some of the reporters who have since written scathing accounts of his last year in office, but not all. Karl had already written one unflattering account of the Trump White House — Front Row at the Trump Showand might have been frozen out. But as a first-row fixture in the White House press briefing room, and a past president of the White House Correspondents Association, Karl was a household name. And more important than that, his on-air face and voice were familiar in Trump's media consciousness.

Karl and Trump have history

It should also be noted that Karl had been putting Trump stories on network air for years. He had first interviewed him as a New York real estate mogul way back in the 1990s (Karl was a young reporter for the New York Post). That is the kind of credential that counts on the former president's scorecard.

Some readers may pause at times at Karl's references to himself and description of his placement and attitude at various events. He lets us know, for example, just how close he was sitting to science adviser Deborah Birx in the briefing room when she was grimacing at Trump's talk of bleach injections as a COVID treatment.

In the photo section of Betrayal, Karl shows up in quite a few of the pictures of Trump and in other pictures as well. He often includes himself "in the shot" when describing a scene. But, in fairness, the hyper-competitive world of broadcast journalism truly does make self-promotion an imperative.

On substance, and on the most important subject in Betrayal, Karl shows no hesitance or equivocation. Karl sees Trump as a past, present and future threat to the orderly process of American politics and the constitutional separation of powers far beyond that posed by past presidents (or would-be presidents).

That message is conveyed in every chapter and on virtually every page. The cover itself features Trump supporters in rally mode beneath the glowering eyes and imposing forehead of Donald Trump, a distant reminder of the Big Brother motif on paperback editions of George Orwell's 1984.

The Trump we see here is thrown off stride at times by the pandemic, especially when he himself is infected and hospitalized just weeks before Election Day. Fortunate to bounce back quickly, he stage-manages his return to the White House to dramatize how he has vanquished the dread disease. It's not just telegenic, it's the stuff of myth-making.

In those same weeks, Trump had already begun moving pieces into place for the post-election struggle. While he continually insists he will beat Democrat Joe Biden — whom he derides at a rally as "the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics" — he also seems intent on placing totally malleable people in pivotal positions of power, just in case.

Leaning on the loyalists

One example would be Ric Grenell, the Trump donor he appointed as ambassador to Germany and then, in 2020, suddenly elevated to director of national intelligence. This is one of the most powerful jobs in the government, but as Karl reminds us: "Grenell had no experience in intelligence but he was one of the most unflinchingly loyal Trump partisans in the administration."

One character given more attention here than in other reporting is Johnny McEntee, a former college quarterback whose government experience consisted of carrying Trump's suitcases in 2016. McEntee proved his bona fides again and again as he rose to "body man" and made his way in the West Wing in a increasingly responsible positions.

In the fall of 2020, Trump makes McEntee the director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, the person in charge of filling openings in the Executive Branch at virtually all levels. Advised that McEntee has no training for this task, Trump responds that the young man is "very loyal." It is clear that moments of stress are coming when absolute fealty will be valued above all else.

McEntee brings aboard a raft of other youthful zealots, including 25-year-old Josh Whitehouse, who becomes "White House liaison" — first at Homeland Security and then at the Pentagon. In the latter job, Karl reports Whitehouse assured friends he would root out and "fire those Deep State bastards."

Building up to the Big Day

In the weeks after the election, McEntee would be involved in Trump's interactions with many major players in the administration, including Pence. When the Electoral College has voted in December and Congress sets a date to accept the results, McEntee sends Pence a bullet-pointed memo. It bluntly instructs him to slam the brakes on the constitutional and statutory process that acknowledges the Electoral College vote and certifies the election.

Here, as in other reporters' accounts, Pence gently but firmly pushes back on Trump's demands with the steadfast support of his lawyer and chief of staff, who join him in the ranks of heroes in this story.

This is not breaking news, having been featured in earlier reporters' work as well. But Karl weaves it all together with forward momentum and heightens our sense that Trump was orchestrating it all and making it his main (if not sole) focus in the last weeks he was in office.

Karl devotes the last third of his text to the events surrounding the Trump rally that became a riot and then an insurrection on Jan. 6. Having created an atmosphere of dreadful anticipation, Karl delivers a vision of the Capitol that day as a nightmare and a battleground. Police are assaulted, people die.

Karl reports that when he went to Mar-a-Lago in March and brought up the January riot, he was "taken aback by how fondly [Trump] remembers a day I will always remember as one of the darkest I have ever witnessed."

Trump called it "a very beautiful time with extremely loving and friendly people — the largest crowd I have ever spoken before..."

Lighter moments amid the shadows

It may not quite qualify as comic relief, but Karl also has some delicious material from Trump's "briefing sessions" prior to the debates with Biden last fall. Karl treats readers to lengthy excerpts of the debate prep, quite possibly relying on the cooperation of Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who played Biden in the debate rehearsals.

Here we learn that Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is Trump's lawyer and constant conspiracy theorist, largely took over the sessions. He insisted that Trump focus the debate entirely on Biden's son, Hunter, whom Giuliani has now spent years trying to catch in alleged corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere. Giuliani is also a serial bad actor in the post-election drama, popping up ill-prepared, in improbable venues, to peddle his increasingly implausible case.

There are also, inevitably, big helpings of the loopy Sidney Powell, once a wunderkind attorney but today a purveyor of absurd shock theories. One of Powell's tales has Gina Haspel, the Trump-appointed head of the CIA, directing computers in Europe to switch ballots from Trump to Biden in the U.S. And so on, and on and on.

Enough of this material is new, or renewed in Karl's retelling, that it can all be compelling to read once again – even for those who have read more Trump books than they can count on their fingers ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...").

Karl also deserves a quick salute for his snapshot of the dinner ritual he witnessed on the patio at Mar-a-Lago. We share the author's awe as he watches the lord of the manor appear at the appointed hour, approach along the colonnade and parade past the tables of the assembled, who are standing to offer "rapturous applause."

Karl asks one of the Mar-a-Lago members how often this scene might occur.

"Every night, he told me. Every night."

The question lingers: How long will this show go on?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.

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