Fear Itself: What Bob Woodward Finds in Trump’s “Crazytown”—and What He Doesn’t Look For

Posted in: Book Reviews

Bob Woodward, Fear: Trump in the White House (Simon & Schuster, 2018)

Judging from the initial buzz, Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House has all the makings of a publishing blockbuster. Is it a presidency-buster as well? President Trump’s rages against the book suggest that it might be. Full of juicy quotes from his inner circle characterizing the president as “a professional liar,” “unhinged,” “off the rails,” an “idiot,” a “moron” who has the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader,” Woodward’s latest opus of insider intrigue was much anticipated as a potential coup de grâce to an administration that was already in a heap of trouble.

But is it? Like the New York Times op-ed by an anonymous “senior administration official” that appeared almost simultaneously, Woodward’s book portrays the White House as “crazytown” and the chief executive as an impulsive, uninformed, tempestuous, and narcissistic bully, who alternately torments his beleaguered staff with abuse and is in turn manipulated and deceived by them. In short, nothing we didn’t already know.

Fear succeeds on Woodward’s own standard terms: giving us the feeling of being in “The Room Where it Happens,” eavesdropping on unedited dialogues of the powerful. The fact that many of the president’s closest associates consider him to be intellectually incapable of doing the job—and congenitally incapable of telling the truth—is surely relevant information, if not exactly news.

But like most of Woodward’s books, Fear is history only as the roughest of drafts. While he adds considerable detail to our portrait of Trump’s behavior in office, Woodward misses much of the larger picture of his character, career, and presidency. What makes Fear a captivating read is the same thing that limits its usefulness: Woodward’s extraordinary access to inside sources. The book’s strengths and flaws are inextricable from its methods.

From Deep Throat to Deep Background

In an introductory “Note to Readers,” Woodward lays out his now-familiar methods with admirable concision:

Interviews for this book were conducted under the journalist ground rule of “deep background.” This means that all the information could be used but I would not say who provided it. The book is drawn from hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand participants and witnesses to these events. Nearly all allowed me to tape-record our interviews so the story could be told with more precision. When I have attributed exact quotations, thoughts or conclusions to the participants, that information comes from the person, a colleague with direct knowledge, or from meeting notes, personal diaries, files and government or personal documents.

It all sounds simple enough. Woodward’s account is built on primary sources, interviews, and documents. But we have to take his word for it, because there will be no notes identifying the non-public sources or connecting them to the text. Most importantly, the text itself will contain no clear attributions. For historians, connecting the facts to the source material is indispensable. Even in daily journalism, attribution of key claims and quotes is essential, even if it is to a “senior administration official, who requested anonymity.” So how does Woodward get away with such a radical departure from these conventions?

The answer: a towering reputation and a track record of rarely being wrong. Woodward’s fame dates from his pivotal role covering the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post. Assigned to cover what seemed to be a “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate Hotel complex, Woodward and his reporting partner Carl Bernstein broke the story wide open. Aided by confidential sources within the government, they revealed a vast array of criminality that eventually forced President Nixon’s resignation. Their subsequent book, All the President’s Men (1974) was no mere collection of news clippings, but a riveting best-seller in its own right, as was their follow-up, The Final Days (1976). If bringing down a US president wasn’t enough to ensure Woodward’s enduring fame, being portrayed by Robert Redford in the Oscar-winning film adaptation of All the President’s Men didn’t hurt either.

Chronicles of the Venerable Bob

In the years after the singular triumph of Watergate, Woodward’s image as a crusading reporter who fearlessly took on authority underwent a subtle transformation. Though he continued to write highly touted investigative articles and books (now under a solo byline), he was no longer an unknown outsider challenging the Washington Establishment—he was part of it. In fact, Woodward’s revolutionary role in exposing Watergate would long obscure his elite credentials (Yale, ROTC, Navy officer) and his conventional, even slightly conservative worldview, especially on national security issues.

