Woodward Delivers, But Does He Tell Us Much We Didn’t Already Know?
Though full of juicy tidbits, the journalist’s portrait of the White House as “Crazytown” is all too familiar.
If there’s one thing people have come to expect from a book by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, it’s some stunning new revelation about the inner workings of a U.S. administration—something that typically sets the town buzzing for days. And there are plenty of meaty—even gory—tidbits in his latest tome, Fear: Trump in the White House, according to excerpts of the book published in news reports.
There’s the time White House chief of staff John Kelly told colleagues that he thought the president was “unhinged,” according to Woodward. “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.”
There was the moment when Defense Secretary James Mattis described Trump as having the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader” on foreign policy.
And there’s the episode when the president’s former chief economic advisor Gary Cohn called him a “professional liar” and was so alarmed by something he saw on Trump’s desk—a draft letter that would have withdrawn the United States from a critical trade agreement with South Korea—that he removed it without telling the president. “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, moreover, never stopped belittling his subordinates, according to Woodward. He called Attorney General Jeff Sessions “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner.” Trump puffed up his chest to imitate former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and likened his former chief of staff Reince Priebus to “a little rat” who “scurries around.” He told Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross: “You’re past your prime.”
It’s gripping reading, but does it really surprise us? We already knew, after a year-and-a-half of chronic leaks in Trump’s Washington, that many in his circle didn’t think highly of him and that he returned the favor. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, before he was fired, famously declined to deny that he too thought the president was an “moron.” The very title of former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman’s recent book was Unhinged. Trump’s now-estranged advisor Steve Bannon compared Trump to an “11-year-old child,” and Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted that “The White House has become an adult day care center.”
Perhaps some of the strongest rhetoric came from former FBI Director James Comey, who called Trump “morally unfit to be president,” “untethered to truth,” and “unethical.” He also compared him to a Mafia boss.
Meanwhile, numerous former aides have been quoted as saying that it was virtually a full-time job keeping Trump from doing anything rash. We already know that Kelly at one point instructed staffers that all information, whether on paper or in briefings, needs to run through him before it reaches the president. It’s titillating to hear that Priebus dubbed the presidential bedroom “the devil’s workshop” because of all the tweeting Trump does from there, but we already knew the president does that, too.
We knew as well that, given the perpetual controversy over Woodward’s deep-background sourcing, there would be the usual rollout of denials over the book’s revelations. Mattis on Tuesday issued a statement that forcefully denied Woodward’s account.
“The contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward’s book were never uttered by me or in my presence,” the defense secretary said. “While I generally enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility.”
In his previous books, which have been rolled out with as much anticipation as this one, Woodward has typically delivered some startling revelations that not only intrigued but also changed the conversation in Washington. And in this one as well—according to the excerpts—the veteran investigative reporter breaks startling new ground on occasion, writing for example that Trump once sought to have Bashar al-Assad assassinated after the Syrian leader used chemical weapons on civilians in 2017. “Let’s fucking kill him!” Trump said, before Mattis talked him down, according to Woodward.
But in Fear, sadly, most of what we appear to get is confirmation.