The titles of Bob Woodward’s three books about the Trump administration — “Fear,” “Rage” and now “Peril” — are appropriately blunt. The books, about the staccato stream of events that accompanied Donald Trump’s time in office, are written at a mostly staccato clip.
The frantic pace is redoubled in “Peril,” written with Robert Costa, Woodward’s colleague at The Washington Post. Broken up into 72 short chapters, it hurtles through the past two years of dizzying news. But while it covers the 2020 campaign season and the course of the pandemic and the protests after George Floyd’s murder and the opening months of Joseph Biden’s presidency, the book’s centerpiece is the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and its primary concern is how President Trump behaved in the lead-up to and the aftermath of that crisis.
Books in this genre like to make news, and this one doesn’t waste any time. Its opening pages recount how last October and again in January, after the riot, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had secret conversations with his Chinese counterparts to assure them that the United States was “100 percent steady,” despite what they might be seeing and hearing. “Everything’s fine,” he told them, “but democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
The Chinese were concerned that Trump might lash out on a global scale in a desperate attempt to secure his power. Milley went over the process for nuclear strikes and other acts of war with his colleagues, to make sure nothing was instigated without his awareness. He was, Woodward and Costa write, “overseeing the mobilization of America’s national security state without the knowledge of the American people or the rest of the world.”
The authors then go back to begin charting the path to the extraordinary events of Jan. 6, alternating between Republicans’ attempts to corral Trump’s most outlandish behavior and scenes of Biden weighing whether to enter the 2020 race.
The day after the election, speaking to Kellyanne Conway, Trump “seemed ready, at least privately, to acknowledge defeat.”
Enter Rudy Giuliani.
The former New York mayor becomes a more prominent player here than in the previous books. (One especially brutal set of consecutive entries for him in the index reads: “hair dye incident,” “hospitalized with coronavirus.”)
In “Fear,” Woodward had noted that Giuliani was the only Trump campaigner to appear on a prominent Sunday morning talk show to support his candidate the week that the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape was leaked. He actually went on five shows, a rare feat. At the end, Woodward wrote, he was “exhausted, practically bled out,” but had “proved his devotion and friendship.” His reward? “Rudy, you’re a baby!” Trump reportedly yelled at him in front of staffers on a plane later that day. “I’ve never seen a worse defense of me in my life. They took your diaper off right there. You’re like a little baby that needed to be changed. When are you going to be a man?”
It will be left to psychologists, not historians, to write the definitive account of why Giuliani remained so steadfast to the president, but in “Peril” he’s portrayed as the prime force behind Trump’s refusal to let the election go.
“I have eight affidavits,” Giuliani said in a room of friends and campaign officials three days after the election, hinting at the scope of the alleged voting fraud. Later the same day, in front of Trump and others: “I have 27 affidavits!” And yet again the same day, he urged Trump to put him in charge. “I have 80 affidavits.”
Woodward and Costa have Trump telling advisers that, yes, Giuliani is “crazy,” but “none of the sane lawyers can represent me because they’ve been pressured.”
Lee Holmes, chief counsel for the Trump supporter Senator Lindsey Graham, is portrayed in “Peril” as “astonished at the overreach” of fraud claims by Giuliani and others. Holmes wrote to Graham that the data behind the claims were “a concoction, with a bullying tone and eighth-grade writing.” (Graham disagreed. “Third grade,” he said.)
The note about this book’s sources is nearly identical to the notes in the previous two books. The authors interviewed more than 200 firsthand participants and witnesses, though none are named. Quotation marks are apparently used around words they’re more sure of, but there’s a seemingly arbitrary pattern to the way those marks are used and not used even within the same brief conversations.
And as usual, though the sources aren’t named, some people get the type of soft-glow light that suggests they were especially useful to the authors. In this book, much of that light falls on Milley and William P. Barr, Trump’s attorney general from November 2018 to December 2020.
It was reported when Barr resigned that his relationship with Trump had soured because Barr wouldn’t indulge the president’s belief in election fraud. In “Peril,” that resistance gets fleshed out with some long and pointed speeches suspiciously recalled verbatim. “Your team is a bunch of clowns,” goes part of one of Barr’s confrontations. “They are unconscionable in the firmness and detail they present as if it is unquestionable fact. It is not.”
