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Republicans suggested invoking the 25th Amendment after Jan. 6 — but failed to act

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You know the audiotapes recently released of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recorded in the days after the attack on the Capitol? In a January 10 recorded phone call, McCarthy said he was thinking of asking Trump to resign. In another part of the call, McCarthy expressed his concern about extremist rhetoric from Republican lawmakers and said he didn't want to look back and think, quote, "we caused something or we missed something and someone got hurt." Those tapes and more were obtained by my guests, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, as part of their reporting for their new book, "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, And The Battle For America's Future." They describe their book as being in part about how telling Trump what he wanted to hear became a way of life for an entire political party and how the gulf between what Republican leaders said privately about Trump and their public deference had gone unchallenged for half a decade. Martin and Burns are national correspondent for The New York Times and political analysts for CNN. Our interview was recorded yesterday.

Jonathan Martin, Alex Burns, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start with one of the tapes, and this is part of the phone call on January 10 with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise, the second-ranking House Republican, and Liz Cheney, the House member who has stood firm in her denunciation of Trump's behavior and is serving on the House Select Committee investigating January 6. Also on the call is Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, head of the Republican House Campaign Committee. And a number of aides are on the call as well. So set the scene. What's the context for this phone call?

ALEXANDER BURNS: Terry, this is a few days after the January 6 attack, and the Capitol is still in shock. The Congress is still recovering from violent assault on the seat of American government. Washington is in a quasi-military lockdown. President Trump has mostly vanished from public view, but the reverberations from his actions on January 6 are shaking the Republican Party from top to bottom. And this conversation between the Republican leaders in the House is one of the most candid and wrenching explorations within the GOP of what on Earth they're going to do about Donald Trump. And the sense, even from Kevin McCarthy, who has been for four years one of Trump's most loyal and subservient allies, is that something has to be done about this man.

GROSS: This clip starts with Liz Cheney, referring to part of the conversation about the 25th Amendment, which would mean removing Trump by invoking the 25th Amendment. And the tape actually starts with Kevin McCarthy just making sure that Liz Cheney is on the phone. After Liz Cheney asks about the 25th Amendment, Kevin McCarthy starts talking about impeachment and whether it will pass. So here's the tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: Liz, you on the phone?

LIZ CHENEY: Yeah, I'm here. Thanks, Kevin. I guess there's a question - when we were talking about the 25th Amendment resolution...

MCCARTHY: Yeah.

CHENEY: ...And you asked, you know, what happens if it gets there after he's gone, is there any chance you're hearing that he might resign? Is there any reason to think that might happen?

MCCARTHY: I've had a few discussions. My gut tells me no. I'm seriously thinking of having that conversation with him tonight. I haven't talked to him in a couple days. From what I know of him - I mean, you guys all know him, too. Do you think he'd ever back away? But what I think I'm going to do is I'm going to call him. This is what I think - we know it'll pass the House. I think there's a chance it'll pass the Senate, even when he's gone. And I think there's a lot of different ramifications for that. Now, I haven't had a discussion with the Dems that if he did resign, would that happen? Now, this is one personal fear I have. I do not want to get into any conversations about Pence pardoning - again, the only discussion I would have with him is that I think this will pass. And it would be my recommendation he should resign. I mean, that would be my take. But I don't think he would take it. But I don't know.

GROSS: So McCarthy was saying in this tape that he was thinking of calling Trump and recommending that he resign. What is the significance of hearing McCarthy say that?

JONATHAN MARTIN: It illustrates how desperate the Republican Party was in this period, the days and hours after the attack of January 6, and how they saw President Trump as a potentially fatal political liability for their party and the urgency they had to address what they saw as this liability. And the larger issue, Terry, here is that it captures this vast gulf between what Republican leaders say in private about Donald Trump and what they offer in public when the cameras are on and their constituents are watching and listening. And those are two very different things.

