Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward - Available on Amazon, Kindle
Fear and loathing in the White House
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - September 23, 2018 - 12:00am

What’s that line from The Talented Mr. Ripley? “Whatever you do, however terrible or hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.”

It’s understandable that Donald Trump would dismiss Bob Woodward’s journalistic account, Fear: Trump in the White House, as pure lies. “I don’t talk like that,” he grumbled to the media even before the instant bestseller came out, as though the nuance of his voice is what’s at issue, not the substance of his words.

But after all, pushing back against ugly accusations is nothing new to this president. At one point in Woodward’s book — and this is relevant to the current sexual assault claims leveled at his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — Trump counsels a male colleague facing #MeToo charges: “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything, any culpability, you’re dead.” Denial is a magic power to this president, one that makes bad things go away. He is the Denier-in-Chief. Sometimes it works. But not all the time.

And what of those people who work beside Trump? How do they assess the American president, according to Woodward’s reporting? Here are some hot takes:

“A professional liar.” (Former Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn)

“Zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity.” (Former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus)

“He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.” (Chief of Staff General John Kelly.)

“A fifth or sixth grader.” (Defense Secretary John Mattis)

“A f**king moron.” (Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson)

Mind you, these are people handpicked by Trump. In fairness, those no longer employed by him might have a personal axe to grind. But the recent anonymous New York Times column by a White House insider does seem to back up Woodward’s version of a staff desperately seeking a workaround in dealing with their boss. So just let those descriptions sink in again for a moment.

Now, it’s also arguable that being a sweetheart is no prerequisite for doing a great job as president. There are many historical precedents for this. But what Woodward’s book makes clear is that, as Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible Trump-Russia links began to pick up pace, the president became increasingly, in the words of another inside critic, “unhinged.” “It’s pointless to even talk to him today,” Cohn tells Trump’s secretary, Rob Porter, at one point. He would veer off whatever briefing topic there was to talk about the “witch hunt” and how he hated the media. The Nixonian Syndrome was kicking in.

Never a president highly focused on policy detail — complex issues have to be boiled down to one-page summaries for him — by the time the Mueller investigation takes hold, Trump can barely stay on track at all, according to Woodward’s sources.

Yet this is a president with very fixed ideas, often grounded in gut feeling rather than fact, despite any efforts to reason with him. On all kinds of things. Despite his entire economic team saying tariffs will hurt the US economy, he demands them, saying it’s a promise he made to voters. “Bring me my tariffs!” he barks at one point, like a mad king. Coal production is necessary, he insists, because he promised coalminers more jobs. Never mind that clean energy has generated way more jobs in the past 10 years than coal, as mining sources have depleted. And he wants all US troops out of South Korea, because he doesn’t like the US footing the bill. Never mind that those troops prevent Kim Jong Un from setting his nukes on US targets. “Why are we doing this?” Trump demands. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” his Defense Secretary Mattis calmly explains.

In the book’s starkest evidence that this president presents very unique challenges, Economic Adviser Cohn is shown swiping unsigned documents from Trump’s Oval Office desk. His fear is that Trump will put his John Hancock on truly dangerous draft letters — a draft letter calling for the cancellation of NAFTA, or an end to military troops in South Korea. “Got to protect the country,” Cohn says in justifying the sleight of hand.

Woodward, who has more journalistic cred than previous tell-all authors on the subject (he has tapes and notes to back it all up), has been slammed by White House staff, but he’s actually rather fair here to Trump. Reading this account, you’re left somewhat in awe, as fellow Republican and enabler Senator Orrin Hatch is, that Trump is “able to do as much as he has, coming from where he’s coming from.” Where Trump comes from is the world of business, where compromise is not a skill he’s mastered. Being nice isn’t part of his DNA. “Real power is fear,” the President explains at one point, providing Woodward with his book’s title. He delights in keeping even his staff back on their heels, off-balance. It’s a hell of a way to run things. Perhaps this is one reason so many of Trump’s businesses have gone bankrupt.

Still, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Self-perception is one of the many things that get warped within the Trump Reality-Distortion Field. He routinely grades his own job performance as “A+,” saying, “How can they impeach me when I’m doing such a great job?”

Despite a steady diet of chaos, Trump refuses to surrender his tweeting device. “This is my megaphone,” he says of his Twitter account. Sometimes it’s his hand grenade. Describing the President’s early Sunday morning tweetstorms in his office, Priebus calls it “the Devil’s Workshop.”

His own legal team finds it difficult to defend him. In one memorable chapter, lead attorney John Dowd does a practice session with Trump, asking him questions that Mueller might ask about the Russia matter. After a half hour in which Trump veers from cheerful recollections to strings of “I don’t remembers” to raging at how “this thing’s a goddamn hoax!” Dowd realizes that this man cannot sit and face Mueller’s questions. “Mr. President, I cannot, as a lawyer, as an officer of the court, sit next to you and have you answer these questions when I full well know that you’re not really capable.”

“No, no, I’m a good witness. I’ll be a real good witness,” protests Trump.

“You are not a good witness,” Dowd says. “Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jump suit.”

It’s really the end of the line when the people hired to protect you understand they cannot protect you from yourself.

BOB WOODWARD FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE
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