The history of evangelicalism in America is shot through with fear—but it also contains an alternative.
White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.
Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”
Robinson and Springsteen echo verses in nearly every book of the Bible, the sacred text that serves as the source of spiritual authority in evangelical life.
- Moses told the Israelites to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” The Hebrew
- God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.”
- The Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
The Gospel of John teaches Christians that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” St. Luke writes: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”Despite all these scriptural passages, it is still possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of a people failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God. But it is also possible to find evangelicals, drawing deeply from Christian theological resources, who sought to forge an alternative history.
A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people.
But other evangelical options were available. As Puritans began to lose control over Massachusetts Bay, they might have turned to their sovereign God for guidance and trusted in his protection to lead them through a new phase in the history of the colony. Or they could have heeded the warnings put forth by those—such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, or the growing number of Baptists in the colony—who saw potential problems with such a close relationship between church and state.
Our history of evangelical fear might also include a chapter on the early 19th-century Protestants who feared the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants to American shores. They translated their panic into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat that such “popery” posed to their Christian nation.
But other evangelical options were available. Biblical faith requires evangelicals to welcome strangers in their midst as a sign of Christian hospitality. While some of the most prominent evangelicals of the era, such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher, were spewing anti-Catholic rhetoric, other evangelicals could not reconcile such hatred with Christian love. These evangelicals, as the historian Richard Cawardine has written, “could be found in all evangelical denominations” in the 1840 and 1850s.
A history of evangelical fear might also note that Catholics made up just one front in the battle for a Protestant America. “Infidels” made up the other front. At the turn of the 19th century, evangelicals went to war against unbelievers, deists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other assorted heretics who threatened the Godly character of the republic.
Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, agonized that unless he and his team of evangelical Federalists curbed the influence of the followers of Thomas Paine, the United States would end up like the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm [in your faith] … I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts minister and the author of geography textbooks, worried that the Bavarian Illuminati, a German anti-Christian secret society, had infiltrated America to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide, advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy, decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.”When “godless” Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States in 1800, frightened New England evangelicals thought the Virginian’s henchmen would soon be arriving in their towns and homes on a mission to take away their Bibles.
But other evangelical options were also available. While Federalists like Boudinot and Morse railed against Jefferson and his followers, frontier evangelicals—mostly Baptists and Methodists—flocked to Jefferson in droves. They understood that Jefferson’s defense of religious freedom would allow evangelical faith to flourish in America. They were right. When religion in America was separated from state sponsorship, it resulted in a massive religious revival which historians have described as the Second Great Awakening.
In the antebellum South, evangelicals, according to some historians, made up close to 80 percent of the region’s population. Southern evangelicals were caught up in a slave system that kept them in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their families. Slave rebellions against their white masters were relatively scarce, but when insurrections did take place they brought paranoia and panic. One South Carolina widow claimed to lie in bed each night fearing that at any moment one of her slaves would break into her house and hack her to death with an axe.
The aggressive moral rhetoric and publishing campaigns of Northern opponents of slavery threatened the white Southern evangelical way of life and prompted fears of a race war. In response, some of the South’s best evangelical minds went to work constructing a complex biblical and theological defense of slavery.
But other evangelical options were available. Modern-day attempts by Southern evangelicals—especially those in the Southern Baptist Convention—to come to terms with its slaveholding and racist past imply that the Northern abolitionists, the thousands of evangelicals who came to South during Reconstruction, and those who fought for racial equality during Jim Crow, were on the religious high ground. They represented a much more consistent evangelical ethic on this moral problem.
The very short history of evangelical fear would certainly need to spend some time in the decades following the Civil War as evangelicals waged intellectual and religious battles against Darwinism and the higher criticism of the Bible. Some of the worst aspects of American evangelicalism converged in the Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century. It was stridently anti-Catholic, and on occasion worked closely with the Ku Klux Klan to guard the white Protestant character of the country.
Fundamentalists, committed to the otherworldly teachings of the Holiness or “Higher Life” movement, chose to separate from the world rather than engage it. They promoted a theology of the “end times” that led them to spend considerable energy trying to identify the appearance of the Antichrist on the global stage.
In defending the “fundamentals of the faith,” these anti-modernists relied on authoritarian clergymen. These fear-mongers gained followers, built large congregations, and established national reputations by sounding the alarm of the modernist threat whenever they saw it rearing its ugly head. They took on the role of ecclesiastical strongmen, protecting their congregations from outsiders who threatened to destroy their faith and the Christian identity of the nation.
But once more, other evangelical options were available. Those concerned about doctrinal drift could have learned something from the biblical virtues of love and humility. The sense of certainty that defined the fundamentalist movement in America might have been replaced with a sense of mystery and the embrace of a God who could not always be confined to man-made doctrinal formulations and end-times speculations. Perhaps such an approach might have tempered the militancy of the movement and provided fundamentalism with a more respected public platform in the decades following the 1925 Scopes Trial.
Since World War II, evangelical anxiety has intensified. In 1947, in the landmark case Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court announced a “wall of separation between church and state [that] must be kept high and impregnable.” The court drew on this decision when it banned prayer and mandatory Bible reading in public schools in 1962 and 1963 respectively.
The demographic makeup of the country was also changing. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 opened American shores to millions of Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners. Many of these new immigrants brought their non-Christian religious beliefs and practices with them, creating unprecedented religious diversity.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Supreme Court efforts at desegregating Christian academies and colleges led to fierce resistance from Southern evangelicals who viewed the federal government as taking away their local autonomy and the religious freedom to control their own admissions policies. (These arguments were not unlike to those put forth by the Southern states that seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861.) By the late 1960s, the feminist movement was posing a threat to the long-held conservative evangelical commitment to patriarchal households, and in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. For those who saw all these things contributing to the decline of a Christian culture in the United States, there was much to fear.