Milley looks admirable and conscientious if you believe — as Woodward and Costa seem to — that someone needed to surreptitiously work to counteract Trump’s destabilizing effects during the transition of power. (Milley, who remains the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Biden, has unsurprisingly taken fire from the right over his reported disloyalty to Trump. Biden has publicly expressed confidence in Milley since the book’s revelations emerged.)
In addition to Milley’s actions, the book has gotten attention for a scene in which — read this next part slowly — the former Vice President Dan Quayle talks sense into Pence. Trump had suggested to Pence that he had the power to essentially rejigger the electoral outcome as head of the Senate, an idea that Quayle told Pence was “preposterous and dangerous.” Woodward and Costa write, in a rare bit of deadpan: “Pence finally agreed acting to overturn the election would be antithetical to his traditional view of conservatism.”
Trump tweeted about the election ballots on the morning they were to be certified: “All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!” “Extreme courage” is not the first phrase one reaches for to describe Pence after reading “Peril.”
The vice president talked halfheartedly about election problems in public to stay on Trump’s good side “without going full Giuliani,” Woodward and Costa write. As the certification approached, he asked many lawyers to consider his options. It doesn’t seem he wanted them to empower him as much as he wanted to simply avoid a confrontation with Trump.
On his way to the Capitol on Jan. 6, Pence released a letter saying that he did not have the “unilateral authority” to decide which electoral votes got counted. His reward? About an hour later, protesters inside the Capitol chanted for him to be hanged.
When Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper less than a week after the election, Milley saw it, Woodward and Costa write, as part of a “mindless march into more and more disorder.”
The unfortunate truth is that disorder is dramatic. In the wake of the riot, “Peril” loses force. A protracted recounting of security efforts leading up to Biden’s inauguration feels considerably less urgent after the fact. Even more fatally for the book’s momentum, Woodward and Costa devote 20 pages — a lifetime by their pacing standards — to behind-the-scenes negotiations for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package. This involves a lot of back and forth with Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia whose crucial vote was considered uncertain. Sources may have given Woodward and Costa every detail of these negotiations, but the authors weren’t obligated to use every last one.
The book mounts a final rally, helped by circumstance. In light of recent events, a late section closely recounting Biden’s decision to end the American war in Afghanistan is plenty absorbing. The authors recount Biden’s resistance to the war when he was vice president under Obama: He felt that the addition of 30,000 troops was, Woodward and Costa write, “a tragic power play executed by national security leaders at the expense of a young president.” Biden was long insistent that the point of American engagement in the country was to diminish the threat of Al Qaeda and not to crush the Taliban. He held to his strategy despite advisers who presented him with a “stunning list of possible human disaster and political consequences.”
As “Peril” nears its close, the Delta variant is muddying the pandemic picture, and that’s not the only detail that makes it read like a cliffhanger. “Trump was not dormant,” the authors write. He was staging rallies for supporters, and getting good news about his place in very early polls for 2024. Like an installment of a deathless Marvel franchise, for all its spectacle “Peril” ends with a dismaying sense of prologue.
Why would President Trump coöperate with Bob Woodward—and not only coöperate but participate in eighteen interview sessions, one of which included his now infamous admission that he understood that the coronavirus was serious but intended to “play it down”? One possibility is that Trump simply enjoyed the prestige of the project. Woodward’s second book on Trump, “Rage,” is his eleventh work on the Presidency since the Clinton Administration, and a continuation of the genre that he and Carl Bernstein inaugurated with their account of the collapse of Nixon’s Presidency, “The Final Days.”
The books always reflect a remarkable level of access, contain a number of scoops that rarely depart from conventional wisdom but do frequently make headlines, and are written and published with a speed that insures their popularity. After two accounts of the George W. Bush Administration—one of which was so admiring that the Republican National Committee recommended it on its Web site—Woodward published “State of Denial,” in 2006, capturing and entrenching the burgeoning conventional wisdom that the Administration’s Iraq policy was a disaster. In response to Trump’s coronavirus blunder, Bush’s strategist Karl Rove said last week that “every Administration participates with Bob Woodward and lives to regret it.”
