President Donald Trump told Bob Woodward in a recorded interview that he wanted to downplay coronavirus. See what he told the public then and now.
WASHINGTON – Investigative reporter Bob Woodward didn’t need that many anonymous sources for his new book on the Donald Trump administration.
He had Trump himself.
In the book simply entitled “Rage,” Woodward writes he interviewed the president “17 times on the record,” on everything from his thoughts on world leaders like authoritarians Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, his predecessor former President Barack Obama, U.S. allies and issues of race.
Trump has “enshrined personal impulse as a governing principle of his presidency,” Woodward writes, according to a copy of “Rage” obtained by USA TODAY.
The book’s most sensational revelation – that Trump publicly played down the threat of COVID-19, even though he told Woodward as early as February how dangerous it was – has also led to criticism that the author sat on the information for too long.
Trump, who called the book a “political hit job,” tweeted Thursday: “Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months. If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives?”
Woodward said he needed time to check out what Trump told him.
Other administration officials, past and present, also spoke with Woodward, leading to a number of bracing comments and anecdotes on an array of sensitive issues.
Here are some details from the book:
When Woodward suggested that privileged people like Trump and him have a responsibility to better “understand the anger and pain” felt by Black people, Trump responded to the author saying, “No … You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you … Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Trump also protested criticism of him by African Americans, telling Woodward at one point: “I have done a tremendous amount for the Black community. And, honestly, I’m not feeling any love.”
Trump on Obama
As with the new book by Trump attorney Michael Cohen, the current president makes clear his disdain for his predecessor.
“’I don’t know. I don’t think Obama’s smart,'” Trump tells Woodward at one point. “See? I think he’s highly overrated. And I don’t think he’s a great speaker.'”
At another point, Trump makes clear that one of his main goals is to undo Obama’s accomplishments: “Ninety percent of the things he’s done, I’ve taken apart.”
Trump aides dislike Trump
When he was Defense secretary, Jim Mattis would go to church to pray for the country in light of various Trump statements, ranging from threats against nuclear-armed North Korea to attacks on NATO and other U.S. allies.
“This degradation of the American experiment is real,” Mattis told an associate, according to the book.
Woodward writes about when Mattis resigned shortly after Trump announced he wanted to pull all U.S. troops from Syria: “When I was basically directed to do something that I thought went beyond stupid to felony stupid, strategically jeopardizing our place in the world and everything else, that’s when I quit.”
After a sudden Trump decision to cancel training exercises with South Korea – a move meant to please Kim – Mattis expressed concern about the message being sent to China, Russia, and North Korea.
“What we’re doing is we’re actually showing how to destroy America,” Mattis is quoted as saying by Woodward. “That’s what we’re showing them. How to isolate us from all of our allies. How to take us down. And it’s working very well. We are declaring war on one another inside America. It’s actually working against us right now.”
Trump also clashed with his first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, but never gave him a specific reason for his dismissal, which was made via tweet.
“Tillerson was never told why he was fired,” Woodward wrote. “The president did not give him a reason. It had earlier leaked out that Tillerson had called Trump a ‘f—— moron’ at a July 20, 2017, Tank meeting. Probably nothing could have triggered Trump’s insecurities more.”
Russia and Putin
Aides remained suspicious of Trump’s relationship with Russia and its authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin.
Dan Coats, Trump’s first director of National Intelligence, never could totally shake the feeling that Putin “had something” on Trump, and that explained the president’s fealty to the American rival.
“He suspected the worst but found nothing that would show Trump was indeed in Putin’s pocket,” Woodward writes of Coats, later adding: “There was no proof, period. But Coats’s doubts continued, never fully dissipating.”
Trump also praises Putin and at one point told Woodward he agreed with the autocrat’s claim that U.S. investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election hampered relations between the two countries.
Trump also had nice things to say about Kim Jong Un, and, in a conversation with Woodward, likened his first meeting with the North Korea dictator to a budding romance.
“You meet a woman,” Trump told Woodward. “In one second, you know whether or not it’s all going to happen.”
Trump has a harder time with allies.
The president, in the book, complains about military obligations around the world, saying the United States has become “suckers” to NATO members and other allies like South Korea.
Shortly after his election, Trump questioned the value of NATO while interviewing Mattis for the Defense secretary job.
“We’re protecting South Korea from North Korea, and they’re making a fortune with televisions and ships and everything else. Right?” Trump told Woodward. “They make so much money. Costs us $10 billion. We’re suckers.”
The potential break-up of U.S. alliances was a subject of discussion between Mattis and Coats.
“In just one example, Trump wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and South Korea,” Woodward writes. “There was a rush. Instantly. ‘Get them out!’ Trump had commanded.”
“‘That’s crazy,'” Mattis said to Coats. “‘That’s dangerous.'”
‘He says that he didn’t do it’
Trump said he protected Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, telling Woodward that “I saved his a–.”
“I was able to get Congress to leave him alone,” Trump said. “I was able to get them to stop.”
Trump also said he doesn’t believe the prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder, despite conclusions to the contrary by U.S. intelligence services.
“He says that he didn’t do it,” Trump told Woodward.
The most reported part of the book concerns the still-severe pandemic: Trump admits he was aware of the dangers of COVID-19 as early as February, even as he downplayed the threat in public.
On March 19, seven weeks after National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien warned him this would be the “biggest national security threat” he would face, Trump told Woodward: “I wanted to always play it down … I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Later, on July 21, Trump gave himself good marks for how he handled the pandemic. “I give ourselves an A,” he said, although he suggested the grade was incomplete.
“If we come up with the vaccines and therapeutics, then I give myself an A-plus,” he added.
‘I can handle more’
In his last interview with Trump, Woodward asked a question that he said he’d asked many other presidents: What have you learned about yourself?
Trump’s response: “I can handle more than other people can handle.”
Trump then launched into a soliloquy about how tough it is being president – tougher for him than just about anybody, he said.
“More people come up to me and say – and I mean very strong people, people that are successful even. A lot of people. They say, I swear to you, I don’t know how it’s possible for you to handle what you handle. How you’ve done this, with the kind of opposition, the kind of shenanigans, the kind of illegal witch hunts.”
Trump said he has opposition “like nobody has” but added, “In the meantime, right now, I’m looking at the White House. Okay? I’m staring right at the walls of the White House.”
‘Dynamite behind every door’
At one point, Trump tells Woodward that, when you’re president, “there’s dynamite behind every door.”
At the end of his book, Woodward concludes that some of Trump’s own actions are among the things that have blown up.
“When his performance as president is taken in its entirety,” Woodward writes, “I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.”
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