It reads like a horror story, an almost comic immorality tale. It’s as if the president, as patient zero, had bitten an aide and slowly, bite by bite, an entire nation had lost its wits and its compass. The result of Rucker and Leonnig’s hard work is a book that runs low to the ground; it only rarely pauses for sweeping, drone-level vistas and injections of historical perspective... Rucker and Leonnig are adept at scene-setting, at subtly thickening the historical record. More than a few of these scenes feature Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, known to nearly all in the White House as “the kids.” They’re viewed as in over their heads and possessed of unfailingly defective judgment.
Although the title of A Very Stable Genius ironically adopts Trump’s preening self-description, Rucker and Leonnig present him as a lord of misrule who delights in instability, running a government that resembles “a virtual tilt-a-whirl” at a carnival. Despite his claim to be a genius, under his combed-over crown he has an entirely vacuous head: he tells India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, that it’s a good thing the country doesn’t have a border with China, and at a ceremony in Pearl Harbor he asks what exactly happened there to justify the commemoration. Forget about CIA briefings: as Steve Bannon puts it, Trump “doesn’t even know what intelligence is”. As proof, Rucker and Leonnig have a scoop about one of his crazier wheezes. Denied funds for his wall along the Mexican border, he proposes a human chain of hefty enforcers, hundreds of thousands of them, who would join hands in a barricade extending across 1,200 miles. A stable genius or a rampaging dimwit?
And yet A Very Stable Genius remains a page-turner even for those who chronicle Trump for a living. As with previous books on Trumpworld, it is the cumulative effect of what has happened in the Trump presidency, the reminder of outrage piled on outrage that shocks the conscience numbed by the daily drumbeat of Trump transgressions. The book is essentially a recounting of Trump’s handling of the Mueller investigation, starting with his ill-fated appointment of retired army intelligence officer Michael Flynn as his first national security adviser and finishing with the release of Mueller’s 450-page report more than two years later.
There really is plenty in this presidency to be horrified by, but the naked partisanship on display here undermines the revelatory reporting, lending credence to Trump’s frequent complaints about witch-hunts. The other inescapable problem with the book is the pace of events. We have now careered on from Mueller, Kim Jong-un and fire and fury, to Ukraine, impeachment and the Soleimani hit, propelled by what the authors describe as the president’s “dragon energy”. And so, one of the few truly objective conclusions you can draw from A Very Stable Genius is this: no one has the faintest clue what’s coming next.
For all the annoyances of this book, for all its preachiness and stuffiness, it sets out once again the case that Trump is unfit to hold high office. It ends with his efforts to dig dirt on Joe Biden in Ukraine, efforts that led his aides to conclude that he had clearly committed a criminal act; without, he thought at the time, any consequences. “He had concluded he was above the law, after dodging accountability for flouting rules and withstanding the Mueller investigation. He had grown so confident of his own power, and cocksure that Republicans in Congress would never dare break with him, that he thought he could do almost anything.”