Another answer to the question of why a person might think that engaging with Woodward would be beneficial can be found in the prologue to his latest book, in which he introduces Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national-security adviser (who, according to a whistle-blower complaint, recently instructed the head of Homeland Security to stop providing intelligence assessments about election meddling by Russia; he has strongly denied the accusation). “O’Brien believed the national-security adviser had to try to see around corners, a duty to warn of an impending disaster,” Woodward writes, adding that, by late January, O’Brien was deeply concerned about the coronavirus and “felt passionate that the outbreak was a real threat.” Woodward also describes O’Brien as putting forward his opinions “deliberately” and “strongly.” We are only two pages in, which is usually about the moment in a Woodward book when you can guess whether a subject has coöperated: if he has, he almost certainly comes out looking well. Three pages later, a week has passed, and Woodward casually notes that O’Brien, appearing on CBS, has just said about the virus, “Right now, there’s no reason for Americans to panic. This is something that is a low risk, we think, in the U.S.” Another author might note the dissonance between O’Brien’s public and private statements; Woodward does not even allude to it. But this is typical of Woodward’s White House-centric narratives: inconsistencies pile up; narrative threads are dropped and then recovered without any notice of the ways in which they have altered in the interim. In a 1996 review of his books, Joan Didion wrote, “Those who talk to Mr. Woodward, in other words, can be confident that he will be civil (‘I too was growing tired, and it seemed time to stand up and thank him’), that he will not feel impelled to make connections between what he is told and what is already known, that he will treat even the most patently self-serving account as if untainted by hindsight.”
“Rage” is really two books of about equal length. The first covers much of the same territory as Woodward’s first effort on the Trump Administration, “Fear,” offering another account of the “adults” around the President trying to manage and moderate him in 2017 and 2018. Trump’s former aide Rob Porter and his former economic adviser Gary Cohn were the central figures in that effort. (Remember Cohn removing papers from Trump’s desk in a valiant attempt to prevent Trump from withdrawing from a trade agreement with South Korea?) In “Fear,” former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and former director of National Intelligence Dan Coats are the lodestars. We follow each of them from their first meetings with Trump, during the transition period, to their inevitable firings or resignations, in narratives that track their disillusionment in serving the country under Trump. What is so hard to decipher about these early sections is to what extent Mattis, Tillerson, and Coats were as naïve as Woodward portrays them, to what extent they feigned cluelessness in order to justify their willingness to work for Trump, and to what extent their depictions are Woodward’s own infantilizing spin, intended to create bildungsromans out of the lives of men in their sixties and seventies.
In the second book, which covers the White House’s response to the coronavirus, Woodward himself comes face to face with Trump in their long interview sessions and begins offering up many of the same fears and concerns as Mattis, Tillerson, and Coats. “After I finished reporting for this book on President Trump, I felt weariness,” he writes. And yet Woodward appears as unequipped to grapple with Trump as the erstwhile members of his Cabinet were. Whether Woodward and his sources are aware or disengaged, cynical or naïve, takes on extra importance because of the unique challenges and outrages of our era, in which a willingness to abide Trump has sat side by side with an inability to understand his malignancy.
Of Woodward’s three main characters, Coats’s journey is the most pathos-filled. A lifelong Republican and devout Christian from Indiana, he accepts the job despite the reservations that he and his wife, Marsha, have about Trump’s character. After an early briefing with Trump, Coats tells Trump that he intends to speak the truth, even if the President does not like it. Several months later, the kindly Marsha is “stunned”—despite a psychology degree—“at her husband’s reports about the president’s arrogance” and asks, “‘Who could go into this office of being president and not realize how inadequate they are?” After Trump wanted to pull troops from Afghanistan and South Korea, Woodward writes that Coats felt “troubled by the absence of a plan or consideration of the human dimension—the impact on the troops, the allies, the world—or a sense of the weight of the office.” Fortunately, Coats finds comfort in a remark that Eisenhower once made, about the White House being “the loneliest house I’ve ever been in.” Maybe that’s the problem: Trump just needs a little company, although this would not be entirely consistent with Coats’s initial moral hesitations about Trump. Regardless, Woodward seems to have granted Coats a degree of credulousness unfitting in a director of National Intelligence.
