Bob Woodward was and is their reporter. Bob Woodward is their living legend. He and Carl Bernstein brought down Richard Nixon. Robert Redford played him in that movie – cool and sexy and earnest and thoughtful and careful too. So the Washington Post can explain what just happened. Josh Dawsey and his team can explain Bob Woodward blowing up another presidency:
President Trump acknowledged Wednesday that he intentionally played down the deadly nature of the rapidly spreading coronavirus last winter as an attempt to avoid a “frenzy,” part of an escalating damage-control effort by his top advisers to contain the fallout from a forthcoming book by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward.
Trump’s comments came hours after excerpts from the book and audio of some of the 18 separate interviews he conducted with the author were released, fueling a sense of outrage over the president’s blunt description of knowing that he was not telling the truth about a virus that has killed nearly 190,000 Americans.
Democrats, led by presidential nominee Joe Biden, denounced Trump’s actions as part of a deliberate effort to lie to the public for his own political purposes when other world leaders took decisive action to warn their people and set those nations on a better path to handling the pandemic.
The book is Rage – his second Trump book – Fear: Trump in the White House (2018) was his first Trump book. This time Trump is in a constant rage, so his base is in a constant rage too, but now Joe Biden is in a rage too:
“He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people. He knowingly and willingly lied about the threat it posed to the country for months,” Biden said in front of the United Auto Workers training facility in Warren, Mich., where he delivered a speech on a “Made in America” plan for the economy.
Biden called Trump’s actions “a life and death betrayal of the American people.”
Yes, tens of thousands have died who might have lived, if he hadn’t been bullshitting the nation with happy talk week after week after week. Be he doesn’t see it that way:
Trump said publicly that he did nothing wrong.
“So the fact is that I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country. And I don’t want people to be frightened,” Trump told reporters at the White House after announcing his potential Supreme Court nominees if he wins reelection.
“I don’t want to create panic, as you say. And certainly, I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy. We want to show confidence. We want to show strength.”
He seems a little confused about the difference between a cheerleader, chanting clever things from the sidelines, and a leader, out there on the field, making quick hard decisions and leading the team to victory, if possible. Here he says he showed real leadership by keeping everyone in the dark and making sure nothing useful was done:
“We have to have leadership. We have to show leadership. And the last thing you want to do is create a panic in a country,” he said, adding that he was “very open” with Woodward while calling the book “another political hit job.”
Privately, however, the president realized the book would not be good for his political fortunes. For weeks, he told advisers that Woodward’s book was likely to be negative, according to a senior administration official who spoke directly with Trump and shared the private discussion on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly.
But the White House had done little to prepare for it, officials said.
Trump had not thought this through. He might have known that he was bullshitting about leadership all along. He’d been tossing out that word, leadership, as a kind of magic incantation that would shield him from harm – his Patronus Charm to shield him from his Dementors – but chanting that word wasn’t helping now:
In a phone interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Wednesday night, Trump was dismissive of the book.
“I don’t know if this book is good or bad. I have no idea, probably almost definitely won’t read it because I don’t have time to read it, but I gave it a little bit of a shot. Sounds like it’s not gonna be good, but if you look at what I said today, I said, ‘Don’t panic.’ We don’t want to be jumping up and down and going well – don’t panic,” Trump said.
Yes, he was panicking, as he should be:
The president’s top political advisers, including campaign manager Bill Stepien, have long viewed the coronavirus as the president’s biggest albatross and have argued for Trump to address it more forcefully. The book, particularly with the audio, could be a potent attack area for Biden’s campaign, Republicans close to Trump said, with internal and public polling consistently showing a majority of voters do not agree with the president’s response to the pandemic.
“Our problem is that every day we are focused on something other than defining Joe Biden as a liberal is a bad day for us,” said one campaign adviser, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment freely about internal deliberations.
But he thought he could charm Woodward:
Trump advisers said that the president reacted with fury after Woodward’s last book, blaming former counselor Kellyanne Conway and other advisers for not bringing Woodward in for interviews.
