Tim Weiner

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Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Wood­ward

Fear:

Trump in the White House by Bob Wood­ward.

Si­mon and Schus­ter, 420 pp., $30.00

The New York Times colum­nist Rus­sell Baker once de­scribed the lot of the Wash­ing­ton re­porter as the weary life of an ink-stained wretch con­demned to “wear out his hams sit­ting in mar­ble cor­ri­dors wait­ing for im­por­tant peo­ple to lie to him.” Bob Wood­ward doesn’t have to wait in mar­ble cor­ri­dors. Ever since he and his Wash­ing­ton Post col­league Carl Bern­stein wrote the best book yet pub­lished on the fall of a pres­i­dent—The Fi­nal Days, in which a drunken and half-mad Nixon de­stroys him­self, rag­ing like a tin­horn Lear— Wood­ward has been a sin­gu­lar force in Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism.

His clout isn’t pre­cisely the equiv­a­lent of sub­poena power, and it doesn’t ex­actly con­sti­tute a pro­tec­tion racket, but it is some­thing close to the co­op­er­a­tion agree­ments struck be­tween pros­e­cu­tors and wit­nesses. Im­por­tant peo­ple are com­pelled to come to him with the un­der­stand­ing that they will be spared harsh sen­tences. They may spin fu­ri­ously, but they lie to him at their peril. They will be pro­tected by the in­vis­i­bil­ity cloak of “deep back­ground.” Wood­ward says no one can get a straight story in Wash­ing­ton by con­duct­ing on-the-record in­ter­views, so he ex­changes anonymity for can­dor. He no longer has se­cret White House tapes to work with, so he often em­ploys a hearsay tech­nique: he will re­con­struct word-for-word con­ver­sa­tions among two or more par­tic­i­pants based on the rec­ol­lec­tion of one per­son, who in ef­fect dic­tates the sub­stance of im­por­tant pas­sages. Where pos­si­ble, he will back up his re­port­ing with pri­mary doc­u­ments and se­condary sources. If not, you’ll have to take his word for it.

Wood­ward is a fan­tas­tic fact-fin­der who can­not and will not an­a­lyze the facts he finds. “I am just not ca­pa­ble— and this is a grave fault—of tak­ing A, B, C, and D and say­ing, ‘O.K., now E,’” he once told the great re­porter and writer J. An­thony Lukas. And since he re­frains from judg­ing what his sources say, he runs the risk of be­com­ing their pris­oner, and, at worst, a stenog­ra­pher to power. Lukas re­flected, “I’m sure Bob re­al­izes this, but his in­creas­ing de­pen­dence on ac­cess to very pow­er­ful peo­ple nec­es­sar­ily raises ques­tions about whether he is serv­ing the in­ter­ests of his sources more than those of the pub­lic.” A care­ful reader can often suss out which sources are say­ing what. The ques­tion is whether they are telling him the truth. Here he serves his read­ers al­most as well as his sources un­til, in the end, he doesn’t.

On the first page of Fear, the for­mer Gold­man Sachs ex­ec­u­tive Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief eco­nomic ad­viser, steals a draft doc­u­ment off the pres­i­dent’s desk in the Oval Of­fice. Had Trump signed it, he would have ab­ro­gated a trade agree­ment with South Korea. In Wood­ward’s eyes, this not only would have de­stroyed Wash­ing­ton’s se­cu­rity al­liance with Seoul but would also have set the nu­clear clock tick­ing to­ward World War III on the Korean penin­sula, an ex­trap­o­la­tion that if noth­ing else ex­cites the imag­i­na­tion and raises our es­ti­mate of the banker’s bona fides. White House staff sec­re­tary Rob Porter slow-rolls de­lib­er­a­tions over a new draft un­til the mat­ter “dis­ap­peared in the haze” of Trump’s dis­or­dered mind. In the pro­logue to Fear, Wood­ward re­pro­duces the pur­loined let­ter—a very neat trick—and gives us the two-pronged the­sis of the book. First and fore­most, we are wit­ness­ing “a ner­vous break­down of the ex­ec­u­tive power of the most pow­er­ful coun­try in the world.” This may not be break­ing news, but it’s a vi­tal and in­dis­putable truth; Wood­ward’s work shows that good re­porters will go to great lengths to prove what you think you al­ready know. The sec­ond point is sub­ject to de­bate: stal­wart pa­tri­ots op­posed to Trump have in­fil­trated the West Wing and have worked to “block some of what they be­lieved were the pres­i­dent’s most dan­ger­ous im­pulses.” Wood­ward’s sources jus­tify their ser­vice to a man they see as a fool and a knave by pro­vid­ing sto­ries in which the pres­i­dent cre­ates po­ten­tial dis­as­ters and, in mo­ments of high drama, they save the repub­lic. It can test the reader’s faith in hu­man­ity to see oth­er­wise un­prin­ci­pled men de­pict them­selves as de­fend­ers of democ­racy. They want to be seen as un­sung he­roes, but there are no he­roes here. They are col­lab­o­ra­tors in the ex­e­cu­tion of Trump’s vi­cious im­pulses on race and class and trade and eco­nom­ics, and ex­po­nents of his in­stinc­tive de­sire to let money and profit re­place law and reg­u­la­tion as the ma­chin­ery of gov­ern­ment.

