Nobody’s Heroes

Bob Woodward’s new book presents Trump staffers as our last line of defense. We’re doomed.

Photo illustration of Donald Trump, James Mattis, John Kelly and other officials.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images, Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images, Alex Edelman-Pool/Getty Images, Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images, and Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images.

Nearly 300 pages into Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear: Trump in the White House, a West Wing aide named Zach Fuentes cautions fellow staffers. With depressingly familiar words, Fuentes informs his colleagues, “He’s not a detail guy. Never put more than one page in front of him. Even if he’ll glance at it, he’s not going to read the whole thing. Make sure you underline or put in bold the main points … you’ll have 30 seconds to talk to him. If you haven’t grabbed his attention, he won’t focus.” Some subjects, such as the military, do engage him, but the overwhelming picture is worrying and dire. Still, one could finish this passage and feel at least slightly relieved that people like Fuentes are aware of the reigning deficiencies in the White House, and doing their best to mitigate them.

Fuentes is merely an assistant to John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, but Kelly and James Mattis, the secretary of defense, are presented throughout Woodward’s book as being cognizant of the president’s extreme limitations and authoritarian instincts, and rather boldly willing to push back against their boss. This is why it’s probably worth mentioning that Fuentes wasn’t talking about Donald Trump; no, he was talking about John Kelly. And Woodward’s book—which arrived at around the same time as the already infamous, still-currently anonymous New York Times op-ed about the men and women in the executive branch supposedly working to protect America from Donald Trump—is as much a portrait of the craven, ineffective, and counterproductive group of “adults” surrounding Trump as it is a more predictable look into the president’s shortcomings. It’s not entirely clear how aware Woodward is of what he has revealed about the people he’s quoting at length. (Sources tend to come off well in his books.) But intentionally or not, Fear will make plain to the last optimist that, just as Republicans in Congress are unlikely to save us, neither are the relative grown-ups in the Trump administration.

Is Woodward the last optimist? He obviously believes that Trump is unfit to be president, but a reader can’t quite shake the sense that he somehow thinks maybe, just maybe, things could be different with the right coaching or incentives. Fear is a book full of stories about Trump being contained; his instincts being thwarted; his worst qualities being slightly minimized by people who claim to be afraid of what would happen if they weren’t there. “It’s not what we did for the country,” former Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn says early on. “It’s what we saved him from doing.” Quotes like this aim to settle the ethical debate—which has been going on from the start of the Trump presidency—over whether anyone should be working for a bigoted and corrupt president with no respect for democracy, even if they are planning to, in that most tiresome phrase, contain his worst impulses. But that conversation has obscured the more pressing question of what those supposedly well-intentioned individuals can actually accomplish from the inside. Even allowing for the self-serving nature of the accounts that Woodward offers here, the answer appears to be: not much.

Indeed, the near-misses Woodward writes about feel particularly insubstantial, in part because very few of these aides and appointees seem to really grasp the nature of the man they are serving (no matter how much they talk about his stupidity and recklessness), and in part because Trump himself is so clueless and aimless that he rarely seems to follow through on his worst ideas anyway. (The terrible things he has followed through on, such as various immigration policies, are not really discussed at length, and on these matters a good chunk of his staff appear to agree with him.) Moreover, many of these aides are tasked with—or see their roles as—not preventing policy decisions, but instead putting the nicest, non-Trumpy face on Trumpism; the ethics of this deserves its own debate.

Perhaps the biggest non-hinge moment in the book occurs in July 2017, six months after Trump has taken office and two years since he emerged as a presidential candidate by offering his thoughts on Mexican rapists. “Mattis and Gary Cohn had several quiet conversations about The Big Problem: The president did not understand the importance of allies overseas, the value of diplomacy or the relationship between the military, the economy, and intelligence partnerships with foreign governments.” The two men decide to meet to “develop an action plan,” which consists of getting the president in the Tank, “the Pentagon’s secure meeting room for the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” because it might “focus him.” But when they do, and succeed in telling him about the value of allies and diplomacy, Trump ignores them and proceeds to rant and rave on a variety of subjects. The meeting wraps up after accomplishing precisely nothing. (This is the event that caused Rex Tillerson to call Trump a “fucking moron.”)

