A look at Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House”

Fear: Trump in the White HouseFear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a veteran of the many Woodward books on Washington politics, and generally I have enjoyed them all. I enjoyed this one as well, but from my perspective it was not a flowing narrative of the Trump candidacy and Presidency, but rather a book that moves from subject to subject, depending on where Woodward’s primary sources took him. It is not hard to figure out who those sources are, with Cohn, Priebus, Bannon, Porter, et al being prominently placed in the book.

My view of the book is that it is a good read, fascinating in its own way, telling us some things that many likely understood to be the case before the book. Trump is shown to be a policy ignoramus, with the staff (sources) holding him back from his most reckless instincts, especially on foreign policy. Many of those episodes have been covered in the press, with Trump tweeting about many of them himself. Having said all that I did not take the book to be as negative to Trump as the publicity would have you believe. Whether Trump’s position on Afghanistan is cited (wants to get out) or on Iran (wanted to exit the nuclear agreement) the discussion does not show Trump to be off the rails as much as it shows an enthusiastic willingness to tell huge lies in support of his policy objectives. On Iran you can, and likely should, criticize Trump for his insistence that Iran was in “violation” of the agreement in spite of the evidence that showed otherwise, but that misses the larger point. Trump could care less whether Iran was in “compliance” with the terms of the agreement, with the truth of the matter not even remotely important. He wanted out of the agreement for political, as well as substantive reasons, and that desire simply put him into propaganda mode, which does not even consider what the truth is.

“One day Tillerson came to the dining room next to the Oval Office to see Trump and Priebus and explain to the president again that there was no violation. “They are in violation,” Trump insisted, “and you should make the case that this agreement is done and finished.” He suggested they might consider reopening the terms of the deal. “And that maybe we’d be willing to renegotiate.” “Mr. President,” Tillerson said in exasperation, “you have the authority. You’re the president. You just tell me what you want me to do. You call the shots. I’ll do what you say.” He was getting dangerously close to violating the protocols of dealing with a president.”

Woodward, Bob. Fear: Trump in the White House (pp. 131-132). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

On Afghanistan Trump’s lazy approach is criticized implicitly, but his view remains the view that he ran for President espousing, despite his unwillingness as President to follow through. Trump makes you pay a steep price, as a staff member, for forcing him to deviate from his gut instinct. I would have to say that Trump himself would not likely object to the below characterization.

“McMaster spent the initial part of the meeting identifying objectives and framing issues for discussion. Trump looked bored and seemed disengaged. After about five minutes, he interrupted. “I’ve been hearing about this nonsense about Afghanistan for 17 years with no success,” he said before McMaster had finished laying out the issues. We’ve got a bunch of inconsistent, short-term strategies. We can’t continue with the same old strategy. He brought up his meeting with the troops the previous day. The best information I’ve gotten was from a couple of those line soldiers, not the generals, he said. “I don’t care about you guys,” he told Mattis, Dunford and McMaster. We’re losing big in Afghanistan. It’s a disaster. Our allies aren’t helping. Ghost soldiers—those paid but not serving—are ripping us off.
NATO is a disaster and a waste, he said. The soldiers had told him that NATO staff were totally dysfunctional. “Pakistan isn’t helping us. They’re not really a friend,” despite the $1.3 billion a year in aid the U.S. gave them. He said he refused to send any additional aid. The Afghan leaders were corrupt and making money off of the United States, he insisted. The poppy fields, largely in Taliban territory, are out of control. “The soldiers on the ground could run things much better than you,” the president told his generals and advisers. “They could do a much better job. I don’t know what the hell we’re doing.” It was a 25-minute dressing-down of the generals and senior officials.”

Woodward, Bob. Fear: Trump in the White House (pp. 124-125). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Trump’s views on trade, and his stated desire to promote trade policies that would “bring back manufacturing” to the United States are covered in some detail, with Woodward highlighting Gary Cohn’s fruitless attempts to explain the textbook economics of trade to Trump. The book shows Trump’s refusal to contemplate change in his trade beliefs despite a constant drumbeat from Cohn:

“Several times Cohn just asked the president, “Why do you have these views?” “I just do,” Trump replied. “I’ve had these views for 30 years.” “That doesn’t mean they’re right,” Cohn said. “I had the view for 15 years I could play professional football. It doesn’t mean I was right.”

Woodward, Bob. Fear: Trump in the White House (p. 138). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

But again I think the effort to show Trump as either ignorant of, or unwilling to learn, on trade misses the larger point. He does not care about the truth on trade because he perceives the politics of his position as bearing fruit in critical areas of the country, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. That is all he cares about, so he will deny (and infuriate academics) obvious economic truths because those truths are not important to him, and acknowledgement could be politically damaging to him. (See global warming)

Trump’s dysfunctional method of managing staff is highlighted, but we did not need the book to show us that. It has been covered extensively in the media and frankly has not even been a blip on the political radar. But it is very entertaining.

The book is, as always with Woodward, well researched and well sourced. No question in my mind that the episodes represented are accurate. Woodward always gives you a readable and entertaining book, and this is no exception. Trump has dominated the media coverage of his candidacy and presidency, and even though this book highlights some of his glaring deficiencies it simply is part of that domination, and not likely to change any views on the Trump presidency. The first answers on how the public views that Presidency are right around the corner with the mid-term elections. Read the book, but more importantly get out and vote in those mid-terms. The future of the country depends on it.

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