The book: In The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment (Princeton University Press) political historian Julian Zelizer offers an early historical analysis of Trump’s time in office. Similar to the first two installments in the series on George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Zelizer and more than a dozen other historians offer thoughtful conclusions on the administration’s run. They grapple with how the administration handled critical moments, including the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, and its relationship with conservative media. Contributors include Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Kathleen Belew, and Jason Scott Smith. This book ultimately offers readers some understanding of the impact and consequences of the Trump presidency.
The author: Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcom Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at. He is the author of more than 20 books including Defining the Age: Daniel Bell and Burning Down the House. He is also the co-host of the Politics & Polls podcast.
The Most Predictable, Unconventional Presidency
I knew this project would differ from the others in my series about the modern American presidency. President Donald J. Trump’s four-year administration had been unlike anything else American democracy had experienced in recent decades, if ever. But I had not anticipated what would happen after the authors of this volume gathered for two days — on Zoom, given that we were still in the throes of a devastating global pandemic — to spend almost eight hours discussing early drafts of the chapters. The New York Times published a lengthy story by culture reporter Jennifer Schuessler about our conference. When the piece appeared in print, I received an email from Jason Miller, who had been the chief spokesman for Trump’s 2016 campaign and a senior adviser on his reelection campaign in 2020. Miller, whose White House career had been sidetracked by a sex scandal, was advising the former president as he decided what to do next.
Miller wrote to say that Trump had read the article and that the former president was very interested in speaking with all of us. He was happy to answer any questions we might have. According to Miller, Trump wanted to give us his side of the story. Miller sent, along with correspondence from Trump’s assistant Molly Michael, several backgrounders highlighting the accomplishments of the administration. Trump desired, Miller explained, to help my colleagues “tighten up some of the research” we were conducting.
Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama never contacted me. Though The New York Times had published an article about the conference I convened for the book on the Obama presidency, we never heard from the former president or his staff. This time was different. Trump, with potential ambitions for seeking a second term, seemed eager to influence how historians saw the past. Given the enormous energy he expended during his presidency attempting to influence how Americans understood the events they were witnessing, this wasn’t a total surprise. His term had even ended with his promoting a pointed narrative, an effort to sell to his supporters, and to some extent the history books, that he was not an unpopular one-term president like Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter whose record had been rejected by the public. Rather, Joe Biden won the election, Trump said, only because he had stolen it.
The authors’ responses to the invitation were mixed, which was itself revealing of how different this presidency had been. Whereas some contributors were interested to listen to the president, though skeptical that he would be honest with us, others weren’t sure about the value of hearing from a leader likely to repeat the talking points in the documents. More important, a number of people who are not contributors to the book, including some who had worked in Washington, urged us to proceed with caution because the former president, they said, had a record of misconstruing the nature of these conversations. If he ran for reelection, one person feared, we could suddenly be described as historical advisers.
I agreed to set up a Zoom meeting where the president could speak to us. Miller responded that he was excited and would set something up soon. Over the following weeks, the tumult continued. After my call with Miller, both he and the former president were involved in several explosive stories. Miller himself was in a widely publicized legal struggle, ordered by a federal judge to pay $42,000 in legal fees for a failed defamation suit. The former president’s business was under a criminal investigation by the attorney general of New York. He was also deciding what his role should be in the 2022 midterm elections and how to reestablish his visibility in the media.
Although I wasn’t sure that the meeting would really happen, the event took place on July 1. This was one of over twenty-two interviews, according to Axios, that Trump had given for books being written after his term ended. The preparation for the Zoom event was more haphazard than I had imagined. Trump’s team allowed me to set up the video link on my own — and to record the event — without any kind of preconditions or even much of a discussion about how it would be structured. His staff did ask me if the meeting would be in a grid or two-person format and whether I would moderate. Though it is impossible to imagine any former commander in chief handling almost any meeting in this loose of a fashion, it wasn’t a total surprise for a president who took pride in doing so many things in broad daylight.
At 4:15 in the afternoon, I signed into Zoom so that his team could check the visuals on their end. I was sitting in the family living room, with a bookcase behind me, the same makeshift “studio” that I used for television, classes, and talks since the start of the pandemic. As his production team prepared to go live, I could see that Trump would be sitting at a wooden desk in his Bedminster Golf Club with an American flag on the side. It almost looked like a set from a bare-bones television show about the presidency. He would be positioned in between two windows, each with the blinds drawn down. At 4:20, the contributors gradually started to sign in, all remaining on mute as I had asked them to do. Trump’s box went dark once his staff was ready to go, with the video and audio temporarily muted. The screen read “Donald J. Trump.” With seconds to go, I took a deep breath, imagining what his debate opponents must have felt like before going on stage, though in this case my job was just to listen and to moderate.
Right at 4:30, Trump’s Zoom screen turned on. There was the forty-fifth president of the United States. He was dressed in a standard black suit, wearing a blue tie. As our meeting got under way, the first thought that ran through my head was that this could only happen with this particular president and in the year 2021. Everything about it felt surreal. “Welcome Mr. President, how are you?” I said. “How are you, thank you Julian,” he responded. I introduced the president and we began.
This meeting, which happened one day after C-SPAN released a poll of historians who ranked him as fortieth (beating out only Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan), was an opportunity for him to tell us how he had strengthened the nation’s standing. He spoke in a relatively calm voice, with a single piece of white paper in front of him on the desk, devoid of much of the explosive rhetoric that had become familiar to Americans. Not wanting to waste a second, Trump launched into a fervent defense of his record. He said that he had seen the New York Times article about our conference and wanted to make sure that we were accurate. “I read a piece...and I said that I’d like to see accuracy. I think that we had a great presidency....We did things in foreign affairs that nobody thought even possible, the Abraham Accords, and other things....It’s an honor to be with you....If you are doing a book, I would like you to be able to talk about the success of the Trump, the Trump administration. We’ve had some great people, we’ve had some people that weren’t so great. That’s understandable. That’s true with, I guess, every administration. But overall, we had tremendous, tremendous success.”
In the surreal modern communications format that resembles the old Hollywood Squares television show, on the same day that the Trump Organization was charged with a “scheme to defraud” the government, Trump reiterated a number of claims that he had been making about his term. The consummate showman, Trump knew his audience. Building on documents that Miller had shared with our group, which presented him as a rather conventional and moderate president with a long list of achievements, Trump focused primarily on what he believed to be the most important components of his record on the economy, foreign policy, trade, and the pandemic.
From The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment by Julian E. Zelizer Copyright © 2022. Reproduced with permission from Zelizer.
“For much of his presidency, Donald Trump routinely made bold claims about his administration’s prominent place in history. Now we have the first full assessment of the Trump presidency by a group of first-rate American historians. This book is a must-read for anyone trying to understand where Trumpism fits in the larger arc of American history.” — Kevin M. Kruse, Princeton University
“This wonderful book manages at once to illustrate how profoundly strange our recent history has been while also situating it in the broad trends of the past fifty years. Readers bewildered by current events can look here for context, insight, and perspective.” — Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politic