One of my favorite moments in the Woodward book:
“Trump liked signing. It meant he was doing things, and he had an up-and-down penmanship that looked authoritative in black Magic Marker.”
— Carlos Lozada (@CarlosLozadaWP) September 10, 2018
Bob Woodward’s massive volumes are not meant to be read from start to finish, any more than one would read the motel Yellow Pages alphabetically in search of an open diner. They are expensive objects meant to establish the buyer’s political savvy, or to search the index for anecdotes about one’s frenemies. Most of them roll out for the media tour under the hidden subtext that Everything Is Working Out for the Best; the newest — note the snappy title! — falls into the small & lethal category of This Subject Has Become A Problem And Will Be Dealt With Accordingly.
Yet despite Woodward’s sterling history among the highly credentialed, reviewers no longer seem completely convinced he can repeat his 1974 marketing coup. Isaac Chotiner, at Slate, says “Bob Woodward’s new book presents Trump staffers as our last line of defense. We’re doomed.”
… Woodward’s book—which arrived at around the same time as the already infamous, still-currently anonymous New York Times op-ed about the men and women in the executive branch supposedly working to protect America from Donald Trump—is as much a portrait of the craven, ineffective, and counterproductive group of “adults” surrounding Trump as it is a more predictable look into the president’s shortcomings. It’s not entirely clear how aware Woodward is of what he has revealed about the people he’s quoting at length. (Sources tend to come off well in his books.) But intentionally or not, Fear will make plain to the last optimist that, just as Republicans in Congress are unlikely to save us, neither are the relative grown-ups in the Trump administration.
Is Woodward the last optimist? He obviously believes that Trump is unfit to be president, but a reader can’t quite shake the sense that he somehow thinks maybe, just maybe, things could be different with the right coaching or incentives. Fear is a book full of stories about Trump being contained; his instincts being thwarted; his worst qualities being slightly minimized by people who claim to be afraid of what would happen if they weren’t there. “It’s not what we did for the country,” former Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn says early on. “It’s what we saved him from doing.” Quotes like this aim to settle the ethical debate—which has been going on from the start of the Trump presidency—over whether anyone should be working for a bigoted and corrupt president with no respect for democracy, even if they are planning to, in that most tiresome phrase, contain his worst impulses. But that conversation has obscured the more pressing question of what those supposedly well-intentioned individuals can actually accomplish from the inside. Even allowing for the self-serving nature of the accounts that Woodward offers here, the answer appears to be: not much.
Indeed, the near-misses Woodward writes about feel particularly insubstantial, in part because very few of these aides and appointees seem to really grasp the nature of the man they are serving (no matter how much they talk about his stupidity and recklessness), and in part because Trump himself is so clueless and aimless that he rarely seems to follow through on his worst ideas anyway. (The terrible things he has followed through on, such as various immigration policies, are not really discussed at length, and on these matters a good chunk of his staff appear to agree with him.) Moreover, many of these aides are tasked with—or see their roles as—not preventing policy decisions, but instead putting the nicest, non-Trumpy face on Trumpism; the ethics of this deserves its own debate…
But don’t tell the people who worked in the White House that maybe they didn’t actually do anything to mitigate the unfolding disaster, even though most readers of Woodward’s book will probably come away feeling grateful for their brave sacrifices. “A third of my job was trying to react to some of the really dangerous ideas that he had and try to give him reasons to believe that maybe they weren’t such good ideas,” Porter says at one point, in self-pitying fashion, and without any convincing specifics. And no matter how incompetent and horrible Trump is, his staff never throws in the towel. Porter, 20 pages after his “breaking point” over Charlottesville, is heard lamenting the incapacity of the president to fulfill his duties, but ascribes it to the specific stress of the Russia investigation. The dream will never die…
Oh cool, something struck Rob Porter instead of the other way around. https://t.co/3DrVf24Ocp
— shauna (@goldengateblond) September 11, 2018
I think Woodward is freaking out Trump the most because in his limited grasp of history he's the guy who brought down a presidency. It's that basic.
— Schooley (@Rschooley) September 11, 2018
Pretty sure they were leaking anonymously to Bob Woodward back in 1973 as well. https://t.co/EAViSTGtfR
— Byron Tau (@ByronTau) September 8, 2018
This press release for "Fear" includes a long list of supportive quotes about Woodward. Look at the very end for a quote from none other than President Trump. "You've always been fair," Trump told Woodward last month… pic.twitter.com/Hc5vPFDz2M
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) September 11, 2018