This blog post looks at Bob Woodward's two most recent books. It was originally devoted to Fear and has been updated with Rage. Please also see the 2020 Books Are Our Superpower article about these books.
In his book Fear, Bob Woodward's interviews with White House insiders fill in the backstory to many publicly embarrassing moments of the Trump presidency. The title, Fear, refers to Trump's concept of what "real power" is. He also believes, however, that personal rapport matters more than strategy. Thus, Trump acknowledges that China is an "economic aggressor" and President Xi may be "using" President Trump to meet some agenda, but Trump nevertheless feels that he is powerful in this situation insofar as he feels he has a friendship with Xi. According to Steve Bannon, however, Trump did not have any "genuine friends."
As the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were traced to Afghanistan, U.S. policy for the past 17 years has centered on preventing another major terrorist attack from launching from that specific place. U.S. funds were poured into the pockets of Afghan warlords with the idea that they will help fight terrorism even though these funds are diverted to their own internal corruption and violence. Today, the U.S. spends $50 billion per year in Afghanistan. Neither Bush nor Obama wanted to end the war. Trump wanted to end it completely. (His opinion: "We’ve got to figure out how to get the fuck out of there. Totally corrupt. The people are not worth fighting for...NATO does nothing. They’re a hindrance. Don’t let anybody tell you how great they are. It’s all bullshit." His mentors, however—Lindsey Graham, for one—repeatedly explained to him the risks of pulling out. In July 2017, he said: "You should be killing guys. You don’t need a strategy to kill people."
Trump always wanted to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal that had been negotiated under Obama. Priebus, Tillerson, and Mattis argued with the president about this, as they knew that Iran was in compliance with the terms of the deal. Trump persisted: “They are in violation, and you should make the case that this agreement is done and finished....And that maybe we’d be willing to renegotiate.” Tillerson eventually caved.
When Bashar al-Assad chemically attacked his own people on April 4, 2017, Trump was emotionally affected. His position was: “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them.” Mattis told Trump he'd do it, but privately he told everyone else: "We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured." The middle ground turned out to involve launching 59 missiles at Syria. Trump bragged: “A hundred countries have called...patting me on the back." Trump was interested in launching additional strikes, but he "soon forgot his questions."
The public is aware of how Trump nearly escalated a nuclear war via Twitter. Woodward reveals that Trump wanted to evacuate dependent family members of the 28,500 U.S. troops serving in South Korea, an action that would have lent credibility to his plans to attack North Korea. Lindsey Graham had to talk Trump out of this step.
Trump wanted to stop the military from paying for transgender-related surgeries and he wanted to remove transgender troops from service. He had incorrect information about how much certain surgeries cost. Woodward noted:
Gender reassignment surgery can be expensive but also is infrequent. In a Pentagon-commissioned study, the RAND Corporation “found that only a few hundred of the estimated 6,600 transgender troops would seek medical treatment in any year. RAND found those costs would total no more than $8 million per year.”
Priebus gave Trump four options — make no changes, ban all transgender people from service, and two more moderate options — and Trump agreed to discuss it later that morning at 10 a.m. At 8:55 a.m., however, Trump tweeted that transgender people would not be allowed "to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military." Dunford refused to make the change, as, in Woodward's words, "tweets were not orders," and he advised the service chiefs: "we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect...we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.” Mattis claimed he would reflect upon next steps, but this was a delaying tactic. Four courts entered preliminary injunctions against Trump's order. On Jan. 1, 2018, the military began accepting new servicemembers who are transgender, following the original schedule of Obama's policy.
In 2015, Trump had said of a Republican senator, John McCain, "He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero [only] because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured." He also gave out the cell phone number of another Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, during his rival presidential campaign, but he soon reconciled with Graham. As Trump prepared to take office, Graham warned him about the sorry state of the Republican Party: "We have no idea what we’re doing. We have no plan for health care. We’re on different planets when it comes to cutting taxes. And you’re the biggest loser in this."
