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Barely a year into this administration, when the two of us—Daily Beast investigative reporter Lachlan Markay and White House correspondent Asawin Suebsaeng—were first approached to write a book on the era of President and racist game-show host Donald J. Trump, we were asked if we wanted to co-author something on the “adults in the room.” This meant: the president’s lieutenants who encouraged stability and maintained a respectable moral code against the backdrop and foreground of Trump’s tumult, vulgarity, and omnishambles. (Think: your Rex Tillersons, your John Kellys, your James Mattises… I guess.)
We politely turned down the assignment given that, 1) we, as a reporting duo, didn’t believe the “adults in the room” in the age of Trump actually existed and, 2) even if they did, they don’t actually matter and there’s no need to craft puff pieces or nonfiction propaganda for the Nikki Haleys of the world.
Our position then and now is simple. One of the few acceptable ways to accurately tell the story of Trump and his presidency is to tell it through the eyes, ears, and motives of the belligerent hangers-on, the raving lunatics, the corruption junkies, and the loyal MAGA foot-soldiers whose brains are forever hardwired to the absolute dumbest dark forces of conservative media. It’s the mid-level managers, not just the top officials. It’s the Diamonds & Silks, not just the Lou Dobbses. Take the worm’s eye view of Trumplandia, and through that, from the bottom-up, you tell the story of the leader of the free world, in all his bigoted, fast food-addled glory.
Our primary influence for how to go about writing this kind of Trumpworld book—which eventually became Sinking in the Swamp—wasn’t any prior work of political nonfiction by any veteran journalist or venerated icon such as, say, Bob Woodward (someone who, as it were, we roast in our own book as an example of how not to write a book on Trumpworld, no matter how many copies it sells).
Sinking in the Swamp: How Trump’s Minions and Misfits Poisoned Washington (Viking), by Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng, is now on sale. Order your copy here.
The primary influence was a book about real-life gangsters—specifically, the one on which the Martin Scorsese 1990 mob classic Goodfellas is based.
The 1985 book, titled Wiseguy, was authored by Nicholas Pileggi, a terrific crime reporter who later co-wrote the Goodfellas and Casino scripts with Scorsese, and who was involved in the same director’s 2019 film The Irishman. The book Wiseguy, and Goodfellas, painted a rhapsodic portrait of the American Mafia through the lens of Henry Hill, a proud gangster turned snitch for the feds. Hill wasn’t a marquee figure, like a Gambino or a Luciano. He was, at least before the Scorsese film, a complete obscurity without any popular name ID.
Years ago, before the rise of Trumpism, Asawin (or Swin, as his friends call him) randomly found a mini-doc on YouTube about the making of Goodfellas, and decided to watch it, hungover to his fingertips, lying in bed one weekend morning in the decrepit old Washington, DC, group house where Swin lived at the time. For whatever reason, what Pileggi said in that video stuck with Swin through the subsequent years, all the way up until he and Lachlan had to start pitching a new book together.
“There’d been several books about mob bosses,” Pileggi says in the clip, describing how and why he wrote the 1985 book. “But [with Wiseguy], it was like getting ahold of a soldier in Napoleon’s army. That’s who I want. I want to know how it worked inside. Detail, detail, detail. Everything is detail.”
That premise—of telling the story of a famous/infamous boss and broader orbit through the viewpoint of the cannon fodder—seemed perfect for the universe of Donald John Trump. Neither of us wanted anything to do with a book told straight through the eyes of a Trump, a Kushner, or a Bannon. It’d all been done—many, many times. So, we went with the grunts, fixers, ratfuckers, and the virtual nobodies, who, whether we like it or not, still maintained an outsize influence on the current political terrain.
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Our book was released right in the middle of February. Obviously, quite a lot has happened since then. We’ll let this article serve as an epilogue of sorts.
As punishingly low as our respective opinions were of Trump, his misfits, his minions, and his enablers—and through-the-floor as they were by the end of Swamp’s writing process—there was a surge of decadent stupidity, moral rot, and uninhibited cronyism in the months since February 2020 that took us at least a tad by surprise.
We honestly would not have predicted—to throw out just one example—that by late February, as the global spread of the virus intensified considerably and the administration was working to calm the American public’s nerves, President Trump would decide to waste 45 minutes in the Oval Office hosting the lead actors of a low-budget play titled, FBI Lovebirds: Undercovers, all because he adored its lib-owning premise. Trump had not seen the stage play, but the script is based entirely on Capitol Hill testimony and the text messages between former FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, whom the president enjoys publicly mocking as the anti-Trump, deep-state “lovers.”
When we reached out to several senior White House officials about whether or not this was an appropriate use of the president’s time at that juncture, we were laughed off by Trump lieutenants who insisted he was capable of multi-tasking and that he had matters under control.
