Early accounts of the new book by Bob Woodward, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” paint a dire work life for top aides to President Trump. When top economic adviser Gary Cohn, disturbed by the president’s racist reaction to the Charlottesville protests in August 2017, approached him with his intent to resign, Trump responded, “This is treason,” according to Woodward’s reporting. Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told Cohn, “I would have taken that resignation letter and shoved it up his ass six different times.”
In another highlight, Woodward describes in detail Trump’s foreign-policy depravity in a way that makes former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assessment that he’s a “f—— moron” appear like a kind appraisal. From a White House official quoted by Woodward: “It seems clear that many of the president’s senior advisers, especially those in the national security realm, are extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views.”
Especially resounding is the dysfunction that runs through the audiotape of an Aug. 14 phone call between Trump and Woodward. You’ll want to listen to all of this tape — it’s that extraordinary. But the skinny is that in the course of about 11 minutes, Trump manages to trash his staff, expose the utter chaos of his White House, grasp at ways to hype his presidency and otherwise articulate his own incompetence.
A recurring theme of the call is Woodward’s disappointment that he’d failed to secure an interview with the president, despite having appealed to several — between six and eight — subordinates of the president. As the two banter about this fundamental question of access, you get the impression that our president is, well, a guy who spends all day and all night watching TV, while aides* rake in taxpayer-funded salaries. Check this out:
WOODWARD: I’m sorry we missed the opportunity to talk for the book.
TRUMP: Well, I just spoke with Kellyanne [Conway] and she asked me if I got a call. I never got a call. I never got a message. Who did you ask about speaking to me?
WOODWARD: Well, about six people.
TRUMP: They don’t tell me. …
TRUMP: It’s really too bad, because nobody told me about it, and I would’ve loved to have spoken to you. You know I’m very open to you. I think you’ve always been fair. We’ll see what happens. But all I can say is the country is doing very well. We’re doing better economically just about than at any time. We’re doing better on unemployment maybe than ever.
The meandering chat continues, as Woodward mentions another aide to whom he’d appealed for an interview — Raj Shah, the affable principal deputy press secretary. He’s a fellow who handles press inquiries and who subs in for press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders now and again. Which means he’s a guy who absolutely has to have access to the president. More context for that matter:
TRUMP: Well, a lot of them are afraid to come and talk, or — you know, they are busy. I’m busy. But I don’t mind talking to you. I would’ve spoken to you. I spoke to you 20 years [ago] and I spoke to you a year and a half or two years ago.
At one point, Woodward zeroes in on Shah’s access:
WOODWARD: It’s surprising to me that these people — did Raj have access to you?
TRUMP: Not really, but he would’ve been able to do it. But I have an office. You have the office number. I have an office that’s directly into my office.
Furthermore, Trump semi-scolds Woodward for not calling him directly: “If you would’ve called directly — a lot of people are afraid . . . Raj, I hardly have . . . I don’t speak to Raj.” He does speak to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who by Trump’s own admission mentioned the Woodward book effort.
Over the course of the call, Woodward makes plain that he’d dedicated a lunch with Conway, counselor to the president, to this very issue — getting an interview with Trump. And then — voila — Conway hops on the phone along with the other parties. This exchange ensues:
WOODWARD: Hi. Remember two and a half months ago you came over and I laid out, I wanted to talk to the president? And you said you would get back to me?
CONWAY: I do. And I put in the request. But you know, they — it was rejected. I can only take it so far. I guess I can bring it right to the president next time.
CONWAY: But I try to follow all the protocols, or else I’m accused of being somebody who doesn’t follow protocol.
WOODWARD: President Trump, I just want you to know I made every effort.
CONWAY: But you had talked to [former White House communications director] Hope [Hicks], right, who said no?
WOODWARD: Listen, I talked to anyone I could. [Laughs]
CONWAY: You talked to a number of people and they all said no?
WOODWARD: I talked to Raj.
Did Woodward screw up here? No and yes.
No, in the sense that he went through channels and pressed a president’s staffers to grant him an interview. That’s the way that Woodward, presumably, has operated in the past. As he mentioned to Trump, he has written on eight presidents stretching back to Nixon.
Yes, in the sense that perhaps Woodward should have known that this White House bears no resemblance to any its predecessors. In a twisted way, Woodward’s ill-fated interview request ends up confirming one of the themes of his book, as summarized in preliminary accounts: “Fear” documents efforts by Trump’s aides to pull documents from his desk and otherwise prevent him from carrying out harmful actions that he has threatened in one venue or another. The effort to insulate him from the prying ways of Woodward align with this palace-staff priority.
After throwing up his hands over his poor executive management, Trump laments, “So we’re going to have a very inaccurate book, and that’s too bad. But I don’t blame you entirely.”
*Correction: Due to an editing error, this passage originally indicated that Trump “family members” receive taxpayer-funded salaries. Aides Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump do not draw taxpayer-funded salaries.