The Slatest

Bob Woodward’s New Book About Trump Reveals Almost Everyone’s Low Opinion of the President

James Mattis, Gary Cohn, and John Kelly.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jim Watson - Pool/Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, and Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Getty Images.

Bob Woodward, whose legendary reporting helped the Washington Post win two Pulitzer Prizes including one for uncovering the Watergate scandal, is set to publish a new book about the Trump administration on Sept. 11 titled Fear: Trump in the White House. The Washington Post and CNN obtained copies of the book and highlighted portions of it on Tuesday. Based on these early previews, it appears that some of the most shocking revelations concern Trump’s behavior toward members of his inner circle at the White House and what they say and do behind the president’s back. Here are the most eye-opening episodes involving the most prominent characters in the Trump administration.

Former personal lawyer John Dowd

Much of Woodward’s book describes Trump’s obsession with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the president’s 2016 campaign. At one point, Trump told Dowd that he had been on a phone call with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi concerning an imprisoned charity worker. The Egyptian president told Trump, “Donald, I’m worried about this investigation. Are you going to be around?” Trump described the call to Dowd as “a kick in the nuts.”

Trump has said in the past that he would happily testify in front of Mueller, but Dowd repeatedly tried to hold the president back while serving as his personal lawyer. Dowd went so far as to stage a rehearsal in January for Trump’s meeting with Mueller to prove that the president would be a terrible witness. Trump’s practice testimony was full of lies and contradictions, and he eventually became so irate that he launched into a 30-minute rant.

Dowd and Jay Sekulow, another Trump attorney, then visited Mueller’s office in March and re-enacted the rehearsal to explain why they would never allow the president to testify. At one point during the meeting, Dowd said, “He just made something up. That’s his nature.” Dowd also told Mueller, “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 this idiot for?’ ”

Trump, however, apparently believed that he had performed well during the mock interview. Later in March, Dowd flat-out told the president, “Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit.” When Trump then told Dowd that he’d be “a real good witness,” Dowd replied, “You are not a good witness. … Mr. President, I’m afraid I just can’t help you.” Dowd quit the next day.

Defense Secretary James Mattis

Fear recounts Mattis’ exasperation after several conversations with Trump concerning foreign policy in Asia and the Middle East. In April 2017, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attacked civilians with chemical weapons, Trump called Mattis and urged, “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them.” The secretary outwardly agreed with the president over the phone, but then told his aide, “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.”

The president is also reportedly dead set on cutting national security costs and, during a January 2018 meeting, questioned why the U.S. has a military presence in the Korean Peninsula and a system to detect missiles from North Korea. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mattis told Trump. Woodward writes that after the meeting, Mattis told associates that “the president acted like—and had the understanding of—‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’ ”

Reflecting on Trump’s behavior, Mattis commented to friends, “Secretaries of defense don’t always get to choose the president they work for.”

Former chief economic adviser Gary Cohn

Woodward’s book opens with a scene in which Cohn discovers a letter on Trump’s desk that would have pulled the U.S. out of a major trade agreement with South Korea and possibly compromise a program designed to detect North Korean missiles. “I stole it off his desk … I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country,” Cohn reportedly told an associate. Cohn told former staff secretary Rob Porter that he was planning on pulling the same move with the draft of a letter that would have withdrawn the U.S. from NAFTA.

Fear also documents a series of volatile interactions between Cohn and Trump. During a meeting in which Trump suggested that the U.S. withdraw troops from South Korea, Cohn asked, “So Mr. President, what would you need in the region to sleep well at night?” Trump replied, “I wouldn’t need a fucking thing. And I’d sleep like a baby.” It was after this meeting that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump “a fucking moron.”

Cohn resigned from his position in March, but he tried to do so earlier in 2017 after Trump’s disastrous “both sides” speech on the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Trump accused Cohn of “treason” and persuaded him to stay.

Chief of staff John Kelly

Woodward writes that Kelly is at the end of his rope with Trump. The current chief of staff told staffers that Trump is “unhinged” and said of the president in a small meeting, “He’s an idiot. 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.” In response to Trump’s treatment of Cohn following the Charlottesville debacle, Kelly told Cohn, “If that was me, I would have taken that resignation letter and shoved it up his ass six different times.”

Former staff secretary Rob Porter

Porter reportedly conspired with Cohn to swipe documents off the Oval Office desk. “A third of my job was trying to react to some of the really dangerous ideas that he had and try to give him reasons to believe that maybe they weren’t such good ideas,” Porter says in the book. The former staff secretary, who left after facing domestic abuse allegations, is also quoted as saying, “It felt like we were walking along the edge of the cliff perpetually. Other times, we would fall over the edge, and an action would be taken.” He further notes, “This was no longer a presidency. This is no longer a White House. This is a man being who he is.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Trump has not been shy about publicly humiliating Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and allowing the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against Republican congressmen. In private, however, the president is reportedly even more cruel. Using a Southern accent to mock Sessions, Trump told Porter, “This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb Southerner. … He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”

Former chief White House strategist Steven Bannon

There have been no new details about the strained relationship between the president and his off-and-on adviser leaked from the book thus far, though Woodward does report on a fight between Bannon and Ivanka Trump. Enraged by Ivanka’s special access to the president early on in the administration, Bannon yelled at her, “You’re a goddamn staffer! … You walk around this place and act like you’re in charge, and you’re not. You’re on staff!” She yelled back, “I’m not a staffer! I’ll never be a staffer. I’m the first daughter.”

Current personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani

Giuliani was the only spokesperson willing to defend Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape during the 2016 campaign. Trump was, however, displeased with the former mayor’s performance and told him, “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?”

Sen. John McCain

At a dinner with national security officials, Trump denounced McCain as a coward, falsely claiming the naval aviator had accepted an early release offer when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Mattis quickly retorted, “No, Mr. President, I think you’ve got it reversed,” and explained that McCain had actually refused to leave his comrades behind, a widely known episode that had earned McCain his reputation as a war hero.

Former chief of staff Reince Priebus

Trump once enjoined Porter to ignore Priebus and said that he was “like a little rat. He just scurries around.” Priebus himself is quoted as saying that Trump officials are “natural predators” and elaborated, “When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody.” The former chief of staff also fretted about Trump’s Twitter habits, often referring to the president’s quarters in the White House residence as “the devil’s workshop” and Sunday night as “the witching hour,” because that’s often when Trump posts his most explosive tweets.

Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster

Trump belittled McMaster behind his back for looking “like a beer salesman” by dressing in cheap suits. Trump would pantomime McMaster’s mannerisms by breathing heavily and jutting out his chest.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross

Trump told Ross, “I don’t trust you. I don’t want you doing any more negotiations. … You’re past your prime.” The context of this comment is currently unclear.

Unsurprisingly, the White House issued a blanket statement Tuesday denouncing Woodward’s book as “fabricated stories”:

And Kelly came out with his own denial of the book’s claims about him.

John Dowd also denied some of the characterizations of his statements in the book: