The Washington Post gave us a preview of Bob Woodward’s new book on the early days of the Trump Administration, oddly enough titled “Fear.”
The White House is questioning Woodward’s credibility. Admittedly, Woodward has taken some liberty with the truth in the past…like his “interview” with terminally ill and bedridden CIA director Bill Casey (here are some other famous departures from reality by Woodward). And Woodward frequently treats hearsay by non-participants in meetings as though their recounting was actual fact. Having said that, there is a lot of interesting stuff in the excerpt. Some of it is so believable that many people, myself among them, could have written the vignettes:
John Dowd was convinced that President Trump would commit perjury if he talked to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. So, on Jan. 27, the president’s then-personal attorney staged a practice session to try to make his point.
In the White House residence, Dowd peppered Trump with questions about the Russia investigation, provoking stumbles, contradictions and lies until the president eventually lost his cool.
“This thing’s a goddamn hoax,” Trump erupted at the start of a 30-minute rant that finished with him saying, “I don’t really want to testify.”
There is nothing there that should surprise anyone. But there are other stories that strain credulity. For instance, both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly are fingered as saying things about President Trump in public settings that could only be described as disloyalty and corrosive of discipline. Both men have issued denials.
Statement from Secretary of Defense, James Mattis: pic.twitter.com/OneaxKCneV
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 4, 2018
White House chief of staff John Kelly responds to Woodward book…. pic.twitter.com/rPW3DfZdNO
— Jeff Zeleny (@jeffzeleny) September 4, 2018
Both of these men are professional officers. No matter their feelings they aren’t going to say the things attributed to them about the president in the presence of subordinates. There are two simple reasons. Someone is always going to have an ax to grind with you and they will use anything you said to hurt you with your boss. And bad-mouthing your boss creates an environment of disrespect that leads to disobedience or, as one of my old bosses called it, “selective neglect.’
There is another story in the book that simply does not ring true:
Woodward describes “an administrative coup d’etat” and a “nervous breakdown” of the executive branch, with senior aides conspiring to pluck official papers from the president’s desk so he couldn’t see or sign them.
I’d be shocked if this were true. In the federal government, decision documents and memos are accountable. They have to be logged in by a staff secretary to get to the boss’s desk. Once they are logged in, they don’t get cleared until something has happened. Plus, any document making its way to the boss’s desk has someone pushing it. If they had enough clout to get their paper on the president’s desk for signature, they have enough clout to find out what happened to it. The problem with people dropping news clippings and blog posts on Trump’s desk to wind him up on a particular subject has been covered. This, however, is not the same as removing documents Trump was supposed to sign.
The overall picture it paints of a mercurial president and a chaotic White House beset by backbiting and character assassination doesn’t really move the ball forward a lot. I think most of us knew that and I predicted before the election how a Trump White House would run:
This is what weak leaders do. They assemble teams of nasty, vicious personalities, encourage them to fight, and then step in to act as peacemaker. What results is an organization where none of the senior leadership trusts anyone. They develop informal decision making channels that works against the organization’s interest but towards the interest of the individual power centers. They don’t share information and use it to sandbag their opponents. The staff becomes paralyzed because to do anything at all risks offending someone who might fire you. If you want to explain how Trump got destroyed in Utah and Wisconsin and North Dakota and Colorado and how he’s losing delegates left, right, and center then you need look no further than the Trump campaign organization and the man who put it together.
The fact that the administration chose not to actively manage Woodward’s interview process is just indicative of the mismanagement of the mundane that has characterized how this White House operates.
However, no matter how ugly this seems, there is a saving grace. The Trump White House is not the Trump Administration. The media fixation on the Trump White House is letting cabinet secretaries, perhaps the most conservative collection in my memory, take care of business. ISIS is being eradicated. North Korea has been 10 months without a missile test. Betsy DeVos is dismantling Title IX star chambers. We are on the cusp of changing the dynamics on the Supreme Court. Federal appeals courts have been remade. We seem to be serious about immigration enforcement. Iranian expansion has been stopped and an alliance of Arab States and Israel is taking shape. The Iran Nuclear Deal is dead. We aren’t coddling Cuba and Venezuela. If we have to have a reality show in the White House to get this done, it might just be a price we should be willing to pay.
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