Q&A with Bob Woodward: Trumpís gambling presidency is Ďa national emergencyí

Dec. 3, 2018

Over the past five decades, legendary Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward has written about nine presidents, starting with dogged reporting of the Watergate scandal, with Carl Bernstein, that led to the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon.

To complete ďFear,Ē his latest book, Woodward returned to some of his Watergate-era, shoe-leather reporting techniques, showing up to interview sources at their homes on ďdeep background.Ē What emerges is a White House picture not unfamiliar to readers of the news coverage of the administration ó but with some new revelations.

Woodward reveals a cadre of White House and Cabinet insiders increasingly alarmed at the dishonesty, lack of learning, and reckless decision-making of the worldís most powerful man.

The Seattle Times spoke with Woodward last week about his new book ó and the role of journalists in covering Trump. What follows is a transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Q: You open ďFearĒ in September 2017 with Gary Cohn, Donald Trumpís top economic adviser, taking a document off the presidentís desk ó this one-page draft letter withdrawing from the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. Why did you lead with that story and what did it symbolize about the Trump administration?

A: Iíve reported on nine presidents, from Nixon to Trump, and there often have been examples of aides to presidentsí defiance and disagreement, but this is the first time I actually heard that somebody took documents off the presidentís desk in the Oval Office, to keep him from signing them, or signing this particular document that would Ö risk the relationship with South Korea on trade. We have what, 28,000 troops in South Korea? And a top-secret intelligence partnership which is vital to the security of the country. And Trump was jeopardizing this, so Gary Cohn, in an act of conscience and necessity, acted in what he perceived to be the larger national interest.

Q: It is extraordinary. I think some people might even have been alarmed by someone who was not elected by the people grabbing that document.

A: Yeah, but also I think people should be alarmed about Trump. Ö I think overall the book shows we have a governing crisis. That the president has set up policies based on ideas and facts that are not true, and that he is gambling in so many areas of foreign affairs, with the economy, with immigration, with tariffs, you name it. Itís a gambling presidency.

Q: Throughout this book you reveal how his own team views him as a narcissistic, cable news-obsessed, short-attention-span figure. And these aides are running around trying to impede his worst impulses. You said itís a governing crisis. Is your reportage a case for Donald Trumpís unfitness for office?

A: Well, he was elected, heís president. Thatís something for the political system to decide, I think, not for reporters. All I can do is report what I find. Ö Reporters, authors need to disengage emotionally from Trump and stick to the facts as much as possible. There is a lot of unhinged commentary, particularly on television, on one hand, condemnation of him on CNN, MSNBC, and then adoration of him on Fox News.

Q: Youíve reported very critically on Donald Trump and yet I think I hear you saying youíre not rooting for a particular outcome and that thatís not necessarily the mediaís role. I think you were critical of CNNís lawsuit over Jim Acostaís press pass. Why is that?

A: I was at a conference in Florida and somebody asked, ďIf the White House revoked your press pass, would you sue?Ē And I said first of all, I donít have a White House press pass. In 47 years, Iíve never had one, never asked for one, never been to a White House press briefing, never been to a White House presidential press conference because all of those events are theater. They should be covered and they are important, but Iím trying to find out what goes on behind the scenes and I donít need a press pass to do that. Ö But I donít ó I donít criticize. News organizations, my own, The Washington Post does a great job covering them and theyíve got to be covered. But I think the question is what is he really doing as president, and I had the luxury of time to dig into it and try to describe in as many areas as possible exactly what and why.

Q: Youíre known obviously for your Watergate-era reporting on Richard Nixon. In the book I was struck by White House staff secretary Rob Porter likening Trumpís rage about Robert Mueller to Nixonís final days in office, when he was praying, pounding the carpet and talking to pictures of past presidents on the walls. What do you make of that comparison coming in year one of the Trump presidency?

A: This is somebody who was very close to Trump. He had that office of staff secretary, right below the Oval Office, and was shocked, as were others, at Trump just losing it, losing his cool over the Mueller investigation. We see some of that in public ó tweets, press conferences, you know, ďItís a witch hunt. Itís this and that.Ē But when you go behind the scenes, as I was able to do, you see the scope and intensity of the emotional reaction to Mueller. Lots of people I talked to were astonished that it was a Nixonian raw kind of unleashing of, ďHow can this be happening to me? Iím president of the United States. This is not fair. This is not right.Ē So there it is, but youíve singled out a very important scene in the book to just show the nature of this going off the rails.

Q: With the quantity of people whoíve talked about whatís going on inside the White House, is this a cry for help? Are they looking for action? What do you think the motivation is?

A: You always have to ask whatís the motivation. And I found because I was able to go see people in their homes, which was really important, that thereís a lot of conscience and courage in this, that the closer people are to Trump, the more they were worried because of what they see. For instance, the chief of staff, John Kelly, called him an idiot. Said we canít persuade him of anything. ďHe wonít listen. This is crazy town. This is the worst job Iíve ever had.Ē They are asking fundamental questions about what the hellís going on here.

Q: Your interviews were conducted on deep background, which means you talk to people and recorded most, but youíre not revealing them as sources. Youíve used that technique for a long time. Did you ever consider pushing anybody to go on the record?

A: Itís a mistake, if I may say, that journalism is making, that somehow itís pure if we get some statement on the record. But suppose itís a lie, suppose itís untrue. We canít run around and say, well the president said it on the record or the secretary of state said this. We have to test it and assess it. And particularly if we find out itís not true, we have a responsibility to not just report that, but to focus on that. Ö Now increasingly because Trump says so many things that are untrue, there is the frequent phrase ďwithout evidence.Ē Ö People are onto it. And so they are inevitably using background or deep background sources. I find if Iíd said to some of these people, well how about doing all this on the record, I think I would be laughed out of the room, simply because, in these matters, somebody is not going to speak on the record. And we know that, reporters know that, human readers of the newspaper know that.

Q: Some of the people quoted in your book, including John Kelly and John Dowd, the presidentís counsel, issued statements some time ago trying to dispute some of your reporting, with Dowd saying there was no practice session or mock interview with the special counsel. Ö The statement I saw actually said he hadnít read the book at that point, but what is your response? Do some of these fall in the category of non-denial denials? Or what are they?

A: These are politically calculated survival statements. I understand that. Ö Theyíre not even, they donít even rise to the level of being non-denial denials. Some of the statements were, well, ďIt didnít reflect my full time at the White House.Ē Ö And, well, OK. People have been out giving interviews. Ö I think H.R. McMaster said on the record, yeah, the document I described was taken off the presidentís desk. So, they should be entitled to have their say. I donít think anyone feels that those were anything other than attempts to paper over the truth.

Q: You close the book with John Dowd, the presidentís counsel, calling him ďa [expletive] liar.Ē And I think youíve been asked ó

A: On Fox News, I think it was Sean Hannity asked him, said arenít you worried that got out? And thatís when Dowd said, yeah, it shouldnít have got out.

Q: Why choose that as your end point? It wasnít just chronology, I take it.

A: No, the importance of that is this is the presidentís lawyer. This is the person whoís worked with him intimately for what, eight months? Who is a supporter of the president, who goes through this routine, practice session ó whatever he said about it, it happened. And the sourcing and the evidence is impeccable. And reached the conclusion that the president is disabled. I guess evidence supporting this view is Dowd threatened to and eventually resigned because he told the president: You canít testify. You are disabled. I will not sit next to you and have you testify under oath because you will wind up in an orange jumpsuit.

This isnít Adam Schiff, or some Democrat, or Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer saying this about the president. This is the presidentís lawyer. Now I vividly recall during the Nixon case, there were lots of lawyers for Nixon and they sometimes disputed what he said, certainly whenever he was in office, they never said he was a [expletive] liar. And so this is extraordinary. And the context is the facts are disposable. Ö Just, oh, you know, letís just come up with our own facts and statements and beliefs on everything. Thatís the problem. Thatís why itís a national emergency.


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services