As president, Donald Trump weighed bombing drug labs in Mexico after one of his leading public health officials came into the Oval Office, wearing a dress uniform, and said such facilities should be handled by putting “lead to target” to stop the flow of illicit substances across the border into the United States.
“He raised it several times, eventually asking a stunned Defense Secretary Mark Esper whether the United States could indeed bomb the labs,” according to a new book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman. White House officials said the official, Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir, an admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, often wore his dress uniform for meetings with Trump, which led him to falsely think Giroir was a member of the military.
“The response from White House aides was not to try to change Trump’s view, but to consider asking Giroir not to wear his uniform to the Oval Office anymore,” Haberman writes in “Confidence Man,” an extensive book about Trump’s time in New York and as president.
The 607-page book, which has long been awaited by many of Trump’s aides, is set to be published Tuesday. A copy was obtained by The Washington Post. The book details unusual and erratic interactions between Trump and world leaders, members of Congress and his own aides, along with behind-the-scenes accounts of his time as a businessman.
Presented with a detailed accounting of the book’s reporting, a Trump spokesman did not directly respond. “While coastal elites obsess over boring books chock full of anonymously-sourced fairytales, America is a nation in decline. President Trump is focused on Saving America, and there’s nothing the Fake News can do about it,” said Taylor Budowich, the spokesman.
When asked by The Post about the account of the Oval Office discussion, Giroir said in an email that he does not comment on such private conversations with Trump. He went on to criticize the flow of drugs across the border from Mexico and voice support for substance abuse treatment. “But these measures will not stop this mass murder of Americans,” he added. “Every option needs to be on the table.”
Haberman interviewed Trump three times for the book — in which he claimed to not have taken any important documents from the White House, among other statements — and it includes his written answers to her questions. The book delves into some of the most contentious episodes of his presidency, including his impeachment trials, the weeks after the election when he tried to overturn the results and his mishandling of the novel coronavirus, among other topics.
Throughout the book, Trump is portrayed as transactional and narcissistic — at times charming, at other times cruel — but always attuned to his own political fortunes, no matter the issue. During his meeting in the Oval Office with Barack Obama in 2016, he eschewed policy and asked Obama how he kept his approval ratings high, according to the book. He told advisers that he needs people such as Pennsylvania Senate nominee Mehmet Oz (R) in office in case the election is challenged in 2024 or they try to impeach him again.
When Trump first met British Prime Minister Theresa May, he soon turned the conversation to abortion. “Some people are pro-life, some people are pro-choice. Imagine if some animals with tattoos raped your daughter and she got pregnant?” he said, according to the book. Pointing to then-Vice President Mike Pence, he described him as the “tough one” on abortion. He soon moved the topic away from Northern Ireland to an offshore wind project he wanted to block near his property, the book says.
Trump was often crass and profane about world leaders and others in his orbit. He referred to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “that b----,” according to the book. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was dying in 2020, the book says, Trump would sarcastically raise his hands to the sky in prayer and say: “Please God. Please watch over her. Every life is precious,” before asking an aide: “How much longer do you think she has?”
When former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) pressed Trump to more forcefully condemn white supremacists, particularly avowed white supremacist David Duke, during his 2016 campaign, Trump said he would — but he was in no rush. “A lot of these people vote,” Trump said, describing some of the white supremacists, before ending the call.
The book shows Trump frequently praising Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, for his strength and even “laughing” when aides grew mad that he tweeted a proposal for a joint cyber unit with Russia that would have “effectively let the Russians into the U.S. investigations of hacking,” Haberman writes.
In another part of the book, Trump shows his lack of care about classified markings. Aides tried to stop Trump from tweeting a photo of an Iranian facility until they could remove classified details, Haberman writes. But he liked how the image looked and proceeded. “If you take out the classification, that’s the sexy part,” he told aides, she writes.
In 2019, Trump, seeming to not understand how the branches of government work, said he would simply “sue” Congress if they tried to impeach him.
And as Trump played down the coronavirus in early 2020, he privately acknowledged its severity and cast himself as the victim, according to Haberman’s book.
“Can you believe this happened to me?” he said, fearing the political impact on his presidency.
In detail, Haberman reports how Trump was fearful of dying and how his condition grew worse in the White House. “Deputy chief of staff of operations Tony Ornato warned the president that if he fell into a more dire situation, procedures to ensure the continuity of government would have to be set into motion,” Haberman writes.
Trump was appalled by the sight of protective face masks, telling aides to remove them in his presence throughout 2020. “Get that f---ing thing off,” he said during one meeting, according to Haberman’s book. Trump repeatedly wanted credit for vaccines but told aides he could not get the credit he deserved because of the “radical right,” referring to his own supporters.
