The strange reporting style on the chaotic Trump White House


The Trump white House is keeping the publishing industry busy with one gossipy book after another. The latest is from Bob Woodward, whose style is to write books based on conversations on ‘deep background’ with high officials, where he can quote people but cannot say who told him what. The presumption seems to be that since they are given anonymity, they will speak freely and frankly without fearing repercussions, even though he says that he actually recorded all the conversations and thus cannot be contradicted too forcefully. The picture he paints is hardly surprising or new. Trump comes across as an ignorant, narcissistic, and vindictive person. Is there anyone who does not know this by now?

This ‘deep background’ business strikes me as is a very strange arrangement. If Woodward quotes someone directly, then surely it is most likely that that person told him that. Other possibilities are that someone else was in the room during the conversation or the quoted person told someone else who then told Woodward, both of which seem less likely. Whatever it is, the number of people who can be the source is highly restricted so the cloak of anonymity seems highly transparent to the extent of being pointless. Take this example:

After Trump’s Charlottesville, Virginia, controversy, in which he failed to condemn white supremacists, Cohn tried to resign but was instead dressed down by Trump and accused of “treason.”

Kelly, who is Trump’s current chief of staff, told Cohn afterward, according to notes Cohn made of the exchange: “If that was me, I would have taken that resignation letter and shoved it up his ass six different times.”

And Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, encapsulated the White House and the thrust of Woodward’s book by describing the administration as a place with “natural predators at the table.”

“When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls,” Priebus is quoted as saying, “things start getting nasty and bloody.”

The first passage most likely came from Cohn, trying to distance himself from the Charlottesville fiasco. The second quote clearly comes from Priebus. It is too detailed to be a second hand quote.

But there was one thing that interested me.

[Trump] questioned the wisdom of keeping US troops in South Korea.

“So Mr. President,” Cohn said to Trump, “what would you need in the region to sleep well at night?”

“I wouldn’t need a fucking thing,” the President said. “And I’d sleep like a baby.”

After Trump left the Tank, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared: “He’s a fucking moron.”

A recurrent theme in Woodward’s book is Trump’s seeming disregard for national security concerns because of his obsession with money — trade deficits and the cost of troops overseas.

In meeting after meeting, Trump questions why the US has to pay for such a large troop presence in South Korea.

“We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mattis, the defense secretary, bluntly explained to Trump at one January 2018 meeting, which prompted Mattis to tell close associates afterward that Trump had the understanding of a “fifth or sixth grader.”

Trump still wasn’t convinced. “I think we could be so rich if we weren’t stupid,” he later said in the meeting, arguing the US was being played as “suckers,” Woodward reports.

In this exchange Trump actually comes out well. He is asking, quite reasonably, why the US has stationed so many troops in Korea for well over a half century, and is not buying the facile establishment line that it is necessary to prevent another world war. I can see why those around him that seem to be all true believers in the national security state are nervous about Trump’s obsession with trade deficits and troop costs. The US has a vast number of troops and bases stationed all over the globe. There are about 50,000 in Germany and Japan each and nearly 30,000 in South Korea. It is not clear in this day of rapid movement of troops, why it is necessary to have this many stationed permanently in other countries. If Trump pulls the Korean troops out, then he might well decide to do that with those in Germany and Japan as well, and the national security establishment and its associated military-industrial complex that benefit greatly from this arrangement will lose their steady stream of taxpayer-based revenue.

Comments

  1. brucegee1962 says

    Just curious, Mano. Are you saying that you don’t think that our troops in these places are effective as deterrents — that if we withdrew from Europe and South Korea, that Putin and Kim would not send troops into the resultant vacuum? Or do you believe (as Trump seems to) that these countries should be phased into providing for their own defense, and would be able to do so effectively? Or, (also as Trump apparently believes) do you think that a South Korea that is militarily dominated (either through invasion or strongarm tactics) by Kim, and Putin able to reestablish the Soviet empire, are neither of them of our concern?

  2. Dunc says

    Well, I can’t speak for South Korea, but I’m pretty sure that we in Europe are perfectly capable of coming to our own arrangements with Putin. Frankly, my own opinion is that it would be a great deal easier without you Americans constantly waving your thermonuclear dicks around. The economic and structural problems which caused the collapse of the Soviet empire have not gone away, and I’m pretty sure that Putin at least is smart enough to know it. Nobody’s going to be re-establishing it any time soon. Indeed, the current arrangements (whereby they live on the money they make from selling us the gas we need to keep the lights on, and a decent chunk gets creamed off by various crooks and oligarchs and stashed in the London property market) are far more preferable to all concerned. The idea of a serious military conflict between Europe and Russia is like the idea of conjoined twins getting into a knife fight with each other.

    This American belief that everybody else is hell-bent on world domination is pure projection.

  3. says

    This ‘deep background’ business strikes me as is a very strange arrangement.