“It would have been a better book if I talked to him,” Trump said in 2018, according to a former senior administration official. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share private discussions, said Trump complained for more than a week about Woodward’s last book, interrupting meetings with broadsides about the author.
For this latest book, Trump encouraged others to speak with Woodward and would often mention the journalist in conversations with other advisers, suggesting that he might call him again. Some of the conversations between the two men, a White House official said, were precipitated by Trump – who thought Woodward was more receptive to a favorable narrative about his presidency.
He could talk anyone into anything after all, so don’t doubt him, because no one changes his mind:
There was widespread finger-pointing in Trump’s orbit Wednesday about the book and its revelations, but some advisers noted that Trump is the one who drove the decision to cooperate.
“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,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told Fox News about Woodward’s access to Trump.
The president does what he wants to do and that’s that, and CNN covers the gory details:
President Donald Trump admitted he knew weeks before the first confirmed US coronavirus death that the virus was dangerous, airborne, highly contagious and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus,” and that he repeatedly played it down publicly, according to legendary journalist Bob Woodward in his new book “Rage.”
“This is deadly stuff,” Trump told Woodward on February 7.
In a series of interviews with Woodward, Trump revealed that he had a surprising level of detail about the threat of the virus earlier than previously known. “Pretty amazing,” Trump told Woodward, adding that the coronavirus was maybe five times “more deadly” than the flu.
Trump’s admissions are in stark contrast to his frequent public comments at the time insisting that the virus was “going to disappear” and “all work out fine.”
So he said what he had just argued no president should ever say:
The book, using Trump’s own words, depicts a President who has betrayed the public trust and the most fundamental responsibilities of his office. In “Rage,” Trump says the job of a president is “to keep our country safe.” But in early February, Trump told Woodward he knew how deadly the virus was, and in March, admitted he kept that knowledge hidden from the public.
But the book is about more than that. The issue is leadership itself:
“Rage” also includes brutal assessments of Trump’s presidency from many of his former top national security officials, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Mattis is quoted as calling Trump “dangerous” and “unfit” to be commander in chief. Woodward writes that Coats “continued to harbor the secret belief, one that had grown rather than lessened, although unsupported by intelligence proof, that Putin had something on Trump.” Woodward continues, writing that Coats felt, “How else to explain the president’s behavior? Coats could see no other explanation.”
But one guy just stepped away from all this:
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the administration’s top infectious disease expert, is quoted telling others Trump’s leadership was “rudderless” and that his “attention span is like a minus number.”
“His sole purpose is to get reelected,” Fauci told an associate, according to Woodward.
Fauci responded to the quotes in a Fox News interview on Wednesday, saying he would question the account.
“If you notice, others have said that. You know, you should ask others. I don’t recall that at all,” Fauci said, adding that he “didn’t get any sense” Trump was distorting things.
He’s not going to play in this sandbox. He has work to do. So did Woodward:
Woodward, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, conducted hundreds of hours of confidential background interviews with firsthand witnesses for “Rage,” and he obtained “notes, emails, diaries, calendars and confidential documents,” including more than two dozen letters Trump exchanged with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Woodward is known to record his interviews with the permission of his subjects and sources.
He writes that when he attributes exact quotations, thoughts or conclusions, that information comes either from the person, a colleague with direct knowledge or documents.
So this is verifiable:
Mattis is quoted as saying Trump is “dangerous,” “unfit,” has “no moral compass” and took foreign policy actions that showed adversaries “how to destroy America.” After Mattis left the administration, he and Coats discussed whether they needed to take “collective action” to speak out publicly against Trump. Mattis says he ultimately resigned after Trump announced he was withdrawing US troops from Syria, “when I was basically directed to do something that I thought went beyond stupid to felony stupid.”
Woodward writes that Coats and his top staff members “examined the intelligence as carefully as possible,” and that Coats still questions the relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Coats saw how extraordinary it was for the president’s top intelligence official to harbor such deep suspicions about the president’s relationship with Putin. But he could not shake them.”
Trump has come under fire in recent days for reportedly making disparaging remarks about US military personnel and veterans. Woodward’s book includes an anecdote where an aide to Mattis heard Trump say in a meeting, “my fucking generals are a bunch of pussies” because they cared more about alliances than trade deals. Mattis asked the aide to document the comment in an email to him. And Trump himself criticized military officials to Woodward over their view that alliances with NATO and South Korea are the best bargain the US makes. “I wouldn’t say they were stupid, because I would never say that about our military people,” Trump said. “But if they said that, they – whoever said that was stupid. It’s a horrible bargain. They make so much money. Costs us $10 billion. We’re suckers.”
But that’s not all:
Woodward reports that Trump’s national security team expressed concerns the US may have come close to nuclear war with North Korea amid provocations in 2017. “We never knew whether it was real,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is quoted as saying, “or whether it was a bluff.” But it was so serious that Mattis slept in his clothes to be ready in case there was a North Korean launch and repeatedly went to the Washington National Cathedral to pray.
Trump boasted to Woodward about a new secret weapons system. “I have built a nuclear – a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before,” Trump said. Woodward says other sources confirmed the information, without providing further details, but expressed surprise that Trump disclosed it.
That’s because revealing that secret weapons system is a security disaster, although because he said that he alone, working alone, thought up and developed this amazing wipe-them-all-out superweapon all by himself, there may be no such thing, but there was this:
Woodward obtained the 27 “love letters” Trump exchanged with Kim Jong Un, 25 of which have not been reported publicly. The letters, filled with flowery language, provide a fascinating window into their relationship. Kim flatters Trump by repeatedly calling him “Your Excellency,” and writes in one letter that meeting again would be “reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film.” In another, Kim writes that the “deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force.” CNN has obtained the transcripts of two of the letters.
Woodward pressed Trump on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Once again, Trump dismissed the US intelligence assessment and defends bin Salman: “He says very strongly that he didn’t do it.”
Trump insulted his predecessors, saying Woodward made former President George W. Bush “look like a stupid moron, which he was.” Trump said of former President Barack Obama: “I don’t think Obama’s smart … I think he’s highly overrated. And I don’t think he’s a great speaker.” He also tells Woodward that Kim Jong Un thought Obama was an “asshole.”
Woodward discussed the Black Lives Matter protests and suggested to the President that people like the two of them — “White, privileged” — need to work to understand the anger and pain that Black people feel in the US. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you,” Trump responded, repeating his talking point that he’s done more for the Black community than any president besides Abraham Lincoln.
These people at CNN are quite unkind:
The book is filled with searing indictments of Trump. Mattis is quoted criticizing the President both for his chaotic process and ill-advised, go-it-alone policy decisions. When Trump says he wants to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and South Korea, Mattis privately told Coats, “That’s dangerous,” Woodward reports. “The President has no moral compass.”
Coats agreed. He’s quoted as saying, “To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”
Mattis is quoted as saying Trump took foreign policy actions that showed adversaries “how to destroy America. That’s what we’re showing them. How to isolate us from all of our allies. How to take us down. And it’s working very well.”
And there’s this:
Coats also felt that leaders like Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had lied to Trump. Woodward writes that Coats believed they “played Trump skillfully. They would roll out the red carpet for him, flatter him, and then do what they wanted.”
Coats believed that Trump’s isolation in the White House was making him become more paranoid and lonely, Woodward writes.
Mattis struggled with the challenge of not only facing the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea, but of Trump escalating the situation with his Twitter insults. Mattis is quoted as saying he was “often trying to impose reason over impulse.” He said he got little guidance from Trump “other than an occasional tweet.”
Mattis is quoted as saying it was difficult to brief Trump, because the discussion could “go off on what I kind of irreverently call those Seattle freeway off-ramps to nowhere.”
“So you just had to deal with it,” Mattis is quoted as saying. “It was how do you govern this country and try to keep this experiment alive for one more year?”
