Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Highlights of Bob Woodward's 'Fear: Trump in the White House'

In his book Fear, Bob Woodward's interviews with White House insiders fill in the backstory to many publicly embarrassing moments of the Trump presidency. The title, Fear, refers to Trump's concept of what "real power" is. He also believes, however, that personal rapport matters more than strategy. Thus, Trump acknowledges that China is an "economic aggressor" and President Xi may be "using" President Trump to meet some agenda, but Trump nevertheless feels that he is powerful in this situation insofar as he feels he has a friendship with Xi. According to Steve Bannon, however, Trump did not have any "genuine friends."

Military

Afghanistan

As the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were traced to Afghanistan, U.S. policy for the past 17 years has centered on preventing another major terrorist attack from launching from that specific place. U.S. funds were poured into the pockets of Afghan warlords with the idea that they will help fight terrorism even though these funds are diverted to their own internal corruption and violence. Today, the U.S. spends $50 billion per year in Afghanistan. Neither Bush nor Obama wanted to end the war. Trump wanted to end it completely. (His opinion: "We’ve got to figure out how to get the fuck out of there. Totally corrupt. The people are not worth fighting for...NATO does nothing. They’re a hindrance. Don’t let anybody tell you how great they are. It’s all bullshit." His mentors, however—Lindsey Graham, for one—repeatedly explained to him the risks of pulling out. In July 2017, he said: "You should be killing guys. You don’t need a strategy to kill people."

Iran

Trump always wanted to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal that had been negotiated under Obama. Priebus, Tillerson, and Mattis argued with the president about this, as they knew that Iran was in compliance with the terms of the deal. Trump persisted: “They are in violation, and you should make the case that this agreement is done and finished....And that maybe we’d be willing to renegotiate.” Tillerson eventually caved.

Syria

When Bashar al-Assad chemically attacked his own people on April 4, 2017, Trump was emotionally affected. His position was: “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them.” Mattis told Trump he'd do it, but privately he told everyone else: "We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured." The middle ground turned out to involve launching 59 missiles at Syria. Trump bragged: “A hundred countries have called...patting me on the back." Trump was interested in launching additional strikes, but he "soon forgot his questions."

North Korea

The public is aware of how Trump nearly escalated a nuclear war via Twitter. Woodward reveals that Trump wanted to evacuate dependent family members of the 28,500 U.S. troops serving in South Korea, an action that would have lent credibility to his plans to attack North Korea. Lindsey Graham had to talk Trump out of this step.

Transgender soldiers

Trump wanted to stop the military from paying for transgender-related surgeries and he wanted to remove transgender troops from service. He had incorrect information about how much certain surgeries cost. Woodward noted:

Gender reassignment surgery can be expensive but also is infrequent. In a Pentagon-commissioned study, the RAND Corporation “found that only a few hundred of the estimated 6,600 transgender troops would seek medical treatment in any year. RAND found those costs would total no more than $8 million per year.”

Priebus gave Trump four options — make no changes, ban all transgender people from service, and two more moderate options — and Trump agreed to discuss it later that morning at 10 a.m. At 8:55 a.m., however, Trump tweeted that transgender people would not be allowed "to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military." Dunford refused to make the change, as, in Woodward's words, "tweets were not orders," and he advised the service chiefs: "we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect...we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.” Mattis claimed he would reflect upon next steps, but this was a delaying tactic. Four courts entered preliminary injunctions against Trump's order. On Jan. 1, 2018, the military began accepting new servicemembers who are transgender, following the original schedule of Obama's policy.

Interpersonal problems

In 2015, Trump had said of a Republican senator, John McCain, "He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero [only] because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured." He also gave out the cell phone number of another Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, during his rival presidential campaign, but he soon reconciled with Graham. As Trump prepared to take office, Graham warned him about the sorry state of the Republican Party: "We have no idea what we’re doing. We have no plan for health care. We’re on different planets when it comes to cutting taxes. And you’re the biggest loser in this."

Woodward shows Trump maligning his own staff and supporters. To Rudy Giuliani, he once said: "Rudy, you’re a baby! I’ve never seen a worse defense of me in my life. They took your diaper off right there. You’re like a little baby that needed to be changed. When are you going to be a man?" On the advice of Rosenstein, he fired Comey via a letter. He said Reince Priebus was "like a little rat. He just scurries around...Just come talk to me. You don't have to go through him." He eventually fired Priebus and replaced him with Kelly; both men learned about the job change via a tweet. Kelly felt he had no option but to accept the job. Priebus later said: “The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way.”

