Bob Woodward’s new book on Donald Trump’s presidency is filled with notable revelations, but one of the anecdotes from yesterday’s Washington Post report stood out for me.
After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack on civilians in April 2017, Trump called [Defense Secretary James] Mattis and said he wanted to assassinate the dictator. “Let’s f***ing kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the f***ing lot of them,” Trump said, according to Woodward.
Mattis told the president that he would get right on it. But after hanging up the phone, he told a senior aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” The national security team developed options for the more conventional airstrike that Trump ultimately ordered.
Like nearly everyone in the president’s orbit, Mattis issued a statement pushing back against this and other anecdotes from Woodward’s book. The longtime journalist, not surprisingly, stands by his work.
But one of the things that made the Syria story so notable is the degree to which it fit into a larger pattern of officials from Trump World disregarding the president’s instructions.
As we discussed a few weeks ago, this comes up with alarming regularity. For example, Trump announced in June that he had “instructed” U.S. officials “not to endorse” an official G-7 communique negotiated by diplomats from member nations. Officials didn’t much care about the tweet and they proceeded to ignore Trump’s online instructions.
This is far from the only example.
In April, the president announced via Twitter that Russia should “get ready” because he was poised to launch a military offensive in Syria. White House officials found Trump’s declaration “distracting,” and proceeded “as if nothing had happened.”
Making matters slightly worse, last summer, the president published missives barring transgender Americans from military service. Soon after, the Joint Chiefs effectively ignored it, leaving the status quo in place.
We’re not even sure if relevant officials revoked former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance, as Trump directed.
“What is most remarkable is the extent to which his senior officials act as if Trump were not the chief executive,” Jack Goldsmith, a top Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, wrote last summer. “Never has a president been so regularly ignored or contradicted by his own officials…. The president is a figurehead who barks out positions and desires, but his senior subordinates carry on with different commitments.”
As we talked about last month, Trump’s willingness to ignore his team has been well documented, but to fully appreciate the level of dysfunction within the Trump administration, it’s important to appreciate his team’s willingness to ignore him, too.