Jim Mattis Compared Trump to ‘Fifth or Sixth Grader,’ Bob Woodward Says in Book



President Trump and his administration have been unsettled by Bob Woodward’s book “Fear,” which will be published next Tuesday. – Credits: Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Trump so alarmed his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, during a discussion last January of the nuclear standoff with North Korea that an exasperated Mr. Mattis told colleagues “the president acted like — and had the understanding of — a ‘fifth or sixth grader.’”

At another moment, Mr. Trump’s aides became so worried about his judgment that Gary D. Cohn, then the chief economic adviser, took a letter from the president’s Oval Office desk authorizing the withdrawal of the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Mr. Trump, who had planned to sign the letter, never realized it was missing.

These anecdotes are in a sprawling, highly anticipated book by Bob Woodward that depicts the Trump White House as a byzantine, treacherous, often out-of-control operation — “crazytown,” in the words of the chief of staff, John F. Kelly — hostage to the whims of an impulsive, ill-informed and undisciplined president.

The New York Times obtained a copy of the book, “Fear,” which will be published next Tuesday by Simon & Schuster.

Mr. Woodward, a longtime Washington Post reporter and editor, has turned the internal dramas of several previous White Houses into best-sellers. In taking on Mr. Trump, he faced the challenge of an unusually leaky administration, which has already provided grist for countless news articles and one mega-bestseller, “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff.

But Mr. Woodward’s book has unsettled the administration and the president, in part because it is clear that the author has spoken with so many current and former officials, though all on the condition that they not be cited as sources for the information.

Mr. Trump, after initially brushing it aside as “just another bad book,” accused Mr. Woodward of making up quotes from Mr. Mattis and Mr. Kelly, and perpetuating a “con on the public.” In a tweet, he suggested that the author was a Democratic operative who had timed the publication to hurt the president politically before the midterm elections.

The White House, in a statement, dismissed “Fear” as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad.” After hours of saturation news coverage on cable networks, “Fear” rocketed to No. 1 on Amazon.

Some of the freshest details in the book involve Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who has been viewed as an anchor in Mr. Trump’s cabinet. Mr. Woodward portrays Mr. Mattis as frequently derisive of the commander in chief, rattled by his judgment, and willing to slow-walk orders from him that he viewed as reckless.

In the North Korea meeting, during a period of high tension with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, Mr. Trump questioned Mr. Mattis about why the United States keeps a military presence on the Korean Peninsula. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mr. Mattis responded, according to Mr. Woodward.

In April 2017, after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria launched a chemical attack on his own people, Mr. Trump called Mr. Mattis and told him that he wanted the United States to assassinate Mr. Assad. “Let’s go in,” the president said, adding a string of expletives.

The defense secretary hung up and told one of his aides: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” At his direction, the Pentagon prepared options for an airstrike on Syrian military positions, which Mr. Trump later ordered.

Mr. Mattis issued his own statement denying he ever used the “contemptuous words” that Mr. Woodward attributed to him. “While I generally enjoy reading fiction,” he said, “this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility.”

Mr. Woodward’s reporting adds another layer to a recurring theme in the Trump White House: frustrated aides who sometimes resort to extraordinary measures to thwart the president’s decisions — a phenomenon the author describes as “an administrative coup d’état.” In addition to Mr. Mattis and Mr. Cohn, he recounts the tribulations of Mr. Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, whose tensions with Mr. Trump have been reported elsewhere.

Mr. Cohn, Mr. Woodward said, told a colleague he had removed the letter about the Korea free trade agreement to protect national security. Later, when the president ordered a similar letter authorizing the departure of the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Cohn and other aides plotted how to prevent him from going ahead with a move they feared would be deeply destabilizing.

“I can stop this,” Mr. Cohn said to the staff secretary, Rob Porter, according to the book. “I’ll just take the paper off his desk.”

Mr. Woodward reported new details about Mr. Cohn’s well-documented clash with the president over his equivocal response to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. Mr. Cohn, who threatened to resign over the episode, was particularly shaken after one of his daughters discovered a swastika in her college dorm.

Mr. Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders were similarly fraught. During a phone call to negotiate the release of an Egyptian-American detained in Cairo, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said, “Donald, I’m worried about this investigation,” referring to the Russia inquiry. “Are you going to be around?”

In July 2017, Mr. Woodward said, Mr. Trump told Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia that he would exempt his country from steel tariffs, only to claim, nearly eight months later, that he had never made that promise. Pressed on it by Mr. Turnbull, Mr. Trump said, “Oh yeah, I guess I remember that.”

Mr. Cohn, Mr. Woodward said, concluded that Mr. Trump was a “professional liar.”

He found a sympathetic ear in Mr. Kelly, another retired Marine general, who frequently vented his frustration to colleagues about the president, whom he labeled “unhinged,” an “idiot” and “off the rails.” Mr. Kelly’s reference to Mr. Trump as an “idiot” has been reported before.

“We’re in crazytown,” Mr. Kelly said in one meeting, according to Mr. Woodward. “I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”

Mr. Kelly also issued a denial on Tuesday, saying that “the idea I ever called the president an idiot is not true” and repeating his earlier insistence that he and Mr. Trump had “an incredibly candid and strong relationship.”

In Mr. Woodward’s account, Mr. Trump rarely returns the loyalty of his subordinates. He derided Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of his earliest political supporters, as “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner,” mimicking his accent and making fun of his halting answers during his Senate confirmation hearing.

(Mr. Trump denied that characterization late Tuesday, saying on Twitter that he had “never used those terms on anyone, including Jeff, and being a southerner is a GREAT thing.”)

Mr. Trump referred to Mr. Priebus as a “little rat” who just “scurries around.” For his part, Mr. Priebus described the White House as a Hobbesian world, in which officials delight in sticking knives into one another, according to the book.

“When you put a snake and rat and falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal into a zoo without walls, things started getting nasty and bloody,” said Mr. Priebus, whom Mr. Trump eventually ousted and abandoned on a rain-slicked tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base.

Mr. Woodward, who began speaking to Mr. Trump’s aides even before the inauguration, also documented the misgivings of the president’s former lawyer, John Dowd, about whether the president should submit to questions from the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert S. Mueller III.

“Don’t testify,” Mr. Dowd told the president. “It’s either that or an orange jump suit.”

Mr. Dowd denied on Tuesday that he ever said that.

Last January, Mr. Woodward writes, Mr. Dowd staged a practice session in the White House residence to dramatize the pressures Mr. Trump would face in a session with Mr. Mueller. The president stumbled repeatedly, contradicting himself and lying, before he exploded in anger.

“This thing’s a goddamn hoax,” Mr. Trump declared. “I don’t really want to testify.”

Mr. Woodward said he tried to get access to the president but did not interview him. After he had completed the manuscript, Mr. Trump called Mr. Woodward to express regret for not talking to him, blaming it on aides who he said had failed to inform him of interest. In a transcript and a tape of the call published Tuesday by the The Post, Mr. Woodward told Mr. Trump he interviewed many White House officials outside their offices, and gathered extensive documentation. “It’s a tough look at the world and the administration and you,” he told Mr. Trump.

“Right,” the president replied. “Well, I assume that means it’s going to be a negative book.”

Courtesy/Source: NY Times