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'A national security emergency' in the final days of the Trump presidency

Robert Costa, co-author of 'Peril,' goes inside the last days of the Trump presidency and the first days of Biden's.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Let's go inside the final months of the Trump presidency and the first of the Biden administration. The new book, Peril, it's co-authored by Robert Costa and Bob Woodward. It has stunned many with new details on the chaotic transfer of power. And for more on that, we want to bring in Robert Costa. He's the co-author of Peril. And Bob, welcome to Yahoo Finance. It's good to see you.

ROBERT COSTA: Seana, great to be with you, a long-time viewer, just a wonderful thing to be on with you this afternoon. Thank you.

SEANA SMITH: Well, we're looking forward to it. We have so much to discuss. But before we dive deep into Peril, you've covered President Trump for quite some time, going back before his presidency and then, obviously, through his four years at the White House. From your perspective, throughout that time, did the presidency change him?

ROBERT COSTA: The presidency did change him. He was a total outsider when he was elected in 2016. I remember covering him in that first year. And so many of his advisors were alarmed. This was someone who never held elected office. But four years in, he was someone who became comfortable with the levers of power, being able to push American democracy to the brink in his final days. Because he knew the different pressure points, whether it was the vice president himself, Mike Pence, or the Department of Justice, or other other officials.

This was a president who didn't really understand power at the start but became used, very comfortable, with using it at the end.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Hey, Bob, congratulations on the book. Curious, when you talk about a president who didn't understand power at first but then understood it at the end, there are members of Congress in the Republican Party who certainly understand power and seem to be falling behind whatever this president says to do. What does that tell the country, and what is the future of the republic based on that?

ROBERT COSTA: There was a transactional bargain from the start with many Republicans who were stunned by his victory. They were able to legislate and pass an overhaul of the tax code. They were able to nominate and confirm justices onto the Supreme Court, installed Conservative justices into the federal judiciary. So Republicans got a lot of what they wanted. But even at the end, after all of that, they still had concerns, some of them at least, about his character.

But those concerns have often been shelved. Because there is a firm belief, as we detail in the book, that President Trump, even out of office, has an immense amount of political capital, that he's still the leader of the Republican Party, even if some top Republicans don't want that to be the reality.

SEANA SMITH: You know, going off of that, that, of course, brings up, and you touched on this just briefly, the deep dive into certifying the election. And you go into great detail into this in the book, just what Vice President Mike Pence, just what those couple of days were like for him, how he was feeling, how big of a struggle it was. And you mentioned the fact that he actually reached out to former VP Dan Quayle just to get his thoughts on what he should do.

What did we learn just about the agony that Vice President Pence went through during those couple of days?

ROBERT COSTA: Seana, that is the right word, agony. I have covered Pence for years, going back to his days in the House of Representatives. And you see a person who was torn in the final days between that Conservative, Republican side of his career and persona, his value system, versus his total loyalty to President Trump. Ultimately, he knows that there are not an alternate-- there are not alternate slates of electors out there in the states.

And so there's no rationale for him to follow along with this Trump plan, to push the election to the House of Representatives. But for those out there in the business community, there is a lot of uncertainty as you look ahead to 2022 and 2024. Because next time around, suppose, whether it's Republicans or Democrats, that alternate slates of electors are proposed, that you have even more chaos in the presidential certification when it comes around in January of 2025.

At this point, there's no real clear answer that it's going to be any smoother next time. And that creates uncertainty, not only in the political community for American democracy but also for the economic community.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Why does Pence still appear to support President Trump?

ROBERT COSTA: Because, as I said, political capital is something that seems almost vague at times, but it has a real power. Who do voters follow? And Pence knows it's still Trump. Trump's the one who's on the march, holding campaign rallies, even though he's no longer president. It's something we haven't ever seen in history, at least in modern history, a president twice impeached who leaves office, loses an election to somehow stay in there, stay in the arena, stoking his support, trying for a political comeback.

Nixon didn't try to have a comeback in a campaign, neither did George H.W. Bush or other one-term presidents like Jimmy Carter. Trump's different. He's trying to come back. So Pence is gauging all of that as he plots for his own career.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Hey, I think we all got muted.

SEANA SMITH: Oh, sorry about that, Bob. I was muted there. All right. So here we go. Let's try it again. I was going to say, what surprised you most about the revelations that you were able to get? When you spoke to so many sources, I'm sure that there were things that you uncovered that you probably never expected to uncover. So what surprised you most?

ROBERT COSTA: Seana, as we've just detailed, the scope of the domestic crisis was far darker and deeper than we had imagined when we began this reporting. Bob Woodward and I also discovered something that stunned us, a national security emergency in the final days. And this was a reminder to us as reporters that you just don't always know the full story when things unfold in the public eye.

