Bob Woodward interview
It was, Bob Woodward recalls, “an almost Shakespearean moment”. He and a Washington Post colleague were interviewing Donald Trump in March 2016. They asked how Trump defines power. The then presidential candidate replied: “Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear.”
Two and a half years, and hundreds of hours of interviews later, Trump’s telling choice of the word fear was the natural choice of title for Woodward’s latest book, a singularly authoritative portrait of a White House teetering on the edge. While other accounts have offered soap opera, this is the presidency as Shakespearean tragedy.
Woodward, 75, has written about nine US presidents, most famously Richard Nixon. His dogged reporting with his Post colleague Carl Bernstein on Watergate played a central part in forcing Nixon to resign and was immortalised in All the President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
He came of age in an era of typewriters, cigarette smoke, hot metal, thundering presses and covert calls from payphones. He still champions shoe-leather journalism, and is not likely to be found tweeting snarky comments.
In an era when the line between news and opinion is increasingly blurred, Woodward is not in his natural habitat touring the TV, radio and podcasting studios being asked to serve up polemical soundbites with viral potential.
Instead, in Fear, he meticulously builds a case against Trump’s fitness for office. His body of evidence, charting how decisions get made or don’t in a jaw-droppingly dysfunctional White House, is a welcome antidote to the daily blizzard of online agitprop, rumours and conspiracy theories.
Nearly all his interviews were taped; one ran to 820 pages of transcript; he interviewed one subject nine times. As this presidency already becomes the stuff of history books, his contribution carries more weight than the gossipy Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff or the score-settling of Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged.
Trump has dismissed Fear as “fiction”, and its author as “a liar”. Woodward reflected: “I look at my job as: let’s present the rock-solid evidence of what happens. There’s documents, notes, there’s not just the phrase but there’s they sat and they met and this is what happened. Let the political system respond.”
He added: “I just think too many people have lost their perspective and become emotionally unhinged about Trump. I can understand that but that’s not the way the media should respond. The media should respond with what really happened.”
Woodward is full of praise for the “high energy” of newspapers and TV networks but says their record has been mixed. “Did we do enough to understand Trump before the election? No. Did I do enough? No. Did we get his tax returns? No. Have we got his tax returns? No. Should we have? Yes. Hard yes. The scorecard coverage is some real high points and good points by the media and some incomplete.”
Woodward chooses his words carefully. The lack of hyperbole tends to lend him more credence.
He says of the book: “It’s a picture of a White House administration going through a nervous breakdown and, as we know in human terms, nervous breakdowns are not good things. And so it’s a very challenging moment … I would think the most ardent Trump supporter who might read it could not feel comforted.”
How worried should we be that Trump has the nuclear codes? Would he push the button? “We don’t know … there’s a memo which I quote from that the chief of staff – the current one, Gen [John] Kelly – puts out saying no more spur-ofthe-moment, seat-of-the-pants decisions; they don’t count. There has to be a formal process and a formal signoff. That’s the effort to contain some of these impulses.”
He prefers to talk about Trump’s trade war. “I get to talk to the economic gurus in the world … and this is a real worry: the global order of trade is in jeopardy and things are being done to it that make no sense.”
Some prominent voices in the book scorn the theory that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Did Woodward himself find any explanation for the very strange relationship between Trump and Vladimir Putin? “No, not really. I’ve obviously looked. But here’s the reporting lesson from doing this for 47 years. You’ve got to go to the scene. You’ve got to show up and, if you’re really going to do the Russian investigation, I’d move to Moscow. I’d probably be shot or arrested. But the answer is in Russia.”
Even if special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation finds definitive proof of collusion, it is uncertain if his findings will be accepted as the last word. Woodward continues: “It depends on the quality of the report. In Watergate, one of the great lessons for me personally was you need a storytelling witness; you can’t just say ‘I overheard’ or ‘I speculated.’
“John Dean, Nixon’s counsel, testified on live national television: it was on every network, gavel to gavel coverage for four days … then you had the second punch which was the tapes which validated it, made Nixon his own narrator. So I’m not sure if that’s going to happen.”
Woodward will forever be associated with Watergate and, like Paul McCartney, seems to be at peace when asked to replay his greatest hits. The parallels with that drama have been inescapable. But for now there is at least one difference. “Nixon was a criminal and a well-documented criminal. In the Mueller investigation, we don’t know whether Trump was or is, and that’s a big difference.”
In the 1970s there also was no Twitter and no Fox News working overtime to discredit Trump’s critics. But Woodward ultimately retains faith in the system.
Nixon and Trump would be two extraordinary bookends to any journalistic career but Woodward shows no sign of letting up. He finds the energy in Washington reminiscent of the 70s. He is still knocking on doors, still seeking the next Deep Throat – his Watergate source later revealed to be Mark Felt, second in command of the FBI.
Are there Deep Throats in the Trump era? “Many,” he says. “We’re looking for more. Never enough.”
‘Nixon was a criminal … In the Mueller investigation, we don’t know if Trump was or is…’ Bob Woodward