Behind Woodward’s September surprise: White House aides saw a train wreck coming, then jumped aboard

Public health is supposed to be separate from politics. But this pandemic — and this election — have turned that idea on its head. POLITICO’s Dan Diamond and Sarah Owermohle discuss how politics is seeping into the vaccine race on both sides of the aisle.

Trump also urged his senior staff members to grant Woodward access and time, allowing him to interview several top aides, including senior adviser Jared Kushner, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger and former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, among others. Often Trump would urge aides to call Woodward directly during the reporting process and kept asking West Wing aides when the book would come out.

Throughout the process, several top aides raised concerns among themselves about the access and where it would lead. And they worried about the president’s tendency to overshare his ideas in often blunt language. But aides also resigned themselves to the months-long process of Woodward interviews and calls, knowing the president was interested himself.

“Sometimes the president does a nontraditional thing, and you get a surprising result,” said one senior administration official. “But I don’t think any of us recommended doing it.”

On Wednesday, Trump called the book “another political hit job” — despite the recordings of the president’s own words. And he defended the way he downplayed the virus early on by saying that “you cannot show a sense of panic or you’re going to have bigger problems that you ever had before. Please.”

When asked why the president would sit down with Woodward for 18 interviews when his first book was so critical, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said it was because Trump was the “the most transparent president in history.”

McEnany spent most of a press briefing on Wednesday answering questions about the excerpts of the book, contradicting the president’s own words released in audio recordings. “The president never downplayed the virus. Once again, the president expressed calm,” she said in trying to explain the gap between the president’s public versus private comments on the virus.

Democrats pounced on the revelations, believing they demonstrated why Trump did not deserve reelection this fall. “It was a life and death betrayal of the American people,” former Vice President Joe Biden told reporters Wednesday ahead of an event in Warren, Mich. “He knew and purposely played it down. Worse, he lied to the American people.”

“The president’s own words spell out the devastating truth: Trump was fully aware of the catastrophic nature of the coronavirus but hid the facts and refused to take the threat seriously, leaving our entire country exposed and unprepared,” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

In response to the book’s revelations, White House aides quickly started blame one another. Newer White House staffers tried to pin the decision to help Woodward on previous offices or particular aides, even though the president himself made the call to work with the author.

The interviews took place over a few iterations of the White

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White House aides saw a train wreck coming, then jumped aboard

He offered lengthy meetings in the Oval Office and made phone calls at night from the White House — delivering Bob Woodward an unprecedented nine hours of access across 18 interviews.



Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: As the White House and Trump campaign sought to tell a different story this fall about their handling of coronavirus, the book’s release is renewing attention on the President Donald Trump's early missteps.


© Evan Vucci/AP Photo
As the White House and Trump campaign sought to tell a different story this fall about their handling of coronavirus, the book’s release is renewing attention on the President Donald Trump’s early missteps.

Aides spent months fretting about President Donald Trump opening up to the famous Watergate journalist, fearing the consequences all the way through Wednesday’s bombshell revelations.

Trump bulldozed through them all, believing he could charm the man who helped take down a president and chronicled half a dozen administrations over the past half century.

Now Trump’s impulse may cost him as the interview transcripts and recordings are released this week, just under just eight weeks from Election Day and as some Americans start receiving mail-in ballots. The revelations in “Rage” have sent the Trump White House scrambling, with aides blaming each other for the predictable fallout from injecting even more chaos into an already challenging reelection race.

“You don’t talk the president out of things,” one White House official said Wednesday, one of 10 current and former White House officials who described the circumstances leading up to the latest book.

The interviews revealed that Trump was not candid with the public about the dangers of Covid-19, with the president telling Woodward he was “playing it down” even though it was possibly five times “more deadly” than the flu. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump said in one audio clip released Wednesday.

As the White House and Trump campaign sought to tell a different story this fall about their handling of coronavirus, the book’s release is renewing attention on the president’s early missteps in a crisis that continues to disrupt hundreds of millions of American lives. The book’s rollout will continue this weekend as Woodward sits for a “60 Minutes” interview ahead of its wide release on September 15. CBS said Wednesday that the segment will also feature audio recordings of the president’s interviews.

In 2018, White House aides shielded Trump from an interview for his book “Fury” because they didn’t want to give the author more ammunition than he already had. The book was withering — portraying the Trump administration suffering a “nervous breakdown” with anecdotes from current and former aides inside and outside the administration.

Trump learned about the book late in the process and called Woodward in frustration. “It’s really too bad because nobody told me about it and I would have loved to have spoken to you,” he said in audio released by the Washington Post at the time.

He made clear to aides that he would participate in the next book, convinced that he could charm and cajole a veteran Washington journalist into seeing his point of view.

At least two sit-downs with the president occurred in the Oval

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Why Planet Fitness and Floor & Decor Holdings Jumped Double Digits in August, but Camping World Fell 20%

What happened

Shares of construction-oriented retailer Floor & Decor Holdings (NYSE: FND) rose 11% in August according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence. Gym company Planet Fitness (NYSE: PLNT) had an even better showing, rising 16.5%. However, all retail names didn’t do nearly that well, with recreational vehicle and outdoor specialist Camping World Holdings (NYSE: CWH) off by roughly 20.5% in the month. 

August represents an interesting turn of events when you step back and look at the earnings of each of these three retail names. To help put that in perspective, however, it helps to examine the price performance of the stocks between January and August. Over that eight month span Camping World Holdings was up 97%, Floor & Decor was up 44%, and Planet Fitness was down nearly 19%. For reference, the S&P 500 index was up 8.5% over the same period. 

An arm pointing to graph on computer screen

Image source: Getty Images.

So what

Planet Fitness is easily the biggest turnaround of the three when it comes to stock price. That makes complete sense given the impact of COVID-19 on its business. The company’s gyms were at the center of the pandemic storm, noting that the coronavirus is easily spread in group settings with a lot of heavy breathing going on. Not surprisingly, its gyms were shut down, cutting off revenue across its business. When it reported second-quarter earnings in early August the numbers were terrible, with revenue off by roughly 78% over the same quarter in 2019. Earnings fell to a loss of $0.36 per share compared to a profit of $0.41 per share in the previous year. Investors, however, had been expecting bad news. The focus, instead, was likely on the fact that the company had reopened 1,477 of its 2,059 gyms. Moreover, those numbers actually included 21 new gyms, as Planet Fitness is continuing to expand despite the current headwinds. Investors clearly think the future will be much brighter than the recent past, which is not at all an outlandish assumption given how bad things got during the shutdown.  

Floor & Decor reported earnings in late July and it, too, was hit by the impact of COVID-19. Sales were down by 11% in the quarter compared to 2019, with adjusted earnings off by nearly 62%. Like Planet Fitness, that bad news was largely expected. The news on the reopening front, meanwhile, was pretty good, as the company was able to reopen all of its locations in June. Furthermore, comparable-store sales growth was 7.7% in June, after a series of poor relative showings during the shutdown because shuttered stores don’t generate any sales. July’s strong number, however, showed that demand has picked up quickly as the retailer reopened its stores. Floor & Decor also announced it was increasing its new store opening plans for 2020 from 11 to 13 and reaffirmed its plans to expand its store base by roughly 20% in 2021. In other words, given the COVID-19 setback, Floor & Decor is still doing fairly well overall. One thing

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