Fire and Fury, the New York Times bestseller chronicling the first year of the Trump White House, provided a shockingly intimate look into the machinations of a chaotic presidential administration. Its allegations were detailed and damming, but its author, Michael Wolff, carried an unsavory reputation as a journalist known to bend the rules of conventional reporting. The book’s veracity was called into question by the White House, Trump and critics on both the left and right. The same will not be said for Fear, the forthcoming book from Bob Woodward that offers a similarly nuanced glimpse of the terrifying culture surrounding a breathtakingly incompetent president. While Wolff was known to skirt protocol, Woodward — known primarily for his role exposing the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation — is one of the most revered and well-respected journalists in American history. Though Fear won’t be released until September 11th, the Washington Post, where Woodward serves as an associate editor, picked up an advance copy. On Tuesday, the paper published a delicious preview of what to expect.
According to the Post, the book, which was based on hundreds of hours of interviews conducted on deep background, meaning the sources were not revealed, depicts an administration rife with “anger and paranoia.” Trump is portrayed as someone with little knowledge of how government functions and, tragically, little desire to learn. He is deeply embarrassed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, routinely critical of the administration officials he hired and totally unequipped to lead the world’s most powerful nation. Those around him work tirelessly to protect Trump from himself, employing “stealthy machinations” in an effort to “control his impulses and prevent disasters, both for the president personally and for the nation he was elected to lead.”
Woodward reportedly writes of how after Trump learned in April 2017 that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad attacked his own people with chemical weapons, the president instructed Defense Secretary James Mattis to “fucking kill him” and to go in and “kill the fucking lot of them.” Mattis agreed before telling an aide to come up with a more “measured” response. Former economic adviser Gary Cohn would reportedly remove papers from Trump’s desk to prevent them from being signed. Cohn ultimately resigned, as would John Dowd, the president’s former legal counsel who allegedly attempted to convince Trump that he would end up in an “orange jumpsuit” should he agree to an interview with Mueller’s team. As former staff secretary Rob Porter told Woodward, “This was no longer a presidency. This is no longer a White House. This is a man being who he is.”
The book also appears to be packed with accounts of Trump airing grievances against his staffers and Cabinet members. Here are some (reported) words and anecdotes from the president, as gleaned from the Post.
On Attorney General Jeff Sessions:
Trump told Porter that Sessions was a “traitor” for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia investigation, Woodward writes. Mocking Sessions’s accent, Trump added, “This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb Southerner. … He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”
On former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster:
He often mocked former national security adviser H.R. McMaster behind his back, puffing up his chest and exaggerating his breathing as he impersonated the retired Army general, and once said McMaster dresses in cheap suits, “like a beer salesman.”
On former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus:
Trump apparently had little regard for Priebus. He once instructed then-staff secretary Rob Porter to ignore Priebus, even though Porter reported to the chief of staff, saying that Priebus was “‘like a little rat. He just scurries around.’”
On Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross:
Trump told Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a wealthy investor eight years his senior: “I don’t trust you. I don’t want you doing any more negotiations. … You’re past your prime.”
The lack of respect goes both ways. Woodward reportedly writes that Cohn called Trump a “professional liar.” Mattis described his behavior as that of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.” Dowd called him a “goddamn dumbbell.” Chief of Staff John Kelly is portrayed as especially resentful of his boss’ ignorance. “He’s an idiot,” Kelly said, according to Woodward. “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.”
Later on Tuesday, the Post published the audio and a transcript of an on-the-record call between Woodward and Trump. The call, which took place in August after the manuscript for Fear had already been submitted, revolved around Woodward’s inability to get gain access to Trump, despite repeated attempts. Woodward explained to Trump that though the president wasn’t quoted, the book was written entirely based on first-hand accounts, warning him that it would “a tough look at the world and your administration and you.” Trump took this to mean that the book would be “negative” and proceeded to tout his accomplishments. When Woodward emphasized that the book would be “accurate,” Trump didn’t necessarily agree. “Well, accurate is that nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president,” Trump said.
But considering the book’s author, it’s going to be harder for the White House to discredit Fear than it was for them to dismiss Fire and Fury or, more recently, Unhinged, Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s tell-all account of her time with the administration, as not credible.
WH officials are going to have a difficult time dumping on Woodward's credibility like they did with Omarosa & Wolff. He's revered by 99.9% of Washington, respected by folks inside the administration (they wouldn't have spoken to him otherwise), & a household name across America
— Gabby Morrongiello (@gabriellahope_) September 4, 2018
That doesn’t mean they’re not going to try, of course. Hours after the preview was published, the White House responded as expected. “This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote in a statement. Included in the response was a statement from Kelly. “The idea that I ever called the president an idiot is untrue,” he wrote. Dowd issued a separate denial. “There was no so-called ‘practice session’ or ‘re-enactment’ of a mock interview at the Special Counsel’s office,” he wrote, referring to a mock Mueller interview reportedly conducted by the president’s former legal counsel. “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 jump suit.'” Pundit-at-law Rudy Giuliani chimed in, as well. “If they said it, they should be questioning why they are there,” he told CNBC. “Why don’t they go get another job? That’s the kind of disloyalty that leads to you leaving, not staying and undermining the president.”
Mattis, too, denied what Woodward’s reporting alleges. “The contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward’s book were never uttered by me or in my presence,” he said in a statement. “While I genuinely enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility.”
Trump responded Tuesday afternoon during an Oval Office interview with the Daily Caller. “It’s just another bad book,” Trump said. “He’s had a lot of credibility problems.” The president added that he “probably would have preferred to speak to him, but maybe not. I think it probably wouldn’t have made a difference in the book. He wanted to write the book a certain way.”
“It’s just nasty stuff,” Trump continued. “I never spoke to him. 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. For some reason I didn’t get messages on it.” A few hours later he suggested on Twitter that Woodward could be a “Dem operative.”
Despite Woodward’s “credibility problems,” the president wondered in 2013 how the Obama White House could get away with criticizing a journalist as esteemed as the longtime Post reporter.
Only the Obama WH can get away with attacking Bob Woodward.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 1, 2013
There really is a tweet for everything.
This post has been updated.