Almost half a century later, the ghost of the scandal that launched Woodward’s career haunts the Trump White House.
Bob Woodward’s “Fear” belongs on a shelf with the literature of mad kings, next to Robert Graves’s “I, Claudius,” featuring the Roman emperor Caligula, and Ryszard Kapuściński’s “The Emperor,” about the last days in the court of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie.
Those books are masterpieces of fictionalized history, while “Fear” is a remarkable feat of reporting conveyed in prose that couldn’t be called literary. But they resemble one another in their atmosphere of antic dread—the claustrophobic, gut-tightening sense that power has come utterly unmoored from reality, and no one in the palace is safe from the wild impulses of the ruler.
There’s nothing comparable in American journalism, except maybe Woodward’s “The Final Days,” co-written with Carl Bernstein, about the downfall of Richard Nixon. Yet even Nixon—drunk late at night and talking to paintings in the White House residence—seems relatively sane and pitiable compared with Donald Trump. You half expect to find Woodward’s Trump ordering the execution of the entire National Security Council, declaring himself a god on Twitter, then anointing his daughter as heir to the throne.
The title of the book comes from Trump’s definition of “real power,” whether in terms of political clout or the ability to bully a woman he has victimized. But the fear around his Presidency has nothing to do with his skillful use of intimidation, and everything to do with the dangerous consequences of his erratic behavior. At Trump’s core lies a need always to look strong, which, of course, makes him look weak. In several scenes, one adviser or another struggles to find the right, flattering words that will keep the President from starting a nuclear war.
No one has any respect for Trump. In the course of the book, his chief of staff calls him “an idiot”; his Secretary of State ups it to “a fucking moron”; his Secretary of Defense compares him to an eleven-year-old; his top economic adviser and his personal lawyer consider him, respectively, “a professional liar” and “a fucking liar.” (Various denials have been issued.) Gary Cohn, the economic adviser, tells the President to his face that he’s “a fucking asshole,” while Trump calls Cohn “a fucking globalist.” When Cohn first tries to resign, Trump mocks him for being under his wife’s thumb, not to mention treasonous. There’s no end to the Cabinet members and generals whom Trump is eager to insult in front of their colleagues, or to fire by tweet. A coarse and feckless viciousness is the operating procedure of his White House, and the poison spreads to everyone. Only snakes and sycophants survive.
You might have already sensed this, but you didn’t know it with such nauseating specificity. In the absence of an Oval Office taping system like the one that destroyed Nixon during Watergate, Woodward’s interviews, conducted under the shroud of deep background, are a pretty comprehensive substitute. One of his most detailed, most revealing scenes takes place in the Tank, the secure windowless meeting room of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the summer of 2017. Cohn and Defense Secretary James Mattis conspire to bring Trump across the river to the Pentagon in order to impress upon him the importance of the American-led international order of security partnerships and trade treaties. The presentation quickly collapses under Steve Bannon’s sophistic questioning. Trump, who cares only about scoring a profit off allies, keeps repeating, “It’s all bullshit!” He announces his intention to tear up the defense treaty with South Korea—“Pull the fucking thing out! I don’t give a shit”—and soon leaves.
South Korea—its trade surplus with the United States, the cost of American troops and defense systems there—is an obsession of Trump’s, and perhaps the closest thing in “Fear” to an organizing narrative principle. The book begins with Cohn removing a one-paragraph letter that awaits Trump’s signature on the Oval Office desk and that would end the Korean-American trade agreement. Cohn is counting on the President’s flickering consciousness to make him forget about the letter and the impulse to undermine an important ally. But Trump keeps demanding another draft, for destroying alliances is—along with hatred of the press—his genuine, unquenchable passion in politics. His stamina in pursuit of these demons is impressive. Every day in his White House has the disintegrating feel of final days, but the next day is the same, and the story never ends.
Even though Woodward rarely quotes people speaking to him directly, it isn’t hard to discern some of his main White House sources: Cohn; Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus; his staff secretary Rob Porter. In Woodward’s acquiescent style, they come across as public servants making personal sacrifices for the good of the country—in the same category as Anonymous, the author of the Times Op-Ed about the internal “resistance” to Trump. Cohn’s subterfuge with the letter becomes an act of patriotism—he’s one of the grownups who need to stay in the room. Woodward’s reporting exposes, perhaps inadvertently, what a hollow conceit this is.
Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, sees everything in terms of political advantage, and encourages Trump’s polarizing instinct to govern as the President of his base. Cohn, the Democrat in the group, decides not to resign over Trump’s softness on white nationalism, in order to push through a hugely regressive tax bill that leaves the next generation with almost two trillion dollars of debt. Tariffs, not neo-Nazis, finally persuade him to quit. Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, is reduced to grovelling. “I’m with you,” he assures Trump, after the meeting in the Tank. H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, is treated with stunning contempt. John Kelly, Priebus’s volatile replacement as chief of staff, has an attention span shorter than Trump’s. None of them has anything to say about Trump’s corrosion of American democracy. If this is the resistance, we watch it getting crushed. By the end of “Fear,” Trump has won in a rout.
Woodward has written a kind of bookend to the Nixon story, and the ghost of the scandal that launched his career haunts the Trump White House. “All the President’s Men,” Woodward’s first collaboration with Bernstein, was at its heart a detective story, and the trail of evidence led the reporters into the Oval Office. We don’t yet know the outcome of Robert Mueller’s investigation into collusion and obstruction of justice, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. The real crime is already in plain sight.