Bob Woodward gave Trump every chance to prove himself
September 10, 2020 at 5:19 p.m. CDT
It’s a testimony to Donald Trump’s measureless ego that he thought he could charm Bob Woodward (and his tape recorder) into producing a positive book about his presidency. But you know that’s not how it’s going to turn out.
“If I have a fair book, it’s going to be a great book,” Trump enthuses. Woodward gives Trump every chance to make his case during the 18 on-the-record interviews he conducted for “Rage,” his latest mega-blockbuster. He gives Trump credit for matters large and small. He coaxes, teases, almost pleads with Trump to say the right thing. In the end, Trump is damned by his own words.
Trump confirms the worst charges made by his critics, on tape: “I always wanted to play it down,” he says of the coronavirus pandemic that has now cost nearly 200,000 lives. Talking about the military, the president says he would never call them stupid, and then calls them “stupid,” and says “we’re suckers” for funding allies’ defense.
“I don’t think you get it,” Trump worries in one of the last interviews. But Woodward not only gets it, he has the audio: the anger, the disorganization, the denial, the inability to articulate a clear plan. Gently inserting a stiletto in the last words of the book, Woodward says simply: “Trump is the wrong man for the job.”
In July, it’s dawning on Trump, the perennially optimistic self-promoter, that Woodward is about to produce the “lousy book” he fears. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll get to do another book,” the president soothes his Boswell. “You’ll find I was right.”
The first half of the book is the story of how Trump’s three key advisers on national security issues grew to fear and loathe him. For all that’s been disclosed in previous books and articles, Woodward’s portraits of these three “formers” — defense secretary Jim Mattis, secretary of state Rex Tillerson and director of national intelligence Daniel Coats — are revelatory.
Mattis’s intense dislike of Trump is vividly conveyed in several comments. Trump’s orders “went beyond stupid to felony stupid,” Mattis said (to someone, whose first name presumably is “Bob.”) “He’s dangerous. He’s unfit,” Mattis is said to have told Coats. And there’s a moving portrait of Mattis visiting the Washington National Cathedral to reflect on the horror of war with North Korea.
Among the book’s most stunning, if maddeningly imprecise, revelations is that Coats feared that Russian President Vladimir Putin had leverage on Trump: “Coats continued to harbor the secret belief, one that had grown rather than lessened, although unsupported by intelligence proof, that Putin had something on Trump. How else to explain the president’s behavior?”
Unattributed quotes such as these will drive some readers nuts, as may tantalizing but nebulous phrases such as: “Coats’s mind whirled. The incidents of discord kept piling up.” But Woodward is surfacing here a suspicion held by many former intelligence officers, and it’s one Americans need to understand.
Woodward tries to give Trump his due, where appropriate. Trump’s North Korea diplomacy was “an achievement.” The intelligence community initially underplayed the impact of covid-19. So did Anthony S. Fauci. Trump was “correct” in doubting that New York needed as many ventilators as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) wanted. These efforts at fairness make the book’s harsh conclusion all the more convincing.
“Rage” will be read carefully, and perhaps not always approvingly, by journalism classes of the future. Woodward’s extensive transcriptions of his interviews with the president let you see how this sausage was made. Sometimes, his queries sound almost like those of a sports broadcaster trying to coax out emotion: “This is a question about your leadership. And you know, I just want to know how you feel about it.”
After the killing of George Floyd, Woodward tries to school Trump in the reality that he’s a beneficiary of White privilege, “just like I am.” Trump temporizes, but Woodward is solicitous: “What’s in your heart? I think people want to understand that you understand.” Trump won’t go there.
At other moments, Woodward sounds almost like an informal adviser. In January, when the impeachment drama is heating up, he encourages Trump to take a walk with his daughter Ivanka and ask her, “would an apology, carefully phrased, end this or put it in a context?” In April, when the covid-19 catastrophe was accelerating, Woodward gives Trump a list of 14 points that require action.
But as is nearly always true with Woodward, the information he elicits is worth the wheedling and cajoling. What makes him the preeminent journalist of his generation is that in the end, Woodward is willing to bite the hand that feeds him. How could Trump have imagined otherwise?