The new nuggets in the Post write-up are similar, and sometimes identical, in substance and thrust to what other reports have already conveyed: The White House is a snake’s nest of fear, rivalry, and backbiting, overseen haphazardly by an incompetent and mercurial president.
Yet they are bound to land with a little extra force because of the source. The obvious analogue is Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which created a splash when it was released in January. Yet while parts of Wolff’s book rang true, critics were able to poke some holes in others. Additional books about the White House have come from narrators who are unreliable, either because they have an axe to grind (Omarosa Manigault-Newman) or a relationship to sweeten (Sean Spicer). Woodward is not without critics, many of whom make valid points about his methods. But regardless of the means, he tends to deliver the goods.
If there’s an overarching theme that emerges from the new revelations, it is the depth of the mutual disgust and disrespect between the president and his top aides, which is even more extensive than was already known. While some of the characters in Woodward’s anecdotes, including Cohn, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Staff Secretary Rob Porter, and National-Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, have already left the administration, Mattis, Kelly, Sessions, and Ross remain in top positions.
Given the revelations in Woodward’s book, how can these men stay in their roles with a president they detest so much? How will they be able to do their jobs now? And how could the president possibly keep them around now that the book is out?
The standard answer to the first question is that they are there to protect the country, and the anecdotes in Woodward’s book match to that. He writes that Trump questioned why the U.S. needed to have troops in South Korea, to which Mattis replied, “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III.” He reportedly later told friends, “Secretaries of defense don’t always get to choose the president they work for.”
Woodward also claims that Mattis slow walked an order from Trump to kill Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in April 2017, instead talking the president down to a set of air strikes. That aligns with reporting by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker, who said Mattis appeased Trump by saying the Pentagon was working on things, then let them die quietly.
For a man like Mattis, the defense secretary’s job seems to be a crowning honor in a decorated career, an act of duty to serve the nation, and a chance to help save the country from its president. Whatever moral qualms some Trump aides have about serving him, they believe, or tell themselves, that they are better able to prevent disaster by being inside the administration than they are by leaving. Assessing such claims, as a matter of fact or of morality, is difficult, though the anecdotes sources told Woodward seem designed to bolster them.