Reporter's Notebook

Trump Nation
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An ongoing reader discussion led by James Fallows regarding Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. (For a related series, see “Trump Time Capsule,” as well as “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?”) To sound off in a substantive way, especially if you disagree with us, please send a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show None Newer Notes

Is Bob Woodward Like Walter Cronkite?

Walter Cronkite of CBS in Vietnam, in 1968. US Marine Corps photo, via WIkimedia

Two very useful assessments of Bob Woodward’s mega-best-selling Fear, officially published today, are this one by Isaac Chotiner, in Slate, and this one by Andrew Prokop, in Vox.  They both make one of the enduring points about Woodward’s long-running inside-Washington saga: how easy it is to guess at least some of the people who have talked with him.

Partly that is because these figures are presented with ongoing interior monologues: “Powell wondered: was Cheney pushing the WMD evidence too hard? Might they regret the step they were about to take? Was he being hung out to dry?” “Petraeus thought as he left the meeting, Maybe this time, at long last, Obama would finally act.” Or in the latest book, “Cohn realized, this could mean economic war. If only there were some way to head it off.” None of these is a real quote, but any of them could be.

Back in 1976, Art Levine published in The Washington Monthly a famous parody of how Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s treatment of Richard Nixon’s resignation, in The Final Days, might have applied in the final days of Naziism. Only two books into the Woodward oeuvre, Levine highlighted the source-conscious tone. His piece began:

This was an extraordinary mission. Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief, settled in for the two-hour train trip to Berchtesgaden. The two sensitive and brilliant aides were leaving behind a hot, sunny Munich. It was September 15, 1943. Ahead of them lay the mountains and lakes of western Germany and Austria. The sun poured in at a forty-seven-degree angle through the windows. For most of the travelers, the trip was an occasion for relaxation, a brief respite from the war. Yet these two public servants were not in a holiday mood.

Goering and Himmler had heard rumors that the Fuhrer was anti-Semitic. It was all hearsay, innuendo, but still, the two men were troubled.

Another clue is that these figures come off so much better in the books. Precisely because of the interior monologues, they’re more rounded, they’re more aware of the trade-offs in public choices, they’re conscience-stricken, they’re trying to do the right thing. Thus, as both Chotiner and Prokop point out, the figures who show up in Fear as struggling hardest to save the country from Trump rank high on the probably-talked-with-Woodward list. (Of course there must have been many others—including some whom Woodward could cannily have concealed by not given them the “Mattis was worried...” treatment.)

***

But there’s a second ongoing point about Woodward’s books, which is: no matter how he obtained them, Woodward’s anecdotes, allegations, and narratives have to a remarkable degree stood up.

Barack Obama leaving Marine One, in 2013. Jason Reed / Reuters

Last night I posted an item about weather conditions this past weekend in Paris, when Donald Trump joined other world leaders there, and on how rain and clouds affected helicopters, including Marine One.

(For the record, like “Air Force One,” “Marine One” isn’t a fixed name for any  particular aircraft. Whatever Air Force airplane is carrying a sitting U.S. president is, at that moment, known by the call sign Air Force One. Similarly, whatever Marine Corps helicopter carries a president is Marine One.

(Air Force One famously has had one more takeoff than landing in its history. On his final trip away from Washington in 1974, Richard Nixon departed while still president, in a plane whose call sign on takeoff was Air Force One. He had already signed his resignation papers, which went into effect while he was airborne. At the appointed time, after Gerald Ford was sworn in, the pilot of Air Force One radioed Air Traffic Control and requested that the call sign be changed to SAM 26000 — Special Air Mission — which was its ID for the rest of the flight.)

My point in that post was explicitly not to second-guess military pilots or dispatchers who might have advised against Trump’s helicoptering to the commemoration site in the clouds and rain of that day. That’s their call, and they are paid (among other things) for their judgment. Rather, I was addressing two points:

First, that an initial line in some news accounts --that helicopters “can’t fly” in the rain—was just not true. Whether a president should prudently fly by helicopter during marginal weather conditions is of course a different question.

Second, I wanted to emphasize that White House plans for foreign travel always allow for the possibility of bad weather or other surprises. Thus any White House staff I’m aware of, including the one on which I worked long ago during the Carter administration, would have set up redundant contingency plans for getting a president where he needed to be. (After all, the other foreign leaders all managed to get to the site.) Part of the advance work for the trip would necessarily include thinking through how the president would reach his destinations, if the weather turned bad. I’ve been part of these meetings myself.


