Washington: President Donald Trump’s head popped up during his top-secret intelligence briefing in the Oval Office on Jan. 28 when the discussion turned to the coronavirus outbreak in China.
“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Trump, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.”
Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, agreed. He told the president that after reaching contacts in China, it was evident that the world faced a health emergency on par with the flu pandemic of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
Ten days later, Trump called Woodward and revealed that he thought the situation was far more dire than what he had been saying publicly.
“You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
“This is deadly stuff,” the president repeated for emphasis.
At that time, Trump was telling the nation that the virus was no worse than a seasonal flu, predicting it would soon disappear and insisting that the US government had it totally under control. It would be several weeks before he would publicly acknowledge that the virus was no ordinary flu and that it could be transmitted through the air.
Trump admitted to Woodward on March 19 that he deliberately minimised the danger. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Race relations, diplomacy and other issues
Aside from exploring Trump’s handling of the pandemic, Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” covers race relations, diplomacy with North Korea and a variety of other issues that have arisen during the past two years.
The book also includes brutal assessments of Trump’s conduct from former defence secretary Jim Mattis, former director of national intelligence Daniel Coats and others.
The book is based in part on 18 on-the-record interviews Woodward conducted with the president between December and July. Woodward writes that other quotes in the book were acquired through “deep background” conversations with people in which information is divulged and exchanges recounted without the people being named.
“Trump never did seem willing to fully mobilise the federal government and continually seemed to push problems off on the states,” Woodward writes. “There was no real management theory of the case or how to organise a massive enterprise to deal with one of the most complex emergencies the United States had ever faced.”
Woodward questioned Trump repeatedly about the national reckoning on racial injustice. On June 3, two days after federal agents forcibly removed peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square to make way for Trump to stage a photo opportunity outside St. John’s Church, Trump called Woodward to boast about his “law and order” stance.
“We’re going to get ready to send in the military slash National Guard to some of these poor [expletive] that don’t know what they’re doing, these poor radical lefts,” Trump said.
In another conversation, on June 19, Woodward asked the president about White privilege, noting that they were both White men of the same generation who had privileged upbringings. Woodward suggested that they had a responsibility to better “understand the anger and pain” felt by Black Americans.
“No,” Trump replied, his voice described by Woodward as mocking and incredulous. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
As Woodward pressed Trump to understand the plight of Black Americans after generations of discrimination, inequality and other atrocities, the president kept answering by pointing to economic numbers such as the pre-pandemic unemployment rate for Blacks and claiming, as he often has publicly, that he has done more for Blacks than any president except perhaps Abraham Lincoln.
Lack of support
In another conversation about race, on July 8, Trump complained about his lack of support among Black voters. “I’ve done a tremendous amount for the Black community,” he told Woodward. “And, honestly, I’m not feeling any love.”
When they spoke about race relations on June 22, when Woodward asked Trump whether he thinks there is “systematic or institutional racism in this country.”
“Well, I think there is everywhere,” Trump said. “I think probably less here than most places. Or less here than many places.”
Asked by Woodward whether racism “is here” in the United States in a way that affects people’s lives, Trump replied: “I think it is. And it’s unfortunate. But I think it is.”
Reactions to Democrats
Trump shared with Woodward visceral reactions to several prominent Democrats of colour. Upon seeing a shot of Sen. Kamala Harris of California, now the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, calmly and silently watching him deliver his State of the Union address, Trump remarked: “Hate! See the hate! See the hate!” Trump used the same phrase after an expressionless Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, appeared in the frame.
Trump was dismissive about former president Barack Obama and told Woodward that he was inclined to refer to him by his first and middle names, “Barack Hussein,” but wouldn’t in his company, to be “very nice.”
“I don’t think Obama’s smart,” Trump told Woodward. “I think he’s highly overrated. And I don’t think he’s a great speaker.” Trump added that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un thought Obama was “an [expletive].”
Excerpts of letters with Kim
“Rage” includes the first reported excerpts of letters Trump exchanged with Kim, and quotes Trump in his interviews with Woodward using expletives to defend their pen-pal relationship. Even as U.S. intelligence chiefs warn that North Korea is unlikely to ever surrender its nuclear weapons and that Trump’s approach is ineffective, the president told Woodward that he is determined to stay the course and dismissively says the CIA has “no idea” how to handle North Korea.
Meeting with Kim
“I met. Big [expletive] deal,” Trump told Woodward, waving off criticism of his three face-to-face meetings with Kim. “It takes me two days. I met. I gave up nothing.”
Foreign affairs experts say Trump gave up much - including by postponing and then scaling back the U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea that had long angered North Korea, as well as by granting Kim the international stature and legitimacy the North Korean regime has long craved.
Trump told Woodward that he evaluates Kim and his nuclear arsenal like a real estate target: “It’s really like, you know, somebody that’s in love with a house and they just can’t sell it.”
Kim welcomed Trump’s overtures with over-the-top prose in letters. Kim wrote that he wanted “another historic meeting between myself and Your Excellency reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film.” And he said his meetings with Trump were a “precious memory” that underscored how the “deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force.”
In another letter, Kim wrote to Trump, “I feel pleased to have formed good ties with such a powerful and preeminent statesman as Your Excellency.” And in yet another, Kim reflected on “that moment of history when I firmly held Your Excellency’s hand at the beautiful and sacred location as the whole world watched with great interest and hope to relive the honour of that day.”
Trump was taken with Kim’s flattery, Woodward writes, telling the author pridefully that Kim had addressed him as “Excellency.” Trump remarked that he was awestruck meeting Kim for the first time in 2018 in Singapore, thinking to himself, “Holy [expletive],” and finding Kim to be “far beyond smart.” Trump also boasted to Woodward that Kim “tells me everything,” including a graphic account of Kim having his uncle killed.
Trump did not share his letters to Kim - “Those are so top secret,” the president said - but Woodward obtained them independently. He writes that Trump sent Kim a copy of the New York Times featuring a picture of the two men on the front page. “Chairman, great picture of you, big time,” Trump wrote on the paper in marker. (Trump falsely boasted to Woodward: “He never smiled before. I’m the only one he smiles with.”)