WASHINGTON — President Trump so alarmed his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, during a discussion last January of the nuclear standoff with North Korea that an exasperated Mattis told colleagues that “the president acted like — and had the understanding — of a ‘fifth- or sixth-grader.’”
At another moment, Trump’s aides became so worried about his judgment that Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser, took a letter from the president’s desk authorizing the withdrawal of the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Cohn told an associate that Trump never realized it was missing.
These anecdotes are in a sprawling, highly anticipated new book by Bob Woodward, which depicts the Trump White House as a byzantine, treacherous, often out-of-control operation — “crazytown,” in the words of the chief of staff, John 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.
Woodward, a longtime Washington Post reporter and editor, has turned the internal dramas of several previous White Houses into bestsellers. In taking on Trump, he faced the challenge of an unusually leaky administration, which has already provided grist for countless news articles and one megabestseller, “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff.
But 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, although all on the condition that they not be cited as sources for the information.
The White House dismissed the book, describing it in a statement as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad.”
Some of the freshest details in the 448-page book involve Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who has been viewed as a stable anchor in Trump’s Cabinet. Woodward portrays 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, Trump questioned 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,” Mattis responded to Trump, according to Woodward.
In April 2017, after President Bashar Assad of Syria launched a chemical attack on his own people, Trump called Mattis and told him by phone that he wanted the United States to assassinate Assad. “Let’s go in,” the president said, according to Woodward, 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 Trump later ordered.
Woodward’s reporting adds new details to a recurring theme in the Trump White House: frustrated aides who sometimes resort to extraordinary measures to thwart the president’s decisions — a situation the author describes as “an administrative coup d’état.” In addition to Mattis and Cohn, he recounts the struggles of Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, whose clashes with Trump have been reported elsewhere.
Cohn, 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, Woodward said, 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,” Cohn said to the White House staff secretary at the time, Rob Porter, according to the book. “I’ll just take the paper off his desk.”
Woodward reported new details about Cohn’s well-documented clash with the president over his equivocal response to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. Cohn, who threatened to resign over the episode, was particularly shaken after one of his daughters discovered a swastika in her college dorm.
Cohn, Woodward said, concluded that Trump was a “professional liar.” He found a sympathetic ear in 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.” Kelly’s reference to Trump as an “idiot” has been reported before.
“We’re in crazytown,” Kelly said in one small meeting, according to Woodward. “I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Kelly issued his own denial, saying that “the idea I ever called the president an idiot is not true” and repeating his earlier insistence that he and Trump had “an incredibly candid and strong relationship.”
His predecessor, Priebus, apparently shared a similar view, describing the White House as a Hobbesian world, in which officials delight in sticking knives into one another, the book says.
“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 Priebus, whom Trump frequently ridiculed, before ousting him and leaving him on a rain-slicked tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base.
Woodward, who began work on the book soon after Trump’s 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 Mueller.
On Jan. 27, Woodward writes, Dowd staged a practice session in the White House residence to dramatize the pressures Trump would face in a session with Mueller. The president stumbled repeatedly, contradicting himself and lying, before he exploded in anger.
“This thing’s a goddamn hoax,” Trump declared. “I don’t really want to testify.”