Edward-Isaac Dovere on how Democrats avoided disaster — and beat Donald Trump

Atlantic reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere on his new book, a chronicle of the quest to bring down the Trump regime

Published June 14, 2021 5:40AM (EDT)

Battle For The Soul by Edward-Isaac Dovere (Photo illustration by Salon/The Atlantic/Viking)
Battle For The Soul by Edward-Isaac Dovere (Photo illustration by Salon/The Atlantic/Viking)

Even if you follow politics closely, there are numerous moments in Edward-Isaac Dovere's new book, "Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats' Campaigns to Defeat Trump," that will make your jaw drop.  His book conjures up the classic politics series of books by Theodore White, "The Making of the President" but with Dovere, the story doesn't start on the campaign trial but right after Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016. 

The detail in the book is simply remarkable from the list of comfort items that Sen. Bernie Sanders requests for his speaking engagements (none are truly that demanding) to a nervous Andrew Yang before the first Democratic presidential debate throwing up so loudly in the dressing room bathroom that other campaign staffers could hear it. 

But it's the substantive issues that stand out. On top of the list is that Barack Obama, after leaving office, expressed concern that Donald Trump would potentially come after him or his family personally, such as by ending Secret Service protection for his daughters. As Dovere explained, people have "a sense of Obama being cool and detached … he was not." In fact, as Dovere shared in our conversation for "Salon Talks," the working title of the book was a line Obama said to Democratic donors in 2018, "You are right to be concerned."

Dovere also details how Joe Biden's team was fully aware that Trump might try not only to litigate the election if he lost, but also in essence try to steal it. They had a legion of attorneys across the nation prepared for various "doomsday scenarios." But not even these stable of lawyers could have predicted that Trump would incite a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the election results.

Watch my "Salon Talks" interview with Dovere below or read a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Some of this book is things we've lived through, if you follow politics closely. Some will be completely brand new. It begins with 2016, and I just want you to remind people, to give them a sense of where we were then.

It was a devastating election, 2016. People can think about it as Trump winning and beating Hillary Clinton, which was a big surprise in every way. If you're a Democrat, that was terrible. But what was also terrible for Democrats was that there were Senate races, all over the country, that Democrats thought they were going to win and they didn't. From North Carolina to Wisconsin, right? And House races too, governors' races. There were not that many governors races on the ballot in 2016. But when you look at what happened, I traced some of this during the Obama presidency: Almost a thousand state legislature seats that were held by Democrats when Obama won in 2008, were held by Republicans by the time he finished. There was a decimation of the Democratic Party.

And most of the book starts from 2016 forward, but there's a chapter at the beginning that cast back a little bit. So how is it that the Democratic Party got into this terrible state? It's about those dynamics happening. It's about Obama not really investing in the Democratic Party and not doing things to build the party up. Some of this he can't be blamed for. He didn't realize it, or he was struggling with how to grapple with it. But the issue of wages, of how people were feeling, the real economy in their lives, which obviously was very important for Trump to be able to key into in 2016 and use that as an argument that pushed him forward, that's all going on. And those were the circumstance that the Democrats found themselves in, even before the devastating loss of 2016.

Then there's a sort of a parallel process that starts to happen between a small group of Democratic leaders — most people wouldn't even know who they were, except if you're really an insider Democrat — who have meetings, start to plan things. There's a dinner at the beginning of the book that I described happening at John Podesta's house. People may know about Podesta, because he was Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, and they start to plot things and think about how to change what the Democrats are doing.

But at the same time, this activism blossomed that nobody was expecting, the biggest example obviously was the Women's March. I was there in D.C. covering it. One of the people that I talked to for the book is Cecile Richards, who was then at Planned Parenthood. She told to me something to the effect of, "If an organization had tried to plan the Women's March to be what it actually was, it would have taken millions of dollars and years." And it just happened on its own. Those things are happening simultaneously and help create the atmosphere for Democratic primary campaign and the Democrats sorting out who they wanted to be their nominee.

It's interesting when you talked about the meeting with these Democrats getting together after the election in 2016. Living through it and covering it on my show, it was a grassroots movement that led the party, it was not leaders that did it. What's your reaction to that?

Look, I think it was both those things happening, right? The airport protests that you're talking about, remember part of the reason those got elevated was because members of Congress were showing up, governors were showing up at the airports and demanding to see the people who were being detained, and that helped drive the news coverage. But of course that wouldn't have happened if the protests weren't happening to begin with. So there's this back and forth that's going on. At the Women's March, there were leaders that I talked to at the time and then reflected on it, who were aghast that there weren't people walking around with clipboards and getting the names of all these tens of thousands of people who were there. And you know what, those people didn't need to get activated in the traditional way that Democratic leadership thinks about it.

