One week after his Watergate colleague, Carl Bernstein, helped author a widely debunked story alleging that Michael Cohen had evidence that President Trump gave the OK for the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Washington Post editor Bob Woodward has strategically "leaked" (to his own newspaper) the first excerpts from his upcoming book about the Trump administration. And if the non-stop coverage enjoyed by Michael Wolff's "Fire and the Fury" is any indication, Woodward's book will likely dominate the conversation in Washington for the two months between now and the midterms (just as God, and the Washington Post, intended).
Woodward's book - aptly titled "Fear" - includes explosive anecdotes about the lengths to which members of the Trump administration reportedly went to stop the president from acting on what they believed to be dangerous impulses. Staffers reportedly went as far as grabbing papers off the president's desk to stop him from acting rashly. Woodward's book was reportedly drawn from meeting notes, personal diaries and government documents given to him by administration officials, as well as hundreds of hours of interviews with administration officials and "other principals," according to WaPo.
A central theme of the book is the stealthy machinations used by those in Trump’s inner sanctum to try to control his impulses and prevent disasters, both for the president personally and for the nation he was elected to lead.
Woodward describes "an administrative coup d’etat" and a "nervous breakdown" of the executive branch, with senior aides conspiring to pluck official papers from the president’s desk so he couldn’t see or sign them.
Again and again, Woodward recounts at length how Trump’s national security team was shaken by his lack of curiosity and knowledge about world affairs and his contempt for the mainstream perspectives of military and intelligence leaders.
The most explosive claims have a common theme: Either senior Trump administration officials expressing their frustration about the president's behavior, or stories of Trump insulting members of his cabinet and administrative staff.
Woodward illustrates how the dread in Trump’s orbit became all-encompassing over the course of Trump’s first year in office, leaving some staff members and Cabinet members confounded by the president’s lack of understanding about how government functions and his inability and unwillingness to learn.
One of the most scathing quotes was attributed to Chief of Staff John Kelly, who reportedly called Trump an "idiot" adding that he had gone "off the rails" and that "I don't know why any of us are here."
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly frequently lost his temper and told colleagues that he thought the president was "unhinged," Woodward writes. In one small group meeting, Kelly said of Trump: "He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had."
Kelly's predecessor, Reince Priebus, was also on the receiving end of some scathing comments from Trump, who reportedly told former staff secretary Rob Porter to ignore Preibus's orders, describing the then-chief-of-staff as "a little rat" who "just scurries around."
Reince Priebus, Kelly’s predecessor, fretted that he could do little to constrain Trump from sparking chaos. Woodward writes that Priebus dubbed the presidential bedroom, where Trump obsessively watched cable news and tweeted, "the devil’s workshop," and said early mornings and Sunday evenings, when the president often set off tweetstorms, were "the witching hour."
Trump apparently had little regard for Priebus. He once instructed then-staff secretary Rob Porter to ignore Priebus, even though Porter reported to the chief of staff, saying that Priebus was "'like a little rat. He just scurries around.'"
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was "past your prime."
Trump told Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a wealthy investor eight years his senior: “I don’t trust you. I don’t want you doing any more negotiations. … You’re past your prime.”
Former National Security Advisor HR McMaster wore tacky suits that made him look like "a beer salesman."
Few in Trump’s orbit were protected from the president’s insults. He often mocked former national security adviser H.R. McMaster behind his back, puffing up his chest and exaggerating his breathing as he impersonated the retired Army general, and once said McMaster dresses in cheap suits, "like a beer salesman."
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly disregarded an order from Trump to assassinate Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad following last year's (alleged) chemical weapons attack.
After Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack on civilians in April 2017, Trump called Mattis and said he wanted to assassinate the dictator. "Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them," Trump said, according to Woodward.
Mattis told the president that he would get right on it. But after hanging up the phone, he told a senior aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” The national security team developed options for the more conventional airstrike that Trump ultimately ordered.
Some of the most withering criticism was reserved for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump mocked as "mentally retarded" and a "traitor".
A near-constant subject of withering presidential attacks was Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump told Porter that Sessions was a "traitor" for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, Woodward writes. Mocking Sessions’s accent, Trump added, "This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb Southerner. … He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama."
Notably, President Trump refused to cooperate for the book, though Woodward made several attempts to contact him (Trump eventually called the veteran reporter in August to say he'd changed his mind, only to be told that the manuscript had already been completed).
The 448-page book was obtained by The Washington Post. Woodward, an associate editor at The Post, sought an interview with Trump through several intermediaries to no avail. The president called Woodward in early August, after the manuscript had been completed, to say he wanted to participate. The president complained that it would be a “bad book,” according to an audio recording of the conversation. Woodward replied that his work would be "tough," but factual and based on his reporting.
While the claims seem tailor-made for the headlines, it's worth keeping in mind that many of Wolff's claims were challenged or debunked (though this didn't receive nearly as much attention on MSNBC as the original claims). Still, that book did have real-world impact and was widely viewed as the final straw that led to Steve Bannon's ouster from the West Wing. Given this, we can't help but wonder: Will Trump use this as an excuse to do some early house cleaning (both Kelly and Sessions have long been rumored to be on their way out).
Trump famously lashed out at Bernstein, calling him a "degenerate fool" and invoking his alleged gambling addiction and widely publicized divorce from ex-wife Nora Ephron. We look forward to seeing what the president has in store for Mr. Woodward.
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WaPo has published the audio recording of Woodward's conversation with Trump, in which Trump denies ever receiving any of Woodward's interview requests. Listen to the call below: