WASHINGTON — Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear” portrays an erratic, impulsive President Trump who seems to not mind one iota about the disorder in his White House.
Trump is also shown to be media-obsessed: on the one hand, he’s suggested that they revoke reporters’ White House credentials and that changes be made to libel laws; on the other, he’s hungry for being part of the media scrum, and even suspected of being the source of a leak. He’s skillful at drawing non-stop attention and drumming up diversions, but just as adept at giving into temptation and stepping on his own message.
Take the case of John Dowd, the President’s former lawyer and a central figure in the book. He submitted his resignation in a phone call to Trump on March 22.
After he hung up, Woodward writes, “Two minutes later, the New York Times called Dowd, and the Washington Post called. Dowd could see Trump picking up the phone and imagined him calling Maggie Haberman at the Times. ‘Maggie? F—ing Dowd just resigned.’ Trump always liked to be the first to deliver the news.”
Trump’s penchant for watching coverage of himself is well known, but the extent to which he cares about what is being said about him seems to have surprised even Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist.
Woodward writes, “During Trump’s first six months in the White House, few understood how much media he consumed. It was scary. Trump didn’t show up for work until 11:00 in the morning. Many times he watched six to eight hours of television in a day. Think what your brain would be like if you did that? Bannon asked.”
That included watching CNN on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, after playing golf on a beautiful day at Mar-a-Lago. Woodward notes, “He would watch CNN’s D-team of panelists, whom Bannon considered super-haters, and get worked up. Bannon would say, ‘What are you doing? Why do you do this? Cut this off. It’s not meaningful. Just enjoy yourself.’”
The excerpts released last week showed the utter frustration of White House aides to the point where they would pull memos from his desk, but they are only a sliver of Woodward’s stories and anecdotes that showcase dysfunction.
As he writes, some aides were better than others in protecting their hides.
In the transition period, as Trump was assembling his administration, he tried to lure Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn to take a job in the administration.
In one meeting, Trump said to Cohn, “You know what? I hired the wrong guy for treasury secretary. You should be treasury secretary. You would be the best treasury secretary.”
His choice for treasury secretary, banker and Hollywood financier Steven Mnuchin, was right there in the meeting.
“Come back and tell me what you want. You’d be great to have on the team. It’d be fantastic,” Trump told Cohn.
Woodward writes, “Five minutes later while Cohn was still in the building, he saw a television flash breaking news: President-elect Trump has selected Steve Mnuchin as treasury secretary.” Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, suspected that Mnuchin revealed to press that he was the pick.
Trump has blasted the book and the White House has bashed it, but their criticisms have only added to the publicity swarm around its publication.
Shedding some light on this inability to ignore the media swirl, Woodward says, “All presidencies are audience driven, but Trump’s central audience is often himself. He kept giving himself reviews. Most were passionately positive. Much of his brain was in the press box.”
Below are other details from “Fear” on Trump’s media fixation:
Trump wanted to revoke media credentials. In a conversation with Trump, Dowd said of the White House media, “I’d pull all their credentials. I’d throw them the f— out of here. I don’t think they have any right to come into the White House and behave the way they do.”
Trump said he agreed, but he got “overruled” by Chief of Staff John Kelly and then-communications director Hope Hicks.
Such a move would likely trigger legal action from media outlets.
Dowd, though, is quoted extensively in the book, and it’s hardly flattering to Trump. He opposed the idea of Trump giving testimony to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and told him at one point, “the fact is I don’t want him looking like an idiot. And I am not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot.”
Dowd also told Mueller that he feared that any transcript of the testimony would leak and “the guys overseas are going to say, I told you he was an idiot.”
Lindsey Graham told Trump he couldn’t change libel laws. Trump was having a conversation with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program when he changed the subject.
“Can we change the libel laws?” Trump asked.
Graham told him no, explaining that the U.S. was not like England, where laws were stricter.
“Well, I don’t intend to become like England,” Trump said.
Graham’s solution seemed to be to try to persuade Trump to just ignore it. Graham told Trump that there was “no more bigger punching bag in the world than the president of the United States,” but “that’s just the hand you’re dealt.” That may have dissuaded Trump for a bit.
But as recently as last week, Trump talked about changing libel laws, and he has threatened litigation against other authors who have come out with bombshell books, including Michael Wolf and Omarosa Manigault Newman, as well as their publishers. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not rule out legal action on “Fear.” “I’ll certainly keep you posted on that,” she told reporters.
Bannon called Trump “the perfect foil” for #MeToo and Time’s Up. Bannon suggests that the rise of Time’s Up and #MeToo is driven in part by animosity toward Trump.
Woodward writes that “Bannon felt that he was not friends with Trump. Trump didn’t have genuine friends. He was a throwback to a different time — 1950s America. He was a man’s man and a guy’s guy.”
“The Time’s Up and #MeToo movements of women and feminists would create an alternative to end the male-dominated patriarchy, Bannon believed.”
According to Woodward, Bannon said, “Trump is the perfect foil. He’s the bad father, the terrible first husband, the boyfriend that f—ed you over and wasted all those years and [you] gave up your youth for, and then dumped you. And the terrible boss that grabbed you by the p—y all the time and demeaned you.”
John Kelly saw himself as protecting the President from the press. Woodward quotes Trump’s chief of staff as saying, in one meeting, “I’m the only thing protecting the President from the press. The press is out to get him. They want to destroy him. And I’m determined to stand in the way, taking the bullets and taking the arrows. Everyone’s out to get us.”
But Kelly was helpless when it came to restraining Trump, even in his first month as chief of staff. That was evidenced by Trump’s impromptu Aug. 15, 2017, press conference at Trump Tower in the aftermath of the Charlottesville. Va., violence. “You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now,” Trump said.
The President was irritated by a carefully scripted speech he had given at the White House just a day earlier, which was meant to tamp down on the criticism he had received for his initial response to the Charlottesville unrest.
After watching some of the reaction to the White House speech, Trump was livid, Woodward writes.
“That was the biggest mistake I’ve made,” Trump told his staff secretary, Rob Porter. “You never make those concessions. You never apologize.”
Bannon told Jeff Sessions that Trump’s attacks were a “diversion.” In a conversation in the summer of 2017, Bannon sought assurances from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that he would not resign even in the face of Trump’s attacks on him on Twitter.
“It’s all a diversion,” Bannon said, adding that it was because Jared Kushner was testifying before the Senate and House intelligence committees.
Sessions doubted that Trump would do such a thing, but Bannon told him, “He’d f—ing do that to you in a second. He’s doing it to you! You watch! When Jared finishes testifying, if they think it’s good testimony, he’ll stop tweeting.”
White House aides tried, with little success, to stop the tweeting. After Trump tweeted a derogatory comment about “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski, in which he wrote that she was “crazy” and was “bleeding badly from a face-lift,” Trump’s aides tried to set up a committee to “draft some tweets they believed Trump would like.” Essentially, they would try to constrain some of his most outrageous statements.
Trump said several times, “I guess you’re right. We could do that.” But then “he ignored most reviews or vetting and did what he wanted,” Woodward writes.