By Bob Woodward
The Trump presidency is encountering existential challenges which may be impossible to resolve. We read press reports every day about the growing dysfunction of a White House where vicious in-fighting is the norm and the President appears to pay more attention to his media coverage than the 320 million Americans that he represents.
There are many aspects to Bob Woodward’s book, Fear: Trump in the White House, that are deeply troubling. The book picks up during the final stretch of the 2016 Presidential campaign and guides the reader through the first year of Trump’s term in office. The Presidents is impetuous and constantly angry, personal feuds between key staffers show no signs of abating and the administration remains deeply divided about how to respond to the most consequential international and domestic issues of our time.
Woodward’s style is that of a reporter. Overall the prose is bland and he offers little in terms of rhetorical flourishes. It is a text that sticks rigidly to the facts and provides an accounting of events that Woodward has extrapolated from interviews with all the key players–except notably with Trump himself. There is very little editorialising from Woodward–save for an interjection lambasting the decision by the intelligence agencies to brief Trump on the infamous “pee-tape” allegations. The book is more of a chronicle and it does little to pull the events together into an overall narrative. In this sense, the book provides a number of picaresque snapshots of life inside a very unusual White House.
The book is hugely detailed in revealing the intricate deliberations surrounding the key policy issues. Even still, there is very little reporting on a number of key issues including the attempts to repeal Obamacare, the executive order to ban foreign nationals from seven Muslim majority countries, and the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Such omissions aside, the book does present a revealing portrait of how the Trump White House operates and the challenges of working to constrain a very unorthodox President. The book has been very widely reported on and clearly has struck a chord with a public looking to understand, or gawp at, the unfolding drama of witnessing a President who doesn’t want to play by the rules.
Trump’s international worldview
Donald Trump is a complicated political figure. Before he had declared himself a candidate for President he had supported democratic causes and socially liberal policies. He then made a drift towards the right, perhaps more for expediency than a Damascus like reckoning with the ideology of tea-party conservatism. There is no doubt that many of the views that the Donald espoused on the campaign trail were authentic representations of how he felt, but he has been able to adjust when needed to suit the prevailing political winds.
It is difficult to reach a unified conception of what Trumpism is and how this relates to his style of governance. Still, there are areas where we can see a consistency in the way in which he has approached issues of foreign policy and international affairs.
One area where Trump has been largely consistent over the years is around the issue of trade. Trump sees the United States as being ripped off and disrespected on the international stage by nations that want to get one over on one the world’s largest economy. He supposes that the United States has been decimated by the exploitative practices of international competitors who have sought to flood the American economy with cheap imports and undercut the American manufacturing industry. Trump wants to redress this imbalance even when it can threaten to undermine America’s national security. The book details how Trump is ready to pull out of KORUS, a free-trade deal with South Korea which underpins the wider security cooperation between America and the South Koreans. The principle animating force for Trump is the $18 billion trade deficit that South Korea has with the United States. Trump is told by his economic advisors that trade deficits don’t matter, but Trump supported by his commerce secretary Wilbur Ross and economic advisor Peter Navarro is convinced otherwise.
Trump does not understand why America is providing so much military and economic aid to the south Koreans and fails to grasp what American is getting in return. The difficulty, as Trump’s national security advisors, explain is that existing cooperation arrangements will allow the Americans to detect and shoot down a North Korean missile within 7 seconds of deployment, alternative arrangements to locate the missile defence systems in Alaska would lengthen this time to 15 minutes.
Trump sees the world in transactional terms, and despite repeated protestations by his foreign policy and national security teams, he is adamant that the agreement should be renegotiated. But in testament to the sheer dysfunction of the Trump White House, when a memorandum found its way to the president’s desk for signature which would extricate the united states from this agreement, Gary Cohn, the president’s national economic advisor simply stole the memo from the president’s desk, and the president then forgot about it.
“Mattis showed signs that he was tired of the disparaging of the military and intelligence capability. And of Trump’s unwillingness to comprehend their significance. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III.”