Credulousness is not a quality one associates with men who run multinational oil companies, and, indeed, Tillerson, previously the C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, had spent time with a number of world leaders, including Vladimir Putin, before his first meeting with Trump. In Woodward’s recounting, Tillerson talked through most of that session, in December, 2016, presenting rather clichéd views about world affairs. “If you want to understand Russia, they haven’t changed much culturally in 1,000 years,” he tells Trump. “They are the most fatalistic people on the face of the earth.” (After this cascade of stereotypes, he goes on to attribute Putin’s dislike of Barack Obama to Putin being a racist, adding, “All Russians are, generally.”) A little later, Tillerson and Mattis are talking about Russia, and Tillerson pipes up to say that “the new president would have an opening with Putin and could perhaps even develop a constructive relationship.” Tillerson attributes this idea to the geopolitical situation, not to the fact that Russia had just helped Trump get elected or that Trump had shown admiration for dictators the world over, especially Putin. Woodward, in turn, does the same, by mentioning none of this context, and the principals go on having conversations about Russia and Putin and Trump as if they had been asleep for the previous year. It is pretty clear that these men all talked to Woodward, in other words, but it is less obvious that he challenged these almost absurdly guileless versions of events.
Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, is the biggest name of the book’s early sections, but his journey to a realization about Trump’s character is arguably the farthest-fetched. Similarly, Mattis’s role in an operation in Falluja that left an estimated thousand civilians dead goes unmentioned and does not cloud any judgments the reader might make about Mattis’s dedication to the Marine Corps ethos and his love of democracy and our allies. “He wanted to persuade Trump to question his positions on nato and torture,” Woodward explains, as Mattis—whose “bright, open and inviting smile softened his presence”—prepares to meet with the President in late 2016. The problem that immediately suggests itself here is that both Woodward and Mattis, in Woodward’s telling, view Trump’s opinions about torture as being a “policy” matter. Trump is pro-torture because he is a bigot with authoritarian leanings and because he sensed that some elements of the Republican electorate would be gratified by tough talk about roughing up Muslims. Woodward solemnly explains that Mattis follows the Marine code and believes in actions that preserve America’s “moral authority,” which might as well be a phrase from a different language as far as Trump is concerned.
The first hints that Woodward, too, thinks that Trump’s Presidency might be somehow salvageable occur on the first page, when Woodward suggests that Trump might be too “consumed” by impeachment to pay attention to his job. (In classic Woodward fashion, he contradicts himself—or perhaps lets slip the absurdity of the entire formulation—when he mentions, four pages later, that the Super Bowl was also consuming Trump’s attention.) Many of these scenes—and this attitude toward Trump—will be familiar to readers of “Fear,” but the second half of the narrative is distinct because of the presence of Woodward himself. He has never been shy about using himself as a character in his books, whether in some memorable tête-à-têtes with Donald Rumsfeld or his famous account of a deathbed conversation with William Casey, in which the former C.I.A. director admitted having known that money from Iranian arms sales was being funnelled to the Nicaraguan Contras. (Others have questioned the story.)
But Woodward has never written about such sustained engagement with a President—which takes the form of formal sessions and impromptu phone calls from Trump. The combined effect of these interviews is definitive proof that there is such a thing as too much access: chapter after chapter shows Trump ignoring questions and ranting about the media, Obama, and his poll numbers. Woodward recounts one rambling conversation with Trump at the end of 2019 and then tells the reader, “I was struck by the vague, directionless nature of Trump’s comments. He had been president for just under three years, but couldn’t seem to articulate a strategy or plan for the country. I was surprised he would go into 2020, the year he hoped to win reelection, without more clarity to his message.” Opinions may vary about whether Woodward was truly surprised, just as opinions may vary about whether one would prefer the most famous journalist in Washington to be wide-eyed or disingenuous.
The reductio ad absurdum of these scenes comes in a brief discussion between Woodward and Trump on racial justice, amid interviews that are ostensibly about the coronavirus. (Woodward understandably has trouble keeping them on track.) “There is a spiritual dimension to this,” Woodward tells Trump about leading the country on race. “I think people want somebody to get up and say hey, I get it. I really am moving forward getting my feet in your shoes. I know you wouldn’t like this, but remember Hillary Clinton went on a listening tour? Do you need to go on a listening tour and listen to people?” Trump responds by talking about his “great economy,” and the conversation continues without much progress. In fairness to the President, there are probably few questions that would unite fanatical Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter activists more than whether Donald Trump should go on a “listening tour” to hear from Black people across America about their experiences.