Any effort to make sense of the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump cannot ignore evangelicals’ fear of the Barack Obama administration. Obama was an exotic figure to many white conservative evangelicals. He grew up in Hawaii and spent time as a child in a predominantly Muslim country. He was the son of a white woman and an African man. He had a strange name; that his middle name was “Hussein” did not help.Obama had a Christian conversion story, but it was not the kind of conversion story from which many white conservative evangelicals would find inspiration. His embrace of Christianity took place in a liberal African American congregation in Chicago under the guidance of a pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who was not shy about calling America to task for its past sins of slavery and racism.
Obama’s social policies alienated conservative evangelicals. Though “pro-life” could be used to describe his views on
- health care,
- the death penalty,
- the fight against poverty, and
- civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities,
Obama was “pro-choice” on abortion and, for most evangelicals, that was all that really mattered.
And then there was gay marriage. When Obama ran for president in 2008, he supported same-sex unions, but defended marriage as a union between a man and woman. During his first two years in office, he supported the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that prohibited married same-sex couples from collecting federal benefits.
But in February 2011, he changed his position on the Act and instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to stop defending it in court. In a May 2012 interview with ABC News, Obama announced that he had gone through an “evolution” on the issue. He was now willing to affirm that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court, in United States v. Windsor, declared the Defense of Marriage of Act unconstitutional and the Obama administration began extending federal rights and benefits to same-sex married couples. By 2015, when the Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the United States government would recognize same-sex marriages, the practice was legal in 36 states and Washington, D.C. On the evening after the Obergefell decision, Obama showed his appreciation by illuminating the White House in rainbow colors.
The LGBT community saw the Obergefell decision as the culmination of a long struggle for civil rights. Conservative evangelicals cringed. For them it all happened too fast. In the hours after the decision they turned to their blogs, websites, and media outlets and wrote apocalyptic opinion pieces on how to cope in a post-Christian society.
This history of evangelical fear would come to an end, at least for the moment, with a chapter on Hillary Clinton. After a recent lecture on Trump and his evangelical supporters, a woman approached me at the lectern and identified herself as an evangelical who voted for Trump. “I am part of the 81 percent,” she said, “but what choice did I have?” I have heard something similar many times from evangelicals who voted for Trump.
Evangelicals are not supposed to hate. But many hate Hillary Clinton. The history of that antipathy is long, reaching back at least to Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. But it was solidified among white evangelical baby boomers when revelations of her husband’s marital infidelities surfaced in 1998. Conservatives who challenged Bill Clinton’s character were outraged when Hillary attacked her husband’s accusers and went on The Today Show and claimed that the impeachment charges against her husband were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”Hillary Clinton did not help herself among evangelicals in the 2016 election campaign. She lied about using a private email server in her role as secretary of state. She placed Trump supporters in a “basket of deplorables.” She made no effort to court evangelical votes, a strategy that the progressive evangelical writer and Clinton supporter Ronald Sider called “dumbfounding and incredibly stupid.”
On the policy front, Clinton was, for most white evangelicals, an extension of the Obama presidency—a candidate who would steamroll their long-cherished conservative values.
Faced with a choice between Clinton and a race-baiting, xenophobic, lying adulterer who promised to support conservative Supreme Court justices, white conservative evangelicals chose the latter. In 2016, American evangelicals were looking for a strongman to protect them from the progressive forces wreaking havoc on their Christian nation. Donald Trump was the strongman.
Most evangelicals did not believe more traditional candidates of the Christian right such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Ben Carson could protect them as well as the bombastic big-talking New York real-estate tycoon. As Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and early Trump supporter put it, “I couldn’t care less about a leader’s temperament or his tone of his vocabulary. Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals. They don’t want Casper Milquetoast as the leader of the free world.”
Ironically, some evangelicals have found a savior. They sought after Trump, he answered them, and he delivered them from all their fears.
But other evangelical options are available. Evangelicals are people of hope, not fear. The practice of Christian hope points us to a life beyond this world, but it also requires us to act in such a way that models God’s coming kingdom. The Kingdom of God is characterized by the love of enemies, the welcoming of strangers, the belief in the human dignity of all people, a humble and self-sacrificial posture toward public life, and a trust in the sovereign God of the universe. Fear is a natural human response to social change, but evangelicals betray their deepest spiritual convictions when they choose to dwell in it.
