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BOOK REVIEW: Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear,’ our plight

I found reading “Fear” to be especially painful. There were times I had to force myself to read more. It was much like watching a most terrifying movie, knowing the maniac is poised to strike at any moment. He could be behind the bathroom door or the living room couch with an axe or a chainsaw. Escape seems impossible.

Fear: Trump in the White House
Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster
2018  420 pages   $30

I’m guessing almost no one who voted for Donald Trump will read Bob Woodward’s “Fear,” not unless they’ve got themselves a handy designated driver prepped with a working GPS pre-programmed for the nearest emergency room. There is no way to read “Fear” without putting your mental health at risk. And if you’ve committed your last few years to believing Donald Trump knew what he was doing, had a plan for swamp-draining or that his success as a businessman would guide a new national policy of taking better care of our economy, our trade policy, our national defense and better provide for the ordinary Joe, you’re especially at risk of a massive nervous breakdown.

Let me first admit I don’t think “Fear” is an especially well-written or well-organized book. It is more a multi-person diary cobbled together from the recollection of many, many witnesses than a coherent narrative. But I understand why Woodward rushed to offer us “Fear” before he figured out a more coherent narrative style. “Fear” is a national service, an extended cry for help.

Why? Because, as we make our way through “Fear,” we learn that pretty much everyone who has come in contact with President Donald Trump, and subsequently agreed to be interviewed by Bob Woodward, believes that the president is unfit to serve. You’ve got a virtual pull-down menu of symptoms and diagnoses. And Woodward is so obviously unnerved by what he has discovered during the interview process that he pulls no punches. Curse words abound. Normally politically astute hypersensitive diplomats and cabinet secretaries and tight-lipped generals don’t hesitate to call our president an effing moron.

Woodward tells us “interviews for this book were conducted under the journalist ground rule of ‘deep background.’ This means that all the information could be used but I would not say who provided it. The book is drawn from hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand participants and witnesses to these events. Nearly all allowed me to tape-record our interviews so the story could be told with more precision. When I have attributed exact quotations, thoughts or conclusions to the participants, that information comes from the person, a colleague with direct knowledge, or from meeting notes, personal diaries, files and government or personal documents.President Trump declined to be interviewed for this book.”

Here’s my warning: I found reading “Fear” to be especially painful. There were times I had to force myself to read more. It was much like watching a most terrifying movie, knowing the maniac is poised to strike at any moment. He could be behind the bathroom door or the living room couch with an axe or a chainsaw. Escape seems impossible.

Bob Woodward chooses to begin his thorough and thoroughly disturbing examination with Gary Cohn’s decision to pre-empt presidential prerogative by removing the draft cancellation of the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement from President Trump’s desk.

Cohn, Woodward reminds us, was a multimillionaire many times over, a veteran of several decades at Goldman Sachs. If anyone knows the value of the multilateral movement of goods and services around the globe and the extraordinary amount of money to be made by free trading, it’s Cohn.

Cohn knew what the president seemed not to care a whit about: “The United States stationed 28,500 U.S. troops in the South and operated the most highly classified and sensitive Special Access Programs (SAP) … North Korean ICBM missiles now had the capability to carry a nuclear weapon, perhaps to the American homeland. A missile from North Korea would take 38 minutes to reach Los Angeles.

“These programs enabled the United States to detect an ICBM launch in North Korea within seven seconds … [and] would give the United States military the time to shoot down a North Korean missile. It is perhaps the most important and most secret operation in the United States government …

“The cancellation dated September 5, 2017, was a potential trigger to a national security catastrophe. Cohn was worried Trump would sign the letter if he saw it … ‘I stole it off his desk,’ he later told an associate. ‘I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.’”

The president’s ignorance of critical national security matters is the first lesson we learn. The second, perhaps just as frightening, lesson is that Cohn knew that just by removing the letter from the president’s immediate sight he could delay or completely countermand the action. In just the first few paragraphs, Bob Woodward has made a compelling case for why we should indeed fear.