One of the issues that marred Woodward’s Bush books, despite their interest, was his willingness to believe less-than-honest people. That is an even bigger problem in the Trump era, which has outdone the Bush years in dishonesty and features an outrageous number of people whose only motive for serving in government seems to be personal glory or wealth. If this is not enough to make anyone pine for Dick Cheney, the lying at least makes it even more vital that journalists doubt what they hear and think carefully about what to weed out or explain. I somehow have trouble believing that Lindsey Graham is, as Woodward recounts, worried that the judiciary is becoming “too partisan” or that much can be gleaned from Jared Kushner’s endless monologues on leadership. The problem goes beyond the details. In one conversation, Mattis and Tillerson discuss the importance of State and Defense working together and beefing up the diplomatic corps; a reader who did not follow the news in 2017 would be surprised to learn that Tillerson was simultaneously embarking on gutting the State Department.
There is, however, a revealing scene early in Woodward’s interviews with Trump, in which the journalist tells the President, “I want to do policy. Because having done nine presidents, the policy is what matters. It’s the spine and definition.” Trump says he agrees and then adds, “Policy can change, also, though, you know? I like flexibility.” In the moment, Woodward doesn’t respond, but in the epilogue, he makes the confession that all of his central characters have made. Woodward writes, “But now, I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘dynamite behind the door’ was in plain sight. It was Trump himself.
- The oversized personality.
- The failure to organize.
- The lack of discipline.
- The lack of trust in others he had picked, in experts.
- The undermining or attempted undermining of so many American institutions.
- The failure to be a calming, healing voice.
- The unwillingness to acknowledge error.
- The failure to do his homework.
- To extend the olive branch.
- To listen carefully to others.
- To craft a plan.”
Woodward has never been great with character—he calls it a “paradox” that Trump can be both “friendly” and “savage”—but character, even he must admit, is the whole story here. Most of this Administration’s greatest disasters have been policy-related—but policy of this sort was inevitable with a person like Trump. What his racism did not infect, his corruption most certainly did; we are left with nothing except Trump himself and the political party that was broken enough to nominate such a man.
Even Woodward’s worst books contain an astonishing number of fascinating details, but those who have lamented the failure of our institutions to stand up to Trump are unlikely to be surprised by the mind-set of the people who populated them. Acceptance of how far we have fallen would have meant not only reappraising the country many of them loved but also the Party many of them belonged to. But the alternative explanation for their behavior is no better: they knew what was coming and—whether out of a sense of decorum or partisanship or cowardice—refused to say so. Those who read “Rage” now will get some sense of the hectic and turbulent nature of decision-making within the White House. But, years from now, the book is less likely to serve as a reminder of what it felt like to experience our age and more a sign of why it came about.
Donald Trump is his own whistle-blower.
During his 2016 bid, Donald Trump would sometimes pause from bashing elites and the media to speak with awe about a phone call he had with a Very Important Journalist.
Trump puffed up with pride as he told the story to bemused rallygoers, who only moments before had been jeering at the press.
It was, to say the least, a mixed message from the phony populist.
During an interview in June 2016 at Trump Tower, Trump bragged to me about the call with the journalist, who turned out to be Tom Friedman. Lately, Trump has been boasting about Tom’s praise for the White House’s Israel-United Arab Emirates peace plan.
Like Stella Dallas standing in the rain outside the gates of the mansion where her daughter is getting married, Donald Trump has always had his nose pressed up against the window of the elites.
“For a man who has risen to the highest office on the planet, President Trump radiates insecurity,” former Ambassador Kim Darroch wrote to his colleagues in London, in a leaked cable.
Steve Bannon once told me that Trump was much more concerned about CNN’s coverage than Fox’s. Trump was not seeking affirmation from the nighttime slate of Fox knuckleheads; they were in the bag. Unserious though he may be, Trump covets praise from serious people. And serious Sean Hannity is not.
Fresh off his win in 2016, he was eager to come talk to The New York Times. I’ve never seen Trump happier than in that hour with the “failing” New York Times. (He even got to upbraid me in front of my boss.) As we wrapped up, he told the assembled editors, reporters and Times brass: “It’s a great honor. I will say, The Times is, it’s a great, great American jewel. A world jewel. And I hope we can all get along.”
That same eager tone was echoed in the audio of Bob Woodward’s tapes with Trump, as the president warmly spoke the name “Bob” again and again, yearning for acceptance from the very establishment that he had denounced to win the Oval Office.
