By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
Well known investigative journalist and associate editor at the Washington Post Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame) recently published a book under the title “Fear – Trump in the White House” (September 2018 Simon & Shuster).The book offers a rare insight into the mindset of “erratic” U.S. President Donald Trump, who according to what defense secretary James Mattis supposedly once said, has the mind of a fifth grader. He doesn’t like to be “lectured” by professors or generals, nor does he study in depth the minutes which he gets every night from his White House chief of staff, but prefers to learn by watching TV news- preferably Fox TV for hours or send out tweets- which he calls his “megaphone” for his views and commentaries (“that otherwise get distorted”). The book describes scenes of executive meetings in the Oval Office which shockingly reveal that most of the time there is a fight between officials from what Steve Bannon called the Deep State (CIA, the Pentagon, FBI) and an egomaniac “erratic” president who just follows his instincts, who loves to “improvise” saying one day this, in order to repudiate it the other day.
The book is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand sources and from meetings, notes, personal diaries, files and paperwork. It was not written by following a systematic and methodological plan. It’s chronological in part but it is often jumping back and forth. The time span which the book describes is those months leading to Election Day Nov 8th 2016 which ended with the electoral victory of President Trump against Hillary Clinton until early summer of this year, describing the day to day routine of the new administration.
The Title of the book “Fear “ was chosen by Woodward in order to illustrate what Trump considers the essence of power: “Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word fear”. This quote was used by President Trump during a campaign speech (March 31 2016 Old Post Pavillon, Trump International Hotel, Washington DC). Woodward at one point in his book refers to an advice which Trump had once given to a friend who had acknowledged some bad behavior toward women. “Real power is fear. It’s all about strength. Never show weakness,” he told the friend. “You’ve always got to be strong. Don’t be bullied. There is no choice. You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women—- If you admit anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. That was the bad mistake you made. You have got to be strong. You’ve got to be aggressive .You’ve got to push back. You’ve got to deny anything that’s said about you, never admit!”( This principle he learned in his early days from the New York lawyer Roy Cohn e.h.)
Woodward’s book reads sometimes like a film script with the title “Fear”, known also from films like the “Wolf of Wall Street” or from the behavior of some of the banking elite worldwide, who are used to communicate in a degenerate and vulgar language. But that’s the harsh reality of today which Woodward tries to convey to the reader. It seems however that there is no effective opposition or alternative in the USA and on top the open question remains: what is the polarized U.S. population going to do? One has probably to go back into history, the period the ancient Rome. That period which St. Augustine described in one of his books (4th Century A.D.) as the “dark period” dominated by emerging robber bands, if we want to better grasp the ongoing dramatic processes in the US and around the world which in the times of Twitter, Social Media and TV brainwashing are threatening world peace!
Woodward puts “flashlight” on some essential disputes concerning U.S. foreign policy issues. One sees a very complex picture concerning an administration, which as Woodward remarks several times in his book, is in total “chaos” and most of the time at the edge of “nervous breakdown”. At the same time we see the actions of the “permanent state” which since the beginning of Trumps campaign, in tandem with a very hostile press environment, started to investigate Russian election interference – the apparent deals which Paul Manafort (former Trump campaign manager), Trumps son, as well as the designated first National Security advisor General Flynn, as well as Jared Kushner (his son in law) were allegedly involved in. There were published reports about Trump who was in 2013 in Russia supposedly being compromised by Russian prostitutes etc.
On this background it should be stated that already in December 2016 President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia, expelling 35 Russian spies. In February 2017 Trump fired FBI director Comey who had claimed that Trump had tried to talk him out of going after General Flynn for Flynn’s alleged Russia connections. With the nomination of Special counsel Mueller, by Deputy Attorney Rosenstein, a process of judiciary investigation about Trumps Russia connection has been set into motion, which hangs around the President’s neck like a stone.
An insight into the Administration intrigues: War with North Korea?
In the Book’s prologue Woodward gives already some insight into the Modus Operandi of a Trump administration which always is at the edge. He reports how in early September 2017,– the eighth month of Trumps presidency– Gary Cohn- former president of Goldman Sachs and the president’s top adviser in the White House, had free access to the Oval Office. On the desk was a one page draft letter from the president of the US to the president of South Korea terminating the Unites States- Korea Free Trade Agreement, known as KORUS. For months Trump had threatened to withdraw from the agreement, one of the foundations of the economic relationship, military alliance and most secret intelligence operations and capabilities, Woodward writes. Under a treaty dating back to the 1950ies the United States stationed 28. 200 troops on the South and operated the most highly classified and sensitive Special Access Programs (SAP) which provided sophisticated, top secret code word intelligence and military capabilities.