Woodward shows Trump maligning his own staff and supporters. To Rudy Giuliani, he once said: "Rudy, you’re a baby! I’ve never seen a worse defense of me in my life. They took your diaper off right there. You’re like a little baby that needed to be changed. When are you going to be a man?" On the advice of Rosenstein, he fired Comey via a letter. He said Reince Priebus was "like a little rat. He just scurries around...Just come talk to me. You don't have to go through him." He eventually fired Priebus and replaced him with Kelly; both men learned about the job change via a tweet. Kelly felt he had no option but to accept the job. Priebus later said: “The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way.”
Of the scandal with Russian prostitutes, he once said: "I’ve got enough problems with Melania and girlfriends...I can’t have Melania hearing about that." The allegations were compiled into a dossier. Woodward once appeared on television calling the dossier a "garbage document...Trump’s right to be upset about that." At the beginning of Fear, Woodward said he still holds this opinion, although, as a journalist, he was "not delighted to appear to have taken sides." The dossier "played a big role in launching Trump’s war with the intelligence world, especially the FBI and Comey."
Of the economy, Cohn had to keep explaining to Trump that an increase in the trade deficit is the sign of a growing economy and that Trump should abandon his goal of shrinking the trade deficit at all costs. Furthermore: "The president clung to an outdated view of America—locomotives, factories with huge smokestacks, workers busy on assembly lines. Cohn assembled every piece of economic data available to show that American workers did not aspire to work in assembly factories." Soon after the G20 summit, Trump wrote "TRADE IS BAD" on a draft of a speech he was editing with Porter. He could not understand that, if China is the world's leading manufacturer of penicillin, refusing to buy directly from China does not save money; it only increases the price of penicillin because another country will serve as the middleman. Trump tried to make Mnuchin declare China to be a currency manipulator, while Mnuchin said there was no legal validity behind that statement.
Trump had a letter drafted that he intended to sign to pull out of a trade agreement with South Korea, an important ally. "Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, Kelly—everyone on the national security side—agreed that if the trade deficit with South Korea had been 10 times greater, it still wouldn’t justify withdrawing." To solve this problem, "at least twice Cohn or Porter took [the letter] from his desk. Other times, they just delayed. Trump seemed not to remember his own decision because he did not ask about it. He had no list—in his mind or anywhere else—of tasks to complete."
After a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., he gave comments that took many aback. After his scripted comment, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence,” he ad libbed, “On many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country..." Rob Porter had a difficult time explaining to him what he'd done wrong." Trump insisted that no side has a monopoly on hate. "It’s not as if any one group is at fault or anything like that. With the media, you’re never going to get a fair shake. Anything that you say or do is going to be criticized.” Porter explained, "There’s no upside to not directly condemn neo-Nazis," and he played to Trump's ego by telling him he could be a uniter. White House speechwriters provided a draft, and Porter edited it with Trump looking over his shoulder (the President cannot type, Woodward tells us). Trump felt ambivalent and disappointed, not wanting to seem weak or nodding toward political correctness. Two days after his original "on many sides" comment, he delivered the five-minute canned conciliatory speech "[l]ooking stiff and uncomfortable, like someone coerced to speak in a hostage video." Steve Mnuchin and Gary Cohn praised Trump: “This was one of your finest moments as president," and Fox News hailed it as a "course correction." Trump, however, was angry: "I can’t believe I got forced to do that. That’s the worst speech I’ve ever given. I’m never going to do anything like that again." The next day, he said, “There is blame on both sides... you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had a lot of bad people in the other group too...there are two sides to a story.” For this, he was praised by ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. The leaders of the military branches then came out and stated their opposition to racism. Privately, Trump told Cohn: "I said nothing wrong. I meant what I said." In Porter's words, "This was no longer a presidency. This is no longer a White House. This is a man being who he is.”[Update: see also Jonathan Karl's book Front Row at the Trump Show, from which this adapted excerpt was published in June 2020: "Never again would he be browbeaten into delivering a speech of reconciliation, a speech unequivocally condemning racial injustice and violence. Never again would he let anybody talk him into admitting a mistake or doing anything with even the faintest hint of an apology. There would be no more course corrections."]