The Trump era presents a host of new challenges for evangelicals who believe in the Gospel—the “good news” of Jesus Christ. The first step in addressing these challenges must come through a reckoning with our past. Evangelicals have taken many wrong turns over the decades even though better, more Christian, options could be found by simply opening up the Bible and reading it. We must stop our nostalgic gaze into a Christian golden age in America that probably never existed to begin with and turn toward the future with renewed hope. It is time, as the great theologian of hope Jurgen Moltmann taught us, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”
13:03the great worries so I tried to keep it13:08neutral and repertory ‘el but fear comes13:12from his own mouth13:14when Bob Costas young great reporter at13:18the post and I interviewed Trump two and13:20a half years ago when he was on the13:22verge of getting the Republican13:24nomination and we asked him we were13:29asking some broad interesting questionsand addressing the issue of powerbecause the presidency really is aboutpower isn’t it and quoted some Obamacomment about real power is not havingto use violence and Trump you knowfinally it said it was almost aShakespearean moment where he said realpower is I don’t like to use the wordfear and the way it was Hamlet his asideto the audience of this is what I reallythink and it’s about this is how youexercise power you scare the hell out ofpeople and you see a lot of that in thebook you see a lot of that in Trump’sperformance and life before he became14:24president but there’s a clear message14:26here that the man in the White House is14:29dangerous and that no one can protect us14:32from it yes and that and that’s the14:35words of the people and the actions of14:38the people who were there and it’s it’s14:41vivid in scene after scene and he it’s14:47it’s most interesting because presidents14:50I think all of them live in the14:53unfinished business of their predecessor14:56like Obama told Trump you’re what’s14:59going to keep you up at night is North15:02Korea and at the same time presidents15:06inherit a framework this the way15:10business was done and you can change it15:12but you can’t abrogate it you can’t15:15destroy it and he’s tried to and there’s15:18this meeting over at the Pentagon in15:21July which is a stunner because15:25Gary Cohen national security the15:29economic advisor and mattis the15:33Secretary of Defense they formed an15:37alliance and they say we’ve got to get15:39Trump over here we’ve got to it’s kind15:41of like an off-site at the Greenbrier15:43but we’re gonna do it at the Pentagon15:46because there are no televisions there’s15:48no distraction and he can’t call out to15:51his secretary Madeleine and they they15:54try to educate him and they say there’s15:57as mattis says it’s a it’s a great line16:00the great gift from the greatest16:03generation is this world this rule-based16:09international order and Tillotson then16:12Secretary of State says this keeps the16:15peace and Trump just doesn’t want us to16:17sign up to any of the old things and16:21just insults everyone gets angry16:25discards won’t listen and at the end16:30maddis the Secretary of Defense it’s16:32just deflated it’s just like you know we16:35tried16:36and this is when Tillerson says as16:41accurately reported by NBC that he’s a16:46should I say it effing moron and you16:51didn’t say yeah but he said it very16:55plainly and that’s so that what do you17:00manage power I mean that was one of the17:04scenes Bob were just my jaw was on the17:06floor because there you have the most17:08senior and distinguished military17:09leaders in the country and Trump you17:12know we know from elsewhere in the book17:14he he sort of prefers people in uniform17:17I mean he likes military leaders and17:19gives them more respect than he gives17:20anybody else and in that meeting he17:22treats them the way bad people treat17:25Busboys and restaurants I mean he is he17:28is just he just is so contemptuous of17:32them and and dismissive of them and I17:34mean deflating would be would be17:36you know a nice word but his behavior of17:39them is despicable if he doesn’t give17:41them respect is there anyone who can get17:43respect from Donald Trump17:44well it’s but again this is why fear17:48fits and it is also I kind of think from17:55studying all these presidents that the17:59most important characteristic a18:02president can have is the ability to18:05listen and grow and understand and18:09accommodate reality while directing the18:14policy their way and he just doesn’t18:19want to learn doesn’t want to listen so18:21many of these people who work for Trump18:23justify working for him by telling18:27themselves and presumably telling other18:28people and telling you it’ll be worse if18:30I weren’t there we are protecting the18:34public from his worst actions and his18:37worst instincts what do you think of18:40that justification but it’s actually18:43more in the case the the prologue where18:45Gary Cohen takes this letter that would18:49get us out of the trade agreement with18:52South Korea you know it’s a trade18:54agreement but it’s not there’s a18:57military agreement there’s very secret19:00intelligence partnerships that give this19:04country a degree of security that people19:07don’t understand and this is all linked19:10together and so if you pull out of the19:12trade agreement you can start the dotted19:15line to nuclear war yeah exactly and if19:20there’s a job the president has is to19:23not play around with that I remember19:25talking to interviewing President Obama19:28wants about this and he said everything19:30is about keeping a nuclear weapon from19:35going off in an American city that is19:38and he said all our intelligence19:41operations are geared toward making sure19:45that doesn’t happen19:47and Trump is cavalier about this but but19:51Gary Cohen instead of saying well I’m19:56just kind he says19:58gotta protect the country this is you20:01you begin the unraveling and God knows20:07what’s gonna happen and the same thing20:08happens with the trade agreement NAFTA20:11there’s a letter20:13you know summarily we’re getting out of20:15it and Cohen takes it Rob Porter the20:21staff secretary is doing all of this and20:25has told people and I quoted it saying a20:28third of his time is preventing bad20:32things from happening but you know with20:35my question again to you with what do20:37you Altima Talitha that justification20:39this is an issue I’ve been struggling20:40with since the beginning of the20:42administration at one level I think were20:44worse off with Gary Cohn gone and HR20:47McMaster gone and you know I’d rather20:49have relative relatively competent20:52people around him at the same time I20:55kind of feel like they’re kidding20:56themselves well you it’s not you don’t21:00get to take a college course in21:02philosophy when you were confronted with21:05that moment oh my god this is on the21:08desk