And fear we do. With every additional page, we’re forced to acknowledge the unthinkable: that we are governed by a man those closest to whom regard as an idiot, a child apt at any imagined slight to throw a fit, to demean counselors, friends, advocates, even decorated generals. These insights come not from rabid left-leaning critics but from those very Republicans Donald Trump handpicked and invited into his White House and administration, his inner circle and his cabinet.

“Fear” forces us to see our government as a never-ending Alice-in-Wonderland tea party. It can’t be this bad, the mind screams. But it is, because it’s not just Donald Trump. It’s so many of them, sitting there as madness prevails, each trying out his/her own trick to influence or persuade the Mad King. Bannon, Stephen Miller trying to push him to end immigration, leave NATO, cancel the Iran agreement, ignore the climate crisis and punish the poor. There’s Gary Cohn and Tillerson and Mattis trying to keep him from thoroughly upending the international order that’s propelled America and Morgan Stanley and ExxonMobil to its greatest power and wealth, made our U.S. military 10 times more powerful than any other. The ones who know better and become so exasperated choose to exit, hoping their reputations might, in time, be rehabilitated. Many of those who stay are revealed as sycophants willing to suck up to save their jobs … all fundamentally compromised.

For my own mental health, not to mention the nation’s, I wanted so much to believe “Fear” was fiction, some smoke and mirror trick of Bob Woodward to take the money and run. I wanted so much to close the book, but then I turned another page only to discover something even more disquieting. I know you don’t believe me. I don’t blame you.

David Bossie. Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

How about we begin at a beginning of sorts? Woodward takes us back to 2010 when David Bossie, the longtime Republican conservative activist, convinced Steve Bannon to take a trip to talk to Donald Trump, who was thinking he could be president:

“‘If you’re going to run for president,’ Bossie said, ‘you have to know lots of little things and lots of big things.’ The little things were filing deadlines, the state rules for primaries — minutiae. ‘You have to know the policy side, and how to win delegates.’ But first, he said, ‘you need to understand the conservative movement.’

“Trump nodded. ‘You’ve got some problems on issues,’ Bossie said. ‘I don’t have any problems on issues,’ Trump said. ‘What are you talking about?’ First off, there’s never been a guy win a Republican primary that’s not pro-life,’ Bossie said. ‘And unfortunately, you’re very pro-choice.’

“‘What does that mean?’ ‘You have a record of giving to the abortion guys, the pro-choice candidates. You’ve made statements. You’ve got to be pro-life, against abortion.’

“‘I’m against abortion,’ Trump said. ‘I’m pro-life.’

“‘Well, you’ve got a track record.’ ‘That can be fixed,’ Trump said. ‘You just tell me how to fix that. I’m — what do you call it? Pro-life. I’m pro-life, I’m telling you.’ (Emphasis added.) …

“An hour into the meeting, Bossie said, ‘We have another big issue.’ ‘What’s that?’ Trump asked, seeming a little more wary. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘80 percent of the donations that you’ve given have been to Democrats.’ To Bossie that was Trump’s biggest political liability, though he didn’t say so.

“‘That’s bullshit!’ ‘There’s public records,’ Bossie said. ‘There’s records of that?’ Trump said in utter astonishment. ‘Every donation you’ve ever given.’ Public disclosure of all political giving was standard. ‘I’m always even,’ Trump said. He divided his donations to candidates from both parties, he said. ‘You actually give quite a bit. But it’s 80 percent Democratic. Chicago, Atlantic City . . .’

“‘I’ve got to do that,’ Trump said. ‘All these fucking Democrats run all the cities. You’ve got to build hotels. You’ve got to grease them. Those are people who came to me … I can be the nominee,’ Trump said. ‘I can beat these guys. I don’t care who they are. I got this. I can take care of these other things.’ Each position could be revisited, renegotiated. ‘I’m pro-life,’ Trump said. ‘I’m going to start.’”

Donald Trum and Steve Bannon, Jan. 22, 2017. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP Getty Images

It’s six years later. While Trump has won the nomination, the campaign run by Paul Manafort is in trouble. On Aug. 13, 2016, the New York Times, with 20 unnamed Republican sources, describes Trump “as bewildered, exhausted, sullen, gaffe-prone and in trouble with donors …” Bannon, worried, contacts the fabulously wealthy Mercer family, who is bankrolling Bannon’s Breitbart News and the Trump campaign. Rebekah Mercer contacts Trump:

“‘Manafort has got to go,’ she told Trump. She said it was chaos. ‘What do you recommend?’ Trump asked. ‘Steve Bannon will come in,’ she said.”

