Another book on Trump? Seeing that it was Woodward I could not help myself, and I bought my copy, like I do with all Woodward books, including his prior Trump effort “Fear: Trump in the White House.” This book, in my view, had the larger impact, coming prior to the election, and getting much media coverage.
Woodward always is sourced impeccably, with folks tripping over themselves to talk to him, both on and off the record. For the “Fear” book Woodward failed to get Trump to sit for an interview, which Trump seemed to regret. (There is a recording of a phone call between Trump and Woodward in which Trump pretended not to have received Woodward’s many interview requests for “Fear” when the book was getting ready to be released.) In this effort Trump was interviewed by Woodward many times, on the record, and on tape. He probably would have been better off not talking. The book got a lot of coverage for the Trump admission to Woodward that he had deliberately downplayed to the American public the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus. The press had a field day with that, comparing Trump’s public statements with what he represented to Woodward.
The book has many pieces that have been covered extensively by the press, including some interesting detail on Rod Rosenstein and the designating of a special counsel, a little inside baseball on the departure of General Jim Mattis, a look at the bureaucratic war between Jared Kushner and Chief of Staff John Kelly, and some of Kushner’s observations (excuses?) for the Trump style of governance. I found the book to be very good but I took special note of the Kushner parts.
So what did Kushner say that was so interesting? On Trump’s willingness to break commitments he made to Congressional leadership, and others, Kushner blamed others.
“In 2018, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan had a simple question: How do we get the President not to change his mind again? Guys, Kushner said to the Republican leaders, shifting blame from Trump, ‘it’s not that he changes his mind. It’s because he wasn’t staffed correctly. People weren’t giving him all the facts and so he found out different facts. So you can’t try to trick him into making a decision and then expect that he’ll hold to that position.’”……… “Where others saw fickleness or even lies, Kushner saw Trump’s constant shifting inconsistency as a challenge to be met with an ever-adapting form of managing up. Incomplete information, inadequate staffing-the appearance of impulsive decision making was all someone else’s fault, according to Kushner. John Kelly had a less flattering assessment. ‘Crazytown’ Kelly said.”
Rage, Woodward, Bob page 146
Left unsaid, by Kushner, was the fact that every President gets conflicting points of view. Setting up management systems to direct the flow of information into an orderly decision-making process is part of being President. John Kelly tried to create that orderly process but was cashiered when Trump determined that such orderly systems were not for him.
Woodward had some interesting, but well covered elsewhere, tidbits on the Mueller investigation. Dan Coats, former Republican Senator and Trump DNI, gave some very interesting information to Woodward, including the story of his replacement by tweet.
During the course of his interviews with Woodward Trump deployed the tactics familiar to all who might have watched his dealings with the press. Woodward was frustrated by Trump’s question bending answer style, but managed to get out of him some observations that made this a better book because of the interviews. Trump’s observations on his relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un were, in my view, some of the more interesting parts of the book. (Woodward managed to get out of Trump a look at the letters exchanged between the two.)
In going back to Kushner and the observations he made to Woodward I found them to be the most interesting part of the book, and I believe, whether intended or not, the most illuminating on the Trump method of operation. Kushner cited four references that, in his view, are central to “understanding” Trump. The first is a Peggy Noonan column from the Wall Street Journal “Over Trump We Are as Divided as Ever” from March of 2018. Woodward is a bit incredulous, as the Noonan column is highly dubious of the potential for long term success for Trump. Why? From the Noonan column cited by Kushner.
“One thinks: He’s crazy . . . and it’s kind of working. But everything we know tells us crazy doesn’t last.”
“You look at his White House and see what appears to be epic instability, mismanagement and confusion. You see his resentments and unpredictability. You used to think he’s surrounded by solid sophisticates, but they’re leaving. He’s unserious— Vladimir Putin says his missiles can get around any U.S. defense, and Mr. Trump is tweeting about Alec Baldwin. He careens around—he has big congressional meetings that are like talk shows where he’s the host, and he says things that are both soft and tough and you think Hmmm, maybe that’s a way through, but the next day it turns out it was only talk. This has been done on the Dreamers, on guns and we’ll see about tariffs. He loves chaos—he brags about this—but it isn’t strategic chaos in pursuit of ends, it’s purposeless disorder for the fun of it. We are not talking about being colorfully, craftily unpredictable, as political masters like FDR and Reagan sometimes were, but something more unfortunate, an unhinged or not-fully-hinged quality that feels like screwball tragedy.”
Kushner also cited, again to Woodward’s astonishment, the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. This observation is astute, as Kushner says:
“He paraphrased the cat: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there.’ The Cheshire Cat’s strategy was one of endurance and persistence, not direction.”
Rage, Woodward, Bob page 258
That is, in my view, exactly right, and explains Trump’s constant changes, pulling the rug out from agreements that might have seemed solid, and all the chaos cited by Noonan. The road traveled may change daily, exclusively through whim, and the daily political judgement of Trump. Today’s judgement may be different than yesterdays pronouncement, and if so no big deal.
The third citation issued by Kushner was the book “The Gatekeepers” by Chris Whipple. (great book) in which Trump’s refusal to be managed by Chiefs of Staffs Reince Priebus and John Kelly lead to the Whipple observation that “what seems clear, as of this writing, and almost a year into his Presidency, is that Trump will be Trump, no matter his Chief of Staff.” Whipple’s entire point of view in the book was that without a strong Chief of Staff a Presidency would likely flounder.
The fourth citation by Kushner was the book “Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter” by Scott Adams.
“Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, explains in Win Bigly that Trump’s misstatements of fact are not regrettable errors or ethical lapses, but part of a technique called ‘intentional wrongness persuasion.’ Adams argues Trump ‘can create any reality’ for most voters on most issues and ‘all you will remember is that he provided his reasons, he didn’t apologize, and his opponents called him a liar like they always do.’”
Rage, Woodward, Bob page 258
Kushner cites this book in looking at a specific Trump lie told on the economy in a State of the Union address. Kushner’s view?
“Controversy elevates message.”
Rage, Woodward, Bob page 259
Kushner’s view is that the fighting and accusations about the lies and misrepresentations get people to focus their attention where Trump wants it. I imagine Kushner may now be rethinking his theory of the case on the “controversy elevates message” idea.
Finally I would cite the conversations with Lindsey Graham as critical to understanding the Trump reaction to the pandemic. Graham told Woodward (on the Trump response to the virus):
“’He’s got one foot in and one foot out’, Graham said, describing the call afterwards, ‘He wants to be a wartime president but he doesn’t want to own any more than he has to own.’”
Rage, Woodward, Bob page 309
Ultimately that judgement by Graham, in my view, was adopted by the American public and was one of the major factors leading to Trump’s ultimate defeat.
I think Woodward, despite a subject matter that has been covered extensively, brought new material forward that makes this book an important, and good, read. For those that might be wondering whether Woodward will go for a third Trump book he has begun work, with Robert Costa, on that effort. I wonder if Trump will agree to be interviewed?