September 05, 2018
Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” is especially surprising. This is a White House that has leaked from Day 1. We knew things were bad. Woodward is here, like a state trooper knocking on the door at 3 a.m., to update the sorry details.
Some of these details, at first glance, are amusing. Trump lamented when Twitter, the social media platform on which he dispenses Pez-sized pellets of discourtesy, raised the maximum size of an individual tweet from 140 to 280 characters because, he is quoted as saying, “I was the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters.” Somewhere in heaven, Papa is wondering if he can’t self-destruct all over again.
In Fear, Bob Woodward Pulls Back the Curtain on President Trumps Crazytown
It is stranger still to learn that Trump orders his most popular tweets printed out, so that he can study them. What lesson has he learned? That his most effective tweets are often the most unhinged. He’s a focus group of one, thriving on the smell of his own sulfur. Reince Priebus, his former chief of staff, calls the presidential bedroom, where Trump goes to tweet, “the devil’s workshop,” and early mornings and Sunday nights, when Trump is at loose ends, “the witching hour.”
Some in the White House have tried to tone down the president’s online effusions, but that idea seems to have been jettisoned in the havoc. His advisers are viewed in mostly pitiless terms by Woodward. “Trump had failed the President Lincoln test,” he writes. “He had not put a team of political rivals or competitors at the table.”
Woodward vividly quotes Priebus on the chaos of the White House’s decision making. “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. That’s what happens.”
“Fear” is a typical Woodward book in that named sources for scenes, memories, thoughts and quotations appear only sometimes. Woodward has never been a graceful writer, but the prose here is unusually hapless. It’s as if he wants to make a statement that, at this historical juncture, simple factual pine-board competence should suffice.
The critic Clive James once complained that Woodward “checks his facts until they weep with boredom.” Well, fact-checking and boredom seem sexy again. Even weeping is making a comeback.
Woodward dispenses in “Fear” with most of the small human details that brightened his earlier books. There is no moment like the one in “Bush at War” (2002) in which George W. Bush said to a Navy steward on duty in the West Wing, “Ferdie, I want a hamburger.”
Woodward keeps the scene-setting to a minimum. Those he does set tend to be around policy disputes over North Korea, Afghanistan, tax reform, trade and tariffs, and the Paris climate agreement, among other issues.
Woodward’s subjects have always been able to trade access for spotlight and some sympathy in his books. Among the primary sources for this book are clearly Priebus; Gary D. Cohn, Trump’s former chief economic adviser; and Rob Porter, Trump’s former staff secretary.
There are terrifying scenes in which Cohn and Porter conspire to keep certain documents out of Trump’s reach. One of these would have withdrawn the United States from a crucial trade agreement with South Korea. Another would have pulled the country from the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Describing one of these moments, Woodward writes: “The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader. 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.”
Trump rarely realizes when things go missing, Woodward suggests. Though he does quote him shouting, like a boy king, “Bring me my tariffs!”
Cohn is in some ways this book’s moral center. If this were a first-person novel, he would be its narrator. He is shocked at every turn by Trump’s lack of knowledge and utter disinterest in learning anything at all. It was pointless to prepare a presentation of any sort for him.
Cohn and Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, had “several quiet conversations” about what they called “The Big Problem: The president did not understand the importance of allies overseas, the value of diplomacy or the relationship between the military, the economy and intelligence partnerships with foreign governments.”
Trump is quoted saying feckless things like, about the war in Afghanistan, “You should be killing guys. You don’t need a strategy to kill people.”
Many insults are flung in “Fear,” sometimes behind backs, sometimes right in the kisser. Most are from Trump. He said to Porter about Priebus: “He’s like a little rat. He just scurries around. You don’t even have to pay any attention to him.” He calls Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in Porter’s presence, “mentally retarded” and mocks his accent.
John F. Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, is quoted as saying about the president, in a meeting, “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in crazytown.”
Mike Pence, the vice president, comes off as a glorified golf caddy who doesn’t want to rock the boat lest Trump tweet something mean about him. Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, simmers frequently in this book’s background. About Melania Trump, Bannon says: “Behind the scenes she’s a hammer.” Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are seen by nearly all parties as pointless. “They were like a posse of second-guessers, hovering, watching,” Woodward writes. He does describe how Ivanka got her father to talk to Al Gore about climate change.
Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation rattles Trump to his core in “Fear.” Woodward suggests that the president is right, at least in one regard, to be aggrieved.
The intelligence report from the C.I.A., the National Security Agency, the F.B.I. and others about Russian interference in the 2016 election was an airtight document, he says. Why then did James Comey, then the F.B.I. director, also introduce the so-called Steele dossier?
“It would be as if I had reported and written one of the most serious, complex stories for The Washington Post that I had ever done,” Woodward writes, “and then provided an appendix of unverified allegations. Oh, by the way, here is a to-do list for further reporting and we’re publishing it.”
There is a strong sense here of the clock ticking. John M. Dowd, Trump’s former lawyer, does not think Trump is mentally capable of testifying to the special counsel. “Don’t testify,” he is quoted as saying. “It’s either that or an orange jump suit.”
Trump declined to be interviewed for this book, Woodward writes in a note to readers. But the book’s title is from a quote Trump delivered in a 2016 interview with Woodward and his Washington Post colleague Robert Costa: “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word — fear.”
If this book has a single point to drive home, it is that the president of the United States is a congenital liar. I wish “Fear” had other points to make. I wanted more context, more passion, a bit of irony and certainly more simple history. Surely Woodward, of all people, has worthwhile comparisons to make between Trump and Richard Nixon.
But this is not Woodward’s way. “Fear” picks up little narrative momentum. It’s a slow tropical storm of a book, not a hurricane. You turn the pages because Woodward, as he accumulates the queasy-making details, delivers on the promise of his title.
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