And the last thing I say is, for nearly seven years now, the Republican Party's leaders have been looking for a moment to rid themselves of Donald Trump, not all of them but most of them. And this is just one more episode, obviously a historically significant one, but one more episode during that seven-year period in which the party's leaders said, maybe this is the one, maybe he's gone too far, maybe we can use this opportunity to excommunicate this figure who has effectively staged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

GROSS: The tape that we just heard starts with Liz Cheney referring back to the 25th Amendment. Had they been discussing in an early part of the call invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office?

BURNS: Terry, it's one of several options that they have discussed on this call or that they're about to discuss on this call. You know, after he initially lied and said that he didn't say anything like this, what Kevin McCarthy eventually acknowledged is, yes, he did say this. And it was part of a conversation where they were sort of brainstorming, speaking freely about things that they might do. And there's a lot of truth to that, as we reported in our initial story. They talk about the 25th Amendment. They talk about censuring Donald Trump. They talk about impeachment. And the one moment on the call where Kevin McCarthy says, I think I'm going to do this is when he's talking about resignation. But you hear him and you hear the others - Liz Cheney, Tom Emmer, Steve Scalise and their aides - really wrestling with what their options might be.

And overshadowing the whole conversation is the reality that they all know at this point that Donald Trump is a dangerous person to have in the White House, that he is not going to give up power peacefully. He's already sabotaged the peaceful transition to the next president but also that their own voters remain largely loyal to Donald Trump. At least that's their intuition at that point. That will become clearer and clearer in the weeks following this conversation. But the reason why they're tiptoeing around what to do about Donald Trump is because none of them has the confidence that if they take on this president directly, voters will reward them for it.

GROSS: And although McCarthy says that he's considering calling Trump and telling him he should resign, McCarthy never follows through on that.

MARTIN: Right. McCarthy has said publicly in the aftermath of this tape being released that he did not call President Trump and urge him to resign. And we spoke to President Trump at Mar-a-Lago in April of 2021 in the months immediately after he left the presidency. Trump denigrated McCarthy and said that this sort of tough-guy posture that McCarthy projected after January 6 about Trump and about Trump's inciting the riot in the Capitol was very different from what McCarthy was saying to Trump in private. And when we asked former President Trump, well, how do you explain that, like, why is McCarthy projecting this sort of tough-talking image about how he told you off about January 6, Trump told us two words - inferiority complex.

GROSS: What do you think Trump meant by that?

MARTIN: I think that he views Kevin McCarthy as a weak individual, somebody who is more of a supplicant than a peer. And look - Donald Trump preys on weakness, and he relishes the opportunity to humiliate people, whether they're his allies or his adversaries.

GROSS: Well, let's hear another tape. And this is from the days after January 6, and this is Kevin McCarthy talking about Trump and saying that he'd asked Trump if he felt responsible for the attack on the Capitol. So is there anything you want to say to set the scene for this call?

BURNS: Terry, this is a conversation with a much, much larger group of Republican lawmakers. So the call that we just heard was on January 10, and it was just with the senior team of Republican leaders in the House. What we're about to hear is a conversation the following day with the entire House Republican conference. So that's a couple hundred lawmakers, including the most moderate members of the party and the most extreme-right members of the party, who are still Trump diehards and who are still out there stoking anger and paranoia about the 2020 election. So McCarthy is speaking to a much larger audience, and I think you hear in his voice a sense that he does want to stay sort of on the right side of his team, collectively, while still saying something disapproving of Trump.

GROSS: OK, so here's the tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCARTHY: But let me be very clear to all of you, and I've been very clear to the president. He bears responsibility for his words and actions - no ifs, ands or buts. I asked him personally today, does he hold responsibility for what happened? Does he feel bad about what happened? He told me he does have some responsibility for what happened. And he need to acknowledge that.

GROSS: What do you think is the significance of what McCarthy is saying there?

MARTIN: Terry, I would make two points. One, you can tell he's talking to the larger audience of the entire House GOP conference because of the tone he's taking and the way he's delivering that presentation. You can hear him reading from the talking points in front of him. And he's taking a sort of tougher tone about President Trump to the House GOP conference because, at that point, he had a lot of angry members who wanted some kind of accountability for President Trump. They wanted to make a statement that what he did was not acceptable in inciting the violence of January 6. But, of course, McCarthy is straining to portray President Trump and his conversations with President Trump as something they are not.