Even though Woodward keeps writing books about Trump with titles that sound like Hitchcock horror flicks — first “Fear” and now “Rage” — Trump somehow thought he could win over the pillar of the Washington establishment.
“I brought something that I’ve never shown to anybody,” the president told the writer in December 2019. “I’m going to show it to you. I’ll get you something that’s sort of cool.”
He had an aide bring photos of him with Kim Jong-un, including some capturing the moment when the two leaders stepped over the line between North and South Korea.
“Pretty cool,” Trump gushed. “You know? Pretty cool. Right?” He added, “I mean, they’re cool pictures when you — you know, when you talk about iconic pictures, how about that?”
In a later interview, he gave Woodward a poster-size picture of himself and Kim, saying: “I don’t even know why I’m giving it to you. That’s my only one.” He trumpeted about Kim: “He never smiled before. I’m the only one he smiles with.”
Trump also bragged to the man who helped break the Watergate story, which sparked an impeachment inquiry, that he handled impeachment with more aplomb than his predecessors.
“Nixon was in a corner with his thumb in his mouth,” Trump said. “Bill Clinton took it very, very hard. I don’t.”
Woodward once told me that every president gets the psychoanalyst he deserves.
But at least with Nixon, Woodward had to follow the money to expose the venality. With Donald Trump, he simply had to turn on a recorder.
Trump is his own whistle-blower.
As The Times’s Nick Confessore put it on MSNBC: “Trump is the first candidate for president to launch an October surprise against himself. It’s as if Nixon sent the Nixon tapes to Woodward in an envelope by FedEx.”
Trump fiends for legitimacy even as he undercuts any chance of being seen as legitimate. He is fact-based and cogent on the Woodward tape talking in early February about how the coronavirus is airborne and deadly and dangerous for young people. But he vitiated that by publicly downplaying the vital information for his own political advantage.
For more than a week, instead of focusing on his peace deals and his nomination for the “Noble Prize,” as a Trump campaign ad spelled it, everyone has been focused on a story that contends he called Americans who died in war “suckers” and “losers.”
Trump desperately wants approval even as he seems relentlessly driven to prove he’s not worthy of it.
He may be ludicrously un-self-aware, but even he sensed that his tango with Woodward would end badly. It was fun for a while, bro-ing out in the Oval with his fellow septuagenarian big shot, batting around the finer points of white privilege. But it could not last.
“You’re probably going to screw me,” the president told the writer. “You know, because that’s the way it goes.”
Even so, the unreflective Narcissus will never drag himself away from his reflecting pool. You know, because that’s the way it goes.
If Donald Trump possessed a soul, a trace of conscience or character, he would resign the Presidency. He will not resign the Presidency.
Trump is who he has always been, and the details that we learn with every passing day merely fill in the portrait with sharper focus and more lurid colors. The man who lied about the nature of the novel coronavirus to the American people (but confided in Bob Woodward) is the same man who, as a real-estate huckster, used to say that the best way to hype a new building was to “just give them the old Trump bullshit.” Deception is his brand.
It is hard to identify a constituency that Trump has not betrayed. A self-proclaimed populist, his greatest legislative triumph was a gargantuan tax cut for the wealthy. (“You all just got a lot richer,” he told his cronies at Mar-a-Lago.) A self-proclaimed champion of the military, he reportedly says “my fucking generals are a bunch of pussies” and refers to fallen American soldiers as “losers” and “suckers.” His lies and expressions of contempt are so routine, so numerous, that we grow inured to their gravity and even forget that only recently he was impeached in the House of Representatives, avoiding conviction thanks only to a conscience-free Republican majority in the Senate. Trump’s lack of stability is so pronounced that he inspires nightmares in his closest aides. As we learn from “Rage,” Woodward’s new book, Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, was so concerned that the President would set off a nuclear confrontation with North Korea that Mattis slept in his clothes in case he had to race to the Pentagon or the White House in the middle of the night. In his interviews with Woodward, Trump seems so hungry for approbation that, like a child, he spills news of a secret weapons system––“We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before.” (This weapons system is presumably different from the hypersonic “super duper” missile that Trump hinted at in May.)
