Today Bob Woodward’s book gets released, and much coverage of it is framed around revelations of President Trump’s raging, volatile temperament, his erratic mind-changing, and his startling lack of knowledge or curiosity about complex domestic and global policy problems.
In this framing, the alleged “adults in the room” wage a daily struggle against all these terrible traits. A portrait emerges of a man who is mentally and intellectually unfit to serve as president — the top-line revelation that has been widely discussed for days now.
But there are other key revelations in “Fear” that illuminate a different set of traits — Trump’s nonstop lying, his utter contempt for legal and governing process, and his bottomless bad faith in developing rationales for extremely consequential decisions. These sorts of traits — unlike Trump’s temperament and incuriosity — are not usually looked at as evidence of his unfitness for this office. But they should be.
Woodward’s book adds texture and context to two glaring examples of misconduct during the Trump presidency: his firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey, and his rage at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for failing to protect him from the Russia investigation.
When Trump fired Comey, the White House released a memo, by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein that provided his supposed “reason.” Woodward recounts a scene before the firing, in which Rosenstein gave Trump the memo. It cited Comey’s mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, including his critical July 2016 presser and the release of “new” emails just before the election, and quoted multiple officials saying Comey had broken rules.
Woodward recounts that after Trump read the memo and absorbed this rationale, this happened:
Done, said the president. He couldn’t have said it better himself. He sent a brief letter to Comey informing him that he was “terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.
But Woodward also reports that Trump had made the decision to fire Comey well before this episode. Woodward recounts that Trump had previously told two top advisers: “Don’t try to talk me out of it, because I’ve made my decision, so don’t even try.”
Though Woodward does not conclusively show Trump consciously used the Rosenstein memo as a fake pretext for the firing, it’s very hard to read these passages any other way. Of course, we already had reason to suspect this, since after all Trump subsequently admitted that the firing was rooted in rage over the Russia probe.
But the seething contempt for process and for basic good-faith decision-making displayed here still matters. Trump’s claim that the FBI’s mishandling of the Clinton probe was his reason for firing Comey is just a laughable lie, given that Trump widely used the stories produced by that mishandling (Comey’s presser criticism and the “new” emails) against Clinton during the campaign. And we should not allow ourselves to come to see this deep rot of bad faith as typical or unremarkable.
Trump’s rage at Sessions
As we already know, Trump has repeatedly raged at Sessions for failing to protect him from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe and at times tried unsuccessfully to push him out. But Woodward adds some important context with this scene, in which then-White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter tries to reason with him on this point (emphasis mine):
Trump would not stop. He told Porter, “If he was going to recuse himself from this, why did he let himself be picked attorney general? That was the ultimate betrayal. How could he have done that?”
Porter had an answer, which he presented as gently as he could. “There are well-established rules and guidelines for when you have to recuse yourself. And he met those … He consulted the relevant experts at the Department of Justice and was told you meet the criteria, so you have to.”
“Well,” Trump said angrily, “he never should have taken the job. He’s the attorney general. He can make these decisions on his own. He doesn’t have to listen to his staff. If …… he knew he was going to have to recuse himself, he should’ve told me and I never would have picked him.”
Trump completely brushes aside the idea that there are well-established rules of conduct dictating that Sessions (who served on the Trump campaign) should recuse himself, for good reasons involving the need to maintain law enforcement’s independence. Trump raged that Sessions should simply ignore them. Indeed, Trump kept pushing for Sessions to un-recuse himself well after this happened.
Recall that this is all because Trump wanted the attorney general to function as his personal bodyguard against accountability, and to help him obstruct a legitimate investigation into foreign sabotage of our election, because it might implicate him or his cronies. Again, the dishonesty and bad-faith contempt for process here are remarkable, even for Trump.
As an aside, there’s another revelation in which Trump reveals these traits with great clarity. Woodward recounts that then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeatedly argued against pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, informing Trump that Iran was complying with it. But on multiple occasions, Trump responded by simply repeating the phrase, “They’re in violation,” as if he could make this true through force of will.
The scenes bring to mind the schoolyard bully who keeps belligerently spouting false things in his prey’s face to force him to capitulate and repeat the lie himself, confirming his total submission. Only in this case, the bullying assertion formed the basis for a critical geopolitical decision that could have enormously important long term consequences.
No wonder Trump’s team fears a Mueller interview
The firing of Comey and the pressure on Sessions, of course, are central to the case that Trump may have obstructed justice. In this regard, Woodward also reports that in multiple private meetings, Mueller directly told Trump’s team that he wants to interview Trump for the express purpose of gauging Trump’s “corrupt intent” toward the investigation.
Trump’s lawyers are now leaning toward refusing any face-to-face interview in which Mueller would ask questions designed to plumb that intent. Given what we’ve now learned, is there really any wonder why?