You know, of course, this president is not going to take responsibility for his conduct before and during January 6. That's fantasy. But in that moment, McCarthy is trying to placate a House Republican conference that's angry, that wants the then-president to face some accountability. But it's a moment in time, Terry, and the moment passes quickly. And once McCarthy sees his flock, his members, drifting back to Trump or just not caring that much about January 6, generally, he moves back and embraces Trump, McCarthy does.

GROSS: You know, my impression of these tapes is that they're recorded at a time when lawmakers are still feeling the fear of January 6, hearing gunshots, knowing that the whole Capitol's being attacked, that they have to be evacuated, that their lives are in jeopardy. And once that fear just kind of slowly vanishes over time, then it's kind of business as usual. Is that your impression?

BURNS: Terry, I think I would present that a little bit differently in that the sense of urgency, at least among Republicans, that something had to be done about Donald Trump does fade. And for some of them, it fades very, very quickly, including, obviously, Kevin McCarthy. The sense of danger and the atmosphere of menace and of incipient violence does not fade that quickly. One of the things that struck us over and over again was how many lawmakers in both parties - different ages, different ideological orientations - expressed to us a sense of real fear. And we're talking deep into 2021; this is not just in the immediate aftermath of January 6. The death threats they received, the harassment online and by phone - some people told us stories of, you know, being harassed face to face in their home districts, needing to get police cars stationed at the end of their driveways back home because of the volume of death threats coming in.

I think this is something that the American people don't totally grasp right now because these lawmakers are pretty reluctant, understandably, to talk about this. But the mood on Capitol Hill, even today, is so starkly different and so much tenser than it was even a year and a half ago, when things were not exactly warm and friendly up there. January 6 has cast a very, very long shadow over our government.

GROSS: Well, I want to ask you more about that, but first, we have to take a break. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guests are Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, authors of the new book "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, And The Battle For America's Future." They're both national correspondents from The New York Times. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "DERVISH")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, national correspondents for The New York Times and authors of the new book "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, And The Battle For America's Future."

Well, you're talking about how there's still a lot of fear in Congress about the hostility being directed at lawmakers and that they - some of them need protection. They've been threatened. So this leads to another tape that you released, and this is Kevin McCarthy in that same phone call that we started with, with Liz Cheney and Steve Scalise. And he's talking about his concern about Republican lawmakers' rhetoric. Do you want to set up this call before we hear the excerpt?

MARTIN: So this is important to note that he's speaking to the small group of just House GOP leaders, not the full conference. So he's much more candid. He's not, you know, evidently reading from written talking points. And he's much more confrontational, frankly, in talking about how he's about to have some difficult conversations with some of the more difficult members of the House GOP conference.

GROSS: OK. So here's Kevin McCarthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCARTHY: The other thing that we have to do is these members on either - whatever position you are, calling out other members, that stuff's got to stop, especially in this nature. So when I get off right here, I'm going to call Gaetz. But anything else we see, don't assume I see everything, don't assume I know everything. But we've got to have one central point. So I mean, if you can bring this stuff to (inaudible) Leganski so we can have it. But I mean, don't sit back around. It's going to be (inaudible) personally. Tension is too high. The country is too crazy. I do not want to look back and think we caused something or we missed something and someone got hurt. I don't want to play politics with any of that.

GROSS: What's kind of ironic here is he's in part trying to protect his own House members, including Liz Cheney. But then the Republicans turn on Liz Cheney. They strip her of her leadership position. They create a lot of hatred toward Liz Cheney.

MARTIN: Yeah. And one of the reasons why we wanted to spend so much time reporting this book in 2021 instead of, you know, racing to turn it in after the campaign is because it was our bet, Terry, that there was a lot to capture in the aftermath of January 6 in both parties. And we chronicle at great length the weeks and months after the 6 and how it shaped the Republican Party and specifically what happened with Liz Cheney and her fate and how she went from being the scion of this prominent conservative family to an outcast in today's Republican Party.