The American presence in South Korea represents the essence of US National Security, according to Woodward. Trump however was furious that the United States had an $18 billion annual trade deficit with South Korea and was spending $3,5billion a year to keep U.S. troops there. There was a letter from September 2017 -a potential trigger to a national security catastrophe. Gary Cohn was worried that Trump would sign the letter if he saw it. Woodward reports that “Cohn removed the letter from the Resolute Desk. He laid it in a blue folder marked “KEEP”. ‘I stole it off his desk,’ he later told an associate. I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.’” “In the anarchy and disorder of the White House,” writes Woodward, “and Trump’s mind, the president never noticed the missing letter, it felt like we were walking along the edge of the cliff perpetually.”
President Trump’s tweets may have come close to starting a war with North Korea in early 2018, Woodward reports. Kim Jong Un on New Year’s Day reminded the American president: “It’s not a mere threat, but a reality that I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office. The entire mainland United States is within the range of nuclear strike.” In a twitter Trump wrote: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works.” Not publically Trump proposed ordering all US military dependents thousands of families of 28.500 troops- out of South Korea. The tweet did not go out. Mattis had warned concerning Trump’s obsession to withdraw from KORUS: “We are doing this in order to prevent World War III.” He argued that the US had the possibility to defend the homeland with forward deployment of the 28.500 troops. Trump countered that we are losing much money in trade with South Korea, China and others. Mattis was particularly alarmed and exasperated, telling close associates that the president acted like- and had the understanding of “a fifth or sixth grader.” Also Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had tried to calm the situation down. Yet on March 13 Trump tweeted that CIA director Pompeo was going to be the next Secretary of State.
Steve Bannon: “I am the director and he is the actor”
Steve Bannon who was chief of the right wing Breitbart News Operation, became chosen as Trumps chief strategist in the administration until he was ousted.(August 2017) .He is the one that taught Trump the essence of “populism” and “America First policy”, Woodward reports. Bannon was a fervent nationalist as well as enemy of anything that looked like global policy, aside the fact that he was staunchly arguing in favor of declaring the Iran agreement null and void. One of the main money donors of the Republican Party Rebekah Mercer had argued during the campaign that Trump should hire Bannon as his campaign advisor to replace Paul Manafort. Bannon advised Trump, saying that the “elites in the country are comfortable with managing the decline. The working people in the country are not. They do want to make America great again. We’re going to simplify this campaign. Hillary Clinton is the tribune of a corrupt and incompetent status quo of elite who are comfortable managing the decline. You’re the tribune of the forgotten man who wants to make America great again. And we’re just going to do it in a couple of themes…Number one we are going to stop mas illegal immigration and start to limit legal immigration to get our sovereignty back. Number two you are going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country. And number three we’re going to get out of these pointless foreign wars. “
Foreign policy: constant fights and humiliation
During an NSC meeting July 2017 centered on Afghanistan, Trump exploded, interrupting after 5 minutes NSC adviser General Mc Master: “I’ve been hearing about this nonsense about Afghanistan for 17 years with no success (… )We can’t continue with the same of strategy. The best briefing I’ve got was from a couple of those line soldiers (with whom he had dinner the night before in the presence of Mc Master and Pence), not the generals” (..) “I don’t care about these guys,” he told Defense Secretary Mattis, General Chief of Staff Dunford and NSC chairman Mc Master. “Afghanistan is a disaster. Our allies are not helping ….NATO is a disaster and a waste(….) The soldiers on the ground could run things much better than you”, the president told his generals and advisers. “They could do a much better job. I don’t know what the hell we’re doing.” As Woodward commented, this “was a 25 minute dressing down of the generals and senior officials.”
According to the opinion of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gary Cohn ( Chairman of the National Economic Council until March 2018) President Trump didn’t understand the importance of allies overseas, the value of diplomacy or the relationship between the military the economy and intelligence as well as partnerships with foreign governments. They wanted to convince president Trump that $500 billion Dollar trade deficit were not harming American economy. On July 20 2017 they organized a presentation for Trump about the global world architecture. Tillerson and Mattis explained what had kept 70 years of peace in terms of US engagement across the world. For Bannon this was just “old world order, expensive limitless engagements.” Also Trump was shaking his head in disagreement. For Trump this was all “bullshit”.
