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New blockbuster book on Trump, Biden prominently features three Maine politicians

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a key vote on President Joe Biden's domestic spending agenda, center, walks with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, left, along the Senate Subway, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a key vote on President Joe Biden's domestic spending agenda, center, walks with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, left, along the Senate Subway, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

"This Will Not Pass," a new book by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, was published Tuesday, but advance excerpts have already made big national headlines. And the book has Maine-related intrigue, too. It deeply probes and chronicles the 2020 election and the first turbulent year of the Biden presidency. It's a story that depicts politicians maneuvering through a prolonged crisis that still imperils American democracy.

Chief political correspondent Steve Mistler talked to Martin and Burns about how several Maine politicians played a part in that sweeping narrative.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Steve Mistler: Gentlemen, first of all, congratulations on completing this book. It's really fascinating. The book is broken up into three distinctive parts and main politicians figure into each one, really. But let's start with the first which really focuses on how Trump was mismanaging the pandemic response. At the time, governors were really looking to the feds and the Trump administration for guidance, and how to respond to this novel virus that was killing people at an alarming rate. But when Gov. Janet Mills and her peers joined Trump on one of these periodic conference calls on June 1, 2020, they heard something completely unrelated to the pandemic. Alex, can you describe this call Gov. Mills' reaction to it, and how it figures into the books larger theme about Trump?

Alexander Burns: Sure, Steve, and thank you so much for having us on. It's a real pleasure to be on the program. That call on June 1, 2020 is one that is just seared in the minds of so many American governors and Gov. Mills is one of them. This is when the pandemic is already one major national international crisis unfolding. And now it gets joined by the crisis that follows the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And there's a massive wave of nationwide protests, as you well know. And Trump gets on this call with the governors and he wants those protests shut down. And he is joined by national security officials. And he is not talking about the coronavirus. He's telling the governors that they need to get out there and they need to essentially, you know, bring down the hammer on these demonstrations that he believes are getting out of hand. And Gov. Mills told us for the book that she called in one of her aides and said you got to listen to this because I think the President is having a nervous breakdown. And it's one of the most memorable things that any governor told us about their reaction to that call, or frankly, their reaction to basically anything Donald Trump did in the period covered in this book. This is the chief executive of a consequential American state genuinely concerned about the mental and emotional state of the President. That's a backdrop for basically the entire narrative in this book.

Jonathan Martin: And, Steve, to remind your listeners in Maine, it was even more consequential for Mills because Trump was due to come to Maine that following week.

Mistler: Yeah an in fact, she actually asked him not to come right, Jonathan. And he of course, did anyway and he and he ended up coming here with Mills' predecessor and now her reelection opponent, former Gov. Paul LePage, and the two of them basically use that event to just blast her for her pandemic response, which of course, will be a plank and Gov. LePages' bid to unseat her this year.

Martin: That's right. And, you know, folks in Maine can really appreciate this narrative because you have deep experience with a kind of impulsive populist in Paul LePage, who a lot of people believe it's sort of a proto Trump.

Mistler: Yeah, so Trump wasn't the only one running for reelection in 2020. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was also on the ballot and she was considered vulnerable really, for the first time since she was first sent to the Senate in 1996. And she had a problem with Trump, right? I mean, she explicitly opposed his nomination in 2016. And then refused to say whether she would vote for him in 2020. And Jonathan, that really irked the former president, who the book describes as sort of reveling in these fealty pledges by GOP politicians, especially from those who wants opposed to him, right?

Jonathan Martin: That's right. And Trump was looking for pledges of loyalty bordering on fealty from any Republican on the ballot while he was pressed. And of course, Collins was not willing to do that. And your listeners know why, because Collins had to walk that line between appealing to the moderates in Maine who always supported her but loathe Donald Trump, and the hardcore conservatives, especially from northern Maine, who were Trump all the way and were uneasy with her for not being supportive of Trump. And so she was always trying to walk that high wire throughout the 2020 campaign. We had this remarkable scene in the book where Trump's in the West Wing, talking to his advisors, talking to Sen. Mitch McConnell, and Senate campaign strategists about the main Senate race, and Trump has no interest in supporting Collins, and in fact, he's more focused on Sarah Gideon's looks, and he's sort of winking to what is a heavily male audience and talking about how Gideon is attractive even though, of course, he hasn't looked at another woman because he's a married man 'wink wink, nod nod.' And this is the kind of sort of behavior that Trump is exhibiting in private all the time.

Mistler: Yeah, there's a lot of Collins material in this book. It details how Democrats were just humiliated by her reelection. The book also includes these instances where Collins reaches out to the Biden administration and expresses a willingness to negotiate on some legislation. But at the same time, at least early on, that also reveals that she was engaged in this secret mission, I guess, to convince West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, to abandon the Democratic Party and become an independent, who would caucus with Republicans. Alex, what was going on there?

