President Trump sought to blunt the impact of a forthcoming book by longtime Washington journalist Bob Woodward, calling it possibly “made up” or the product of embittered aides, after a number of sensational excerpts emerged on Tuesday.
Among those published by the Washington Post were reports that his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, called Trump “an idiot” and “unhinged,” that Defense Secretary James N. Mattis told associates Trump acts like “a fifth- or sixth-grader,” and that the president mocked Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’ Southern accent and called him “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner.”
In an interview with the conservative website the Daily Caller, Trump speculated that the revelations and harsh criticism in the book from some of his most senior aides and Cabinet officials could have come from “disgruntled employees.” Or, he said, “it could be just made up by the author.”
Woodward’s book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” is to be published on Sept. 11 but was already the top-selling book on Amazon’s listing based on pre-publication orders.
The president criticized Woodward — who became famous at the Post for revealing the Watergate scandal that led to President Nixon’s impeachment and resignation, and who has chronicled every president since — as a journalist with “credibility problems.”
“It’s just another bad book. He’s had a lot of credibility problems,” Trump said of an author he once regarded as unimpeachable.
Five years earlier, as the Obama White House was disputing aspects of Woodward’s inside account of that administration, Trump tweeted: “Only the Obama WH can get away with attacking Bob Woodward.”
In his interview with the Daily Caller, the president seemed to lament that he hadn’t cooperated with Woodward by giving interviews. “I probably would have preferred to speak to him,” he said, “but maybe not. I think it probably wouldn’t have made a difference in the book. He wanted to write the book a certain way.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Post also posted online a transcript and audio recording of Trump’s 11-minute conversation with Woodward three weeks ago, in which the president claims that he never knew the author wanted to speak to him for the book. Woodward told Trump that he’d placed his request with “about six” people, including senior advisor Kellyanne Conway. Trump put Conway on the phone, and she confirmed that Woodward had asked her over lunch for an interview with the president.
“It’s just nasty stuff,” Trump told the Daily Caller about the book’s reported contents. “I never spoke to him. Maybe I wasn’t given messages that he called. I probably would have spoken to him if he’d called, if he’d gotten through. For some reason I didn’t get messages on it.”
Trump’s interview remarks with the conservative website followed a White House statement in which Kelly denied that he called Trump “an idiot,” and the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, dismissed the book altogether as “fabricated stories.”
In a comment that Trump would subsequently echo, Sanders said, “This book is nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad.”
Mattis also issued a statement disputing his reported comments, saying they “were never uttered by me or in my presence.” He called Woodward’s book “a uniquely Washington brand of literature, and his anonymous sources do not lend credibility.”
Mattis did not expressly deny the book’s contention that Trump told Mattis in a phone call that he wanted Syria’s Bashar Assad assassinated, a directive that Mattis disregarded.
Sanders’ statement was similar to the White House response to two previous tell-all books about the Trump White House and came four hours after the Post published the Woodward excerpts.
The revelations, which Woodward said came in hundreds of hours of recorded interviews with Trump associates, quickly overshadowed the first day of Senate confirmation hearings for the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
Also among the disclosures was one describing how former top economic advisor Gary Cohn “stole a letter off the president’s desk” to prevent Trump from withdrawing the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea.
Kelly’s reported comments got the most attention, however.
“He’s an idiot,” Kelly reportedly said of Trump. “It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Kelly has privately expressed similar frustrations to friends and officials in past administrations over the last year; in issuing his denial, he noted that he was quoting from his response last spring to an NBC News report that he’d called Trump an idiot.
“The idea I ever called the president an idiot is not true,” Kelly said in the statement.
“As I stated back in May and still firmly stand behind: ‘I spend more time with the president than anyone else, and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship. He always knows where I stand, and he and I both know this story is total BS. I’m committed to the president, his agenda and our country. This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes.’”
Brought in as Trump’s second chief of staff to stabilize a chaotic West Wing in the summer of 2017, Kelly has been widely reported to be on the outs with Trump. But in late July, the president announced that Kelly would be staying in the job through the 2020 presidential election.