There is a great narrative to be written, a first draft of the history of the Trump administration and the long national nightmare it is making us suffer through. Unfortunately, Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward isn’t it.
Having slogged through Michael Wolff’s gossipy Fire and Fury and Omarosa Manigault-Newman’s self-serving but not very self-aware Unhinged, I had high hopes for Woodward’s book. The legendary Washington Post reporter has dished the goods on five presidents now, famously helping to bring down one.
If anyone could bring us back to Earth and do the full Nixon number on Trump, many thought, it would be Woodward.
Unfortunately, it seems that at this point in his life, Woodward has become more a creature of official Washington, DC than just about anyone in that city. For example, he has a certain starry-eyed reverence for the military; more than one general in Fear is described as “ramrod straight.”
Vast chapters focus on internal debates over what to do about Afghanistan and Syria, while the chaos of the Muslim travel ban gets nary a mention. If you based your entire knowledge of the Trump era on this, you’d think Stephen Miller was just another staffer rather than the most loathsome kind of Nazi troll.
And in the most unintentional self-parody, Woodward declares himself skeptical about the Steele dossier on Trump-Russia collusion, which contained the infamous rumor of a pee tape that the Russians are said to be using as “kompromat” against Trump. But his skepticism about a document that has been largely verified is based on … well, himself. Woodward at the time was skeptical about its content, and he quotes his own television appearances from early 2017 at length.
It’s fair to say his opinion that the Russia thing is overblown has not aged well, so it’s odd to see him trumpet it like this. It’s especially odd to see him quote Trump’s lawyer John Dowd claiming the Trump Tower meeting to get dirt from the Russians on Hillary Clinton; Dowd calls it “opposition research” even if it comes from a foreign government, which it manifestly is not. It is a crime, it should have been reported to the FBI, and it’s odd that Woodward doesn’t push back.
The benefit of the doubt he gives Trump borders on imbecility. He is apparently shocked when Trump declares in a TV interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired FBI director James Comey because of the whole “Russia thing.” This answer, Woodward declares in passing, “seemed very much at odds with [the reasons given in] his letter to Comey.”
Gee, Bob, you think?
Woodward has good sources, but is incredibly credulous about them. You can practically hear the stampede as members of Trump’s inner circle rush towards Woodward to get themselves portrayed in the best light. He repeats conversations as Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and Senator Lindsay Graham related them. By contrast with interviews elsewhere in the media, they all come out glowing.
Most shamefully, Woodward leans heavily on accounts of conversations by former Trump staffer Rob Porter. Only in the last 20 pages does he casually mention that Porter resigned after evidence emerged that he beat his wife.
Much of what emerges from these conversations is as gossipy as anything in Wolff’s book. Only Wolff, a seasoned gossip columnist, knew how to make this stuff interesting. Woodward has committed the cardinal sin of political reporting: He has written a boring narrative.
For example, Woodward tells us that Bannon eventually shed his boisterous appearance at the beginning of the administration, became a team player, and “was 10 times the unifier that Jared and Ivanka were” by the end of his time in power. There’s no justification for this statement; it’s just put out there like some ineffective slam from a B-movie version of Mean Girls. Wolff, come back, all is forgiven.
Similarly, we’re repeatedly told that former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster felt shut out by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had formed a “team of two” against him. But so what? Who cares? Trump is actively tearing away the fabric of the American republic, and this is what you chose to focus on?
Just about all the shocking news from the book — such as the fact that advisers like Porter would hide trade withdrawal letters from Trump to prevent him from signing them — has already come out. What remains in Fear has the feeling of album filler from a band that knows you’re just buying their latest record for the hit singles.
As for Trump himself, he really didn’t need to go nuclear on Woodward. He comes out of the book looking relatively good. Sure, he is petulant, foul-mouthed, perpetually insulting, unwilling to learn or to change his decades-old concepts on trade and international alliances. But we already knew that about him. Woodward portrays him as a man constantly trying to do the right thing by his base.
There’s little mention of the president’s inherent racism, his overt obstruction of justice, or his decades of involvement with Russian organized crime (as detailed in another book out this month, Craig Unger’s superior House of Trump, House of Putin). Woodward does Trump a huge favor: He takes him at his word. He legitimizes him. In these pages, the tantrum-throwing leader is transformed into a president who’s not afraid to break a few eggs in his pursuit of a harsh but pro-America agenda.
Especially, he legitimizes Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, quoting that speech at length. And again, he does not push back on Trump’s claim that he was “elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.” It would have been the work of a single sentence to add that Pittsburgh’s mayor issued a strong statement of disapproval at that: the city knows we need to address climate change.
Which is not to say we don’t get a negative picture of Trump. In many sections he comes across as a sad, small man, unable to control his impulses, unable to listen, bereft of true friends.
It’s more that Woodward is a journalist of the old school who insists on a studious and fake neutrality even when the house is in flames. As Winston Churchill once complained about the BBC before World War II, Woodward has reached the point of being “neutral between the firefighter and the fire.” He may have been the right man for Watergate. He is not the right man for Stupid Watergate.
In fact, it’s a good thing Woodward has spent his promotional media blitz telling us that he’s trying to get his readers to wake up and pay attention to the dysfunction at the White House. Because that is not something you’d necessarily get from his book; it’s almost an apology for Trump.
If this is what passes for the first draft of history, then the only thing we have to fear is Fear itself.