Burns: So Steve, these are both two really, really critical points in the book. And just to take the first one, briefly, it is impossible to overstate the humiliation that Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer experienced because of Susan Collins is re election Democrats lost a lot of tough Senate races around the country. But in almost every instance, they were able to say, Listen, South Carolina is a very Republican state. So it was a tough race from the start, same deal in Kansas, same deal and, you know, insert state here, they couldn't do that. In Maine, they didn't lose a Senate race in the state that Trump won, they lost a Senate race in a state that Joe Biden carried for the most part. And they lost it really, really badly. So there's this moment of reckoning amongst Senate Democrats after November, where the broader Democratic caucus goes to Chuck Schumer and basically says, 'What on earth happened and how are we going to fix it?' And I think they're still trying to answer that question today. The outreach from Susan Collins to Joe Manchin is again one of these really important moments early in the Biden presidency that foreshadows just what a precarious Senate legislative a balancing act the President is going to have that there's that moment early on, where Kamala Harris gives an interview in West Virginia that Joe Manchin takes as a not very subtle effort to twist his arm into voting for big, big legislation, the American rescue plan. And Susan Collins is a smart character who knows Joe Manchin pretty darn well, and she reaches out to him after that interview and asked him to dinner with a couple of their Republican colleagues and at dinner, they basically put on the table, this proposition that 'if you want to become a Republican, the door is wide open, if you don't want to become a Republican, but you're willing to stop being a Democrat, just call yourself an independent and caucus with our side of the aisle,'basically doing what Angus King does on the Democratic side. 'We would welcome that too.' And Machin doesn't say he certainly doesn't say yes, he doesn't say an absolute no, either. And so these overtures continue over the course of 2021.

Mistler: And this tension between Democratic moderates and liberals wasn't just confined to the Senate. It's also been a central feature in the house too. And that's where Second District Congressman Jared golden became involved in this effort by moderates to, I don't know slow walk or outright block the more ambitious plank of President Biden's agenda. I don't want to get too bogged down in the process details, Jonathan. But the reporting here suggests that Golden in this band of nine moderates that insisted on decoupling Biden's now stalled, Build Back Better plan from the bipartisan infrastructure bill really ticked off the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who at one point derisively refers to this gang of nine as "amateurs."

Martin: Yeah, so this is now the sort of summer into fall of 2021. And this is enraging both Speaker Pelosi and the White House who believe the only way those two bills are going to pass is if they're linked together. And at one point, we have a senior adviser to President Biden, a fella named Steve Steve Ricchetti, who basically is is deriding Golden as nothing more than a Republican and even floats possibly challenging him at a primary with a another more loyal Democrat in 2022. And it really gets at the heart of the Jared Golden profile, somebody who is determinedly independent, who obviously is a Democrat, but repeatedly has angered his party in Washington has not been a sort of loyal soldier down there the way that Chellie Pingree has from the other Maine congressional district. And this is an ongoing story, of course, because Golden has made clear that he is not going to March in lockstep and has shown no regret over standing against the speaker in the president.

Mistler: Yeah, and it's interesting, too, that Steve Ricchetti, because I think he's considered sort of a pragmatic deal maker, not really much of a partisan — that's what's so fascinating about that detail in the book. Golden managed to anger a person that you would think would maybe understand his predicament.

Martin: That's a great point. Ricchetti is seen in Washington as definitely the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party, even the more moderate wing of the Biden White House, frankly. But he's just at his sort of zenith of his frustration when he says this late summer and early fall of 2021. They're just at the White House enraged at the small band of house moderate Democrats who they believe are trying to torpedo Biden's agenda. And if you fast forward to today, of course, the house eventually did pass that infrastructure bill. But it wasn't until after the sort of dismal election returns in New Jersey and Virginia. And to this day, of course, the Congress has not passed the Build Back Better bill and put it on Biden's desk.

Mistler: I'm going to close with a question that I've been thinking a lot about since reading a good chunk of the book yesterday, which is really great, again, by the way. Why do you think these three Maine politicians ended up in this story? I mean, is it because they were maybe more accessible to your inquiries? Or is there a general takeaway about their perspectives and experiences that's especially relevant to this book's narrative?

Burns: So much of the book is about the extreme political polarization in the country and the sorting of so much of America into hard right, and solidly left camps, and never the twain shall meet. And I do think that Maine has generated some pretty interesting politicians who don't quite fit that mold. And so there are relatively few people in either party in Washington, and very unfortunately, increasingly in the States as well, who can traverse the boundary lines between the parties. And you know, even if they're not ideological centrist themselves, just people who are capable of talking the other side and reflecting on both sides of the political system in a really thoughtful and sort of clinical way. And I promise you that I'm not just trying to sort of pander to you and your listeners here, I do think Maine sort of generates a disproportionate number of those kinds of people.

Martin: Yeah, I will just add, Steve, as somebody who has spent a lot of time in Maine over the years and considers it a second home. These politicians reflect the nature of Maine and reflect Mainers. They can be causedly independent, they can be blunt, they can even be salty. And that's really what Maine is. Not only aren't they beholden to party, they just kind of reflect the blunt nature of a lot of Mainers and I think this is particularly the case with Gov. Mills, somebody who just is happy to call it like she sees it. And somebody who is, you know, not afraid to engage. I think that is kind of the Maine way, they want politicians that look like them, and then that sound like them, too.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.