WASHINGTON — President Trump so alarmed his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, during a discussion last January of the nuclear standoff with North Korea that an exasperated Mr. Mattis told colleagues that “the president acted like — and had the understanding — of a ‘fifth or sixth grader.’”
At another moment, Mr. Trump’s aides became so worried about his judgment that Gary D. Cohn, the chief economic adviser, took a letter from the president’s desk authorizing the withdrawal of the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Mr. Cohn told an associate that Mr. Trump never realized it was missing.
These anecdotes are in a sprawling, highly anticipated new book by Bob Woodward, which depicts the Trump White House as a byzantine, treacherous, often out-of-control operation — “crazytown,” in the words of the chief of staff, John F. Kelly — hostage to the whims of an impulsive, ill-informed and undisciplined president.
The New York Times obtained a copy of the book, “Fear,” which will be published next Tuesday by Simon & Schuster.
Mr. Woodward, a longtime Washington Post reporter and editor, has turned the internal dramas of several previous White Houses into best-sellers. In taking on Mr. Trump, he faced the challenge of an unusually leaky administration, which has already provided grist for countless news articles and one mega-bestseller, “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff.
But Mr. Woodward’s book has unsettled the administration and the president, in part because it is clear that the author has spoken with so many current and former officials, though all on the condition that they not be cited as sources for the information.
The White House dismissed the book, describing it in a statement as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad.”
Some of the freshest details in the 448-page book involve Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who has been viewed as an anchor in Mr. Trump’s cabinet. Mr. Woodward portrays Mr. Mattis as frequently derisive of the commander in chief, rattled by his judgment, and willing to slow-walk orders from him that he viewed as reckless.
In the North Korea meeting, during a period of high tension with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, Mr. Trump questioned Mr. Mattis about why the United States keeps a military presence on the Korean Peninsula. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mr. Mattis responded to Mr. Trump, according to Mr. Woodward.
In April 2017, after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria launched a chemical attack on his own people, Mr. Trump called Mr. Mattis and told him by phone that he wanted the United States to assassinate Mr. Assad. “Let’s go in,” the president said, according to Mr. Woodward, adding a string of expletives.
The defense secretary hung up and told one of his aides: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” At his direction, the Pentagon prepared options for an airstrike on Syrian military positions, which Mr. Trump later ordered.
Mr. Woodward’s reporting adds new details to a recurring theme in the Trump White House: frustrated aides who sometimes resort to extraordinary measures to thwart the president’s decisions — a situation the author describes as “an administrative coup d’état.” In addition to Mr. Mattis and Mr. Cohn, he recounts the struggles of Mr. Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, whose clashes with Mr. Trump have been reported elsewhere.
Mr. Cohn, Mr. Woodward said, told a colleague he had removed the letter about the Korea free trade agreement to protect national security.
Later, when the president ordered a similar letter authorizing the departure of the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Woodward said Mr. Cohn and other aides plotted how to prevent him from going ahead with a move they feared would be deeply destabilizing.
“I can stop this,” Mr. Cohn said to the White House staff secretary at the time, Rob Porter, according to the book. “I’ll just take the paper off his desk.”
Mr. Woodward reported new details about Mr. Cohn’s well-documented clash with the president over his equivocal response to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017. Mr. Cohn, who threatened to resign over the episode, was particularly shaken after one of his daughters discovered a swastika in her college dorm.
Mr. Cohn, Mr. Woodward said, concluded that Mr. Trump was a “professional liar.” He found a sympathetic ear in Mr. Kelly, another retired Marine general, who frequently vented his frustration to colleagues about the president, whom he labeled “unhinged,” an “idiot” and “off the rails.” Mr. Kelly’s reference to Mr. Trump as an “idiot” has been reported before.
“We’re in crazytown,” Mr. Kelly said in one small meeting, according to Mr. Woodward. “I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Mr. Kelly issued his own denial, saying that “the idea I ever called the president an idiot is not true” and repeating his earlier insistence that he and Mr. Trump had “an incredibly candid and strong relationship.”
His predecessor, Mr. Priebus, apparently shared that view, describing the White House as a Hobbesian world, in which officials delight in sticking knives into one another, according to the book.
“When you put a snake and rat and falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal into a zoo without walls, things started getting nasty and bloody,” said Mr. Priebus, whom Mr. Trump frequently ridiculed, before ousting him and leaving him on a rain-slicked tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base.
Mr. Woodward, who began work on the book soon after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, also documented the misgivings of the president’s former lawyer, John Dowd, about whether the president should submit to questions from the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert S. Mueller III.
On Jan. 27, Mr. Woodward writes, Mr. Dowd staged a practice session in the White House residence to dramatize the pressures Mr. Trump would face in a session with Mr. Mueller. The president stumbled repeatedly, contradicting himself and lying, before he exploded in anger.
“This thing’s a goddamn hoax,” Mr. Trump declared. “I don’t really want to testify.”
Mr. Woodward did not interview Mr. Trump for the book. The author said he tried fruitlessly to get access to the president. After he had completed the manuscript, Mr. Trump called the author to express regret for not talking to him, blaming it on aides who he said had failed to inform him of Mr. Woodward’s interest.
Ina transcript and a tape of the callpublished Tuesday in the The Post, Mr. Woodward told Mr. Trump he interviewed many White House officials outside their offices, and gathered extensive documentation. “It’s a tough look at the world and the administration and you,” he told Mr. Trump.
“Right,” the president replied. “Well, I assume that means it’s going to be a negative book.”
Mark Landler reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.
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