Woodward: Trust My Anonymous Sources, Not Lying Public Denials

During an interview with author Bob Woodward on Monday’s Today show, co-host Savannah Guthrie confronted him with flat denials from Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly regarding quotes attributed to them in the Washington Post journalist’s new tell-all book slamming the Trump White House. Woodward not only stood by his anonymous sources, but accused the two former generals of lying.

In the midst of the largely friendly exchange on the NBC morning show, Guthrie fretted to Woodward about President Trump blasting the gossipy book: “He’s called this fraudulent. You know, anything that is unflattering to him, he generally calls fake news.” However, she then pressed: “It is mostly anonymous sources in here. Why should people trust you?”

 

 

Woodward assured her: “But the incidents are not anonymous. You – it gives a date, it gives a time, who participates. Most often, the President himself and what he says.”

Following up, Guthrie pointed to emphatic denials from Trump administration officials of specific accounts:

Let me ask you – let me drill down because there’s a couple of things that are – I mean, they leap off the page. You have John Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff calling the President an “idiot,” saying, “we’re in crazytown.” That’s a quote. John Kelly now says, that never happened, "I didn’t say it." Jim Mattis, another person, quoted as saying the president’s understanding is like a fifth or sixth grader. He comes up subsequently and says, “I didn’t say it.” Are they lying?

Woodward replied: “They are not telling the truth.” Guthrie clarified: “That’s lying.” Woodward argued: “These people –  these are political statements to protect their jobs, totally understandable.” He then claimed that his book was “as carefully done as you can do an excavation of the reality of what goes on.”

Guthrie continued to ask about the veracity of his sources:

GUTHRIE: Have you ever done one of these books, know that you’ve talked to a source, and then the source comes out publicly after the publication and says, that’s not true?

WOODWARD: It happens frequently.

GUTHRIE: Has it happened with this book? Somebody you’ve talked to comes out and just basically is lying?

WOODWARD: Look, I’m not gonna – you know, you want to use the “lie” word.

Trying to change the subject, Woodward warned: “What I want to do is focus on – you know, this – here’s the problem. This has not been treated seriously enough. And the things – some of the things Trump did, and does, jeopardize the real national security.”

At the top of the 10-minute segment, Guthrie breathlessly announced: “And now, to the bombshell new book that is sending shock waves through Washington and beyond, Fear. It paints a portrait of a chaotic White House driven by dysfunction, with insiders there deeply alarmed by the President’s behavior.”

In her first question to the veteran reporter, she wondered: “Were you shocked by what you uncovered in this book?” Woodward professed: “Well, I’ve never seen an instance when the president is so detached from the reality of what’s going on.”

Later in the interview, Guthrie even suggested that the President may be suffering from mental decline:

What’s the portrait that emerges here? I mean, what are your conclusions, based on your reporting, in terms of the President? Is he unwilling to do what he’s supposed to do in office? Is he incapable? I mean, you kind of chip around the edges of suggesting some kind of almost cognitive decline. I mean, what’s your assessment?

After being happy to analyze the motives and thinking of Trump and other administration officials, Woodward laughably responded: “No, I’m not – look, my job here is not to psychoanalyze, it’s to describe what happened on specific dates in specific moments.” He then hailed the leakers he spoke with: “And the people – look, the people who are willing to talk, are people of conscience, people of courage, people who said, ‘Look, the world needs to know this.’”

It should be noted that the three specific accounts that Woodward described in the interview involved three former administration officials – former Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn, fired White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, and the President’s former attorney John Dowd – who all have an axe to grind against the White House. It’s completely legitimate to wonder whether his sources, possibly the same the people, have similar motivations.

Here is a full transcript of the lengthy September 10 interview on NBC’s Today show:

7:32 AM ET  

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: And now, to the bombshell new book that is sending shock waves through Washington and beyond, Fear. It paints a portrait of a chaotic White House driven by dysfunction, with insiders there deeply alarmed by the President’s behavior. The President himself has labeled the tell-all a “scam” and a “joke,” and it’s author, Bob Woodward, an “idiot.” And Bob is with us now. Of course Bob is known best of all for Watergate and it’s nice to have you with us.

