Exactly a year ago, Donald Trump told us exactly who he was and how far he would go

On Sept. 23, 2020, I asked a simple question: Would the 45th president commit to a peaceful transfer of power?

By Brian Karem


Published September 23, 2021 9:20AM (EDT)

Former President Donald J Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former President Donald J Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

At first, I couldn't believe what the president said.

My question was quite simple — and I anticipated a simple answer. I sought reassurance that whatever else, a peaceful transfer of power after an election — one of the cornerstones of the American experience that has made us unique, a fundamental example of why other nations look up to us — was not up for debate.

Since George Washington gave up the reins of power and retired to his farm, like an American Cincinnatus, the peaceful transfer of power from president to president has been an example the rest of the world respects and has emulated.

We have taken this for granted. Donald Trump treated this tradition as personal toilet paper.

Whatever else happened during the four years that Donald Trump was president, I expected him and the GOP to uphold this American tradition. Hence, one year ago, on Sept. 23, 2020, I asked Donald Trump whether, come "win, lose or draw," he would accept a peaceful transfer of power. Until he came along, I would never have thought to ask a president such a question. I might as well have asked if they intended to continue breathing.

But Trump was different. The time was different. That briefing, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House, came during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The White House press corps had voluntarily reduced our numbers to just 14, in a room that routinely had hosted as many as 110 reporters during Trump's tenure in the White House. Trump, through his press secretary, had routinely skirted this mandate by inviting "guests" from favored news organizations to stand at the back of the room and ask questions. I routinely showed up to counter-program the Trump lackeys.

On the day in question last year, someone with an assigned seat didn't show up for the presidential briefing and rather than allowing a Trump acolyte to take the open seat — which was the last seat in the last row — I took it myself.

Mind you, I did not believe Trump would call on me. He and I had a past. I had sued him to keep my press pass. He'd called me "fake news" and "that Playboy guy," and had told me to sit down and shut up on several occasions. Once he threatened to walk out of a news conference in the Rose Garden if I didn't shut up. I didn't, and he didn't walk out. He took the question while complaining the whole time.

On Sept. 23, 2020, he surprised me again. Not only did he take my question, but he picked me first and I did not hesitate. The only issue on the minds of millions of Americans then was whether or not Trump would respect the results of the upcoming election. What Trump said to me and told the nation that day was the match that lit the fire leading to the "Big Lie," an insurrection, one dead rioter, dead and beaten Capitol Police officers, and a nation that is still divided, sore and angry. More importantly, Trump has never admitted that he lost the election and he threatens our democracy daily.

No one should be surprised.

Everyone should be outraged.

But some, including high-ranking members of the Republican Party, continue to defend Trump and millions of Americans still believe him — no matter what they saw on television, no matter what they were told in news reports and no matter what the reality is.

Kellyanne Conway described this phenomenon as "alternative facts" and that is where millions of Americans, courtesy of a consummate con man, dwell today — in the gray nether regions of a constructed fiction where Trump and his minions believe he won; where taking a de-worming drug designed by scientists for horses is preferable to taking a vaccine designed by scientists for humans and where Trump is universally respected and/or feared by the leaders of the rest of the world — and where only he can save us.

Trump came closer than most of us know to staging a coup, even after he warned us about that last September. Recent news reports and a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa highlight a six-point plan for Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the 2020 election results. 

Other news reports show that Trump and his team knew shortly after the election that there was no basis for challenging its results, and that Sen. Lindsey Graham apparently thought the arguments proposed to challenge the election results amounted to the logic of a "third grader." Still they lied to us.

Now we know what Trump meant when I asked him last year if he would "commit to a peaceful transferal of power after the election." This is what he said:

"We're going to have to see what happens. I've been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster. . . get rid of the ballots . . . and there won't be a transfer, frankly, they'll be a continuation. The ballots are out of control. You know it . . ."

"No I don't," I replied.

Trump's traitorous, convoluted and muddy thinking, his flash over substance, his obfuscation of facts and his total disregard for the truth and decency was horrifying then and has largely overwhelmed American politics now.

There are those so convinced that Trump got screwed in the 2020 election that they'll defend the treasonous actions of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6, while at the same time denying that Trump whipped them into a frenzy or that they were in a frenzy at all. With the same breath, there are those who will say the insurrection was a peaceful protest, an FBI, Black Lives Matter or antifa violent action, that it did not occur or was justified or — shudder — was even patriotic. The actions of that day were the actions of domestic terrorists. I was there. I witnessed it.

Look where we are now. 

Division. Denial of facts. It was all there in the statement Trump made. He provided the roadmap to an insurrection on Sept. 23, 2020. People followed it. People died.

A year later, the United States looks even more lost than it was a year ago.

Donald Trump doesn't care. He wants to bring it all down and is trying to run a shadow presidency as he ridicules everything Joe Biden does.

Make no mistake. Biden has his faults. His handling of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Haitian problem on the border and the alliance with Australia and the U.K., which has created major friction with France, are all wounds that have been self-inflicted and damaging.

But Biden respects the Constitution, and anyone with a modicum of intelligence can see he is trying to work for all of us, not just himself. He has rallied to get Congress and the country to unify — working hard to get a bipartisan infrastructure package passed and constantly urging Americans to come together as he pushes hard for voting rights and increased taxes on the rich.

Trump never did that and never could. A year after he fanned the flame of insurrection in a White House briefing, we can clearly see the consequences of those actions. The threat of a coup was real — spurred by Trump's disregard for truth, an obsession with being branded a loser and a narcissistic view of the universe that boils down to this: For Donald Trump, we don't matter. Only his own desires matter. 

As Kurt Bardella wrote recently in USA Today, "We cannot let our guard down. … Today's GOP has patterned itself after extreme and radical factions. Despots who are intent on normalizing violence to achieve their political objectives."

These actions in the GOP are rooted in Donald Trump's words. After he became president, Trump found levers to pull that sated his twisted needs for self-glory and adulation. He is addicted to that. His putrid, warped sense of self cannot permit him to let go and he continues to try and pull us down into the toilet with him.

In the 1993 western "Tombstone," Doc Holliday (played by Val Kilmer) is asked what makes a man like Johnny Ringo, the film's villain. "A man like Ringo has got a great big hole right in the middle of him," he says. "He can never kill enough or steal enough or inflict enough pain to ever fill it."

Like Johnny Ringo, Donald Trump seeks revenge — for being born.

A year after he told us, in response to my question about the election, how he would bend reality to suit his needs, he still tries. Since he has had some success in retaining his base (and more importantly for him, in raising money), there are other Republicans following his act.

United we stand. Divided we fall. Trump is the king of division. For the rest of us to stand he must fall. He must be prosecuted. He must be culled from the body politic.

Only then can we possibly hope to address "Trumpism."

Trump showed us his hand a year ago. Time is long overdue to show him the back of ours.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

MORE FROM Brian Karem

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Coup Donald Trump Elections Jan. 6 Media White House Press Corps