It may not qualify as a September Surprise, but President Donald J. Trump’s re-election campaign just got its third gut punch in a week’s time.
The latest came in excerpts from a book, to be published next week, by the American investigative reporter Bob Woodward, who in 18 interviews with the President and more with others asserts that Mr. Trump deliberately played down the danger of COVID-19, said that he does not comprehend the anger Black Americans feel and compared the way North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un clings to his nuclear arsenal to “somebody that’s in love with a house and they just can’t sell it.”
The excerpts of the book, titled Rage, that appeared in The Washington Post, where Mr. Woodward holds the title of associate editor, came after the release of damaging information in a book from former Trump fixer Michael Cohen and after the President was accused of dismissing America’s war dead as “losers” and suckers.”
The danger to the President’s campaign is difficult to measure; he has survived such contretemps before, including the release of a videotape during the 2016 campaign in which he spoke of grabbing women’s genitals and, because of his celebrity, said he had the ability to “do anything” with women. The Democrats surely will exploit the President’s private description of the coronavirus as “deadly stuff” at the very time he was minimizing its threat in public, and suggesting it would disappear swiftly and effortlessly. “I wanted to always play it down,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Woodward.
At the same time, the combination of the presidential remarks about the military and the Woodward book make for a combustible mix less than two months from the election, particularly because they involve a voting group that the President himself believes is devoutly attached to him. That ironically was underlined just this week as he sought to deny the “losers” and “suckers” report and said, “I’m not saying the military is in love with me, the soldiers are.” The impact of the report in The Atlantic will only be measured in November, when at least 1.4 million active military personnel and more than 18 million veterans are eligible to cast ballots.
But these voters and others surely will not be comforted by the report in the Woodward book of a conversation between former defence secretary James Mattis and former director of national intelligence Dan Coats, a one-time Republican senator who compiled a lifetime 89.5 (out of 100) rating from the American Conservative Union.
Mr. Woodward writes that General Mattis was so discomfited by Mr. Trump that he retreated to the Washington National Cathedral to pray and told Mr. Coats that the President was “dangerous” and "unfit,'' saying ominously, “There may come a time when we have to take collective action.” Mr. Coats responded to a separate assertion by Mr. Mattis (“The President has no moral compass”) by saying, according to the Woodward book, “True. To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”
Mr. Mattis resigned at the end of 2018. Mr. Coats left the administration 13 months ago.
The Woodward revelations came as Mr. Trump continued to face an onslaught of criticism over his alleged remarks on the military.
"How we look back on this astonishing period of history depends on how the American people judge this period, when you think you have heard everything – and then some new outrage appears,'' former secretary of state John F. Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee and a former Vietnam-era Navy officer, said in an interview. “What we are witnessing is absurd. This President has no understanding of what service is, no understanding of the military he purports to command.”
In the Woodward book, the President is quoted employing a vulgar epithet about his generals in a conversation with White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, dismissing them as “a bunch of pussies” who “care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.”
The book by Mr. Cohen – who was disbarred, served time in prison for campaign-finance violations and tax evasion, and now is under house arrest – paints the President as unsympathetic to Black people if not an outright racist, and includes an episode in which Mr. Trump asked him to name “one country run by a Black person that isn’t a shithole. They are all complete … toilets.”
That view is buttressed in the book by Mr. Woodward, who on June 19 engaged Mr. Trump in a conversation about white privilege. Mr. Woodward asked whether he and the President – two white men who had privileged backgrounds – had, as the Post account reports, a responsibility to “understand the anger and pain” felt by Black Americans.
“No,” Mr. Trump replied, mocking Mr. Woodward. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
Mr. Trump then launched into a familiar riff in which he cited low Black unemployment statistics and said he had done more for African-Americans than any American chief executive with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
“I’ve done a tremendous amount for the Black community,” he told Mr. Woodward. “And, honestly, I’m not feeling any love.”
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