Yes, Sinking in the Swamp: How Trump’s Minions and Misfits Poisoned Washington is yet another Trump book. But Daily Beast reporters Lachlan Markay and Asawin “Swin” Suebsaeng‘s theory of the case is that when you have a President who fancies himself a Mafia don, the best way to approach him is from the point of view of his foot soldiers–a “worm’s eye view,” as they describe it. Neither are traditional White House reporters–Suebsaeng came to the Beast from Mother Jones and covered Hollywood, while Markay was a document hound for the Washington Free Beacon. And yet both have thrived in the batshit Washington of the Trump era. Both stopped looking at their phones long enough to discuss their new book over coffee with Washingtonian.
Washingtonian: This book has a lot of really weird stories about Trump’s people, but it also has a lot of stuff I didn’t know about our President. Like his obsession with badgers.
Lachlan Markay: I mean, Donald Trump is so unique and so unlike any other President we’ve ever had in our history. And like little things like that—humanize would be the wrong word, but I think it gets at the man in a way that illuminates just why things are so ridiculous under this White House.
Asawin Suebsaeng: When we look at a lot of the Trump books, way too many of them to us feel like an Eagles album from the 1970s or something.
Suebsaeng: We wanted to do something that has more of the spirit of say a Mudhoney album, or a Rage Against the Machine album.
Rawer, written with less mediation?
Suebsaeng: With less adherence to the standards of writing a White House book of the Obama era, or even the Bush era or the Carter era, the Reagan era. The old rules where you treated it with the default dignity of the office, I think, is wrong. I think that’s wrong with any president. I think it’s especially wrong when, like, the racist game-show host is the leader of the free world.
A lot of weird people have been in positions of power but usually, especially with presidents, they have layers of people between their weirdness and the public.
Markay: There’s a great scene where there’s an Oval Office meeting about immigration policy, and Trump’s like, hang on, I gotta get Lou Dobbs on the phone. It’s not like all lines of seniority have completely broken down. It’s just that the avenues or channels of policymaking in this White House are much more dependent on the weird way that his brain functions and the types of people and sound bites that appeal to him.
That brings us to former EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox.
Markay: The Jahan chapter was I thought was really emblematic of the Trump White House. Basically their strategy to keep Scott Pruitt in office throughout his ever-unfolding series of scandals was just to make sure that the President would see that his name was mentioned, and that Pruitt was mentioned as advancing his agenda. It did keep him in office for much longer than it would have for virtually anyone else. And Jahan, you know, he’s not a Trump guy, he was in Republican politics for years beforehand, but was able to really sort of thrive in that environment, because he shares a lot of the President’s idiosyncrasies. He loves going after the press. He’ll go to the mat and just, you know, slit throats for his boss.
You write about one hamfisted attempt by administration people to fool you. Have you actually gotten burned while reporting on these folks?
Markay: There have been plenty of times where we’ll hear something, and will either take it to another source or, you know, ask the White House for comment, and they are like “Total bullshit, never happened, 100 percent fake news.”
Suebsaeng: Which is sometimes a confirmation. There have been multiple times where we were maybe a little bit, I don’t know nervous is the right word but being like, huh, we’re getting some sustained pushback on this we weren’t expecting. But then all of a sudden it turns out to be completely vindicated. That has happened. And that’s always a nice feeling.
Was there anything you heard but didn’t publish that later turned out to be true?
Suebsaeng: Okay, I’ll give you two examples they both have to do with Axios and fucking Jonathan Swan.
Does your rivalry have anything to do with the fact that “Swin” and “Swan” look similar on the page? I kept doing double-takes when I read your book.
Suebsaeng: Or that I keep trying to get him deported. I mean, full disclosure, he was one of my groomsmen in my wedding so it’s a little tough for me to hate him so much but, you know, I do my best. So we had heard, it was a long time ago, that Wilbur Ross had a habit of falling asleep in meetings. I have no idea why we did this, this is actually extremely unlike us, we told our boss about it, like, why don’t we save it for something? And then we forgot about it. And then maybe three months or so after, Swan posts that item in his newsletter about Wilbur Ross falls asleep, and then it went kind of viral. I was kicking myself for that.
There’s a section in the book that has to do with the President’s lawyers, and the anecdote we were going to lead that chapter with was at one point toward the end of Don McGahn’s White House tenure as chief White House counsel, Trump was going around and asking those very close to him, “Do you think he’s wearing a wire?” Again, Mr. Jonathan Fuckhead Swan comes out with an Axios item that Donald Trump has asked people if Don McGahn’s wearing a wire. So, yeah, that required us to rearrange the book and for me to angrily get in touch with Jonathan and tell him that I’m extremely disappointed that he’s very good at his job, that he’s put me in this position of loathing him rather intensely.
Still, I’ve forgotten about a lot of this insanity. I think it’s good to have these stories collected in a book. It’s not really about breaking news, it’s about collecting your work so it doesn’t vanish.
Markay: We tried to include as much like original reporting as we could, but this isn’t a book about the major seismic events that shaped Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s a character study. Some folks were interested in having us write about the adults in the room with all the chaos and omnishambles and bullshit that was like swirling around.
Suebsaeng: The whole premise of our recording at the Daily Beast is like these adults in the room a) Either don’t actually exist or b) Don’t matter. The meat and potatoes are these raving lunatics, idiots, sycophants, and bottom feeders. That’s the story.
This is a very entertaining book. And I think a lot about how politics has gotten so entertaining. You talk about this at the end of the book. Like, it’s obviously a wonderful time to be a reporter. But how do you feel about it as a time to be an American?