Cohn, hav­ing saved the world with an as­sist from Porter, later con­fronts Trump af­ter the white na­tion­al­ist rally in Charlottesville in which a peace­ful coun­ter­protester was killed. The pres­i­dent draws no dis­tinc­tion be­tween neo-Nazis and racists on one side and left­ists and lib­er­als on the other. Cohn, a Jew, feels he can­not abide this moral atroc­ity, and says he will re­sign. Trump goes for his throat: “This is trea­son.” Cohn backs down, quickly per­suaded that tril­lion-dol­lar tax cuts are more im­por­tant than any­thing, in­clud­ing, ap­par­ently, his im­mor­tal soul. “If you think I’m be­tray­ing you, I will never do that,” he tells the pres­i­dent. “I will stay and get taxes done.”

Mam­mon gets the nod over God. Re­mem­ber that Cohn is telling this story about him­self and that Wood­ward records it dead­pan. Com­men­tary is left to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who com­mends Cohn for his sangfroid (ac­cord­ing, of course, to Cohn) and adds, “I would have taken that res­ig­na­tion let­ter and shoved it up his ass six dif­fer­ent times.”

Empty words, for Kelly has no such gump­tion. He was sup­posed to have been a coun­ter­vail­ing force against Trump’s mis­rule, but he is soon de­feated, re­duced to je­re­mi­ads:

I’m the one guy stand­ing in front of the pres­i­dent try­ing to pro­tect him . . . . He’s an id­iot. It’s point­less to try to con­vince him of any­thing. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in crazy­town. I don’t even know why any of us are here.

By March of this year, as re­li­ably re­ported by Wood­ward and the en­tire White House press corps, he was “greatly di­min­ished...and had largely given up.” Sic tran­sit Gen­eral Kelly. A prin­ci­pled mil­i­tary man would have re­signed long be­fore.

Cohn even­tu­ally gets taxes done and leaves with­out much fuss, pre­sum­ably hav­ing pre­pared to re­claim his morals from the blind trust where he had parked them. Porter, who also ab­horred the creep­ing fas­cism of Trump’s re­marks about Charlottesville, tells

Wood­ward, “This was no longer a pres­i­dency. This is no longer a White House.” And yet he stays too—un­til it is re­vealed that his two ex-wives have ac­cused him of vi­o­lent do­mes­tic abuse. Mr. Voice-of-Rea­son de­parts the scene; Wood­ward eases him off­stage gen­tly, writ­ing that Porter de­parted “to fo­cus on re­pair­ing re­la­tion­ships and heal­ing.” Trump tweets that his aide has been “shat­tered and de­stroyed” by a mere al­le­ga­tion—and why should a man’s bril­liant ca­reer be harmed just be­cause he as­saulted women?

The reader has searched long and in vain for an hon­est man among the cut­throats and syco­phants who in­habit Trump’s world. In­stead, Trump’s lawyer John Dowd re­takes the stage and is given a star turn in the cru­cial fi­nal chap­ter of Fear. He has toiled for nearly a year, hav­ing gra­ciously agreed to cut his usual re­tainer in half, to a mere $100,000 a month, but he soon finds he has an im­pos­si­ble case in de­fend­ing the pres­i­dent from Mueller and, ul­ti­mately, from him­self.

Lawyer and client have found com­mon ground in their con­tempt for the spe­cial coun­sel and his in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “This is a royal fuck job by a bunch of losers,” Dowd has told the pres­i­dent upon en­ter­ing his ser­vice. Then he tries to sweet-talk Mueller, who does not do sweet talk. And thus be­gins a long and grind­ing ne­go­ti­a­tion over whether Trump will an­swer ques­tions un­der oath, vol­un­tar­ily or in re­sponse to a sub­poena. Dowd knows Trump is con­sti­tu­tion­ally in­ca­pable of straight an­swers; he has a po­ten­tial per­jurer for a client. He pre­pares for a show­down with the spe­cial coun­sel to try to get the pres­i­dent off the hook. And here Wood­ward fal­ters.

