Bob Woodward on a Nightmare Presidency
September 10, 2020
The revelations about President Trump in Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” fill in a well-known portrait with sharper focus and more lurid colors.
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:
nixon: Roth is, of course, a Jew.
haldeman: Oh, yes.
The two men ponder this. Then they edge up to an interesting conclusion.
nixon: I think the anti-Semitic thing can be, I hate to say it, but it can be very helpful to us.
haldeman: There are a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews, and the anti-Semites are with us generally and the Jews sure aren’t.
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.