At a meeting, he said he wanted more immigrants from Norway and Asia and fewer from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, which he famously referred to as "shithole countries."
Immediately after approving a $8.6 trillion two-year budget without any money for building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, he assured his crowd: "You’re getting the wall. Don’t worry. Had a couple of these characters in the back say, oh, he really doesn’t want the wall. He just used that for campaigning....every time I hear that, the wall gets 10 feet higher...we’re going to have the wall."
Trump "doesn’t touch type or use a keyboard" and has others type for him. He referred to Twitter as "the reason I got elected." Woodward wrote: "He ordered printouts of his recent tweets that had received a high number of likes, 200,000 or more. He studied them to find the common themes in the most successful." He watched as many as eight hours of television a day and usually started work at 11 a.m.
Woodward wrote: "The operations of the Oval Office and White House were less the Art of the Deal and more often the Unraveling of the Deal. The unraveling was often right before your eyes, a Trump rally on continuous loop. There was no way not to look." In Cohn's view, Trump's "theory of negotiation was that to get to yes, you first had to say no." In Bannon's view, "Grievance was a big part of Trump’s core, very much like a 14-year-old boy who felt he was being picked on unfairly. You couldn’t talk to him in adult logic. Teenage logic was necessary."
Dowd told Mueller: "And the fact is, I don’t want him looking like an idiot. And I’m not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot. And you publish that transcript, because everything leaks in Washington, and the guys overseas are going to say, I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with that idiot for? He can’t even remember X, Y, Z with respect to his FBI director."
Another responseJulian Zelizer wrote for CNN on Sept. 14, 2018:
"So Woodward has once again offered a fascinating account of parlor politics, this time in the Trump White House, but he has not provided an understanding about why this all happened and why it is allowed to continue. ... Until we have answers to these questions, we won't be able to have any assurance this will turn out OK, or that after Trump's presidency ends, his brand of politics won't outlast him."
After Fear, Trump regretted not speaking to Woodward, so he agreed to a series of interviews with Woodward for a second book. Woodward based his next book Rage on 17 interviews with Trump, together with other source material.
In my view, these are the highlights:
Intelligence: At the beginning of the Trump administration, Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana was given the job of Director of National Intelligence. Before the election, his wife, Marsha Coats, had disapproved of Trump, but she considered him the lesser of two evils. To encourage other conservatives to vote for Trump and not to sit out the election, she wrote an open letter saying: “Trump was not my first or even my second choice. He is not a humble man.” Having criticized him, she went on: “I truly believe the office will change Donald Trump.” This phrase, therefore, was originally meant as criticism and as obviously baseless flattery — an expressed aspiration or hope. As I see it, it seems that some people took it more realistically and actually expected that the office of the presidency would exert some magical change capability over Donald Trump. Marsha Coats later told someone: “He’s the kind of person that would inspire crazy people.” The job of DNI was unpleasant under Trump, from Coats' perspective (and in Woodward's phrasing), because “he saw the intelligence people as enemies.” He acted as if he were “impervious to facts,” saw “nearly everyone as an idiot, and [believed] almost every country was ripping off the United States.” His tweets related to foreign policy alarmed Coats who felt that he needed to wake up in the middle of the night to see if anything had been tweeted. “Coats heard the president was starting his work day later and later, now 11:30 a.m.” In Coats' view, as Woodward paraphrased it: “In effect, and often literally, the president said, I don’t need that to be done. I don’t need these people. I don’t need a National Security Council. I just need myself, a and perhaps three or four people I trust and work with. Trump didn’t care for assessments or options. It was just whatever Trump wanted to do...Trump’s attitude was: ‘I can solve all these problems.’ He thought he could get better intelligence on his own. Coats knew that key leaders such as Putin, Xi of China and Erdogan of Turkey would lie to Trump. They played Trump skillfully. They would roll out the red carpet for him, flatter him, then do what they wanted.”
