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Karl's new book 'Betrayal' begins where 'Front Row at the Trump Show' left off

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Despite all that's been written about the last days of the Trump administration, new books keep offering new details. Jonathan Karl's book "Betrayal" reveals a lot about Trump's final days, and many of its key points come from on-the-record interviews and documents. One theme of the book is Trump's purge of officials in the months before he tried to overturn the 2020 election.

JONATHAN KARL: No disloyalty of the president would be tolerated. No dissent would be tolerated. So I believe that, in some ways, he ensured that when Donald Trump, in those final weeks of his administration, those final couple of months when he took his darkest turn, there was nobody around to rein him in or to question what he was doing.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Karl is the White House correspondent for ABC News. He's covered Donald Trump about as long as anybody in the White House press corps. They first met decades ago when Karl was a young newspaper reporter in New York. This is now his second book on Trump. "Betrayal" spends much time on a man who conducted some of the personnel purges before the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Johnny McEntee was a Trump aide with scant experience who, at Trump's behest, went after the secretary of defense.

KARL: McEntee got Mark Esper fired. He got not just Mark Esper but virtually the entire civilian leadership under Esper. These were Republican appointees.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KARL: These are Donald Trump's people, but McEntee had - and Trump himself - had deemed them disloyal because, for instance, Esper had opposed using U.S. troops to crack down on protesters around the country. He had pushed the banning of the Confederate flag on U.S. military bases. And they believed that Esper was, you know, basically a never-Trumper in their view, part of the deep state.

INSKEEP: They also believed that Esper was too critical of Russia, if I'm not mistaken.

KARL: Yes, yes. I have an amazing document that I uncovered in the course of reporting on this book. It's a little over a page. It's from Johnny McEntee's PPO, Presidential Personnel Office, and it lists Esper's sins against Donald Trump. And those sins include that when he was - you know, when he was nominated, he said that he didn't want to - he wouldn't be political in the job. That's a sin. That's a sin in their view. That he was pushing the department to be tough on Russia, that's a sin. And again, it wasn't just Esper. The top official for intelligence at DOD was fired. The director of policy, a very powerful position, was fired. The chief of staff at the Pentagon was fired. They were all fired the Monday after the election. You know, remember; Saturday is when Biden was declared the president-elect by most news organizations. That Monday, the purge happened. They were all gone.

INSKEEP: What would you say to someone listening who asks, why does this all matter now? It's all over; it's all in the past.

KARL: It matters, Steve, because there is an aggressive effort underway - and unfortunately, to some degree, a successful effort - to erase the memory of January 6 and to diminish its importance and to brush aside what this president did with this - what Donald Trump did to try to prevent what is the essence of democracy, American democracy, a peaceful transition of power.

INSKEEP: If you think about how different Republicans responded on January 6 - of course, Vice President Mike Pence refused to play the role that had been scripted for him in trying to overturn the election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to object to the election results that he knew were legitimate. Kevin McCarthy, the leader of Republicans in the House, took a different course, and you, according to this book, had an opportunity to talk with him a few days beforehand. How and where did that come about?

KARL: This is a remarkable scene and particularly in light of what happened in the coming days. I was taking a walk on the National Mall on January 2. It was a beautiful day. It was a Saturday. It was about shortly before sunset. And I ran into Kevin McCarthy, and I ended up walking with him almost the entire length of the mall. I've known him for a long time. And I asked him what he was going to do on January 6 'cause all these other Republicans were saying they were going to challenge the election results, but McCarthy himself had not stated his position.

And I said, you have a really profound opportunity here to speak out because you are the leader of the House Republicans. If you come out and you say, this is all nonsense, you can have a real impact. And I said, you know - and we're walking on the mall, and I pointed to some - you know, all the monuments. I was like - I said, you know, who knows? If you do the right thing, it could really matter. I mean, maybe - and this is exaggeration, but I was doing it for a point. I said, you know, who knows? Maybe there'll be a statue of you out here someday. And he laughed at me, and he said, where's the statue for Jeff Flake? Where's the statue for that guy from Tennessee, referring to Bob Corker? You know, those two Republican senators who stood up and called out Donald Trump and were rewarded with political obscurity.

And his point was that if he did that, it was going to kill his political career just when he was on the cusp of potentially becoming speaker of the House. And he also said - he tried to tell me that he had kept Trump close to him, and by doing so, he had been able to keep him from doing things that would have been more damaging.

INSKEEP: What do we make of that now? Because he really could be speaker of the House of Representatives. We're heading into an election year. The House is very closely divided. Republicans have an excellent chance of taking over.

KARL: So I also had a couple of interviews with Trump for this book. This is after Trump left office. But one of the things that struck me is the bitterness that Donald Trump has towards Republican leaders, including Kevin McCarthy. So Kevin McCarthy has basically, you know, sacrificed his principles for Donald Trump. You know, he joined the objectors. He actually objected even after the riot when they came back in. So how does Donald Trump repay that loyalty? He was bitter. He said to me - Trump said to me that if Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy did what they should have done, we would still have a Republican president. And I don't know what will happen if Republicans, as very well may happen, win control of the House, and Kevin McCarthy stands for speaker. What does Donald Trump do? Does Donald Trump try to take him down? And does he support somebody else for speaker? I think it's a very real possibility.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Karl covers the White House for ABC News, and his new book is called "Betrayal." Pleasure talking with you. Thanks.

KARL: Steve, great to talk to you. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUDUAYA'S "PATIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.