Two years ago, Bob Woodward captured President Donald Trump revelling in a paroxysm of fear. ‘‘Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear,’’ and that became the title of Woodward’s epic account of the first years of Trump’s presidency.
In all the battles over policy and politics, all the unprecedented revolving-door chaos of serial chiefs of staff, Cabinet secretaries, national security advisers, all driven by the inexhaustible primal urges of Trump – what Woodward presented was an indelible picture of a presidency polluted, a constitutional office defiled, the American republic seized by a clear and present danger.
The grandmaster of Washington journalism has checkmated Trump again, in this most unvarnished presentation ever of a president at work. With Richard Nixon, it was always a question of forcible access to the secret Watergate tapes that led to his resignation. With Trump, the tapes are not hidden – he’s making them with Woodward. Seventeen of them. In the belief they will help his re-election. All the crimes are in broad daylight.
Trump said he regretted not working with Woodward on Fear. This time the uber media master could not resist the flame of Woodward’s fame. But he was not dealing with the New York Post; this is the Washington Post. Now, the operative word is ‘‘rage’’.
‘‘I bring rage out,’’ Trump told Woodward. ‘‘I do bring rage out. I always have.’’
Fear was all about Trump’s advisers trying to control him and his excesses. His Secretary of State called him a moron; his chief of staff said he is an idiot. But they stay on to keep the ship, and the country, from blowing up. In Rage the men who served as guardrails – Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats – are all gone. Fired, resigned, purged.
And they show Woodward all the scars in their guts and on their backs. They talk with brutal frankness of how Trump treated them with cruelty and duplicity; how he insulted and soiled the military commanders; how each came to understand that by staying they would be complicit in the corruption of American democracy and America’s security.
By the summer of 2019, Trump was in absolute control.
When Woodward started his reporting for this book, it was Trump’s spectacle diplomacy with Kim Jong-un (Trump cannot get over the masses of cameras covering their summits. The dictator’s smiles in all the photos with Trump.) that was most compelling. The passages on how close the US came to all-out war with North Korea are absolutely terrifying. It forced Mattis to ‘‘think the unthinkable to defend the United States’’. Ultimately Trump and Kim set aside direct war, but Kim still has all his nuclear weapons, and the stature of meeting the US president.
And Woodward has 27 letters Kim wrote Trump – and there is only one source possible for them. Trump admires dictators and Kim knows how to play Trump; his letters are exquisite exercises in flattery of the narcissist-in-chief.
Intelligence agencies everywhere will seize this book to refine their psychological profiles of Trump. His spilling his mind in hours of taped conversations is a gift. Vladimir Putin will love it. Xi Jinping will hate it.
But Rage’s heart, as amply reported, is how Trump was warned in unambiguous terms about the deadly coronavirus and the pandemic it spawned, and how Trump minimised the dangers because of the political threat it posed to his re-election – and all the consequences, from 200,000 Americans dead to an economy reeling into depression, of denying the reality of the virus, of endlessly claiming ‘‘we have it under control’’, that it will just ‘‘disappear’’, of failing to develop a national control strategy for it.
Rage forces us to see a president who never admits mistakes. Never apologises. ‘‘I don’t take responsibility for this.’’ All we hear, every day, are the ‘‘rambling repetitious often defensive and angry monologies from Trump [that] eroded confidence in his grasp of the problem and his leadership’’.
After months of taped discussion – Trump never admits any abuse of office that led to his impeachment, never engages with the legacy issues of slavery and racial justice or moves to bring the country together, and wallows in his sewer of curse words for his military commanders and conversation in the Oval Office – Trump ultimately concludes that Woodward just doesn’t understand him. ‘‘You’ll understand me after the election. But you don’t understand me now.’’
Trump is mistaken. Woodward understands this president all too well. The real threat to the country, he concludes, is ‘‘Trump himself … Trump has enshrined personal impulse as a governing principle of his presidency … Trump is the wrong man for the job.’’
Will Rage be Woodward’s last book on Trump? Or just the second one?
Simon & Schuster, $49.99