I can think of no greater example of cognitive dissonance than my recent experience of alternating between reading a biography of James Madison by David O. Stewart, and Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, a jarring snapshot of the current Chief Executive. Woodward’s episodic study makes manifestly clear that Donald Trump is a singular figure. That there has indeed never been an American Presidency like this one. That even the genius of a Madison as he crafted the Constitution could never have foreseen a moment like this in the life of the Republic. And one more thing: it is far worse than we ever could have imagined.
Full disclosure: I am not and have never been a Trump supporter. But I am also wary of the media frenzy that has attended this President, of the hyperbole that it has (at least in part) spawned, and especially of the dangers of confirmation bias. As such, I refused to read Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the much-celebrated expose of the administration that was reportedly as frequently long on bombshells as it was short on substantiation. It used to be said of the Greek historian Herodotus—whose grand opus was a blend of history and hearsay—that if what Herodotus said wasn’t true, then it should be. Clever that may be, yet hardly a basis for sound historiography. But Herodotus’s intellectual heir was Thucydides, and he was far more careful with his own account. If Wolff can be faulted for straying to the sloppy, as Herodotus sometimes did, the same cannot be alleged of Bob Woodward—the former Washington Post journalist who played a pivotal role in uncovering the Watergate scandal, and has since written detailed studies of multiple Presidents and their administrations. If there is a Thucydides to chronicle the modern American President, it is Bob Woodward.
Much of what might be termed the most “sensational” material from Fear went public prior to its publication date, and much of that either corroborated what was already out there—yes then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did refer to the President out loud as a moron, just as earlier reported—or confirmed what we suspected: a largely emasculated John Kelly serves as something more akin to Trump’s personal Maître D’ than he does White House Chief of Staff. One nugget from Fear has a frustrated Kelly—who once described the President as “unhinged”—exclaiming: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown.” Elsewhere, Secretary of Defense James Mattis confides to associates that Trump “acted like—and had the understanding of—a fifth or sixth grader.”
But by far the most disturbing episode from Fear that went public pre-release was the account of how then-Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn—alarmed that Trump was about to sign a document ending a key trade agreement with South Korea that also dove-tailed with a security arrangement that would alert us to North Korean nuclear adventurism—simply stole the document off the President’s desk! Apparently, the President never missed it … It turns out that Cohn frequently partnered with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to rein in Trump’s wilder impulses.
All of this would be disturbing enough coming from the pen of Bob Woodward if it was not chillingly underscored by an anonymous Op-Ed by a senior administration official published by the New York Times a week before the book was released that sought to reassure the nation that there were indeed steadier hands behind the scenes keeping a close eye on the President so he didn’t actually pilot the circus train off the tracks into an abyss. This was greeted by equal parts of howls of rage or gushes of praise for the unknown author—depending on whether your pitchfork tilted to the right or the left—but reassurance was decidedly absent. Trumpster cries of “fake news” notwithstanding, it confirmed that Woodward was indeed on to something.
Fear covers approximately the first fifteen months of the Trump Administration, and is based upon hundreds of hours of what Woodward terms “multiple deep background interviews with firsthand sources,” who remain unnamed. Critics wield the reliance on these unnamed sources as an assault weapon on Woodward’s credibility, but the author’s approach—supported by both meticulous notes and recorded sessions—have a long history, and little of significance in his reporting has not withstood careful scrutiny. And claims of a partisan axe to grind hardly stand up given the way prior Woodward books have (at times) unfavorably portrayed both the G.W. Bush and the Obama administrations. Moreover, as Fear went to press, Woodward released both the audio and a written transcript of a telephone conversation with the President, who claimed to regret missing out on a one-on-one with Woodward while feebly claiming he had no idea such an interview had been sought. There is no guarantee that Woodward’s sources aren’t lying, but we can reliably count on the fact that Woodward is reliably reporting what he has been told.
