Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fear (the Woodward Book)

In between meetings Tuesday, I took a quick drive to the bookstore to buy Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House. It was about 11:30 on the morning of the book's official release date when I got there - just in time to purchase the last available copy! 

Donald Trump is, I believe, the 8th President about whom the Pulitzer-Prize winning author has written. Not all his president books have been as memorable as his famous accounts of the end of the Nixon presidency, but they have set a certain standard of journalistic history and constitute a contemporary version of a great tradition, to which his latest work is a worthy addition. Based on hundreds of hours of taped interviews with sources inside the Trump administration, it highlights in scrupulous detail the President's already well known (and  much commented on and written about) strange relationship with the office of president. It thus gives greater credibility to earlier tell-all books that have emerged from and about this White House.

Much attention inevitably will be directed at the question of exactly who Woodward's sources were, especially given the extreme character of the description of this administration. This can only be exacerbated by the possibly coincidental, possibly not, publication of the "Anonymous" op ed in The NY Times last week - just one day after the first excerpts of Fear appeared. The two accounts seem to complement each other, raising interesting questions about who is doing what in the White House and more important political and constitutional questions about who should be doing what in the White House.

One of the challenges for the public when reading this sort of political journalism is sorting out and evaluating what is interesting insider gossip, reflecting inevitably inside-the-Beltway preoccupations with who is up, who is down, who is in, who is out - preoccupations typical of any royal court and which will always continue to fascinate. 

Before recounting the crisis chronologically from Trump's initial decision to run for president (and even earlier, all the way back to his completely unconvincing 2010 conversion to being "pro-life"), the book begins with the now famous incident of Gary Cohn removing a document from the president's desk, the incident that sets the larger tone for the book: "the reality was that that United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader ... a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world."

Woodward's brief account of the campaign highlights two important themes that will matter later - Trump's preoccupation with not spending money and how he hardly expected tow in and how unprepared he was when he did. Woodward quotes Steve Bannon: "Hillary Clinton spent her entire adult life getting ready for this moment. Trump hasn't spent a second getting ready for this moment."

As an historical chronicle, Fear is a journalistic chronicle. It tells the story of the Trump presidency in a succession of short, but well pointed, vignettes, highlighting this or that particularly revealing event or White House personality. Some salient quotes:

"Secretaries of Defense don't always get to choose the president they work for" (Secretary of Defense James Mattis).

"What did you ever really run?" (Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Stephen Miller).

"I'll never be a staffer. I'm the first daughter" (Ivanka Trump to Steve Bannon).

"We need to have a process to make sure that we do this in proper order, that we've thought through these things." (Rob Porter to Vice President Pence and others).

"You can fire Comey. You can't fire the FBI" (Steve Bannon to President Trump).

"Bring me my tariffs" (President Trump to Rob Porter).

"I don't want to hear that" (President Trump to Gary Cohn, Secretary Mattis, and others at a meeting at the Pentagon).

"You should be killing guys. You don't need a strategy to kill people" (President Trump at the same meeting).

"He's a f---- moron" (Secretary Tillerson to Gary Cohn at the end of that same meeting).

"The president has zero psychological ability to recognize empathy or pity in any way" (Reince Priebus to General Kelly after being fired as Chief of Staff).

"He puts natural predators at the table. Not just rivals - predators" (Reince Priebus)

"You never apologize.  Why look weak?" (President Trump to Rob Porter after Charlottesville).

"I can't find a good lawyer" (President Trump).

"Gary's just a globalist. He's not loyal to the president" (Peter Navarro to General Kelley about Gary Cohn).

"What do we get by maintaining a massive military presence in the Korean Peninsula?" President Trump at a National Security Council Meeting)

"We're doing this in order to prevent World War III" (Secretary Mattis at the same meeting).

"I think we could be so rich, if we weren't stupid. We're being played [as] suckers, especially NATO" (President Trump at the same meeting).

"These military guys, they don't get business. They know how to be soldiers and they know how to fight. They don't understand how much it's costing" (President Trump)

What have we learned from all this? What is the picture that emerges? I think more or less what we already knew. That the President is out of his element and shockingly ill prepared for his office. That those around him are either enablers or underminers - and often underminers of one another, even more than one would expect in Washington. And, particularly tellingly, we are reminded of his preoccupation with money and wealth and how he sees most things through that lens. We are reminded that our president is a businessman - a vocation completely incompatible with public office.

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