and he could get it formally21:11drafted in Simon and so you have to act21:14and I think these are acts of conscience21:21and courage it but it’s not something21:26that you say let’s run the government21:28this way let’s have the president21:30there’s the Trump track and then there’s21:32the same track where we’re going to have21:36people coming around taking papers not21:41implementing the policy and literally21:44and the chief of staff general Kelly has21:47to send out a memo to everyone in the21:50White House that says no more21:52spur-of-the-moment decisions21:54no more seat-of-the-pants decisions21:57nothing is final until there’s a22:01normal process of review by cabinet22:04officers and a decision memo to sign22:08assigned by the President and of course22:10this could never thanks off yeah yeah22:13and so you it’s a little of it’s the22:17Wild West yeah22:19and given the stakes internationally and22:26to the global economy and the American22:29economy it’s not I I would argue if22:33you’re a trump supporter and you read22:35this neutrally and you realize that it’s22:39meticulously reported you would you22:42would have to have pause yeah this22:45question about protecting the country22:47from Trump’s worst instincts is also the22:52theme of the the anonymous New York22:55Times op-ed first I got to ask you22:57before someone else in the audience did22:59I won’t ask you who wrote it I’ll give23:01you my oh I have it written down right23:03oh yeah yeah no I’m just gonna give you23:06my theory it’s actually not my favorites23:07this hearing that will solitaire wrote23:09in Slate but I found very persuasive he23:11thinks it’s John Huntsman the ambassador23:13to Russia whose views are a match who23:16doesn’t have much loyalty to Trump and23:18whose denial was was a very non-denial23:22denial what do you think it wouldn’t23:25think it might have we might be right I23:26don’t know but it’s important who that23:29is and if it’s the ambassador to Russia23:33it’s not as if it’s somebody key in the23:37White House is we well no ambassadors23:39are isolated also and if that person had23:43come to me and said gee I’d like you to23:45append this is an op ed statement from23:50me anonymously in your book I would say23:53wait a minute details the the building23:56blocks of journalism are details23:59what exactly happened who was there what24:02was said what was driving this and the24:05absence of that leaves me kind of well24:11well use this you don’t doubt that24:13there’s a real24:13Hiroto I don’t because I don’t think the24:17New York Times would take that chance24:19but who’s that real person see in doing24:24a book like this the method is to go to24:27people and say okay I want the full24:31story I want your notes and what24:33documents I’ve gotten a your a24:35confidential source I’m not going to24:37name you I’m gonna use everything you24:39say I’m gonna cross-check it within an24:45inch of its life24:46and then you can go and see what happens24:50in the Situation Room or the Oval Office24:52at a specific time with specific issues24:55and a kind of generalized statement I25:03I’m not wild about that now you know25:08maybe it’s millennia or maybe it’s maybe25:13it’s somebody who really knows Trump25:16I’m not seriously suggesting that I’m25:18just saying some it may be somebody in25:21the White House who’s there who’s a25:23witness the most important element in25:29describing what really goes on is having25:33witnesses witnesses who are there or25:36have Diaries who will that you as a25:41journalist or book author can build a25:44relationship of trust with I mean25:46whoever wrote it it seems like a bit of25:48a miscalculation miscalculation in the25:51way that some of the people who spoke to25:53you may be feeling they miscalculated in25:56that you say I want to tell everybody25:58that we’re working to protect you from26:00our dangerously paranoid president but26:04you do it in a way that Spurs his26:06paranoia and his dangerousness and makes26:08him more dangerous yeah well that’s you26:11know it’s it’s part of it it is what it26:17is but it would it doesn’t meet the26:20threshold of the kind of journalism that26:24I think is really important what you26:26specific let’s talk about your your26:29method a little bit and and how it’s26:31evolved but just to start out I was26:33making a little note as I was reading of26:35you know probable sources and for your26:38book26:38Steve Bana and Rob Porter Lindsey Graham26:40John Dowd Gary Cohn Tom Bossard a little26:44less former homeland security people so26:47these these are not very well these26:49people are not very well hidden their26:50thoughts are described the question is26:53and I’m not asking you to confirm that26:54they’re sources but when when oh I’m so26:57glad yes26:58yeah cuz I because I know you give them27:00up pretty easily maybe I come back in 5027:02years but um but it’s it’s it’s not hard27:07to read this and have it have a strong27:09opinion about who the sources probably27:11are people are gonna talk to you and not27:13do a better job of hiding why not just27:17talk on the record why not be quoted why27:19not put actual quotation marks around27:20their remarks well there are actual27:23quotation remarks around lots of people27:27including President Trump that they are27:31you know these as you’ve seen people27:34deny some of these things and it’s vague27:37or it’s it doesn’t have much weight27:40these are our kind of job security27:43denials that where people don’t they27:48want to protect themselves but they want27:51to talk and this goes back to the27:54Watergate coverage of the eighteen books27:57that I’ve done involve using people who28:02are confidential sources who are28:05participants in witnesses yeah I mean28:09I’ve never seen more ritualistic denials28:11than in this case I mean it almost just28:14seems like you know Trump said you have28:16to deny it they go through the motion28:17with a you know very they don’t deny28:19anything specifically they say the books28:22inaccurate or doesn’t portray what I28:24would I think and you know what are what28:27are they what do they expect you to28:29think when you see that that you know28:31they have to do that28:32you know I’m sympathetic because again28:36this is not28:38these are big decisions people make to28:41say I’m gonna trust you with my story28:44and I’m gonna tell you what I witnessed28:48and I have interviews with you ask about28:52method I tape with their knowledge so in28:5850 years somebody’s gonna get these29:00boxes of hundreds of hours of interviews29:04and some graduate student is gonna look29:07through it and is gonna say oh my god29:09that’s you know that’s a document oh29:13this is a witness this is the person29:17talking and if it’s a method that we29:22used in the Nixon case that I’ve used in29:25the Supreme Court book or the Pentagon29:27books or the war books or Obama books29:31and I know I remember when doing29:35interview with Obama for the first book29:39Bush