Top aides to President Donald Trump were horrified at the quantity of cable news the president consumes on a daily basis and tried and failed to prevent his furious responses to the television news coverage, The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward reports in his forthcoming book.
Media Matters obtained a copy of Woodward’s book, Fear: Trump in the White House, which is scheduled for release September 11. Woodward provides a damning look at the inner workings of the Trump White House based on what the author describes as hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand participants as well as meeting notes, personal diaries, and government documents.
The view Woodward’s book provides is one of an unhinged, ignorant, unpredictable president careening from disaster to disaster while his aides, fully aware of his moral and intellectual unfitness for the office, strain to prevent him from exercising his worst impulses. At times, that internal effort to constrain Trump involved extraconstitutional measures -- including removing documents from the president’s desk and ignoring his orders -- in what Woodward describes as an “administrative coup d’etat.”
As part of this effort, Woodward reports, top White House aides strove to limit the president’s exposure to cable news. The president would often spend six to eight hours a day -- particularly in the morning and on the weekend -- watching his supporters at Fox News or the “enemy networks, MSNBC and CNN” -- getting angry and firing off hyperaggressive tweets. Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, altered the president’s schedule in order to limit his time in the presidential bedroom, which he termed “the devil’s workshop.” Per Woodward:
There was not much he could do about the mornings, but he had some control over the weekend schedule. He started scheduling Trump's Sunday returns to the White House later in the afternoon. Trump would get to the White House just before 9 p.m. when MSNBC and CNN generally turned to softer programming that did not focus on the immediate political controversies and Trump's inevitable role in them.
Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, repeatedly confronted the president about his cable news fixation, on one occasion urging him to spend his weekends “play[ing] some slap and tickle with Melania” rather than raging at CNN coverage.
The president’s aides are right to be concerned. As Media Matters has documented extensively, Trump's furious tweets frequently come when he responds to Fox programming he is watching in near-real time.
Woodward describes a series of scenes in which the president watches cable news -- particularly Fox -- and then lashes out. At times, Trump is depicted shifting his communications strategy or threatening to make personnel decisions on the basis of what he sees on the television. In other cases, he simply explodes at whoever is around him -- on two different occasions, Woodward uses the phrase “Trump went through the roof” to describe his response to the coverage.
Here are Woodward’s depictions of the president responding to cable news coverage, and, where possible, the television segments to which he was apparently reacting.
Trump unnerved by Fox B-roll of North Korea missile launch
On March 7, 2017, Trump and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were having lunch in the president’s dining room with two senior White House aides. A Fox segment featuring North Korea missile launches two days earlier that was playing on the room’s television jarred Trump, turning his eyes “as big as silver dollars” before Graham told him that it was “old footage.” Graham used the segment to urge the president to pressure China into preventing North Korea from building more advanced missiles. From Fear: Trump in the White House:
Suddenly everyone’s attention was drawn to four North Korean missiles shooting across the giant TV screen. Just days before, on March 5, North Korea had fired four missiles into the Sea of Japan.
Trump's eyes were as big as silver dollars.
“That's old footage, old footage," Graham said, trying to calm everyone. He had seen it before.
“I've got to do something about this,” Trump said, pointing to the screen.
“That day is coming," Graham said. “What are you going to do about it?”
“What do you think I should do about it?” he asked.
“You can accept they've got a missile and tell them and China that if you ever use it, that's the end of North Korea,” Graham said. “And have a missile defense system that has a high percentage of knocking it down. That's scenario one. Scenario two is that you tell China that we're not going to let them get such a missile to hit our homeland. And if you don't take care of it, I will."
“What would you do?” the president asked.
It had to be the second option, Graham said. You can't let them have that capability. Number one is too risky.
Here’s a segment that tracks closely with Woodward's description, which aired at 1:14 p.m. EST that day:
Trump was “about to lose it” after CNN mentioned impeachment
Woodward reports that Trump was “watching lots of cable news coverage” after he fired FBI Director James Comey on May 9, 2017. He writes of the evening of May 16, after The New York Times reported that Comey wrote contemporaneous memos depicting Trump attempting to lean on the investigation into national security advisor Michael Flynn:
Trump hovered around the TV, glued to coverage. On CNN that evening, David Gergen, a voice of experience and reason who had served as a White House adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton during their impeachment investigations, sounded an alarm.
“I think we're in impeachment territory,” Gergen said. “What we see is a presidency that's starting to come apart."
Porter could see that Trump was about to lose it at the mention of impeachment. The president voiced outrage that Comey seemed to have turned the tables on him.
Here’s the segment in question:
Trump’s “many sides” response to white supremacist rally was a result of watching Fox
On August 12, 2017, Trump was watching Fox News’ coverage of a white supremacist rally that day in Charlottesville, VA. Woodward draws a line between a Virginia State Police spokeswoman saying on the network that “in the crowds, on all sides, they were throwing bottles” and the president’s comment in a speech that afternoon that there had been violence “on many sides.” From Fear:
On Saturday, August 12, Trump was watching Fox News from his golf course in Bedminster. At 1 p.m. on Fox, a Virginia State Police spokeswoman described the melee: “ln the crowds, on all sides, they were throwing bottles. They were throwing soda cans with cement in them. They were throwing paint balls. They were fighting. Breaking out and attacking one another. Launching chemicals into the crowd as well as smoke bombs.” [...]
