Over the past five decades, legendary Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward has written about nine presidents, starting with dogged reporting of the Watergate scandal, with Carl Bernstein, that led to the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon.
To complete “Fear,” his latest book, Woodward returned to some of his Watergate-era, shoe-leather reporting techniques, showing up to interview sources at their homes on “deep background.” What emerges is a White House picture not unfamiliar to readers of the news coverage of the administration — but with some new revelations.
Woodward reveals a cadre of White House and Cabinet insiders increasingly alarmed at the dishonesty, lack of learning, and reckless decision-making of the world’s most powerful man.
The Seattle Times spoke with Woodward last week about his new book — and the role of journalists in covering Trump. What follows is a transcript, edited for length and clarity.
Q: You open “Fear” in September 2017 with Gary Cohn, Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, taking a document off the president’s desk — this one-page draft letter withdrawing from the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Why did you lead with that story and what did it symbolize about the Trump administration?
A: I’ve reported on nine presidents, from Nixon to Trump, and there often have been examples of aides to presidents’ defiance and disagreement, but this is the first time I actually heard that somebody took documents off the president’s desk in the Oval Office, to keep him from signing them, or signing this particular document that would … risk the relationship with South Korea on trade. We have what, 28,000 troops in South Korea? And a top-secret intelligence partnership which is vital to the security of the country. And Trump was jeopardizing this, so Gary Cohn, in an act of conscience and necessity, acted in what he perceived to be the larger national interest.
Q: It is extraordinary. I think some people might even have been alarmed by someone who was not elected by the people grabbing that document.
A: Yeah, but also I think people should be alarmed about Trump. … I think overall the book shows we have a governing crisis. That the president has set up policies based on ideas and facts that are not true, and that he is gambling in so many areas of foreign affairs, with the economy, with immigration, with tariffs, you name it. It’s a gambling presidency.
Q: Throughout this book you reveal how his own team views him as a narcissistic, cable news-obsessed, short-attention-span figure. And these aides are running around trying to impede his worst impulses. You said it’s a governing crisis. Is your reportage a case for Donald Trump’s unfitness for office?
A: Well, he was elected, he’s president. That’s something for the political system to decide, I think, not for reporters. All I can do is report what I find. … Reporters, authors need to disengage emotionally from Trump and stick to the facts as much as possible. There is a lot of unhinged commentary, particularly on television, on one hand, condemnation of him on CNN, MSNBC, and then adoration of him on Fox News.
Q: You’ve reported very critically on Donald Trump and yet I think I hear you saying you’re not rooting for a particular outcome and that that’s not necessarily the media’s role. I think you were critical of CNN’s lawsuit over Jim Acosta’s press pass. Why is that?
A: I was at a conference in Florida and somebody asked, “If the White House revoked your press pass, would you sue?” And I said first of all, I don’t have a White House press pass. In 47 years, I’ve never had one, never asked for one, never been to a White House press briefing, never been to a White House presidential press conference because all of those events are theater. They should be covered and they are important, but I’m trying to find out what goes on behind the scenes and I don’t need a press pass to do that. … But I don’t — I don’t criticize. News organizations, my own, The Washington Post does a great job covering them and they’ve got to be covered. But I think the question is what is he really doing as president, and I had the luxury of time to dig into it and try to describe in as many areas as possible exactly what and why.
Q: You’re known obviously for your Watergate-era reporting on Richard Nixon. In the book I was struck by White House staff secretary Rob Porter likening Trump’s rage about Robert Mueller to Nixon’s final days in office, when he was praying, pounding the carpet and talking to pictures of past presidents on the walls. What do you make of that comparison coming in year one of the Trump presidency?
