President Donald Trump has called journalist Bob Woodward’s book on his administration a work of “fiction” and a “scam,” claiming that quotes in the book are “made up” and that the author is a “liar.”
At the same time, sources familiar with his thinking said he is livid at his former economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and his former staff secretary, Rob Porter, for “leaking” to Woodward.
Story Continued Below
It’s difficult to rationally argue that the book could be both: fiction dreamed up by Woodward, and a betrayal by former top stewards of the administration, who shared with the famed journalist alarming details about how the White House functions.
But it’s not hard for Trump, who often spouts two opposing views intended for different audiences. And his supporters often soak up the contradictory claims just as readily as he spits them out, taking it all in stride.
Call it a belt-and-suspenders approach.
When it comes to the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, for instance, Trump has simultaneously claimed that “there was no collusion” with the Russians, but, also, that “collusion is not a crime.”
He has covered all of his bases when it comes to his view of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, flip-flopping on whether Kim is a “worthy negotiator” or “obviously a mad man,” depending on what Kim has recently said about him.
One of Trump’s favorite boasts is that he has one of the “greatest memories of all time.” But he has also simultaneously claimed not to be able to remember critical moments of his presidency, like having a one-on-one meeting with former FBI Director James Comey in the White House. (One could, however, argue that a great memory is one that selectively forgets unhelpful information.)
And when it comes to the media, Trump constantly rails against the “fake news media,” branding journalists as “very dishonest people” while continuing to sit with journalists in the Oval Office and even praise some of his favorite punching bags mid-swing. A day after refusing to call on CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta at a news conference in England and bragging about his “takedown,” Trump last July, for instance, tweeted that Acosta was “actually a nice guy.”
People who have interacted with Trump over the years said he can sell two opposing viewpoints because he doesn’t see them as such.
When it comes to the Woodward book, in particular, “he has to call it fiction because it criticizes him, that piece is just a given,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former president and chief operating officer of the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City, who has since become a critic of his former boss. “He also loves attacking people. He’s comfortable when he’s doing that. As a tack, he doesn’t associate the two. He can say the book is fiction and then go out and attack individuals he thinks spoke to Woodward.”
O’Donnell said it’s part of a classic Trump playbook. “The same person can be a good guy and a bad guy,” he said. “He does that regularly. He changes every five minutes because it’s all about the attention span, and who is the last person he spoke to, and what light does it put him in in any given moment. That’s what can change his whole approach.”
Other longtime associates said in the case of the Woodward book, Trump would be better off changing tack completely: embracing the narrative whole hog, rather than trying to discredit it on multiple fronts at once.
“Trump is level-headed. It’s the other guy who is taking the stuff off of his desk,” said Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, referring to a scene in the book where Cohn steals a letter off of the Resolute Desk to prevent Trump from withdrawing from a trade agreement with South Korea. “My strong recommendation is Trump buys 1 million copies and carpet bombs them into every congressional district in dispute and he will win them all.”
Bannon said Trump should stop bashing both the author and his former aides, because in his view the book demonstrates that Trump stayed the course, even beset by a set of advisers misleading him — and that Trump, alone, understood how national security and trade deals are linked. “If he acts like a 5-year-old,” said Bannon, “I want more 5-year-olds on the National Security Council.”
Another former adviser said most of Trump’s anger is likely driven by the fact that he never had the opportunity to sit down with Woodward, despite the author’s repeated requests for an interview.
But even when it comes to whether or not Trump knew about the interview request, he appeared to want to bet on both sides of the coin: he claimed he didn’t know anything about Woodward’s attempts to reach him, while also admitting in the same conversation that “Sen. Graham actually mentioned it quickly in one meeting.”
“He has always spoken highly of Woodward over the years,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign adviser. “He reveres these people. He would have loved to participate in this book. I can tell you, the idea of a Bob Woodward book, he lives for that.”