The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind
By Ben Terris
Twelve; hardcover, 352 pages; $30.00
Ben Terris is a writer in the renowned Style section The Washington Post, with a focus on national politics. In his new book, The Big Break, he investigates how Washington works in a post-President Donald Trump American government, as he uncovers the odd and eccentric personalities grappling for their own bit of power in Washington.
Trump's arrival in Washington in January 2017 represented a big break (hence the title of this tome) in how the city, known locally as the District, operated. Since he pledged to "drain the swamp," he surrounded himself with outsiders and power structures reorganized around those who knew Trump or his family and those who could flatter and influence his base.
During Trump's four years in office, he changed the way "the game" was played, only it wasn't really a game at all. When pro-Trump elements both inside and outside of government plotted to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election, the Capitol became a combat zone, then a military fortress.
It was, to put it mildly, a destabilizing time in D.C. Terris sets out to answer the following questions: How much did the Trump years really change Washington? Has Joe Biden's presidency heralded a return to normal, as many had hoped? What did 'normal' mean before Trumo, and what do people think it means now?
This is an inside story of Washington at this crucial moment under President Biden, as Terris provides reporting from exclusive parties, poker nights, fundraisers, secluded farms outside town and the halls of Congress. It is filled with oddballs, opportunists, and true believers, including a pollster with a gambling habit, an oil heiress with a big heart, a cowboy lobbyist, a Republican kingmaker who decided to love Trump and his right-hand man who made the choice that he couldn't any longer
There are people who see this moment as a chance to bet big, both on their country and possibly on themselves. Terris talks to behind-the-scenes players, from MAGA pilgrims to Resistance flamekeepers, who believe they know what Washington, and America at large, must do if they're going to survive or thrive.
The Big Break takes a close look at how Washington's bold-faced names try to get their bearings in this post-Trump, or is that between-Trump administrations, landscape.
In this excerpt, Terris writes, "What is normal?
That was a common question after four years of Donald Trump in Washington. 'This is not normal,' people would say when the leader of the free world raged at his own Justice Department, or undermined civil servants, or appeased bigots, or winked at conspiracy theorists, or palled around with geopolitical adversaries, or profited from his office, or told the American people blatant falsehoods over and over again. 'Don't normalize this,' admonished the admonishers. Nevertheless, Official Washington rearranged their habits around Trump's personality. The opportunists went on television to lobby a president addicted to cable news. They sucked up to a praise-starved man in hopes of avoiding a 'mean tweet' that could sink their business prospects or political aspirations. They wore ugly red hats and changed their opinions about free trade. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was spotted moving his hands during speeches - as if playing an invisible accordion - just like Trump did.
When Joe Biden ran for president, he offered a selling point that was rare for political campaigns: a return to business as usual. After he won, Washington residents cheered from their balconies and banged pots and pans and honked their car horns. It was a catharsis, Victory Day for normality. But the war wasn't over. Two months later, Trump supporters led a violent siege of the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the peaceful transition of power. A coup attempt was thwarted, and Biden did assume his rightful office, but the odds of a return to normalcy were difficult to determine.
The future was a blind bet, and I spent the first year watching people place their wager. I did interviews with President Biden's Covid response team as they prepared to declare 'independence' from the pandemic on July 4th, and then watched the Delta and Omicron variants keep that mission from being accomplished. I met retiring Democrat Representative John Yarmuth for an interview in his Capitol Hill office, and the Kentuckian described to me a recent argument on the House floor - between the progressive Mark Pocan, of Wisconsin, and the more moderate John Garamendi, of California - that he said nearly turned into a physical fight. ('John was basically telling Mark to get his head out of his ass,' Yarmuth explained to me.) Things were tense, he said. He drank a Dixie cup of whiskey during the interview; it was 2:30 p.m.
I watched Republicans take a step away from Trump after the insurrection, then watched them run back once they decided denouncing those lies was bad politics. I watched corporations stop donating to Trump allies who voted against certifying the election and then watched them start again. I heard MAGA diehards like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the conspiracy theory fan turned bigoted blogger turned Georgia congresswoman, double down on the Trump election lies that had inspired the attack on the Capitol. I heard Dan Crenshaw, the Republican congressman from Texas, dismiss Greene as a performance artist who specialized in 'self-inflicted contoversy followed by claims of victimhood.'
'She lucked her way into Congress,' Crenshaw told me. 'She says crazy things. And yet is looked up to. Why? What are we doing, guys?'
What some lawmakers were doing was trying to make federal legislation bipartisan again. The summer after Biden's inauguration, Senator Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat told me about how a group of senators who were trying to wrap up an infrastructure bill had bonded as party guests on Joe Manchin's houseboat, docked in a D.C. marina. Somebody else told me a story about Texas Senator Ted Cruz polishing off three beers in a matter of minutes while posing like Captain Morgan and chatting with a liberal colleague on Joe Manchin's houseboat. Another person told me an anecdote about Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski bursting into a chorus of 'God Bless America' as she beheld the sight of the Washington skyline from the deck of Joe Manchin's houseboat.
Senators schmoozing: That was normal, right? So was intraparty jousting: Manchin eventually helped sink Build Back Better, the huge bill that Biden hoped would guide his progressive agenda through Congress. Meanwhile, there was a lot of hand-wringing about Biden's diminishing poll numbers and his advancing age. Trump and his lies had not gone away. Neither had the coronavirus. The pandemic had knocked the supply chain out of whack. Inflation was on the rise. For all his year-one wins - pandemic relief money, infrastructure, judicial appointments - Biden had failed to make things normal again. Even those who hadn't soured on him began to wonder whether it might be time to consider an alternative candidate for 2024, especially with Trump lying in wait to retake the White House.
In February 2022, I walked into the White House to talk to Jen Psaki, then Biden's press secretary. She had no reason to believe Biden wouldn't run again, she said. And yet it had been a topic of conversation in her own home.
Her brother-in-law had come over for dinner recently, and Psaki had joked that she hoped there was a secret meeting happening 'in a basement somewhere' to figure out a plan in case Biden didn't run, she told me.
'And he looked at me,' she said, 'and was like, 'Should we be having that meeting now?'"