Chaos, scorn, de­ceit: Just an­other day at the White House

Bob Wood­ward’s rev­e­la­tions are hardly shock­ing any­more

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Rosa Brooks

What new in­sights does Bob Wood­ward’s lat­est book, “Rage,” of­fer? We learn that Pres­i­dent Trump is not the sharpest tool in the shed; mem­bers of his Cab­i­net con­sider him a nar­cis­sis­tic fool, de­void of em­pa­thy and in­ca­pable of dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween truth and false­hood. Trump blithely min­i­mizes the lethal­ity of the coro­n­avirus be­cause he doesn’t want to look bad. He takes no re­spon­si­bil­ity for any­thing, boasts re­peat­edly about his wealth and ge­nius, and shows noth­ing but con­tempt for those who hap­pen to get in his way.

But we knew all this al­ready, didn’t we? We al­ready knew that Rex Tiller­son, Trump’s for­mer sec­re­tary of state, told col­leagues that the pres­i­dent was “a mo­ron” and that John Kelly, Trump’s for­mer chief of staff, of­ten re­ferred to him as an “id­iot.” We knew that other se­nior of­fi­cials have de­cried Trump’s “amoral­ity” and “er­ratic be­hav­ior,” and that Jim Mat­tis, his for­mer sec­re­tary of de­fense, was “an­gry and ap­palled” by what he saw as Trumpian be­hav

ior that made “a mock­ery of our Con­sti­tu­tion.” We knew about Trump’s re­peated as­sur­ances that the coro­n­avirus would soon “dis­ap­pear . . . like a mir­a­cle” and about his “per­fect” phone call with Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­sky, which led to his im­peach­ment. We even knew that Trump con­sid­ers Amer­ica’s war dead “losers” and “suck­ers.”

The Age of Trump has been char­ac­ter­ized by “shock­ing rev­e­la­tion” af­ter “shock­ing rev­e­la­tion,” with the oc­ca­sional “stun­ning rev­e­la­tion” thrown in for va­ri­ety. Each new rev­e­la­tion is claimed to be the one that will end Trump’s pres­i­dency; each time, Trump blithely skips away from ac­count­abil­ity, and his base re­mains loyal as ever.

Viewed in this con­text, “Rage” of­fers some fresh de­tails and con­fir­ma­tion of old as­sump­tions, but lit­tle that is likely to sur­prise any­one or change any minds. These in­ci­dents have lost their power to shock. What makes the book note­wor­thy is Wood­ward’s sad and sub­tle doc­u­men­ta­tion of the ego, cow­ardice and self­delu­sion that, over and over, lead in­tel­li­gent peo­ple to re­main silent in the face of Trumpian out­rages.

Wood­ward of­fers a de­tailed por­trait of the pres­i­dent and some of his top aides. He tells us, for in­stance, that Mat­tis viewed Trump as “dan­ger­ous” and “un­fit” for of­fice, and ul­ti­mately re­signed when he thought that Trump’s di­rec­tives had shifted from merely stupid to “felony stupid.” For his part, Trump told White House trade ad­viser Peter Navarro that he con­sid­ered his “fuck­ing gen­er­als” to be “a bunch of pussies.” Mean­while, Wood­ward re­veals, for­mer di­rec­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence Dan Coats took se­ri­ously the pos­si­bil­ity that Trump was “in Putin’s pocket” and “sus­pected the worst” of the pres­i­dent. Trump, Coats re­port­edly told Mat­tis, “doesn’t know the dif­fer­ence be­tween the truth and a lie.” An­thony Fauci, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases, was no more com­pli­men­tary, com­ment­ing pri­vately that Trump’s “at­ten­tion span is like a mi­nus num­ber.”