Of the scandal with Russian prostitutes, he once said: "I’ve got enough problems with Melania and girlfriends...I can’t have Melania hearing about that." The allegations were compiled into a dossier. Woodward once appeared on television calling the dossier a "garbage document...Trump’s right to be upset about that." At the beginning of Fear, Woodward said he still holds this opinion, although, as a journalist, he was "not delighted to appear to have taken sides." The dossier "played a big role in launching Trump’s war with the intelligence world, especially the FBI and Comey."

Economy

Of the economy, Cohn had to keep explaining to Trump that an increase in the trade deficit is the sign of a growing economy and that Trump should abandon his goal of shrinking the trade deficit at all costs. Furthermore: "The president clung to an outdated view of America—locomotives, factories with huge smokestacks, workers busy on assembly lines. Cohn assembled every piece of economic data available to show that American workers did not aspire to work in assembly factories." Soon after the G20 summit, Trump wrote "TRADE IS BAD" on a draft of a speech he was editing with Porter. He could not understand that, if China is the world's leading manufacturer of penicillin, refusing to buy directly from China does not save money; it only increases the price of penicillin because another country will serve as the middleman. Trump tried to make Mnuchin declare China to be a currency manipulator, while Mnuchin said there was no legal validity behind that statement.

Trump had a letter drafted that he intended to sign to pull out of a trade agreement with South Korea, an important ally. "Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, Kelly—everyone on the national security side—agreed that if the trade deficit with South Korea had been 10 times greater, it still wouldn’t justify withdrawing." To solve this problem, "at least twice Cohn or Porter took [the letter] from his desk. Other times, they just delayed. Trump seemed not to remember his own decision because he did not ask about it. He had no list—in his mind or anywhere else—of tasks to complete."

Racism

After a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., he gave comments that took many aback. After his scripted comment, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence,” he ad libbed, “On many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country..." Rob Porter had a difficult time explaining to him what he'd done wrong." Trump insisted that no side has a monopoly on hate. "It’s not as if any one group is at fault or anything like that. With the media, you’re never going to get a fair shake. Anything that you say or do is going to be criticized.” Porter explained, "There’s no upside to not directly condemn neo-Nazis," and he played to Trump's ego by telling him he could be a uniter. White House speechwriters provided a draft, and Porter edited it with Trump looking over his shoulder (the President cannot type, Woodward tells us). Trump felt ambivalent and disappointed, not wanting to seem weak or nodding toward political correctness. Two days after his original "on many sides" comment, he delivered the five-minute canned conciliatory speech "[l]ooking stiff and uncomfortable, like someone coerced to speak in a hostage video." Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn praised Trump: “This was one of your finest moments as president," and Fox News hailed it as a "course correction." Trump, however, was angry: "I can’t believe I got forced to do that. That’s the worst speech I’ve ever given. I’m never going to do anything like that again." The next day, he said, “There is blame on both sides... you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had a lot of bad people in the other group too...there are two sides to a story.” For this, he was praised by ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. The leaders of the military branches then came out and stated their opposition to racism. Privately, Trump told Cohn: "I said nothing wrong. I meant what I said." In Porter's words, "This was no longer a presidency. This is no longer a White House. This is a man being who he is.”

At a meeting, he said he wanted more immigrants from Norway and Asia and fewer from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, which he famously referred to as "shithole countries."

Immediately after approving a $8.6 trillion two-year budget without any money for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, he assured his crowd: "You’re getting the wall. Don’t worry. Had a couple of these characters in the back say, oh, he really doesn’t want the wall. He just used that for campaigning....every time I hear that, the wall gets 10 feet higher...we’re going to have the wall."

Odd behavior

Trump "doesn’t touch type or use a keyboard" and has others type for him. He referred to Twitter as "the reason I got elected." Woodward wrote: "He ordered printouts of his recent tweets that had received a high number of likes, 200,000 or more. He studied them to find the common themes in the most successful." He watched as many as eight hours of television a day and usually started work at 11 a.m.

Woodward wrote: "The operations of the Oval Office and White House were less the Art of the Deal and more often the Unraveling of the Deal. The unraveling was often right before your eyes, a Trump rally on continuous loop. There was no way not to look." In Cohn's view, Trump's "theory of negotiation was that to get to yes, you first had to say no." In Bannon's view, "Grievance was a big part of Trump’s core, very much like a 14-year-old boy who felt he was being picked on unfairly. You couldn’t talk to him in adult logic. Teenage logic was necessary."

Dowd told Mueller: "And the fact is, I don’t want him looking like an idiot. And 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 that idiot for? He can’t even remember X, Y, Z with respect to his FBI director."

Another response

Julian Zelizer wrote for CNN on Sept. 14, 2018:
"So Woodward has once again offered a fascinating account of parlor politics, this time in the Trump White House, but he has not provided an understanding about why this all happened and why it is allowed to continue. ... Until we have answers to these questions, we won't be able to have any assurance this will turn out OK, or that after Trump's presidency ends, his brand of politics won't outlast him."

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