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

Read more

Meadows ‘would not have recommended’ Woodward’s access to White House in early virus days

White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsTrump, supporters gather without masks in NC despite request from local GOP official McConnell works to lock down GOP votes for coronavirus bill Trump’s battles with military raise risks for November MORE said Wednesday he would not have recommended journalist Bob Woodward gain as much access to the White House as he did in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic had Meadows been in his chief of staff role at the time.

“I’m not surprised that the president was on the phone with Bob Woodward. … His access to the White House is probably something that I would not have recommended had I been in the chief of staff role very early on,” Meadows said on Fox News’s “The Story with Martha MacCallum,” when asked if he was surprised by how much time Trump spent talking to Woodward for his forthcoming book. 

“But it’s the typical thing that the president does. He believes that he has nothing to hide. That’s the great thing about him is that he is willing to talk to anybody about any subject no matter how difficult,” Meadows added.

Meadow’s characterization of Trump’s openness came amid intense scrutiny the president faced on Wednesday after The Washington Post reported that Trump spoke with Woodward during 18 separate interviews in which the president acknowledged that he was downplaying the threat of the coronavirus to the public as early as February.

Host MacCallum asked Meadows if Trump’s comments about downplaying the threat of the virus are “problematic for the president.”  

“Well, I think any great leader, what they do is they take information that they have, they make sure that they vet it with, in this case, it was with their advisers, both doctors and those within the White House to actually make sure that we made prudent decisions,” Meadows responded 

“But what we — you don’t want to do is create panic. But at the same time, it was an all hands on deck. I can tell you, not only did that happen in January and February, but when I came on board in March, it was around-the-clock, vigilant effort to make sure that this president did everything he could to address it.”

He added that “what we know about the virus is different than what we knew at that time.” 

Meadows joined the White House as Trump’s fourth chief of staff in March, leaving his term as a congressman from North Carolina early. He was set to retire from Congress at the end of the year. 

Asked after the recordings with Woodward were released if he downplayed the virus or misled the public to avoid panic, Trump told reporters, “If you said in order to reduce panic, perhaps that’s so.” 

“The fact is I’m a cheerleader for this country. I love our country,” Trump added. “I don’t want people to be frightened. I don’t want to create panic, as you say, and certainly I’m not going to

Read more