But it was really hard to predict how this was going to go. And part of what the book aims to do is to trace how those two streams were happening and then how they started to intersect. And what happened when it became a question of like, well, what role does the Bernie Sanders movement that was obviously very powerful in 2016, what does that have in the Democratic Party now? How much is it the Bernie Sanders thing, or how much of it is just grassroots energy? How much does it split off to Elizabeth Warren? How much it was interested in just beating Trump, no matter what? Those are all things that are happening and playing out in the primary campaign.

Share a little bit about what the goal of that meeting was and what really happened? Did reality land on them, that we can have an impact? They raise a lot of money, they can do different things. But to think that the party was controllable, then or now, is ridiculous to me.

That dinner sort of has all the hallmarks of what people think happens, right? It was at the Four Seasons in Washington, right on the edge of Georgetown. It was in December of 2018. It was the night that Nancy Pelosi had been elected speaker, after Democrats won the House. It was organized by a big Democratic donor who sends out these invitations, you got to come. And it's this strange collection of people, some Democratic donors, some group leaders. Pelosi is there, Schumer is there. A bunch of others: Pete Buttigieg is there, Eric Swalwell is there, Chris Coons is there. Nobody's quite sure how this guest list exactly was the one that they landed on.

And they're sitting around a table. And yeah, the whole question was how do we keep the primary campaign from getting too crowded? The not-very-subtle subtext was that if it's crowded, Bernie Sanders is going to be the nominee and we don't want that. And they're having this debate around this big table in the Four Seasons private room, and that's another element to it. Not only is it at the Four Seasons, but in a private room. They say like, "How do we put some guardrails on this process?"

Guy Cecil, who runs the Priorities USA super PAC, said to me, "That was the last moment when the people who thought that they could control things thought that was going to keep going." Because within a couple of weeks of that meeting, all the candidates start announcing. Biden was the last major candidate to announce. But within a couple of weeks, Elizabeth Warren announces, Kamala Harris announces. They're popping up everywhere. Kirsten Gillibrand announces on the Colbert "Late Show." right? It's all over the place. This idea that the primary campaign is going to be kept in control by the leaders, that's ridiculous.

Obama had plans for his post-presidency, and they changed because of Trump. Share a bit, what was going on? There were concerns about what Trump might do?

Yeah. When Obama thought Trump was going to lose, he felt a little uncomfortable in the final days of the campaign. I think most people, Donald Trump included, never thought he'd actually win. And then he had a plan for his post-presidency: OK, Hillary Clinton's going to be president and I'll build my foundation, my library. I'll make some money, I'll write a book, it'll be fine. I'll enjoy myself, I'll go have nice vacations. And everything changes, obviously very quickly. He had never thought he'd have to be involved with picking the next DNC chair as he then was, and got very involved making sure that Tom Perez was the DNC chair instead of Keith Ellison. 

He couldn't talk about things publicly, about issues, because he knew that every time he did it, he might trigger Trump and give Trump fodder to attack him and make news cycles out of it, and he didn't want to do that. When Trump tweeted accusing Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower, Obama was very upset by that, and disconcerted about it. Not just because "This is an attack on me," but because he thought that was just so outside the bounds of what a president should accuse another president of doing. And then there are other things, like Trump attacking Susan Rice and Obama thinking about standing up for her. 

I have a moment in the book that's right after Election Day 2018, when the Democrats win the midterms. Trump fires Jeff Sessions as attorney general. And there had already been a lot of concern in the Obama post-presidency world of, okay, what do we have to get prepared for? What's going to happen? And they had drafted some statements, because who knows, we've got to have this ready to go, rather than something wild happening. At that point, the wiretapping accusation happened, all these things were going on. And when Trump fires Sessions, of course, Robert Mueller is already deep into his work. They think maybe he's going to fire Mueller now. What do we do?

And they're talking about it back and forth. And this idea starts getting talked about, well, maybe what we should do is try to do something like a statement with George W. Bush and Barack Obama together. And the idea of it in their minds would have been that Bush had hired Mueller as FBI director and Obama extended his term. So they would say, here's a Republican, here's a Democrat. We're both presidents. You don't agree on much, but we both hired Bob Mueller. He's good, protect him. And put that up preemptively to stop Trump from getting to Mueller. This idea never actually got broached with Bush directly, but there was a a feeler put out to his staff to see what they thought about it, and there was not a lot of interest. Bush has been very committed to staying far away from politics.

You just see the level of concern there. There was this sense of [Obama] as cool and detached and away from things. He was not, he was really worried about it. The working title of this book, I should say, was "You Are Right to be Concerned," which was a line I heard Obama say at a fundraiser in Beverly Hills in 2018. He was sitting and talking to Democrats and he said, "Look, if you're looking around the country, you are right to be concerned with what's happening." Right? And that carried through.

And then "Battle for the Soul" is where we landed. The story that I've told about that is that when I was speaking to Biden at the end — I talked to him in February, so the interview with him is at the end of the book. And I said to him, "So we're calling it 'Battle for the Soul.' that's title of the book." Of course that was drawn from what he had talked about. And he said to me, "Yeah, the difference between you and me, pal, is I actually believe it." And I said to him, "No, I think you may have actually been onto something here with how it all turned out."