Obama swarms about his decisions in29:44Afghanistan and near the end he said you29:50have better sources than I do now that29:53that’s not true because but I’ve been29:56able to focus on this and he actually29:59said have you ever thought of becoming30:01the CIA director it was not a job offer30:06well your files probably rival Hoover’s30:09at this point30:10pardon your fought your files rival30:12Hoover’s at this point no no they’re not30:14like Coover’s it’s they’re not about30:17somebody’s personal life they’re about30:19the business of government this is a30:22very serious undertaking but you can get30:27really close to what goes on and that30:32has to do with trusting people people30:36trust in you so I I understand the30:40dynamic here there’s a kind of30:43Washington denial machine out there30:47and during water game we called it the30:50non-denial denial and it sounds like a30:54denial but it really is not technically30:56technically untrue talk a little bit31:00about how your method has evolved since31:04since Watergate you get you get your31:06sources to come to your house right I31:08wish I could get a source to come to my31:10house well you know what other than that31:12you can and they’ll do it why do you do31:14that well not just the real important is31:19to get to their house and I frankly31:25realized in doing some reporting on this31:28that I was getting quite lazy yeah I31:31have people come over for dinner it’s31:33nice you can’t you you advanced the ball31:37a little bit but there was a moment in31:42this when I called somebody from the31:45White House at home at 11 o’clock and31:48said you know you said we’d talk yeah31:51yeah yeah we will you know the brush-off31:53happens all that time poster yes yes31:56we’ll do it31:57oh I said well how about now and he said32:00now are you crazy it’s 11 o’clock at32:04night and I said well I’m four minutes32:07from your house and he said how do you32:11know where I live and I said that’s easy32:15that’s the easy part32:17okay come on over and then you there’s a32:21natural comfort people have in their own32:25home you asked you have any documents no32:28no I don’t take any documents from the32:32White House and then in the third32:34interview any documents well yeah let me32:37go upstairs and check and come down with32:40you know boxes have documents it’s when32:45we did the book on the Supreme Court in32:481970 all the clerks oh never have32:51documents and of course everyone you32:54don’t clerk at the Supreme Court or work32:56in the White House and not just take a32:58little memorabilia33:00and that kind of memorabilia or a diary33:06people have Diaries and so forth and so33:09getting into the home is really33:13important and it gives you potential33:18access to the kind of authoritative33:24paperwork that will it’s very comforting33:28to have somebody tell you something and33:30then see a memo that says exactly the33:34same thing one more question about this33:36but I want to open it up for questions33:38and their microphones on either side33:40where she said we’re taking questions33:42live not on not on note cards today so33:46if you line up we’ll call in a second33:48but just as a to follow up that that33:50point Bob well people get ready to ask33:54in all the President’s Men which I’ve33:57reread recently there’s there’s some34:00different nothing you sometimes34:01surprised people by knocking on their34:03doors at night and a lot of the34:06reporting comes through discomfort what34:09you’re describing sounds more like a34:11process of getting people very34:13comfortable so that if there is34:15discomfort still a part of your process34:16there was not more but it starts his34:19discomfort and then it transitions to34:21comfort and that’s exactly what happened34:24in all the Presidents mint I remember34:27one of the bush books going there was a34:29general who would not talk and kept34:33nagging him emails intermediaries34:37nothing found out where he lived in the34:39Washington area went to his house34:42without an appointment knocked on the34:44door and he opened the door and looked34:46at me and said are you still doing this34:49[Laughter]34:51and he meant it and but then you learned34:57the CIA people always said you have to35:01let the silence suck out the truth so I35:03just poker-faced and they looked at me35:05got too disappointed look I I think in35:09himself could come on in and talked for35:12a couple of hours and helped immensely35:16lesson there we’re not showing up I35:19think our method is driven us to the35:23Internet more and kind of what’s your35:27comment on this and I know people will35:29sit in the White House you ask a35:31question and they have six deputy press35:34secretary as well gee that sentence is35:36too revealing let’s let’s launder it and35:39so you wind up getting BS I can’t not35:43ask you how do you compare the Trump of35:46fear to the Nixon of the final days35:49there are scenes in there right after35:52Muller is appointed where Trump is just35:56beside himself and you see him in the35:59White House and he doesn’t sit down he’s36:02just on his feet all almost all the day36:06going from the Oval Office to the dining36:09room where he has his television he’s36:11watching these tivoing things you know36:15ha how did this happen how did it now36:17there’s a special council investigating36:19me they’re gonna look at my finances and36:21and one of the people likens it to36:26Nixon’s final days that it’s in the36:28paranoid zone it’s it’s it’s pretty36:34scary and Trump says you know I’m the36:38President of the United States I can36:39fire anybody I want I I have this36:42authority well actually he does I think36:47the the real one of the questions36:52pulsing through this is what does it36:54mean and I think one of the things that36:57means is that this is a and when I when37:03Trump called less37:05I said this to him we’re at a pivot37:07point in history and he said right and37:11we’ve we really are at a pivot point in37:14history and that we better really think37:21about where all this is going what37:25who’s in charge who has authority how37:28his presidential power being exercised37:31what is the is there an oversight of37:35this process and it’s a time to because37:40there’s this contest for what’s true and37:43he’s launched it almost daily a war on37:48truth and that’s that’s not great for37:51democracy in in 1974 through otter Gate37:54we had a crisis and the system worked37:57yes – what’s your level of confidence in38:01the system this time and I’m sorry I’m38:03going to get to the right a few hey you38:05have to have confidence in it but the38:08system only works when people rise above38:13party and in the case of setting up the38:17Senate Watergate committee in early 197338:20senator Ervin who was the chairman the38:23only all that they had were the stories38:26that Carl and I had written and some38:30investigation Teddy Kennedy’s38:32subcommittee had done and I remember38:35going to see