He Exposed the D.C. Swamp. Now He's Taking on Trump's Biggest Sycophants

He Exposed the D.C. Swamp. Now He's Taking on Trump's Biggest Sycophants

July 11, 2022

I met Mark Leibovich on a Friday in June in exactly the sort of place I’d expect to find him: At BLT Steak, a power lunch spot three blocks from the White House in the heart of downtown D.C. The honeyed wood paneling, sienna leather, and $34 wagyu steak salad screamed “This Town,” shorthand for the circle jerk of Washington lobbyists, lawmakers, and lackeys who ostensibly run our global superpower. Leibovich had chronicled this milieu of Washington in a 2013 bestseller by the same name, and when Donald Trump steamrolled into town in January 2017, he undertook a sequel, Thank You For Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission, out on July 12. 

And how was the journalist responsible for popularizing “This Town” feeling about it after four years of Donald Trump?

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“I’m absolutely tired of this story, no question,” he sighs. “I’ve been tired of the Trump story for a long, long time.” 

There’s no shock to this revelation after reading through Leibovich’s latest. He’d set out to write a This Town for the Trump era, only to discover the deep cynicism at the premise of his 2013 hit wouldn’t cut it for his encore. “This Town, in retrospect, feels like a comedy of manners,” he says. “That premise was way too light.”  Instead, he produced a “less fun book,” one that chronicles how Trump “turned the swamp into his own gold-plated Jacuzzi,” as he writes in the book’s introduction, and how the characters of This Town capitulated to Trumpism to preserve their livelihoods.

“This is not a Trump book,” he says. “This is a book about people that permitted it.”

His publisher had suggested BLT Steak as the setting for our conversation, as a stand-in for its (now-defunct) sister restaurant that had been inside the (also-defunct) Trump International Hotel in the Old Post Office Building in downtown Washington (which you may recall from the nation’s debate over whether spending at the hotel by powerful foreign interests constituted “emoluments”). Leibovich had frequented the hotel hangout as he researched the book, going there “for pure journalism reasons or anthropological reasons or sadistic reasons,” he explains. It was a good perch for spotting Rudy Giuliani or the Trump children. That the shrimp cocktail was decent was one of the few upsides.

The only parallels to the Trump Hotel location were the (also decent) shrimp cocktail we shared and Leibovich’s dispirited outlook on the state of American politics. “It keeps perpetuating because people allow it,” Leibovich laments through sips of Diet Coke. “People who know better allow it, the voters allow it, the Republican Party allows it.” His tone is laced with both gravity and exasperation. “It was harder to find the fun in this. I mean, I’m not sure I even looked that hard.”

In the days after Trump’s 2016 shock victory, Leibovich considered that a reality star president who had once spanked a porn star with a magazine cover bearing his own face could actually be a good thing. “Maybe this was the shock to the system This Town needed,” Leibovich says of his thought process. Hadn’t This Town, after all, been a damning account of the capital’s creatures of comfort, of Republicans and Democrats who performed partisanship and public service as they gained wealth and fame doing neither? The delusion departed as quickly as it had arrived. “Oh, Michael Flynn is going to be the National Security Advisor? Never mind.”

I am one of many young(ish) political journalists not ashamed to confess This Town inspired my decision to join the profession. The book had pierced the veil of political propriety to reveal Washington for what it is: a sycophantic symphony of self-promoters who line their pockets and professional reputations at the expense, very often, of the American voter. It was character assassination that wielded ethnography as the weapon — not earth-shattering scoops revealing malfeasance, but the human peculiarities that enabled misconduct in the first place. And, as compared to many of Leibovich’s staid New York Times colleagues who produced said scoops, it was fun to read. (I disclose this so you know, in other words, the effort I required to avoid a full impression of Chris Farley’s sweaty SNL interview of Paul McCartney.) 

But when I finally arrived in Washington in the fall of 2017, I didn’t recognize it as the city described in the pages of Leibovich’s book. The Trump Show had been on air for nearly eight months; that particular week’s episode featured the 45th president hollering at a little boy as he mowed the White House lawn. Leibovich saw something more sinister: The rituals of This Town still applied — in particular, the time-tested practice of swapping proximity to power (Cabinet member, senior administration official, congressional confidante) for financial gain (cable news commentator, best-selling tell-all, speaking engagements).

“It was basically people speaking the same language of This Town — self-perpetuation, staying well-fed, building your brand,” Leibovich explains. “The difference now is that the stakes are higher and the end game is terrifying.”

Few exemplify this exchange in Leibovich’s telling as vividly as Reince Priebus, the former Republican National Committee chairman whose “self-preservation” strategy” was six months as Trump’s chief of staff, “a decent minimum tenure he could cash in on for life.” Ditto Lindsey Graham, who permitted Trump bullying as proof of his relevance, the coin of Capitol Hill greenrooms. “The degree to which they will just so blatantly lay out for you — the way they’re playing the president of the United States, how easy it is to get what you want from him — was quite something,” Leibovich says. “But I don’t think readers appreciate it fully.”

The “end game,” of course, is the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the greatest test of the union since the Civil War. Leibovich’s portraits of the Trump toadies give way to several chapters on that dark day, lingering with care to illustrate just how the GOP enabled a temper-prone president as he attempted a coup. “Republicans became the party that made Trump possible and refused to stop him, even after the U.S. Capitol fell under the control of some madman in a Viking hat,” he writes.

The sober telling still leaves room for Leibovich’s characteristic wryness, but it’s employed differently and, often, for darker contemplations. One memorable example finds Leibovich comparing Trump to an “opossum that gets into the attic, dies, stinks, and attracts derivative nuisances.” He takes a beat to recognize that “It’s probably disrespectful” to compare the office of the presidency to a rotting varmint, but he can’t find the energy to care. “I used to be mindful of these things,” he writes. “Color me worn down.”

If Leibovich sounds like a man who might abandon the Washington story once and for all, he sort of is. There’s a part of me that wants to jump off and cover the NBA or something else entirely,” he admits at one point. (He won’t, but the impulse was understandable: His beloved Boston Celtics had lost the NBA championship the night before we spoke, an outcome that had left him “thoroughly depressed.”)

I ask Leibovich why, given his obvious disillusionment, he continues to write about politics — why not take another break, as he did with Big Game, his book about the NFL, and cover something else instead? For now, he’ll stick with it, in part out of a sense of duty. “You do the story that feels important,” he explains. “I could be dispirited as hell about his story, but that doesn’t make it any less important.”

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