A Bob Woodward book is a record of a sequence of transactions. In exchange for access and information, Woodward offers Washington power holders the opportunity to disparage their rivals and aggrandize themselves. But be warned that a Woodward proposition is never guaranteed. It comes hedged with dense, finely printed terms and conditions. And Woodward’s scoops have a way of turning out to be less new than they are first advertised.
Shrewd Washington players understand the risks of a deal with Woodward and negotiate their contracts carefully. The classic example is Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve. Greenspan gave access to Woodward in the late 1990s and collected a handsome return in the form of an adulatory book, unironically titled Maestro. The book concludes with lavish praise:
Although his words are almost unbearably opaque, he appears to be doing something rare—telling the truth. The very act of thinking, the strain in his wrinkled forehead, can be seen in the video footage of him before the microphone. At times it seems painful. But the public has rewarded his caution, reflection and the results with their confidence. That he is the unelected steward of the economy is simply accepted. … With Greenspan, we find comfort.
That’s the reward that can be extracted by those who know their business—the prize for the canny and effective. It’s the prize Donald Trump hungered for and that Woodward dangled in front of him at the beginning of the Trump era. Woodward was spotted headed into Trump Tower on January 3. Two weeks later, he appeared on TV to entice Trump with a mouthwatering bid: validation of Trump’s accusations of an FBI plot against him. That day, Woodward made a rare non-book-promoting TV appearance on Trump’s favorite network. Speaking to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Woodward poured ferocious scorn on the Steele dossier, which had been recently published by BuzzFeed. Trump immediately tweeted his gratitude. “Thank you to Bob Woodward who said, ‘That is a garbage document…it never should have been presented…Trump’s right to be upset (angry)…”
Despite the thank-you tweet, Woodward’s hopes for early access to Trump were disappointed—a fact Woodward communicated in September 2018 by releasing an audiotape of a conversation with the president from the month before.
Bob Woodward: I’m sorry we missed the opportunity to talk for the book.
Donald Trump: Well, I just spoke with Kellyanne [Conway], and she asked me if I got a call. I never got a call. I never got a message. Who did you ask about speaking to me? … I’ll speak to Kellyanne. I am a little surprised that she wouldn’t have told me. In fact, she just walked in. He said that he told you.
Kellyanne Conway: Yes.
Trump: About speaking to me. But you never told me. Why didn’t you tell me?
Trump: I would’ve been very happy to speak to him. All right, so what are you going to do?
Part of the art of the deal with Woodward is that it’s dangerous to sell a “yes” too cheaply, but there may also be a price to pay for an outright “no.” Woodward preserved in Fear the trajectory of his disillusionment with Conway. He writes about her in glowing terms on pages 16 through 18, more neutrally on pages 24 and 25; belittles her on page 36; and then drops her from most of the remainder of the book. He tells one negative story after another about the president, culminating in the book’s final assessment, a quote from Trump’s then–personal lawyer, John Dowd: “[He’s] a fucking liar.”
Yet in retrospect, it’s evident that Woodward was still bargaining with Trump. Fear was nowhere near as harsh a book as it could have been. On Trump’s central concern from 2017 to 2018, the investigation into whether his campaign had colluded with Russia, Woodward published unchallenged the arguments of Dowd and others that the whole matter was a hoax. Dowd’s quote about the president lying was embedded in a long defense of Trump, a verbatim transcript that fills much of the final chapter of the book.
But as Woodward continued his negotiation, he also apparently revised his assessment of his negotiating partner. Back in 2017, Woodward seems to have believed that with Trump he was doing business with a savvy customer like Greenspan. Hence, Woodward’s endorsement of Trump’s denials of Russian influence—although on that topic, Woodward may also have succumbed to “Not invented here” syndrome, the temptation to dismiss stories he hadn’t himself uncovered. As he commenced discussions on a second book, however, Woodward evidently realized that he was dealing with a chump, a sucker, a patsy, a galoot—the schmendrick of all schmendricks. In the end, Trump gave much, and got nothing.
Trump had absorbed the light slapping of Fear and concluded that if only he had spoken with Woodward, he could have coaxed him into more flattery. As Peter Baker reported in The New York Times:
The president did not speak with him for Fear, Mr. Woodward’s first book on Mr. Trump published in 2018, a decision that the president blamed on his staff and regretted because he believed he could have made the account more positive. As a result, Mr. Trump decided early on to cooperate with Rage, to be published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster, reasoning that he would be able to better shape the narrative.
Trump did not understand that you do not reason with Woodward. You haggle with him, then you work him. You also must understand the risks. Woodward will adhere to the strict letter of any agreement. But if you think there is some unspoken understanding of favorable treatment beyond the strict letter, you will be rudely awakened, just as President George W. Bush was rudely awakened when Woodward followed two laudatory volumes—Bush at War and Plan of Attack—with the harshly critical State of Denial. Presidents talk with Woodward hoping to sway public opinion about their administrations. Their mistake is not understanding that Woodward does not sway conventional opinion. He is swayed by conventional opinion. So long as that is with you, Woodward is with you. Let that turn against you, and Woodward will turn.
