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Woodward’s White House book portrays officials trying to rein in Trump

A new book about the Trump White House describes a "nervous breakdown" within the executive branch. In "Fear," award-winning Washington Post editor Bob Woodward chronicles episodes like a Cabinet member removing documents from the president's desk so he wouldn’t sign them, to the chief of staff saying, "We're in Crazytown." Judy Woodruff talks with Robert Costa of the Washington Post.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's a new book about the Trump White House that uses the term nervous breakdown to describe what's happened inside the executive branch of government.

    It is just one of many elements that add up to a critical picture in the book by journalist Bob Woodward titled "Fear."

    The award-winning Washington Post editor chronicles how a Cabinet member removed documents from the president's desk, so that he wouldn't sign them, and quotes the chief of staff as saying, "He's gone off the rails. We are in crazy town."

    Robert Costa of The Washington Post and PBS's "Washington Week" has read the book, yet to be released, and he joins me now.

    So, Robert, most of us have not seen the book yet, but you have. What would you say are the most important parts of the story.

  • Robert Costa:

    Well, Judy, it has so many anecdotes strewn throughout the book.

    But what's most important is the way so many officials around President Trump, members of his Cabinet, like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, continue to try to rein the president in with regard to his decision-making. You see it on trade policy, former economic adviser Gary Cohn taking documents off of the president's desk in the Oval Office, according to Woodward's account, Mattis at times ignoring orders.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Bob, as you know, as we know, there have been several books in the last several months that have come out about — about the Trump White House, the Trump administration.

    What's different about Bob Woodward's reporting?

  • Robert Costa:

    The White House's response today has been typical of how they have approached books like this.

    They say it's fabrications, and they have contested aspects of the book already. But what makes this book different is Woodward's credibility. At age 75, he's been in the game for a long time.

    And when you read the book, as a reporter, you recognize so many details are in the book, time, who's in the room, different firsthand accounts. There's a different level of specificity in a lot of these exchanges and scenes that you don't see in other books.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Bob, as you said, you're a reporter. You have been covering this White House.

    Give us a sense of the access that Bob Woodward had that most of the day-to-day recorders might not have been having.

  • Robert Costa:

    Woodward spent over a year working on this project very quietly. If you talk to White House officials, some of them met with him at his home. Others met with him at their home.

    He did this really behind the scenes, trying to do interviews on deep background. That means attributions not always directly attributed to the source. But he tries to paint a picture of different scenes by talking to people who have firsthand knowledge.

    And so the whole book is based on those deep background reflections and recollections.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There was one thing that I saw did come out today.

    Bob Woodward released, I think, the transcript of a phone call, phone conversation he had with President Trump. Tell us about that.

  • Robert Costa:

    President Trump called Woodward to talk about the book after the book was finished. This was just weeks ago.

    And on The Washington Post Web site, you can listen to it. And you hear President Trump saying he tried to maybe do an interview with Woodward. But Woodward keeps reiterating that he made an effort to sit down with the president, yet it was — it never happened.

    So President Trump didn't speak to Woodward for this book, but he did call Woodward to talk about the book. And he did say in the interview, the conversation with Woodward, that Woodward has always been fair to him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Bob, does this change the relationship, do you think, between the president and some of the people who are close to him who are either quoted or appear to be — have been sources in this book?

  • Robert Costa:

    We're going to have to be on a wait-and-see basis with that question, Judy, because Secretary Mattis said some very negative things, based on Woodward's reporting in the book, referring to the president as someone who has the learning level of a fifth- or sixth-grader in middle school, someone who doesn't understand the stakes in North Korea, doesn't understand how the U.S. is trying to prevent World War III from unfolding.

    Mattis' response will be something to watch in the coming days. Chief of Staff John Kelly has already denied calling the president an idiot, which is another detail in Woodward's book.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some remarkable reporting, it sounds like. We will all be looking for it.

    Robert Costa of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

  • Robert Costa:

    Thank you.

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