Woodward eventually forged such close connections with Washington’s ruling class that he could pioneer a new genre of reporting. Essentially, Woodward took the techniques of the instant “insider history” from the anything-goes realm of political campaigns (such as T.H. White’s Making of the President series) and into the serious, normally reticent world of governing. As in All the President’s Men, Woodward continued to rely on confidential sources. But instead of whistleblowers trying to expose a president’s high crimes, Woodward’s whisperers were now the key players in high politics. In books like The Commanders (1991), Woodward exposed the contentious internal debates of the first Bush administration in almost real time, a favor he repeated for subsequent administrations in The Agenda (1994), The Choice (1996), Bush at War (2002), Plan of Attack (2004), State of Denial (2006), The War Within (2008), Obama’s Wars (2010) and The Price of Politics (2012).

Each book featured lively dialogue (frank, contentious, and often profane) among the most powerful politicians and military leaders in the land. This allowed readers to relive recent headlines, but with the sense that they were finally getting the real insider story, instead of sculpted press releases and sound bites. Each new volume offered enough revelations to drive a couple of news cycles. Some proved highly embarrassing for the officials who were the subjects or the sources of Woodward’s disclosures, and for the presidents they served. With rare exceptions, administrations could only view their approaching publication with dread.

From Plumbers to Leakers

Given this history, why have insiders continued to feed the Woodward beast? The answer is that Woodward offers an obvious carrot and a subtler stick. The carrot is an opportunity to shape the narrative in your own favor. For Woodward can be relied on to present his sources’ points of view, often uncritically. In “The Deferential Spirit,” a 1996 essay for the New York Review of Books, Joan Didion assessed Woodward’s lack of critical distance sharply but accurately:

The necessity for making [a] choice between the source and the story seems not to have come up in the course of writing Mr. Woodward’s books, for good reason: since he proceeds from a position in which the very impulse to sort through the evidence and reach a conclusion is seen as suspect, something to be avoided in the higher interest of fairness, he has been able, consistently and conveniently, to define the story as that which the source tells him.

With rare exceptions, Woodward does not assess a source’s credibility; he takes it for granted. This seems true even when the sources contradict each other. When coupled with Woodward’s liberal use of the “free indirect” style of narrative, each source’s account becomes the truth, at least for a few paragraphs or pages at a time. It is not surprising that high-ranking officials, toiling mostly behind closed doors, can’t resist letting Woodward share their wit and wisdom with the world.

The stick is that if everyone else is talking to Woodward, and you don’t, the version of you that gets presented to the world is likely not going to be the best. You will not say brilliant things in meetings. You are not going to get credit for the good decisions and avoid blame for the bad ones—more likely the opposite. And by the time your own memoirs come out, if anyone cares to read them years later, the standard narrative will have already been set by others.

Given this sort of prisoner’s dilemma, Woodward’s success in prying secrets out of high places becomes more explicable. But, as Didion suggests, Woodward is a captive of the technique as well. He cannot seem to entertain any ideas that do not spring from the mind of one of his sources. As Didion puts it, “The world rendered is an Erewhon in which not only inductive reasoning but ordinary reliance on context clues appear to have vanished.” Woodward is a master at eavesdropping on the private councils of the West Wing. But if an opinion is not held by a powerful person in the room, it might as well not exist.

This is one reason why Woodward’s post-Watergate books tend to have a short shelf-life. They are too short on judgment, too oblivious to context, to serve as the definitive account of a presidency. He captures the internal debates that happened—not the ones that should have but didn’t. Bush at War and Plan of Attack do, in a way, capture the groupthink that led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq. But this is only because Woodward (who failed to question the weak case for war peddled by his sources) succumbed to it as well. In short: plenty of trees, but not much forest.

Will Fear have a similarly ephemeral impact? It depends on whether Woodward’s focus—Trump’s competence as chief executive—is really the key issue presented by his presidency.

