MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. — I was with a veteran Democratic operative on a wintry night in 1998 when the story of President Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern broke on network news. Monica Lewinsky was revealed, and the scandal began mushrooming.
My friend began laughing, and then he blurted out, “It’s true!” How could he be so sure? I asked. “Because she’s his type,” came his response. And as we came to know through the tortuous process that led to Clinton’s impeachment … it was true.
I tell this tale as the story broke late last week about President Trump’s disparaging remarks in the summer of 2018 when he refused to go to a ceremony honoring the 1,500 fallen U.S. Marines at the World War I Aisne-Marne Cemetery, reportedly saying these dead Americans were “losers.” Jeffrey Goldberg’s assertion in The Atlantic continued that Trump considered Vietnam vets “suckers” for fighting in a war he had avoided due to a friendly doctor’s diagnosis of bone spurs.
On Wednesday, Bob Woodward’s book “Rage” cast further brooding shadows on the Trump psyche, with former Indiana senator Dan Coats and Vice President Mike Pence’s conspicuous but divergent roles coming into focus.
Woodward recounts Defense Sec. Jim Mattis quietly going to Washington National Cathedral to pray about his concern for the nation’s fate under Trump’s command and, according to Woodward, told Director of National Intelligence Coats, “There may come a time when we have to take collective action” since Trump is “dangerous. He’s unfit.”
In a separate conversation recounted by Woodward, Mattis told Coats, “The president has no moral compass,” to which the director of national intelligence replied, “True. To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”
From the beginning of his rise in 2015, Trump saying the things that Goldberg reported in The Atlantic are believable because his past is prologue. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine him saying such things. He’s made similar, crass utterances before about U.S. Sen. John McCain and a Gold Star mother.
In 2015, Trump said of McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
After Mattis resigned in 2018, Trump said, “Probably the only thing Barack Obama and I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world’s most overrated general.”
Fox News Pentagon correspondent Jennifer Griffin confirmed key parts of Goldberg’s article, citing two senior White House sources. “According to one former senior Trump administration official, when the president spoke about the Vietnam War, he said, ‘It was a stupid war. Anyone who went was a sucker,’” she wrote. “When asked if the president could have driven to the Aisne-Marne Cemetery, this former official said confidently: ‘He just didn’t want to go.’”
President Trump held a Labor Day presser in which he defended himself from The Atlantic article, saying, “Only an animal would say a thing like that.”
He then described U.S. military generals as profiteers. "They want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy," Trump said.
Woodward’s book documents what the Washington Post described as private grumblings, periods of exasperation and wrestling about whether to quit among the so-called “adults” of the Trump orbit: Mattis, Coats and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
Woodward describes Coats’s experience as “especially tortured.” He was recruited into the administration by Vice President Pence. Coats’ wife, Republican National Committeewoman Marsha Coats, described a White House dinner conversation with Pence: “I just looked at him, like, how are you stomaching this? I just looked at him like, this is horrible. I mean, we made eye contact. I think he understood. And he just whispered in my ear, ‘Stay the course.’”
The Washington Post reported that Pence was the “president’s one constant booster publicly and privately in Woodward’s book.” When Coats considered resigning because of Trump’s handling of Russia, Pence urged him to “look on the positive side of things that he’s done. More attention on that. You can’t go.”
Axios reported that Coats could not shake his “deep suspicions” that Russian President Vladimir Putin “had something” on President Trump, seeing “no other explanation.”
The other Woodward bombshell concerned Trump’s downplaying the pandemic. While he minimized the looming danger to the public, in a Feb. 7 call with Woodward, Trump acknowledged in an audio recording, “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed, and so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu. This is deadly stuff.”
But that didn’t prevent Trump or Pence, who heads the White House pandemic task force, to host big political rallies that flew in the face of CDC guidelines. “It’s going to disappear,” Trump said in late February. “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Then at an early March MAGA rally in Charleston, S.C., Trump claimed the pandemic to be a “hoax.”
At this writing, 101,485 Hoosiers have been documented as infected by the novel coronavirus, killing at least 3,173 of us. The death toll nationally has surpassed 191,000.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.