By Kevin Lamarque/Reuters.
Early leaked excerpts from Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, are overflowing with the sort of new details that ought to trigger the 25th Amendment. “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything,” Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly groused, while Defense Secretary James Mattis complained that when it came to international affairs, Trump “acted like—and had the understanding of—‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’ ” Many of these anecdotes largely confirm the reporting of the less scrupulous Michael Wolff, whose own account of Trump’s deteriorating mental state, Fire and Fury, set off a similar media frenzy back in January. Woodward’s book, however, is likely to resonate in more profound, and longer-lasting ways. For one, it has the imprimatur of a renowned journalist whose legacy of reporting on the Watergate scandal lends the book’s conclusions a greater degree of legitimacy. Perhaps more important, Woodward covers a period running into the summer of 2018, while Wolff’s book chronicles the first several months of the administration. As such, Woodward is able to document a development that was still only a glint in Trump’s eye at the time Wolff lost his access to the White House: the Mueller probe.
Most of Woodward’s reporting here is as disturbing as expected, which is another way of saying it is shocking but not surprising—the four-word epithet that has come to define Trump’s presidency. According to CNN’s report on the 448-page book, Trump’s then-personal attorney John Dowd became convinced that Trump could not be allowed to speak to Robert Mueller because the president would inevitably perjure himself. Trump, as has been previously reported, rebelled, insisting that he could exonerate himself if only he could testify with the special counsel. Dowd, Woodward reports, decided to conduct a mock interview on January 27 to prove his point.
Trump failed, according to Dowd, but the President still insisted he should testify.
Woodward writes that Dowd saw the “full nightmare” of a potential Mueller interview, and felt Trump acted like an “aggrieved Shakespearean king.”
More surprising is what reportedly happened next: Dowd and Trump’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, “went to Mueller’s office and re-enacted the mock interview” with the hope of convincing Mueller that Trump couldn’t testify because he is a pathological liar. “He just made something up. That’s his nature,” Dowd reportedly told Mueller. (In an interview with the Daily Caller shortly after parts of Fear were leaked, Trump attacked Woodward in a manner characteristic with Dowd’s alleged statement, accusing the Watergate reporter of having ”lot of credibility problems.”)
The details revealed in The Washington Post’s own story are, if possible, even more damaging. The Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa make note of the same meeting between Dowd, Sekulow, and Mueller (as well as Mueller’s deputy, James Quarles), but they add a critical exchange after Dowd and Sekulow re-enact the disastrous mock interview session:
Dowd then explained to Mueller and Quarles why he was trying to keep the president from testifying: “I’m not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot. And you publish that transcript, because everything leaks in Washington, and the guys overseas are going to say, ‘I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with this idiot for?’ ”
“John, I understand,” Mueller replied, according to Woodward.
Here we have the president’s legal counsel arguing not only that Trump is too mendacious to testify, but that he would look so moronic if the transcript ever leaked that it would constitute a national-security crisis. Dowd is practically pleading with Mueller to think of the greater good: if foreign leaders read Trump’s testimony, he suggests, it would be impossible for them not to conclude that he is unfit for office.
On Tuesday, both Dowd and Sekulow denied Woodward’s account of their meeting with Mueller. But Dowd’s urge to protect Trump from himself—and thereby protect the country from Trump—is more than just anecdotal. It is, in fact, the central theme running throughout Fear. Woodward recounts how Mattis, for instance, deliberately ignored Trump’s declaration that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and “the fucking lot” of his Syrian supporters be assassinated. (“We’re not going to do any of that,” Mattis told a senior aide when he got off the phone.) Former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn is reported to have stolen a letter off Trump’s desk that would have withdrawn the U.S. from a trade deal with South Korea, and hinted to former aide Rob Porter that he would do the same for any deal nixing NAFTA (“I can stop this. I’ll just take the paper off his desk,” he reportedly said).
Of course, nearly all of the aides and advisers who tried to manage Trump have since given up or resigned. (Kelly remains, though one imagines his exit has just been hastened.) Some, presumably, went on to be sources for Woodward. Dowd himself left the White House several weeks after meeting with Mueller, as the Post observes:
Later that month, Dowd told Trump: “Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit.”
But Trump, concerned about the optics of a president refusing to testify and convinced that he could handle Mueller’s questions, had by then decided otherwise.
“I’ll be a real good witness,” Trump told Dowd, according to Woodward.
“You are not a good witness,” Dowd replied. “Mr. President, I’m afraid I just can’t help you.”
The next morning, Dowd resigned.