Only a man who is deeply worried about his own strength would talk as much as Donald Trump does about the danger of appearing weak.
That’s my biggest takeaway from reading “Fear,” Bob Woodward’s new book about the Trump presidency. The scoops were mostly revealed last week. What’s fresh is Trump’s repeated, obsessive talk about weakness during his first year in office.
Woodward’s recounting of Trump’s conversations is a study in character, or lack of it. The president’s vanity, pettiness and meanness of spirit were evident already in his tweets and public statements. But here is the annotated version, as told to Woodward by Trump’s aides, replete with enough F-bombs to stock an arsenal of profanity.
When Trump is on the verge of doing something conciliatory — apologizing for a racist or sexist comment, for example — he stops himself for fear that it will show weakness. Trump (prodded by his Iago-like deputy macho man, Stephen K. Bannon) keeps insisting that he must stay strong, regardless of how unprincipled it may seem.
Woodward’s narrative of the weakness phobia begins at the low point of the campaign, with the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump boasts about grabbing women’s genitals. His aides have written a statement in which Trump would concede, “My language was inappropriate, not acceptable for a president.” But Trump protests: “I can’t do this. This is bull----. This is weak. You guys are weak.”
Trump often expresses a peculiar concern about looking like a baby. He blasts campaign chairman Paul Manafort after a critical New York Times story, saying, “Paul, am I a baby? Is that what you’re saying, I’m a baby?”
Later in the campaign, after Rudolph W. Giuliani defends Trump from the “Access Hollywood” flap on the Sunday talk shows, Trump still isn’t satisfied: “Rudy, you’re a baby. . . . 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?”
Anxiety about weakness mounts when Trump is in the White House. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has many faults in Trump’s eyes. He’s too friendly to Europe, too willing to accommodate Iran, too independent in his views. But Trump sums up the problem at a July 2017 meeting: “Rex, you’re weak.”
The most appalling instance of placing image above principle comes after Trump’s waffling comments about the August 2017 clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville. Rob Porter, Trump’s staff secretary, encourages the president to give a conciliatory statement.
Despite fears that it “looked weak,” Trump follows Porter’s advice and, using a teleprompter, tells the nation: “We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence.”
When Fox News reports a “course correction” on Charlottesville, the president panics. “That was the biggest f---ing mistake I’ve made,” he tells Porter. “You never make those concessions. You never apologize. I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?”
It’s a Darwinian worldview. Never retreat; eat or be eaten. Woodward quotes former chief of staff Reince Priebus explaining that Trump didn’t assemble a “team of political rivals,” he put “natural predators at the table.” Priebus notes the inevitable result: “When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody.”
Bannon shamelessly feeds Trump’s weakness fixation. Woodward’s book gives Bannon a podium to explain how right he was about nearly everything involving Trump. Bannon comes across in these doubtless tape-recorded soliloquies as Trump’s match as a self-promoting egomaniac.
“I’m the director, he’s the actor,” Bannon says of his relationship with the president. And in the end, after he had been fired, says Woodward, “Bannon believed Trump had largely failed as a change agent.” Not tough enough for Steve, evidently.
In my own conversations with top White House aides, I’ve seen a similar obsession with shows of strength. Reversing long-standing positions on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a “strong position.” Preserving the Iran nuclear agreement is a “weak position.” Perception is policy.
And what about Trump’s ruinous legal problems with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III? They’re the fault of Trump’s chicken-hearted lawyers, of course. Woodward quotes the tough-guy-in-chief. “I don’t have any good lawyers. . . . I’ve got a bunch of lawyers who are not aggressive, who are weak, who don’t have my best interests in mind, who aren’t loyal. It’s just a disaster.”
What a baby.