Wood­ward sim­i­larly of­fers new par­tic­u­lars about Trump’s love-at-first-sight re­la­tion­ship with North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong Un, gained through ac­cess to 25 pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished let­ters be­tween the two. Trump ex­plains his in­stant con­nec­tion to Kim by of­fer­ing Wood­ward a creepy anal­ogy: “You meet a woman. In one sec­ond, you know whether or not it’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

Sure enough, the Trump-Kim re­la­tion­ship pro­ceeded to un­fold like a Har­lequin ro­mance. “I can­not for­get that mo­ment of his­tory when I firmly held Your Ex­cel­lency’s hand,” Kim wrote to Trump on Christ­mas in 2018. Later, in a let­ter dated June 10, 2019, Kim added, “Like the brief time we had to­gether in Sin­ga­pore a year ago, ev­ery minute we shared . . . in Hanoi was also a mo­ment of glory that re­mains a pre­cious mem­ory.”

Trump, de­lighted by these ef­fu­sions, agreed to meet with Kim in the Joint Se­cu­rity Area be­tween North and South Korea on June 30, 2019. Stand­ing on the South Korean side of the bor­der, he asked Kim coyly, “Would you like me to come in?”

“Yes, I would like you to come in,” Kim re­sponded, so Trump stepped onto North Korean soil. That night, he wrote his own gushy let­ter to Kim: “Be­ing with you to­day was truly amaz­ing.” (That this queasi­ness-in­duc­ing ex­change oc­curred in the con­text of a deadly se­ri­ous stand­off over North Korean nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties adds an­other sur­real el­e­ment.)

But it’s not all can­dle­light and ro­mance in Trump Land. Trump, we learn, told Wood­ward that the coro­n­avirus was far “more deadly” than “even your stren­u­ous flus” as early as Feb. 7, 2020, even as he ac­knowl­edged his in­tent to min­i­mize the threat to the Amer­i­can public. And Wood­ward, for his part, de­cided to keep this dis­turb­ing news to him­self; sav­ing it for the book ap­par­ently took pri­or­ity over let­ting the public know that their pres­i­dent was ac­tively mis­lead­ing them about a virus that has now killed nearly 200,000 Amer­i­cans.

“Rage” was writ­ten in a hurry, and at times it shows. “Trump called me un­ex­pect­edly on Fri­day, June 19,” Wood­ward re­lates on Page 356. Eigh­teen pages later, he writes, “Trump called me un­ex­pect­edly on Wed­nes­day, July 8.” Six pages af­ter that, he tells us, “Trump called me un­ex­pect­edly on the morn­ing of Tues­day, July 21.” (You’d think that by then, Wood­ward might have found Trump’s phone calls a bit less un­ex­pected.) The book’s nar­ra­tive struc­ture is dis­jointed; chap­ters shift fo­cus seem­ingly at ran­dom.

Still, Wood­ward’s prose of­fers read­ers that de­li­cious, vi­car­i­ous sense of be­ing an in­sider, right there in the room with Bob, a wit­ness to pres­i­den­tial sulks and boasts. Stung by Wood­ward’s ob­ser­va­tion that many peo­ple con­sid­ered Barack Obama to be in­tel­li­gent, Trump de­clares Obama “highly over­rated” and launches into a so­lil­o­quy on his own su­pe­rior ge­net­ics and pos­ses­sions: “I had an un­cle who was a pro­fes­sor at MIT . . . and my fa­ther was smarter than he was. It’s good stock. You know they talk about the elite . . . . Ah, they have nice houses. No. I have much bet­ter than them. I have bet­ter ev­ery­thing than them.”

“Rage” also shows how Trump’s mas­sive ego and bullying rou­tinely turned top gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials into cow­er­ing en­ablers. Wood­ward re­ports that Vice Pres­i­dent Pence never chal­lenges Trump; to Pence’s old friend Dan Coats, he seemed to have be­come “pas­sive, sub­servient and obe­di­ent.” De­scrib­ing White House dis­cus­sions about whether Trump should fire FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey, Wood­ward re­lates that Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod Rosen­stein thought Comey should in­stead be al­lowed to re­sign vol­un­tar­ily, but, not want­ing to dis­please Trump, he “stayed quiet.” Af­ter Comey’s un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous dis­missal, Trump sum­moned FBI Deputy Di­rec­tor An­drew McCabe and bragged that he had re­ceived “hun­dreds of mes­sages from FBI peo­ple say­ing how de­lighted they are” about Comey’s ouster. McCabe, writes Wood­ward, be­lieved that most peo­ple in the FBI “were up­set, not de­lighted,” but he “did not want to say any of this to the pres­i­dent and con­tra­dict him,” so, like Rosen­stein, he kept quiet. Sim­i­larly, Mat­tis and Coats, ap­palled by the pres­i­dent’s be­hav­ior, “found them­selves of­ten look­ing across the ta­ble at each other in the Sit­u­a­tion Room with con­cern,” Wood­ward tells us — but they too re­mained silent.

