Another one for the books
Once again, the Trump White House on Tuesday had to fire up its rapid-response machine to deal with a book depicting an out-of-control presidency. But its pushback at Bob Woodward's "Fear: Trump in the White House" was slow off the mark.
There was plenty for Donald Trump to be upset about. Woodward describes an executive branch in "nervous breakdown," with top aides thwarting Trump's impulses by snatching papers from his desk so he couldn't see or sign them. He corroborates NBC's report last year that Rex Tillerson, then secretary of state, called the president a "moron."
It quotes chief of staff John Kelly as saying in a small group meeting, “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown." Defense Secretary James Mattis told associates after an exasperating session on North Korea that the president acted like — and had the understanding of — "a fifth- or sixth-grader, ” Woodward wrote.
The White House's damage-control task was tougher this time because, unlike "Fire and Fury" author Michael Wolff, let alone "Unhinged" writer Omarosa Manigault Newman, Woodward has a towering (if not bulletproof) reputation for reportorial prowess dating back to exposing the Watergate cover-up, which toppled President Richard Nixon.
The first statement, hours after The Washington Post and CNN posted excerpts, came from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She did not attack Woodward — just those who talked to him. "This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad," she said.
In an interview appearing later on the conservative Daily Caller website, Trump went further, saying Woodward has "a lot of credibility problems" and speculated that unflattering stories could have come from “disgruntled employees or just made up.” By evening, Trump was fired up enough to tweet a groundless insinuation: "Woodward is a Dem operative? Notice timing?" And by Wednesday morning, he was back to an old standby, suggesting changes in the libel laws.
Kelly denied in a statement he ever called Trump an "idiot." Mattis said he never uttered the "contemptuous words" attributed to him. Another denial came from former Trump defense lawyer John Dowd who, according to Woodward, was against letting the president be questioned by special counsel Robert Mueller because he couldn't keep himself from lying and could end up in an "orange jumpsuit" if he testified.
By comparison, tweets look restrained
It's not just what top officials are said to have said about Trump that makes the Woodward book explosive. There are also quotes from Trump. For example, if you think there's nothing worse that the president could have said about Attorney General Jeff Sessions than what he's already put on Twitter, try this:
"This guy is mentally retarded. He's this dumb Southerner," Trump told Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary who later was forced out amid domestic violence allegations.
The first reported remark didn't go over well with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, whose son has Down syndrome. As for "dumb Southerner, " Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said, "I resent that." So might voters in the red states south of the Mason-Dixon Line, if they believe Woodward's account.
Phoning it in
Trump called Woodward in August, after the manuscript was completed, to complain that he never was offered a chance to give the writer an interview. Woodward pointed out he had sent many requests, through both White House staffers such as Kellyanne Conway and outside Trump friends such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
Trump insisted he never got the messages from staff, but then admitted that Graham did raise it with him. Woodward recorded the call with Trump's knowledge, which you can listen to here.
Early in the call, Trump told Woodward: "You know I’m very open to you. I think you’ve always been fair." Near the end, Trump said, "So we’re going to have a very inaccurate book, and that’s too bad. But I don’t blame you entirely. . . . Accurate is that nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president."
Janison: And justice for me
There's a saying that ideally, justice is blind — impartial, objective, showing no favoritism. A Trump tweet Monday showed as explicitly as ever that Trump would prefer justice that lifts the blindfold and winks at him.
His complaint was about the recent indictments of two Republican congressman — Duncan Hunter of California, charged with using $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses, and Chris Collins of upstate New York, accused of insider trading.
"Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff......"
In Collins' case, what the president said isn't true — the alleged crime occurred when Trump was already in office. In both cases, the president seemed to imply that law enforcement should not operate independently in these matters but owes him and his allies political protection, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
Trump's expansive view of presidential power over the independence of law enforcement, including the Justice Department and the Mueller investigation, added extra layers of partisan tension to Senate confirmation hearings for his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, which opened Tuesday.
Kavanaugh declared that a judge should be “a neutral and impartial arbiter” to an audience including skeptical Democrats and slogan-shouting protesters. Republicans praised him as one of the most well-qualified nominees ever.
In tweets, President Donald Trump called the hearing “truly a display of how mean, angry and despicable the other side is. They will say anything, and are only . . . looking to inflict pain and embarrassment.” See Tom Brune's story for Newsday.
Just do whatever
It's no surprise that Trump hates Nike's decision to make Colin Kaepernick the new face of its "Just do it" ad campaign. He has vilified in vulgar terms the NFL players inspired by the quarterback's social-justice protests during the national anthem and has demanded they be punished. "It’s a terrible message," Trump said in the Daily Caller interview.
But Trump also gave more slack to Nike than the players.
"Nike is a tenant of mine. They pay a lot of rent,” Trump said. The company’s ability to make its own business decisions “is what this country is all about, that you have certain freedoms to do things that other people think you shouldn’t do, " said Trump, pumping irony unintentionally.
One of those decisions, announced last December, was to move the flagship Niketown New York store out of a Trump property around the corner from Trump Tower to a new location five blocks away by 2019. The East 57th Street location closed in March, though the lease apparently hasn't yet expired.
What else is happening:
- According to Woodward's book, Mattis fact-checked Trump when the president claimed the late Sen. John McCain was a coward who used his Navy admiral father's military rank to gain early release from a North Vietnam POW camp. Mattis pointed out the opposite was true — McCain was offered early release, but refused. "Oh, OK," Trump replied.
- Also according to the book, Trump said to Mattis after a chemical attack against civilians by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in 2017, “Let’s [expletive] kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the [expletive] lot of them.” After Mattis hung up, he told an aide, "We’re not going to do any of that" and came up with a more measured response plan.
- Rudy Giuliani told CNBC that any administration officials who ripped Trump to Woodward "should be questioning why they are there. Why don't they go get another job?" Giuliani also said that many of the events described in the book occurred before he joined the president's legal team.
- An ABC News/Washington Post poll before the start of the Kavanaugh hearings found 38 percent of Americans say he should be confirmed, 39 percent disagree and the rest are undecided.
- Ominously for Trump, that poll also found Democrats with a 14-point advantage over Republicans among registered voters for November's midterm congressional elections. A USA Today/Suffolk University Poll showed Democrats with an 11-point edge.
- Jared Kushner's family real estate firm has amassed more than a half-million dollars in unpaid fines for various New York City sanitation and building violations, The Associated Press reported.