Trump also does not care much about the longstanding assumption that the United States should act as the world policeman. The administrations’ lack of clarity over what to do in Iraq and Afghanistan is a case in point. In his accounting of the various deliberations that the administration was going through in formulating a policy response to the Middle East, the book almost reads like Woodward’s previous account of the Obama administrations discussions over how best to defeat the Taliban. Trumps foreign policy advisors make a case for the need to continue the war in Afghanistan as a means of preventing a terrorist attack on the United States mainland. Trump, however, upon seeing the extent to which America has achieved so little in it’s near 17 years engagement in the region, is sceptical that expanding military American operations in the region is the best way forward. It could be in some way comforting to think that Trump’s frustration is over the futility of a war in which American soldiers are risking their lives for very little in return. That is surely amongst the calculus, but the prevailing mood of Trump’s objection is first that the war is not presenting an opportunity in which the Americans are able to declare some kind of victory, and secondly because it is not being used as an opportunity to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources.
“Trump wanted the minerals. “They have offered us their minerals!” he said at one meeting. “Offered us everything. Why aren’t we there taking them? You guys are sitting on your ass. The Chinese are raiding the place.”
For Trump, the value of any foreign war is not even entered into with the Bush-like appeals to the normative value of promoting, liberty and democratic values. Instead for Trump, such entanglements are only of value so long as they can produce a windfall to the US Treasury. He also does not care about the practicalities of how a military operation can be executed. At one point he even questions the extent to which a strategy is even necessary, as trump obliquely quipped: “You should be killing guys. You don’t need a strategy to kill people.”
By Woodward’s accounting, the Whitehouse has become a madhouse as various factions fight it out to establish supremacy. The dysfunction emanates from the top and proceeds to filter downwards so that every sinew of Government is paralysed by in-fighting. Trump was well known to promote feuds among his staff when he was in the private sector and it’s a tradition he has carried with him into government. He likes people that are ruthless, that take no prisoners, and the atmosphere that he has incubated is one in which everyone must either kill or be killed. The approach taken by President Lincoln was to invite rivals into his cabinet to promote the best talent and produce the best solutions. As Trump’s former chief of staff has attested, the current Presidents approach was a little different;
“He had not put a team of political rivals or competitors at the table, Priebus concluded. “He puts natural predators at the table,” Priebus said later. “Not just rivals—predators.”
The most prominent factions in the administration are drawn loosely between the America first contingent of Steve Bannon, Wilbur Ross, Peter Navarro, Stephen Miller and often Trump himself and the globalists, Gary Cohen, Javanka Rob Porter and Rex Tillerson. It is like a weird version of the sharks vs the jets; only the stakes are much higher.
“An absolute and complete mess”—the Cohn-Mnuchin faction versus the Navarro-Ross faction. “It’s just a free-for-all, a melee, a sort of every-man-for-himself state of nature.”
Trump had unprecedented success on his campaign trail by tapping into an undercurrent of American exceptionalism that had been dormant under Obama. Trump had taken aim against international elites who were exploiting American workers, and against the free movement of people into the United States from overseas. Trump saw how animated his supporters were by a message of America first, and his message of taking back control was front and centre in his inauguration speech. But within the administration itself, there were deep reservations about a closed, protectionist America and what it would mean for the economy. The feud between these two power bases, which did not represent incidentally codified and organised forms of opposition, was largely responsible for the lack of external clarity around key policy issues. On a whole host of issues from immigration to global alliances, the divisions represented competing visions of America and its place within the world more broadly.
Trump is also not alien to starting feuds of his own: with members of the public; with members of Congress or staffers within his own Whitehouse. The book depicts Trump as someone with a unique ability to be unmoved by the most basic level of empathy for other people. One of his more prominent feuds was with the late Senator John McCain. At one point Trump is at dinner with generals and other members of the foreign policy establishment and Trump criticized McCain for taking the cowards way out and accepting early release as a prisoner of war. General Mattis quickly corrected the President that in fact, the opposite was true and that McCain had refused early release. This represented just another blow by Trump against McCain who had previously declared that McCain was not, in fact, a war hero, because unlike a real war hero he had been captured.
Trump also cares little for those within his immediate circle of advisors. In the book, he describes his former chief, of staff, Renice Priebus, as a rat that just scurries around. For his efforts, he is later fired by the President through a tweet. There is also no love lost between Trump and his former secretary of state rex Tillerson who– incidentally– was also fired by a tweet. Tillerson never managed to connect with the president and he had great respect for the international rules-based system of foreign diplomacy that Trump so detested. Trump continually undercut his secretary of state and had little patience for Tillerson’s long and drawn out analyses pertaining to the global balance of power. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is perhaps given the worst treatment over his failure in the eyes of Trump to refuse to recuse himself over the Russia investigation.
