Trump and the fear factor
President Trump has denounced Watergate reporter Bob Woodward's book about him, but Philip Delves Broughton says its contents are sending tremors throughout Washington
You don't often hear words like 'resistance', 'treason' and the awakening of 'sleeper cells' in Washington. But two blistering new attacks on US President Trump - Bob Woodward's new book, Fear, and a New York Times op-ed by an anonymous senior administration official - are reported to have tipped Trump into a "volcanic" rage.
If there was a siege mentality before around Trump, it is starting to feel now like all-out war. Revolt has broken out among the President's staff, and he is struggling to quell it.
According to Woodward, Trump's most senior aides don't just consider him intellectually deficient and temperamentally ill-equipped for his job. They think he's outright dangerous and have taken to stealing documents off his desk before he can sign them.
Trump responded to the critical op-ed on Twitter with a single word: "TREASON?" But later he expanded: "Does the so-called 'Senior Administration Official' really exist, or is it just the Failing New York Times with another phony source? If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!"
The bombshell op-ed speaks of "a quiet resistance within the administration" composed of "adults in the room" determined to rein in an "impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective" President. It confirms what Woodward has written: that Trump is furious and paranoid about the Russia investigation, that the White House is in a state of "nervous breakdown", and that the senior officials around Trump are engaged in an "administrative coup d'etat" to constrain his worst impulses.
Trump, Woodward writes, doesn't understand the basics of foreign policy or military strategy. His Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis, told colleagues that Trump had the understanding of a 10-year-old. Even Trump's own chief-of-staff, John Kelly, considers him "unhinged". He told a small meeting of colleagues: "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."
Bob Woodward secured his place in American history with his reporting for The Washington Post, with Carl Bernstein, on the Watergate scandal, which forced Richard Nixon to resign. He has covered every President since, with a series of books based on candid conversations with senior politicians who scramble to have him tell their side of the story on condition their names are kept out of it. His books tend to be controversial when published, but rarely challenged over time.
Since Nixon, no President has welcomed the Woodward treatment. But then no President has laid themselves quite so open to this kind of savaging as Trump.
It will be even more galling for Trump that this latest attack is coming from The Washington Post. He believes its reporters and its owner, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, have a vendetta against him.
Woodward's book reads like a long score-settling by the many people Trump has humiliated in just 20 months in office. We learn that he would mock his former national security adviser, HR McMaster, a revered army officer and strategist, for wearing cheap suits that made him look like a "beer salesman". And that he said his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was "mentally retarded" and wouldn't have made it as a country lawyer in Alabama, his home state.
But it's on military matters that Woodward takes us into Dr Strangelove territory. In April 2017 Syria's Bashar al-Assad ordered chemical weapons to be fired at civilians. Trump lost it, calling Mattis and saying, "Let's f***ing kill him! Let's go in, let's kill the f***ing lot of them!"
Mattis, a former general in the Marine Corps, told Trump he was right on it, but the moment he put the phone down he told his aides he was going to do nothing of the sort. The US response had to be "much more measured". At Mattis' direction, Trump eventually ordered an air strike.
Trump has been aggressively renegotiating America's trade deals, but originally he wanted to pull out unilaterally from its deals with South Korea, Mexico and Canada. According to Woodward, Trump's senior economic adviser, Gary Cohn, gave up arguing and simply stole the letters Trump planned to sign announcing the withdrawals straight from his desk. Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs, came to view the President as a "professional liar".
Cohn, who is Jewish, was particularly incensed by Trump's response to the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, which culminated in violent fighting with anti-fascist groups. He felt Trump had sided with the neo-Nazis, and was particularly disturbed when his daughter found a swastika on the door of her room at college. Cohn drafted a letter of resignation, which Trump called "treason". But Cohn decided to stay on. According to Woodward, Cohn discussed his resignation with Kelly, who told him: "I would have taken that resignation letter and shoved it up his ass six different times."
The White House described by Woodward doesn't differ much from that described earlier this year by Michael Wolff in his book, Fire and Fury, which was also denounced by the President. In Wolff's book, though, greater attention is paid to Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner.
In Woodward's telling they are almost invisible, irrelevant figures. Steve Bannon, Trump's former senior strategist, once screamed at Ivanka: "You're a goddamn staffer! You walk around this place and act like you're in charge, and you're not! You're on staff!" To which Ivanka replied: "I'm not a staffer! I'll never be a staffer. I'm the first daughter."
Reince Priebus, Trump's former chief-of-staff, said of the emotional violence under Trump: "When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody." There's no sign that the blood has yet to stop flowing.
Kelly and Mattis have both issued statements backing Trump's denunciation of Woodward.
In an echo of Trump's former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who was forced to deny calling his boss a "f***ing moron", Kelly said: "The idea I ever called the President an idiot is not true, in fact it's exactly the opposite." Mattis said: "While I enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and (Woodward's) sources do not lend credibility."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was similarly scathing about The New York Times op-ed. "The individual behind this piece has chosen to deceive rather than support the duly elected President of the United States. He is putting himself and his ego ahead of the will of the American people. This coward should do the right thing and resign."
Most Republicans still support Trump for his bare-knuckled politics and the rapid expansion of the economy since he cut taxes and regulation. But the idea that his reckless behaviour is posing real and repeated threats to national security won't help him.
As both Republicans and Democrats limber up for the mid-term elections in November, the attacks will give Trump plenty of material to rev up his supporters. Former President Barack Obama has just announced that he will be campaigning for the Democrats. With Congress in play and the presidency in such jeopardy, it promises to be an absolutely barnstorming electoral season.
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