What would it take at this point, amid the crush of books about the Trump White House — after the Mueller report and an impeachment trial and now the coronavirus pandemic — for a revelation about the president to be truly surprising? Would it be to learn that he hates money and harbors dreams of retiring to an ascetic, monk-like existence? That he loves to read and is intimately familiar with the works of Elena Ferrante? Readers who pick up Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” and are tantalized by the promise on its dust jacket of “an utterly vivid window into Trump’s mind,” will quickly get schooled in a lesson that apartment hunters in New York often have to learn: A window can be only so vivid if it looks out onto an air shaft.
Yes, Trump explicitly told Woodward back in March that in public he was deliberately understating (or, to put it more bluntly, lying about) what he had learned about the pandemic: that the coronavirus was, as he told Woodward the month before, “more deadly than even your strenuous flus” but he preferred “to always play it down.” Yet the discrepancy between what Trump knew (the virus was bad) and what he said (it’s all good) was already reported in April. Trump had loudly refused to let American passengers disembark from a cruise ship in March “because I like the numbers being where they are.”
The Trump that emerges in “Rage” is impetuous and self-aggrandizing — in other words, immediately recognizable to anyone paying even the minimal amount of attention. Woodward reminds us at several points that he diligently conducted 17 on-the-record interviews with the president. “In one case,” Woodward explains, for anyone fascinated by his methodology, “I took handwritten notes and the other 16 were recorded with his permission.” The interviews took place over a seven-month period from December 2019 to July 2020. After his first book on Trump, “Fear,” was published two years ago, Woodward says, he started this follow-up intending “to look again and more deeply at the national security team he recruited and built in the first months after his election in 2016.”
One half of “Rage” reads like that original project, a typical Woodwardian narrative of very serious men soberly doing their duty, trying their darnedest to keep the president focused and on message. Woodward is predictably coy about his sources, saying only that he drew from “hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand participants and witnesses to these events,” nearly all of whom spoke to him on “deep background.”
Still, it’s not hard to guess who some of the principal sources might be based on how closely the book seems to hew to their preferred versions of events. The former defense secretary Jim Mattis has “a stoic Marine exterior and attention-getting ramrod posture, but his bright, open and inviting smile softened his presence.” The former director of national intelligence Dan Coats is “soft on the outside but with a spine of steel on the inside.” (A sign of someone’s unassailable decency to Woodward seems to be this combination of hard and soft.) Along with former secretary of state Rex Tillerson (“a Texan with a smooth voice and an easy laugh”), Woodward deems them “all conservatives or apolitical people who wanted to help him and the country,” singling them out in his epilogue for their impeccable intentions. “Imperfect men who answered the call to public service.”
So far, so tedious. Enter Trump, who in his first interview with Woodward dropped hints about a “secret new weapons system,” and confirmed what Woodward calls a “hard question” about the United States coming “really close to war with North Korea.” Woodward makes much ado about obtaining 25 previously unreported letters between Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, relating the contents of a number of them in minute detail. But even he seems hard-pressed to explain their lasting significance, strenuously depicting them as “declarations of personal fealty that might be uttered by the Knights of the Round Table.” Despite all this, North Korea continues to develop “both nuclear and conventional weapons.”
For the most part, Trump turned the 17 interviews into opportunities for his rambling monologues, using Woodward as an audience, inevitably steering the conversations back to his favorite talking points: “fake news,” James Comey, the Mueller report. Woodward tried to get Trump to talk about policy and governing — “This is all for the serious history, Mr. President,” he coaxed — but Trump would have none of it. In April, as the pandemic raged, Woodward went to Trump with a prepared “list of 14 critical areas where my sources said major action was needed” to stop the mass death; what’s puzzling isn’t so much Trump’s refusal to engage with this earnest list as Woodward’s expectation that he would. “We were speaking past each other,” a plaintive Woodward writes, “almost from different universes.”
The universe that Woodward comes from is where the old-school establishment is still venerated, and where Woodward thinks he can ask a president windy, high-minded questions like “What are your priorities?” and “What’s in your heart?” in the hopes that he’ll get some profound material for his book.
Woodward ends “Rage” by delivering his grave verdict. “When his performance as president is taken in its entirety,” he intones, “I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.” It’s an anticlimactic declaration that could surprise no one other than maybe Bob Woodward. In “The Choice,” his book about the 1996 presidential campaign, he explained something that still seems a core belief of his: “When all is said and sifted, character is what matters most.” But if the roiling and ultimately empty palace intrigues documented in “Rage” and “Fear” are any indications, this lofty view comes up woefully short. What if the real story about the Trump era is less about Trump and more about the people who surround and protect him, standing by him in public even as they denounce him (or talk to Woodward) in private — a tale not of character but of complicity?