Bannon set a meeting with Trump, then arrived at Trump Tower only to discover Trump wasn’t there. He then drove to Bedminster only to discover that Trump, without telling him, had also invited FOX News’ Roger Ailes, ex-Gov. Chris Christie and Rudy Guiliani. Bannon explained to Ailes:

“‘I talked to Trump last night,’ Bannon said. ‘The Mercers talked to him. I’m supposed to be coming in and taking over the campaign, but don’t tell the other two guys that.’ ‘What the fuck?’ Ailes said again. ‘You don’t know anything about campaigns.’ It was out of the question. ‘I know, but anybody could get more organized than this thing is …

“Ailes said they were there for their weekly debate prep. The first presidential debate against Hillary Clinton was a month and a half away, on September 26. ‘Debate prep?’ Bannon said. ‘You, Christie and Rudy?’ ‘This is the second one.’ ‘He’s actually prepping for the debates?’ Bannon said, suddenly impressed.

Paul Manafort. Image courtesy CNN

“‘No, he comes and plays golf and we just talk about the campaign and stuff like that. But we’re trying to get him in the habit.’ Campaign manager Paul Manafort walked in. Bannon, who regularly called himself ‘a fire-breathing populist,’ was disgusted. Manafort was dressed in what could pass for yachting attire, with a kerchief. Live from Southampton!

“Trump arrived and sat down. Hot dogs and hamburgers were laid out. The fantasy diet of an 11-year-old kid, Bannon thought, as Trump wolfed down two hot dogs. Citing the New York Times story about the failure to tame his tongue, Trump asked Manafort how such an article could appear. It was one of Trump’s paradoxes: He attacked the mainstream media with relish, especially the Times— but despite the full-takedown language, he considered the Times the paper of record and largely believed its stories.

“‘Paul, am I a baby?’ Trump asked Manafort. ‘Is that what you are saying, I’m a baby? You’re terrible on TV. You’ve got no energy. You don’t represent the campaign. I’ve told you nicely. You’re never going on TV again.’ ‘Donald . . .’ Manafort tried to respond … ‘A lot of this is not for attribution,’ Bannon said. No one by name, all hiding. ‘The New York Times is, it’s all fucking lies. Come on, this is all bullshit,’ Bannon continued his full-body, opposition-party pitch, though he knew the story was true.

“Trump wasn’t buying it. The story was gospel, and the campaign was full of leakers. The assassination of Manafort continued for a while. Trump turned to a few war stories for half an hour. Manafort left. ‘Stick around,’ Trump told Bannon. ‘This thing’s so terrible. It’s so out of control. This guy’s such a loser. He’s really not running the campaign. I only brought him in to get me through the convention.’”

We jump ahead. It’s after the Trump victory and Bannon contemplates staffing the government: “After a few hours of sleep, Bannon started flipping through the transition documents. Garbage supreme, he thought. For secretary of defense they listed some big campaign donor from New Hampshire. Unbelievable. Now there were 4,000 jobs to fill. He realized they would have to at least temporarily embrace the establishment. Perhaps a better word would be fleece — pluck off some people who knew something.

“‘Give me the executive director of this thing,’ Bannon ordered, seeking some connection with whatever transition apparatus existed. ‘Get him in my office immediately.’ He didn’t remember his name. Bannon reached the director’s office. Can he come in? he asked.

“‘It’s going to be tough.’ Why? ‘He’s in the Bahamas.’ ‘This is the Island of Misfit Toys,’ Bannon said. ‘How the fuck are we going to put together a government? We relieve the watch in 10 weeks at noon. We’ve got to be up and running.’”