Later in the afternoon at a routine veterans bill signing, Trump had a script that was all condemnation that ended in the word “violence.” Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence." But he departed from his text and added, “On many sides. On many sides. It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.” He then picked up the text: “It has no place in America."
Trump touched a nerve with the phrase “many sides” suggesting an equivalence between the neo-Nazis and those who opposed white supremacy. Biting criticism of the president spanned the political spectrum, including many Republican Party leaders.
Here’s the Fox segment:
Trump exploded after commentators said he had changed his tune by denouncing racism
On August 14, 2017, following bipartisan condemnations of his initial response to the Charlottesville rally, Trump yielded to his aides and gave a speech in which he denounced the “racist violence” and condemned white supremacists. After the speech, his aides “showered praise on him” in an effort to keep him on track. But then, Woodward writes, “Trump left to watch some Fox.” In response to the coverage, which portrayed him as changing his stance, he lashed out at former White House staffer Rob Porter, calling the speech “the biggest fucking mistake I've made.” From Fear:
Trump left to watch some Fox. Rob O'Neill, a former Navy SEAL Team Six leader and author, generally praised Trump for being specific but added, “That’s almost an admission of okay, I was wrong. And I'm sort of negotiating on this.”
Fox correspondent Kevin Corke said, “Some 48 hours into the biggest domestic challenge of his young presidency, Mr. Trump has made a course correction."
The suggestion that he had admitted doing wrong and was unsteady infuriated the president. “That was the biggest fucking mistake I've made,” the president told Porter. “You never make those concessions. You never apologize. I didn't do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?”
Though Porter had not written the original draft, he had spent almost four hours editing it with Trump, providing the accommodating language. But strangely Trump did not direct his rage at Porter. “I can't believe I got forced to do that," Trump said, apparently still not blaming Porter but venting directly to him. “That's the worst speech I've ever given. I'm never going to do anything like that again." He continued to stew about what he had said and how it was a huge mistake.
Here’s the O’Neill comment:
And here’s the one from Corke:
Trump “went through the roof” after a Fox segment and undercut his chief of staff to give ICE union president access
Woodward reports that in November, after seeing Chris Crane, the head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) union, “complaining on Fox News about access to Trump,” the president “went through the roof” and went around chief of staff John Kelly to bring Crane to the Oval Office. This triggered an angry confrontation between Kelly and Crane in which Kelly threatened to quit:
Trump invited Crane to the Oval Office without informing Kelly. Kelly's cut off all our access, Crane said. We put ourselves on the line for you. We endorsed you. We support all your policies. Now we can't even communicate with you.
Kelly heard Crane was in the Oval Office and strode in. Soon Crane and Kelly were cursing each other.
“l can't believe you'd let some fucking guy like this into the Oval Office,” Kelly told Trump. If this was the way it was going to work, he said, “then I quit!” And he stormed out.
Trump later told others that he thought Kelly and Crane were going to get into a fistfight.
After watching Lou Dobbs criticize Trump’s homeland security nominee, Trump got cold feet
Woodward writes that in October, Trump reconsidered his nomination of Kirstjen Nielsen as homeland security secretary after seeing Fox Business host Lou Dobbs criticize the pick. This led to a confrontation with Kelly, who had urged Trump to nominate her. From Fear:
The nomination was sent to the Senate on October 11.
The president saw that Fox News commentator Ann Coulter called Nielsen “an open borders zealot" who opposed Trump's border wall. Lou Dobbs piled on, saying Nielsen was pro-amnesty, not a true believer, not an immigration hard-liner, and served in the George W. Bush administration. At her confirmation hearing she had said, “There is no need for a wall from sea to shining sea," and Dobbs, a strong Trump supporter, called this comment “outrageous."
“Everybody's saying that she's terrible,” Trump said later to Kelly in the Oval Office. “It's a joke. She's a Bushie. Everybody hates her. How could you have possibly made me do this?"
“She’s the best," Kelly said. “She's the best of the best. I can personally vouch for her. She's the first woman to lead the department. I know she's a good person. She's going to do a great iob, She will be very effective. She is on your team. She was my right-hand person when I was there. She knows the department."
“That's all bullshit," Trump said. “She's terrible. You're the only one that thinks she's any good. Maybe we'll have to withdraw her nomination."
Kelly threw up his hands. “Maybe I'm just going to have to resign.” And he stormed out.
Here’s the Fox Business segment in which Dobbs said the nominee made “outrageous” comments:
Trump “went through the roof” (again) after seeing Kelly on Fox suggest he had evolved on immigration
Woodward writes that Trump was enraged after watching Kelly say during a Fox interview that the president had evolved on immigration:
Kelly appeared on Fox News's Bret Baier show and said that Trump had gone through “an evolutionary process” and “changed his attitude toward the DACA issue and even the wall.”
At the White House, Trump went through the roof.
“Did you see what Kelly said?" he asked Porter. “I evolved? I've changed on this? Who the fuck does he think he is? I haven't changed one bit. I'm exactly where I was. We're going to build the wall. We're going to build it across the entire border."
Here’s the Kelly interview: