However bad you fear the situation might be inside the Trump White House, the reality is even worse, says Bob Woodward, half of the duo behind the Watergate tapes, and the author of Fear: Trump in the White House, out Tuesday.
Fear looks to offer readers a glimpse into a White House workplace culture as chaotic, bullheaded and motivated by self-preservation as the man on top, and the reaction from its subjects reveals just how deep the Trump administration’s problems run. Trump himself and several leading Trump staffers quoted in Fear have trashed the legendary reporter’s account, but their denials have only added to the image of infighting and lies presented in the book.
The book contains some choice quotes attributed to some of the administration’s top figures, like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis saying Trump acted like “a fifth- or sixth-grader” when discussing North Korea, or Chief of Staff John Kelly calling the President “an idiot.”
“Time and time again people will deny things,” Woodward told NPR Morning Edition host Rachel Martin. “I understand people have to protect their positions. But I’ve done hundreds of hours of interviews with people. ... These things happened.”
Woodward says his sources’ denials are driven by “political necessity,” and are a product of the way Washington generally runs.
“You crank out the great Washington denial machine,” he says. “I’ve seen this over the years, going back to the Nixon case.”
As Trump tries to take the upper hand on Woodward’s choice not to name his sources in the book, Woodward stands firm on the quality of his reporting. As he did with “Deep Throat” on Watergate, Woodward based his reporting in Fear on “deep background” interviews, sharing all available information without revealing the identity of his sources.
It’s a far more rigorous approach than, say, a recent, infamous “anonymous” New York Times op-ed from one unnamed senior administration official claiming to be “thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses,” the self-satisfied, political equivalent of a “my job here is done” meme when you consider just how many of the president’s impulses get out regardless.
“It’s critical: Who is this person and why are they masking themselves in this way?” asked Woodward in the interview. “If that person had come to me while I was working on this book or if it were someone I interviewed I would say, ‘I need specifics.’ The building blocks of journalism, of truth, are specific incidents.”
By the looks of it, Woodward has plenty of grave, highly specific details to offer readers about the threat posed by the Trump White House, not just to its staffers but to everyone living under its rule. Woodward notes a September 2017 incident, for instance, in which Trump economic advisor Gary Cohn withdrew papers from the president’s desk which would keep him from withdrawing from KORUS, a key trade agreement with South Korea. As a result, Cohn kept the president from jeopardizing a top-secret intelligence operation that would allow the U.S. to detect intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from North Korea.
“We’re underestimating how serious all of this is,” said Woodward. “People took actions to protect the country.”
To be honest, like his fellow colleagues, Cohn was probably just looking out for his own self-interest, as usual. Still, we all share in the consequence of living in Trump’s America.