Donald Trump has forcefully insisted that the latest book detailing the chaos, tensions, and name-calling at the heart of his White House is nothing more than a compilation of lies. But at least one of the broadsides he leveled against a member of his team has been confirmed by numerous sources. The president definitely believes—and has said so out loud—that his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is a “retard.”
Two people with direct knowledge of Trump’s comments tell The Daily Beast that they have heard the president mock Sessions—a frequent target of his cyber-bullying and degradation—as mentally deficient, personally annoying, and “retarded” and a “retard.”
This corroborates a minor, though eyebrow-raising, detail featured in veteran journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, the release of which is currently causing intense heartburn in Trump’s West Wing. In Woodward’s latest offering, Trump complained about his attorney general recusing himself from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and potential coordination with Trump associates.
Labeling him a “traitor” for his recusal in the Russia probe, Trump then made fun of Sessions’ Southern accent and reportedly said, “This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb Southerner… He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama.”
After that quote surfaced on Tuesday, the president reacted furiously towards Woodward, questioning his motives and credibility. He specifically spotlighted the passage related to Sessions in a rage-tweet later that evening.
“The already discredited Woodward book, so many lies and phony sources, has me calling Jeff Sessions ‘mentally retarded’ and ‘a dumb southerner,’” he posted to Twitter. “I said NEITHER, never used those terms on anyone, including Jeff, and being a southerner is a GREAT thing. He made this up to divide!”
Sure enough, Trump’s tweet attempting to knock down part of Woodward’s reporting seemed detached from the actual public record. Trump is quite literally on tape calling a “golf pro” mentally “retarded.” As The Daily Beast reported during the 2016 campaign, Trump would repeatedly call Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin “retarded” during her time on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice—simply because she was deaf. Furthermore, in May 2013, Trump also quote-tweeted someone calling some of his followers “pure RETARDS!”
For numerous other politicians and presidents, credible reports that they repeatedly hurl the offensive, ableist term “retard” or “retarded” about their foes would be a problem, perhaps a major one. When Rahm Emanuel was a senior Obama administration official, he was forced to apologize after it was reported that he had called liberal activists “retarded” for their tactics during the healthcare debate.
But in Trumpworld, it was just another day at the office, where staff have learned to live with, if not navigate through, a minefield of bombshell revelations and political scandal.
On the surface, the White House and the president are brushing off the content in Fear, with Trump and his spokespeople denouncing the book as “fiction” and cobbled together from disgruntled ex-staffers. In reality, the president and his senior ranks have grappled to spin their way out of yet another public-relations crisis stemming from a Trump book.
A comprehensive, forceful White House rapid response is virtually absent, especially compared to how previous administrations dealt with impending Woodward works. The White House, which has been concerned about the Woodward book for weeks if not months, took hours to release on-record statements on the initial Washington Post excerpts of Fear. Even those statements read as purely perfunctory.
According to three administration sources, much of the internal discussion among top staff in the West Wing has degenerated into buck-passing and finger-pointing over who is to blame and who blabbed the most. Most of the pushback from Trumpworld at this time appears to be taking the form of one of the president’s preferred weapons: tweeting.
“Bob Woodward got played in Fear!,” Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted on Wednesday morning. “As a witness I can tell you most of these stories are made up from low confidence under performing people that have fallen flat on their faces because they didn’t have the talent or intelligence to be successful. Just sad, ego driven failures!”
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney and the former mayor of New York City, similarly tweeted that a passage in which Trump called him “a little baby that needed to be changed” was a lie. ”20 to 30 witnesses saw it and can say he or his source are liars,” Giuliani wrote. “Most important for libel purposes, he never called me. Didn’t want to know truth.”
Asked by The Daily Beast on Wednesday about his tweet, Giuliani revised his numbers, claiming, while declining to name names, that “so far I have 5 eyewitnesses,” and that he has “10 to 15 to go.” Noticeably annoyed with the book and his cameos in it, Giuliani added: “I know [Woodward is] a DC god but he has a history of sloppy [journalism to] make money… I’m tired of it.”
Trump’s lawyer is now calling for the release of Woodward’s “tapes”—specifically, the “ones talking about me”—of interviews he’s said to have made for the book’s research. “Let’s see what he has or is he just a phony Washington icon?” Giuliani added.
Woodward did not immediately return a request for comment, but he has issued a simple one-line statement to other media outlets: “I stand by my reporting.”
A Republican National Committee official told The Daily Beast that the committee has pushed back on Fear through its social media accounts (including Twitter, of course), and blasted out messaging and talking points to surrogates. The official noted that other Woodward-related content is planned.
Though Woodward’s Watergate-legend status lends this project additional credence, the Trump administration has been in this spot several times before. Recently, it dealt with sustained fallout from the book UNHINGED by former Trump loyalist and onetime senior administration official Omarosa Manigault-Newman. This included Manigault-Newman providing the media with secretly-recorded audio she had made of private conversations between herself and President Trump, Lara Trump, senior Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson, and others.
Prior to that, Trumpworld was rocked by the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which led to a rapid downfall of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon as a top Trump confidant. Before that, the administration swung into damage-control mode over Higher Loyalty, the book written by fired FBI director James Comey. Even earlier, it coped with Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain.
Fear appears to be of a different magnitude, though. The book is also loaded not only with various accounts of Trump, or his top lieutenants, sniping or being rude, but with explosive details that could have ramifications for policy both foreign and domestic.
One section recounts how, following Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s attack on civilians in April 2017, Trump told Secretary of Defense James Mattis that he wanted to “fucking kill” Assad already. “Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,’ Trump said, according to Woodward book excerpts.
Mattis, who has since called the book “fiction,” reportedly declined to carry out such an order, and Assad remains in power.
Beyond the potentially world-altering Trump directives, Woodward, of course, has no shortage of petty, demeaning, thoroughly Trumpian refrains, besides the “retarded” jab at Sessions.
Trump, he writes, said that his former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was “like a little rat;” blasted his predecessor Barack Obama as a “weak dick,” ragged on his former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s supposedly cheap suits; and told his now 80-year-old Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, “I don’t trust you. I don’t want you doing any more negotiations… You’re past your prime.”
For those who know Trump, or have worked for him, none of this is much of a surprise. Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser who the president recently hate-tweeted as “a drunk/drugged up loser,” told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that though Trump never called him “retarded,” he did lob plenty of invective and “tough” talk his way.
“When I worked for then Mr. Trump, if he wasn’t pleased with something you did or your general performance, you would certainly hear from him and he’d raise his tone,” Nunberg recalled. “He could call you derogatory names [and say things like], ‘This is moronic, what’s going on with you?’ or, ‘You have a hearing problem or are you deaf?… You should get your ears checked,’ or, ‘What are you doing, you idiot?’ With that said, I’m not complaining about that, in fact it kind of motivated me.”
“To motivate someone,” Nunberg said, “he will often go after their weakness to their face.”