BOB WOODWARD: Thank you.

GUTHRIE: And the President is up and tweeting about you this morning. So I guess that’s maybe a success in some sense, he’s gotten – you got his attention.

WOODWARD: Well, but there’s a war on truth by him. And he says, “Oh, these are unnamed sources,” but these are not unnamed incidents. Specific people on specific dates. The book opening with Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser in the White House, lifting a document from the President’s desk because he – Cohn worries, as he tells an associate, “I have to protect the country because this will unravel a trade deal, which will jeopardize one of the most important intelligence operations we have going on.” And the document’s reprinted in the book there, and the President is saying, well, if he’d known about this, he would have fired Gary Cohn in two seconds. We didn’t know about it because the document was taken.

GUTHRIE: But – and we’ll get to the specifics – but just, you know, you’ve been around a long time. You covered, I think, eight or nine presidents. Were you shocked by what you uncovered in this book?

WOODWARD: Well, I’ve never seen an instance when the president is so detached from the reality of what’s going on. In one NSC meeting, a year after Trump was in office, the Secretary of Defense has to tell him – because the President’s complaining about all this money we’re spending on U.S. Forces abroad – James Mattis says to him, “We’re doing this to prevent World War III.” Now, the idea that a Secretary of Defense has to tell the President that all of these actions are designed to prevent the ultimate catastrophe, and then Mattis goes on and says, “You know, if we don’t keep these programs, which are very sensitive, the only deterrent option we have will be the nuclear option.”

GUTHRIE: Let’s talk about your process a little bit because we live in an era where the President talks about fake news. He’s called this fraudulent. You know, anything that is unflattering to him, he generally calls fake news. It is mostly anonymous sources in here. Why should people trust you?

WOODWARD: But the incidents are not anonymous. You – it gives a date, it gives a time, who participates. Most often, the President himself and what he says.

GUTHRIE: Let me ask you – let me drill down because there’s a couple of things that are – I mean, they leap off the page. You have John Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff calling the President an “idiot,” saying, “we’re in crazytown.” That’s a quote.

WOODWARD: Yes.

GUTHRIE: John Kelly now says, that never happened, I didn’t say it. Jim Mattis, another person, quoted as saying the president’s understanding is like a fifth or sixth grader. He comes up subsequently and says, “I didn’t say it.” Are they lying?

WOODWARD: They are not telling the truth.

GUTHRIE: That’s lying.

WOODWARD: No, but look, what’s going on here, and my old boss at The Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, the great editor, used to say, “The truth emerges, sometimes it takes time.” These people –  these are political statements to protect their jobs, totally understandable. But this is as carefully done as you can do an excavation of the reality of what goes on.

GUTHRIE: Have you ever done one of these books, know that you’ve talked to a source, and then the source comes out publicly after the publication and says, that’s not true?

WOODWARD: It happens frequently.

GUTHRIE: Has it happened with this book? Somebody you’ve talked to comes out and just basically is lying?

WOODWARD: Look, I’m not gonna – you know, you want to use the “lie” word. What I want to do is focus on – you know, this – here’s the problem. This has not been treated seriously enough. And the things – some of the things Trump did, and does, jeopardize the real national security. This country does some things in the intelligence world which are so important to protect the country. They are astonishing. They are secret. They are called special access programs. And he jeopardizes them. He jeopardizes the position in the economy by doing things that experts, you know, 99.9% of the people say, don’t do tariffs, it doesn’t work. He’s got it in his head, and when people challenge him, he’ll say, “Oh, I’ve had those ideas for 30 years. You’re wrong.”

GUTHRIE: What’s the portrait that emerges here? I mean, what are your conclusions, based on your reporting, in terms of the President? Is he unwilling to do what he’s supposed to do in office? Is he incapable? I mean, you kind of chip around the edges of suggesting some kind of almost cognitive decline. I mean, what’s your assessment?