There were other things in your book that are riveting, and I'm not sure how much reporting there has been on this. I'm talking about the post-election period, when  the Biden team actually had these doomsday scenarios. Take us through a little bit of that. I've not heard that talked about in detail.

Yeah. I mean, it's funny. I was reporting this book for four years and there were a lot of conversations that I was having with people that were embargoed until the book came out. The Obama conversation — why isn't he doing more? Why isn't he more worried? And I would say, like, I know actually some of what's happening. This was another piece of it that I had heard a little bit about before the election, but it wasn't until after the election that the people involved were willing to talk to me more about it. Starting from not long after Biden sealed the nomination, and certainly from about this point last year, there was a lot of work going on, about 600 lawyers around the country who were secretly putting together essentially template briefs.

They had war-gamed all the scenarios that, OK, what happens if there's this close result in Arizona, or they try to make this kind of claim in Georgia or wherever. All the different things that Trump's lawyers, whether it's his Justice Department or his allies and state parties could try to bring to court. They also had done a war-gaming of what the election certification process would look like and had been talking about it, Biden's lawyers with Nancy Pelosi's and Chuck Schumer's lawyers leading up to Jan. 6.

And they had gotten as far as like, what happens if in the middle of it, Mike Pence, because he's presiding over this, pulls out a separate slate of electors from his pocket? Literally. And what if he refuses to recognize people from the floor, one of the parliamentary procedures? They had that all mapped out. What they didn't have mapped out is that there would be thousands of violent protesters storming the Capitol. They did not anticipate that. There's this moment in the book where Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, all the leaders are together, Kevin McCarthy is there too. But the three of them say, OK, we've got to make this happen now — that's why they move so quickly that night to get everything certified. And McCarthy is not part of that conversation. They kind of don't invite him in because they think he's off on his own place on it. But they had the basis from all these preparations that they'd done. Again, everything short of a violent mob storming the Capitol.

You close the book with Joe Biden, talking about making his late son proud. Share a little bit about who Joe Biden is as a person, his humanity, his empathy?

I started covering Joe Biden when he was vice president. I spent a lot of time with him, interviewed him on a couple of occasions. Two of those interviews are in the book. One of those was one of his final interviews as vice president. There was a week before Trump's inauguration, and he's sitting in his office in the West Wing. The second one is where the book ends. It's two weeks into his presidency, at the beginning of February. For that one, he was in the Oval Office. It was still COVID restrictions, so I was on the phone talking to him. I've been around the country with him on the campaign trail, and when he was VP. There is no more human person, I would say, than Joe Biden who has been elected president in modern history. 

The sense of loss that he carries with him always is really, really important. Of course, there's the tragedy in 1972, when he was not even sworn in as a senator, that car crash that killed his wife and his baby daughter, and that put his two sons in the hospital. And then what happened with Beau Biden, who died in 2015 of brain cancer. That devastated Biden. I was there covering the funeral. Every time I talk about it, I get goosebumps because there was this moment where everybody was in the church and the Biden family — it's like a clan, it's so many people and they're very close. The hearse pulls up and they're all walking together and Biden is at the center of it, leading them.

There's an interview with Beau Biden that I did in 2012. I knew him just a little bit. But there was a general feeling that Beau Biden was kind of like Joe Biden. He'd gone and served in the National Guard and done all these things. And Joe Biden had definitely wanted to be president of the United States for a long time. There's this quick story in the book when he's leaving a job in the early '70s. He gives somebody a stapler and he says, "Oh, I'm going to be president one day. Hold on to that." 

He ran for president in 1988. He almost ran a couple of other times. He ran in 2008. He had kind of given up running and had thought, "I'm transferring the dreams to Beau, to my son. It'll be President Beau Biden." By the way, Beau's full name was Joseph R. Biden III. Joe Biden is Joe Biden Jr. And then the cancer hit Beau and he died. In the summer of 2015, Biden was thinking about running, in part as a coping mechanism for himself, and in part to carry Beau's legacy. He was too overcome with grief, in part, that was why he didn't run in 2016. Through 2020, Beau is always with him in every way. He's always thinking about him. In one of the debates with Trump, they saw something on his sleeve. It was Beau's rosary that he was wearing. When there was that article that ran in the Atlantic about Trump calling the military suckers and losers, Biden carries a gold star with him that the Delaware National Guard gave him.

Beau was in the Delaware National Guard. He was not killed in battle, so in this case it's an honorary thing. Biden took it out of his pocket because he was so mad that day. And then at the end, in that final interview, I said to him, "Well, what do you think Beau would think about this?" And that's the way the book ends. I'm reluctant to do a spoiler here, but you see all of that really building with him and this deep emotional connection that runs through family and politics and blood and legacy and everything.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

MORE FROM Dean Obeidallah