Trump instead imagined that he could do unto Woodward as Woodward was doing unto him: flatter him into compliance. As Baker further reported:
During his first interview with Mr. Woodward for the book last December, aides tried to end it after a while, but the president brushed them off. ‘Go ahead,’ he said to Mr. Woodward. ‘I find it interesting. I love this guy. Even though he writes shit about me.’
Trump was only towel-snapping with that comment. Deep into 2019 and well into 2020, Trump deluded himself that he had found a potent media ally in Woodward. He tweeted in October 2019, “Good job, I must say, by Bob Woodward on ‘Deface the Nation.’ The CBS no name host(ess), and other guest, Peter Baker of The Failing New York Times, were totally biased, boring and wrong (as usual), but Woodward was cool, calm and interesting. Thank you Bob!
Not until August did it occur to Trump that he, the nation’s con artist in chief, had been out-conned. In fact, he had conned himself. He tweeted:
“About the only way a person is able to write a book on me is if they agree that it will contain as much bad ‘stuff’ as possible, much of which is lies. It’s like getting a job with CNN or MSDNC and saying that ‘President Trump is great.’ You have ZERO chance. FAKE NEWS!
“..Even whether it’s dumb warmongers like John Bolton, social pretenders like Bob Woodward, who never has anything good to say, or an unstable niece, who was now rightfully shunned, scorned and mocked her entire life, and never even liked by her own very kind & caring grandfather!”
And again, after the first reports on the book were published:
For years Fake stories and investigations, then the phony Russia, Russia, Russia HOAX, next Ukraine and the failed Impeachment, now the crummy Atlantic Magazine’s MADE UP STORY, and lastly, the political hit job by rapidly fading Bob Woodward and his boring book. It never ends!
As the initial reports on Rage whipped up a firestorm of controversy, Trump added:
Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months. If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers. Calm, no panic!
But all too late.
For what it’s worth, I believe that there is much less than meets the eye to the most headline-grabbing quote in Rage: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
As recorded, that reads like a cold-blooded confession that Trump intentionally concealed deadly knowledge at a time—February and March—when that knowledge could have saved lives. But you can reach that conclusion only if you believe that Trump knows things the way fully rational people know them: as statements about reality that exist independently from the speaker. Trump’s mind does not work that way. He does not observe the world and then use words to describe it. He speaks the words he wishes you to believe, and then trusts the world to conform to his wishes.
Understanding Trump’s indifference to fact supplies the answer to the question that most puzzled me when I first heard Trump’s self-damning COVID-19 quotes to Woodward. The earliest of those comes from February 7, fully three weeks before the first documented COVID-19 death in the United States on February 28. If Trump understood on February 7 how dangerous the coronavirus was, why didn’t he do something about it? It’s at least rational to cover up a scandal or a crime. A pandemic cannot be covered up. If Trump understood the lethality, he could have acted in time to protect—not the country, because there’s little evidence he cares about that—but himself. Yet he did not.
But despite the hashtag #TrumpKnew, Trump did not actually know anything. He said things to meet the need of the fleeting moment. In February, the need of the moment was to levitate the stock market. By mid-March, the need of the moment was to sound smart, aware, in the know. Two days before Trump’s headline-grabbing quote to Woodward, on March 17, Trump said virtually the same thing at a televised press conference. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.” Woodward did not unearth some big scoop. Trump simply repeated for Woodward the same I knew all about it better than anybody message that Trump had already placed on the public record.
That’s the weird thing about the Trump era. The biggest scandals occur in full public view. When Trump takes bribes, he does so in a huge building on Pennsylvania Avenue with his name on the door. When Trump directs public money to his own businesses, he invites the press corps along to record him doing it. When Trump solicits Russian help against his political opponents, he shouts the ask on live TV. And when Trump admits that he lied about the coronavirus, he admits it in real time, again on television.
The young Woodward earned his fame connecting Richard Nixon to the Watergate break-in of June 1972. If Trump had ordered that crime, he’d have bragged about it on TV the very next day, insisted he was smart to do it, that the Democrats had always done worse, and that he was the real victim. The burglars would have posed for selfies inside the office in Trump-Pence 2020 sweatshirts and called into Hannity to cackle about their caper.
We saw it all happen! The president not only told everybody at the time—he bragged about it at the time. We are surprised only because we forgot what we ourselves witnessed. There’s something quite brilliant in how Woodward and his publishers can use our amnesia for their marketing. But there is something very unbrilliant, indeed ominously dangerous, in the inability of the American public and even the American media to remember crimes and scandals that they witnessed in every last detail as they happened.