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.