And that happened because of one simple reason - after January 6, she wouldn't shut up. Everybody else, with a few exceptions in the House GOP conference, dropped their criticism of President Trump, stopped talking about his inciting the riot in the Capitol and just moved on. And she would not move on. And she kept talking about Trump as a member of the leadership, and she would do so standing at press conferences with McCarthy squirming next to her, looking awkward. And so finally in May, it becomes clear to Kevin McCarthy and his lieutenants that they cannot keep having Liz Cheney embarrassing them, in their eyes, by speaking out about President Trump. It's become too much, and they cast her out of the Republican leadership and create this schism between her and the rest of the House GOP conference.

GROSS: So they cast out Liz Cheney. Meanwhile, you know, McCarthy is saying in this tape he's afraid someone's going to get hurt. He doesn't want to play politics with any of this. And then he lets go of a lot of extremist talk. He just - at least not that we know of, he doesn't call people out for it. Like you say, he opposed a resolution to censure Paul Gosar and remove him from committee assignments. He ignored a remark by Mo Brooks last year after a man was arrested in connection with a bomb threat to the Capitol. And Brooks said that he understood citizens' anger directed at dictatorial socialism and its threat to liberty, freedom and the very fabric of American anxiety. So Mo Brooks of Alabama is basically saying, yeah, I understand this guy's bomb threat to the Capitol.

BURNS: And, Terry, that one is so particularly important because Mo Brooks is a repeat offender. He is one of the lawmakers who addresses the rally on the National Mall on January 6 and tells them it's time for patriots to start taking names and taking action. And that immediately precedes the riot at the Capitol. He used some saltier language that I'm not going to repeat on your program. But immediately after the attack on the Capitol, on these calls that we're talking about, McCarthy speaks about what Brooks said and says that in some ways it's even worse than what Donald Trump said at that rally preceding the attack on the Capitol. And just six or seven months later, when there's a bomb threat directed at the Capitol, you have the exact same member of Congress justifying, rationalizing, even somewhat admiring this threat to the Capitol. And Kevin McCarthy has nothing to say about it.

And you referenced Paul Gosar. There are a couple examples throughout calendar year 2021, and, unfortunately, it's very likely that there will be more examples for the rest of calendar year 2022, where the exact same members who Kevin McCarthy is describing in January as being a threat to incite violence against the American government and against their own colleagues in the House of Representatives, those people are not going away, and Kevin McCarthy is not doing anything to quiet them or push them towards the exits.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, authors of the new book "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, And The Battle For America's Future." They're both national correspondents for The New York Times. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN'S "HIT THE ROAD JACK")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, two national correspondents for The New York Times. Their new book, "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden And The Battle For America's Future," covers the period of two years from the onset of the coronavirus pandemic through the legislative battles of the new Biden administration. The book was published today but made news even before publication because the authors released audio recordings from the days after the attack on the Capitol of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying he was thinking of asking Trump to resign and that he was concerned that the extremist rhetoric of some Republican lawmakers could end up getting people hurt.

So after McCarthy seemed so outraged about the attack on the Capitol and Trump's partial responsibility for it, when it came to actually voting on impeachment, McCarthy voted against it.

BURNS: He did, and so does the overwhelming majority of the House Republican Conference. And this is a crucial moment, too, where, you know, McCarthy, on the eve of that vote, indicates to Republicans that, you know, this is a vote of conscience. People are going to need to do what they're going to need to do. He's not saying, in the runup to the impeachment vote, if you support impeaching President Trump, I will drive you out of the Republican Party. He is absolutely not doing that. And 10 members of Congress - 10 members of the Republican Conference do vote for impeachment.

But what happens after that is not only does Kevin McCarthy not, himself, vote for impeachment, but he encourages those members really not to talk about it anymore - that, you know, be that as it may, you needed to vote for impeachment. It was a vote of conscience. You know, could you please talk about other stuff now? And what's really telling, Terry, is almost every single one of them obliges. And that's what makes Liz Cheney such an outlier - that there are members of Congress who cast an extraordinarily difficult vote as Republicans supporting the impeachment of Donald Trump. And they did it because they thought he was a threat to the country and that what he did on January 6 demanded the sternest punishment available to them. And since then, almost none of them have had anything else to say about it.