Gary Cohn and Donald Trump. Photo courtesy Getty Images

Then there’s this meeting: “Jared Kushner invited Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs, to come talk to his father-in-law on November 30 about the economy …” Cohn first told the President-elect something he wanted to hear: over-regulation was stifling the economy; then something he didn’t want to hear: “We’re a trade-based economy, he said. Free, fair and open trade was essential. Trump had campaigned against international trade deals … Next, Cohn repeated what everyone was saying: Interest rates were going to go up over the foreseeable future.

I agree, Trump said. ‘We should just go borrow a lot of money right now, hold it, and then sell it and make money.’ Cohn was astounded at Trump’s lack of basic understanding. He tried to explain. If you as the federal government borrow money through issuing bonds, you are increasing the U.S. deficit.

“What do you mean? Trump asked. Just run the presses — print money. You don’t get to do it that way, Cohn said. We have huge deficits and they matter.” (Emphasis added.)

I’ve included these excerpts because, while they are remarkably revelatory of the chaos that surrounds Trump, his willingness to lie, his lack of intelligence, lack of loyalty and his penchant for humiliating those who have helped, they turn out to be so remarkably ordinary in the larger story. There is episode after episode chronicling the moronic and cruel behavior that characterizes life in the White House.

I know this is a long excerpt, but here’s just one of a hundred close-to-unbelievable episodes: “Just before 10 a.m. on July 20, a stifling, cloudless summer Thursday six months into his presidency, Donald Trump crossed the Potomac River to the Pentagon …

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn. Photo courtesy AP

“Mattis and Cohn organized the presentations as part history lesson and part geostrategic showdown … ‘The great gift of the greatest generation to us,’ Mattis opened, ‘is the rules-based, international democratic order.’ This global architecture brought security, stability and prosperity … This is going to be fun, Bannon thought, as Mattis made the case that the organizing principles of the past were still workable and necessary …

“Cohn spoke next. He made the case for free trade: Mexico. Canada. Japan. Europe. South Korea. He presented the import and export data. We’re a huge exporter of agriculture products, about $130 billion a year, he noted. We need these countries to buy our agricultural products. The whole middle of the United States is basically farmers, he said …

“Trade deficits were growing the U.S. economy, Cohn asserted. ‘I don’t want to hear that,’ Trump said. ‘It’s all bullshit!’ Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, another Goldman veteran, spoke about the importance of the security allies and trading partners. Trump turned to look at Bannon … Bannon took this as a signal. ‘One of the things he wants to do is ‘impose sanctions on Iran,’ the chief strategist said. ‘Is one of your fucking great allies up in the European Union’ going to back the president …

“‘That’s what I’m talking about,’ Trump said. ‘He just made my point. You talk about all these guys as allies. There’s not an ally up there …

“Trump flipped to Afghanistan … ‘When are we going to start winning some wars? We’ve got these charts. When are we going to win some wars? … Referring to the Afghanistan commander, General John Nicholson, who was not present, the president lashed out. ‘I don’t think he knows how to win. I don’t know if he’s a winner. There’s no victories … ‘You should be killing guys. You don’t need a strategy to kill people …’

“They were arguing that all these things fit together — the trade agreements with China, with Mexico, the Iran nuclear deal, the troop deployments, the foreign aid. Trump’s message was no’ on everything that had been presented … ‘The European companies,’ Trump said, pointing a finger at Mnuchin, ‘they’re fucking worthless.’ Siemens, Peugeot, Volkswagen and other European household names were actively investing in Iran.

To Tillerson, “Trump said, ‘Rex, you’re weak. I want to decertify.’ Trump turned to one of his favorite issues. He wanted to slap tariffs on imported steel, aluminum and automobiles. He wondered why Mnuchin was not declaring China a currency manipulator as he wanted. Mnuchin explained that China had, years ago, been a currency manipulator, but it no longer was. ‘What do you mean?’ Trump said. ‘Make the case. Just do it. Declare it.’ Mnuchin explained that U.S. law was specific about what was required to prove currency manipulation, and he could not make the case.

“‘We’re upside down’ on trade deals, Trump said. ‘We’re underwater on every one of these.’ The other countries are making money. ‘Just look at all this stuff up there. We’re paying for it all.’ Those countries were ‘protectorates,’ he declared. ‘It’s actually good for our economy,’ Cohn said again.

