If you believe that Trump does not have the judgment and temperament for office—not a difficult conclusion to draw—this is a win of a sort. Yet the actions described in the book and in the op-ed are extremely worrying, and amount to a soft coup against the president. Given that one of Trump’s great flaws is that he has little regard for rule of law, it’s hard to cheer on Cabinet members and others openly thwarting Trump’s directives, giving unelected officials effective veto power over the elected president. Like Vietnam War–era generals, they are destroying the village in order to save it. As is so often the case in the Trump administration, both alternatives are awful to consider.
In the prologue to Woodward’s book, obtained by The Atlantic, the economic adviser Gary Cohn conspires to swipe a letter from the president’s desk terminating the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement. Cohn considered it a danger to national security, so he grabbed it.
“I stole it off his desk,” Cohn told an associate, according to Woodward. “I wouldn’t let him see it. He's never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”
When it became clear that there were other copies of the letter floating around, Staff Secretary Rob Porter snapped those up, too. Trump never noticed, and the letter wasn’t signed.
In another instance Woodward describes, Trump reportedly reacted to a chemical-weapons strike by the Assad regime in Syria by telling Defense Secretary James Mattis, “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them.” Woodward describes what happened next:
Yes, Mattis said. He would get right on it.
He hung up the phone.
“We’re not going to do any of that,” he told a senior aide. “We’re going to be much more measured.”
In the immediate circumstance, Mattis’s alleged refusal to obey was almost certainly for the best: Trump was reportedly ordering a massive military strike and a targeted decapitation of a government with no forethought, no strategy, no plan. In the longer term, however, it’s unsustainable for the secretary of defense to decide which orders from the president he’s willing to obey and which he’s not. That’s a road to chaos.
There are other, similar examples throughout Woodward’s book. (Though Woodward’s prose style and coziness with sources have been subject to criticism, he is widely regarded as a meticulous and reliable reporter.) Senator Lindsey Graham reportedly felt that Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was stalling on a request from Trump for a plan to attack North Korea. When Trump ordered the Defense Department to reverse the acceptance of transgender troops, over the secretary’s objections, a Mattis aide reportedly told Steve Bannon that Mattis would try to reverse the order. Because the president’s directive was so vague, the Pentagon was able to effectively freeze action for months, ultimately landing on a version that gives Mattis leeway over implementation.