Fear: Trump in the White House
By Bob Woodward
By Paul Markowitz
Simon and Schuster, 357 pp.
Up to now there have been two working theories about the idiosyncratic presidency of Donald Trump. The dominant theory has been that Trump is too indecisive, uneducated and egotistical to be a qualified President of the United States.
The other theory, held by a small but vocal minority, has been that Trump is a breath of fresh air. He has often equivocated on matters, befriended a series of questionable heads of state, altered long-held foreign policy and trade positions — all to throw others off stride in a concerted attempt to win big concessions for the United States. This was a belief that Trump was so unorthodox, yet so adept in business negotiations, that his uniqueness would ultimately be successful in dealing with other nations.
Last month, with the publication of Fear by Bob Woodward and the anonymous editorial in the New York Times written by a present high-level staff member, this minority belief about Trump’s presidential capabilities has suddenly been shown to be totally without merit.
It is now abundantly clear, largely due to Bob Woodward’s book, that Trump is ignorant of United States foreign policy and its related trade relationships, bereft of any concern as to protocols of the presidency, fixated on long-held beliefs that are not factually verifiable and most importantly temperamentally unsuited to be President of the United States.
Woodward begins with a heretofore unknown episode in which Gary Cohn, formerly the top economic adviser to Trump, removes a letter from the President’s desk. The letter, a copy of which is included in Woodward’s book, would have terminated the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). This was done in hopes of Trump forgetting about the matter as he has the habit of doing. Cohn knew that such a revocation would threaten our economic and military relationship with South Korea and most importantly would damage our top secret intelligence operations and capabilities in Asia.
This episode followed a pattern that the author describes. Trump would propound on a long-held but inaccurate belief about a critical matter demanding it be dealt with posthaste, it would then be slow-walked by the appropriate group so ideally he would forget about the issue, or some extraneous event would draw attention away from it. Thus, little harm would ultimately be done.
Woodward, in this long-awaited book, does not surprise us with many heretofore unknown events. But he does two critical things that ultimately make his book revelatory. First, he puts the great mass of facts and anecdotes we have by now all accumulated about Trump in perspective and adds depth and meaning.
An example of this is when he describes the previously reported occasion on which then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to Trump as a “moron.” The book sets the stage for this incident by describing in great detail the major players in the administration wooing Trump away from the echo chamber of the White House to a secure room in the Pentagon. The plan was to educate and convince the President as to the benefits for the U.S. of our international system of foreign policy and trade relationships. After an intense session that seemed to maintain Trump’s notoriously short attention, the President concluded the session by returning immediately to the sort of bromides that are reminiscent of his rallies, where fact and fiction are inextricably mixed. When Trump left the room, Tillerson delivered his oft-quoted assessment of the President’s intellect. With the full context Woodward provides, you can feel Tillerson’s frustration in the moment and understand his verbal catharsis.
The other great attribute Woodward brings to Fear is his reputation as the quintessential chronicler of the modern American presidency. He has written books on the last eight presidencies and won two Pulitzer Prizes, most notably for All the President’s Men, his and Carl Bernstein’s iconic account of Nixon’s fall from grace, which remains the gold standard of Presidential coverage. All of these were written with nary a contradiction to his version of the story.
Fear covers ground that others have gone over, but adds the sort of detail and perspective that only Woodward can. He brings this highly effective style to Paul Manafort, Afghanistan, the Iran nuclear deal, Jared and Ivanka, Bannon, Priebus, Jeff Sessions, DACA, Charlottesville, “shit-hole” countries, trade agreements with China, John Dowd, tax reform, General Flynn and the Paris Peace Accords.
There are a few items in fear that have been little reported upon. One is the rather dramatic turnaround in the success of the Trump campaign after the Republican Convention, due in large part to the professionalization imposed on it by Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway — including replacing the inept Manafort as campaign manager. The other surprise of note is the — albeit brief — moderating force of Rob Porter as Staff Secretary, a little-known position of key importance in the running of the White House. Porter’s swift firing due to reports of serial marital abuse would eliminate one more buffer on the President.
The big picture presented by this inside look at the Trump presidency is of a White House largely untethered to reality, run by a man devoid of common sense, lacking in knowledge, assured of his own superiority and invincibility, and dependent on fear, anger, and unpredictability to keep his staff on edge and in line. We see a President ruled only by an undeniable belief that everyone, both friend or foe, is taking advantage of the United States financially, and that power and money are to be the overriding considerations in every transaction.
A reader puts down Fear with the conviction that those who have been charged with Trump Derangement Syndrome as a result of this administration have good reason to feel seriously perturbed — and with not a little of the feeling expressed in the book’s title.