A: This is somebody who was very close to Trump. He had that office of staff secretary, right below the Oval Office, and was shocked, as were others, at Trump just losing it, losing his cool over the Mueller investigation. We see some of that in public — tweets, press conferences, you know, “It’s a witch hunt. It’s this and that.” But when you go behind the scenes, as I was able to do, you see the scope and intensity of the emotional reaction to Mueller. Lots of people I talked to were astonished that it was a Nixonian raw kind of unleashing of, “How can this be happening to me? I’m president of the United States. This is not fair. This is not right.” So there it is, but you’ve singled out a very important scene in the book to just show the nature of this going off the rails.
Q: With the quantity of people who’ve talked about what’s going on inside the White House, is this a cry for help? Are they looking for action? What do you think the motivation is?
A: You always have to ask what’s the motivation. And I found because I was able to go see people in their homes, which was really important, that there’s a lot of conscience and courage in this, that the closer people are to Trump, the more they were worried because of what they see. For instance, the chief of staff, John Kelly, called him an idiot. Said we can’t persuade him of anything. “He won’t listen. This is crazy town. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.” They are asking fundamental questions about what the hell’s going on here.
Q: Your interviews were conducted on deep background, which means you talk to people and recorded most, but you’re not revealing them as sources. You’ve used that technique for a long time. Did you ever consider pushing anybody to go on the record?
A: It’s a mistake, if I may say, that journalism is making, that somehow it’s pure if we get some statement on the record. But suppose it’s a lie, suppose it’s untrue. We can’t run around and say, well the president said it on the record or the secretary of state said this. We have to test it and assess it. And particularly if we find out it’s not true, we have a responsibility to not just report that, but to focus on that. … Now increasingly because Trump says so many things that are untrue, there is the frequent phrase “without evidence.” … People are onto it. And so they are inevitably using background or deep background sources. I find if I’d said to some of these people, well how about doing all this on the record, I think I would be laughed out of the room, simply because, in these matters, somebody is not going to speak on the record. And we know that, reporters know that, human readers of the newspaper know that.
Q: Some of the people quoted in your book, including John Kelly and John Dowd, the president’s counsel, issued statements some time ago trying to dispute some of your reporting, with Dowd saying there was no practice session or mock interview with the special counsel. … The statement I saw actually said he hadn’t read the book at that point, but what is your response? Do some of these fall in the category of non-denial denials? Or what are they?
A: These are politically calculated survival statements. I understand that. … They’re not even, they don’t even rise to the level of being non-denial denials. Some of the statements were, well, “It didn’t reflect my full time at the White House.” … And, well, OK. People have been out giving interviews. … I think H.R. McMaster said on the record, yeah, the document I described was taken off the president’s desk. So, they should be entitled to have their say. I don’t think anyone feels that those were anything other than attempts to paper over the truth.
Q: You close the book with John Dowd, the president’s counsel, calling him “a [expletive] liar.” And I think you’ve been asked —
A: On Fox News, I think it was Sean Hannity asked him, said aren’t you worried that got out? And that’s when Dowd said, yeah, it shouldn’t have got out.
Q: Why choose that as your end point? It wasn’t just chronology, I take it.
A: No, the importance of that is this is the president’s lawyer. This is the person who’s worked with him intimately for what, eight months? Who is a supporter of the president, who goes through this routine, practice session — whatever he said about it, it happened. And the sourcing and the evidence is impeccable. And reached the conclusion that the president is disabled. I guess evidence supporting this view is Dowd threatened to and eventually resigned because he told the president: You can’t testify. You are disabled. I will not sit next to you and have you testify under oath because you will wind up in an orange jumpsuit.
This isn’t Adam Schiff, or some Democrat, or Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer saying this about the president. This is the president’s lawyer. Now I vividly recall during the Nixon case, there were lots of lawyers for Nixon and they sometimes disputed what he said, certainly whenever he was in office, they never said he was a [expletive] liar. And so this is extraordinary. And the context is the facts are disposable. … Just, oh, you know, let’s just come up with our own facts and statements and beliefs on everything. That’s the problem. That’s why it’s a national emergency.
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