Bob Woodward: Stenographer of the Washington Establishment

At the end of Trump’s first term, there are scores of people the president has humiliated, fired by tweet, and excoriated publicly after nasty and public fallings out, and all of them have stories to tell. These angry, jilted rejects from the Trump administration, the presidential version of The Apprentice, have poured out their hearts, and their grievances, to Washington’s reporting angel, Bob Woodward. From national security heavyweights, to former and current senators and White House officials, to generals famous for their silence, the veteran Watergate journalist transcribes them all in his latest book Rage.

While Trump wasn’t interviewed for Woodward’s first book on the administration, the president picked up the phone and spoke to Woodward a total of 18 times for this latest offering. Yet even with that level of access, the book suffers from Woodward’s uncritical embrace of narratives spun by ex-officials transparently attempting to resuscitate their own reputations after Trump’s unceremonious defenestrations.

Rage is awash with an astonishing array of self-serving narratives: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein drafting the memo that justified firing FBI Director James Comey in May 2017; pious Marine Corps General Jim Mattis praying at Washington’s National Cathedral for the country’s fate under Trump’s command; oil executive and erstwhile Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bemoaning Trump not keeping his word and his fire-by-tweet; Jared Kushner opining on his brilliant father-in-law’s “great strength” of unpredictability, to name a few.

The biggest problem with Woodward’s books on the Trump administration is that he serves up these self-interested perspectives with far too much credulity. History is written by the winners, and everyone wants to be certain Woodward captures their version of events. Throughout both Fear and Rage, the reader can never be certain who is talking, because Woodward serves up his narrative in omniscient voice. Almost all the original reporting Woodward conducted is on “deep background.” Whomever it is that spoke to Woodward wasn’t willing to publicly put their names to what they told him. 

But it’s not too difficult to guess who his sources are, because in their own telling, they are the heroes. And who, other than the people present in the room themselves, could tell Woodward the thoughts of central players or word for word what happened at private White House meetings, or on the golf course with Trump? 

In Fear, a predictable bevy of former White House officials like Steve Bannon, Gary Cohn, Rob Porter, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly and Chris Christie tell Woodward how lunatic, imbecilic, or angry Trump is, and how they personally stood between the president and disaster. 

In Rage, Woodward has some new sources, and new heroes. In this passage from the Epilogue of Rage, see if you can guess who they are:

Mattis, Tillerson and Coats are all conservatives or apolitical people who wanted to help him and the country. Imperfect men who answered the call to public service. They were not the deep state. Yet each departed with cruel words from their leader. They concluded that Trump was an unstable threat to their country. Think about that for a moment: The top national security leaders thought the president of the United States was a danger to the country.

It’s Mattis, Tillerson and former director of national intelligence Dan Coats—coincidentally the very same people whom Woodward has heavily relied on for his Rage narrative. 

In one particularly striking scene, Woodward writes that Mattis told Coats, “There may come a time when we have to take collective action” since Trump is “dangerous. He’s unfit.”

It’s not clear what sort of action Mattis is referring to. After all, Mattis famously declined to dish any dirt on his former boss after resigning. Mattis said, “if you leave an administration, you owe some silence,” and “when the time’s right to speak out about policy or strategy, I’ll speak out.”

Mattis resigned in December 2018 after disagreeing with Trump on withdrawing troops from Syria, something the president had promised to do many times during the 2016 presidential campaign. As recently as June 2020, Mattis said he had just come to the realization that Trump was a threat to the Constitutionas a result of Trump’s decision to deploy soldiers to quell the George Floyd protests in Washington, D.C. This means that Woodward’s account, in which Mattis calls Trump “dangerous” and “unfit” in 2019, can’t be true. 

According to Woodward, Mattis disagreed with Trump on policy: Trump made “a terrible decision” on Syria; he “didn’t agree” with Mattis and crossed his “red line.”

“I was often trying to impose reason over impulse. And you see where I wasn’t able to, because the tweets would get out there,” Mattis said of Trump. He calls Trump’s attitude towards allies “indefensible.”

“It was jingoism. It was a misguided form of nationalism. It was not patriotism.”

When Mattis resigned, he reportedly told Trump, “You’re going to have to get the next secretary of defense to lose to ISIS. I’m not going to do it.”

The retired Marine Corps general tells Woodward he’s “buried too many boys” to risk Trump escalating violence in the Middle East. Trump is the first president that hasn’t either started a war or brought the U.S. into a new armed conflict in over 39 years. Yet Woodward doesn’t press Mattis on his conclusion that Trump is “dangerous,” “unfit,” and going to get boys killed.

In another chapter of Rage, Woodward writes uncritically that Tillerson and Mattis “had stopped or slowed some of Trump’s intentions in Afghanistan and South Korea, but their ambitious goal of directing foreign policy had largely failed.”

In another chapter, Tillerson is unceremoniously fired via tweet. Tillerson “was never told why he was fired. The president did not give him a reason.”

Maybe Tillerson was axed because he was, on his own admission, obstructing the president’s wishes on foreign policy?

None of these people were forced to work for the Trump administration. But by doing so, one would presume they all agreed to carry out Trump’s policies, not surreptitiously work to sabotage his agenda behind his back. They also all had the option of resigning and speaking out publicly about what they believed the dangers they saw were.

But that’s not what they did. They talked to Woodward, anonymously, and in his telling, people like Mattis and Tillerson are the “adults in the room”—even when they behave appallingly, openly flouting Trump’s policy goals, Woodward doesn’t seriously question their accounts.

Consider this scene Woodward describes: Gary Cohn, then-chief White House economic adviser, prevented President Trump from withdrawing from a trade agreement with South Korea by simply removing a letter announcing the withdrawal from the Resolute desk. Trump reportedly never noticed the letter was missing. 

In conversations with former White House adviser Rob Porter, Cohn threatened to reprise his tactic and remove another letter in order to prevent Trump from leaving the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.)

“I can stop this. I’ll just take the paper off his desk,” Cohn tells Porter.

It is shocking that Cohn felt empowered to literally take options off the table of the duly-elected president of the United States; and more shocking still, Woodward recounts this without putting any pressure on Cohn as to the story’s veracity or the narrator’s chutzpah.

While there’s an endless parade of self-serving accounts from disgruntled former staff in both books, there’s nothing about the deal President Trump helped facilitate between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. While the deal is only the third Arab-Israeli peace deal negotiated since Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, and the first time a diplomatic relationship has been established between Israel and a Gulf Arab country, it doesn’t merit a single word in the forty six chapters of Rage. 

In the epilogue, Woodward abandons journalistic impartiality and weighs in on his opinion of Trump: he’s “the wrong man for the job” of president. But Woodward need not have written this for the reader to know his conclusion. Napoleon once said that history is “an agreed upon fable.” Through his unquestioning use of self-serving sources, Woodward allows Rage to be nothing more than a shockingly unabashed stenography of the Washington establishment.

September 24, 2020 4:01 am

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