senator Ervin he called me38:38up and said we’d like your sources and I38:40said that you know I can’t do that and38:42he said well we’re gonna go ahead and38:45the resolution passed 77 to zero38:50dozens of republicans voting for that to38:55investigate their president I think in38:57the Senate today if you had a resolution39:01to say let’s keep the colors in the39:05American flag you would not get a 77 to39:100 vote there would be some objection39:13someplace all right let me ask you to39:16make your questions brief and to the39:17point and avoid39:18any editorializing and let’s start on39:20this side mr. Woodward for I’m a huge39:26admirer I’m a student of journalism I’m39:30from Brazil and this year we’re gonna39:31have presidential elections as you know39:34next month and a true problem that I’m39:37observing there’s people are starting to39:41become very true believers in well their39:45politics and their ideology or even39:47their ideas and I think from your39:50experience both of you what39:53how can journalism improve in the sense39:56of like showing the facts like even if39:58people are really true believers well40:01get it right and that takes time and you40:05know true believers there are lots of40:09them on lots of sides of politics my40:13just temperamental attitude is you know40:17be suspicious of true believers but but40:22your way of dealing with an environment40:23in which people increasingly choose40:25which truth to believe is to carry on40:29and and pursue the truth and not address40:33not try to solve that problem because40:34you can’t that’s a better answer I want40:41to thank you and bless you and hope it’s40:43the tipping point that’s for your new40:46partner today one of the spawn I think40:50it was Eric said that you was Beavis or40:53Butthead one of those people said that40:55you did this for the shekels which some40:57of us feel is anti-semitic since I don’t40:59think you’re Jewish41:00except for hanging out with Carl41:02Bernstein could you please comment on41:04that in you know actually I am NOT41:09Jewish but I the idea that anyone would41:13talk like that I just you know I41:16we shouldn’t have comments like that41:20from anyone and he’s it’s it’s41:25unfortunate but I think you can’t kind41:29of overreact to it I think you kind of41:32have to41:32say okay what does it mean what did you41:36know what did Eric trump do who is he41:39and there still lots of questions about41:42that and the investigation so I’m not41:46I’m not worried and I think this kind of41:49taking the emotion expressed by somebody41:53else and having an emotional reaction to41:56it gets you off track mister it’s a42:00privilege thank you and do you42:02anticipate any of the people you’ve42:04discussed coming forward before the 202042:07election it seems that if they’re that42:08concerned about the fate of the country42:09they would want to speak out before he42:11gets another four years well people have42:13spoken that in this book and it’s I it’s42:21important to not get tangled up in G is42:25somebody gonna write an editorial42:28without specifics in the New York Times42:32I think that’s not the real issue I42:36think is what’s authoritative what’s42:39going on and then there you you said at42:42one point something happened in the book42:44in your jaws and on the floor I think42:47there are about 10 or 15 in the in the42:52book a great since many people think42:58that Trump is a threat to our national43:00security43:02do you believe that you know GOP43:05politicians and flu intial ones like43:07Ryan and Ryan and McDonough McConnell43:11are traitors to our country no look they43:15you know we have the political system43:18and see that’s the yeah that should be43:24taken away from them okay43:26well that’s your view I think the remedy43:30is to not use Trump’s language about43:34other people I just I think that I’ve43:38you know you can be critical of people43:41and this let’s Jack up the rhetoric and43:45this fear I think okay we know what the43:53Russians um let’s come back over here43:55thank you sorry43:56obviously trump is still president the43:57molar investigation is still going on I43:59was wearing when did you know that you44:01were done with this book when you can44:02settle on you know also to any44:07roadblocks you had in this Friday when44:09your you had a lead and you thought you44:11were there but you couldn’t get the44:13sources to completely fulfill the story44:15yeah do you work in publishing it’s it’s44:23a great question and the answer is on44:27something like this you’re in a way44:29never done but you have to cut it off44:33and say you’ve got enough information I44:36have the wonderful benefit of a support44:41system at the Washington Post where I44:43still work at Simon and Schuster the44:46publishers and you know they are all44:49these people say I you know they say44:52individually and collectively we have44:55your back and dig into these things and44:59there also is just a quality when you’ve45:02got about 350 pages that’s a book and45:08yeah that simple yeah and there will45:12there be another Trump book I mean you45:13start the next one as soon as you finish45:16Wow yeah45:19you have the you have created precedent45:21for this don’t know if you know you45:23don’t know where you know who knows the45:26end of this story or boy I sure don’t45:31and so you know but we need to keep45:36working even when the book is done based45:46on your book and all the research and45:48experience that you have what do you45:52think is possible that could happen as a45:54result of the investigation45:57and do you think it’s possible that45:58nothing can happen in other words like46:01nothing will happen in the Muller46:03investigation yeah sometimes nothing46:06happens in the the book John Dowd who is46:12Trump’s lawyer for eight months who46:15eventually resigns because he’s trying46:17to convince Trump46:19you can’t testify because you won’t tell46:23the truth you are incapable lifts I mean46:27isn’t that I mean that that that’s a46:29sieve donnie seem like he went there46:31with Trump yeah yeah they had a practice46:33session in the White House which is one46:35of the most fascinating things I’ve ever46:39written and you hear it John Dowd the46:44lawyers plane Muller and asking Trump46:47questions and Trump flies or makes46:49things up or goes ballistic and finally46:53says see you can’t testify and Trump you46:57mean I’m not a good witness no you are a47:01terrible witness you I you know there’s47:06a legal obligation for a lawyer to not47:11as he said I can’t sit next to you and47:13let you lie or to fall into a perjury47:18trap and it’s it’s it’s quite moving and47:23the the final line of the book is Dowd47:28concluding but not one in two in Seoul47:33but concluding Europe liar yeah47:39and it’s a it’s a one of those moments47:45where you go wow that’s you know that’s47:50the lawyer that’s the guy on his side47:54yeah that’s the guy he’s paying yeah47:57yeah a hundred thousand dollars