No reader should skip the prologue to Bob Woodward’s new book on President Trump, because the author puts his best scene on its first page.
Woodward’s Rage opens on the Oval Office, where the two top officials from the president’s national security team are telling him that COVID-19 is a major threat to the U.S. and far worse than the flu.
“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” says Robert O’Brien, the national security advisor (Trump’s fourth). “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.”
O’Brien’s statement makes the president’s head “pop up,” but it is immediately seconded by O’Brien’s principal deputy, Matt Pottinger, whom Woodward reports was also present. Pottinger is a China scholar and former intelligence officer in the Marines who had lived in China seven years and spoke fluent Mandarin.
The date on this conversation leaps out from the book’s very first sentence: January 28. O’Brien and Pottinger were elevating the issue because days earlier Trump had dismissed the virus at a conference in Switzerland: “It’s one person coming in from China,” Trump had said. “We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine. We’ve already handled it pretty well.”
Three days later, urged on by O’Brien and Pottinger and a chorus of scientists including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield of the Center for Disease Control, Trump ordered a shutdown of travel from China to the U.S. He would later claim, in interviews with Woodward and elsewhere, that he made this move in defiance of his closest advisors. Woodward has Trump saying there had been a score of advisers present and “everyone in that room except me did not want to have that ban.”
“I still prefer to downplay it”
Woodward also makes clear that Trump knew early on that the disease could be spread without physical contact and could be transmitted by people showing no symptoms of infection. “It goes through air,” he told Woodward in a Feb. 7 phone call not previously reported. “So that’s a tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
At another point in the Feb. 7 conversation, Trump says COVID could be deadlier than the flu, “maybe five times more deadly.”
Stunning, because throughout the crucial month of February the president was sending a totally different signal to the American public. The same week he talked to Woodward, Trump in public uttered his now infamous lines about how “when it gets a little warmer it miraculously goes away” and “I think it’s going to work out good, we only have 11 cases and they’re all getting better.”
Throughout the month he bragged of limiting the invader to a handful of cases that were “all getting better” and would “soon be down to zero.” On Feb. 28, at a rally in South Carolina, he called Democrats’ criticism of his handling of the virus “their new hoax.” Attendees at the rally told reporters they thought the whole story of the virus was a media creation. The following day, the first U.S. death was announced, and Trump opened his news conference talking about progress in Afghanistan.
Woodward quotes a subsequent interview on March 19, wherein Trump says: “I always wanted to play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Where did Woodward get these arresting statements? They were part of a series of interviews Trump granted the venerable journalist from The Washington Post — a total of 17 in all, stretching from December 2019 to late July of this year.
Was there no one in Trump’s communications office to question this commitment of the president’s time? Who but Trump could have arranged 17 interviews with a man who had written critically of eight presidents, including an earlier book characterizing Trump as unprepared and unfit for his office, a national disaster waiting to happen?
“Pray to God we don’t have a crisis,” Woodward said when Fear first appeared.
Curiously, the earlier Woodward book featured zero interview material from Trump — there had been no interview. The president said his staff had not told him of Woodward’s many requests. This time around, as though to compensate and produce a better narrative, Trump goes to the opposite extreme. (“Let’s see if we can get a good book,” he says. “That is, if you’re willing to write it.”)
At times the interviews are in the White House, at times they are impromptu calls the president places to Woodward’s personal phone. At times, they seem serious interchanges, at times they are show-and-tell sessions to win the journalist over. Trump has what Woodward calls “props,” such as a stack of parchment signifying judicial appointments, or a wall-poster-sized picture of Trump with Kim Jong Un.
On one occasion, Trump orders his aide Dan Scavino to screen a video of Sen. Kamala Harris and other Democrats watching the State of the Union speech. Trump shouts: “Hate! See the hate!”
This is Woodward’s 20th book. The first was All the President’s Men, the inside story of the reporting of Woodward and Carl Bernstein led to criminal prosecutions and impeachment proceedings and the eventual resignation of President Richard M. Nixon nearly half a century ago. That work was, and remains, controversial for its reliance on unnamed sources. Woodward’s subsequent decades of work have been widely acclaimed but also often been held at arm’s length for their reliance on “blind quotes.”
