Bob Woodward, the human housefly, has just buzzed back from his fifth White House to file another observed-from-an-omniscient-place-on-the-wall account of a president in turmoil. This latest flight, Fear: Trump in the White House, finds President Donald Trump lurching and floundering in agony over the legal pains the Russia investigation have inflicted upon his administration, and it fully explains why Trump’s lawyers have avoided exposing him to the interrogatory requested by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
On the afternoon of Jan. 27, 2018, Woodward writes, Trump and his attorney, John M. Dowd, met in the White House residence. Seated with the president “at a table with a view of the Washington and Jefferson Memorials,” Dowd proposed a practice run-through of the interview that Mueller had requested—and continues to request to this day.
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“I would just like to give you sort of a feel of what testimony could be like,” Dowd said to Trump, a man who has submitted himself over his long and litigious life to dozens of depositions. One of the most memorable, and damning for Trump, is the one he gave during his 2006 libel suit against biographer Timothy O’Brien. As O’Brien wrote in Bloomberg in January, “Trump ultimately had to admit 30 times that he had lied over the years about all sorts of stuff: how much of a big Manhattan real estate project he owned; the price of one of his golf club memberships; the size of the Trump Organization; his wealth; his speaking fees; how many condos he had sold; his debts, and whether he borrowed money from his family to avoid going personally bankrupt. He also lied during the deposition about his business dealings with career criminals.”
The mock interview with Dowd showed that Trump had not done much since then to improve his testimony game. For one thing, Trump couldn’t remember anything. “I’m not sure,” Trump said to one question about Michael Flynn. “I don’t know,” he said to another. “I don’t know. I can’t remember,” he said to another question. To another query, “Trump said he couldn’t remember.” “You know, I don’t know,” he said to still another as if his memory banks had been degaussed.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Actually, Trump could remember some things, and on those select things, he claimed perfect recall.
“Why did you tell Director Comey that—you kind of asked him to take it easy on Flynn,” Dowd said to Trump.
“I didn’t say that,” the president protested. “John, I absolutely didn’t say that.”
When Dowd pressed him, Trump did what he does when not blinded by memory’s fog or all-seeing: He detonated into a Yosemite Sam-style rant, calling Comey a crook and a liar in his well-practiced critique. After a brief interval, Trump promptly returned to yowl-mode, rendering the next 30 minutes useless, housefly Woodward writes. “It was quite a sight seeing the president of the United States fuming like some aggrieved Shakespearean king,” Woodward continues. “Trump finally came down from the ceiling and began to regain composure,” and Dowd explained, tactfully, that his mercurial nature meant he couldn’t possibly testify.
“I’ll be a real good witness,” Trump later told Dowd, but Dowd gave it to him unvarnished. “You are not a good witness.”
Woodward’s account and the scathing op-ed by Anonymous published this week in the New York Times confirms everything we’ve learned about Trump’s relationship with the truth. In the president’s version, he’s never at fault; he’s the victim. He’s reckless and ill-informed, as Anonymous put it, a flip-flopper extraordinaire. “Meetings with him veer off topic and off the rails,” Anonymous wrote, echoing Dowd’s mock-testimony session.
To be a good witness, you must remain consistent, but that skill is not in Trump’s tool bag. In fact, he has made an art of self-contradiction. This week, one of his first responses to the Anonymous piece was to call it phony. But inside the same tweet, he demanded that the New York Times surrender the author’s identity to him “for National Security purposes.” On Friday, he called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate the identity of Anonymous, although no law had been broken, for a lie-detector test to be administered to those suspected of writing the op-ed. He also claimed he was contemplating action against the New York Times, but didn’t say what sort of action. Trump also tweeted that “the Woodward book is a scam,” and that he doesn’t talk the way he was quoted. New York Times reporters Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman quickly proved his claim about the way he talks to be false, showing that he has used phrases like “dumb southerner” and “retard” before.
Trump’s current attorney, Rudy Giuliani, fully understands Trump’s unique relationship with the truth, which is why he keeps filibustering the question of a Mueller interview. One minute he tells the Associated Press the president wouldn’t answer Mueller’s obstruction of justice questions, the next moment he tells NBC News those questions are “not ruled in or out.” Because Mueller and his people don’t talk to the press, Giuliani is essentially playing tennis against the wall, hitting the ball ever harder and claiming every line call in his favor.
As Axios reported this week, Giuliani is essentially daring Mueller to subpoena the president, gambling that the special counsel doesn’t possess the moxie to fight the legal question of whether a president can be forced to give testimony. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that President Richard Nixon had to give up White House recordings and documents, but has never ruled on whether a president must testify. On Friday, the Giuliani hijinks continued, as he demanded to see a draft of Mueller’s report before it’s released so his team can rebut it contemporaneously. Some legal authorities interviewed by Business Insider essentially said, Nice try, Rudy, explaining that the report’s future is really up to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller. “Expect the Mueller report to be buttoned down and based on provable facts,” Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor told Business Insider. “Expect the White House response to be anything but that.”
Woodward morphs from housefly to stinging horse-fly in the last paragraph of Fear as he offers Dowd’s final assessment of the president. “Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: ‘You’re a fucking liar.’”
“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept,” George Carlin once said. Talk to yourself in email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. My Twitter feed is a louse. My RSS feed is a New World Screwworm.