One unexpected byproduct of the Trump administration has been the resurgence of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. It’s not just that Watergate feels freshly relevant and impeachment is on tongues around the country. The two aging reporters are making vital contributions once more.
Bernstein has contributed to several major stories, including the revelation of the Steele dossier. Now comes Woodward’s long-anticipated book on the Trump administration, and the first revelations, reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday, suggest it’s a doozy. Dishy, insidery books on the White House have become Woodward’s staple in recent decades, and is any White House as well suited to dishy, insidery accounts as Trump’s?
Almost certainly not.
Woodward delivers a raft of jaw-dropping anecdotes about the administration: Secretary of Defense James Mattis saying the president had the comprehension of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.” Chief of Staff John Kelly calling Trump an idiot. Trump saying Attorney General Jeff Sessions “is mentally retarded.” Economic adviser Gary Cohn orchestrating the theft of a letter from the president’s desk to prevent him from signing it. Trump telling Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, “I don’t trust you. I don’t want you doing any more negotiations. … You’re past your prime.”
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) 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 airstrikes. 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 more 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.
Kelly, like Mattis, came to the administration after a long career in the military, and seems to approach the job dutifully as well. As became clear early in his term as chief of staff (after a stint as secretary of homeland security), Kelly was far more ideologically simpatico with Trump than had been initially clear. Stylistically, they remain far apart.
“He’s an idiot,” Woodward quotes Kelly as saying during a group meeting. “It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
So why is Kelly still in the White House? He has reportedly threatened to resign on several occasions, and already appears to be effectively sidelined within the West Wing. Why stay for more abuse?
And what about Ross and Sessions? The commerce secretary is an extremely wealthy man, and already an octogenarian. (One answer is that he seems to have enriched himself by taking the job.) The president’s derision of Sessions is even more excruciating. Sessions was one of Trump’s earliest and most steadfast supporters during the 2016 presidential race, but Trump has blasted him more or less constantly since the spring of 2017. Over the Labor Day weekend, the president attacked Sessions in astonishing terms, complaining that the Justice Department had prosecuted two Republican members of Congress for committing crimes.
In addition to the “mentally retarded” slur—appalling in its own right—Trump also reportedly said, “He’s this dumb Southerner. … He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.” The description shows the apparent disdain the president holds not just for his aides, but perhaps for many of his core voters. (Trump should take note that slow-talking, thick-drawled Southern country lawyers have done serious damage to presidents before.)
It’s been reported that Sessions is likely to leave the administration after the midterms, and Trump told Bloomberg last week that he was safe until then. But it’s hard to imagine how Sessions could withstand the latest humiliation and keep serving Trump for another few months.
In fact, how can any of these top officials manage to keep doing their jobs? And even if they are able to swallow hard and keep working, how can Trump keep them around? He’s shameless enough that his remarks about Sessions won’t embarrass him, but the disrespect from Kelly and Mattis likely will. Kelly and Sessions already have a foot out the door, but Mattis—while reportedly somewhat sidelined—has seemed bulletproof, with his careful handling of the president and widespread, bipartisan acclaim making him unfireable. Will that hold?
An interesting precursor is former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who in July 2017 reportedly called the president a “fucking moron.” In October 2017, NBC first reported the remark, followed by confirmation by other outlets. Tillerson gave brief remarks that day but refused to deny he’d made the comment. From then on, he was on perpetual death watch, with departures announced several times in the press. It seemed as though the only thing keeping Tillerson from being fired was Trump’s desire to spite the media by disproving their stories. Finally, in March, Tillerson received the call—while on the toilet, according to Kelly—that he’d been fired. In the meantime, the State Department was listless, unhappy, and increasingly ineffective.
The prolonged, unhappy saga echoes the Sessions-Trump drama. The two men can’t get along, but Trump has so far refused to fire Sessions, and he didn’t accept an attempted resignation. Who knows what might happen now with Mattis, but it’s hard to imagine a successor who would be as clever, effective, and able to restrain Trump as he’s apparently been. An impulsive president who is unschooled in diplomacy and foreign affairs could be even more dangerous without hobbles like Mattis in place.
The dysfunction at the heart of Woodward’s account demonstrates the paradox at the heart of the Trump White House: Everything is irreparably and disastrously broken, and yet what comes next could be even worse.