More than 150,000 recorded U.S. COVID-19 corpses later, that argument still rings false, and that strange episode served as a template for everything else to come during the deadly pandemic, the crashed economy, the mass civil and racial unrest, and his thus-far floundering re-election campaign against Joe Biden.
And for all of the shameless grifting and influence-peddling that we documented in our book, the months since the mid-February publication have brought us a hideous torrent of new, cringe-inducing stories about the Trumpworld luminaries we documented. Matt Schlapp, the lobbyist and informal Trump adviser, lost a third of his lobbying business over what were taken as offensive tweets about Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Fortunately for him, his wife’s comms gig on the Trump re-elect afforded an easy avenue for his benefactor to make up some of that shortfall. In June, the president’s campaign began paying the Schlapps’ firm—for Mercedes Schlapp’s work, she and Matt claim, though all of a sudden the checks for her services have tripled.
Washington, D.C.’s influence industry generally has invaded and pervaded the Trump political machine to a degree that even we—a pair of jaded, overcaffeinated political reporters—find astonishing. From the ranks of the campaign’s top fundraisers to the people actually in the trenches calling shots, professional influence-peddlers find themselves at the reins of the president’s reelection effort. Readers of our book will recognize many of the names—folks like David Urban, Jason Osborne, Corey Lewandowski, and David Bossie.
For all the shenanigans from the usual cast of characters, new ones have also burst onto the scene, ones who would have enjoyed prominent billing in the book had it been published a few months later. Georgia’s new Republican senator, Kelly Loeffler, managed to escape criminal and ethics investigations after we reported that she’d been selling off millions in stock after a closed-door briefing on the novel coronavirus. But it would be hard to design a more cartoonishly swampy character—a senator appointed to the position by virtue of her political connections, married to the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, and financing her re-election almost entirely with money drawn from her own bank account.
The coronavirus has, sadly, provided whole new opportunities for Trump-era grifting, and some notable names in politics have jumped into the fray. Mike Gula, a veteran Republican fundraiser abruptly announced in March that he would be leaving politics effective immediately to start a business selling personal protective equipment to combat the virus.
About six weeks later, the company was under federal investigation.
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And during the roughly year-and-a-half-long process of writing Sinking in the Swamp, we went about finding as many of Trumpworld’s Henry Hills as we could possibly find. Funny enough, the idea of transposing this storytelling crucible from gangland to Trumpworld would probably have made perfect sense to Trump.
“You have to treat ’em like shit,” Trump told his pal, architect Philip Johnson, according to a 1992 New York magazine article. (The “’em” in that sentence refers to women.)
“You’d make a good mafioso,” Johnson assured, flattering this buddy and future president—to which The Donald quipped back: “One of the greatest.”
And as we document in the book, Trump, in his earlier real-estate days, was known to privately threaten businessmen, attorneys, and other foes with “my friends in Jersey,” if he felt someone had crossed him or insulted him too gratuitously. It is highly unlikely that his threats of Mafia violence were truly backed up by anything within his powers to authorize. Most people who were on the receiving end of this rolled their eyes and took it as a feckless tantrum.
Decades on, various critics, such as the president’s fired FBI director James Comey, would compare Trump to a mafia don, though not in ways meant to commend him.
The comparison was raised at a private meeting at the White House in early 2019 while we were going about writing and reporting out chapters for Sinking in the Swamp. The two of us met Sarah Huckabee Sanders, at the time still Trump’s White House press secretary and close confidante, in part in hopes of arranging an interview with the president for the book.
We laid out our premise and the Wiseguy/Goodfellas analogy to Sanders, who mentioned she loved the film and seemed at least superficially interested in our project. At one point, Swin begrudgingly conceded to Sanders that there are, in fact, some differences between La Cosa Nostra and Team Trump. Sanders—mockingly—thanked him for admitting that her boss and a gore-soaked mafioso were, in some ways, not the same.
“It’s true. You guys have stronger NDAs,” Swin replied.
“Yeah, but in the mob they’ll just kill you!” Sanders said with a smile.
Regrettably, Swin bit his lip and did not attempt some half-hearted, wise-ass retort about the large body count that President Trump had already amassed, or his use of Barack Obama’s “kill list” that he’d inherited. By the end of that meeting, Sanders appeared to scribble down our interview request on a sheet of paper, and said she’d bring it up with the president. Trump, ultimately, did not acquiesce, and we never got our interview with the 45th President of the United States.
It would have been a privilege to ask him questions about the lurid details and bizarre anecdotes—such as this one about Trump, badgers, and space junk—that were ultimately published in the book in February, a month that feels like it took place roughly ten thousand eons ago.
But no matter how high the stakes or the body count, our operating assumption of covering Trumpworld has only been proven truer and truer: Things can, and always will, get impossibly and violently dumber than they were yesterday.
From SINKING IN THE SWAMP by Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng, published on February 11, 2020 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (C) 2020 by by Lachlan Markay and Asawin Suebsaeng.