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Exclusive: John Boehner says Donald Trump 'abused' his loyalists by lying to them

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/12/2021 Susan Page, USA TODAY
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MARCO ISLAND, Fla. – Former House Speaker John Boehner no longer watches much cable TV news. Noise, he calls it.

It was only when aide John Criscuolo texted him a tweet with some raw video attached – "Trump supporters going at it with the police on the steps of the Capitol," it read – that he learned the Congress in which he had served for a quarter-century was under siege by a mob.

A mob whose members said they were encouraged by a president from his own party, and one he had sometimes advised.

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The insurrection Jan. 6 was a shock but not exactly a surprise, the violent culmination of a decade that landed the GOP in a place Boehner dubs "a clown car" and "crazy town": The rise of the disruptive tea party and the Freedom Caucus. The power of incendiary TV and radio talk show hosts who make media heroes of the political fringe. And the election of the even more disruptive Donald Trump as president.

Boehner's new book, being published Tuesday by St. Martin's Press, is titled "On the House: A Washington Memoir." It is unlike the classic Washington memoir, those soft-focus accounts extolling what-I-achieved in office. "I wasn't going to write some typical Washington walk," he told USA TODAY.

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In the book, he describes Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as "Lucifer in the flesh." Freedom Caucus members as "political terrorists" and "far-right knuckleheads." Former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin as "one of the chief crazies." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as smart and strategic but someone who "holds his feelings, thoughts, and emotions in a lockbox closed so tightly that whenever one of them seeps out, bystanders are struck silent."

John Boehner standing in front of a building: Former Speaker of the House John Boehner spoke with USA TODAY Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page about his new book, “On the House: A Washington Memoir," in Marco Island, Fla., on April 5. © Jessica Koscielniak, USA TODAY Former Speaker of the House John Boehner spoke with USA TODAY Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page about his new book, “On the House: A Washington Memoir," in Marco Island, Fla., on April 5.

And those are just his fellow Republicans.

More: Ex-House Speaker John Boehner, recording memoir's audio, gives Ted Cruz some colorful advice

It is an extraordinary rebuke of the current-day GOP, an excoriation without precedent in modern times, leveled by one of the party's most senior figures. Though Boehner is also critical of Democrats, his prime targets are Republican officials he said are more interested in praise on Fox News than in governing.

In an interview at his condo in this upscale Florida resort town, an expanse of pristine beach in view, he accused Trump of "abusing" the loyalty of his followers by lying to them about the presidential election he lost, rhetoric that fueled the storming of the Capitol.

His book brought a derisive retort from Trump spokesman Jason Miller, calling Boehner "a Swamp Creature" who had sold out American workers to China. "Was he drinking when he made this statement?" Miller said to the New York Times when asked about the book. "Just another RINO who couldn't do the job!" 

"RINO" stands for "Republican In Name Only," a suggestion that Boehner isn't committed to conservative values.  

Some Democrats who agree with Boehner's thesis about the GOP's direction questioned why he didn't do more to decry those forces when he was in a better position to do something about them.

"You invited in the crazies and gave them a big bear-hug," David Corn wrote last week in the liberal magazine Mother Jones. "You set them on a path that not so surprisingly ended up with a Republican president inciting a Republican crowd to ransack the citadel of American democracy where you once worked. So spare us your righteous indignation."

'Lies from some entrusted with power'

On Jan. 6, Boehner followed the chaos at the Capitol for about an hour, then turned off the TV. "I couldn't stand it, to watch any more," he said. "Awful. I mean, it's incomprehensible for me to believe this really happened." What he felt, he said, was "disgust."

The next day, he posted a tweet with a political message, something he rarely did.

"I once said the party of Lincoln and Reagan is off taking a nap," he said on his @SpeakerBoehner account. "The nap has become a nightmare for our nation. The GOP must awaken. The invasion of our Capitol by a mob, incited by lies from some entrusted with power, is a disgrace to all who sacrificed to build our Republic."

Two days later, he sent a longer, emotional email to an informal group known as "Boehnerland," a collection of several hundred friends, allies and former aides.

John Boehner holding a book: John Boehner does more roasting than toasting of Republicans in his political memoir, "On the House." © St. Martin's Press John Boehner does more roasting than toasting of Republicans in his political memoir, "On the House."

"It's been a dark and tragic week for America, on the heels of a very difficult year for our country and our world," he wrote. "I can't imagine any of us will ever escape the image of the United States Capitol being invaded and ransacked."

