Periodically over the course of Donald Trump's presidency, the public has confronted a series of provocative reports about what his top officials say about the Republican when he's not in the room. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, for example, reportedly told colleagues months ago that he considers Trump an "idiot."
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, famously described the president as a "f***ing moron." Former White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster reportedly said Trump is an "idiot" with the brain of a "kindergartner."
But the new book from the Washington Post's Bob Woodward takes this to an entirely new level.
At a National Security Council meeting on Jan. 19, Trump disregarded the significance of the massive U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula, including a special intelligence operation that allows the United States to detect a North Korean missile launch in seven seconds vs. 15 minutes from Alaska, according to Woodward. Trump questioned why the government was spending resources in the region at all."We're doing this in order to prevent World War III," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told him.After Trump left the meeting, Woodward recounts, "Mattis was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like -- and had the understanding of -- 'a fifth- or sixth-grader.' "
The book also highlights a separate meeting in which Kelly said of Trump, "He's an idiot. It's pointless to try to convince him of anything. He's gone off the rails. We're in Crazytown. I don't even know why any of us are here."
Then there was the reported March meeting John Dowd, the president's former attorney, attended at Robert Mueller's office in which the defense lawyer reenacted a practice session he had with Trump in preparation for a possible interview with the special counsel.
Explaining his reluctance to have the president testify, Dowd reportedly said at the time, "I'm not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot. And you publish that transcript, because everything leaks in Washington, and the guys overseas are going to say, 'I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with this idiot for?' "
A common thread appears to emerge: people close to Trump seem to believe he lacks the intellectual wherewithal to be a president.
It's worth emphasizing, of course, that White House officials have launched an aggressive public-relations campaign on this -- Trump has already characterized the book as "discredited" -- including a written statement from John Kelly in which he said, "The idea I ever called the president an idiot is not true."
It reminded me of an old story. In 1974, an upstart magazine called New Times published a rather brutal piece on Congress' 10 dumbest members. Then-Sen. William Scott (R-Va.) was ranked #1 -- which is to say, he was labeled the dumbest of the dumb on Capitol Hill.
The smart move, of course, would've been for Scott to ignore the article. Instead, the Virginia Republican hosted a press conference in his office in order to tell congressional reporters that he was not, in fact, dumb. Not surprisingly, this led to all kinds of mockery, and questions about the senator's intelligence became a popular topic of conversation.
The White House appears to be following William Scott's example.
There's an old political joke that says, "If you're explaining, you're losing." It's apparently time to update the joke so that it now says, "If your chief of staff has to issue a press statement to deny that he called you an idiot, you're losing."