A Thief in the Oval Office

Fear opens with an arresting narrative nugget: Gary Cohn, Trump’s former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, stealing a letter from Trump’s desk. It is a draft of a terse notice that would have terminated the free trade agreement between the United States and South Korea—in the middle of a mounting crisis with North Korea. Trump, we are told, was willing to blow up the pact with one of America’s most important trade and security partners to extract a few billion dollars from the South Koreans. Intrepid officials like Cohn, however, thwarted the president’s impulsive behavior through means both fair and foul, relying on his short attention span when reason alone would not suffice.

The incident is emblematic of Fear’s themes and Woodward’s methods. Cohn has an obvious reason to spill to Woodward: to launder a reputation that was sullied by serving Trump. Cohn made his discomfort over Trump’s behavior after Charlottesville known to the press, but backed off on a threat to resign, perhaps in the forlorn hope of being appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve. Trump repaid him with substantial personal humiliation. In Woodward’s version, however, Cohn speaks bravely and bluntly to the president. He stands up for trade and alliances, often with pithy arguments that should (but often don’t) prevail over Trump’s childlike understanding of economics. Perhaps we begin to see Cohn not as an ambitious coward, but as he wishes to see himself: the author of an “administrative coup d’état”, a hero who averted a trade war or worse by pilfering a piece of paper. We can now see how someone might benefit a great deal from being a Woodward confidante.

Judging from the screen time Woodward affords to his protagonists, we can make some guesses about his primary sources. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop argues, these likely include Cohn (whose name appears 277 times by my count), former strategist Steve Bannon (389), former Trump lawyer John Dowd (242), former staff secretary Rob Porter (239), former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (232), and Senator Lindsey Graham (181), particularly because their thoughts are often presented in free indirect style. When Woodward writes something like, “Priebus had his troubles with Bannon but Bannon had fallen in line and was 10 times the unifier that Jared and Ivanka were,” the list of people who could have provided him with that thought is pretty short. Other important figures include Defense Secretary James Mattis (198), former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster (190), and Chief of Staff John Kelly (163), although their cooperation seems less certain. We do know that Trump (500 references) did not submit to an interview.

A Question of Priorities

Fear covers only the first 14 months or so of the Trump presidency, effectively ending with Dowd’s resignation as Trump’s principal personal attorney in March 2018, now seemingly a thousand news cycles ago. Even within this short period, no book could cover the Trump whirlwind in full Woodwardian detail. Still, it is striking that some subjects receive detailed treatment (particularly war, foreign policy, and trade) while issues that dominated the news for weeks are mentioned only in passing. Where Woodward’s sources disagree on something – like Afghanistan or Korea or DACA—the debates are lively and compelling. The more a source seems to have spoken to Woodward, the more likely they are to acquit themselves well in these arguments, win or lose. Cohn makes an eloquent defense of free trade and immigration, while Bannon gets in his punches on these points a few pages later. Others who do not appear to have invited Woodward into their thoughts (such as McMaster) cut less impressive figures, or (like former FBI director James Comey) get some authorial shade thrown their way.

But on other issues—such as health care and tax cuts—there’s no sign of much internal debate. Woodward scores them only as wins or losses for the administration, not pivotal measures having a far-reaching impact on the American people. A proposal to withdraw from the Paris Accord triggers a tactical debate over its effect on international relations, but no one in this account seems to care about climate change itself. So White House counsel Don McGahn clinches the argument by pointing out that withdrawal from the agreement will give the Trump Administration an edge in pending litigation to roll back EPA regulations. No one asks whether this fleeting advantage is worth the price of future planetary catastrophe. And hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico doesn’t even rate a single mention from Woodward or his protagonists—a remarkable display of indifference that goes far to explain the administration’s lackadaisical and grudging response.

