Trump wanted Syria's Assad assassinated, Bob Woodward claims in extraordinary new book

White House accuses celebrated reporter of 'fabricated stories'

Chris Stevenson
Tuesday 04 September 2018 00:10 BST
President Donald Trump with Defence Secretary James Mattis
President Donald Trump with Defence Secretary James Mattis

Donald Trump ordered his defence secretary to assassinate Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad and “kill the f****** lot of them” in the leader’s regime, in the wake of a chemical attack against civilians, according to a new book.

Defence secretary James Mattis is said to have told the president during a phone call he would “get right on it” before hanging up the phone and instead telling an aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” In the wake of the chemical attack in April 2017, the president’s national security team developed options that included the more conventional airstrike that Mr Trump eventually ordered.

It is one of a number of explosive claims in the book about the inner workings of the White House, authored by veteran journalist Bob Woodward who helped break the Watergate scandal that would lead to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. The book recounts regular instances where senior members of Mr Trump’s team take action to limit what they see as potentially dangerous consequences of the president’s leadership. Mr Woodward is said to have spoken to a number of top aides, seemingly under the understanding he would not reveal sources.

Fear: Trump in the White House portrays the president as prone to outbursts and impulsive decisionmaking, painting a picture of chaos that Mr Woodward says amounts to an “administrative coup d’etat” and a “nervous breakdown” of the executive branch.

Other examples include former top economic adviser Gary Cohn allegedly stealing a letter off Mr Trump’s desk that would withdraw the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea – a letter the president apparently wanted to sign.

Mr Woodward writes Mr Cohn was “appalled” that Mr Trump might sign the letter. “I stole it off his desk,” Mr Cohn told an associate. “I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.”

Mr Cohn also planned to remove a similar memo that would have withdrawn the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, according to the book. Washington remains part of both agreements, although negotiations on new terms are taking place.

Carl Berstein says Trump White House is a horror show

It is not the first hardback portrait of the White House to emerge during Mr Trump’s 20 months in office, and while the contents may be embarrassing the White House is used to defending itself. Mr Trump’s press secretary Sarah Sanders said the book is “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad”.

Mr Trump later speculated without offering any evidence that Mr Woodward could be an operative for the Democratic Party, given the timing of the book just weeks before crucial midterm elections in November that will decide control of Congress.

However, the depictions of clashes between White House staff – and unflattering descriptions of the president – will likely damage Mr Trump’s reputation with critics regardless. Mr Mattis told associates after a separate incident that Mr Trump acted like “a fifth- or sixth-grader”, according to the book, while chief of staff John Kelly allegedly called Mr Trump an “idiot”, and said: “We’re in Crazytown... This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”

Mr Trump treated top aides with scorn, according to Mr Woodward in the book set to be officially released on 11 September, apparently telling commerce secretary Wilbur Ross that he was past his prime, and calling attorney general Jeff Sessions “mentally retarded”.

Top officials in the Trump administration lined up behind the president, with Mr Kelly – in remarks issued by the White House – saying he never called the president an idiot and called the story “total BS”. Mr Trump himself said that the instances involving Mr Cohn were “made up”, and US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley cast doubt on the story involving Syrian president Mr Assad.

“I have the pleasure of being privy to those conversations ... and I have not once heard the president talk about assassinating Assad,” Ms Haley told reporters on Tuesday.

In a statement tweeted by Mr Trump, Mr Mattis said: “The contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward’s book were never uttered by me or in my presence.”

The book recounts that Mattis told “close associates that the president acted like – and had the understanding of – ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader’.”

Mr Mattis said the notion he would “show contempt” for Trump or “tolerate disrespect” to the office of the President of the United States “is a product of someone’s rich imagination”.

The publishing of the book excerpts comes at a time when Mr Trump finds himself under pressure from the workings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling in the 2016 presidential election and any possible collusion with Trump campaign officials. Mr Trump’s apparent frustration has led to an increase in irate tweets about the probe, which he has repeatedly called a “witch hunt”.

Mr Woodward’s book contains some material on the Russia problem, claiming that Mr Trump’s former lawyer in the Russia probe, John Dowd, doubted the president’s ability to avoid perjuring himself should he be interviewed by Mr Mueller

“Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit,” he is quoted telling the president.

Mr Dowd, who stepped down in January, said in a statement that “no so-called ‘practice session’ or ‘re-enactment’” took place, and he also denied saying Mr Trump was likely to end up in an orange jumpsuit.

As for Mr Trump, he spoke to the conservative website Daily Caller after details emerged about the book, calling it ”another bad book“ and saying Mr Woodward has “a lot of credibility problems”.

The president did not speak with Mr Woodward until the manuscript was complete, according to audio of a conversation between Mr Trump and the reporter released by the Washington Post. Mr Trump expressed surprise at the lack of contact, with Mr Woodward saying he had tried numerous routes to speak to the president.

Still, Mr Trump appeared unimpressed: “So I have another bad book coming out. Big deal.”

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