Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, is a columnist for the Guardian and senior lecturer in Harvard’s English department. Her book “Merchants of Truth: The Business of Facts and the Future of News” will be published in January.
It’s hard to imagine a more disturbing portrait of a president than the one Bob Woodward painted of Richard Nixon in his final days: paranoid, poisoned by power, pounding the carpet and talking to the portraits on the walls. But the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, as recounted by Woodward in his new book, “Fear,” are strikingly similar and in some ways even more gut-wrenching. Then, as now, the country faced a crisis of leadership caused by a president’s fatal flaws and inability to function in the job.
In both “Fear” and “The Final Days,” which he co-authored with Carl Bernstein, Woodward shows how a federal criminal investigation clouds and then comes to obsess a president and paralyze the operations of the White House. At a moment when feverish talk of presidential impeachment dominates the political discourse, “Fear” is full of Nixonian echoes, including Trump’s childishly short attention span and refusal to read briefing papers. Nixon’s aides were instructed not to give him anything more complicated than a Reader’s Digest article.
“Fear” is an important book, not only because it raises serious questions about the president’s basic fitness for the office but also because of who the author is. Woodward’s dogged investigative reporting led to Nixon’s resignation. He has written or co-authored 18 books, 12 of them No. 1 bestsellers; broken other major stories as a reporter and associate editor of The Washington Post; and won two Pulitzer Prizes. His work has been factually unassailable. (His judgment is certainly not perfect, and he has been self-critical about his belief, based on reporting before the Iraq War, that there were weapons of mass destruction .)
During Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein were often alone on the story. Now, the din of daily disclosure and opinion is almost deafening. But what was important about Woodward’s meticulous reporting in the 1970s is even more invaluable today: His utter devotion to “just the facts” digging and his compulsively thorough interviews, preserved on tape for this book, make him a reliable narrator. In an age of “alternative facts” and corrosive tweets about “fake news,” Woodward is truth’s gold standard.
At a moment when social media and cable television are filled with journalists spouting invective about the White House and Trump blasts the press as “the enemy of the people,” Woodward has clung to old-fashioned notions of journalistic objectivity. “My job is not to take sides,” he told a Vox interviewer in March. “I think our job is not to love or loathe people we’re trying to explain and understand. It is to tell exactly what people have done, what it might mean, what drives them, and who they are.”
In his previous books about eight presidents, Woodward has always eschewed making judgments or inserting his own analytic spin. His insistence on relying on dialogue drawn from interviews has prompted harsh assessments from various critics, including the writer Joan Didion, who famously called him a “stenographer.” (A reviewer for The Post, writing about his book “The Price of Politics,” described his style as the “literary equivalent of C-SPAN3.”) But these days Woodward’s flat, reportorial tone seems like the perfect antidote to the adversarial roar on Fox or Twitter. The authority of dogged reporting, utterly denuded of opinion, gives the book its credibility.
The Post obtained an early copy of “Fear,” which will be published Tuesday.
There have been other insider accounts about the dysfunction of the Trump White House and the president’s personal shortcomings, but none have been as revealing or convincing as “Fear,” which is based on eyewitness recollections, often supplemented with dates and transcripts of conversations. Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” was a major bestseller but seemed overly reliant on its chief source, Steve Bannon, among other flaws. Another recent bestseller, “Unhinged,” came from former White House aide and onetime “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault Newman, who had been fired and possibly had an ax to grind. The daily press, especially The Post and the New York Times, has offered periodic and tantalizing glimpses into the inner workings of the Trump White House and the psyche of Trump himself. But “Fear” provides a more complete picture, based on multiple interviews with some of the president’s closest advisers. Woodward resists the fast-paced reporting demanded by the Internet, visiting his subjects away from their offices and testing their memories again and again.
From the very first pages of the gripping prologue it is a shocking view. Woodward opens the book with a killer anecdote about how two of the president’s closest advisers purposely thwarted his directives. In one instance, Trump had ordered up a letter announcing the U.S. withdrawal from a trade agreement with South Korea. His then-chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and then-staff secretary, Rob Porter, who are both obviously major sources for the book, recognize the letter for the disaster it is, so Cohn filches it off the president’s desk. With Trump’s fitful attention span, out of sight is out of mind. The ploy buys time and short-circuits an impulsive presidential decision that had gone through none of the proper vetting channels. (If the reader should doubt the authenticity of the anecdote, the prologue ends with a facsimile of the unsigned letter.)
The suspenseful scene sets up the story to follow. “The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader,” Woodward writes. “Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses. It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.”
“Fear” supports this bracing assessment in a chronological trajectory, from the arrival of Bannon to lead the campaign in 2016 to the resignation, in March, of John Dowd, the lawyer representing the president in Robert S. Mueller’s probe. Over and over again, there are vivid scenes that show feckless decision-making by Trump and then mad scurrying by his aides to undo the damage.