Fear suf­fers from Wood­ward’s def­er­ence to his sources and his dis­re­spect for Mueller. I guess that’s be­cause he couldn’t get him to talk. The man lead­ing the most po­lit­i­cally charged fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion since Water­gate is the miss­ing ele­ment of this book. An ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the breadth and depth of the spe­cial coun­sel’s work would have given it a coun­ter­point to the ca­cophony of crazy­town. In­stead, Wood­ward lets Dowd serve as a ven­tril­o­quist’s dummy for his own ap­par­ent an­tipa­thy to­ward Mueller. We are told with­out com­ment that Dowd thought Mueller had no im­por­tant wit­nesses against Trump from in­side the White House, that he be­lieved “Mueller didn’t know the facts of the case,” and that he was “con­vinced that Mueller never had a Rus­sian case or an ob­struc­tion case”— in short, that the spe­cial coun­sel is bluff­ing. No known ba­sis ex­ists for these as­ser­tions. Wood­ward is wrong to ac­cept them at face value. As Mag­gie Haber­man and Michael S. Schimdt re­ported in The New York Times on Septem­ber 18:

Mr. Dowd took Mr. Trump at his word that he had done noth­ing wrong and never con­ducted a full in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion to de­ter­mine the pres­i­dent’s true le­gal ex­po­sure. Dur­ing Mr. Dowd’s ten­ure, pros­e­cu­tors in­ter­viewed at least 10 se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials with­out Mr. Trump’s lawyers first learn­ing what the wit­nesses planned to say, or de­brief­ing their lawyers af­ter­ward—a ba­sic step that could have given the pres­i­dent’s lawyers a view into what Mr. Mueller had learned.

Dowd should know that to take Trump at his word is a griev­ous mis­judg­ment. In turn, the reader may won­der if Wood­ward’s bull­shit de­tec­tor was dis­abled when he talked to Dowd. It’s a tricky busi­ness build­ing an air­tight story with er­ratic sources. The fre­netic fi­nal pages of Fear de­scribe con­fronta­tions be­tween Mueller and Dowd and their co­horts dur­ing two days in March 2018, and Dowd ap­pears to be the only source for it all.

Dowd tries de­nial: “There’s no col­lu­sion. And the ob­struc­tion? It’s a joke.” He tries anger when Mueller sug­gests that he could get a grand jury sub­poena to com­pel Trump’s tes­ti­mony: “You go right the fuck ahead and get it!” Rage cuts no ice, so he tries bar­gain­ing: “Why don’t you just give us the ques­tions?” Mueller and his team dic­tate forty-nine queries, and af­ter Dowd stud­ies them at the White House, he be­comes de­pressed: “Mr. Pres­i­dent, I can­not, as a lawyer, as an of­fi­cer of the court, sit next to you and have you an­swer these ques­tions when I full well know that you’re not re­ally ca­pa­ble.” Trump could de­stroy his pres­i­dency if he lies un­der oath. Dowd fi­nally comes to ac­cept the aw­ful truth; he ad­mits de­feat and re­signs.

Wood­ward gives him the last line: “Trump had one over­rid­ing prob­lem that Dowd knew but could not bring him­self to say to the pres­i­dent: ‘You’re a fuck­ing liar.’” We too know this to be true. The killer quote tells us noth­ing new. We have bought the ticket for a fright­en­ing roller-coaster ride through the first four­teen months of an ap­palling ad­min­is­tra­tion, but when the ride is over we are back where we be­gan—and we don’t fully un­der­stand where we’ve been or what we’ve seen. And that’s be­cause, in the end, this book, like its sub­ject, has power but lacks a moral com­pass.

Nei­ther jour­nal­ism nor his­tory can rest en­tirely on anec­dote. Their es­sen­tial el­e­ments are ir­refutable facts tem­pered with in­de­pen­dent judg­ment. Daily jour­nal­ism is mostly what just hap­pened; his­tory is mostly what it means. We need both and we need them now, no mat­ter whether the in­for­ma­tion rests be­tween hard cov­ers, lands on our doorstep at dawn, or is beamed to­ward our eye­balls. In days to come, through the tor­ments of this ter­ri­ble pres­i­dency, bet­ter sto­ries will be told, strik­ing stronger blows against it. For now we can live with Fear.

Bob Wood­ward

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