Jim Mattis Compared Trump to ‘Fifth or Sixth Grader,’ Bob Woodward Says in Book

President Trump so alarmed his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, during a discussion last January of the nuclear standoff with North Korea that an exasperated Mr. Mattis told colleagues “the president acted like — and had the understanding of — a ‘fifth or sixth grader.’”

At another moment, Mr. Trump’s aides became so worried about his judgment that Gary D. Cohn, then the chief economic adviser, took a letter from the president’s Oval Office desk authorizing the withdrawal of the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Mr. Trump, who had planned to sign the letter, never realized it was missing.

.. book by Bob Woodward that depicts the Trump White House as a byzantine, treacherous, often out-of-control operation — “crazytown,” in the words of the chief of staff, John F. Kelly — hostage to the whims of an impulsive, ill-informed and undisciplined president.

.. The White House, in a statement, dismissed “Fear” as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad.”

.. Mr. Woodward portrays Mr. Mattis as frequently derisive of the commander in chief, rattled by his judgment, and willing to slow-walk orders from him that he viewed as reckless.

.. Mr. Trump questioned Mr. Mattis about why the United States keeps a military presence on the Korean Peninsula. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mr. Mattis responded, according to Mr. Woodward.

.. In April 2017, after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria launched a chemical attack on his own people, Mr. Trump called Mr. Mattis and told him that he wanted the United States to assassinate Mr. Assad. “Let’s go in,” the president said, adding a string of expletives.

The defense secretary hung up and told one of his aides: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” At his direction, the Pentagon prepared options for an airstrike on Syrian military positions, which Mr. Trump later ordered.

.. another layer to a recurring theme in the Trump White House: frustrated aides who sometimes resort to extraordinary measures to thwart the president’s decisions — a phenomenon the author describes as “an administrative coup d’état.” In addition to Mr. Mattis and Mr. Cohn, he recounts the tribulations of Mr. Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, whose tensions with Mr. Trump have been reported elsewhere.

.. Mr. Cohn, Mr. Woodward said, told a colleague he had removed the letter about the Korea free trade agreement to protect national security. Later, when the president ordered a similar letter authorizing the departure of the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Cohn and other aides plotted how to prevent him from going ahead with a move they feared would be deeply destabilizing.

.. Last January, Mr. Woodward writes, Mr. Dowd staged a practice session in the White House residence to dramatize the pressures Mr. Trump would face in a session with Mr. Mueller. The president stumbled repeatedly, contradicting himself and lying, before he exploded in anger.

.. Mr. Woodward told Mr. Trump he interviewed many White House officials outside their offices, and gathered extensive documentation. “It’s a tough look at the world and the administration and you,” he told Mr. Trump.

“Right,” the president replied. “Well, I assume that means it’s going to be a negative book.”

Performer in Chief

Everyone observing our politics, or serving in it, still has the sense that anything could happen at the White House at any time. But neither the most hopeful nor the most fearful prognostications about the effects of Trump’s presidency on our political system have been confirmed.

..  It would be hard now to claim that the surface appearance of reckless incompetence at the White House is just a mask for deep strategic genius.

.. Both begin from the assumption that Trump ran for president in order to use the presidency to achieve a set of relatively conventional political or policy objectives, and each approach formed its expectations around some sense of what those might have been. Ten months into his presidency, it does not look as if this was the nature of Trump’s ambition.

.. Instead, his ambition seems to have been something like a desire to put himself at the center of our national consciousness and attention. This looks to be what Trump wants most, and what some of his most peculiar choices and actions are directed toward achieving. Everything else — from policy priorities to political alliances — is always subject to change in pursuit of that goal. This could also be a key to understanding the effects Trump might ultimately have on our constitutional system.

.. Trump’s ambition that most resembles the ambitions of many other politicians.

.. But they also, of course, run to do something.

.. Trump’s exertions in office have mostly been of a different sort altogether. They have generally been neither channeled through the constitutional framework nor directed against it

.. The ideal of the president as project manager was especially prominent in how Trump spoke about his ambitions at the very beginning of his campaign. In August 2015, for instance, asked by George Stephanopoulos how he would carry out his immigration proposals, Trump responded, “These people don’t know what they’re doing, George. They’re politicians. They don’t know management. I get the best people and we will do it properly and we will do it humanely.” Asked three months later to respond to criticism from his primary opponents about his proposal for a registry of Muslims, he responded, “It would be just good management.” Pressed for more details, he said, “It’s all about management, our country has no management.” We have grown so accustomed to this sort of vague, brash talk from Trump over the past two years that we barely stop to ask what it actually conveys.

.. Trump still seems to believe that he has unique management abilities to offer the country and that this job is like his last one. Perhaps ironically, given his now-infamous lack of discipline, his sense of the president’s core administrative function remains exceptionally managerial — and not, in this sense, quite political or constitutional. He instinctively treats members of Congress like incompetent subcontractors.

.. Trump’s sense of the president’s broader functions, meanwhile, has turned out to be fundamentally theatrical. In just about every setting, he is performing for an audience. Thus his obsession with ratings and audience size, his running commentary on Twitter (often calling for actions that he could instead just undertake as chief executive), and his peculiar tendency even to comment on his own speeches as he delivers them.

..  his intense desire to please the room at every moment — which has led him incessantly to shift course and change positions. He seems to want different things at different times in front of different audiences. But he actually always wants the same thing: He wants to be acclaimed a winner.

When he isn’t depicted as successful, whether it’s on morning television or in a meeting with congressional leaders, he says and does whatever seems required to change the story in his favor. He can’t resist such provocations because he is always on the stage, needing to please or save face before the crowd.