But Woodward is not entirely unmoved. Despite strenuous efforts to maintain an objective tone in his narrative, Woodward’s gathering alarm over Trump’s handling of foreign policy is unmistakable. When Trump tells a meeting of the National Security Council that he wants to withdraw US forces from South Korea, Mattis bluntly retorts that their presence is needed “to prevent World War III.” The ensuing discussion spins around the globe as Trump lashes out at various allies for “for taking so much of our money” while his team patiently tries to explain the cost-sharing and benefits of each relationship. At the end, Mattis is left muttering to associates that the president has the behavior and understanding of a “fifth or sixth grader.”

This remark provokes an unusual authorial intrusion in Woodward’s own voice. “When I first learned of the details of this NSC meeting,” he writes, “I went back to a transcript of what President Obama had told me in 2010 about what he worried about the most.” He quotes Obama’s thoughts on the consequences of use of a nuclear weapon against an American city:

And so when I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that’s one area where you can’t afford any mistakes. And right away, coming in, we said, how are we going to start ramping up and putting that at the center of a lot of our national security discussion? Make sure that that occurrence, even if remote, never happens.

Woodward’s implication is clear: Trump’s priorities are totally different. For this president, squeezing a few billion dollars out of the South Koreans is worth the risk of triggering a nuclear war. He has the instincts of a gambler, whose losses have always been underwritten by the US Bankruptcy Code. And all the good advice in the world—and even a few stolen papers—may not be enough to restrain Trump’s recklessness for an entire term.

Woodward’s underlying theme is non-ideological. Trump is dangerous, but not because of his core ideas. It’s because he doesn’t absorb information, listen to advisors, or follow process. In an interview with New York Magazine, Woodward explained: “50 years from now what’s going to be important about the Trump presidency is what he does or doesn’t do. And if I’m right, as I believe I am, it’s a nervous breakdown.” Asked to explain that phrase, Woodward replied, “Things are not connected . . . there is impulse, decisions. I think that the most ardent Trump supporter could read the book and not feel comfortable about the management and the staying the course.”

But what if process and management aren’t the real problem? What if, in fifty years, Trump is remembered for something else entirely?

From Russia With Kid Gloves

There is a curious black hole at the core of Fear. Woodward doesn’t exactly ignore the Trump-Russia investigation—it would be impossible to write an account of Trump’s presidency without acknowledging the probe’s obvious gravitational effects. The Flynn affair, the firing of Comey, the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, and Mueller’s ongoing negotiations with Trump’s legal team all receive attention. But Woodward seems mostly interested in the probe’s psychological effect on Trump, not in the details of the scandal itself.

Which is odd. If Donald Trump colluded with a foreign intelligence service to gain the presidency, it would be the biggest scandal in American political history, Watergate included. A special counsel has been digging into the question for most of Trump’s tenure. Yet in Fear, the world’s most renowned investigative reporter does not seem particularly interested in exploring that question. When conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked whether Woodward had found evidence of collusion, he replied, “I did not, and of course, I looked for it, looked for it hard.” But Fear itself shows little trace of such an exhaustive search.

In his New York Magazine interview, Woodward speculates that Mueller “may have something” but adds, “If somebody is really going to get to the bottom of the root Russian collusion issue, the answer is in Moscow.” Woodward speculates that if he were 30 years old and had no family, he might try to investigate but speculates darkly, “If I were to go there, I don’t think I would ever come back.”

It is a reasonable concern. But is it necessary to get on an Aeroflot flight to get a handle on the Russia scandal? Plenty of observers—David Corn, Michael Isikoff, Craig Unger, and Seth Abramson come to mind—seem to have a better command of the investigation than Woodward does, without having to resort to dead drops in Gorky Park. Woodward does not “follow the money”—as he was famously advised by his source Deep Throat in All the President’s Men. He does not investigate (or even seem familiar with) Trump’s business entanglements with Russia and Russian organized crime, which long predate his presidential campaign. Speaking as a Fox News commentator in January 2017, Woodward was quick to dismiss the Steele Dossier as a “garbage document.” But if Woodward has a better explanation for Trump’s subservient relationship to Vladimir Putin, he does not share it in Fear.

