Woodward's revelations raise disturbing questions about Trump

Bob Woodward...

Posted: Sep 5, 2018 5:01 PM
Updated: Sep 5, 2018 5:01 PM

Bob Woodward's charges that top national security staff find themselves compelled to protect the world from President Donald Trump should, in any normal time, precipitate an almost unprecedented national emergency.

The revelations, in the veteran reporter's new book, are so stark and shocking because they flesh out a narrative that the President's critics have long advanced -- that he is simply not fit, by intellect, temperament and knowledge, to be the most powerful man in the world.

Donald Trump

Government and public administration

Government bodies and offices

Jeff Sessions

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Political Figures - US

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US federal government

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James Mattis

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US Republican Party

For any other President, such charges would trigger a national debate, action from within the administration to address the national crisis and perhaps hearings on Capitol Hill, even compered by the President's Republican allies. Certainly, any conventional commander in chief would be pitched into an immediate political crisis and might see his approval ratings splinter.

Yet the lesson of Trump's presidency is that controversies that would hollow out a normal White House often leave him untouched. At least they don't alter the political realities that prop up his rule --- a loyal, immovable base of grassroots voters who embrace his aggressive attempts to discredit any person or organization that attempts to judge him and a Republican Party unwilling to risk its own fortunes by crossing him.

The question now is, does that equation hold -- following Woodward's reporting? After all, his account is based on the judgment of top administration players themselves that there is an "unhinged" "liar," a "fifth grade" intellect and an aggrieved and abusive "Shakespearean king" raging in the Oval Office.

A President, who prizes loyalty and self-image above all, is left exposed and isolated in his own White House, viewed with contempt by those who serve him and open to ridicule by others who see his swaggering, domineering brand as a front for inadequacy.

The most serious question raised by Woodward's new book is the idea that the people in the Situation Room alongside Trump view him as so lacking in sophistication and judgment that they take extreme measures -- described as an "administrative coup d'etat" -- to sidestep the threat they perceive he poses to national security.

Given the rich texture of a book stitched with conversations and comments from top officials that drip with disdain for the President, there must be significant doubt whether top White House and administration staffers can just brazen out the storm and go on as before.

While some critics have questioned Woodward's methods in the past, his credibility of a lifetime of reporting, and the sheer volume and staggering nature of the revelations contained in "Fear: Trump in the White House," are strong arguments as to its authenticity.

Trump responded to the crisis by adopting the aggressive methods he always uses to rebut criticism and by living up his maxim to hit back hard.

But there was also a surreal twist to his push back -- as he tweeted out denials to bizarre allegations that he used offensive language to describe his Attorney General and highlighted take downs by conservative media.

"The already discredited Woodward book, so many lies and phony sources, has me calling Jeff Sessions "mentally retarded" and "a dumb southerner." I said NEITHER, never used those terms on anyone, including Jeff, and being a southerner is a GREAT thing. He made this up to divide!" Trump tweeted late on Tuesday night.

Notwithstanding the carefully worded denials of those quoted, Woodward's revelations -- which he stood by Wednesday morning in the face of withering White House criticism -- must raise questions about the extent to which top officials owe the public an explanation.

If key figures such as chief of staff John Kelly, former top economic adviser Gary Cohn and Mattis are really intervening regularly to avert national security disasters, should they not make their worries known to the American people and the Congress? Or is the continued service of some top subordinates, despite the personal and reputational cost, an act of selfless patriotism that could avert further damage?

There could also be political implications from the new Woodward blockbuster.

If his version of events, backed up by exhaustive interviews and tapes, is a real reflection of the situation, how much longer can Republicans, who have shielded Trump for nearly two years, continue to defend and sustain him?

Then there is the impact on the President's mood and psyche. He has already given every impression of wallowing in fury and resentment. Now, with his inner circle of aides apparently dumping on him, he is likely to be even more brittle and alone.

That could translate into fury on Twitter, even more volatile reactions to key global controversies and ever more fervent attempts to change the subject -- emotions that often translate into diatribes against top targets such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions or special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

Bipartisan presidential tormentor

Woodward's books have often specialized in debunking the illusion of a highly competent president and the cult of infallibility that sprouts around the Oval Office.

His new offering, which comes out next Tuesday, is slightly different -- and that may make it even more damaging -- since it appears to confirm in detail and documentation many previous accounts of an off-the-rails presidency and a mercurial commander in chief.

Still, the immediate reaction of those quoted lambasting their boss by Woodward was damage control. Kelly denied calling Trump an "idiot." The President's former lawyer John Dowd refuted a claim that he had warned that his client's lies would end up with him in an "orange jump suit." Mattis said he had never used "contemptuous" words about Trump -- such as the claim the commander in chief had the intellect of a fifth- or sixth-grader, which was reported by Woodward in the book, obtained by CNN.

There was no comment from Cohn, who was said to have taken a document off of Trump's desk that could have jeopardized a missile early-warning system on the Korean Peninsula, saying, "Got to protect the country."

Trump followed up the sequence of administration denials with a tweet -- his tested method of signaling to supporters that any criticism is all just a partisan plot.

"The Woodward 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. Likewise other stories and quotes. Woodward is a Dem operative? Notice timing?"

Given that the White House is being portrayed in the throes of a "nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world," Woodward's book could also manifest itself as useful intelligence for America's foes who want to test Trump.

The book is also likely to inject new political toxins into the midterm election campaign, as well.

Rough moment

The question it is impossible to answer right now is whether the Woodward storm will thrash through Washington and blow itself out -- as the history of Trump the politician suggests it might -- and things will go back to normal until the next damaging exposés.

Or is the book so credible and corrosive to Trump's image that it helps build increasing disquiet about his presidency to a critical mass that could begin to unpick the political realities and staunch GOP support that have sustained him in office so far?

After all, the book comes out at a rough moment for the President. He stirred widespread disapproval for his refusal to honor Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who died late last month.

The President also perhaps has increased personal legal exposure from the convictions of two people who were once close to him, his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his personal lawyer Michael Cohen.

It's by now a cliché that Trump's loyal base will not desert him, whatever happens. His conservative media cheerleaders are certain to ride into battle to discredit Woodward -- though he is not known as a partisan and has tormented Democratic as well as Republican presidents.

It's possible that yet more unflattering reports about the President's conduct and character could add to GOP difficulties -- especially among more moderate voters in suburban districts that might end up being especially crucial in the battle for control of the House of Representatives.

The very fact of the confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, an authentic conservative Supreme Court nominee, this week explains why many Republicans have been willing to ignore previous exposés alleging Trump is incompetent and poorly suited to the presidency.

But there were genuine signs of disgust on Capitol Hill over offensive attacks leveled at Sessions by the President, as reported by Woodward.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter quoted Trump as calling Sessions, who is frequently a target of his rage, as a "dumb southerner" and "mentally retarded."

There is often a disconnect between how Washington and media elites perceive Trump's most explosive comments and how they are interpreted elsewhere -- especially in regions that strongly favor the President and his unchained style.

But the "southern" jibe at Sessions at least appeared to have the potential to offend some of the President's most committed supporters. It certainly didn't sit well with some senators from Trump country.

"I resent that," Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, told CNN's Manu Raju.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who often defends the President, said the feud with Sessions made him uncomfortable and that if Trump had indeed made such remarks it would be "inappropriate."

But while praising Woodward as a good reporter, Graham added: "Most people in the South like what Trump's doing. They're not going to read this book."

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