GROSS: There are members in the House, in the Republican Party, who are very motivated by ideology or by conspiracy theories. You characterize McCarthy as being motivated by power. This is all about that he wants to become the House speaker if the Republicans gain control of the House in the midterms.

BURNS: Yeah. Let me just talk about Kevin McCarthy for a minute because I think some of your listeners may be more familiar with Mitch McConnell, who, of course, is a longer-serving and more prominent member of the congressional leadership. Kevin McCarthy is from Bakersfield, Calif., and he's always had his eye on the bright lights. He has sought to be a political force since he was a young staffer working for a member of Congress in his part of California. He went to Sacramento, Terry, and became a legislative leader in state government when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor. And that was his real first taste of working with a celebrity politician, and he loved it. He surrounds himself with pictures of himself with celebrities, and working with Schwarzenegger was quite fun for him.

And so when Trump comes along, McCarthy's already been in Congress for a few years but almost entirely serving with a Democratic president who was not taking him on Air Force One, who had no time for him. And here comes not just a president of his own party but a celebrity president, somebody who's a household name.

And Kevin McCarthy is taken with the trappings of power. And he relishes the trips on Air Force One with President Trump. He enjoys his time with the president at Mar-a-Lago. And he's ideologically flexible enough to sort of go along with, largely, what Trump's preferences are, because for him, the goal is to retain his grip on the House GOP Conference and eventually become speaker. And Trump offers him the way to do that. That is his path to power eventually.

And I'll just make one more point on McCarthy. He's tasted defeat. We have reporting in the book that when he first ran for the House in 2006, he told associates that he wanted to be speaker someday. Not a lot of first-time candidates for Congress will say such a thing in public, but McCarthy did. And he ran for speaker and lost that race seven years ago. And he lost it, Terry, because there was a faction on the far right in the House that was not comfortable with him. And so if you just think about Kevin McCarthy's history and his coveting of celebrity, his one setback when he was seeking the speakership seven years ago and lost it because of the far right, it explains a lot about McCarthy. It explains why he accommodated Trump, why he accommodates Trump today and why he's so focused on placating those far-right members who you mentioned a minute ago. He does not punish when they speak out inappropriately.

GROSS: We've talked about Kevin McCarthy, House minority leader. Let's talk about Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader. Now, you don't have recordings of him that - at least not ones that you can make public. So let's talk about some of the things you've written about. You say that he established a back channel with Joe Biden after the election. Why did he need a back channel as opposed to more open communications?

BURNS: So, Terry, this is a really interesting and fateful period in the transfer of power, where immediately after the November election is called in Joe Biden's favor - the Saturday after Election Day - Mitch McConnell knows full well that Joe Biden is going to be the next president. He has no intention of going down the Trump path of contesting the election results, spinning conspiracy theories. But he also doesn't want to go to war with Donald Trump, at least not yet, and the reason for that is raw electoral politics. Coming out of Election Day in November, the balance of power in the Senate is 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats, with two seats still up for grabs. Both of those seats are in the state of Georgia.

In that state, you have to win an outright majority in order to win an election. None of the candidates managed to do that on the Election Day in November, so both races went to a runoff that was scheduled for January 5. And what Mitch McConnell knows in November is that Donald Trump has lost the presidential election, Donald Trump doesn't believe that he has lost the presidential election and he's not going to concede, and Donald Trump is capable of sabotaging the Republican Party's ability to maintain control of the Senate. Because if McConnell criticizes Trump and clashes with him openly about the outcome of the presidential race, then Trump can turn around and urge his voters to stay home and not vote for Republicans in Georgia.

So that brings us to the back channel that you just described. McConnell wants to open communication with Joe Biden, but he doesn't want an open clash with Donald Trump. So he asks one of his deputies in the Senate, John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, to speak to one of Biden's close allies in the Senate, Chris Coons of Delaware, and transmit a message back to the president-elect that he's prepared to recognize him at some point, that he's prepared to talk at some point, but not yet. And please don't call me. The ask of Joe Biden is don't put me, Mitch McConnell, in a position where I either need to take your call and enrage Donald Trump or reject your call and insult the next president of the United States. And tellingly, Terry, Joe Biden honors that request.

