The White House is worse than you imagine. That’s the essential message from Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear: Trump in the White House.” As my colleague Aaron Blake puts it, the details “are damning in a way we simply haven’t seen before — both for their breadth and degree.”
In part, the out-sized impact the book is having can be attributable to Woodward’s reputation, sourcing (hundreds of people) and possession of scores of taped interviews. It is noteworthy that so many people around President Trump spoke to him, even those still at the White House. Moreover, accounts in the book are entirely credible because incidents he describes explain certain events (e.g., John Dowd quitting as Trump’s lawyer after the president couldn’t hold up during a mock interview with the special counsel). More so than Michael Wolff (who seemed to have gotten the details wrong in various episodes), Woodward’s book raises unavoidable, legitimate issues as to the president’s fitness to serve. (A responsible Congress would begin contacting people such as former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former economic adviser Gary Cohn to determine the president’s capacity to function.) The president’s insistence all of this is made up simply doesn’t fly except with the most devoted cultists.
This is not a story of what Trump’s critics or neutral observers think of him. This is an account by those who know him best. It is they who believe he cannot be trusted to do his job. From the Post’s report: “The combination of [anecdotes] in one book is something we simply haven’t seen. It suggests a White House full of top aides who have almost no confidence in the man they’re serving and feel as if they are constantly averting calamity.” They think he’s an “idiot” (Chief of Staff John F. Kelly), or “unhinged” (Kelly again), or has the mental capacity of a “fifth- or sixth-grader”(Defense Secretary Jim Mattis). They deliberately thwart him because he tells them to do dangerous things (e.g., taking a document off his desk so he won’t pull out of a South Korea trade deal, an assassination of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad).
All this is positively frightful for several reasons.
For starters, some of the people who countermanded Trump (e.g., Cohn) are gone. What happens when someone’s not around to (allegedly) grab papers off Trump’s desk? The White House staff and Cabinet are getting more compliant and less responsible as time goes on, precisely because decent, responsible people don’t want to work for this president. Our defenses, if you will, are getting weaker.
Second, Dowd’s account of a disastrous practice interview confirms our suspicions that Trump literally cannot tell the truth: “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?'” This is a president who cannot distinguish lies from truth (and cannot speak without lying). His lies are coming at a faster clip, and the inability to rely on anything he says is potentially paralyzing for Congress, America’s foes and allies and the military. His statements concerning the Russia investigation, we know, are chock-full of lies (e.g., bugging Trump Tower, a spy “planted” on his campaign), leading one to the conclude from all his antics that at the bottom of the scandal is something very, very bad about which he has been dishonest.
Likewise, we have no reason to believe he accurately conveys his conversations with world leaders. That puts us at the mercy of foreign leaders’ accounts or his aides’ guess-work.
Third, the reputations and honesty of current and former aides who attest to the president’s fitness are now open to question. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo keeps assuring us of things the president either knows or has said (when Pompeo wasn’t present). That seems like deliberate deception to conceal an uncontrollable chief executive. Likewise, when Kelly and others come forth to issue vague denials, we strongly suspect they are still not telling the truth. Trump seems to have made liars out of his most senior staff and Cabinet officials, who fear disaster would ensue if they told the truth. Moreover, many of these people continue working at the White House, knowing the president is incapable of functioning in the job. Don’t they owe the country their candor and a warning?
Fourth, Trump’s abject unfitness makes the spinelessness of congressional Republicans all the more infuriating. It would be bad enough if they were exceptionally deferential toward a functioning, stable president. Doing so when the president lacks intellectual and ethical capacity is irresponsible in the extreme.
Finally, this is not democracy. Voters elected Trump, not Gary Cohn or John Kelly. If Trump cannot do his job and literally cannot tell the truth, they need to come clean. While the 25th Amendment might not be available, impeachment might and a groundswell of support for his resignation might have some effect.
In short, just as Democrats and #NeverTrump Republicans warned, the president certainly appears entirely unfit to hold the job. His election and his subsequent attacks on basic tenets of democracy are inextricably leading to a crisis in constitutional government. Those who’ve made excuses and enabled him should be held accountable.
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