It's an interesting spin. But Trump's defense here doesn't actually line up with what we know about Woodward's book. Woodward doesn't just paint Trump as a president who ruffles feathers, you see, but also as a man who struggles with very basic facts about very important matters — including on things about which he should definitely know better.
Two anecdotes that speak to this got short shrift Tuesday, but it's worth raising them again.
The first is Trump's apparent confusion about South Korea's importance as an ally. According to Woodward, Trump at one point asked his military leaders why the United States couldn't just withdraw from the Korean Peninsula. They explained to him that it would mean we wouldn't know about North Korean missile launches for 15 minutes rather than learning about them almost instantly, within seven seconds. This is the flap that led Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to reportedly suggest Trump was intellectually and temperamentally akin to “a fifth- or sixth-grader."
What The Washington Post's story Tuesday didn't detail, though, is that this exchange didn't happen early in Trump's presidency; it came on Jan. 19, 2018 — almost exactly one full year into it. It came months after North Korea had threatened an attack on Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean. It also came a couple months after North Korea said it had developed a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach the continental United States.
What got Mattis's goat, according to the book, was that he felt like they'd had this exact conversation many times before, and Trump refused to either remember or process it. As Mattis explained the reasons for a U.S.-South Korean alliance, Trump repeatedly returned to the idea that the United States is running a trade deficit with South Korea — suggesting the alliance was hurting the American economy. Mattis tried to explain that having troops in South Korea was actually the most cost-effective — and effective, period — means of preventing World War III. Trump, who often seems to misunderstand what exactly a trade deficit means, wouldn't have it.
"But we're losing so much money in trade with South Korea and others,” Trump pushes back at one point, according to Woodward.
At another: “We're spending massive amounts for very rich countries who aren't burden-sharing."
And at another: “I think we could be so rich if we weren't so stupid. We're being played [as] suckers, especially NATO."
Trump would argue this was merely him “question[ing] everybody and everything,” but it didn't seem to come off that way to Mattis. According to Woodward's reporting, it seemed to be Trump asking the same dumb middle-school-esque questions for the millionth time. And it drew a curt rebuke from Mattis that took those in the room aback.
The other anecdote is Trump's comments about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who passed away a week and a half ago. In Woodward's telling, Trump was at a dinner with military leaders, including Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he suggested McCain had been given an early release as a prisoner of war in Vietnam because of his father's military rank, a four-star admiral.
This is quite the opposite of the actual events: McCain turned down early release. And in fact, that may be the single biggest reason he is viewed as an American hero, because it meant he served for more than five years as a POW. Mattis had to correct Trump, according to Woodward, by saying, “No, Mr. President. I think you've got it reversed.” Trump responded: “Oh, okay."
But again, the timing is key. The dinner was held Feb. 8, 2017, shortly after Trump had been inaugurated. Just a year and a half earlier, Trump had caused arguably his first major splash of the 2016 campaign by attacking McCain's war-hero bona fides. It was a major early inflection point in his 2015-16 Republican primary campaign. The men had a history, as well: Trump had questioned McCain's war-hero status back in 1999 and tangled with McCain regularly. How he could be so unaware of perhaps the seminal event in McCain's life — and the one which directly pertains to a war-hero debate in which Trump participated in an extremely high-profile way just a couple years ago? It is inexplicable.
It's tempting to view Trump's conspiracy theorizing and falsehoods as a show or even a strategy. Perhaps he's doing it for the base! This anecdote suggests he's really just ill-informed, even about major issues in which he inserts himself. Either that or he's so committed to this ruse that he even makes himself out to be ill-informed behind closed doors with military leaders.
And combined with the South Korea story, it paints the picture of a man who indeed has lots of questions — probably more than he should.