Fear and Loathing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
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Fear and Loathing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

In New Book and Times Essay, Trump’s Staff Ridicules Him, Checks Him and Tries to Contain His Worst Impulses

As the reactions roll out to Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” the subjects have been active in pushing back against Woodward’s assessment of chaos and ineffectiveness.

Nothing unexpected there, of course, though this time the book is coming from a reporter with a top-grade reputation who conducted hundreds of interviews among people who work with the president and presumably know him well.

The picture that comes through, according to those who have quickly read and summarized the book, is of a narcissistic president who is not up to the job. In this telling, it is only because the president has enough effective heads around him who work to keep him from doing harm to the nation. In other words, the book describes a nasty, impossibly unprepared White House that spends its time either helping the president preen or working around him.

However, we might want to shrug this depiction off as yet another picture of dysfunction, a couple columns capture much more a sense of horror at what is unfolding. We ought to be worrying (or luxuriating) less in the depiction of the White House as “crazy town,” and be a lot more worried about what such a situation means for running the country.

The stakes got raised yesterday afternoon with The New York Times decision to publish an op-ed column by an unnamed senior Trump administration official who acknowledged that staffers are working assiduously from within the White House to stop Trump from taking various actions. “The bigger concern is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us. We have sunk low with him and allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility,” the official wrote. The official said there were even early whispers in the cabinet about removing Trump as president, but there was no attempt to sustain the effort for fear of prompting a crisis.

We ought to worry less about the depiction of the White House as ‘crazy town’ and worry a lot more about what that means for running the country.

Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, who writes from a right-of-center point of view, said of the book: “In short, just as Democrats and #NeverTrump Republicans warned, the president certainly appears entirely unfit to hold the job and ‘positively frightful.’ His election and his subsequent attacks on basic tenets of democracy are inextricably leading to a crisis in constitutional government. Those who’ve made excuses and enabled him should be held accountable.”

She quoted colleague Aaron Blake as saying the book’s details “are damning in a way we simply haven’t seen before—both for their breadth and degree.” Many people around the president were the sources for this book, no matter what they say today, after the release of what has proved to be an embarrassing opinion.

The book is filled with Trump’s staff demeaning him as “an idiot” or “unhinged” (Chief of Staff John Kelly), unable to tell the truth in a mock Russia interview (lawyer John Dowd), functioning at fifth or sixth-grade understanding (Secretary of Defense James Mattis). As Rubin said, “Woodward’s book raises unavoidable, legitimate issues as to the president’s fitness to serve.”

She challenged the continuing silence in this regard of congressional Republicans and raised new questions about what happens now after the departure of those quoted in the book like Gary Cohn, who said he simply removed papers from the president’s desk before he could act. “A responsible Congress would begin contacting people such as former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former economic adviser Gary Cohn to determine the president’s capacity to function,” she said.

Woodward wrote: “The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader. Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses. It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.”

The book underscores that the military found several occasions to ignore the urgings, if not command, of the president—to assassinate Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, to withdraw from treaties or to ban transgender troops.

To add to the issues raised about ineffective governing, the president tweeted that the book makes him want to rewrite libel laws to allow retribution against false reporting. That’s pretty ballsy given that Woodward has dozens of tapes of his interviews. It is off-base since the president and the White House are public figures specifically exempted from being able to file libel charges. And it is plain wrong in not recognizing that libel laws are state laws.

“When Kelly and others come forth to issue vague denials, we strongly suspect they are still not telling the truth” Rubin said. “Trump seems to have made liars out of his most senior staff and cabinet officials, who fear disaster would ensue if they told the truth. Moreover, many of these people continue working at the White House, knowing the president is incapable of functioning in the job. Don’t they owe the country their candor and a warning?”

The synchroneity of the publication of this book with the start of confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice and the continuing Special Counsel investigation should not be overlooked. Trump defies what is demanded of the Oval Office by choosing a candidate who is on record as supporting a yet-freer White House shielded from criminal prosecution while in office and by continuously tweeting to undercut the Justice Department’s prosecutions in an effort to protect Republicans.

A column by Greg Sargent also in The Post outlines through the questions being asked at the Kavanaugh hearings just how far afield Trump has strayed from following the law.

Just yesterday, Trump flouted the actions of protesters at the Senate confirmation hearing, suggesting in a tweet that protest itself be made illegal. If we have a president who does not understand the basics of constitutional protections in favor of having his own way, how can we hope that he is running a government that is serving its constitutional purposes?

A book, a protest, an opposing vote ought not be outlawed in our country. Ideas should help us to grow, not just to be defensive and dangerous.

September 6, 2018