The episodes from the campaign are more familiar and less compelling, as is some of the palace intrigue that fascinates Woodward, including strife between advisers and Cabinet secretaries who are long gone (like former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Bannon). When Trump recedes for too many pages, as when Woodward gets bogged down in policy details, the reader’s interest can flag.
Some of the more explosive anecdotes, including his current chief of staff calling Trump an “idiot” and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ignoring an order from the president to assassinate Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, leaked out before the book’s publication. Porter, the staff secretary, is consistently trying to derail and delay Trump’s efforts to withdraw from treaties, not only the South Korean trade deal but also NAFTA and even NATO. These and other illustrations convey the panicked frustration of aides who see themselves as protecting the public from an out-of-control president. This is a recurring theme.
One vivid example involves the president’s impulsive decision to bar transgender people from military service. As was customary, a decision memo had been prepared for him outlining four possible options, from maintaining the Obama policy of allowing transgender people to serve openly to an outright ban. But before he had even read the memo, Trump tweeted his decision to ban them, catching his defense secretary and the entire military leadership completely off guard. So they rebelled. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, promptly responded by sending out a letter declaring the old policy unchanged until Mattis could issue guidance. Meanwhile, the federal courts entered preliminary judgments against Trump’s decision. On Jan. 1, 2018, the Pentagon, under court order, began accepting transgender recruits. Woodward uses the scene to powerfully illustrate the chaos that invariably ensues from capricious governing by tweet.
As a profile of Trump, the book is devastating. Even the most jaded readers will be struck by numerous examples of his childishness and cruelty. He denounces his generals in such harsh language that his secretary of state cringes. He derides the suit McMaster dons for an interview as something a beer salesman would wear. He greets his national security adviser, whose briefings he finds tedious, by saying, “You again?” He imitates Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Southern accent and calls him “mentally retarded.” He tells his 79-year-old commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, that he has “lost it” and not to do any more negotiating.
Cohn, who comes as close as anyone in the book to being a principled character, is alarmed that Trump doesn’t understand the rudiments of the economy. The president thinks it’s inspired to call his tax cut measure, the only substantial legislation passed in his first year in office, the “Cut, Cut, Cut Bill.” In childish scrawl on his edit of a speech, and reprinted in his hand in the book, the president writes, “Trade is bad.” As Woodward explains it, “The president clung to an outdated view of America — locomotives, factories with huge smokestacks, workers busy on assembly lines.” When Cohn presses Trump on why he clings to such beliefs, the president simply responds: “I just do. I’ve had those views for 30 years.”
In previous books, Woodward has delved deeply into presidential decision-making and foreign policy. He devoted four books to President George W. Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In “Fear,” he tries to explore how policies on North Korea and Afghanistan evolve. But the Trump administration’s approach is so inchoate and irrational that this proves difficult. The president seems completely detached and ill-informed about foreign affairs. He can’t follow briefings, and when McMaster tries to outline policy options on Afghanistan, Trump explodes at McMaster, Mattis and his generals: “I want to get out. And you’re telling me the answer is to get deeper in.” The president continually threatens to withdraw all troops but is also strangely obsessed with getting the country’s minerals. Woodward describes an elaborate attempt to school Trump on world affairs inside the Pentagon’s famous and secure Tank, which, unsurprisingly and somewhat hilariously, ends in abject failure. Predictably, Trump is impressed by the gold carpets and curtains.
There are small, fascinating details scattered throughout, including that Trump doesn’t ever touch a computer keyboard and that his answer in a deposition to what he did for a living took up 16 pages.
Jaw-dropping anecdotes are mostly told in Woodward’s signature, understated narrative voice. Some of the writing, which is also typical of the Woodward oeuvre, is hackneyed: “Victory was as sweet as it got,” “Sessions’s recusal was a wound that remained open.” Russian election interference is “another political football to kick around.”
Another familiar Woodward habit is making harsh assessments about people who don’t cooperate with him. (Trump, for one, was not interviewed for the book. In a phone conversation with Woodward in August, after the project was done, the president said that no one brought him an official interview request and that he would have talked.) Sources who play ball, on the other hand, get covered in kindness. Thus, it is unsurprising to find Porter described as someone who “ordinarily tried to remain an honest broker who facilitated the discussion.”
Readers hoping for inside accounts of the Mueller probe or clues about where it will lead will be disappointed. Mainly, what Woodward provides are Dowd’s worries that the president will surely perjure himself and wind up in an orange jumpsuit if he agrees to testify. Still, the lawyer doesn’t think Mueller has much of a case. The book was completed before the conviction of Paul Manafort or the plea deal with Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime New York lawyer.
“Fear” ends on a cliffhanger, with Dowd’s resignation. “But in the man and his presidency Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying ‘Fake News,’ the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: ‘You’re a fucking liar.’ ”
Lying, as it happens, was Nixon’s undoing.
By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster. 420 pp. $30