The polls show Joe Biden ahead, but there is no question that the election could go either way. As he proves almost daily, Trump is capable of saying or doing anything to win. And if he doesn’t win, the presumption that he will hand over power without some sort of duplicity is far from assured. And yet the dismissive reaction on Fox News to the revelations in Woodward’s book was telling. On Wednesday night, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were all smug laughter as they tried to describe the excerpts from Woodward’s book as so much irrelevance and hokum and to redirect attention to all the many devilish ways that Biden was describing the country as “evil” and “racist.” And, by the way, Ingraham said, there’s another book that you really ought to read! “Obsession: Inside the Washington Establishment’s Never-Ending War on Trump,” by Byron York, a Fox contributor and correspondent for the Washington Examiner.
Trump’s Presidency has been appalling––but not unpredictably so. That he would bring misery and division to this country should have been obvious from the start. Flagrantly corrupt and instinctually autocratic, he immediately set about threatening democratic values and the rule of law, while encouraging autocrats abroad and white nationalists at home. He has aroused hatred for the free press and slimed the patriotism of everyone from John McCain to John Lewis. It is a painful thing to say, but the evidence assaults us daily: Trump is a miserable human being. Ask his sister, a retired federal judge; in a taped conversation with the President’s niece, she refers to him as “cruel.” It is the rare adviser or satrap who leaves the White House and does not hasten to write a memoir or speak to the press with the intention of sounding a common alarm, that Trump poses a threat to national security even more profound than the news-weary public can imagine. Woodward reports that the former director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, came to believe, more and more, that the Russians had something on Trump. “How else to explain the President’s behavior?” Woodward writes. “Coats could see no other explanation.”
“So you just had to deal with it,” Woodward quotes Mattis as saying, about the situation inside Trump’s White House. “It was, how do you govern this country and try to keep this experiment alive for one more year?” Mattis says he resigned only when Trump went “beyond stupid to felony stupid” and made an abrupt decision to withdraw troops fighting isis.
Trump’s reaction to the book has been Trumpian. He gave Woodward eighteen interviews, often calling Woodward at home at night just to deepen the hole he began to dig at more formal sessions in the Oval Office. Woodward taped the conversations with the President’s knowledge. But, as a way to cover all bases, Trump tweeted last month, “The Bob Woodward book will be a FAKE, as always, just as many of the others have been.” And, of course, he has now tried to pick at the critical thread that the reporter should have published his remarks about the dangers of covid-19 earlier. “Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning. “If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!”
The executive in charge of saving lives was, and is, Donald Trump, not Bob Woodward. And the President’s delays and denials insured that the American response, compared with that of other nations, would be tragic. William Haseltine, the chairman and president of access Health International and a world-renowned biologist, told CNN, “How many people could have been saved out of the hundred and ninety thousand who have died? My guess is a hundred and eighty thousand of those. We have killed a hundred and eighty thousand of our fellow-Americans because we have not been honest with the truth.”
With just two months remaining before the election, it is obvious that Trump, seemingly unable to expand his base and, according to a recent report in the Times, running short on money and the ability to blanket the battleground states with ads, will stick with the ugliest tactics available to him. And, in doing so, he is making the calculation that a decisive segment of the electorate will be attracted to his appeals to racism and fear.
Trump is not unique in such tactical thinking. In November, 1971, Richard Nixon was concerned about two things: his reëlection campaign and, at least fleetingly, the publication of Philip Roth’s “Our Gang,” a withering satire of the Nixon Administration. It hardly mattered to Nixon that the people most likely to read “Our Gang” were probably not in the undecided camp. In a White House meeting, Nixon asked his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, about the plot of Roth’s book. After Haldeman patiently ran through the Swiftian plot mechanics for the President, Nixon got to the point:
The two men ponder this. Then they edge up to an interesting conclusion.
As it happened, Nixon did not need to resort to Jew-baiting or race-baiting on the campaign trail. He was always far ahead in the polls against George McGovern and ended up winning everywhere but Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
Early in his term, there were moments when Trump would seemingly abandon his customary venom and wildness and do something ordinary, such as read a bland speech from a prepared text. The spectacle would be so striking that we’d hear commentators say such things as, “This is the night that Donald Trump became President of the United States.” Meaning that there was half a chance that he would now behave somewhere within the bounds of sanity and decency. There was never any chance of that happening. Trump is who he has always been. The rest is details. And he is not going anywhere until he’s compelled to do so.