Erik Wemple | Opinion
September 11, 2018 at 7:39 PM
Be careful when praising Bob Woodward. During an episode of the New York Times podcast “The Daily,” Times reporter Michael Schmidt tells the author of the new Trump book “Fear: Trump in the White House” that he “masterfully” secured a tape recording of a much-listened-to phone conversation with the president. Nah, said Woodward. “It wasn’t particularly masterful,” responded Woodward, an associate editor at The Post. “I just said I’d like to record this, Mr. President, when he called, and he said, ‘Okay,’ so I turned on the tape recorder.”
Simple as that!
Yet the recording accomplishes a few things. It provides evidence that Woodward contacted numerous White House officials in search of an interview with Trump. Counselor Kellyanne Conway hops on the phone to say that the request was turned down. And the president himself proclaims, “You’ve always been fair.”
Compare that with:
The president’s own lies and contradictions, of course, poison the credibility of those who surround him. On Tuesday, former Trump aides Gary Cohn and Rob Porter strained to distance themselves from the book, while leaving its content utterly unmolested. Cohn, who is portrayed in “Fear” stealing a trade document from the president’s desk to prevent him from taking a dangerous action, says:
This book does not accurately portray my experience at the White House. I am proud of my service in the Trump Administration, and I continue to support the President and his economic agenda.
What about that stolen document, Gary?
And Porter, the former staff secretary who left after reports of domestic abuse surfaced in the media, says:
Having now read Bob Woodward’s Fear, I am struck by the selective and often misleading portrait it paints of the President and his administration.
As Staff Secretary, I was responsible for managing the flow of documents to and from the Oval Office and ensuring that anything the President was asked to sign had been properly vetted. The suggestion that materials were ‘stolen’ from the President’s desk to prevent his signature misunderstands how the White House document review process works — and has worked for at least the last eight administrations.
It was also my responsibility to help ensure that relevant viewpoints were considered, that pros and cons were evaluated, that policy proposals were thoroughly vetted, and that the President could make decisions based on full information. Fulfilling this responsibility does not make someone part of a ‘resistance’ or mean they are seeking to ‘thwart’ the President’s agenda. Quite the opposite.
President Trump invites robust discussion and asks probing questions. He has the confidence to allow [advisers] to disagree with a proposed course of action and advocate for an alternative outcome — and I sometimes did just that. But in the end, President Trump is the one who decides, and he has shown himself more than capable of doing so.
During my time in the White House, I sought to serve the President’s best interests and to help enable his many successes — successes that Mr. Woodward’s book ignores.
President Trump’s accomplishments are undeniable: significant tax relief to spur economic growth, rolling back burdensome regulations to unleash job creators, remaking the federal judiciary to uphold the Constitution, and much more.
The funny thing about the statements is that they boost precisely what Woodward says about his craft. In a world where media ethicists hammer journalists for using anonymous sources, Woodward has occasionally wondered whether they’re underused. His method isn’t to quote some unnamed official calling some politicians bad names; it’s to substantiate events at the highest levels of the U.S. government by corralling as many witnesses as he can find, generally on deep background. Had he interviewed those folks on the record, Woodward told Schmidt, they’d issue press-release-like statements. As above.
Of course, deep background — in which Woodward doesn’t name his interviewees but uses their information — has its pitfalls, as the author is again discovering. One “key person,” Woodward told the New York Times, recently called him to say, “‘Everyone knows what you’ve said here is true. It’s 1,000 percent correct,'” said Woodward. “And then this person has said some public things that contradict that. And I’m not happy, but I have a smile on my face because the truth in all of this is going to emerge.”