For nearly half a century, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post has been reporting on presidents and power. But not since he covered the Watergate scandal in the 1970s has he assayed a presidency in crisis the way he does in Fear: Trump in the White House.
Woodward has published 18 previous books, most of them about presidents. They typically offer a rather doleful view of the world and an unsparing assessment of American political leaders.
But Fear belongs in a new category. Many readers will find Woodward’s depiction of this president and his presidency so devastating that it can only be described as an indictment.
President Trump is portrayed as uncouth, uninformed and unprepared for the demands of his office. Moreover, he appears convinced that the same braggadocio that made him rich and made him president will make the world conform to his own view of it.
It is hard to say which of the hot items in Woodward’s newest tell-all pack the most wallop. But an early front-runner would be the story about then-chief economic adviser Gary Cohn spiriting documents away from the president’s desk to prevent him from signing them.
One such document, we are told, would have ended the U.S. trade relationship with South Korea. Another was to have unilaterally withdrawn the U.S. from its trade agreements with Canada and Mexico.
“Got to protect the country,” Cohn is reported to have told a colleague.
Swiping the papers is only one skirmish in the running battle over trade detailed at length by Woodward. And that is but one battle in the larger White House warfare over immigrants, the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, the negotiations with China and Japan, and the endless relitigating of the 2016 election.
But the Cohn anecdote, told at the outset of the book, distills the impression of Trump as both irresponsible and distractible. He is the autocrat as adolescent (“Bring me my tariffs!”), swift to anger and struggling with self-control so much that national security officials have to talk him out of bombing North Korea or assassinating the president of Syria.
Another recurring theme is the elasticity of the president’s tether to fact, or even to the last thing he said on a subject. The book ends with Woodward reporting that Trump personal lawyer John Dowd quit because his client had such a habit of lying that sitting down with federal investigators would inevitably lead to charges of perjury.
Woodward’s account often dwells on Trump’s bullying treatment of his own people. Victim 1 is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom the president blames for the existence of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was weakness, Trump insists. Sessions should have just said “no” to the recusal. Sessions is “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner.”
Responding to the publication of excerpts of Fear, the president denied having used those terms about Sessions, or about anyone, ever.
After a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent last year, Trump initially denounced hatred and bigotry “on many sides, on many sides.” He was persuaded to walk this back and condemn the neo-Nazi protesters explicitly, in a second speech. Fox News called that a “course correction,” and Trump flew into a rage.
“You never apologize,” he shouted at an aide. “I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?”
Trump is also shown chastising personal attorney Rudy Giuliani after the former New York mayor had been on five Sunday morning talk shows, straining to defend Trump’s boasts about grabbing women by their genitals in the infamous Access Hollywood video.
“Rudy, you’re a baby!” Woodward quotes Trump saying. “You’re like a little baby that needs to be changed. When are you going to be a man?”
But recalling that incident also reminds us how little difference that videotape made, in the end. And that may tell us something about the impact of this book.
Many of the flaws and foibles Woodward identifies in Trump may look quite different to his most ardent supporters. At least some of the president’s fans love him for the very attitudes and utterances that Woodward and other conventional Washington observers find most disturbing. More than a few will find this portrayal of Trump so unacceptable as to defy belief, and they may focus their dismay not on Trump but on Woodward.
The president himself has called Fear “a work of fiction.” If we set aside Trump’s own past expressions of respect and praise for Woodward, the “fiction” comment plays to a critique of the reporter’s technique harkening back to Watergate. It might be called novelistic, or a readable version of cinéma vérité, but either way, it entails a degree of artistic license.
For example, on Pages 331 and 332, we see Trump “fuming like some aggrieved Shakespearean king” who then “finally came down from the ceiling and began to regain his composure.” This happens in a scene between the president and Dowd, but Dowd is not quoted. So whose description is it? Questions like that leave Woodward, with all his kudos, vulnerable to the charge of writing a kind of high-class gossip.
Woodward has written a dozen No. 1 best-sellers and has won two Pulitzer Prizes and countless other awards. Yes, he has probably talked to most of the people mentioned in the book (other than Trump and perhaps family members), and yes, he has hundreds of hours of tape recordings of his interviews.
But the price of getting this kind of cooperation and supposed candor from sources is that the evidence gathered remains inadmissible — not just in a court of law but in the court of many people’s opinion.
Woodward strives to corroborate one source’s story with another, and with independent resources as well. But we also see the Source Notes section begin each chapter by saying “the information … comes primarily from multiple deep background interviews with firsthand sources.” Woodward defines “deep background” to mean “all the information could be used but I would not say who provided it.”
Substantial chunks of the book seem to have come from the two men who shared top billing on the White House staff in 2017: chief of staff Reince Priebus and “chief strategist” Steve Bannon. Both are quoted directly at times and, it would seem, extensively without attribution. Some of the latter material may have come to Woodward secondhand from confidants of one chief or the other.
Not coincidentally, both Bannon and Priebus left the White House abruptly after a matter of months. Doubtless, both have scores to settle with rivals and antagonists, some of whom are still in Trump’s inner circle.
Other parts of the story seem traceable (directly or indirectly) to other major figures or their intimates. These include Cohn, a former Wall Street titan, and Rob Porter, the Harvard Rhodes scholar who served for a time as Trump’s staff secretary. (This is the same job Brett Kavanaugh once did for President George W. Bush, before becoming a judge and ultimately a Supreme Court nominee.) Both Cohn and Porter left the White House earlier this year.
Coincidentally or not, the first appearance of excerpts of Fear preceded by one day The New York Times’ publishing an op-ed attributed to an unnamed “senior administration official” claiming to be part of an in-house cabal actively working “to thwart the president’s worst impulses.”
That piece, too, was immediately condemned by the president, his staff and his friends in the media and beyond.
The problem with these uses of anonymity is that they cause us to take what we are offered of substance with less than full confidence.
By most accounts, Woodward lives by his code and is both thorough and conscientious in pursuing his technique.
But the technique is ultimately limited. At a moment such as this, fraught with consequences for the media and the nation, “deep background” may be too frail a framework to support the enormous weight of what Woodward is alleging.
This is not the kind of journalism that could be dispositive in this era. It does not open the crypt on Trump’s tax records or reveal how he financed his businesses or resolve the swirling controversies about collusion with Russians or liaisons with porn models. It does not tell us what Mueller knows or where he is going.
But Woodward serves here the function that he has served for decades. His persistence and reputation give him better access to more powerful people across a wider spectrum of politics than any other reporter. So he sets a marker wherever he goes.
Whatever comes after this, we have Woodward’s work as a point of reference. And for the time being, at least, it offers the best glimpse we have into a White House like no other.
You are one of the CPR readers who wants to know what is really going on these days. We can help you keep up - The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!