By our count, Michael Lewis is the third celebrity author to publish a deeply reported book about the early days of the Trump administration and the transition. Unlike his predecessors, Lewis’s book, entitled “the Fifth Risk”, focuses almost exclusively on the transition. And in keeping with tradition, Lewis leaked a few choice excerpts from the soon-to-be-published text to the Guardian. In it, the stories recount the chaos that dogged the Trump transition team thanks to the president’s opposition to establish any transition planning – an instinct that, Lewis believes, was rooted in a widely held doubt that he would prevail over Hillary Clinton in the election.
In an anecdote that recalled the opening of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” Michael Lewis described an atmosphere of shock and dismay at the Trump campaign’s election night gathering. Expecting a resounding defeat, the Trump campaign hadn’t even bothered to prepare an acceptance speech for Trump. The newly crowned president-elect was reportedly baffled by his improbable victory, resembling “a man holding a pair of twos whose bluff had just been called” and Karen Pence rebuffed her husband when he leaned in for a kiss, exclaiming “you got what you wanted, Mike…Now leave me alone.”
Chris Christie, who had pushed for, and been granted, the position of chairman of Trump’s transition team, swiftly sprung into action…but soon discovered that Trump had no intentions of planning for an orderly transition. The president-elect was more worried about where the money for the transition team’s funding was coming from.
Chris Christie was sitting on a sofa beside Trump when Pennsylvania was finally called. It was 1.35 am, but that wasn’t the only reason the feeling in the room was odd. Mike Pence went to kiss his wife, Karen, and she turned away from him. “You got what you wanted, Mike,” she said. “Now leave me alone.” She wouldn’t so much as say hello to Trump. Trump himself just stared at the TV without saying anything, like a man with a pair of twos whose bluff has been called. His campaign hadn’t even bothered to prepare an acceptance speech. It was not hard to see why Trump hadn’t seen the point in preparing to take over the federal government: why study for a test you will never need to take?
Shortly after Pennsylvania was called, Jared Kushner approached Chris Christie and informed him that the transition team needed to meet the following morning. However, Trump was instantly and enduringly opposed to the transition team, focusing instead on where the money to pay the staff was coming from, and accusing Christie of “stealing my f*cking money.”
The first time Trump paid attention to any of this was when he read about it in the newspaper. The story revealed that Trump’s very own transition team had raised several million dollars to pay the staff. The moment he saw it, Trump called Steve Bannon, the chief executive of his campaign, from his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, and told him to come immediately to his residence, many floors above. Bannon stepped off the elevator to find Christie seated on a sofa, being hollered at. Trump was apoplectic, yelling: You’re stealing my money! You’re stealing my fucking money! What the fuck is this?
That night, Christie made sure that the team had prepped Trump on the proper protocols for a president-elect, including the order of his discussions with foreign leaders. For example, the first call is always with the Prime Minister of the UK.
However, before Trump’s team could react, the President of Egypt called into the switchboard at Trump Tower and somehow managed to get through to the president-elect.
The first few calls were easy – the very first was always with the prime minister of Great Britain – but two dozen calls in you were talking to some kleptocrat and tiptoeing around sensitive security issues. Before any of the calls could be made, however, the president of Egypt called in to the switchboard at Trump Tower and somehow got the operator to put him straight through to Trump. “Trump was like … I love the Bangles! You know that song Walk Like an Egyptian?” recalled one of his advisers on the scene.
Several key personnel mistakes were made early on during the transition. The first was the nomination of Andy Puzder for Secretary of Labor, which Christie said happened at the behest of Vice President Mike Pence, and the second was the nomination of Mike Flynn for National Security Advisor – something that Trump and a few insiders pushed through over the objections of Christie and the transition’s entire national security team
The national security team inside the Trump transition – staffed with senior former military and intelligence officials – had thought that was an especially bad idea. Flynn’s name was not on the list. But here he was, in the meeting to decide who would do what in the Trump administration, and Ivanka was asking him which job he would like to have.
Around this time, Christie was sitting in a meeting with Flynn when Steve Bannon pulled him aside and brusquely fired him. By this point, readers should be able to figure out who was the primary source for Lewis’s book.
Before Christie could intercede, Bannon grabbed him and asked to see him privately. Christie followed Bannon to his office impatiently. Hey, this is going to have to be quick, said Christie.
It’s really quick, said Bannon. You’re out.
Why? asked Christie, stunned.
We’re making a change.
Okay, what are we changing?
It’s really not important.
But Christie’s wasn’t the last head to roll…
It wasn’t just Christie who had been fired. It was the entire transition team – although no one ever told them so directly. As Nancy Cook reported in Politico, Bannon visited the transition headquarters a few days after he had given Christie the news, and made a show of tossing the work the people there had done for Trump into the bin. Trump was going to handle the transition more or less by himself. Not even Bannon thought this was a good idea. “I was fucking nervous as shit,” Bannon later told friends. “I go, ‘Holy fuck, this guy [Trump] doesn’t know anything. And he doesn’t give a shit.'”
If there’s any takeaway from Lewis’s reporting, it’s that the chaotic transition process actually wasn’t that big of an obstacle in the grand scheme of things. The US government bureaucracy has continued to function. Trump has efficiently implemented his agenda. Economic growth is booming and, despite the blowout in the US budget deficit, Treasury yields haven’t climbed all that much.
Somewhere in here, there’s an important lesson to be learned here about listening to the self-described experts.