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.