Now, reader responses, starting with one from a currently active Army helicopter pilot:

I am a UH-60 Pilot-in-Command in the United States Army, currently attending [an advanced training course].

In reference to your article linked below, I can see your logic and your point in this argument that WX conditions were permissive to IMC Flight and possibly VMC flight.

The issue I have is that I, as an FAA rated instrument pilot, flying within the Army's endless rules, probably would have declined to fly VFR during this flight, and therefore would have to fly IFR which, obviously complicates air traffic, and provides higher layers of logistics and coordination to get POTUS from an instrument rated airfield (certified for the President to land at) to the event ceremony.

Donald Trump walking toward Marine One, on the South Lawn of the White House in October, 2018. Kevin Coombs / Reuters

I imagine this will be the last installment in the “weather flying with Marine One” series. Two previous entries here and here. (On the other hand, who knows that the incoming email inbox will hold.)

A person who has worked at the company that makes the current Marine One helicopter, aka VH-1, has this to say:

On your recent piece addressing the ability of the Presidential VH-1 to fly in bad weather. I would like to add some observations that my experience of nearly 10 years at Sikorsky Aircraft (the maker of the helicopter in question) allows me to contribute.  

I was [a high-level official involved in] many “systems” for Sikorsky aircraft.  I can’t say for certain (I lacked the necessary clearance for such information) which block upgrades the VH-1 received over the years, but what I can say is that aircraft from the VH-1 squadron were a constant presence at the Stratford factory for maintenance and system upgrades.

Generally speaking modern Sikorsky aircraft (which no doubt would includes the VH-1) will integrate:

  • RIPS – Rotor Icing Protection System, which is a system of heating elements and conductive wire brushes which warms the rotating blades and prevents freezing;
  • TAWS – Terrain Avoidance Warning System, which as you might guess is an integrated radar system which warns of terrain variations;
  • RIG approach -  Rig approach landing systems, which are autonomous landing systems for dangerous landings primarily on oil rigs that obviously could be used in other types of dangerous landings; and
  • Windshield Wipers; in case anyone doubted it, yes helicopter pilots have wipers at their disposable for visibility.

In short, when I read that the aircraft could not fly in the wet, fall weather in France, I was stunned.  

Canary (left), and cat. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Please read my colleagues Russell Berman, Elaina Plott, and Amanda Mull on the spectacle that took  place this afternoon in the Oval Office.

Like all but a handful of people, I saw this exchange first online, then in TV replays. Here are two body-language questions I wish I’d had the opportunity to judge up close and in person:

  1. Did Donald Trump register that Chuck Schumer was mocking him, to his face, with his “When the president brags he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble” line?

    I gasped when I saw that the first time. I’m conscious of having seen presidents from John F. Kennedy onward perform on TV, but never before have I seen one of them directly ridiculed by another senior governmental official. (To spell it out, the ridicule was Trump’s boasting about big Senate wins, based on unseating two endangered Democrats in very Republican states. Trump wasn’t talking about the results in West Virginia, Ohio, Arizona, Nevada, etc., nor of course about the House.) The closest comparison might be the labored humor of White House Correspondents Association dinners, in which the featured comedian would give the president—seated a few feet away—a celebrity-roast experience.  But that was ritualized joshing, sometimes more pointed and sometimes less. What Schumer did was impromptu and meant to convey, “Can you believe this guy?”

    That Schumer would dare make this taunt was surprising—though I suppose he could have thought to himself, “We’re two New Yorkers, we’ve known each other for decades, this is give and take.” The more surprising aspect was that Trump, hyper-alert to slights of any sort, didn’t seem to register what had happened at all. He came back with a bland, “Well we did win! We did win North Dakota, and Indiana”—as if Schumer had been challenging him on that factual point. It’s as if the response to “Ooooh, you won a participation award! You must be so proud!” had not been “Shut up!” but “Yes, I did win that.” You can see the back-and-forth starting around time 11:45 of this video.

    Did the president of the United States recognize that the minority leader of the Senate intentionally mocked him, and even turned to the press pool while doing so? From a distance, it appears that Trump did not catch this in real time. I would love to have been there to see for myself.