“‘I don’t want to hear that,’ Trump replied. ‘It’s all bullshit.’ … Trump got up and walked out.

“All the air seemed to have come out of Tillerson. He could not abide Trump’s attack on the generals. The president was speaking as if the U.S. military was a mercenary force for hire. If a country wouldn’t pay us to be there, then we didn’t want to be there. As if there were no American interests in forging and keeping a peaceful world order, as if the American organizing principle was money.

 “‘Are you okay?’ Cohn asked him. ‘He’s a fucking moron,’ Tillerson said so everyone heard.” (Emphasis added.)

Rex Tillerosn, J.R. McMaster, Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn. Photo courtesy

Back to Afghanistan: “Afghan president Ghani had dangled the possibility that the United States would have exclusive access to vast mineral wealth, untouched in the Afghanistan mountain ranges. His argument: There’s so much money to be made. Don’t walk away. Rare earth minerals, including lithium, a main ingredient in the latest batteries. Some exaggerated estimates held that all minerals in Afghanistan might be worth as much as several trillion dollars.

“Trump wanted the minerals. ‘They have offered us their minerals!’ he said at one meeting. ‘Offered us everything. Why aren’t we there taking them? You guys are sitting on your ass. The Chinese are raiding the place.’ ‘Sir,’ said Gary Cohn, ‘it’s not like we just walk in there and take the minerals. They have no legal system, no land rights.’ It would cost billions of dollars to build the mining infrastructure, he added.

“‘We need to get a company in there,’ Trump said. ‘Put it out for bid.’ This was a giant opportunity, capitalism, building and development at its best. ‘Why aren’t we in there taking it?’ ‘Who’s we?’ Cohn asked. ‘We should just be in there taking it,’ Trump said, as if there were a national mining company to move into Afghanistan …

“At a subsequent meeting in the Oval Office, Trump asked, ‘Why hasn’t this been done?’ ‘We’re running it through the NSC process,’ McMaster said. ‘I don’t need it done through a fucking process!’ Trump yelled. ‘I need you guys to go in there and get this stuff. It’s free! Who wants to do this?’ …

And the continuing discussions about NATO and collective defense and the importance of our alliance with South Korea. Mattis, once more, tried to explain: “‘We have the ability to defend the homeland with forward deployment’ of the 28,500 troops. He was reluctant to mention the Special Access Programs in such a large meeting.

“Mattis explained, without the intelligence capability and the troops, the risk of war would vastly increase. The means of defending South Korea and Japan would be decreased. If there was a war without these assets, ‘The only option left is the nuclear option. We can’t achieve the same deterrent effect’ in any other way. ‘And we can’t do it as cost effectively.’ The arrangement with South Korea was one of the great national security bargains of all time. Mattis tried to speak the president’s language of cost/benefit analysis …

“‘Other countries,’ Trump went on, ‘who’ve agreed to do security things for us only do it because they’re taking so much of our money.’ They were almost stealing from us …

[General] Dunford explained: “‘Our forward-deployed cost in South Korea is roughly $2 billion. South Korea reimburses us for over $800 million of that. We don’t seek reimbursement for the cost of our troops’ such as their pay. The chairman also said that other countries were paying the U.S. an annual subsidy for activities we would engage in anyway for our own protection. ‘We’re getting $4 billion a year subsidy in our efforts to protect the homeland,’ Dunford said.

“‘I think we could be so rich,’ Trump said, ‘if we weren’t stupid. We’re being played [as] suckers, especially NATO.’ Collective defense was a sucker play.

“The president left. Among the principals there was exasperation with these questions. Why are we having to do this constantly? When is he going to learn? They couldn’t believe they were having these conversations and had to justify their reasoning. Mattis was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like — and had the understanding of — ‘a fifth or sixth grader.’” (Emphasis added.)

Jeff Sessions. Photo courtesy AP

There’s this episode about Sessions. On July 19, 2017, President Trump shared his anger with the New York Times about the Russia investigation, and Attorney General Jeff Session’s recusal: “‘Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.’”

