Tuesday, September 4, 2018
Fear is based on hundreds of hours of conversations with key players, according to the author, who uncovered the Watergate scandal.
The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, was so incensed by the behavior of Donald Trump that he privately described the president to other aides as an “idiot” and complained that they were in “Crazytown”, according to an incendiary new account of Trump’s presidency.
The unflattering portrait of Trump’s White House, in which the president is portrayed as being so gripped by paranoia over the Russia investigation that he is barely able to operate, is contained in Fear, the much-anticipated book by Bob Woodward. A copy of the book was obtained, days before its official release, by the Washington Post, which reported on several of its most arresting details on Tuesday.
Woodward has been a star reporter at the Post since 1971 and remains an associate editor. He is most famous for breaking the story of the Watergate scandal with his fellow Post reporter Carl Bernstein. The scandal prompted the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency in 1974.
Woodward’s depiction of the Trump administration as being in a state of “nervous breakdown” strongly echoes the picture of chaos and pandemonium laid out this year by Michael Wolff in his blockbuster Fire and Fury. But given Woodward’s powerful journalistic brand, from his seminal role in exposing Watergate through a series of insider portraits of a succession of presidents – including Bill Clinton, the younger George Bush and Barack Obama – Fear is likely to carry an even greater punch.
The White House was taking the threat of the forthcoming publication seriously enough to put out a statement about it on Tuesday. The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, derided Fear as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad”.
The 448-page volume was based, Woodward said, on hundreds of hours of conversations with direct players, but only on an anonymous basis. Among the revelations was the way that Trump demeans his own senior advisers behind their backs. According to the Washington Post account of the book, the president used to mock his former national security adviser HR McMaster by impersonating him with a puffed-out chest.
Kelly’s predecessor as chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was “a little rat. He just scurries around,” Trump told one of Priebus’s subordinates. Jeff Sessions, the US attorney general, was “mentally retarded. He’s this dumb southerner [who] couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”
Some insults were delivered to individuals’ faces. Trump apparently told the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross: “I don’t trust you … you’re past your prime.”
Days after the nation mourned the death of the Arizona senator and Vietnam war hero John McCain, there are bombshell disclosures about the depth of Trump’s disdain for the man. Woodward is reported to describe a dinner at which Trump told senior White House officials that McCain had been cowardly in getting himself released early from a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.
The defense secretary, Jim Mattis, had to correct the president by pointing out that the truth was in fact the direct opposite – McCain had refused an offer of early release from his captors, out of solidarity with fellow prisoners.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of the Post’s rendition of Woodward’s book is the alarm it portrays among top national security officials about Trump’s lack of grip over world affairs. After one high-stakes meeting in January of the National Security Council over the North Korean missile threat, Mattis was so exasperated he told associates that the president had the understanding of a 10-year-old schoolchild.
Top officials plot among themselves, the author writes, in a collective effort to thwart Trump from carrying out his more outlandish desires. Senior officials swipe documents from the president’s Oval Office desk so that he cannot act on them. The most chilling example of that pattern, Woodward says, was following the chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in April 2017. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump is reported to have exclaimed. Mattis promised Trump he would respond immediately, but then quietly let the assassination idea drop.
Then there is that outburst attributed to John Kelly. Having called Trump an idiot, he is then said by Woodward to have lamented: “I don’t know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
On Tuesday, the chief of staff also put out a statement in which he called the story “total BS”. Kelly said: “I spend more time with the president than anyone else, and we have an incredibly candid and strong relationship. This is another pathetic attempt to smear people close to President Trump and distract from the administration’s many successes.”
With his latest attack on Jeff Sessions, the president shows his real problem isn’t with the Justice Department but with the rule of law. By now, few might lift an eyebrow at President Trump’s crusade to delegitimize his own Justice Department and, specifically, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. It long ago became clear that Mr. Trump regards federal law enforcement — as he sees all of government — as a political tool to advance the interests of himself and of his party (assuming those interests align, of course; if not, the party is on its own).
Yet even by that debased standard, Mr. Trump’s latest Twitter tantrum against Mr. Sessions, on Monday, set a new low, providing a kind of anti-civics lesson for the nation he’s supposed to lead.
“Two long-running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department,” he wrote. “Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff.”
With this latest outburst, the president has again laid bare his contempt for the rule of law. Mr. Trump does not even pretend to care about the allegations of corruption against the two lawmakers in question. His concern is only that they are “very popular” members who would have scored “easy wins” in November, if only Mr. Sessions had kept his fat mouth shut until after the midterms — or better yet, buried the allegations permanently.
Chris Collins, Republican of New York, who was indicted last month on insider trading charges, is facing multiple counts of securities fraud, wire fraud and lying to federal agents. Investigators were aided in their efforts by the fact that the representative’s alleged misbehavior was caught on video while he was attending the White House congressional picnic last summer.
Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, indicted just a couple of weeks after Mr. Collins, is accused of misappropriating $250,000 in campaign funds for personal use. He and his wife, also named in the 47-page indictment, allegedly dipped into the political kitty to buy items ranging from running shoes to family vacations to plane tickets for their pet.
Both lawmakers have pleaded not guilty. Mr. Collins has suspended his campaign, while Mr. Hunter’s name will remain on the ballot and he has a strong chance to win re-election against an inexperienced Democratic challenger.
These indictments carry a personal resonance for the president. Mr. Collins was the first member of Congress to endorse Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Mr. Hunter was the second. For a president for whom blind loyalty matters above all, the possibility of losing two such devoted followers must be especially vexing.