For those who have yet to read Fear, it should be noted that since much of the highlights have already appeared in the press in some detail, it may not be worth investing the time—unless you are a political junkie like this reviewer, in which case that time will certainly be well spent! And there are valuable insights. Steve Bannon turns out to not only be the chief kingmaker of Donald Trump, but a kind of de facto kingpin himself, at least in the early formative months of the administration, a nearly anonymous disheveled bundle of alt-right venom whose whisper was often the most welcome to the President’s ear. While perhaps it would be difficult for anyone to successfully serve under this President, none of his “big guns”—Tillerson, Mattis, Priebus, Kelly, Masterson—seem to have the kinds of skill-sets that would find a real measure of success in any administration. Essentially—and perhaps not unsurprisingly to anyone who has been paying attention—even his best people are not the best people.
If there are heroes in the pages of Fear, one of them is Cohn, a brilliant figure out of Wall Street who understands that American status as an economic and military superpower not only benefits but is critically dependent upon the global integration of its trade agreements and defense alliances. In Woodward’s narrative, when he is not hijacking documents from Trump’s desk before the dear leader can jeopardize our national security, he is fighting a largely losing battle against the prevailing forces of isolationism and protectionism in the regressive “America First” nationalism heralded by Bannon and one of Trump’s most lackluster lackies, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. In a blow to the nation, Cohn eventually gives up and goes home. The other is Rob Porter, who along with Cohn comes off as the most rational and pragmatic member of the team. He seems to have figured out early on that the President ever verges on the volatile and the unbalanced, and he deftly redirects him to curb his worst tendencies. Those of us who rejoiced when Porter lost his job amid reports of spousal abuse discovered born-again unintended regret when we learned what a responsible moderating force he was on the Chief Executive. With Cohn and Porter gone, only the weakest links remain.
All metaphors of reliability aside, from a literary standpoint Woodward is no Thucydides. In fact—and this is nothing new for those of you who have read his previous books—he is a fairly mediocre writer who offers almost nothing in the way of analysis. He may be a prolific and award-winning author with an outsize reputation, but his roots as a Washington Post reporter still define his style. Like a kind of Joe Friday of journalism, he conducts his interviews seeking only the facts, ma’am, and the copy sometimes varies from pedestrian to boilerplate; his narratives frequently read like police reports. But in the end, of course, that only adds yet another layer to his credibility. Some may be surprised that there are so few references in Fear to the Bob Mueller Russia investigation that has so upended the Trump Presidency, or may wonder why other issues that have dominated national discourse are entirely absent from the book. The reason is that Woodward only reports what insiders tell him. Thus, there is plenty conspicuous in its absence, but still more than plenty to ponder, for better and for worse.
It is difficult to put a final punctuation mark upon this review because it is so seamlessly integrated into current events. In the course of just a few weeks since I read the book, the news cycle has included reports that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein may once have urged recourse to the 25th Amendment to remove the President; President Trump delivered a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that was greeted by a chorus of laughter; the President conducted a bizarre press conference that was so outrageous even by Trump standards that it verged on the deranged; and, a new salacious tell-all book by porn star Stormy Daniels has been released that describes the President’s genitalia—all of this against the backdrop of the chaotic hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, accused of a sex crime, who may have only been selected by Trump in the first place because he has gone on record that a sitting President cannot be indicted. You simply cannot make this stuff up …
For precisely that reason, thus far Trump has resisted satire. Saturday Night Live, Andy Borowitz, The Onion—all have struggled to stay funny and relevant. This is because political comedy is predicated upon exaggeration, upon the kind of hyperbole that Trump defies because in this case comedy is too close to home, too reflective of real life. It cannot be funny if it is true. The Trump Administration often seems like a cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Mel Brook’s Springtime for Hitler. But at the end of the day—with thousands of immigrant children seized from their parents being moved to tent cities in the desert in the cover of darkness as this review goes to press—it is not so funny at all. The title of Woodward’s book is derived from an earlier interview by Woodward with candidate Trump in the first months of 2016. “Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” Donald Trump said then. Woodward’s book only further underscores what should be obvious to every concerned American: we should be afraid, very afraid.