GROSS: It's just so interesting how politics is superseding democracy. Political interests are superseding the democratic procedures that are standard in the United States.

BURNS: And I think, Terry, that's one of the most consistent and central themes of this book, is that at so many of the crucial junctures in the democratic process over the last two years, what the people in charge of the country, or at least ostensibly in charge of the country, were thinking about either first and foremost or pretty near to it was electoral politics. And there's almost no one of whom that is more true than Mitch McConnell in November and December. He knows that what Donald Trump is doing is unacceptable and outside the political mainstream.

He gets a call from Donald Trump in early December, and he takes this call during a meeting of other Senate Republican leaders where Trump tells him openly, I'm trying to get the governor of Georgia to overturn the results of the election there. And I'm trying to get state legislators in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania to overturn the results of the election there. And, Mitch, we got to do this in order to win those Senate seats in Georgia.

And McConnell listens to him, and he hangs up the phone. And he takes off his glasses, and he rubs his eyes. And he tells his colleagues, we got to stay focused on Georgia. And, Terry, he means the elections in Georgia. He doesn't mean defending the outcome of the presidential race in Georgia, because that is how important keeping the Senate majority was to him. He was willing to look the other way and, for all his private discomfort, not take on Donald Trump just yet.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you both here. If you're just joining us, my guests are Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, authors of the new book "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, And The Battle For America's Future." They're both national correspondents for The New York Times. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, national correspondents for The New York Times and authors of the new book "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, And The Battle For America's Future."

Jonathan, you were in a pretty unique position while reporting this book. On January 6, you were at the Capitol. You were there when the Capitol was attacked. And you evacuated, along with people from Congress, and hid out together. And you observed during that process and right after it things that were very useful for this book. So let's start with something - with an encounter that you had with Mitch McConnell. And this is right after the certification of the election. So they hadn't gone home yet. You know, they were just like they were they were hiding. And then they went back to the chamber and voted. And after the vote - so this is like the wee hours in January 7, like, really early in the morning, after midnight. And you're at the elevator, and you run into Mitch McConnell there. And he tells you that he's disgusted with Trump. Tell us about that conversation.

MARTIN: McConnell was leaving the Capitol early on the morning of January 7 after what was probably the most wrenching day of his career in Congress and probably the most wrenching day of his history in the U.S. Capitol. He first went there as an intern in the mid-1960s. So we're talking about more than a half a century of service in that building. And McConnell comes off the elevator on the first floor of the Capitol on his way home, and he beckons me to a doorway where there would be at least a modicum of privacy. And he asked me the first question, which was, what do you hear about the 25th Amendment?

And what he's getting at is, is there a possibility that the Trump Cabinet will drive him from office before January 20 and rid us of this now disgraced president? Because McConnell is so eager to get rid of Trump, excommunicate him from the presidency and the Republican Party, that he sees an opportunity. And this is what's so key about McConnell in that moment. Yes, he is unnerved by what has taken place in the Capitol that day. He's angry about losing his majority the previous day in that Georgia runoff that Alex was talking about. But he's mostly, as he put it, exhilarated. Why? Because finally he thinks this is the chance that we can cut the cord and move on from Donald Trump. And at first, he thinks that that's possible to do via the 25th Amendment, which is why he's asking me. He's looking for intelligence. What am I picking up? What am I hearing from other lawmakers that day?

GROSS: You quote McConnell as having said, "if this isn't impeachable, I don't know what is." But he didn't vote to convict Trump in the Senate.

MARTIN: So this is now Monday, January 11. And McConnell is back in Kentucky. He's in Louisville. And he's having lunch, having a Chick-Fil-A takeout lunch in the office of one of his advisers. And McConnell is still relishing the prospect that this could be the opportunity, this could be the moment to drive Trump from political power. And McConnell thinks that the House Democrats are going to impeach President Trump that week. As he puts it, they're going to take care of the son of a bitch for us, he tells advisers at that lunch, and that subsequently, there will be the votes in the Senate. There will be the two-thirds votes needed to convict Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors, and then after that, to take a vote to bar him from serving in office before.