The heart of the matter for Mr. Trump is, as always, what’s in it for Mr. Trump. Keeping Congress under Republican control is key to the president’s fortunes, both political and legal. As Mr. Trump sees it, Mr. Sessions has once more put everything at risk with his traitorous insistence upon upholding the law.
Indeed, Mr. Trump continues to make clear that if only he had known then what he knows now — especially as regards the Russia investigation — Mr. Sessions would never have been offered the job.
Mr. Trump’s beef is not with Jeff Sessions or the Justice Department. He has a problem with the law — or at least with the idea that it should apply to him and those who do his bidding. Republicans, especially Republican lawmakers, are by their silence complicit in this perversion of justice.
Responding to a journalist’s request for opinion on PML-N leadership’s claim that he had divided the opposition, former president Asif Ali Zardari said on Tuesday that in fact the PML-N leadership was not used to sitting on the opposition benches.
The question was posed to the PPP co-chairman as he arrived at the Parliament House to cast his vote for the country’s 13th presidential election.
Zardari’s initial reaction to the question was that of shock, as he asked back, “I divided the opposition?” He continued, “Why shouldn’t we say that Mian Sb [Shehbaz Sharif] has never sat on opposition benches.”
The outreach, initiated by the army’s top commander, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, began months before Pakistan’s national elections. Pakistan offered to resume on-and-off talks with India over their border dispute in the Kashmir region, which stalled in 2015 as violence flared up there.
A key objective for Pakistan in reaching out to India is to open barriers to trade between the countries, which would give Pakistan more access to regional markets. Any eventual peace talks over Kashmir are likely to involve an increase in bilateral trade as a confidence-building measure.
Increasingly, Pakistan’s military sees the country’s battered economy as a security threat, because it aggravates the insurgencies that plague the country. Pakistan is expected to ask the International Monetary Fund for $9 billion in the coming weeks, after receiving several billions of dollars in loans from China earlier this year to pay its bills.
“We want to move forward and we are trying our best to have good ties with all our neighbors, including India,” Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said. “As General Bajwa says, regions prosper, countries don’t. India cannot prosper by weakening Pakistan.”
General Bajwa linked Pakistan’s economy to the region’s security in a hallmark speech last October, and the idea that the two are inseparable has since become known as the Bajwa doctrine. The army chief is also seen as more moderate than his predecessors were on India, which has been Pakistan’s bitter rival since the bloody partition that came with independence in 1947.
The Pakistani general and his Indian counterpart, Gen. Bipin Rawat, served together in a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo about a decade ago and get along well, diplomats say. Earlier this year, General Bajwa said the only way to solve the two countries’ conflict was through dialogue, a rare statement from the military.
Diplomats say General Bajwa has tried to reach out to General Rawat to initiate talks. But the effort has been stymied by what one diplomat called a “system mismatch.”
The army is Pakistan’s most powerful institution, but India’s military is much weaker and could not agree to a peace deal without the civilian government’s approval. Diplomats in New Delhi say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is preoccupied with elections expected early next year and does not want talks before then, fearing that if talks collapse — as they have many times before — it could cost them at the polls.
“Till the Indian elections, there cannot be an immediate betterment in bilateral relations,” Mr. Chaudhry said. India’s military and its foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
The new Pakistani government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan has been sending strong signals in favor of talks, though it is the military that ultimately controls foreign and defense policy. “If you take one step forward, we will take two steps forward,” Mr. Khan said in his victory speech, addressing India. “We need to move ahead.”
With Mr. Khan in office, talks may have a better chance because he is seen as the army’s man, diplomats in both Islamabad and New Delhi say. India sees Mr. Khan’s outreach as sanctioned by the military and believes he will clearly present General Bajwa’s demands and red lines.
That the military would initiate such a major foreign policy decision unilaterally, and before the elections, suggests it was confident that its preferred candidate, Mr. Khan, would win. Mr. Khan was sworn in as prime minister last month, in the wake of accusations that the army had intervened to back his candidacy.
Diplomats in Islamabad say Pakistan’s outreach may also be driven in part by the country’s Chinese allies. Beijing has prodded Pakistan to stabilize its border with India, hoping for greater stability as it pursues its regional economic ambitions. China is investing some $62 billion in Pakistan, mostly in large infrastructure projects through what is being called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of China’s global Belt and Road initiative.
The plan would give Beijing more direct access to important Western markets by building a series of highways through Pakistan, connecting China’s western border to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. If Pakistani troops are freed up along the border with India, the thinking goes, they could be diverted to secure the country’s western flank, where China’s trade routes would be. Chinese Muslim insurgents who oppose Beijing’s rule have been active in Afghanistan and western Pakistan, and other Pakistani insurgents, including Baloch separatists, have opposed the Chinese infrastructure projects. Last month, a Baloch separatist group attacked a bus carrying Chinese workers, wounding five.
Pakistan may also be realizing that it can no longer withstand its growing international isolation and its worsening ties with the United States, which was once its closest Western ally. The United States cut more than $1 billion of aid to Pakistan in January for not doing enough to curb terror groups, which it accuses the army of supporting.
Tensions with Washington were further aggravated this week when the American military said it would withhold $300 million in aid to Pakistan, just days before the Trump administration’s first meeting with Mr. Khan’s new government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to meet Mr. Khan on Wednesday in Islamabad, and Pakistani lawmakers enraged over the aid cut have been calling for Mr. Khan to scrap the meeting.
In the past, military and government officials in Pakistan have said they could withstand American aid cuts, pointing to their growing ties with China. But Pakistan was stunned this year when China went along with putting Islamabad on a terror-financing watch list, which will make it harder and more expensive for Pakistan to raise badly needed funding on international debt markets.