Mattis said he ultimately resigned after he was blindsided by Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw troops from Syria. Woodward quotes Mattis as saying the decision “went beyond stupid to felony stupid.”
After Mattis had resigned, he and Coats discussed whether they might have to “stand up and speak out” and “take collective action.”
“He’s dangerous,” Mattis said. “He’s unfit.”
And of course he doesn’t know that. Politico reports this:
Trump’s decision to cooperate was seen as partly based on his respect for the Watergate reporter as an institution, the officials said, a rite of passage ritual numerous other presidents have gone through. They compared it to his 1980s cultural mindset that put special value on Time magazine covers and The New York Times.
“Trump loves brands, and Woodward has been the gold standard for 50 years of investigative journalism around the presidency, so it’s the same reason why he likes the Gray Lady, he likes The New York Times. It’s the paper of record traditionally in his hometown, so even though both excoriate him, he’s attracted to them the way a low-IQ small moth would be to a flame,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as White House communications director under Trump.
“Trump is always convinced that if he talks to the person, he is going to elucidate and enlighten that person and get them to like him.”
But not this time:
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham also helped to persuade Trump to participate in the book and told him that President George W. Bush once cooperated with a Woodward book and it turned out far better as a result, one White House aide said.
Bush’s longtime strategist Karl Rove remembered it differently, however. “Every president does a Bob Woodward book and gives him plenty of interviews and then later comes to regret it, and this is probably one of those instances,” he told Fox News on Wednesday.
Rove was right. Maggie Haberman saw this:
Mr. Trump provided Mr. Woodward with the details of letters between himself and the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, in which the two men are fawning toward one another. Mr. Kim wrote in one letter that their relationship was like a “fantasy film.”
Describing their chemistry to Mr. Woodward, Mr. Trump said: “You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen. It doesn’t take you 10 minutes and it doesn’t take you six weeks. It’s like, whoa. OK. You know? It takes somewhat less than a second.”
That’s a bit unsettling, but so is this:
Mr. Coats, who learned he was being fired from his position in July 2019 from a New York Times article that posted online while he was on the golf course at Mr. Trump’s private club, was chewed out by Mr. Trump after a briefing with reporters about the threat that Russia presented to the nation’s elections systems. Mr. Coats had gone further than he and the president had discussed beforehand.
“What was that briefing?” he asked, apparently upset about all the focus on Russia. “Why’d you do that?”
Mr. Trump complained about the various investigations into his campaign and Russia and, according to the book, leaned on Mr. Coats to either curtail the federal investigation or to publicly echo the conclusions of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation that there was no conspiracy. Mr. Coats tried to explain that that was beyond what he had visibility into, according to the book.
At one point, Mr. Trump moaned that the investigations were hindering his abilities as president.
“Putin said to me in a meeting, he said, it’s a shame, because I know it’s very hard for you to make a deal with us. I said, you’re right,” Mr. Trump said.
It’s no wonder Coats was worried. Everyone should be. But not everyone is:
One White House aide tried to wave it off as yet another damning Trump book in an already crowded field, one that wouldn’t add much to what’s already known.
“Everyone has a book,” a second senior administration said with a shrug.
Sure, but that’s the whole problem. Or this is the real problem:
President Donald Trump has not held a single mock debate session, and has no plans to stage a formal practice round, as he readies for his first faceoff with Joe Biden in less than three weeks, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.
The president has dismissed the typical debate preparations he participated in four years ago, joking to aides and allies that he’s been preparing for debates since he was born. His ability to fire back at an opponent in real time, he’s argued, “isn’t something you have to practice.”
Trump’s allies said he plans to head into the debate with some talking points but has resisted practicing a series of scripted exchanges. The president doesn’t want to be told precisely what to say on specific issues, they said.
He’ll handle this debate just like he handled Bob Woodward with all those pesky little questions. He’ll wing it. What could go wrong?
He should know better now. He doesn’t.