McConnell in this moment is bullish on the opportunity to depose Trump, to exile him forever from political power. And he tells his advisers that. Even more extraordinary, Terry, during this lunch, his phone rings and it's President-elect Joe Biden. And Biden is asking McConnell, you know, can there be a sort of two-track effort in the Senate to both confirm my new nominees, to put together my government, and also impeach the outgoing or then-departed president? And McConnell says he's going to talk to his chief of staff, but he does think it's possible. And Biden, who, of course, served with McConnell for decades in the Senate, in a human moment, says, Mitch, take care of yourself. Be careful out there. These guys are crazy. And what Biden means is McConnell himself could be targeted by extremists, and McConnell himself could be at risk.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, authors of the new book "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden And The Battle For America's Future." They're both national correspondents for The New York Times. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIOVANNI TOMMASO, ENRICO RAVA, STEFANO BOLLANI AND ROBERTO GATTO'S "L'AVVENTURA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, national correspondents for The New York Times and authors of the new book "This Will Not Pass: Trump Biden And The Battle For America's Future."

I want to get back to the fact that, Jonathan Martin, you were at the Capitol on January 6. And you were in the room with lawmakers when they were evacuated from the Capitol and escorted through the tunnels through - to a room in another office building. And while you were there with a lot of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, you overheard Lindsey Graham talking - well, actually, kind of hollering at a Capitol police officer. Tell us what was going on and what Lindsey Graham said.

MARTIN: So we have to understand the moment. There is uncertainty verging on chaos because the Capitol has been overrun. And these senators are seeing images on their phone of people marauding in the Capitol, of Confederate flags being displayed outside the Senate chamber. They're getting texts and panicked phone calls from their spouses and family members saying, are you OK? And so there is a mood of great nervousness in this period on the afternoon of January 6 as the senators gather in this large conference room in the Hart Building.

And a few times, Capitol police officials try to get their attention to speak to the group of senators. And during one of those moments, as the Capitol police was trying to explain to them what was going on - and frankly, they were uncertain if the building had been secured or if the rioters were still effectively in command of the seat of government. Lindsey Graham speaks up. And he interjects in very accusatory tones and says, you guys need to take control of this building. Do whatever it takes. And get back control of the seat of American government. And there's audible groaning in the room. And even Sherrod Brown, the Senate Democrat from Ohio, speaks up and says, shut up, Lindsey, to try to shout him down.

And then, you know, after that, I spoke with Senator Graham as we were sequestered in that room and talked to him. And he's sort of playing things out in his head. And he's talking at once both about the immediate security concern, about the need for the Capitol police to retake the Capitol, likening it to the time he was visiting a military base in Afghanistan and the security officials on the base, the MPs, killed a would-be suicide bomber who was trying to come onto the base. He's also, in that same breath, playing out the politics of what this is going to mean for Trump and how Trump went too far this time and then pivoting, Terry, to say, you know, maybe Biden can take advantage of this moment, saying, who doesn't like Joe Biden? And all of that captures the nervousness, the frenetic nature of this period and, frankly, the uncertainty of Lindsey Graham himself, who has been a Trump ally, made his peace with Trump, but is now wondering, you know - am I going to have to cut the cord with President Trump? - and is wondering also if he can reestablish the friendship he had with Joe Biden that well predated his relationship with Donald Trump.

GROSS: So Lindsey Graham gets White House counsel Pat Cipollone on the phone and says, if Trump doesn't tell the rioters to go home, Lindsey Graham is going to call for the 25th Amendment, to remove Trump from office. But after all this quiets down and things start to return to some sense of normalcy, Lindsey Graham's back in Donald Trump's court again.