Markay: I think we’re upfront about the fact that we’re very much complicit in some of the trends we’re writing about.
Suebsaeng: We are pretty self-critical in the book.
Markay: I think that, you know, we’re treating this like a reality show, because it is a reality show, but it’s not good that it’s a reality show. I wish we didn’t have this material to write about. I would much rather the American government be run by statesmen and intellectuals and people who understand and are aware of the gravity of the roles they’ve been entrusted with. We don’t happen to have that right now.
Those people did give us the Iraq War.
Markay: Fair. That’s fair. You know, one of the ideas that 2016 sort of dispelled for me, was the idea that anything I say or do as a reporter or a commentator has any impact whatsoever on the direction that we take this country politically. And that was kind of liberating. And it’s one of the reasons that I still consider myself a conservative, but I don’t let that dictate the things that I write about. Because I’m not under the illusion that anyone really gives a shit what I think about the direction the country’s going in. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of really fun stories to tell.
Suebsaeng: When we talk about that we tried to write something darkly humorous, we emphasize the adverb darkly. We’re like, Look, writing this about like it’s a fucking roller coaster or funny in certain perverse ways is our novocaine. We would go insane if we didn’t cling to that. We don’t want that to be misinterpreted as us being numb or nihilistic towards the actual people suffering during this era, at home and abroad or whatever are concretely affected by the policies and politics and rhetoric of this president and his administration.
Markay: The flip side of that is you also don’t want to just simply wave away people who feel like they finally found like their voice in this President, and I’m not talking about like the racists and neo-Nazis. Like there is a very large group of the American people who feel that postwar politics kind of left them behind.
You write: “millions of Americans knew exactly whom they were electing in 2016. They were electing themselves.”
Markay: There was always this stupid meme during the campaign: How is this guy populist, he’s this gaudy billionaire who loves gold and his own private jet? And the obvious answer was because he is a poor man’s idea, of what any of these, like, Rust Belt, lower middle class working class people would be like, if they overnight were given $5 billion.
Suebsaeng: They would 100 percent get a plane with their stupid name.
Markay: You can still be a millionaire and have people sort of see themselves in you. Which I think is his allure. I’m sure the MAGA faithful would despise every word of this book, but I don’t want it to sound like I don’t understand the appeal because I totally do.
Obviously, a lot of people have left this administration. They’re probably not going to join the permanent Washington of statesmen and intellectuals you were talking about. Do you think that any of them really care about, you know, getting a fellowship at a big think tank?
Markay: No, but there’s a lot of money to be made if you’re in a position to continue influencing the federal government. So a lot of people have built these careers in media or on K Street, or wherever, based on their access to and their knowledge of the work of this administration. And that’s true of every administration to an extent. But I think the degree to which this infrastructure has been built up over the last three years, and will come entirely crashing down when he leaves office is really going to be something we haven’t seen much of before.
Are you saying Trump hasn’t built a Washington infrastructure that will last?
Markay: There’s your standard-fare Republicans who would have basically done the same thing under any Republican administration. And then there’s this subclass of folks who are very specific to Donald Trump and are a product of his very specific political brand. So that subclass, I think, will all but disappear the minute he’s out of office. You’ll still have the permanent political class on the Republican side and the Democratic side. But it’ll be more or less the same people we remember from the Obama administration, Bush administration.
No new ones?
Markay: Well, I mean, people have made names that will stick around. But because this President is so intensely focused on loyalty to him personally, and alignment with his agenda, it’s built this very lucrative sort of cadre of people who’ve been able to like monetize that. Once that’s gone, that that was their only like, selling point.
Suebsaeng: Trump and his some of his top apparatchiks will say, and have said for the past three years when they’re trying to call out hypocrisy in the national news media: Look at these guys. A lot of them are just out to make a buck. They just want more time on TV. That’s one of the reasons they say they stopped doing the daily White House press readings. [Some journalists] want to become stars and get book deals and glossy magazine profiles on themselves. And I don’t have much interest in accepting any of their messaging as anything but supremely bad faith, especially ones coming like a guy like Mr. Trump, but that’s not necessarily wrong. I mean, we have been able to publish a book on the Trump era, because Trump has become the president.
Markay: The New York Times‘ stock price has, like, tripled.
Suebsaeng: Exactly. But for me, personally, my life was perfectly fine in early November 2016. I would have no regrets if someone like snapped their fingers and just took it all away.
Markay: I’d still be at the Free Beacon crushing Hillary. Really, if anyone other than Bernie Sanders or maybe Mike Bloomberg takes over on the Democratic side come 2021, there’s going to be a lot of folks in media and like every other profession tangential to politics shaken back to reality, like, Oh yeah, this is what it was like before everything went fucking haywire.
It’s going to be bad for business.
Markay: Les Moonves was not wrong when he said Trump may be bad in the country but he’s great for CBS. We talk about this idea of like, the Trump-media relationship as a bad marriage where like, they all hate each other, but they can’t ever leave each other kind of thing. So, like, when one of them walks out the door, the other is going to be kind of sad that they left. So that’s my theory, anyway. And as someone who’s obsessed with the money aspect of politics, the president who actually divests his conflicts of interest and actually, like, takes pains to avoid, you know, like, a appearance of corruption, there would be a lot fewer like fun leads. I don’t want a corrupt President of the United States, but it’s certainly fun to cover.
Markay and Suebsaeng will discuss their new book with Molly Ball at Politics and Prose’s Union Market location on Thursday, February 13. This interview has been edited and condensed.