a month48:01which is you know pretty good for Trump48:06and at least he paid it for a month I48:09understand the rare bill he paid yes48:14did any of your sources in all their48:18months alone with Trump in the White48:20House describe any private moments with48:24him when he might have just for a moment48:26confessed to his deepest fears I mean48:28the obvious fear is that the Muller48:29investigation will lead to his48:31impeachment but fears of being betrayed48:34as a Russian mole or Russia has fears of48:40happened I think I might nobody ever48:45described any private moment in which in48:46which Trump confessed to his own fears48:48about where this might end up even48:49losing the respect of his kids or48:51something well no but their moments were48:53he displays intense anxiety about the48:57investigation there you know it’s gonna48:59go on forever if they’re gonna look at49:02everything they’re gonna look at my49:04finances and so forth and he also49:07acknowledges to people in the book at49:10times and those people are named that49:13maybe Jared Kushner his son-in-law49:17should not be there working in the White49:20House that there’s too much of a49:21conflict potentially and so but the49:26moment of seeing the the Muller49:29investigation is and it’s the lawyer49:32John Dowd who concludes that Muller49:36played him Dowd and trump for suckers to49:40get them to turn over all the evidence49:43in the documents and49:45witnesses and there is a telling moment49:48where a doubt realizes my god we’d been49:52had and he goes to trump and he said you49:54were right we can’t trust Muller yeah I49:57mean you you know Muller buy it by all50:00accounts is not his office is not50:02leaking so that that account has to come50:05primarily from one side and it’s50:07self-serving in the sense that dad’s50:09position is we’ve been an open book50:11we’ve given you everything but we don’t50:13do we know that’s from Muller side do we50:15know that Muller feels they’ve been that50:16cooperative yeah I mean there’s been a50:19lot of reporting on it and I checked50:23this independently and they did give him50:28they did they did give him all this50:30material and so you know that’s that’s50:34authentic what’s an interesting about50:37Muller in the book is he only says a50:42number of things to doubt because most50:44of the time he’s just marbled he’s just50:47you know poker-faced50:48and but he does when Dowd’s pressing him50:53what are you looking for on the50:54obstruction investigation and Muller50:59says we want to find out if he had51:01corrupt51:03intent now that’s the the necessary part51:08of an obstruction charge and it’s51:11actually the right thing and I think51:14when doubt heard this he was it was51:18bracing moment made it real that they51:21were considering the possibility of51:22bringing a charge like that or that51:25that’s that was the investigative trail51:27they were on but somebody you know is it51:30possible this goes nowhere I remember –51:33well the big investigations after51:37Watergate the iran-contra and the Reagan51:40administration the one Lewinsky51:42whitewater investigation and under51:45Clinton and there were mid somebody and51:48my newspaper actually wrote a story the51:51same Reagan was going to be indicted and51:54I went back and looked at all of51:59the investigations after Watergate he52:02talked to Lawrence Walsh who was the52:04independent counsel in that case and he52:06made it very clear to me he was he52:09didn’t even think Reagan was dirty and52:11had done anything illegal so you can52:17these things can get all puffed up and52:19you think it’s somebody’s gonna discover52:22the crime of the century and they don’t52:25you need a storytelling witness or tapes52:30yes if I recall correctly when Nixon was52:36unraveling didn’t al haig give52:39instructions to most everyone that no52:43matter what Nixon said ray nuclear52:45weapons and all they it couldn’t go52:47through I’m sure that today but you have52:49people like general mattis the Pentagon52:52as you said it’s country first Kelley52:55that they wouldn’t allow Trump to give52:57an order of any type that would they’re53:00real Patriots that would threaten the53:01United States well that’s a good53:04question I don’t have the definitive53:07answer on that but in Watergate it53:10wasn’t Al Haig the White House chief of53:12staff it was the Secretary of Defense53:14Schlesinger who put out the word saying53:18if the president calls and said launch53:21call me first do you believe that having53:27talked with these people like Mathis and53:29Kelley and so on that Trump could ever53:32get to that point but if he if he wanted53:34to distract something or that he could53:36you know they they would stop him at53:38some point53:39I don’t know the answer to that and you53:42know that’s what that’s a a big large53:46question it would depend on53:47circumstances and you know what’s what’s53:51going on the reality is though the53:54president has an incredible there’s a53:57concentration of power in that office54:00and he can employ the force as he wants54:03to I remember talking to academics54:05during the George W Bush years and say54:09you know the president can start a war54:12like54:12he has happened said oh no the54:15Constitution is very clear that Congress54:18has to declare war like I said that’s54:21not the way it works and on but I said54:23look george w bush can invade Mexico54:27tomorrow if he wants and somebody stood54:29up in agony and said don’t give him any54:32ideas they have presidents have54:37incredible power yes first of all I want54:42to thank you very much I just hope that54:44this book will help and Trump’s term in54:49office quicker than it should and on54:52that point and other people have spoken54:55about this what if you had to give odds54:58on Trump lasting two more years what55:06would you say the odds are of him being55:10taken out I have that written down two55:13[Laughter]55:18diseases of journalism I’d be interested55:21if you agree where we want to report on55:23the future which of course we don’t know55:26and if the future is real hard it’s a55:30fair question but to be honest with you55:35I have no idea I agree that’s55:47the best answer you know I think I hope55:49I learned the lesson in 2016 that what I55:53thought was going to happen with a with55:56a high degree of likelihood did not55:58happen and I think that showed the value56:00of my predictions and the value of a lot56:02of other people’s predictions and so now56:05when people ask me for a prediction i56:07disappoint disappointingly try to offer56:09some kind of analysis but avoid that you56:12know a good line is that one I used56:14easier to describe the creation of the56:17universe yeah56:18because it is yeah yeah I think let’s56:21take two more questions and then we56:23should let Bob sign some books but56:27redundant after the last one but I was56:29going to ask you when you live through56:31the whole Watergate crisis with Cole56:34Bernstein