The White House on Tuesday aggressively challenged aspects of Bob Woodward’s explosive new book on President Donald Trump’s administration, which paints a devastating portrait of a presidency careening toward a “nervous breakdown.”
Hours after The Washington Post first reported several key incidents from Woodward’s book, “Fear,” the administration mounted a vigorous string of public denials, with statements from top advisers - White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders - as well as from Trump’s former personal attorney John Dowd.
Mattis called the book “fiction,” and Sanders denounced the tome in a statement as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees” without disputing any of the specifics that have been reported in excerpts.
Trump tweeted the statements Tuesday evening and then, without providing evidence, suggested the book’s release was timed to affect the midterm elections in November.
“The Woodward book has already been refuted and discredited by General (Secretary of Defense) James Mattis and General (Chief of Staff) John Kelly,” he wrote on Twitter. “Their quotes were made up frauds, a con on the public. Likewise other stories and quotes. Woodward is a Dem operative? Notice timing?”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Woodward said, “I stand by my reporting.”
Despite rumors for weeks that Woodward’s latest project would likely paint a damning portrait of Trump and his team, the White House found itself caught ill prepared Tuesday as scenes from the book emerged.
The official pushback initially was slow - coming almost exactly four hours after scenes from “Fear,” which will be published Sept. 11, began dominating Twitter - and felt pro forma, more Pavlovian muscle memory than rigorous rebuttals.
White House officials, for instance, recycled a denial from Kelly back in spring - the last time reports emerged of him calling the president an “idiot” - in which he claimed that he and Trump have “an incredibly candid and strong relationship” and that the “idiot” anecdote was “total BS.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the White House was still scrambling to procure a copy of Woodward’s book, and several White House aides asked reporters if they were mentioned in “Fear” - and, if so, what they were quoted as saying.
Behind the scenes, White House aides and others in Trump’s orbit largely steeled themselves for what they privately predicted would be the president’s all-but-inevitable explosion, which they predicted would occur as cable news channels switched from coverage of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings to juicy tidbits from the book.
By early Tuesday evening, Trump was furious and asking people who spoke to Woodward, an outside adviser said. This person added that the president has recently been in a particularly paranoid mood - the result, in part, of a tell-all book by former senior adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman and his perceived betrayal by several key aides and confidants in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing Russia probe.
“He doesn’t think he can trust anybody,” the adviser said.
The president urged senior White House aides and Cabinet members to speak up if they disagreed with how they were quoted in the book.
Trump is also frustrated with counselor Kellyanne Conway for not bringing Woodward into the White House to speak directly with the president, a senior White House official said, and told several advisers Tuesday that it would have been better had the author come into the Oval Office for an interview.
Two outside advisers said Trump had complained for several weeks that he didn’t interview with Woodward - and that his staff should not have kept such requests from him. Though Woodward, in an August phone call with Trump, recounted attempts to try to speak with him, the president nonetheless was upset Tuesday that - in his mind - he never had a chance to sit down with the author.
Trump believes he could have explained himself to Woodward and helped shape the book, one of the advisers said, and feels he is isolated and isn’t getting the best information from his staff.
Kelly has griped incessantly about book projects in the White House and has urged people not to cooperate while seeking to keep the president from doing so, current and former officials said.
West Wing aides and operatives in close contact with the White House said the administration did not have a war room readied to fight back against Woodward’s harrowing depiction of the Trump presidency or a well-honed response strategy.
The usual pushback to unflattering books, one White House official said, is to discredit the author - a tactic the White House deployed with mixed success following the publication of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Manigault Newman’s “Unhinged.” But that playbook is unlikely to work with Woodward, a veteran chronicler of presidencies and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, the official added.
Conway, for instance, told others in the White House before Tuesday that Woodward was credible and that his book could be damaging.
A number of current and former White House aides said the book’s depiction rang true, even if they were not sure of every detail. “I’m not sure why everyone is acting so shocked,” one former senior administration official said.
Several officials who spoke to Woodward said he showed up to interviews with documents and memos, as well as vivid accounts of scenes inside the White House.
Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, defended Woodward in a tweet, saying that as someone who has been on the “receiving end” of one of Woodward’s books, and not always favorably, he had no reason to doubt the journalist’s reporting and methods.
“Never once - never - did I think Woodward made it up,” Fleischer wrote. “Anonymous sources have looser lips and may take liberties. But Woodward always plays [it] straight.”
Much of Trumpworld spent the day guessing - and pointing fingers at - who Woodward’s sources might be and ruminating on who could be fired and what anecdotes would likely most upset the president.
Some speculated that those who have clashed with Kelly would use the latest disclosures as a cudgel to try to oust him from the White House. Others said they suspected that the president would most likely be incensed by Kelly’s portrayal in the book, as well as scenes that depict Dowd fretting that Trump cannot sit down with Mueller’s investigators without lying and potentially landing himself in jail.
Mattis, whose relationship with Trump was already strained, could also face the president’s wrath, these people said.
In the book, Woodward writes of a January meeting in the White House residence organized by Dowd that served as a practice session for a potential Trump interview with Mueller. Dowd and another Trump lawyer, the book continues, later met with Mueller and his deputy in the special counsel’s office, where Trump’s attorneys reenacted the president’s problematic practice session - complete with their client’s stumbles, contradictions and lies.
According to the book, Dowd later told Trump: “Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit.”
In a statement, Dowd said that he had not read the book and pushed back against Woodward’s reporting, including the “orange jumpsuit” comment, the practice session and the reenactment.
“I do not intend to address every inaccurate statement attributed to me - but I do want to make this clear: there was no so-called ‘practice session’ or ‘reenactment’ of a mock interview at the Special Counsel’s office,” Dowd said. “Further, I did not refer to the President as a ‘liar’ and did not say that he was likely to end up in an ‘orange jump suit.’ ”
Yet over the course of 448 pages, Woodward renders an image of a president unhinged. In one scene, after Syrian leader Bashar Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on his own citizens in 2017, Trump suggests to Mattis the idea of assassinating Assad, according to the book.
Woodward also offers up a cadre of West Wing aides frantically trying to control their boss’ whims and impulses, often by deception. The author writes of aides stealing papers off Trump’s desk - their attempt to ward off problematic actions by the president - and of senior advisers bemoaning their White House posts.
“He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown,” Kelly said, according to Woodward.
After a particularly grim National Security Council meeting on the Korean Peninsula this year, Woodward writes, Mattis “was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted - and had the understanding of - ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’ ”
In a statement early Tuesday evening, Mattis denied his portrayal in the book. “The contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward’s book were never uttered by me or in my presence,” he said. “While I generally enjoy reading fiction, this is a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility.”
Woodward also writes that Trump repeatedly railed against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Republican senator from Alabama, for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia investigation and called him “mentally retarded” and “dumb Southerner” who “couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”
A spokeswoman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who has a son with Down syndrome, said Rodgers’ “views on this type of language have not changed and never will. That term should never be used.”
The White House’s dismissal of Woodward’s book comes after the president praised the author on Twitter several years ago, when Woodward was reporting on a different occupant of the White House.
“Only the Obama WH can get away with attacking Bob Woodward,” Trump tweeted in 2013. And in an August phone conversation, Trump told Woodward that he believed the journalist had “always been fair” to him.
But by late Tuesday, the president had done an about-face.
“It’s just another bad book. He’s had a lot of credibility problems,” Trump said in an Oval Office interview with the Daily Caller, a conservative website viewed as friendly toward the administration.
The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis, Anne Gearan, Carol D. Leonnig, Gabriel Pogrund, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner contributed to this report.