It’s the Sunday after the Friday that the Deputy Attorney General of the U.S. has been accused of talking about secretly tape-recording the President to help preserve the Republic, and I’m sitting in Bob Woodward’s dining room in Washington discussing which Commanders in Chief contended with the most rebellious advisers.
Woodward’s latest book, Fear: Trump in the White House, sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week partly because it’s by Woodward, who has been reporting this kind of behind-the-scenes stuff for years, and partly because his latest volume includes hair-curling tales of top officials working behind the scenes to foil and undermine a President they consider to be unstable.
Still neatly dressed from a television appearance earlier in the morning, Woodward has welcomed me into his Georgetown home, poured some coffee, added a generous dose of milk and made sure my tape recorder is working. “O.K.,” he says, “let’s get to work.” So I ask: Do White House aides leak more—and resist more—than when you first talked to Richard Nixon’s advisers during Watergate, 45 years ago? Woodward thinks back. “Nixon’s aides went along. They resisted some things. But basically they got with the program. Obviously a lot of Trump’s aides, former and current, are not with his program.” But then he adds, “The word resistance, I don’t know if that’s the right word. I think it’s defiance.”
Fear lays bare so many shortcomings of Trump’s decision making that it’s hard to contain them. Trump insists on actions but rarely follows through. He has so much trouble telling the truth that his lawyer calls him “disabled.” The President undercuts and insults his aides while expecting loyalty in return. (Instead, they call him an “idiot” and a “moron.”) Woodward’s sources tell him that Trump knows little about economics, trade, capital flows, global supply chains, defense spending, mutual security or nuclear strategy and dismisses anyone who says they do. Top aides ignore or dismiss Trump’s orders, conspiring to remove decision memorandums from his desk rather than run the risk of letting him sign them.
Much of the internal warfare goes to a clash of two very different world views at the heart of the Trump presidency. The President, a handful of aides and a big segment of the GOP base seem convinced that trade and defense alliances are robbing our nation of untold riches and that we are being played for chumps when we help keep the peace overseas. Allied against them are mainstream Republicans, economists, and a fair number of admirals and generals who believe that the rules-based system set up after World War II has made the nation stronger and invested the American people in shared global security. The story of the Administration so far is one of Trump trying to advance his populist instincts and the establishment head-butting back.
Trump is shown to be frustrated but unschooled in how to use the office and its powers. In one passage, Woodward reprints a margin note, clearly taken from a speech text, in which Trump has handwritten “TRADE is BAD.” And though Trump never comes out and says that in the speech, the phrase is a perfect distillation of what he actually thinks. Where does that idea even come from? “It reflects that nationalistic, isolationistic” instinct he has, says the author, “not only America first, but America only.”
For every example of Trump aides quietly conspiring to slow things down, there are others where it seems to happen organically. Explains Woodward, speaking a little cryptically (which he has, after all, earned the right to do): “Some of these people know each other and work together.” Others, he says, don’t.
At 75, Robert Upshur Woodward doesn’t need to keep doing this. His status as the best investigative reporter of his generation—O.K., maybe any generation—is assured. And in writing Fear he sometimes asked himself why he kept at it. Like the night he found himself driving uninvited to a Trump official’s house at 11 for an unscheduled interview. That late-night conversation lasted until nearly dawn.
Ours won’t go nearly that long today, in part because Woodward’s story is already well known. He grew up in Illinois, attended Yale, joined the Navy, served on a ship off the coast of Vietnam and then, abandoning the idea of law school, moved to Washington to become a newspaperman. The Post hired him in 1971, and within a year he and Carl Bernstein were reporting the Watergate break-in. Two years later, Nixon had resigned while he and Bernstein had become world-famous.
Fear, Woodward admits, was harder to write than many of his 18 previous books because he was trying to record, and make sense of, a chaotic presidency even as it was unfolding. “Other books were done in the middle of presidencies,” he says. “But not with this kind of … intensity.”
Woodward has lost little of the Midwestern optimism or the fierce objectivity that has marked his career. Ever curious, he seems interested in everything and everyone. (He still reads Proceedings magazine, the geeky technical bible of naval officers.) And yet it is hard to miss the concerned tone in his voice when he reviews the stakes of this moment. People need to wake up, he has said repeatedly. He is worried about what a President with a disruptive bent will do in a genuine crisis. And he is aware, too, that Americans by a wide margin don’t trust the media. He acknowledges that his omniscient narratives, based on multiple background interviews, may pose a greater challenge for readers in an era of “fake news” than they did when he wrote about previous Presidents.
That’s a reminder that Woodward has reported on (and written books about) all of the past nine Presidents, a fifth of the grand total. Late in the conversation, we discuss how every President is a prisoner of the one who came before. “Presidents live in the unfinished business of their predecessors,” he says. We know, for example, that Barack Obama warned Trump about the challenges that North Korea poses, and Fear shows that Trump felt Obama wasn’t up to them. But while Trump has tried both childish bluster (“Little Rocket Man”) and negotiation to meet the same challenges, he has yet to unravel the peninsular knot. Easily the most dramatic passage in Fear involves a meeting in the super secure Pentagon “Tank” in July 2017 where Trump’s two White House camps nearly come to blows over what to do about U.S. troops in South Korea. Both sides walk away, exasperated. It is hard to imagine how Trump, unable to make peace among his factions, can do a deal with North Korea’s Kim.
Then there is Russia. Fear’s final chapters describe how Trump’s personal attorney John Dowd tried for months to talk Trump out of testifying to special counsel Robert Mueller about the Russia investigation, lest he perjure himself or worse. Dowd came to believe Trump was incapable of telling the truth and would, by testifying, only risk being indicted. Woodward reports on the astonishing steps Dowd took to keep Trump from speaking under oath, including role-playing a conversation for Mueller between his prosecutors and a clueless President. Dowd, says Woodward, may have opted for “the only road to save Trump from himself, which of course Trump does not know how to do by himself.” When that failed, Dowd quit.
And there Woodward stops, until his next volume appears. He names a bunch of top Trump aides, generals and lawyers and then notes they are all “trying to save Trump from himself. And to save the country.”
This appears in the October 08, 2018 issue of TIME.