MARTIN: Yeah. That same afternoon, he does call Cipollone and threatens the 25th Amendment because if you recall, Trump had taped a couple of videos in which he was purportedly telling the rioters to leave the Capitol. But it was halfhearted, and so Graham is enraged by the sort of halfhearted Trump response and says, if you don't make him do more and condemn this, then we're going to demand Trump be driven from office. But like so many Republicans, Graham comes back to Trump's embrace because, again, for him, for Graham, Trump is a way to stay a player in today's Republican Party. His voters in South Carolina still like Donald Trump, and if he wants to be a player in future GOP politics, then Lindsey Graham needs to keep that relationship.

But what's so interesting about Graham and Trump is that they're crafty enough to understand the other and to understand that the other isn't fully committed to their relationship. In their more honest moments, they say that out loud. We have a scene in the book from April of 2021, just a few months after January 6, where Alex and I were interviewing President Trump at Mar-a-Lago, and who should call Trump's cellphone but Lindsey Graham. And Trump being Trump, he takes the call, sees who it is and puts it on speaker for the two reporters to hear but doesn't tell Graham that he's putting him on speaker for the prying ears of the two reporters who are there speaking to him. And so they're talking openly about politics and the midterms, and Graham doesn't even know. And then, of course, Trump does tell Graham that he's sitting there with Jonathan Martin and Alex Burns. But, Terry, he tells them that we're here just to prompt Graham to sing his praises. And boy, does Graham happily do that. Graham talks about the hold that Trump has on the Republican Party, how it's like nothing he's ever seen before and, yes, what a great golfer Donald Trump is, too.

GROSS: Oh (laughter).

MARTIN: So it doesn't end there because a few hours later, we spoke to Graham separately on the phone after we left Mar-a-Largo, and Graham was much more candid about Trump, talking about his relationship and said, yeah, Trump is great to talk to, especially when the topic is him.

GROSS: You know, what you said about this climate of fear and distrust, that leads me back to the tapes that you released of Kevin McCarthy. I mean, somebody - I'm not going to ask you who your source is. Obviously, you're not going to be able to say. But the fact that there are tapes and they were leaked to you screams to me atmosphere of distrust. So are a lot of people that you know, without mentioning names, have they been taping conversations to protect themselves or to be used against the person who they think is either harming the country or might harm them?

BURNS: Yes, it's not always tapes, but certainly there are ample contemporaneous records of so many of these crucial moments. And one of our real priorities in reporting this book was to try to gather as much of that material as possible. We've not been able to put it all out in public. It's not likely that we ever will be able to put all of this out in public. But there is a sense, I think pretty broadly in Washington, certainly right after January 6, that people are living history, and they are living through a really dangerous moment in the life of the Capitol and the life of American democracy.

And our hope in assembling the narrative in this book is to tell that story as fully as we can and to show what political reporting ought to do in a moment like this. There is a whole lot of raw politics in our book, but it is all in this larger context of an ongoing and acute national crisis and a crisis of whether this American democratic system can ever work again. And there are people at all levels of both parties who are deeply concerned that the answer is no. And it is, in our view, an act of real bravery and an act - I think it's not too far to say - of real heroism for people who are present in these vital moments to do what they can to preserve them so that now or a couple of years from now or decades from now, people will understand what the country lived through in this moment and whether it did or did not come out all right.

GROSS: Well, Jonathan Martin, Alex Burns - thank you so much for joining us on the show. And thank you for your reporting.

BURNS: Thank you, Terry.

MARTIN: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns are the authors of the new book "This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, And The Battle For America's Future." They're both national correspondents from The New York Times. Our interview was recorded yesterday.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard, star of the new Viking epic film "The Northman." He played a vampire who had been a Viking in HBO's "True Blood." More recently, he played a tech billionaire in "Succession" and an abusive husband in "Big Little Lies." "The Northman" is violent and bloody, but Skarsgard is from a pacifist family. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY PEACOCK AND JAN GARBAREK AND PALLE MIKKELBORG AND PETER ERSKINE'S "INTROENDING")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARY PEACOCK AND JAN GARBAREK AND PALLE MIKKELBORG AND PETER ERSKINE'S "INTROENDING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.