The problem, once again, goes back to the sources. It’s possible that most of Woodward insider confidantes don’t know (and don’t want to know) much about Trump-Russia. They certainly lack curiosity. At one point, Woodward writes, “Kelly, McMaster, Tillerson and Mattis joked darkly that it was inexplicable that the president was voicing more ire at South Korea than our adversaries—China, Russia, Iran, Syria and North Korea.” But they make no effort to explain this strange attraction, so Woodward doesn’t either.

Woodward’s brief sketch of the 2016 campaign relies heavily on Steve Bannon. As Trump’s final campaign manager, Bannon naturally minimizes the role of his predecessor, Paul Manafort, whose octopus of Russophilic ties have gripped much of the special counsel’s attention. And Woodward’s account of the Mueller investigation is filtered almost entirely through one problematic voice: Trump’s former personal lawyer, John Dowd. It’s a fair surmise that nobody on Mueller’s famously tight-lipped team talked to Woodward—that much is evident from the one-sided narrative offered by Dowd.

Benefit of the Dowd

With no other voice to contradict him on the Mueller investigation, Dowd gets to field the kickoff, show off his spin moves, dance down the sideline and spike the ball in the end zone—all without a single opposing player on the field. He puts facts into the record that aren’t supported by evidence. He asserts without contradiction the baseless doctrine that the president cannot violate the law or be impeached as a result of an exercise of his Article II powers. He badgers the Mueller team to wind up its investigation to better suit the convenience of his client—as if that were a normal demand from defense counsel to a prosecutor. He tells the president that Mueller “wasn’t really prepared” for a meeting—a trait heretofore entirely absent from the special counsel’s 74-year character arc. He complains of a lack of “deference” and asserts that the president has no time to prepare to answer questions from Mueller “in the middle of so many world problems”—an argument that would not have occurred to Woodward’s readers who remember learning earlier in the book that the president consumes hours of cable TV every day, in addition to his prodigious golf habit.

Woodward’s final chapter features Dowd in an uninterrupted, Molly Bloom-like soliloquy. For 14 pages, the attorney’s voice dominates his final meetings with Mueller and Trump before his withdrawal as Trump’s counsel in March 2018. With table-pounding bravado, he says, “You want to go to war? Let’s go to war!” He dares Mueller to seek a subpoena, because “I can’t wait to file a fucking motion to quash.” He touts Trump’s cooperation with the inquiry (“no president [has] ever been so transparent”). He hectors the special counsel’s team about their supposed lack of evidence. “You guys tell me where the collusion is,” Dowd harrumphs. “And don’t give me that chickenshit meeting in June.” (Referring to the celebrated Trump Tower meeting between Trump’s son, son-in-law, and campaign manager and a Russian lawyer offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.) Dowd continues: “That’s nothing. There’s no collusion. And the obstruction? It’s a joke. Obstruction’s a joke.” Dowd tells Mueller’s team that they are just hoping to ensnare the president in a “perjury trap.”

Throughout the entire barrage, Mueller and his deputies are portrayed as sitting poker-faced, either reticent or extraordinarily timid. Their responses are almost monosyllabic, their tone conciliatory and almost apologetic. Mueller quietly explains: “I want to see if there was corrupt intent” in the firing of Comey, provoking another round of bluster from Dowd about presidential powers and the supposed lack of evidence against Trump.