He repeatedly encouraged aides to avoid the topic of the coronavirus because he viewed it as a political loser for him. “Don’t talk about it on TV,” he told the Republican National Committee’s chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, according to the book, even as the virus dominated the news. “Don’t make such a big deal out of this,” Trump said of the pandemic in one March 2020 conversation with then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D). “You’re gonna make it a problem.”
The book shows frequent attempts from advisers to tell Trump to tone down his behavior, fearful that he was going to lose his reelection bid because of his own personal conduct. He was repeatedly shown polling that his coronavirus news conferences were hurting him, in an attempt to get him to take the virus and his response more seriously.
“People are tired of the f---ing drama,” Attorney General William P. Barr told him in 2020. Barr was one of a number of aides who urged Trump to dial back his frequent attacks on others.
The book also shows how Trump regularly pitted aides and even family members against one another in the White House. For example, Trump frequently told then-White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that he wanted Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to depart the White House, according to the book.
“In meetings with Kelly and [White House Counsel Don] McGahn, Trump gave instructions to essentially fire the pair. Kelly and McGahn resisted, expressing their fear that he would not back them once his daughter and son-in-law pushed back. At one point, Trump was about to write on Twitter that his daughter and son-in-law were leaving the White House. Kelly stopped him, saying Trump had to talk to them directly before doing so. Trump agreed, then never followed up with the conversation,” the book says.
Trump gave former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) control of his legal team because his other lawyers were not willing to go far enough to overturn the 2020 election, Haberman writes. “Okay, Rudy, you’re in charge. Go wild, do anything you want. I don’t care,” Trump said over the phone, as he pushed him to help overturn the results. “My lawyers are terrible.” He frequently berated White House counsel Pat Cipollone, according to the book.
In the aftermath of the election, Haberman describes a president who increasingly became enamored with conspiracy theories and staying in the White House, bringing in lawyers whom his core group of advisers saw as deluded — with some of his longest advisers effectively trying to hide and run out the clock.
And it shows how he relishes his role as a political kingmaker in the GOP. During one of her interviews with Trump, Haberman writes that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) came in and praised his golf game. “‘The greatest comeback in American history!’ Graham declared. Trump looked at me. ‘You know why Lindsey kisses my ass?’ he asked. ‘So I’ll endorse his friends.’ Graham laughed uproariously.”
More than many tomes about Trump, the book delves into his long history as a developer in New York, where Haberman talked with many of his former friends and executives about his tendency to speak in crass terms about women and skirt financial laws — and how he created a mystique around him that endured to the presidency.
Haberman traces Trump’s political career back to the 1980s, where she reports he frequently made comments that were homophobic, particularly toward gay men, and washed his hands immediately after meeting someone who had AIDS.
She describes Trump’s complicated relationship with his father and the ways they avoided paying taxes over the years. She writes that Trump mused about wanting Black judges for his cases because his late lawyer Roy Cohn said they could be manipulated. Even as a businessman, she said, he was looking at politics, getting polling presentations on his image as early as 1987.
Some of the book’s episodes border on the bizarre.
Haberman describes Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) getting a phone call from an unknown number. “When she answered, the man on the other end identified himself as a Washington Post reporter, and said he knew her husband from his investigations in Congress. The name he gave was not one she recognized. The man asked Dingell if she was looking for an apology from Trump. No, she replied, merely that people could be civil to one another. As the man talked, Dingell couldn’t shake the idea that his voice sounded like that of the forty-fifth president.”
“During preparations for the third debate in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s team was disrupted by a warning from the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said he had been told that Russians might try to poison Clinton through a handshake with Trump, to inflict a dramatic health episode during the debate,” Haberman reports.
She says Clinton did not take it seriously, and now-White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who was helping with debate prep, questioned whether Trump could poison Clinton but not himself. “Her communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, took the prospect seriously enough to check it out; the warning turned out to be mere speculation from a historian with no knowledge of Russian plans,” she says.
Haberman, a longtime Trump chronicler, concludes that Trump often says what he needs to get through the day — and that many people read more deeply into his motivations than he even knows at the time.
When asked if he is glad he ran for the presidency, Haberman suggests the answer reveals his motivations: “The answer is, yeah, I think so. Because here’s the way I look at it. I have so many rich friends and nobody knows who they are.”
In the book’s final pages, Haberman reproduces several pages of Trump’s answers to her questions for the book. He sent back pages in all capital letters, handwritten in marker, “two weeks after the deadline had passed,” Haberman said.
“A FANTASY QUESTION!” he responds to a question about Trump having gold bricks wheeled into his office in the 1990s. “KNOW NOTHING ABOUT IT,” he wrote in response to a question about delaying the transition to the Biden administration. “ACTUALLY THERE IS SOME TRUTH IN THAT,” he said to a question about him describing Melania Trump to others out of “central casting.”
The book closes with Trump, in black all caps, responding to a question: “FAKE NEWS — GOOD NIGHT!”
A previous version of this article misstated Angela Merkel's title. She was the German chancellor, not prime minister. The article has been corrected.