This was supposed to be the do-over.
Furious he didn’t speak with Bob Woodward for the first book he wrote on his presidency, President Donald Trump determined full participation with the follow-up would provide the best chance of securing a positive take on his rollicking tenure.
Among the President’s aides, it wasn’t even much of a question he would conduct interviews for the volume that ultimately became “Rage,” excerpts of which were released Wednesday.
Yet instead of outmaneuvering the journalist famous for exposing Nixon’s Watergate scandal, Trump appears to have become a victim of his own confidence. And instead of a glowing portrait of a successful presidency, Trump is facing another damaging account two months before the election.
The fallout has caused internal strife at the White House as aides assign blame for allowing the taped interviews to proceed. Fingers have been thrust at ex-press secretaries, longtime confidants and old friends.
But people familiar with the situation say it is Trump himself who ultimately determined at the outset he could talk Woodward into writing a positive portrayal of his administration, reckoning the powers of salesmanship that have sustained him his entire adult life would yield another unlikely success.
So confident was Trump he could generate a favorable depiction that he provided Woodward with his personal cellphone number, eager to speak with a man whose long record of interviewing his predecessors has not exactly produced flattering results.
In phone calls late at night from the White House residence, Trump spun his tenure as one of historic successes and unparalleled victory. But as the excerpts released from the book on Wednesday show, he also appeared to admit he wasn’t being forthcoming with the American public about coronavirus.
“I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told Woodward in a conversation on March 19. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
When a recording of that, along with other portions of the book, began airing on CNN on Wednesday, White House aides were taken aback. Many believed the book would emerge closer to its official release date next week. A copy had not yet been delivered to the West Wing, leaving staffers largely blind to what is contained in it.
Even Trump himself has repeatedly asked aides – and Woodward himself – what is contained in the book, recognizing it would likely make a large splash in the final days of the presidential election.
At issue, according to several senior White House officials, is Trump’s penchant for phoning Woodward without his advisers’ knowledge. While Trump conducted two interviews for the book in the Oval Office surrounded by aides – including, at one, then-acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, then-deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley and Vice President Mike Pence – his subsequent conversations were often only him and Woodward on the phone.
Trump went around the White House communications office and staff for several of the 16 phone interviews he did with Woodward, a White House official told CNN. The official said Woodward would also call Trump directly without going through the communications office.
“Direct calls without us knowing were made all the time,” the official said.
Woodward also visited the White House, sometimes catching press aides off guard; some used to count how often they saw him coming and going from White House grounds.
When the first excerpts dropped Wednesday – moments before the press secretary was set to go before reporters – blame was immediately cast inside the West Wing over who let Trump talk to Woodward 18 times in audio that was recorded.
Kayleigh McEnany’s scheduled briefing at noon was pushed to 12:15 p.m. and then 12:30 p.m. before she finally emerged just past 1 p.m. and insisted Trump had never downplayed the crisis – despite his own admission, on tape, that he “wanted to always play it down.”
A major argument ensued inside the West Wing over the matter, mainly inside the communications teams, which have often been blamed for negative stories involving the President, though ultimately the decision to speak so often and so candidly with a famous journalist rests with Trump.
Many of the aides who now occupy top roles on Trump’s press team were not present the last time Woodward published a damaging account of the White House and were unaware of how much access Trump had given him. An extensive number of White House staff, including Jared Kushner, reportedly spoke to Woodward for his book.
In a reflection of a West Wing culture rife with tension, not all who spoke to Woodward did so with the goal of improving Trump’s own standing. Several staffers believed that those officials who had cooperated with Woodward the first time around received a more positive portrayal than those who did not, and were eager to manage their own coverage. Others feared that those they feuded with would speak to Woodward and wanted to provide balance.
In the aftermath, a blame game has broken out among various factions at the White House, where high turnover has muddled the lines of responsibility for the interviews. Stephanie Grisham was acting as press secretary when the book began but moved in April to act as first lady Melania Trump’s chief of staff. Hope Hicks is Trump’s senior adviser and longtime communications guru but did not re-enter the West Wing until February 2020, three months after Trump began speaking to Woodward. And Trump swapped chiefs of staff in March, replacing Mulvaney with Mark Meadows.
“Honestly, his access to the White House is probably something that I would not have recommended had I been in the chief of staff role early on, but it’s the typical thing the President does,” Meadows told Fox News on Wednesday.
Others said Sen. Lindsey Graham, an informal adviser to the President who often plays golf with him on weekends, encouraged Trump to speak with Woodward. Jared Kushner, the President’s senior adviser and son-in-law, spoke with Woodward as well and cited “Alice in Wonderland” as a way to understand Trump. Despite sitting down with Woodward himself, Kushner viewed the book with caution, according to one adviser.
Some White House officials warned Trump that talking to Woodward was a bad idea, one person familiar with the matter insisted. Aides to the President “had concerns and voiced them repeatedly,” the source said.
But Trump rarely accepts communication advice that counters his own view of himself as a natural salesman.
During a hastily scheduled afternoon event meant to unveil a list of potential Supreme Court nominees, Trump half-heartedly asked if anyone had questions about his judicial picks before engaging in questions on the Woodward revelations.
Unlike his press secretary, Trump did not deny playing down the crisis. Instead, he said he was hoping to project calm.
“I love our country and I don’t want people to be frightened, I don’t want to create panic,” he said in the Diplomatic Reception Room. “Certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.”
CNN’s Kate Bennett contributed to this report.