Dowd’s bravura performance—as appalling as it may be to anyone with a passing familiarity with the Trump-Russia story—has an ulterior purpose. He succeeds in prying a list of 49 potential questions from the special counsel for Trump, which he then dismisses contemptuously as “Second-year-law-school questions” and “a giant fishing expedition.” Armed with this list, Dowd tries to convince Trump that he should not testify, even though “there is no crime.” He says, “Mr. President, I cannot, as a lawyer, as an officer of the court, sit next to you and have you answer these questions when I full well know that you’re not really capable.” Not capable? Dowd “could not say what he knew was true: ‘You’re a fucking liar.’ That was the problem.” But he did warn Trump: “Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jump suit. If it’s decision time, you’re going to go forward, I can’t be with you.”

With this final revelation, Woodward closes his case: a president whose lawyer will not allow him to testify in his own defense, even if he is completely innocent, because he is unable to restrain himself from lying, and who may not even be able to distinguish truth from falsehood in his own mind.

A Fool for a Client?

What Woodward may not realize is that for Dowd, this not an indictment. It’s Trump’s defense.

As always, we must ask ourselves, why is John Dowd even talking to Bob Woodward, let alone telling him that his client is a habitual liar? After all, Dowd is not just another government official with a reputation to burnish. He is, or at least was, the president’s private defense attorney. As such, he owes his client a duty of loyalty and confidentiality.

Under Rule 1.6(a) of the DC Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer may not “reveal a confidence or secret of the lawyer’s client” or “use a confidence or secret of the lawyer’s client to the disadvantage of the client.” A “secret” includes information gained in the professional relationship “the disclosure of which would be embarrassing, or would be likely to be detrimental, to the client.” In normal circumstances, an admission that “my client lies all the time” would be both embarrassing and detrimental. There are only a handful of exceptions to the confidentiality rule, such as when the client has been using the lawyer’s services to “further a crime or a fraud.” Since Dowd maintains that Trump is innocent of any crime or fraud, let alone with Dowd as his instrument, this exception would not apply. Rule 1.6 also permits disclosure when the client has granted “informed consent.” So, it’s conceivable that Trump himself has approved this disclosure as an actual defense strategy. Another possibility, albeit a riskier one, is that Dowd believes he is taking “protective action” for a client with “diminished capacity” under Rule 1.14, in which case a “lawyer is impliedly authorized under Rule 1.6(a) to reveal information about the client, but only to the extent reasonably necessary to protect the client’s interests.” Unless an exception to the confidentiality rule applies—and these are the only obvious candidates—neither Dowd nor anyone acting at his direction could have ethically given Woodward an account of Trump’s unreliability as a witness.

And that’s the real tell here. Dowd must not be so convinced of his client’s innocence as he proclaims. He is, in fact, laying the groundwork for a final line of defense: that Trump’s own statements are not reliable evidence of obstruction of justice or other crimes. Because Trump lies impulsively, without forethought or purpose, we should attach no importance to his words, even if they seem to condone or command illegal acts. And if Trump is just an instinctively combative man, as prone to yell at his television set as at the attorney general, should we really take his rantings seriously as crimes?

A smart lawyer like Dowd will only make his client look a fool if it will help him avoid looking like a criminal. After all, Trump will not be forced from office based on general incompetence, mendacity, or rashness. However shocking these qualities may be, we have already lived with them for 21 months. Only proof of “Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” as required by the Constitution, can realistically compel Congress to remove Trump from the presidency. If Robert Mueller, or the next Congress, produces such evidence, then we can expect a last-ditch defense along the lines previewed by Dowd and ratified by Woodward: the president is so erratic in his behavior, and so unreliable as a witness, that he can appear to implicate himself in non-existent crimes.

The alternative explanation—that the president is a serial liar, but is also guilty of serious felonies, knows it, and acts accordingly—is much simpler. And yet Woodward not only fails to reach that conclusion, he declines (as yet) to even consider it as a possibility. We can only wonder how an investigative journalist of his pedigree missed the story. With Manafort now pleading guilty and cooperating with Mueller’s investigation, Woodward may finally be asking himself the same question.

Perhaps in another 12–24 months, with his next book, we will get his answer.

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