Under a title which calls to mind Chris Isaak’s hit song from 1989, the former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates offers an interesting mixture of vignettes and dish, an effort to rewrite the history of 2016 before the 2020 election is over. Wicked Game is surprisingly readable and will leave process junkies with plenty to chew on.
Making sausage is seldom pretty. The book reminds us that even after Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for president, with his win in the Indiana primary on 3 May 2016, the convention was more than two months away. Trump’s opponents had plenty of time to organize one last challenge.
Convention fights are rare – but possible. In 1980, Ted Kennedy mounted an attempt to wrest the Democratic nomination away from Jimmy Carter, the incumbent president, on the floor of Madison Square Garden. He lost. Four years before, Ronald Reagan came close to unseating Gerald Ford. In helping the president push back, Paul Manafort won his spurs.
As a rookie candidate, Trump never recognized that he could be displaced. But Manafort and Gates did. Catapulted into the Trump campaign by the businessman Tom Barrack and the profane prankster Roger Stone, they took names and put down a prospective revolt before the convention got going. In the primaries, letting Trump be Trump worked. Nailing down the nomination required different skills. Patience and attention to detail mattered.
And yet, in Trump’s universe, almost no one lasts, be they wives or staffers. Manafort would be forced out in favor of Steve Bannon, Trumpworld’s dark lord who would in turn be ousted from the White House and now stands under federal indictment.
The Trump campaign was a hazardous place to be. Gates emerged as Barrack’s deputy on the inaugural committee. But in the end, while a jury convicted Manafort on charges arising from special counsel Robert Mueller’s campaign investigation, Gates copped a guilty plea, cooperated and was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
Despite it all, Trump 2016 kept its eye on the prize, first winning the nomination, then the electoral college. Its message was venomously acrid – but somehow coherent. It got the biggest things right. Four years later, candidate and minions are distracted. Trump’s rallies are borscht belt shtick infused with anger and self-pity, the backdrop a mounting death toll. The US is far from turning the corner against the coronavirus. The grim reaper stalks the land.
What worked against Hillary Clinton is coming up short against Joe Biden, everyone’s favorite uncle. When a “billionaire” sitting president has less cash on hand than his challenger, in the final days of a campaign, something has gone wrong.
As for scoop, Gates lets the reader know Mike Pence was not the vice-presidential pick of Trump’s dreams. The Indiana governor had tepidly backed Ted Cruz. As Gates reminds us, Trump is not one to forget.
“She’s bright, she’s smart, she’s beautiful, and the people would love her!” her father gushed, according to Gates, who italicizes his reaction: “OK … He’s not joking.”
It turned out Pence was a good pick: all the loyalty of a puppy without the need to housebreak. Unlike Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich, the two other actual finalists, Pence conveyed a degree of stability and helped with white evangelicals, a key constituency that has stuck with Trump throughout. The former governor also brought that beatific gaze.
By contrast, Christie labored under the cloud of Bridgegate and Gingrich had a personality that sucked all the air out of the room. Trump would not abide competition. As Trump put it, in Gates’s telling, “there was something wrong and off” about the former House speaker. Gingrich’s wife was appointed ambassador to the Vatican – a consolation prize.
Twisting the knife, Gates also announces that Gingrich was Jared and Ivanka’s pick. It would neither be the first nor last time the dauphins would get things wrong. Kushner thought firing James Comey would bring bipartisan plaudits. We all know it did not.
Instead, firing Comey triggered a two-year special counsel investigation that snared Gates and Manafort, enveloped the president and helped hand the House to the Democrats. Nancy Pelosi should send Kushner chocolates.
Gates’s judgments can be premature. He lavishes praise on Brad Parscale, data guy to the 2016 campaign, now former campaign manager for 2020. Gates describes Parscale’s data operations as invaluable but adds, inauspiciously, that they continue “to this day”.
Not quite. First, Parscale grossly overestimated the demand for a June rally in Oklahoma which apparently resulted in the sad death of Herman Cain, a contender for the 2012 nomination and ardent supporter of the president who contracted Covid-19. Ultimately, Parscale was dismissed. In September, he was hospitalized, after menacing his wife and threatening to harm himself.
Gates also goes all-in on denouncing Robert Mueller and attacking any suggestion of “collusion” with Russia. Here too, he may have gotten over his skis.
According to the Senate intelligence committee’s final report, Russia and WikiLeaks coordinated on interference in the 2016 election, while the Trump campaign “tracked” news about WikiLeaks, “Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and the press team” paying heed to Julian Assange’s document dumps.
Gates emerges from his own book as a sympathetic figure, too low on the totem pole to be a driving force, close enough to the sun to get badly burned. If nothing else, his Wicked Game is a morality tale for our times. As Isaak sang: “Strange what desire will make foolish people do.”