The biannual publication of a Bob Woodward book is a must-read for political junkies. Given the sui generis nature of Trump, is Fear a must read for everyone else? Well, did you know Trump impulsively tweets, lies, and watches a lot of cable news – and these aren’t good qualities in a president? If that’s news to you, you should pick it up.
Otherwise, it is a document dump that, even more than previous books, relies nearly entirely on demonstrating that Woodward can cultivate sources. A Washingtonian who wants a flattering description talks. (“Mattis…read books all the time. He had 7,000 books in his library. Also known as the “Warrior Monk,”…)
Beyond them it a very limited, gossipy view of the presidency. Nikki Haley, Ben Carson, Stormy Daniels and many many others don’t even get a mention. Is that purely out of caution for factual accuracy after Michael Wolff and a general practice of being a journalist instead of historian? Fine, but then many of the chapters would be best served as Washington Post stories. The sources he relies on don’t get very critical validations. Everyone knows the Colin Powell game now.
The billing before publication teased that this would be an in depth look at the decision making of, and as the title suggests, risks of Trump as president. Yet virtually nothing that was not previously known about the administration is new here. The Inside Baseball minutiae are never more tedious than here. Whether Peter Navarro should be an “Assistant to the President”, “Deputy Assistant” or “Special Assistant” (Trump making the natural but still uninformed guess the latter is a more prestigious title when it’s historically been the lowest of the three) is utterly uninteresting especially given the recitations of how little hierarchy there is in this White House.
The parlor game of who is Woodward’s source is never easier than in this book. Worse of the reader, many of them have already spoken out — Steve Bannon copiously so. It was appalling how much Trump’s lawyers and especially John Dowd were willing to betray a client’s confidence to cover their future asses.
There are however, several public policy takeaways I didn’t expect to have:
- The portrayal of Trump’s defense regarding Russian collusion suggests, based on these sources, he really feels there is nothing to hide.
- The North Korean mess — a multi-decade legacy — is even worse than one would think. The book disappoints in not covering the change of pace from Trump from Kim being “Little Rocket Man” to a BFF. Still, revelations of policy incompetence and the nature of the challenges there is the strongest, most original part of the work. (“U.S. intelligence had incontrovertible evidence that the Chinese had supplied the eight-axle vehicle that was a key component of these complex missile systems…From October 17 to 19, 2017, the U.S. Air Force ran an elaborate series of simulated air strikes in the Missouri Ozarks. The region has a similar topography to North Korea.”)
- While Trump seems incapable cognitively nor emotionally to be able to separate concerns for foreign military engagements and trade neither is the majority of the establishment portrayed in the book. They’re better read, more experienced, more temperate to be sure: but as intellectually lazy as Trump in other ways. Is the cure worse than the disease? Likely, but there’s still a portrait of the disease. Does Trump know what he doesn’t know more than the very rote if well meaning Sen. Lindsay Graham? I felt that way after reading this.
It is the third point, given Woodward’s wide knowledge of the foreign policy world, that would have made for a more illuminating and maybe actionable book. Trump is at his best acting as a gadfly, questioning assumptions about why nearly two decades later we’re still in Afghanistan. He never gets a good answer, but we’re supposed to cluck along with the more civilized professional class of foreign policy leaders that the the guy asking the question is a moron. He is, but this is one of those times the broken clock is right.
When McMaster tried to sell a slimmed-down version of concepts like “frames” or the R4s, Trump was cruelly dismissive. He had one question: “What the fuck are we doing there?”
…Trump exploded, most particularly at his generals. You guys have created this situation. It’s been a disaster. You’re the architects of this mess in Afghanistan. You created these problems. You’re smart guys, but I have to tell you, you’re part of the problem. And you haven’t been able to fix it, and you’re making it worse.
I’m with Trump on this, and frankly as a leader that’s the way to isolate the question and get a resolution. He doesn’t have the administrative skills to implement his vision but at least a right question is being asked. That has me hoping if there is even a serendipitous method to Trump’s madness with North Korea.
Other nuggets of interest:
When the chips were down in the campaign, needing to raise funds: ““Maybe we can get $25 million out of him,” said Kushner, adding a caveat: “He doesn’t have a lot of cash.”” That’s a pretty extraordinary thing to say – especially if the Kushners are running out of money too – but no accountants were talking to Woodward.
“The tweets were not incidental to his presidency. They were central. He ordered printouts of his recent tweets that had received a high number of likes, 200,000 or more. He studied them to find the common themes in the most successful. He seemed to want to become more strategic, find out whether success was tied to the subject, the language or simply the surprise that the president was weighing in. The most effective tweets were often the most shocking.”
As CEOs were quitting counsels after Charlottesville: “Most significant, however, were the private reactions from House Speaker Ryan and Senate majority leader McConnell. Both Republicans called some of the CEOs and privately praised them for standing up.” How could a book author let it pass that the leaders of the branches of government responsible for oversight were so feckless?