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.”
Right after Comey makes the comments about the “soft white pouches” and “expressionless blue eyes,” he writes: “I remember thinking in that moment that the president doesn’t understand the FBI’s role in American life.” That’s a pretty serious charge, and you think you’d want to do all you could to build your credibility as a witness before making it. Preceding it with unnecessary attacks on Trump’s appearance, however, makes Comey look more like a disgruntled former employee — hell-bent on slamming the president however he can — than an unbiased narrator.
.. So why did James Comey insist on making these kinds of jokes, anyway? It’s not clear, but the fact that he brought up Trump’s hands — a charge that the president couldn’t seem to handle in the past — seems to suggest that he was looking to get a rise out of Trump.
Which, of course, he did:
Well, of course the president who claimed bone spurs to dodge the Vietnam War wants the biggest, bestest military parade ever, with lots of tanks and rockets and flags — zillions of flags — and fighter jets screaming overhead. Why is anyone surprised?
.. anyone who fails to cheer as the bands play and the troops march by will surely be guilty of treason.
.. Trump has already matched North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in dangerous, unhinged rhetoric. Now it appears he hopes to surpass his rival in linear mileage of meaningless military display.
.. It is hard to imagine any other president summoning his generals to demand not a better strategy in Afghanistan, not a detailed plan for success in Syria, but rather an elaborate entertainment that gives him an opportunity to be seen reviewing the troops. In this reality-show presidency, it sounds like the kind of extravaganza that one could imagine as a series finale. If so, bring it on.
.. There is a semi-plausible argument that Trump could consciously use such a patriotic extravaganza as a wedge, the way he has used the national anthem protests in the NFL. It could be a with-me-or-against-me ploy. If you support the parade, you love America; if you don’t, you don’t.
.. But a celebratory military parade with nothing to celebrate could also highlight the gulf between Trump’s campaign promises and his actions. He pledged to wind wars down and bring the troops home; he has done quite the opposite.
.. My guess is that both his narcissism and his authoritarianism are at play in his need to honor himself with a parade.
.. Despite his boastful tweetstorms, the president clearly realizes that his approval ratings are historically low. He is so unpopular that he will not even risk a state visit to London to open the new U.S. Embassy there for fear of being humiliated by mass protests.
.. The campaign-style rallies he so enjoys do not appear well-designed to advance a political agenda; they do, however, boost his spirits and massage his ego.
.. He would be saluted and serenaded to his heart’s content. It would be an egomaniac’s heaven.
.. Trump’s big parade would also be a massive display of power — not so much the nation’s as his own. There is not a soul on Earth who doubts the overwhelming strength of the U.S. military. I can think of one soul, however, who is insecure enough in his own authority that he accuses members of Congress who do not stand and applaud him of treason.
“Knowing each of them personally, I am certain they are counseling operational caution, measured public commentary and building a coalition approach to dealing with Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Stavridis, a retired admiral, said in an email. “But controlling President Trump seems incredibly difficult. Let’s hope they are not engaged in mission impossible, because the stakes are so high.”
Christopher R. Hill, a former ambassador to South Korea who served Republican and Democratic presidents, argued that the comments could badly undercut Mr. Trump’s ability to find a peaceful solution to the dispute, playing into Mr. Kim’s characterization of the United States as an evil nation bent on North Korea’s destruction and relieving pressure on the Chinese to do more to curb Pyongyang.
“The comments give the world the sense that he is increasingly unhinged and unreliable,” said Mr. Hill, the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
.. Yet current and former senior officials said it was clear that Mr. Trump would continue his brinkmanship, particularly his belligerent tweets, no matter what his advisers do or say. One former administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy workings, said nobody, including Mr. Kelly, could control the president’s social media utterances, despite what his military advisers thought about them.
The tweets most likely have forced Mr. Mattis and Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as other national security officials, to spend a significant amount of time on the phone reassuring counterparts about Mr. Trump’s intentions.
Some of Mr. Trump’s allies argue that his behavior is strategic, a way of telegraphing to North Korea — and to its primary patron, China — that the United States is taking a tougher line under this administration. There may be wisdom, they argue, in spurring fear and confusion in the mind of a leader who frequently relies on both.