Because, unbeknownst to us and others and the whole country, General Mark Milley, the senior officer in the US military, was fending off concerns in Congress from Nancy Pelosi, from the Chinese and other allies abroad, and adversaries like China about the stability of the United States. Because of the insurrection on Jan 6, the stability of the US, something that was never in question, was suddenly in question at least in some crucial quarters around the world.

And that forced Milley to take some steps, based on our reporting, within his procedures, within his-- the scope of his job, but he took some dramatic steps to ensure that stability continued. And that was a national security emergency that certainly surprised us.

ADAM SHAPIRO: What about what we now know on not only the Eastman plan but that Steve Bannon was very vocal before January 6. And President Trump has said he was talking to Bannon in the last days of his administration. Is there anything concretely that would tie the two together and then perhaps even show that they were planning what happened on the 6th?

ROBERT COSTA: Some of the intent here is still for the House Committee on the insurrection to find out. But what we discovered is that there were at least two conversations between Bannon and Trump that were previously unknown. December 31, 2020, where Bannon says to Trump, based on our reporting, it's time to kill the Biden presidency in the crib, stop it before it even starts. That shows an effort, at the very least, to try to prevent Biden from taking office.

And the president is in full agreement, to the point he comes home early from his vacation in Florida to try to focus on January 6. And there's another call, January 5, 2021, the night before what happened at the Capitol. And you have Trump calling into Pence-- excuse me, after he meets with Pence, he calls into Bannon and Giuliani and Jason Miller, all Trump allies, at the Willard Hotel in Washington.

And this Willard Hotel scene has become an area of scrutiny for the House Select Committee looking into January 6. In fact, our book and the pages and scenes of Bannon were cited in the subpoena documents that ultimately led this past week to a criminal contempt vote in the House of Representatives.

SEANA SMITH: Bob, I don't know if you've seen this. But the SPAC that's tied to Donald Trump's new online network, it's really gone crazy over the last two days. It was halted multiple times today. But I want to get your perspective on the fact that he's launching this social media network. A lot of people are saying that this signals that he is certainly going to be back in 2024. How are you looking at this?

ROBERT COSTA: After Jan. 6, Trump is booted off of Facebook and Twitter. And so he's lost that social media influence that he wielded and weaponized at times politically. He's trying to get back in the game clearly. But ever since he left office, there's been an incoherence to exactly what he wants to accomplish in the social media space. Because it's hard for some of these startup social media companies to get traction to develop an audience.

And Trump utilized Twitter. But he wasn't in charge of Twitter. And it's such a different construct when you're the leader of a social media company trying to sustain an audience versus someone who is using an already existing platform that has an immense infrastructure behind it. It's somewhat TBD both on a tech front and political front to see if Trump could actually get off the ground and keep his followers plugged in to what he's doing on this network.

But this larger question about social media companies and whether they should be considered social utilities almost like electric companies in the coming years, my prediction, as a reporter, that's going to be a vital part of the debate in 2024. Do they deserve more regulation or not? Who's allowed on? Who's not? This animates people on both the right and the left, which is why it's going to stay in the debate.

SEANA SMITH: It certainly does. that will, of course, be exciting to watch. Bob, before we let you go, you and I go way back. We've known each other for years. I know you got your start in journalism by writing music reviews. You were looking at concerts, writing that type of thing. You also got John Mayer to perform at the senior year prom, although I don't know how much time we have to go into all that. That might be left for another time.

But just talk to us about your journey through journalism and how starting with music reviews and concert reviews, how that prepared you for what you're doing today.

ROBERT COSTA: Well, Seana, you and I were both lucky to grow up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with great parents who encouraged us to pursue journalism. And we both pursued our passions at an early age and continue to do so. And so we're blessed in that way. And when we grow up in a place like Bucks County, outside of Philadelphia, in a nice area where you don't have too many problems, you really feel like you can accomplish anything.

And so whether it was getting John Mayer to play at the prom or being a reporter these days, I've always just felt a confidence that things were possible in this country to do. And I've always just tried to have a little bit of fun. And I know you do, too, on your program, to not take yourself too seriously and just enjoy the process of covering the news and seeing history unfold.

And growing up near Philadelphia, whether it was concerts or museums, I've always had an interest in seeing things up close. I call it sitting in the baseball dugout of history, to see, to write, and cover that first draft.

SEANA SMITH: I like that. Robert Costa, always great to see you. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us. Co-author, the best selling book Peril, we hope to have you back again soon. Again, thank you so much for making the time.