TRUMP JUST COULDN’T STOP HIMSELF FROM SPILLING HIS GUTS TO BOB WOODWARD
The president’s ego got in the way of his own self-preservation, leading to 18 interviews with the famed journalist. “It actually reflects how deeply insecure he is about his own self-worth,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told the Times.
BY ERIC LUTZ
SEPTEMBER 11, 2020
Donald Trump’s aides knew this would happen. Like the lawyers who didn’t want him to sit for interviews with Robert Mueller, fully aware that he would incriminate himself, many around the president knew that talking to Bob Woodward was among the dumber things he could do from a self-preservation standpoint. A lot of the time, it’s in public figures’ interest to talk to journalists, especially if the end result will be unflattering. Participating allows them, at the very least, to get their side of the story out there. But Trump is an exception to this rule: No matter how damning a portrayal will be, it can only be made worse by him opening his mouth.
That didn’t stop him, though. One of the narcissist’s defects is believing that everyone else finds him as charming as he himself does. Though Woodward had decimated him in his 2018 book, Fear, the president seemed to believe that if he could only talk to the legendary journalist—the guy whose reporting with Carl Bernstein ultimately sunk Nixon—he could get him to see things his way. Aides tried to keep him from talking. He didn’t listen. “You don’t talk the president out of things,” a White House staffer remarked to Politico earlier this week.
His judgment, once again, proved poor: Nothing reported about Trump is likely to be as damning as his own words about the coronavirus crisis in his interviews with Woodward. In the course of the 18 —18!—conversations he had with Woodward, the president casually revealed that he knew that COVID-19 was far deadlier than the flu, spread through the air, and posed a major threat to Americans’ lives and livelihoods, but intentionally played down the danger in his public comments. The president and his propagandist, Kayleigh McEnany, have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to convince Americans that he wasn’t lying to their faces and was instead “expressing calm” to avoid inciting panic. (And yet, terrifying Americans seems integral to Trump’s reelection strategy). But the truth of the matter is can’t be spun away: The president got Americans killed. How many of the nearly 200,000 dead Americans could have been saved if he had taken action sooner, if his administration had consistently treated it as the crisis it is? How many died because they believed the president when he insisted COVID-19 was like the “sniffles?” How many people got sick because they didn’t wear masks, went about their lives as if things were normal, not taking the virus seriously—all because Trump didn’t either? It’s absolutely abominable.
It’s also, politically speaking, one of the more astonishing own-goals in the history of the presidency. As David Frum pointed out, why, if he knew how bad it could get, didn’t he do anything, if for no other reason than to save his own ass? And why, after misleading the public about the scope of the crisis, did he tell all that to Woodward? Most of us still would have known that he had recklessly minimized the threat of the virus to keep up appearances, costing hundreds of thousands of lives—but he could have maintained some plausible deniability by not straight-up admitting that’s what he was doing. Instead, he didn’t just spill the secret to Woodward; he volunteered it.
Why? Because, as the Trump biographer and Bloomberg writer Tim O’Brien put it to the New York Times on Thursday, “he can’t help himself.” Woodward is a towering figure in political journalism, having chronicled decades of presidencies and bringing down one. “Bob Woodward is somebody that I respect, just from hearing the name for many, many years,” Trump told reporters Thursday. “Not knowing too much about his work, not caring about his work.” Talking to Woodward was just another step in his sad, 74-year quest for validation: If this important man wants to talk to me, I must be important, too. “[Woodward is] sort of the establishment media’s version of Zeus, and I think that makes him irresistible to Mr. Trump, in particular,” said O’Brien, who interviewed Trump for a 2005 biography. “It actually reflects how deeply insecure he is about his own self-worth.”
Other presidents, of course, have granted interviews to Woodward. But Trump seemed to treat him as if he were a confidante like Sean Hannity, phoning the journalist at night and spouting off about his love for Kim Jong Un and boasting that he “saved” Mohammed bin Salman for allegedly ordering the grisly murder and dismemberment of American resident Jamal Khashoggi. These are objectively grotesque and weird things to brag about. Trump, though, seemed to think they would impress Woodward. Indeed, the president went to at-times comic lengths to show off to the journalist. As CNN reports, Trump’s efforts to woo Woodward included “giving a tour of the Oval Office, discussing his preference for long neckties, and showing Woodward the hideaway office, which he smirked and called the ‘Monica Room,’ a reference to Monica Lewinsky.”
If Woodward’s reporting reaffirms Trump’s utter rottenness and unfitness for office, Trump’s participation in the book underscores his obliviousness and his desperate, all-consuming insecurity. Beating back that insecurity, of course, has been his lifelong project. For years, these naked neuroses made him a tabloid joke. Now, they’ve made him a threat to public health. He is, as always, completely at the mercy of his impulses, completely consumed by his need to prove himself, even to those who are allegedly close to him: “Honey,” he bragged to his wife, Melania Trump, at one point during the reporting of Rage, “I’m talking to Bob Woodward.”