and you must have felt at some56:37moment had your aha moment where you56:39thought well this is where the president56:41is going down how has your gut instincts56:45serve you now I know it leads on to the56:52can I give the same answer this side of56:56the room that I gave over there57:01obviously time works against us and the57:04longer this goes on the longer a lot of57:06these abnormalities tend to become the57:09norm and we find ourselves deeper and57:12deeper so basically is how what’s your57:16gut been telling you the difference57:18between but you see I try not to operate57:22on my gut and in Watergate Carl realized57:26at a moment he said my god this Nixon’s57:30gonna be impeached and we’d written a57:32story about his closest aide John57:35Mitchell campaign manager Attorney57:37General controlling a secret fund for57:41Watergate and other espionage and57:44sabotage activities and Carl turned57:48around said this guy is going to be57:50impeached and I said I I agree but we57:54can never use that word in the newsroom57:57because people will think we’re on some58:00sort of crusade and for one year we58:03never used that word and so I would58:08apply the same caution now about what we58:12think this is gonna lead to that or that58:14the answer is we don’t know but the job58:19of journalism is to I don’t know the58:23Trump actually does read whether he58:26would read a copy of this book I heard58:28for a while they couldn’t get a copy at58:30the White House this58:31Simon & Schuster’s security was so great58:36but I think if he I’m sure he would be58:40very upset upset because it’s a58:42penetration of his business it says this58:46is what he does this is what he thinks58:49this is the nature of the conflict and58:51so forth and I step back as a journalist58:56say that’s all we can try to do and then58:59the political system will take over and59:03do what it’s going to do and even though59:07there’s a lot of anger at the political59:09system system and a lot of a sense of59:12disappointment if not betrayal it it59:16kind of works and that’s that’s what we59:19have and so I’m not not writing odds59:24about anything or I you know examining59:29my gut Hey59:35and I love it when they opened the door59:39and say are you still doing this because59:43the answer’s yes59:54let’s make the Salaf question and I’m59:56sorry we couldn’t get all of them but59:58please go ahead59:59good evening on the daily yesterday you60:01alluded to some of the events that that60:05came out of your reporting on Watergate60:08so avoiding the the prior questions what60:14do you think are some takeaways from60:17this book that we can bring out to our60:20representatives and congressmen and60:23women to alleviate the fear well I mean60:28that’s obviously up to you but this is a60:30as I say in the early and the prologue60:34that there was a nervous breakdown of60:37executive power and having a government60:41with a nervous breakdown I mean do you60:44agree this describes a nervous breakdown60:47on a good number of levels and it’s60:51something very different from the kind60:53of chaos and confusion disorganization60:56that has come up in many other White60:59House yes I agree it’s a it’s a it’s a61:02breakdown of every kind of code of61:05normal behavior in a presidential61:08administration and so you know that’s61:11what it is and it’s you know I mean last61:17I don’t can I tell one story this goes61:20back to Watergate but it was a great61:22lesson in January 7 d 3 Carl and I’d61:26written all these stories people didn’t61:28believe them in Katherine Graham the61:30publisher owner of the Washington Post61:32invited me to lunch and I knew where61:36she’d supported the publication of the61:39stories and go in to her lunch room and61:43and she starts quizzing me about61:46Watergate and blew my mind with what the61:49boss knew she at one point said oh she’d61:52read something about Watergate in the61:54Chicago Tribune and I thought what the61:56hell61:56meaning the Chicago Tribune for no one61:59in Chicago does Katherine was you know62:04sucking in all the information62:07a management style I later described as62:11mind on hand so if she didn’t tell us62:14how to report or what to do and so we62:16get to an important moment and she said62:20well when is all that forth going to62:22come out and I said well there’s a62:24cover-up going on the investigations62:27week they’re paying the burglars for62:29their silence62:30Carl and I go knock on doors at night62:32and Nixon had just won a massive62:36re-election and so my answer is never62:41and I know I’ll never forget the look on62:45her face when I said never and she said62:49pained wounded look she said never don’t62:55tell me62:57never I left the lunch a highly63:01motivated but the statement was not a63:07threat it was a statement of purpose and63:10what she said was look we we we signed63:16up for this journalism is high risk we63:20believe our sources and and then she63:24said why do you think we do this and I63:26didn’t have an answer and she gave an63:30answer to her own questions and it’s a63:33brilliant answer she said because that’s63:35the business were in we have to we63:39believe what we’ve got here we have to63:42triple quadruple our effort to get to63:45the bottom of this and gave a kind of63:47let’s go ahead I left the lunch63:51highly-motivated I was 29 years old at63:55that time and and I thought my god the63:59boss really understands the necessity of64:04risk injury it doesn’t mean you aren’t64:08sure it means that you’re taking on the64:12highest authority in the country by64:15yourself essentially so someday we’re64:17going to put a plaque in the lobby of64:20the Washington64:20post even though Bezos owns the64:24Washington Post now and the Grahams are64:27not there I think he would approve of64:30this but we’re gonna drill it in so no64:32one can take it out gonna be a plaque64:35that will just begin quote and it will64:39say never64:41don’t tell me never end quote64:46Katharine Graham64:59well that is a great note to end on and65:01and one I can heartedly support I’m Bob65:03it’s it’s an honor to talk to you about65:05the new book and I want to thank65:08everybody for the great question for65:09being here thank you about thank you65:13folks in the next room
Ben Rhodes served as deputy national security adviser to Barack Obama. He is currently a writer and political commentator and co-host of the podcast “Pod Save the World.”
Rhodes’ candid, full interview was conducted with FRONTLINE during the making of the two-part January 2020 documentary series “America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump.”
Watch Part One here: https://youtu.be/SnMBYMOTwEs
And Part Two here: https://youtu.be/l5vyDPN19ww
Retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters tells CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he thinks if President Donald Trump loses the 2020 election, he could be spending time in court for the rest of his life.