Trump Condemns Woodward’s White House Book as a ‘Con on the Public’
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump and his allies attacked a soon-to-be-published book by legendary investigative journalist Bob Woodward that portrays the president as mercurial, untruthful and inept and his staff as consumed by infighting and disdainful of their boss.
Trump, in a tweet on Tuesday night, questioned whether Woodward was "a Dem operative" and said that the "book has already been refuted and discredited by General (Secretary of Defense) James Mattis and General (Chief of Staff) John Kelly. Their quotes were made up frauds, a con on the public."
Kelly, the White House chief of staff, denied Tuesday an assertion by Woodward that he called the president an idiot. A former lawyer to Trump, John Dowd, denied calling his client a liar. Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said she had never heard Trump propose assassinating Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Mattis disputed belittling the president as acting like a fifth-grader.
“It’s just nasty stuff,” Trump said of Woodward’s book in an interview earlier Tuesday with the Daily Caller. “I never spoke to him. Maybe I wasn’t given messages that he called.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, called the book, "Fear," a collection of “fabricated stories.”
The Washington Post published excerpts of “Fear” on Tuesday. The book, a deeply reported examination of the Trump presidency, portrays an administration consumed by brutal infighting and a president whose anger at Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation can paralyze the West Wing for days at a time. Close advisers quietly maneuver to control Trump’s impulses and prevent political and national security disasters.
Like other remarkable books on Trump this year, including a scathing memoir by former adviser Omarosa Manigault and a similarly critical profile of his White House by author Michael Wolff, Woodward’s account is poised to dominate news coverage of the president and distract him and his staff for days and perhaps weeks as campaigning revs up for November congressional elections.
The book is scheduled to be published Sept. 11. Woodward’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, didn’t respond on Tuesday to requests for a copy, and his agent, lawyer Robert Barnett, said that he couldn’t provide one.
Woodward reports that Kelly frequently told colleagues he considered the president “unhinged,” according to the Post. In one small group meeting, Kelly said of Trump: “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.”
Kelly denied that account.
“The idea I ever called the president an idiot is not true,” Kelly said in a statement distributed by the White House. “He always knows where I stand, and he and I both know this story is total B.S.”
The episode echoed an NBC report in October 2017 that then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron” after a meeting. Tillerson never denied making the statement and Trump later dismissed him.
Trump said in the Daily Caller interview that Woodward, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes and whose early 1970s reporting on the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, has “had a lot of credibility problems.” He didn’t elaborate.
Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to another of Woodward’s book subjects, President George W. Bush, said on Twitter that while he “didn’t like” some of what Woodward published, “Never once -- never -- did I think Woodward made it up.”
The book includes details of how then-economic adviser Gary Cohn stopped the president from ordering an exit from the North American Free Trade Agreement and a trade deal with South Korea by intercepting official papers. It also describes a conversation in which Trump told Mattis to kill Assad after his government launched a chemical attack on Syrian civilians in April 2017.
Haley said she wasn’t aware of such an order when asked about the episode at a Tuesday press conference. Haley said she’d been in all the conversations about responding to the Syrian attack and “I have not once ever heard the president talk about assassinating Assad.”
Woodward reports that Mattis ignored the order and told subordinates to prepare a more conventional airstrike on Syrian military targets instead, according to the Post.
Mattis, Woodward said, was so exasperated after a Jan. 19 National Security Council meeting on the nuclear standoff with North Korea that he told close associates after Trump left the session that “the president acted like -- and had the understanding of -- ’a fifth- or sixth-grader.”’
Mattis said in a statement released by the Defense Department that “contemptuous words” attributed to him in the book “were never uttered by me or in my presence.”
Woodward writes that his book is drawn from hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand participants and witnesses, many of which were conducted on condition he would not reveal that they were the sources of the information. His account is also drawn from meeting notes, personal diaries and government documents, according to the Post.
The Post also published a transcript and audio of a phone call between Woodward and Trump, who the newspaper said didn’t respond to the author’s interview requests until August, after the book was completed. Trump told Woodward he wasn’t informed of the interview requests, before acknowledging that one of Woodward’s intermediaries, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, had mentioned it to him.
Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive, resigned as head of Trump’s National Economic Council earlier this year after failing to block new tariffs on steel and aluminum. But according to Woodward, he quietly saved the South Korea-U.S. trade agreement, known as Korus, when in 2017 he removed a “letter off Trump’s desk” that the president planned to sign that would have ordered an American withdrawal.
Cohn told a colleague that he stole the letter to protect national security, according to the Post excerpts. He also did something similar in the spring of 2017 when Trump was eager to pull out of Nafta.
Trump denied that Cohn or Porter took papers from his desk in the Daily Caller interview. “That’s false,” Trump told the publication. “It’s just made up.”
At one point the president confronted Rob Porter, his staff secretary who had also taken a lead role in trade policy, over the failure to pull out of Nafta, according to the book. Porter has since left the White House.
According to the Post: “Under orders from the president, Porter drafted a notification letter withdrawing from Nafta. But he and other advisers worried that it could trigger an economic and foreign relations crisis. So Porter consulted Cohn, who told him, according to Woodward: ‘I can stop this. I’ll just take the paper off his desk.’"
If that account is true, Cohn’s intervention may have saved both Korus and Nafta. The U.S. last week announced it had reached a bilateral deal with Mexico to salvage Nafta and the Trump administration on Wednesday is due to resume negotiations with Canada to stay in the pact. The administration also released the terms of a renegotiated Korus on Monday that makes what most trade experts consider to be only minor tweaks.
Dowd, who was Trump’s lead lawyer representing him in Mueller’s investigation until March, advised the president against testifying to the special counsel. Woodward reports that Dowd held a mock interview with Trump in which he peppered him with questions about the Russia investigation until the president began to contradict himself and lie, according to the Post.
Dowd advised Trump not to testify or else he would end up in an “orange jumpsuit,” according to the Post.
Woodward reports that Dowd recounted the mock session in a meeting with Mueller in which he explained why he wouldn’t advise Trump to testify to the special counsel.
“I’m not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot. And you publish that transcript, because everything leaks in Washington, and the guys overseas are going to say, ‘I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with this idiot for?’” Dowd told Mueller, according to the Post report on Woodward’s book.
Dowd denied portions of Woodward’s version in a statement.
“I do not intend to address every inaccurate statement attributed to me – but I do want to make this clear: there was no so-called ‘practice session’ or ‘re-enactment’ of a mock interview at the Special Counsel’s office,” Dowd said. “Further, I did not refer to the president as a “liar” and did not say that he was likely to end up in an ‘orange jumpsuit’.
Woodward’s book comes less than a month after Manigault-Newman’s tell-all account of her first year in the Trump administration, in which she called the president a “con” and a “racist.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.