There is one exchange between President Trump and Bob Woodward that is probably the most revealing about how Trump views the media.
Woodward had tried to secure an interview with Trump for an extended period of time for his soon-to-be-released book. Last month, after the book was finished, Trump finally contacted him. The president insisted that he hadn’t been informed that Woodward wanted to talk with him (an insistence similar to his recorded claim that he didn’t know that aide Omarosa Manigault Newman was being fired). Woodward noted that he had asked Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to put in a good word, which Trump quietly acknowledged.
The conversation wrapped up like this.
TRUMP: I’m just hearing about it. And I heard — I did hear from Lindsey, but I’m just hearing about it. So we’re going to have a very inaccurate book, and that’s too bad. But I don’t blame you entirely.
WOODWARD: No, it’s — it’s going to be accurate, I promise.
TRUMP: Yeah, okay. Well, accurate is that nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president. So that’s . . . and that’s the way a lot of people feel that know what’s going on, and you’ll see that over the years. But a lot of people feel that, Bob.
We’ll note first that Trump claims the book will necessarily be “very inaccurate” because he never offered his thoughts on what Woodward elsewhere tells the president will be “a tough look” at his administration. Trump’s insistence that he didn’t know Woodward wanted to speak is undercut by his quiet acknowledgment that he’d heard from Graham, but by not granting an interview he is able to assert that Woodward is missing part of the story, bolstering his claims of inaccuracy. If this is a coincidence, it’s a convenient one. (Politico’s Annie Karni reports a source telling her that the White House never got around to dealing with the interview.)
It’s his next line, though, that’s most remarkable: “Accurate is that nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president.”
This is a more sweeping assertion than what Trump normally offers. He usually claims to be the most popular president in history among Republicans, telling Bloomberg News last week, for example, that his are “the highest numbers that have ever been, with the exception of a tiny period of time with a bullhorn” — referring to George W. Bush’s popularity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Depending on the polling, Trump’s support among Republicans is among the highest on record, topped by Bush in the months after 9/11 and Dwight D. Eisenhower at some points in his presidency. Trump also claimed to be more popular with Republicans than Abraham Lincoln, which is a bit like saying you’re better at baseball than Julius Caesar.
So here Trump says “nobody’s ever done a better job as president,” something that a “lot of people feel” as long as those people “know what’s going on.”
We do have two groups of people who’ve been asked a version of the question about which president was best at his job. In neither group is Trump viewed as the one who’s done the best job, though it’s not clear whether those people “know what’s going on” in Trump’s estimation.
The first group is “the American public.” Pew Research Center asked Americans in June who the best president of their lifetimes had been. The winner was Barack Obama, with 31 percent of respondents identifying him as the best in their lifetimes. He was followed by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Trump came in fourth — but on a metric in which a big chunk of respondents (millennials) had lived through only six presidents. (He came in third among millennials.)
Even among Republicans, Trump didn’t come out on top. That honor went to Reagan, who earned nearly twice as many first-choice picks as best president over Trump.
The second group is “political scientists.” Researchers asked members of the American Political Science Association in February to rank the presidents on a zero to 100 scale where zero was “failure” and 100 was “great.” Lincoln came in first, with an average score of 95. George Washington was second with a 92.6.
Trump came in 44th with a 12.3.
Given that he’s the 45th president, you may be wondering who was ranked lower. The answer is nobody — Grover Cleveland’s two nonconsecutive terms made him both the 22nd and 24th president. Trump fared worse than William Henry Harrison, who died after a month in office. (He came in 42nd.)
Among Republican respondents, Trump did do slightly better. He finished 40th overall, beating Harrison handily. His average score from Republicans was 24.5.
Again, though, neither these political scientists nor Americans on the whole necessarily “know what’s going on.” That’s an important caveat here: If you know what’s going on, you think Trump is doing the best job a president has ever done. Trump would probably suggest that the opposite is true: If you don’t think he’s doing the best job in history, you must not know what’s going on.
Most Americans apparently do not.
It is the nature of the Trump presidency that only now do we point out the other implication of his assertion to Woodward. The only fair assessment of Trump’s tenure, according to Trump, is one that asserts he’s the best president in history. We’ve known that this is Trump’s view for a while; in May he explicitly equated what he calls “fake” news with negative coverage. But laying it out so clearly to a journalist with Woodward’s pedigree is still remarkable.
The only accurate book, in Trump’s eyes, is one in which he is interviewed and which comes to the conclusion that he’s the best president ever. If that’s his position, Trump should gird himself for an awful lot of “unfair” books over the next two years.