WOODWARD: No, I’m not – look, my job here is not to psychoanalyze, it’s to describe what happened on specific dates in specific moments. And the people – look, the people who are willing to talk, are people of conscience, people of courage, people who said, “Look, the world needs to know this.” If you don’t think it’s risky for somebody to answer the questions and give in the real details, it is. And they’re willing to take that risk because, as Gary Cohn said, “got to protect the country.”

GUTHRIE: There’s a lot of anecdotes featuring John Dowd, the President’s former lawyer. And you really go inside the room of the Russia investigation and Dowd’s meetings with Robert Mueller and his staff. And at one point, you write that Dowd was aware that he had illustrated to the Special Counsel that the president was, quote, “clearly disabled.” What did he mean by that?

WOODWARD: Well, you worked for John Dowd, right?  

GUTHRIE: Yes, I did.

WOODWARD: Does this ring true?

GUTHRIE: Well, I’m the one doing the – asking the questions.

WOODWARD: No, not this moment. Can I ask that question? Does it ring true?

GUTHRIE: You know what, you can’t put me on the spot. I get to ask the questions. I did work for John Dowd as a lawyer 15 years ago. And there is a lot in there that does ring true in terms of the way he speaks and that kind of thing.

WOODWARD: Okay, thank you for being honest. Yes, right.

GUTHRIE: Yeah, I would say yes.

WOODWARD: And actually –

GUTHRIE: I didn’t want to be a witness in the case, I wanted to ask you the questions.

WOODWARD: Okay, fair enough. But all of that happened and what Dowd concludes in the end is that President Trump can’t testify because he can’t tell the truth.

GUTHRIE: So that’s what he means by “clearly disabled”?

WOODWARD: Yes.

GUTHRIE: It’s an inability to tell the truth, in Dowd’s view.

WOODWARD: And he actually has a practice session with the President on January 27th of this year, in the White House, they’re looking out on to the Washington and Jefferson monument. And Dowd says, “Okay, I’m gonna play Mueller,” and they do the role playing. And the President goes ballistic, is not under control. And Dowd says, “You know, you can’t do this. You are not a good witness.” And his conclusion, Dowd’s conclusion in the end, is that the President is an “f***ing liar.”

GUTHRIE: Let me tell you about another quote that kind of leaped off the page for me, but also, I wasn’t sure I really understood it. Rob Porter, the former staff secretary who was ultimately forced out amid controversy, says at one point, “This was no longer a presidency, this is no longer a White House, this is a man being who he is.”

WOODWARD: And this is after the Charlottesville incident. And I go into that in great detail. And the President gave a very soothing speech to the country and Porter worked with him on that. And then the President tunes into Fox and they’re saying, “Oh, look, he’s making a course correction.” And the President goes bananas and says, “That’s the dumbest speech I’ve ever given,” taking it back. And then goes out and reaffirms that the problem in Charlottesville is both sides. And Porter’s conclusion is that this repair, this necessary racial repair, is – it can’t be done, it’s not gonna happen.

GUTHRIE: Briefly, before I let you go, obviously, since your book is coming out, we have The New York Times op/ed, an anonymous writer who says this is a senior official inside the Trump administration. I kind of want to ask you if you have any suspects. But I wonder, when you read that op/ed...

WOODWARD: I don’t have any suspects.

GUTHRIE: ...did you think this might be someone I also have talked to?

WOODWARD: No, I didn’t. Because the people I talked to I insisted be very specific about the incidents, exactly what happened. And as I’ve said, I think this is important, the building blocks of journalism are specific events. What happened on this day, who said what. And this is a volume of Trump talking and acting and deciding.

GUTHRIE: And as I understand it, most of your interviews, you recorded, as well.

WOODWARD: Yes, yes.

GUTHRIE: Alright, Bob Woodward, thank you so much.

WOODWARD: Thank you.

GUTHRIE: Nice to have you here. The book is called Fear, and it’s out tomorrow.


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