“Recusing himself made the attorney general a “traitor,” Trump said to Porter. The president made fun of his Southern accent. “This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb Southerner.”
Similarly, those working for Trump have low opinions of the 45th President. Tillerson infamously chose to describe the president in rather undiplomatic language.
“All the air seemed to have come out of Tillerson. He could not abide Trump’s attack on the generals. The president was speaking as if the U.S. military was a mercenary force for hire. If a country wouldn’t pay us to be there, then we didn’t want to be there. As if there were no American interests in forging and keeping a peaceful world order, as if the American organizing principle was money. “Are you okay?” Cohn asked him. “He’s a fucking moron,” Tillerson said so everyone heard.”
What is clear is that the level of animus that is directed between staffers in the Trump Whitehouse is beyond anything in recent political history.
If the book is to be believed then the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia have totally consumed Donald Trump. It is relatively easy to appreciate why this is. For one thing, special investigator Robert Mueller has been given unusually broad powers to investigate so-called “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russian agents. There still remain a number of key and unanswered questions surrounding the whole affair. What knowledge, for example, did Trump have of the conversations between his former national security advisor and the Russian ambassador pursuant to the lifting of sanctions? What advance knowledge did Donald Trump have of the hacked emails from the DNC and John Podesta? These are all questions which will be illuminated in the fullness of time. But from the book, we know that these questions and the whole conspiracy around Russia have wound up Donald trump pretty bad. The demands of the investigation were interfering with his ability to do the job of President. His levels of despair had almost reached lows of Nixonian proportions.
“Porter had never seen Trump so visibly disturbed. He knew Trump was a narcissist who saw everything in terms of its impact on him. But the hours of raging reminded Porter of what he had read about Nixon’s final days in office—praying, pounding the carpet, talking to the pictures of past presidents on the walls. Trump’s behavior was now in the paranoid territory.”
The book portrays Trump’s lawyers as viewing the whole investigation with a deep sense of mistrust and suspicion. Even still, their initial strategy was to comply with the requests of the special prosecutor’s office by handing over documents and cooperating in the hope that the investigation would be wrapped up quickly. Over a year out, there hopes appear to be misguided. The book details the legal wrangling over whether Trump will be forced to submit to questions from Mueller and his team. From reading the book one gets little sense that the Mueller investigation has anything substantial on Trump himself. But by testifying, Trump could risk falling into a perjury trap. There is an amusing scene where John Dowd tries to run Trump through a mock interview and he cannot do so without going “off script” and lying.
The thing that the special counsel needs to prove to bring charges against Trump is that some of his behaviours, like asking then FBI director James Comey to ” let go” of his investigation into Michael Flynn, was done with corrupt intent
“How Mueller might look at this would turn on the evidence of Trump’s conduct. The key would be fathoming Trump’s intent. Was there a “corrupt” motive, as required by the statute, in his actions to impede justice?”
There have already been a number of indictments, subpoenas and even convictions. But whether Trump had an active role or knew about this is still a matter open for debate. But it is certainly not a good look that Trump previously made public comments to the effect of that he hoped that Russia would release the stolen emails hacked by Russian agents.
What is clear from the book is that the investigation has severely impacted the ability of Donald Trump to actually get on with the business of being president and he sees himself as the victim of a spurious witch hunt that is inspired totally by political purposes.
Overall, Fear: Trump in the White House is a jarring book that portrays a White House, and a presidency that is in serious trouble. There are feuds within every level of government and people within the administration are desperately scared of the conduct of the President. The book provides a snapshot of a presidency at a certain moment in time, and there is no doubt that we will find out much more about how crazy the Trump White House really was in later years.
The coverage of events in the book is a bit uneven and pivotal moments are practically left out. But it is better than the more salacious “Fire and Fury” which came out earlier in the year, and it does offer some real insight into the extent of divisions in the Trump White House. It is difficult to know where the Trump White house will end up, but all we can do is watch along and pray that things don’t go off the rails and we are not sleepwalking into an all but certain disaster.