Woodward tells us President Trump told Priebus: “‘Jeff isn’t a guy that, through thick and thin, is willing to stick with me,’ he said. ‘Get his resignation,’ Trump ordered Priebus … Priebus spoke to Sessions several times. The attorney general did not want to resign. If the president doesn’t want you to serve, Priebus said, then you ought not to serve. Bannon asked Sessions to come to the White House. Sessions took a chair in what Bannon called his war room, the walls lined with whiteboards listing Trump’s campaign promises. The attorney general, small in stature, was nervous but pleasant.

“‘Look,’ Bannon said, ‘you were there through the whole time’ of the campaign. ‘You knew this thing was a shit show, totally disorganized.’ Sessions could not dispute that. Bannon turned to what was perhaps the fondest memory of their political lives — when Trump had won the presidency on November 9. Victory was as sweet as it got.

“‘Is there any doubt in your mind on the 9th, when it was called, that it was the hand?’ Bannon asked, dipping into a shared religious belief system. That divine providence that worked through Trump to win this?’ 

“‘No,’ Sessions said. ‘You mean that?’ Sessions said he did. ‘It was the hand of God, right? You and I were there. We know there’s no other way it could’ve happened than the hand of God.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Fine,’ Bannon said. ‘You’re never going to quit, are you?’ ‘I’m never quitting.’ Trump would have to fire him. ‘You promise me you’ll never quit?’ (Emphasis added.)

“‘Yeah.’ ‘Because it’s going to get worse.’ ‘What do you mean?’ Sessions asked. ‘It’s all a diversion.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Jared’s testifying.’ Trump’s son-in-law was appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday and the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. ‘They didn’t think they had enough cover.’ ‘He wouldn’t do that to me,’ Sessions said. ‘He’d fucking do that to you in a second. He’s doing it to you! You watch! When Jared finishes testifying, if they think it’s good testimony, he’ll stop tweeting.’

“On July 24 Kushner released a long, carefully lawyered statement ahead of his congressional appearance. ‘I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government. I had no improper contacts. I have not relied on Russian funds to finance my business activities in the private sector.’ The Trump attacks on Sessions subsided for a while. It was a sideshow, a diversion. He did believe Sessions had failed him, though, so it was a diversion with conviction.”

There’s this incident with Lt. Gen. J. R. McMaster, national security advisor: “On July 25, the president again berated McMaster. He had no interest in allies, Trump said. He didn’t want any troops in South Korea even when reminded about the differential between the seven seconds to detect an ICBM launch from there as opposed to 15-minute detection from Alaska.

“On the colonnade outside the Oval Office, McMaster spoke with Cohn and Porter. McMaster said that at 6:03 a.m., Trump had tweeted: ‘Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign — ‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G. [attorney general]’

“It was clearly Russian propaganda, McMaster said. He and the NSC and intelligence experts had concluded that. But the president had picked it up and shot it out. McMaster said he wasn’t sure how long he could stay.”

Remember the neo-Nazi, white racist rally in Charlottesville and the death of a young woman counter-protestor and the injuries to 19 others. President Trump declared that there was hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. Following the public outcry that the president had equated demonstrators opposed to racism and religious hate with neo-Nazis, White House advisors prevailed upon him to issue another statement:

Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Rob Porter. Photo courtesy AP

“Porter and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, now the press secretary, had agreed that they needed to present a united front to get the president to give another speech. ‘I think it’s really important,’ Sanders told the president, ‘that you are able to speak directly to the American people, not through the media filter, so that you’re not misunderstood on this. And so that people at CNN and MSNBC, whoever it is, aren’t able to suggest that you say and mean something different than what you do …

“Trump defended what he had said. ‘It’s not as if one side has any sort of [monopoly] on hatred or on bigotry. It’s not as if any one group is at fault or anything like that. With the media, you’re never going to get a fair shake. Anything that you say or do is going to be criticized.’