Russia: Shortly after the 2016 election, the Republicans vetted Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil. He told them that Putin was “his closest relationship” and they often met in person. ExxonMobil did a lot of exploration in Russia — it was their “biggest oil exploration area in the world.” Trump talked about Tillerson this way: “Not part of the Washington establishment, untainted by the swamp. He was a dealmaker who negotiated oil contracts all over the world, including billions with Russia. For years he has negotiated with Putin, who awarded him the Russian Order of Friendship.”
Israel/Palestine: On May 22, 2017, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu showed Trump a video with “a series of spliced-together comments from Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who was supposed to be Israel’s partner in the peace deal that Kushner was trying to put together. It sounded like Abbas was ordering the murder of children.” Trump was immediately convinced and was outraged: “They got the guy on tape saying it,” Trump said. But to Tillerson the video seemed “faked or manipulated, taking words and sentences out of context and stringing them together.”
Military: On July 21, 2017, Bradley Byers, a Trump appointee at the Pentagon who worked with Mattis, was at the White House for the signing of an executive order. Trump said — with Byers there — “my fucking generals are a bunch of pussies. They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.” White House trade adviser Peter Navarro was also there and seemed to feel that his own role was being complimented. Byers reported the comment to Mattis who was horrified and asked Byers to document it in writing, which he did.
North Korea: Woodward wrote: "The diplomatic courtship between Trump and Kim in 2018 and 2019 is captured in 27 letters that I obtained and 25 are reported here for the first time...they reveal a decision by both to become friends...They resemble declarations of personal fealty that might be uttered by the Knights of the Round Table, or perhaps suitors.” He notes: “The CIA never figured out conclusively who wrote and crafted Kim’s letters to Trump.” Although North Korea did not give up its nuclear weapons, on June 13, 2018, Trump tweeted: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” He was referring to a new 391-word agreement that, as Woodward explains, “was less specific regarding denuclearization than prior agreements Kim’s predecessors had signed in 1992 and 2005 during the Clinton and Bush administrations” and only rehashed North and South Korea’s April 2018 agreement with each other. The relations between the two leaders were not as permanently constructive as Trump had conveyed. In the summer of 2019, Kim Jong Un wrote to Trump saying that he was “really, very offended” that the US had not stopped war exercises with South Korea as promised, since “the main target of the war preparatory exercises is our own military.” On August 9, 2019, Trump told the press that he’d received a “very positive letter” from Kim, but he declined to give specifics.
Humility: On December 30, 2019, Woodward interviewed Trump at Mar-a-Lago. He asked Trump if he’d considered apologizing publicly for the Zelensky quid pro quo, but Trump said that he didn’t want to admit wrongdoing. So Woodward asked him: “When’s the last time you apologized?” Trump said: “If I’m wrong — I believe in apologizing.” But this was against a relevant background belief: “Here’s the thing: I’m never wrong.” Later, during the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Fauci said: “His attention span is like a minus number.”
Coronavirus: The CDC realized on January 13, 2020 that the coronavirus was spreading human-to-human outside China. By early February, President Xi wouldn’t let American health scientists into China and wouldn’t accept other help from Trump. On February 7, Trump called Woodward to talk. He expected the virus to disappear “in two months with the heat” because the weather would “kill the virus. You know, you hope.” Trump said at a news conference on February 26 that there were 15 coronavirus cases in the US and said that the number of infections was “going down” and would be “close to zero” within just a couple days. On March 9, he tweeted that, although there had been 22 deaths, “the common Flu” was still worse and yet “life & the economy go on.” On March 15, HHS informed Jared Kushner that there were just over 1 million swabs available in the entire country to administer COVID tests. In a March 19 interview, he told Woodward: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.” (Woodward did not reveal this statement until his book was published in September.) Later in March, FEMA told the Trump administration that they needed 130,000 ventilators immediately. On April 10, when there had been about 20,000 U.S. deaths, Trump acknowledged that the government was predicting there would eventually be more than 100,000 deaths, but he said, “I think we’ll be substantially under that number.” By the end of the month, the death toll had tripled, and he was saying, “It’s gonna leave. It’s gonna be gone. It’s gonna be eradicated.”