Trump: “Decertify Iran-Deal”
Bannon intervened by stating to get real and he picked one of the most controversial international agreement that bound the US to this global order: “The President wants to decertify the Iranian deal and you guys are slow walking. It’s a terrible deal… One of the things he wants to do, is impose sanctions on Iran”, the chief strategist said, “is one of your fucking great allies up in the European Union going to back the president? All this talk about how they are our partners. Give me one that’s going back the president on sanctions!” Trump replied: “That’s what I’m talking about. He just made may point. You talk about all these guys as allies. There is not an ally up there. Answer Steve’s question: Who is going to back us?” Tillerson: “The best we can tell is, they (Iran) are not in violation of anything. All the intelligence agencies agreed on this. It was the critical point. How could they impose new sanctions, if there was no violation of the agreement?” Trump: “They are all making money,” noting that the European Union was trading and making big deals with Iran.When are we going to win some wars?” he asked in reference to Afghanistan. “Why are you ramming me this down my throat?” Chief of Staff Dunford replied: “Mr. President, there is no mandate to win.” Mattis and Dunford were proposing new rules of engagement for US troops in Afghanistan. Mattis tried again to intervene and Trump stated: “The reason why we are in these spots is because you’ve been recommending these activities.”
Back on Iran, Tillerson was saying: “They are complying, you may not like this.” Trump: “That’s too establishment”. They ( the Generals, Secretary of State and Defense)were arguing that all these things fit together – the trade agreement with China with Mexico, the Iran nuclear deal, the troop deployments, the foreign aid. Trump’s message was to say “no” on everything that had been presented. Bannon then asked Mnuchin about the European allies: “These great partner, Europeans, what are they going to do on sanctions? Are they in or are they out?” Mnuchin: “They will never support it.” Bannon: “I rest my case. There’s your allies”.
Trump picked up on this:“The European companies, they are fucking worthless. Siemens, Peugeot, Volkswagen and other European household names were actively investing in Iran” He turned to Rex Tillerson calling him a weakling since he didn’t want to decertify Iran to then turn to his favorite issues. He wanted to slap tariffs on imported steel, aluminum and automobiles: “We spend $ 3,5 billion a year to have troops in South Korea,” he said angrily. “The South could not decide if they wanted the THAAD anti- missile system and whether they are going to pay for it or not…. Pull the fucking thing out. I don’t give a shit”. Trump got up and walked out. Tillerson later told Cohn that Trump was “a fucking moron.” While Trump thanked Bannon: “How glad he was that Bannon fucking decided to say something.”
On Mueller’s ongoing special investigation
John Dowd, 76, one of the most experienced Attorney in white collar criminal defense, was in May 25 2017 asked to advise the President on this affair. As Woodward noted, Dowd had never seen anyone in justice like the “nominated special counsel Mueller” with such broad authority (investigate Russian angle and any matter that arose or might arise directly from the Russian investigation.) A lot of democrats were on Mueller’s team of prosecutors. Dowd in discussing with Trump did not see any collusion with the Russians or obstruction of justice. Most troubling was FBI Comey’s memo and testimony that Trump had appealed him to go easy on General Flynn. After Flynn’s firing, Dowd assured the president that their strategy of dealing with Mueller was “to cooperate and grind them down until we had a 3 D picture of what was in their heads.” Based on this picture and the cooperation of 37 witnesses and the entire document turned over, he repeated several times “I don’t see a case.” Dowd explained to Trump that he solely ran the executive branch and all of his actions particularly pertaining to Comey , were within those power of Art II of the constitution. But he told Trump that he should not personally go to testify. Dowd was convinced that Trump couldn’t really handle the questions, that he was not “capable.” What he didn’t tell him was that he thought that “he was a fucking liar.” Dowd resigned (March 2018). At the end of the book, Woodward states that “Dowd remained convinced that Mueller never had a Russian case or an obstruction case. He was looking for the ‘perjury trap’.” He believed that the president had not colluded with Russia or obstructed justice.
In the cover: Fiction versus reality — Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in the film All The President’s Men on the developments leading to the “Watergate” of President Nixon. Photograph: Warner Bros/Getty Images.