    It’s strange, indeed. But basically it’s narcissists volleying back and forth. At least Woodward has a Pulitzer.

  4. says

    brucegee1962@#1:
    if we withdrew from Europe and South Korea, that Putin and Kim would not send troops into the resultant vacuum?

    Neither of them is as stupid as Donald Trump.
    Both of them understand that you don’t have to have troops standing there in the line of fire on a parade-ground in order for them to be deterrent.

    The US is not “deterring” it’s “force projecting.” Please don’t tell me that you have only just started to figure that out.

  5. Owlmirror says

    If Trump pulls the Korean troops out, then he might well decide to do that with those in Germany and Japan as well, and the national security establishment and its associated military-industrial complex that benefit greatly from this arrangement will lose their steady stream of taxpayer-based revenue.

    It could probably be phrased in such a way as to emphasize to Trump that he gets a payoff from the grift:

    “Mr. Trump, the current system directly benefits a lot of your base, and therefore indirectly benefits you. The soldiers and industrial workers get their paychecks from the government, and spend it at least partially on their families. Do you want to go down as the president who saved lots of money by telling soldiers and other employees of the military that they’re all fired?”

    Or something like that.

    It could also be pointed out that Trump sure seems to like the ability of America to project force when he wants to exercise it (in Syria, frex).

  6. busterggi says

    “This American belief that everybody else is hell-bent on world domination is pure projection.”

    Have you looked at the imperialist nature of the European powers about a century and a half ago?

    Not that this excuses the US but don’t tell me Europeans haven’t tried their best to conquer everyone else.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    ““This American belief that everybody else is hell-bent on world domination is pure projection.”

    Have you looked at the imperialist nature of the European powers about a century and a half ago?”

    Have you looked at the word “is” in the sentence you quoted, and considered the tense?

    Yes, European nations have a history of militarily-enabled and enforced imperial expansionism. But that’s what it is – history. The last time the UK unilaterally did anything vaguely imperialist was 1982, and even that was provoked defence of a population who wanted defending, and who hadn’t displaced any natives.

    At Owlmirror, 5:
    Trump could (if he had the wit) reasonably respond that those soldiers and other employees of the military would be better off working to build things – y’know, like a wall, say – back home in the good old US of A, instead of wasting their time and risking their lives off in some shithole whose inhabitants don’t want them there, whose security he doesn’t care about and whose location he couldn’t find on a map. And you know what? He’d be right. I mean, it’s a stopped clock sort of right, but it’s right.

  8. Mano Singham says

    brucegee1962 @#1,

    I would agree with the first two reasons you give.

    But my basic problem is with the idea that the US is some kind of world police force, having stations everywhere that are ostensibly to protect the locals but in reality serve as a forward base for military actions. The idea that if the US leaves South Korea, the North and Russia will take over is really a warmed over ‘domino theory’ that led to disaster in South East Asia.

    The US is currently involved in seven wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Niger) and has troops and bases in more that 70 countries at a cost of nearly $200 billion annually. This is evidence of imperialism, not defense.

  9. says

    I’m 63.
    The British Empire was collapsing during my childhood.
    The Algerian War ended in 1962, also in my childhood.
    Not ancient history to some still alive.
    Same with legal segregation.

  10. deepak shetty says

    a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls

    Who the heck qualifies as a rabbit or a seal in this administration ? All are more like cannibalistic ladybug larvae (but with no redeeming features)

  11. morsgotha says

    @ sonofrojblake no.7

    Even that’s stretching it a bit, the falkland islanders were overwhelmingly british citizens and wanted to remain so.

    This last of imperialistic UK I can think of is the Suez Crisis in 1956, and even then we went in with the french.

  12. Dunc says

    If you don’t count the Falkland War as imperialist (I kinda would, but I can see that it’s arguable) then there’s still the forced expulsion of the Chagossians (also loyal subjects of the British Empire) from the Chagos Archipelago between 1968 and 1973. That was an absolutely classic bit of imperialism, and I’d call it an act of genocide.

    However, the unarguable fact that the European powers have engaged in all sorts of nasty imperialist behaviour in the past (and likely would do so again given half a chance) has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the truth or falsity of my earlier statement. “But so-and-so did it first!” is not a valid defence to anyone over five years old.

    But hey, let’s not waste time thinking about my main points when we can get side-tracked into arguing about irrelevancies.

  13. springa73 says

    I somewhat doubt that a more isolationist USA would result in a better world. The US role would just be filled by China, Russia, India, etc. That’s not projection, it’s just a reasonable prediction based on history. Pretty much every nation becomes imperialist when it has the power.

  14. Dunc says

    You don’t see the difference between having a single global hegemon and multiple smaller powers each pursuing their own interests? Between a monopoly and competition?

  15. naturalcynic says

    Trump comes across as an ignorant, narcissistic, and vindictive person. Is there anyone who does not know this by now?
    And, for the deplorables, that’s a feature, not a bug.

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