.. This has left President Trump open to shameless attempts at manipulation by members of Congress and his own administration who think they can push him in their direction on key policy questions by portraying their preferred approach as a way for him to look stronger.

.. Trump’s capacity to disrupt our exhausted political order and force other politicians into at least modestly more populist directions could well prove a boon.

.. the presence of an undisciplined, aggressive performance artist at the heart of our government — a figure whose excesses are not structurally counterbalanced by others in the system because they are not strictly speaking excesses of presidential power — could alter the public’s expectations of government and politics in ways that are decidedly unhelpful to American constitutionalism and would not be easy to reverse. Viewing politics as entertainment could be a hard habit to break.

.. Washington has experienced the Trump presidency so far as an exhausting, intense, and unproductive circus.

.. Both seem to have been incapacitated by concerns that anything meaningful they do could be undercut by an erratic presidential tweet at any moment.

.. The appointment of judges might be the one presidential function that does not require perseverance — once nominated, they are confirmed by another branch of government and then perform their work without dependence on the president

.. it is frankly hard to say just what the president actually aims to achieve except for being on everyone’s mind all the time.

.. For many decades now, American progressives have advanced an ideal of the presidency in great tension with the logic of our broader constitutional architecture. Trump now offers a far less coherent model of the presidency that is downright unaware of that broader architecture and so stands as a kind of histrionic alternative to constitutional politics. If we are to hold out any hope for a constitutional restoration, these cannot be the only options before the public.

The White House is imploding

A master legislative tactician such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can get you only so far; the rules of the Senate make it easier for McConnell to block (see, for example, the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland) than to enact. A president distracted by infighting, inattentive to detail and sagging in the polls can announce all he wants that “I am sitting in the Oval Office with a pen in hand.” No wobbly lawmaker is going to rally to that cry.

.. He constructed, enabled, even encouraged an organization lacking clear lines of authority and ridden with factions.

.. As dogs have an uncanny tendency to resemble their owners, so Scaramucci channels Trump —

  • bullying,
  • vulgar,
  • egotistical and
  • undisciplined.

.. The truest — and scariest thing — that Scaramucci said on CNN was that “there are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president.”

 .. Trump appears incapable of allowing his presidency to be saved, primarily because he is incapable of and unwilling to change. He will not allow himself to be governed; he cannot govern himself. Perhaps things will settle down, but that is hard to imagine. The past six months feel like prologue to even more turbulence.
.. CNN describes national security adviser H.R. McMaster as “increasingly isolated” and at odds with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, worrying those of us calmed by the idea of an adult buffer against presidential pique. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, publicly undercut by Trump, took time off last week, generating rumors of a “Rexit” to come.

Why Trump’s Vengeful Tweeting Matters

He’s crass, vicious, and petty.

.. It’s a sad symbol of our times that one feels compelled to actually make an argument why the president is wrong here. The pitiful reality is that there are people who feel like the man who sits in the seat once occupied by George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan should use his bully pulpit for schoolyard insults and vicious personal attacks. But this is what we’re reduced to. So, here goes. –

.. First, it is simply and clearly morally wrong to attack another person like this. I’m tired of hearing people say things like, “This is not normal.” Normality isn’t the concern here. Morality is. It doesn’t matter if Mika has been “mean” to Trump. Nor does it matter that we can point to any number of angry personal attacks on Trump from others. We have to get past the idea that another person’s bad acts somehow justify “our” side’s misconduct. Morality is not so situational. Trump is under a moral obligation to treat others the way he’d like to be treated, to love his neighbor as he would love himself. Yes, he can engage in ideological and political battles, but to attack another person in such vicious terms is to cross a bright line.

.. Second, it’s not classist or elitist to make this moral argument. It’s no justification to argue that Trump simply speaks the way “real Americans” do, or that he’s brought into public the language that “everyone knows” people use behind closed doors. People of every social class and economic standing have the same moral responsibilities, and our society suffers when we relax those responsibilities, whether for a steelworker in a mill outside Pittsburgh or the real-estate developer in the Oval Office.

.. Third, even if your ethics are entirely situational and tribal, Trump’s tweets are still destructive. Attacking Mika like this doesn’t silence her or anyone at MSNBC. It doesn’t move the ball downfield on repealing Obamacare. It does, however, make more people dislike Donald Trump. It’s a misuse and abuse of the bully pulpit, all the more galling because it comes at a time when the positive parts of his agenda truly do need public champions.

.. Fourth, please stop with the ridiculous lie that this is the only way to beat the Left. Stop with any argument that this kind of pettiness is somehow preferable to the alleged weakness of other Republicans. There are thousands of GOP office-holders who’ve won their races (including by margins that dwarf Trump’s, even in the toughest districts and states) without resorting to Trump-like behavior. In fact, at the state level many of these same honorable and moral people are currently busy enacting reforms that the national GOP can only dream about.

.. The election is over. Trump isn’t running against Hillary Clinton anymore. Americans are no longer faced with the awful choice of either pulling the lever for an unfit candidate or voting for someone who has no chance of winning. If there were ever a time for Republicans to show some backbone, to tell their president that some conduct is out of bounds, it’s now, early in his first term, when he has time to turn the page and put his past misconduct in the rear-view mirror.

.. while also condemning Trump’s vile tweets and criticizing his impulsiveness and lack of discipline. A good conservative can even step back and take a longer view, resolving to fight for the cultural values that tribalism degrades. Presidents matter not just because of their policies but also because of their impact on the character of the people they govern. Conservatives knew that once. Do they still?