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Woodward’s grim portrait of Trump’s White House gets a vote of confidence — via two non-denial denials

Veteran investigative journalist Bob Woodward meticulously documented a "nervous breakdown" at the White House in his new book, "Fear." (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Bob Woodward's book is now officially out, and so is a growing series of statements from White House officials taking issue with how they are portrayed and quoted in it.

But as is often the case, not all denials are created equal. And some might as well be admissions.

Two denials, in particular — from former top White House aides Gary Cohn and Rob Porter — are conspicuously incomplete. Both men are accused in the book of effectively removing things from Trump's desk to prevent him from taking certain actions. And both have now issued statements that are rather similar, both for what they say and what they don't say.

Cohn's is the briefer of the two. Here's what the former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers told Axios about Woodward's account:

This book does not accurately portray my experience at the White House. I am proud of my service in the Trump Administration, and I continue to support the President and his economic agenda.

And here's a lengthier statement from Porter, the former White House staff secretary who left the White House after allegations surfaced that he abused two ex-wives (emphases added):

Having now read Bob Woodward’s Fear, I am struck by the selective and often misleading portrait it paints of the President and his administration.
As Staff Secretary, I was responsible for managing the flow of documents to and from the Oval Office and ensuring that anything the President was asked to sign had been properly vetted. The suggestion that materials were “stolen” from the President’s desk to prevent his signature misunderstands how the White House document review process works — and has worked for at least the last eight administrations.
It was also my responsibility to help ensure that relevant viewpoints were considered, that pros and cons were evaluated, that policy proposals were thoroughly vetted, and that the President could make decisions based on full information. Fulfilling this responsibility does not make someone part of a “resistance” or mean they are seeking to “thwart” the President’s agenda. Quite the opposite.
President Trump invites robust discussion and asks probing questions. He has the confidence to allow advisors to disagree with a proposed course of action and advocate for an alternative outcome — and I sometimes did just that. But in the end, President Trump is the one who decides, and he has shown himself more than capable of doing so.  
During my time in the White House, I sought to serve the President’s best interests and to help enable his many successes — successes that Mr. Woodward’s book ignores.
President Trump’s accomplishments are undeniable: significant tax relief to spur economic growth, rolling back burdensome regulations to unleash job creators, remaking the federal judiciary to uphold the Constitution, and much more.

Cohn says Woodward's book “does not accurately portray my experience.” Porter cites the “selective and often misleading portrait it paints.” Neither of them says specific details or quotes offered by Woodward are wrong, mind you; they say only that the overall picture is flawed.

In fact, Porter seems to tacitly confirm the detail about removing things from Trump's desk — by suggesting that that's just how things are done in the Oval Office.

"The suggestion that materials were 'stolen' from the president’s desk to prevent his signature misunderstands how the White House document review process works — and has worked for at least the last eight administrations,” Porter says.

That's about as close as we get to either of them directly addressing a key detail, but Porter mostly seems to be disputing it on a technicality. And it may in fact be a distinction without much of a difference.

The White House under Trump has been remarkably freewheeling, so things may have made it to Trump's desk without proper vetting much more than in previous White Houses — partially because that's how Trump demands it. It seems eminently possible that this kind of thing happens, but that it happened with greater frequency in this White House — and on policy with very serious implications. It's also easy to see Porter and Cohn justifying preventing Trump from withdrawing from trade deals such as NAFTA by suggesting that the withdrawals hadn't been properly considered — never mind that Trump reportedly said he wanted to do it immediately.

Neither of them, importantly, disputes that they did this. And Cohn doesn't even bother to take issue with any specific details. He instead says the book doesn't “accurately” portray his experience. That could mean he's taking issue with one tiny thing or many; we simply don't know because he hasn't bothered, a week after the book's portrayal of him first came out, to dispute specific things.

Here's a sampling of reported Cohn and Porter quotes we've known about for a week that they haven't disputed:

  • "I can stop this. I’ll just take the paper off his desk.” — Cohn
  • “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.” — Porter
  • “This was no longer a presidency. This is no longer a White House. This is a man being who he is.” — Porter

The non-denials stand in contrast to Chris Christie, who said in a tweet that quotes from the book were “incorrect.” But even Christie doesn't bother to address them individually.

People like Christie probably don't want to spend all their time litigating each quote, which is perhaps understandable. But you would expect people like Cohn and Porter to be more explicit in their denials if they had a leg to stand on, given how central they are to what we've known about the book for the past week. There has even been reporting suggesting that Trump was angry with the two of them, specifically, and might be gearing up to attack them.

As Woodward has noted, often key figures will put out denials — even if they are misleading or wrong — to protect their reputations. Cohn's and Porter's denials seem geared toward tamping down tensions with the White House without totally discounting Woodward's reporting. And they really haven't done much of that.