  2. Did Mike Pence register any emotion whatsoever, during the 15-minutes plus of this extraordinary exchange?

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un
Just two weeks ago, this was the headline news. KCNA via Reuters

It’s been barely two weeks since Donald Trump became the first American president to step onto North Korean soil, with all attendant theorizing about what the move meant, or didn’t. Was it the “biggest moment of the Trump presidency so far” and “already a political win,” as some media figures claimed? Was it, on the contrary, another sign of Trump’s “dictator envy” and “authoritarian buffoonery”? Was it a move toward peace—or war, or both, or neither, or simply more uncertainty? Who was outwitting whom?

Although it was just two weeks in the past, that moment feels like two centuries ago, given the nonstop series of crises and “Breaking news!” emergencies since then. For instance: the census showdown; the Jeffrey Epstein/Alexander Acosta disasters; the leaked British ambassador cables; more rumblings about Iran and China; the horrors of migrant-detention-camp conditions; and the long-threatened kickoff this weekend of ICE roundup raids.

Today I got a reminder note from a reader who had written in just after that “historic” encounter at the Korean DMZ. He argues that the uninterrupted torrent of (usually Trump-generated) emergencies since then reinforces the point he originally made.

His point involved a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years. That is: The people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions—journalists, historians, political veterans, people who pride themselves on figuring out what is “really” going on—are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump.

This is obviously not a brand-new insight. But the reader states the case trenchantly enough that I think it’s worth sharing. Two weeks ago, after the Korean episode, the reader wrote:

I had an epiphany sometime around the midterms, after about 2 years of watching and reading heavy duty analysis by so many serious folks who, because it’s their job I suppose, tend to *project* seriousness, intent, thought, strategy, forethought, planning, and other such things, each time Trump does something. No matter how loose the cannon gets, most serious journalists default to a polite interpretation that suggests, say, Trump had something in mind when he just did that ridiculous thing.

Put another way, they’re suggesting he’s crazy like a Fox, not just an idiot.

At some point I found myself trying to explain to a friend why Trump did something kooky. As I considered everything I concluded what he was doing was strictly for the attention. It was for one news cycle. No strategy, no planning, no idea about implications. And no intention of following up even a day later.

Tanks in Washington D.C. ten days ago, when plans for a Fourth of July parade were the emergency of the moment
Tanks in Washington D.C. ten days ago, when plans for a Fourth of July parade were the emergency of the moment Kevin Fogarty / Reuters

In response to this item yesterday, “There’s No Understanding Donald Trump,” other readers weigh in.

As a reminder: The main point of the previous piece was that trying to analyze why Donald Trump does the things he does is like trying to analyze the motives of a cat. Each of them acts. Now, more comments.

1) What you’re overlooking. A reader at a tech company writes:

I completely agree with this piece, except for one thing.

You and the reader you quote describe the part we see and the part that gets reported.  Absolutely a reality show.

All of the journalistic analysis is far beyond ridiculous.

The other half (below the surface) that is so grossly under-reported is the very Republican direction of decisions made in every agency in the government and by every cabinet member.  These are not made for TV because they are boring to read about.  But they are consistent in how they continue the transfer of wealth to the one percent and the one percent of the one percent.

Several other readers return to this theme: that too much of the press is too wrapped up in the impossible mission of “understanding” Trump, and too few are spending too little time unveiling the what of this era’s policies.


2) What if this theory is correct? Also on the predicament of the press, from another reader:

Just read the piece about the reader who says, "the people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions...are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump."

I believe he’s right and wrong—right in the sense that we have “a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years,” but wrong, or not quite right, in his explanation of this.

Specifically, in my view, the problem isn't a lack of understanding about Trump. Rather it’s what they [analysts and the press] actually do understand, or at least strongly suspect on some deeper or sub-conscious level, but struggle to accept, because of the problematic implications of accepting this.

For example, suppose the reader is right that Trump is actually governing as if he were doing a reality TV show. How would journalists convey this, without creating the impression that they're irrational and biased against Trump?

I believe the reader's theory is credible, but the idea also makes me very uncomfortable. Were I to tell someone else that I took this notion seriously I would be hyper-aware of how irrational this sounds. Indeed, I hold my tongue with friends and family at times for this reason. I would guess most journalists would experience a similar level of discomfort.

And suppose some of them could overcome this—how do they convey this without discrediting themselves in the process? I think there might be ways to do this, but there's no certainty it would work. Because of that I have some sympathy for journalists and political analysts. At the same time, I'm also extremely frustrated. In my view, alarm bells should be ringing, or at least ringing much louder and clearer. I think we need an equivalent to shouting “the Emperor has no clothes!,” but in a way that doesn't make the messenger seem like he lost his marbles.