But in this book, Woodward is making many, if not all, his sources plain.
The stars are former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, both of whom had troubled tenures on the brink of resignation before being fired by Trump (in Coats’s case, by tweet while he was golfing at one of Trump’s clubs).
Mattis had been conspicuous in his reticence to criticize the president. But he broke his silence this summer after mounted police cleared protestors from Lafayette Square so the president could have a photo opp in from of the neighboring St. John’s Church. He said Trump was the first president he had served (of eight) who “had not even tried” to unite the country.
Here, Mattis walks us through the president’s troubled relations with experts of all kinds, especially military and foreign policy experts such as himself and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was also humiliated and denigrated upon his departure.
Coats details his back-and-forth tension between loyalty to the chief executive and dismay at Trump’s handling of facts and information. The president, he says, prefers to tell the story the way he prefers to see it — and the way he wants it told — regardless of the realities at hand.
From among the president’s intimates, the primary voices are his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina. Though neither is directly critical of Trump, Woodward uses Kushner as a “reflector” of the central subject and Graham as a friend and advisor who has at least occasional points of disagreement with The Boss. Kushner offers up four things to read to understand Trump, one of which is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland — and his Cheshire Cat.
Graham is characteristically intriguing, talking about his years of processing Trump’s judicial appointments (a major trophy for the administration and Republican Senate). Graham says “we’ve weeded out some real wackos” on the way to installing 300 nominees to the federal bench — where they all now have lifetime appointments. Graham also relates the concerns he has heard in “frequent conversations” with Chief Justice John Roberts, who he says “doesn’t want the Court, I think labeled as a political party.”
Graham also criticizes the photo op at St. John’s church, across Lafayette Square from the White House, and the mounted police who cleared the square to make it possible. Graham says he scolded Trump and told him people didn’t like the way he held up the Bible. “Christians liked it,” Trump says, according to Graham, who says he’s a Christian and did not.
A Plethora of Tell-Alls
Trump books tend to fall in two categories. There are firsthand tell-alls penned by family and former associates, and then there are compendia of Trump stories compiled or witnessed by reporters and commentators.
Woodward sold a great many copies of Fear, and this addition stands to dominate the latest crop as well. And it is a bumper crop. This month has already seen a scabrous collection from Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney and fixer. Later this month we are expecting to hear from former national security advisor H.R. McMaster, who had been replaced by John Bolton, whose scathing review of Trump on the world stage came out over the summer.
And there are the far more personal stories from Mary Trump, a psychologist who is the president’s niece, and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, the former staffer and best friend of First Lady Melania Trump. Suffice it to say both share with a vengeance.
All of this was already out or in the pipeline before The Atlantic published the story that has preoccupied much of the media for a week, quoting four unnamed sources who say the president referred to dead soldiers personnel as “losers” and “suckers.”
Are these books coming out now because the election is just eight weeks away? Yes, of course they are. Critical of the president in varying degrees of detail and high dudgeon, the books speak to those voters still making up their minds. They also reflect their authors’ and publishers’ sure knowledge that Trump books will sell better before the election than after (especially if he loses).
Playing the Audiotape
Most of the later chapters in Rage are devoted to chronicling Woodward’s 17 interviews with the president. Trump shifts from charming to combative, pleading for understanding and sympathy one moment and denouncing everyone in sight the next. But he is always selling, always pushing his narrative, always bending the reality.
When Woodward asks in June about “white privilege” and whether they both should have more empathy for African Americans, Trump responds: “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that way at all.”
In one exchange, Trump says he’s Number One on Twitter and Facebook. Woodward interjects that Trump is ninth in followers on Twitter (below former President Obama) and there are dozens ahead of him on Facebook.
At another point, discussing how well he gets along with Turkey’s brutish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump seems almost reflective: “It’s funny the relationships I have [with foreign leaders], the tougher and meaner they are the better I get along with them. You know? Explain that to me someday, okay?”
Still, with all the distractions, COVID comes to dominate the story, as it has come to dominate everything else. And on that basis alone, Woodward seems comfortable in his conclusion to his Epilogue, which is far more conclusive than in Fear.
The final sentence can be taken with the first sentence of the Prologue as a frame for the entire book:
“When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.”