Yes, it’s as bad as you thought it was. Maybe worse.
That’s the unmistakable message about President Donald Trump and his administration from the early pieces of Bob Woodward’s chronicle – titled “Fear: Trump in the White House” – of the first year of the billionaire businessman’s presidency. The image Woodward casts of Trump is of a petulant child, deeply insecure about, well, everything. His staffers – from Defense Secretary James Mattis to chief of staff John Kelly and on down – spend most of their time a) keeping Trump in the dark for, in their estimation, the good of the country and b) running him down in meetings he isn’t in. Trump seems, by turns, annoyed by being left out of the loop and indifferent to it. And most importantly, the President seems entirely unaware of how incredibly out of his depth he actually is.
Woodward’s book, which comes in at just under 500 pages, is due out next Tuesday. But even in these passages, virtually every suspicion (of those paying attention) about the problems with Trump and the utter dysfunction of his White House is confirmed.
Trump is not only totally fixated on the special counsel probe, but is clueless about how much damage he could do to himself by agreeing to an interview.
In one episode recounted by Woodward, then-Trump lead lawyer John Dowd runs Trump through a simulation of what it might be like to sit for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller in his ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Dowd sees the “full nightmare” of Trump under oath. But Trump is surprised that Dowd thinks the interview went poorly. “You think I was struggling?” Trump asked. Whoa boy.
Trump is deeply out of the loop.
Chief economic adviser Gary Cohn sees a draft of a proposal that would pull the United States out of a trade deal with South Korea, and potentially jeopardize national security ties between the two countries. “I stole it off his desk,” Cohn told an associate, according to Woodward. “I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”
Trump is nasty to subordinates.
It’s no secret by now that Trump isn’t averse to publicly attacking people who work for him. But even by those standards, some of the ways Trump describes Attorney General Jeff Sessions – a frequent target of the President’s animus – is breathtaking. “This guy is mentally retarded,” Trump said of Sessions, according to Woodward. “He’s this dumb southerner.”
Trump makes everything about him.
“This is all about leader versus leader,” Trump said of his summit earlier this year with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. “Man versus man. Me versus Kim.” Because he views everything as, ultimately, a battle of manliness for dominion, Trump badly underestimates how much work and preparation is required to avoid massive missteps on the international stage that could literally trigger wars, Woodward describes.
Trump’s White House is a backbiter’s paradise.
Trump has said repeatedly that he likes to watch while his aides fight each other for his affections. Not surprisingly, that sort of gladiatorial pit mentality breeds fear, distrust and enmity among the people who work for Trump. “When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls,” former Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus is quoted as saying, “things start getting nasty and bloody.”
The Woodward book isn’t only a massive problem for the White House because of the ugly portrait it paints of Trump. It’s also a major ordeal because Woodward recorded an 11-minute conversation – with Trump’s permission! – between himself and the President that will make it very hard to cast the man who made his name on his Watergate reporting as some sort of partisan hack.
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“It’s really too bad, because nobody told me about it,” Trump tells Woodward of the book. “You know I’m very open to you. I think you’ve always been fair.”
“I think you’ve always been fair.” Those six words are going to come back to haunt Trump (as will the fact that he seems to have never been told or decided to listen to the advice that he should talk to Woodward for the book.) I suppose Trump could say that Woodward had always been fair until this book, but that’s a tough case to make. Woodward is widely recognized as the finest political reporter of his generation (or, maybe, any generation) and has written books that have painted critical pictures of the administrations of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush. (Those books do not appear to be as critical of the president as this one, but the broader point holds.)
Trump’s words of praise for Woodward – and the fact that they are on audio tape for all to hear – make it virtually impossible for the White House to go the response route they took on Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” another scathing portrait of the Trump White House released earlier this year. “I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book!” Trump tweeted of Wolff the day before “Fire and Fury” was officially released. “I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist. Look at this guy’s past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve [Bannon]!”
Woodward, in short, isn’t Wolff.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders responded Tuesday with this statement: “This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the President look bad.”
But if history is any guide, the most important response will emerge from Trump’s Twitter feed. And while he is on audio praising Woodward and making clear he hoped he could have been a part of the book, my guess is that Trump – the king of tabula rasa – will pretend he never said anything nice about Woodward and simply go totally nuclear against him.
That line of defense will work for some – the people who take Trump at his urging to not “believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news. … What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” But as poll after poll makes clear, that’s not a majority of the country. Not even close.
For people outside of the Trump bubble, the Woodward book will confirm every doubt (and nightmare) they had about the sort of President Trump is and the kind of administration he is running. The picture painted by Woodward of Trump is, in a word, terrifying. And in two words: Absolutely terrifying.