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Trump ‘doesn’t understand the basics,’ says ‘Fear’ author Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward says key people in the White House say they spend a third of their time preventing bad things from happening. In his new book, the veteran editor and reporter delivers a stunning and disturbing look inside the Trump presidency, exposing a chaotic White House, lead by a man who has said he believes the key to power is "Fear." Woodward joins Judy Woodruff to discuss his reporting.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a stunning look inside the Trump presidency, exposing a chaotic White House led by a man who has said he believes the key to that is fear.

    And that is the title of Bob Woodward's latest book. And the veteran editor and reporter for The Washington Post joins me now.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Bob Woodward:

    Thank you. Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, congratulations on the book.

    There is something jaw-dropping on virtually every other page.

    Bob Woodward, did you come away believing that Donald Trump is not fit to govern?

  • Bob Woodward:

    See, that that's not for me to judge. That's up to individuals in the political system.

    As a reporter, having done this, this is my ninth president. And the goal is to really understand, what's happening behind the scenes, what's real? What are the motives? Who is this person? Where is the advice coming from? And, ultimately, what does it mean for the country?

    But that's not for me to decide. So, I step back on that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have written, what, well over a dozen books on Washington, on the presidency.

    And, in the past, there have been protests, some criticisms, but never a torrent of denials like we're seeing now, Gary Cohn, James Mattis, Rob Porter.

    Why the torrent?

  • Bob Woodward:

    But they're not denials, Judy.

    You have been around so long — long enough to know, these are non-denials denial. "It doesn't fully capture my experience in the Trump White House," said one of them.

    Well, the reporting is rigorous and careful. People are not disputing something or where they are. It's this kind of survival denial, politically calculated. But that happens, going back to Nixon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As an example, Rob Porter's statement. He says you're reporting about a document being stolen by Gary Cohn off the president's desk. He said that misunderstands how the document review process works, that it's all about making sure anything the president signed…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Bob Woodward:

    But he didn't say it didn't happen.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Bob Woodward:

    And the book is very clear and actually shows the document itself that was taken off the president's — the Resolute Desk.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    National security, there are a number of disturbing themes you describe.

    One is, after a meeting at the Pentagon, top officials trying to help the president understand, you say, the importance of allies, relationships between the United States and foreign governments.

    You write, the meeting was such a disaster, the president insulted the entire group, the generals, everybody. And you quote a White House official after, saying "Many of the president's senior advisers, especially those in the national security realm, extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views."

  • Bob Woodward:

    What happened in that meeting, Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser in the White House, and Secretary of Defense Mattis formed an alliance. This has not been reported before.

    And they said, my God, we have got to get the president out of the White House, where he's not watching television, where he's not kind of prisoner to the calls that are coming in.

    So they brought him over to the Pentagon, the Tank, which is the Joint Chiefs' secret meeting room. There are no windows. There are no distractions. And Secretary of Defense Mattis put up on a screen a list and maps showing this triad of support for the United States' trade deals, secret intelligence partnerships, and very — in a very, very important way, security alliances, like the one with South Korea, like NATO.

    And Mattis literally said, the great gift from the greatest generation, the past, is this rules-based international order.

    Secretary of State Tillerson said, this is what's kept the peace for 70 years.

    And Trump erupted, said, this is B.S., and gets in a dispute about all of these issues. At the end of this meeting, Mattis, according to people who were there, just is deflated, because the president doesn't understand the basics.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You also describe a time earlier this year when the president wanted to tweet his decision to order all U.S. military dependents out of South Korea, some thousands of family members of the troops who are serving there.

    How close did the president come to doing that? And what would that have meant?

  • Bob Woodward:

    As I understand, he had the tweet prepared.

    What had happened on December 4, Ri Su-yong, who is a key North Korean official, he sent through intermediaries the message that if there is a withdrawal of dependents, it will be a signal to North Korea that an attack is imminent.

    Now, the Pentagon leadership went, my God, we have to stop this. They did stop it. The tweet was never issued. It was frightening to the people involved in this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, domestic policy, the economy.

    You describe the former economic adviser Gary Cohn talking to the president when — and having to explain to him about interest rates, talking to him about interest rates, Gary Cohn saying they're going to rise, and the president reacting and saying, well, we should just go borrow a lot of money right now, hold it, and then sell it, and make money, and just run the presses, print money.

  • Bob Woodward:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you write about Cohn's reaction.

  • Bob Woodward:

    And Cohn's reaction is, no, no, that's not the way it works. You can't print unlimited amounts of money, because, if you do, interest rates are going to go up. The deficit is going to go up.

    This is before Trump is president, but he's been elected — is just, you know, no, this — we're going to actually make money. And if you go through this — he's obsessed with making money, and not spending money on things like defense, which, as Secretary of Defense Mattis tells the president, he said, the best dollars we spend, if it was 10 times as expensive, we should do it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you have a sense, Bob Woodward, of what percentage of the people who work for the president right now are worried about him and his leadership?

  • Bob Woodward:

    No.

    And, see, that's the — I deal in the book in specifics, the key officials talking, debating, trying to reach decisions with the president and with the whole administration.

    And I think one of the bottom lines, in addition to the war on true, is, it's not a team. They don't work together. We don't know what's going to happen. Key people in the White House saying, they spend a third of their time preventing bad things from happening.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you do get the sense that some are staying there because they're there to protect the country.

  • Bob Woodward:

    Got to save the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just quickly, two things, the president's daughter Ivanka, her husband, Jared Kushner.

    In the White House, you write about — at one point, you say they're viewed as a posse of second-guessers. Are they…

  • Bob Woodward:

    By the chief of staff, Priebus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is the chief of staff.

  • Bob Woodward:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The former chief of staff.

    On balance, are they a check on the president? Are they — are they adding expertise?

  • Bob Woodward:

    Well, I mean, they represent some points of view.

    And there are people who say they are a moderating influence on the president. There are others who think, because of the family relationship, it gives them too much of a presence, too much influence. And, sometimes, people have said to the president, it'd be better if they're not here.

    We will — you know, we will see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One point.

    Both The Washington Post and New York Times' reviews of the book say you, Bob Woodward, have in the past treated people who give you access more gently, that you're harsher on people who don't talk to you.

    How do you answer that?

  • Bob Woodward:

    Look, this is rigorously reported. I think there are enough people who are unhappy that all of this has come out.

    But I have just done this too long to — to — this is not partisan. This — somebody called me an ultra-centrist recently.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Bob Woodward:

    And it also isn't personal. It is the best obtainable version of the truth.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bob Woodward, the book, "Fear: Trump in the White House."

    Thank you very much.

  • Bob Woodward:

    Thank you.

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