And so, for the most part, does Wood­ward him­self. His scoops de­rive from his abil­ity to con­vince peo­ple who should know bet­ter that he’s re­ally on their side; it’s a jour­nal­is­tic tech­nique that re­quires the re­porter to flat­ter rather than chal­lenge.

At times, he even seems to slip from ob­se­quious­ness into the role of men­tor: lis­ten­ing to Trump’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for his re­quest that the Ukrainian pres­i­dent launch an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Joe Bi­den, for in­stance, Wood­ward pauses his ques­tions to of­fer Trump some un­so­licited ad­vice. “I’m go­ing to tell you some­thing from my ex­pe­ri­ence,” he says. “I’m telling you, from too many decades of ex­pe­ri­ence in cases like this, if you apol­o­gized it would go away.” Trump nat­u­rally ig­nores this guid­ance, but the reader can’t help but won­der: Why is a jour­nal­ist giv­ing po­lit­i­cal coun­sel to the sub­ject of his re­port­ing?

Later, in an­other bizarre ex­change, Wood­ward urges Trump to dis­play a tad more em­pa­thy to­ward racial jus­tice pro­test­ers. (The pres­i­dent, true to form, has been ex­ult­ing in his abil­ity “to send in the mil­i­tary” to deal with the pro­test­ers, whom he de­scribes, var­i­ously, as “these poor rad­i­cal lefts” and as “ar­son­ists . . . thugs . . . an­ar­chists” and “very bad peo­ple.”) Wood­ward, in re­sponse, at­tempts to ex­plain “White priv­i­lege” to an in­cred­u­lous Trump. “Do you have any sense that that priv­i­lege has iso­lated [you]?” the re­porter asks. “And that we [White, priv­i­leged peo­ple] have to work our way out of it to un­der­stand the anger and the pain, par­tic­u­larly, Black peo­ple feel?”

But not even Bob Wood­ward can coax Trump into em­pa­thy. “No,” Trump in­forms him. “You re­ally drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you?” He goes on to boast about all he’s done for “the Black peo­ple.”

Still, Wood­ward’s trade­mark mix of flat­tery and avun­cu­lar guid­ance does what it’s de­signed to do: It gets Trump talk­ing. And talk­ing, and talk­ing. (Against the ad­vice of his staff, Trump al­lowed Wood­ward to tape 18 on-the-record in­ter­views.) If “Rage” breaks lit­tle ground, Wood­ward nonethe­less even­tu­ally be­comes the fa­vored re­cip­i­ent of the ul­ti­mate nugget of Trumpian phi­los­o­phy. Asked if some­one else had helped him write his speeches, Trump tells Wood­ward: “Yeah, I get peo­ple. They come up with ideas. But the ideas are mine, Bob. The ideas are mine.”

Then, Trump adds a fit­ting coda: “Want to know some­thing? Ev­ery­thing’s mine. You know, ev­ery­thing is mine.”

Rosa Brooks is a law pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity and the au­thor of “Tan­gled Up in Blue: Polic­ing the Amer­i­can City,” to be pub­lished in Fe­bru­ary.


Bob Wood­ward writes that Pres­i­dent Trump’s ad­vis­ers have been crit­i­cal of their boss, yet of­ten re­luc­tant to chal­lenge him.

RAGE By Bob Wood­ward Si­mon & Schus­ter. 452 pp. $30

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