In July 2017, Donald Trump’s national security team tried to get the President to sit down and listen to a lecture about why allies and diplomacy are important.
Trump didn’t have time for it. He told the assembled generals and experts that the real strategy they needed in Afghanistan was to kill more of the enemy. He didn’t think North Korea needed a complex thought process, just a meeting with the dictator and “man versus man” could get the job done.
These are some of the revelations in Bob Woodward's new tell-all book Fear: Trump in the White House. Quotes and anecdotes from the book began appearing Tuesday in The Washington Post, CNN and other outlets.
According to Woodward’s account, which will be released September 11, Trump is viewed as a “moron” and “idiot” with the understanding of a “fifth-grader” by some of his senior officials and members of the cabinet, a perspective with major implications for Trump’s foreign policy and world affairs.
People around Trump were apparently concerned that his use of Twitter “could get us into a war.” Indeed, Trump has used Twitter to announce new policies, such as hammering Turkey over Ankara’s detention of a US pastor.
The White House has distanced itself from the book, accusing it of containing “fabricated stories” made by disgruntled employees. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly denies he called Trump an “idiot.”
Woodward reveals that Trump was deeply affected by the chemical weapons massacre at Khan Shekhoun in April 2014, cursing Bashar Assad and threatening to kill him. But Secretary of Defense James Mattis was more reasoned. “We’re not going to do any of that, we’re going to be much more measured.” What followed were measured strikes against a Syrian air base.
Trump sought to draw a red line with Syria that the Obama administration had not done in 2013, as part of his overall view of reversing the previous administration’s policies. As Assad prepares for a new offensive in Idlib this week, Trump has warned on Twitter that the Syrian regime risks reprisals if it uses chemical weapons.
Because Trump is seen as unhinged by his staff, Woodward writes, they seek to hide documents from him and disappear memos or orders he wanted to sign. The revelations here are especially bizarre considering that a president who wants to sign an executive order could simply ask a that a new copy be made. “I can stop this,” one economic adviser said. “I’ll just take the paper off his desk.” But is it reasonable that the president simply wouldn’t remember?
The portrayal of a national security staff that is concerned about the president’s behavior leads to questions about who is actually in charge in the White House.
“It seems clear that many of the president’s senior advisers, especially those in the national security realm, are extremely concerned with his erratic, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views,” one unnamed source says in Woodward’s account.
In February 2017, soon after coming into office, Trump allegedly asked his generals to come up with a plan for a “preemptive military strike on North Korea.”
But wouldn’t such a plan have existed anyway? The story reveals a feeling that Trump was a warmonger and seeking out a way to turn the tables on a whole series of foreign policy problems that he felt the US had been handling badly. For instance, Trump expressed concern about funding commitments for early warning systems on the Korean peninsula. Secretary of Defense Mattis explained they were to stop “World War III.”
On Afghanistan, the president – who is painted as not interested in listening about foreign policy – “dressed down his generals and other advisers for 25 minutes,” according to The Washington Post. “The soldiers on the ground could run things much better than you. They could do a much better job. I don’t know what the hell we’re doing.” He asked how many more Americans would die, how many more would lose limbs in the 17-year conflict. “How much longer are we going to be there?”
As much as other parts of the book seek to make Trump out to be uninterested or a “fifth-grader,” it is hard to square that with portrayals like this where the president appears interested in granular detail and asking skeptical questions.
Why is the US in Afghanistan after 17 years, and what is it accomplishing? Why is the Taliban winning? Is that unorthodox, or the right question?
What about Israel?
Many of Trump’s major foreign policy decisions have been in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Yet the recent revelations from the book have not focused on any of the Israel decisions, including the embassy move, leaving UNESCO or scrapping funding for UNRWA. The Iran Deal also isn’t mentioned.
It appears that the portrayal of Trump as unwilling to concentrate and not interested in learning is at odds with his administration’s decisions on Jerusalem issues. This could be because he has outsourced that policy to Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, his Middle East envoys. But there’s more to it than that. Trump was committed to the Jerusalem decision, and he has been talking about the Iran Deal since he was a candidate.
The sections of the book that have been released were chosen to provide the most interesting details on a range of subjects. Either Woodward doesn’t think the Israel issue is important, or Trump’s views on Israel and the Palestinians are more palatable than his other behavior.
The book is not the first tell-all; Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, released in January, included similar assessments of the chaos in the White House and among team Trump. Woodward’s account seeks to look more closely at the inner circle and the chain of command around Trump, and how his advisers have sidelined him, slow played him or ignored him. However, there have been some changes in the past six months with National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo taking up key positions.
So far at least, World War III has been avoided.