16 September 2018


Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House is the latest book on the Trump presidency, after Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury. Whereas Wolff's book was a gossipy account of palace intrigue, Woodward focuses on policymaking (and unmaking), though both writers portray a chaotic White House led by a president unfit for office. Both books were also instant bestsellers; Fear has already sold over a million copies, only a few days after publication.

Fear begins with Trump's former chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, taking a draft letter from the Oval Office, to stop Trump withdrawing from a bilateral trade agreement with South Korea: "I stole it off his desk... He's never going to see that document. Got to protect the country." In case this seems far-fetched, Woodward reproduces the actual document, and adds that Cohn, and former staff secretary Rob Porter, also removed similar letters that would have pulled the US out of NAFTA and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

These incidents confirm the gist of the anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times on 6th September, which revealed an internal Trump resistance campaign: "many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations." (Although, despite the efforts of Cohn, Porter, and the "senior official" who wrote the op-ed, Trump's nationalist instincts ultimately prevailed, and he withdrew from NAFTA and the climate accord.)

Such attempts to subvert a president's agenda are not completely unprecedented. Ron Suskind's book Confidence Men claims that President Obama's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner ignored Obama's directive to restructure Citibank after the 2008 financial crisis, and that Obama's authority was "systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisers." Suskind's book has been criticised for its errors and exaggerations, though whatever the truth about the Obama administration, the West Wing's challenging of Trump's decision-making is much more blatant.

Unlike Suskind (and Wolff, whose book also contained mistakes), Woodward's journalistic reputation is second to none. He investigated Watergate with Carl Bernstein, and has covered Washington politics for almost fifty years; his previous books include two studies of the Obama administration (Obama's Wars and The Price of Politics).

Woodward also relies on contemporaneous documents, such as the South Korea letter, adding even more credibility to his account. Another document obtained by Woodward, the minutes of a security meeting, is an official summary of the West Wing's concerns about Trump (and it reads like a preview of the op-ed): "many of the president's senior advisers... are extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views."

Fear quotes senior staffers expressing these feelings more directly: former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (as previously reported by NBC News) calls Trump "a fucking moron," and according to Chief of Staff John Kelly, "He's an idiot... He's gone off the rails. We're in crazytown." The book ends with Trump's former lawyer John Dowd calling him "a fucking liar" though the quote's impact is slightly diluted because it also appears a few pages previously. ("He could not say what he knew was true: "You're a fucking liar." That was the problem.")

Woodward conducted interviews on 'deep background', though his key sources are fairly identifiable. White House meetings and conversations are transcribed at length, in quotation marks, though the dialogue is presumably reconstructed rather than verbatim. (This is problematic, though it's become standard practice in memoirs.) Dowd, for example, provides extensive quotes, most notably from his meetings with Robert Mueller. These are the first insights yet into the leak-proof Mueller investigation, and Dowd quotes Mueller twice asking about any "corrupt intent" on Trump's part.

Trump declined to be interviewed for the book. Woodward released a recording of a phone call with Trump last month, in which Trump initially denied, then admitted, being asked to participate. Wolff did interview Trump, though he overstated his access. Trump also spoke to Ronald Kessler, for his hagiographic The Trump White House, in what Kessler claimed was "the only interview for a book Trump said he has given or will give as president".