“‘You need to fix this,’ Porter argued. ‘You don’t want to be perceived the way in which you’re being perceived now. You need to bring the country together.’ That was the moral obligation. ‘There’s no upside to not directly condemn neo-Nazis and those that are motivated by racial animus. There is a huge rift in the country.’ Porter played heavily to the president’s ego and desire to be at the center. He said that the president could be a kind of healer in chief, consoler in chief … The country is counting on you rhetorically to help salve the wounds and point a direction forward,’ Porter said. The president could inspire and uplift. He could make this about him, the redeemer …

“Shortly after 12:30 p.m. Trump walked to the podium set between the American flag and the presidential flag. He grabbed the podium fiercely with both hands. He frowned. He looked grim, and said he was here in Washington to meet with his economic team about trade policy and tax reform. He touted the strong economy, high stock market and low unemployment rate, and said he was going to provide an update on Charlottesville.

“The Department of Justice had opened a civil rights investigation, he told the national television audience. ‘To anyone who acted criminally in this weekend’s racist violence,’ Trump said, ‘you will be held fully accountable.’ Looking stiff and uncomfortable, like someone coerced to speak in a hostage video, the president went on. ‘No matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws, we all salute the same great flag. We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans.

“‘Racism is evil,” he said, singling out the ‘KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups. We will defend and protect the sacred rights of all Americans’ so every citizen ‘is free to follow their dreams in their hearts and to express the love and joy in their souls.’ It was a five-minute speech that could have been given by President Reagan or Obama.

“‘Make sure you tell him how great it was,’ General Kelly told the senior staff. He had been chief of staff less than three weeks … Porter felt it was a moment of victory, of actually doing some good for the country. He had served the president well. This made the endless hours of nonstop work worth it …

“Trump left to watch some Fox. Rob O’Neill, a former Navy SEAL Team Six leader and author, generally praised Trump for being specific but added, ‘That’s almost an admission of okay, I was wrong. And I’m sort of negotiating on this.’ Fox correspondent Kevin Corke said, ‘Some 48 hours into the biggest domestic challenge of his young presidency, Mr. Trump has made a course correction.’

“The suggestion that he had admitted doing wrong and was unsteady infuriated the president. ‘That was the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made,’ the president told Porter. ‘You never make those concessions. You never apologize. I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?’…

“On Friday, August 18, Gary Cohn flew by helicopter from East Hampton, Long Island, to Morristown, New Jersey, where it was raining heavily. He had to wait on the tarmac to get clearance to Bedminster. He was carrying a resignation letter. This was too much. Someone had put a swastika on his daughter’s college dorm room … ‘Mr. President,’ Cohn said when they were alone, ‘I’m very uncomfortable with the position you have put me and my family in. I don’t want this to be a contentious discussion.’ ‘You don’t know what you are talking about,’ Trump said.

“They debated what Trump had said and what he had not said. ‘Before you say anything further,’ the president said, ‘I want you to go back and listen to it again.’ ‘Sir,’ Cohn replied, ‘I’ve listened to it like 30 times. Have you seen the video, sir?’ Cohn said. ‘No, I haven’t seen the video.’

Charlottesville, Va., March 11, 2017. Photo: Andrew Shurtleff/Daily Progress

“‘I want you to watch the video, sir,’ Cohn said. ‘I need you to watch the video of a bunch of white guys carrying tiki torches saying, “Jews will not replace us.” I cannot live in a world like that. ‘You go listen and you go read,’ Trump said. ‘I’ll go watch the video.’ They agreed to discuss it after they had done their listening and watching. ‘I said nothing wrong,’ Trump said. ‘I meant what I said.’

“The next Monday at the White House, Cohn appeared at the Oval Office. Ivanka was sitting on one of the couches. Kelly was standing behind a chair. Cohn was halfway into the Oval Office when Trump said, ‘So you’re here to resign?’ ‘Yes, sir, I am.’

“‘I’ve done nothing wrong,’ Trump repeated. He was leaving ‘because of your liberal Park Avenue friends. This must be your wife,’ Trump said, blaming Cohn’s wife. Trump launched into a story about a great golfer. The golfer’s wife complained because he was gone every weekend. So he listened to her, and now Trump said the once-great golfer is selling golf balls and making no money, completing his blame-the-wife narrative.

