“I’m not sure.” “I don’t know.” “I can’t remember.” In a mock interview with President Trump to prepare him for a possible sit-down with the special counsel’s office, Trump’s lawyer reportedly found that there was a lot Trump couldn’t remember about key events relevant to the Russia investigation.
In a new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward, obtained by The Atlantic ahead of its release next week, Woodward offers the first detailed look at the way the president might handle an interview with the experienced prosecutors on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team. “If the questions seem harmless, don’t treat them that way,” Trump’s then-lawyer, John Dowd, advised the president during the mock interview in January, according to Woodward’s account. “And I want you thoroughly focused on listening to the words.”
The first question Dowd threw at Trump was about former National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s conversations with the former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn was forced to resign in February 2017 when reports surfaced that he had discussed the issue of sanctions with Kislyak, despite repeated denials—including to Vice President Mike Pence—that the topic had ever come up. Not only were the sanctions discussed in every phone call, Woodward writes, but transcripts obtained by the White House in February, as they were weighing whether to fire Flynn, showed that it was Flynn, and not Kislyak, who first brought up the sanctions that President Obama had issued in December in response to Russia’s election interference. Then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned White House Counsel Don McGahn in January that Flynn had misled Pence and the FBI about the calls. Still, the White House waited 17 days to fire Flynn, and the day after he was ousted, Trump met with then-FBI Director James Comey and asked if he would consider letting Flynn “go.” That 17-day gap and Trump’s subsequent request to Comey have come under scrutiny by Mueller.
“When did you first learn that there was a problem with General Flynn?” Dowd asked Trump in their mock interview, Woodward writes. “I’m not sure,” Trump replied. “I think when McGahn had talked to Sally Yates. But John, I’m not sure.” Dowd, playing the role of a prosecutor, retorted: “What’d you do about it?” “I think Don took ahold of it,” Trump said. “Did you call Flynn in?” Dowd asked. “No,” Trump said. “Did you talk to Flynn at all?” Dowd pressed. “I don’t know,” Trump replied. “Well, Mr. President, did you ever ask him if he talked about sanctions with Kislyak?” “No,” Trump said. Dowd, Woodward writes, was unrelenting: “Are you sure about that, Mr. President? We have some evidence that there may have been such a conversation. Are you sure about that?”
At that point, Trump went off on a tangent that was difficult to follow, according to Woodward, eventually reiterating that he “felt very bad” for Flynn, whom he “admired,” but that McGahn and the then-chief-of-staff Reince Priebus had recommended that Flynn be fired.
Dowd then posed a question that is considered central to whether Trump was trying to obstruct justice when he fired Flynn and then asked Comey to consider letting him go: Did McGahn and Priebus “ever tell you about an FBI interview?” “I don’t know,” Trump replied. “I can’t remember.” This back-and-forth is notable in light of Trump’s tweet in December, one month before this mock interview with Dowd, in which he appeared to admit that he’d known Flynn had lied to the FBI. “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI,” Trump wrote. “He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!” (In an ironic twist, Dowd later took responsibility for writing that tweet.) Trump was similarly forgetful when asked whether he knew anything at all about Flynn’s calls with Kislyak during the transition period. “I don’t know,” Trump reportedly said. “I know there were a lot of conversations among the staff.”
Trump’s repeated claims that he couldn’t remember the details of Flynn’s firing mirror his son’s responses to the House Intelligence Committee during a closed-door hearing last year: Donald Trump Jr. responded “I don’t recall” or “I don’t know” approximately 100 times to questions that covered everything from the Trump Tower meeting with Russians in June 2016 to the Trump Organization’s business practices. Claiming not to remember certain facts, rather than make up your own, is the standard response recommended by defense attorneys. “If you don’t know the facts, I’d just prefer you to say, Bob, I just don’t remember,” Dowd told Trump, according to Woodward. “Instead of sort of guessing and making all kinds of wild conclusions.” But such testimony could come off as cagey and unconvincing, especially as it relates to certain key moments in Trump’s presidency. (Mueller is prepared to accept written answers from Trump on questions of a conspiracy between his campaign and Russia, The New York Times reported on Tuesday. But his testimony as it relates to obstruction of justice still appears to be on the table.)
Eager to prevent the president from testifying, Dowd worked tirelessly to convince Mueller that the investigation should be wrapped up, according to Woodward. At one point, Kelly urged Dowd to tell Mueller that the probe was preventing Trump from constructively engaging with Putin on various national-security issues, for fear of appearing overly solicitous of the Russian leader. Kelly told Dowd that even Mattis, traditionally hawkish on Russia, favored such engagement by Trump. “Mattis has told the president that Putin and the Russians are just getting too dangerous, and that we’re going to have to deal with them,” Kelly told Dowd. “And I want you to convey that to [Mueller.]”
After several meetings with Mueller’s team, Dowd ultimately decided that he did not trust them, and strongly advised the president not to do the interview, according to Woodward. But he did not trust Trump, either—not to tell the truth, anyway. He warned the president that if he spoke to Mueller, he’d end up “in an orange jumpsuit.” Woodward ended the book with a blunt, and ominous, assessment: “In the man and his presidency Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying ‘Fake News,’ the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: ‘You’re a fucking liar.’”
Dowd disputed this in a statement released on Tuesday: “I have not read Bob Woodward’s book, which appears to be the most recent in an endless cycle of accusations and misrepresentations based on anonymous statements from unknown malcontents ... I did not refer to the President as a ‘liar’ and did not say that he was likely to end up in an ‘orange jumpsuit.’ It was a great honor and distinct privilege to serve President Trump.”
Woodward zooms out at several points in the book, stepping back to marvel at the absurdity of the world he is reporting on—and what he saw as his own role in fueling the president’s paranoia. At one point, Woodward addresses comments he made on Fox News in January 2017 about the Trump-Russia dossier authored by the former British spy Christopher Steele. Woodward called the document “garbage” and chastised the FBI for bringing it to the president’s attention. His comments raised eyebrows at the time because his old reporting partner from the days of Watergate, Carl Bernstein, was part of the team that broke the dossier story for CNN. Trump quickly picked up on Woodward’s comments and thanked him for them in a tweet.
“I was not delighted to appear to have taken sides, but I felt strongly that such a document, even in an abbreviated form, really was 'garbage’ and should have been handled differently,” Woodward writes. He did not elaborate on his reasons for thinking the dossier was useless. But that belief seemed to contradict his own reporting on what former CIA Director John Brennan had told former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about the dossier: namely, that it would “add substantiation to what we are doing,” and that the information was in line with what the agency’s own sources had revealed.
In a stark moment of either self-awareness or arrogance, Woodward declares blithely in the book that his own denunciation of the dossier helped to launch the president down his destructive path. “The episode played a big role in launching Trump’s war with the intelligence world,” Woodward wrote, “especially the FBI and Comey.”