Since retiring from Congress, he had tried to leave public affairs "to those who still carry the burden of governing," he went on. But he said he felt compelled to speak out, and he urged them to speak up, too. "Boehnerland still has something to offer the country we love."

He said he received dozens of emails in response, including some from active-duty Capitol Police officers who had served on his security detail at the Capitol.

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Boehner said part of speaking out is holding Trump responsible for his part in the insurrection.

"I don't think it was just about him showing up at a rally on Jan. 6th," he told USA TODAY. "The comments that were made all summer about the election was going to be stolen from him, all the follow-up noise that occurred after the election – I kept looking for the facts."

There has been no credible evidence to support Trump's repeated allegations of election malfeasance.

"What struck me, especially after the election, was, here's all these people loyal to Donald Trump, and he abused them," Boehner said. "He stepped all over their loyalty to him by continuing to say things that just weren't true."

Early in his administration, Trump regularly called Boehner. The former speaker sometimes volunteered advice, including urging the president to stop tweeting – counsel Trump declined to take.

Both men are out of office and living 150 miles apart, an almost direct shot across Interstate 75 from Marco Island on Florida's west coast to Mar-a-Lago on the state's east coast. They haven't spoken in several years. Neither seems eager to resume their conversation.

A long way from Reading

Boehner, 71, starts his day with an hourlong walk on the beach and ends it with a glass of cabernet on his condo's balcony, watching the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. His deep tan testifies to the hours he spends in the sun playing golf and fishing. He still smokes Camels, and he has the same gravelly voice and blunt humor that marked his tenure in office.

He hasn't lost his propensity to cry, on occasions happy and sad.

"I can get a little teary-eyed," he acknowledged. Over what? "There's a pretty long list," he said. Even heart-tugging commercials?

John Boehner, Barack Obama are posing for a picture: President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, are on the first hole as they play golf at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, June 18, 2011. © Charles Dharapak, AP President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, are on the first hole as they play golf at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Saturday, June 18, 2011.

That query was enough.

He described a favorite ad for the U.S. Golf Association. "They had some kid playing by himself, gets a hole-in-one and he's all upset because there's nobody there to see it," he said.

The slick, 60-second commercial shows a boy playing at dusk, toting his golf bag on his back, not another soul visible across the verdant course to witness his leap of joy.

Until the dramatic twist: A man drives up in a golf cart. "Except the greens superintendent saw it!" Boehner said. Even the memory of that cinematic moment was enough to make tears well in his eyes. He used a handkerchief to wipe them away.

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John Andrew Boehner has come a long way from Reading, Ohio.

He was the second of 12 children growing up in a two-bedroom house, the son of a tavern owner. At the age of 8, he was enlisted to help at Andy's Bar, good training for his ease with people. The family was Democratic, but as a young man working as a salesman for a small plastics company, he was drawn to the GOP by Ronald Reagan and his message of low taxes, free markets and supply-side economics.

After three terms in the Ohio Legislature, he was elected to 12 terms in the House of Representatives. Eventually, he became the nation's top-ranking Republican, his party's leading foil to President Barack Obama. He struggled to control the rising power of more turbulent voices in the GOP, and some of them saw him as a sellout.  

A devout Catholic, his proudest achievement was arranging Pope Francis' address to a joint session of Congress in 2015. The next morning, he decided the time was right to announce his retirement, something he had been planning to do a few months later. Since leaving Congress, he joined the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, served on corporate boards, including tobacco giant Reynolds American, delivered high-priced speeches and pushed for causes, including the legalization of marijuana.

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He is by nature an optimist, not generally given to introspection and regret. He defended himself from the critics who said he should have done more to temper the GOP's direction while he was in power.

"Well, listen, this movement, it didn't happen overnight," he said. "It's a little piece-by-piece. And secondly, you know, when you're in the middle of the firestorm every day, it doesn't provide a lot of time to reflect, right?"

He sees few signs that the firestorm is over.

"I think it's going to get worse before it gets better," he said. "Both parties are being held hostage by the loudest voices in their party. The leaders are really being held hostage. If [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell were to come to an agreement on something, the left would come down on top of Schumer, and the right would come down on top of McConnell. That makes it pretty hard to govern."

He also sees few signs that Trump is leaving the political scene anytime soon.

"There's clearly some number of what I'll call Trump Republicans who still think he walks on water, and there's a guy that's unemployed with nothing better to do," Boehner said with a rueful laugh. "And so if anybody thinks he is going to go away, that's probably not going to happen until he finds something better to do with himself."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Exclusive: John Boehner says Donald Trump 'abused' his loyalists by lying to them

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