“‘Everyone wants your position,’ Trump continued. ‘I made a huge mistake giving it to you.’ The president continued with venom. It was chilling. Cohn had never been talked to or treated like that in his life. ‘This is treason,’ Trump said …

“Vice President Pence walked in and stood next to Cohn and touched him affectionately. They needed to keep Cohn, Pence said, but he understood the position Cohn was in. Yes, Cohn should say something publicly. ‘Go out there and say whatever you want,’ Trump said. ‘Mnuchin said something.’ … Cohn said he would work with the White House communications department.

“On the way out of the Oval Office, General Kelly, who had heard it all, pulled Cohn into the Cabinet Room. According to notes that Cohn made afterward, Kelly said, ‘That was the greatest show of self-control I have ever seen. If that was me, I would have taken that resignation letter and shoved it up his ass six different times.’

“A few minutes later, Pence showed up in Cohn’s West Wing office. He reiterated his support. Say whatever you need and want to say, and continue to serve your country, he said, thanking him for everything.

“Cohn chose to make his views known in an interview with the Financial Times. ‘This administration can and must do better … I have come under enormous pressure both to resign and to remain … I also feel compelled to voice my distress … citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK.’ …

“Cohn could tell that Trump was angry because the president would not talk to him for a couple of weeks. At regular meetings, Trump would ignore him. Finally one day, Trump turned to him and asked, ‘Gary, what do you think?’ …

“Porter wondered if trying to repair any of those divisions after Charlottesville was almost a lost cause. There was no turning back. Trump had crossed the point of no return. To the Trump opponents and haters, he was un-American, racist. There was so much fuel on that fire already, and Trump had added so much more. The fire was going to burn, and it was going to burn brightly.

“It was now an almost permanent state of suspicion, disbelief and hostility. “It’s just all-out war now.”

Trump humiliates. They stay. You read and you cringe. And cringe some more.

Woodward’s process — melding reminiscence and testimony from so many sources — requires a constant suspension of disbelief, of trust that Woodward has weighed the varied interests of all those who told him the stories, and that they are telling truths. Woodward puts you in room after room, meeting after meeting. Again, for Trump supporters, these stories are told not by Deep Staters but by friends of the Administration.

So it was especially jarring for me when Woodward inserted himself into the narrative. I’m not sure why he felt compelled to make his minor appearance a part of the story. Perhaps his ego got the better of him, or, in this case, his apparently massive grudge against the way other journalists — and our intelligence services — gave credence to the claims of Christopher Steele’s work on the Dossier. Perhaps it was his unconscious desire to send some faint praise the president’s way before the anticipated deluge of abuse. But I’ll leave you to judge:

“On January 15, five days before the inauguration, I appeared on Fox News Sunday. I said, ‘I’ve lived in this world for 45 years where you get things and people make allegations. That is a garbage document. It never should have been presented as part of an intelligence briefing. Trump’s right to be upset about that.’ The intelligence officials, ‘who are terrific and have done great work, made a mistake here, and when people make mistakes they should apologize.’ I said the normal route for such information, as in past administrations, was passing it to the incoming White House counsel. Let the new president’s lawyer handle the hot potato.

“Later that afternoon Trump tweeted: ‘Thank you to Bob Woodward who said, ‘That is a garbage document . . . it never should have been presented . . . Trump’s right to be upset (angry) . . .”

“I was not delighted to appear to have taken sides, but I felt strongly that such a document, even in an abbreviated form, really was ‘garbage’ and should have been handled differently. The episode played a big role in launching Trump’s war with the intelligence world, especially the FBI and Comey.”

I, too, am sorry Woodward felt compelled once again in print to take sides — it seemed to me as if Shakespeare had somehow decided to rush from backstage to march across the stage and assure the audience that he had indeed known teenagers like Romeo and Juliet and, yes, as unlikely as it seemed, lovestruck young people would act so stupidly. Besides that, from where I’m standing, Christopher Steele’s Dossier stands the test of time. But I suspect this was a bit of Woodwardian pre-emption. Someone might have thrown his past assertions about the Dossier back at him at some point in the book tour.

Most important of all, a close reading of “Fear’ leaves one trembling, and makes more appropriate this warning from Shelley:

“And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
― Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

Read, and I suspect you, too, will fear and despair.


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