Every damning and depressing detail in Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House” is made more damning and depressing by the fact that the abhorrent behavior chronicled in crisp detail will come as no surprise to anyone who has served President Donald Trump in the West Wing, or carried his political water on Capitol Hill.
Liar? Check. Ignorant and uninterested in issues? Check. Unconcerned with the consequences of his destructive actions on the country he serves? Check. Obsessed with his media image? Check. Crude, crass, undignified, vindictive, impulsive, juvenile and racially inflammatory? Check, check, check, check, check, check and check.
Woodward’s “Fear” contains a wealth of detail thanks to the most surprising decision Trump has made since entering politics — placing a number of qualified people in top jobs. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former economic adviser Gary Cohn could all have been offered similar assignments by a President Hillary Clinton. In making those appointments, Trump set a trap for himself in two very different ways.
First, he placed a restraint on his more outlandish impulses that might have critically impacted the United States’ national security and its economic well-being.
And second, he ensured that when Woodward, the premier investigative reporter and chronicler of the modern presidency, began his excavation of the Trump administration, some of these officials — we don’t know which ones — would feel an urgent need to leave behind an honest accounting of the dysfunction. While perhaps cynically revealing the efforts they made to push back against the madness, these talented men and women stand out from the family members and golf-course caddies Trump chose to surround himself with inside the West Wing.
Woodward’s book confirms what has been whispered in elite Washington circles since the earliest days of this administration: that the “adults” had a pact with each other to stay in the government as long as possible to prevent the president from destroying critical international alliances, undermining constitutional norms and initiating military conflicts that would have proven both illegal and unwise.
Two of the more notable moves made by this avenging band of bureaucrats as reported by Woodward? Quietly spiriting away a piece of paper from Trump’s desk that would have undermined an important free-trade deal with South Korea, and ignoring a reckless order to assassinate Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
A grateful nation can thank those who have stopped Trump from creating an existential crisis for the country, remaining at their stations while managing a collection of lesser gaffes. And despite predictable denials from White House aides regarding their derogatory insights of the man they serve, we can also be grateful that some of them once again confirmed these unsettling truths to Woodward.
Nonetheless, what “Fear” reveals is an unwinding of Madisonian democracy that continues today. Trump’s unending, aberrant behavior will continue shaping special counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation. His impulses will continue to cause political bedlam around the world. The United States will continue facing foreign threats because of his wayward geopolitical instincts.
This last issue raises perhaps the most ominous aspect of Woodward’s reporting. Serving a commander in chief with so little knowledge and such poor judgment has apparently led Cabinet members to look beyond the cherished principle of absolute civilian primacy over the U.S. military. While many may take comfort today by such a derogation of duty under Trump, what precedent is being set for future military leaders serving future presidents?
Meanwhile, Woodward’s penetration of the comings and goings of Mueller’s investigation of the president and his associates suggests a fascinating colloquy between the special counsel and Trump’s former lawyer, John Dowd. Most striking is reporting that Mueller and Dowd may have shared a desire to keep Trump from exposing himself as the ignorant liar sensible people know him to be. Unlike the man he is investigating, Mueller puts his concern for country ahead of his own interests. While almost any prosecutor in the world would salivate over the prospect of leading a target down the primrose path of perjury, Mueller knows full well that Trump, under oath, would make the U.S. president an even a bigger laughingstock in the eyes of the world.
For those anxious for Mueller to end this misery, here is a reminder: The Trump presidency can be expected to end in one of five ways: resignation, impeachment and removal by Congress, removal via the 25th Amendment, defeat in re-election, or the conclusion of a second term. That leads to two takeaways from Woodward’s book, one depressing and one heartening.
The depressing truth is that any of these five exits — including a half-dozen more years of this extra-constitutional horror show — are possible. The more heartening message from “Fear” is that we still have institutions and individuals, including Bob Woodward, who will continue checking Trump’s most destructive instincts.
Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, hosts the MSNBC show “Morning Joe.”
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