WASHINGTON – An incendiary tell-all book by a reporter who helped bring down President Richard Nixon is roiling the White House as current and former aides of President Donald Trump are quoted as calling him an “idiot” and admitting they snatched sensitive documents off his desk to keep him from taking rash actions.
The book by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward is the latest to throw the Trump administration into damage-control mode with explosive anecdotes and concerns about the commander in chief. The Post on Tuesday published details from “Fear: Trump in the White House,” the Watergate reporter’s forthcoming examination of Trump’s first 18 months in office.
Trump pushed back in an interview with the conservative Daily Caller, saying: “It’s just another bad book. He’s had a lot of credibility problems.”
The president denied that senior aides took sensitive documents from his desk, saying, “There was nobody taking anything from me.” And he stressed that he didn’t speak to Woodward.
“I never spoke to him,” Trump said. “Maybe I wasn’t given messages that he called. I probably would have spoken to him if he’d called, if he’d gotten through.”
The publication of Woodward’s book has been anticipated for weeks, and current and former White House officials estimate that nearly all their colleagues cooperated with the famed Watergate journalist. The White House, in a statement from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, on Tuesday dismissed the book as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the President look bad.”
The book quotes chief of staff John Kelly as having doubts about Trump’s mental faculties, declaring during one meeting, “We’re in Crazytown.” It also says he called Trump an “idiot,” an account that Kelly denied.
“The idea I ever called the President an idiot is not true,” Kelly said in a statement Tuesday.
The book says that Trump’s former lawyer in the Russia probe, John Dowd, doubted the president’s ability to avoid perjuring himself should he be interviewed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and potential coordination with Trump’s campaign. Dowd, who stepped down in January, resigned after the mock interview, the book said.
“Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit,” Dowd is quoted telling the president.
Dowd, in a statement Tuesday, said “no so-called ‘practice session’ or ‘re-enactment“’ took place and denied saying that Trump was likely to end up in an orange jumpsuit.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is quoted explaining to Trump why the U.S. maintains troops on Korean Peninsula to monitor North Korea’s missile activities. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mattis said, according to the book.
The book recounts that Mattis told “close associates that the president acted like – and had the understanding of – ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’”
Woodward reported that after Syria’s Bashar Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on civilians in April 2017, Trump called Mattis and said he wanted the Syrian leader taken out, saying, “kill him! Let’s go in.” Mattis assured Trump he would get right on it but then told a senior aide they’d do nothing of the kind, Woodward wrote. National security advisers instead developed options for the airstrike that Trump ordered.
Woodward also claims that Gary Cohn, the former director of the National Economic Council, boasted of removing papers from the president’s desk to prevent Trump from signing them into law, including efforts to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The book also quotes Trump as mocking his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who has been a target of the president’s wrath since recusing himself from the Russia investigation.
“This guy is mentally retarded,” Trump said of Sessions, according to the book. “He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”
Trump did not speak to Woodward until after the book’s manuscript was completed. The Post released audio of Trump expressing surprise about the book in an August conversation with Woodward. Woodward tells Trump he had contacted multiple officials to attempt to interview Trump and was rebuffed.
The book follows the January release of author Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” which led to a rift between Trump and Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, who spoke with Wolff in terms that were highly critical of the president and his family. Wolff’s book attracted attention with its vivid anecdotes but suffered from numerous factual inaccuracies.
Woodward’s work also comes weeks after former White House aide and “Apprentice” contestant Omarosa Manigault Newman published an expose on her time in the West Wing, including audio recordings of her firing by Kelly and a follow-up conversation with the president in which he claimed to have been unaware of Kelly’s decision.
While White House aides have become increasingly numb to fresh scandals, the book still increased tensions in the West Wing, especially given the intimate details shared and the number of people Woodward appeared to have interviewed. Some White House officials expressed surprise at the number of erstwhile Trump loyalists willing to offer embarrassing stories of the president and his inner circle.
No clear response strategy emerged immediately after the Post report, but insiders speculated the fallout could be worse than from “Fire and Fury,” given Woodward’s storied reputation.
Scheduled for a Sept. 11 release, “Fear” was ranked the top-selling book on Amazon on Tuesday.
Trump has been increasingly critical of anonymous sources used by reporters covering his administration. Woodward’s account relies on deep background conversations with sources, meaning their identities are not disclosed.
Former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer defended Woodward’s methodology. “I’ve been on the receiving end of a Bob Woodward book,” he tweeted Tuesday. “There were quotes in it I didn’t like. But never once – never – did I think Woodward made it up.”
He adds: “Anonymous sources have looser lips and may take liberties. But Woodward always plays is straight. Someone told it to him.”