What remains astonishing about the meeting is not that Trump is an idiot. It’s that Mattis and Cohn seemed to have hopes for their plan, believing they could use the sit-down to really turn a corner. The book is so full of scenes like this because the people around Trump seem to have less feel for the president than a politically astute person who spends 20 minutes a day reading the newspaper. It’s not that hard to grasp that Trump’s authoritarian leanings condition him to distrust democratic allies; nor is it a secret that he has utter contempt for America’s intelligence agencies. An earlier passage in the book has Mattis telling a NATO-skeptical Trump that, “If you didn’t have NATO, you’d have to invent it” and “there’s no way Russia could win a war if they took on NATO,” which left me wondering if Mattis could have chosen an argument that would be less likely to appeal to the president, and why anyone who has paid even glancing attention to Trump’s behavior toward Russia would think it would be effective.

Woodward conveys all this in his typically matter-of-fact style, with dialogue heavy-scenes, and with his sources sounding reasonable and frustrated. He rarely tips his hand or offers critiques of those who talked to him, but his narrative does allow for them to come across as ill-equipped. Take former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who Woodward presents as a thoughtful enough guy simply unwilling or unable to contain his pedantic, lecturing style, even though it is clearly irking the president. This leads McMaster to get involved in stupid, inevitably doomed spats stemming from Trump’s childishness, including one over precisely where the president and the Indian prime minister would dine that is too dreary to recount. Of course, McMaster doesn’t last long, in large part because of this type of nonsense; meanwhile, he can’t get along with Mattis or Tillerson, two other guys who apparently pride(d) themselves on being the last line of defense. And yet, they do everything they possibly can to undermine McMaster, and make his job more difficult. “McMaster considered Mattis and Tillerson ‘the team of two’ and found himself outside their orbit, which was exactly the way they wanted it,” Woodward writes. Now the national security adviser is John Bolton. Good job, everyone.

The story in the book about Mattis that has gotten the most attention concerns his decision to quietly counter Trump on Syria after the president reportedly screamed “let’s fucking kill him” over the phone about Bashar al-Assad. According to Woodward, Mattis hung up and stated to an aide, “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” A victory for common sense, you might say. A couple pages later, we read that “Trump had stepped back from his initial desire to kill Assad.” But did he step back or just forget? Immediately afterward, Trump asks McMaster some Syria hypotheticals, which McMaster can’t answer because he is being ignored by Mattis and Tillerson. Thankfully, Woodward concludes, “Trump soon forgot his questions.” It’s certainly possible that Mattis or Tillerson or McMaster stopped Trump from doing something truly terrible or illegal over the past nearly 20 months, but if so we are not told what it was. Despite all the self-aggrandizing quotes from the so-called moderating influences in the White House, the upshot of Woodward’s own reporting is that if we end up riding out this term free of a foreign policy catastrophe, it is more likely to be the result of Trump’s incuriosity and short attention span than a bold act of bravery by one of the grown-ups.

The possible exception is Cohn’s already famous decision to steal a paper from Trump’s desk that would have removed the United States from a trade deal with South Korea, and thus possibly impacted national security by undermining the Washington-Seoul alliance. This at least counts as a staff member taking strong action, although, as Woodward acknowledges, it’s “an administrative coup d’etat,” and neither Woodward nor Cohn (quoted as saying, “got to protect the country”) convincingly show that the stakes were high enough to warrant such a step. Tellingly, and predictably, Trump keeps bringing the pact up but can’t seem to remember that he was just about to pull out of the deal, which makes you wonder if he was really on the verge of doing so.

Photo illustration: Bob Woodward and the cover of Fear, side by side.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair.

Nevertheless, there is a strong argument to be made that someone like Mattis should stay in his job, and the person who wants to see him resign in protest is braver than I am. But the case to keep working in the Trump administration is much weaker if your job isn’t a matter of life and death, and some of the examples in the book meant to highlight the good deeds of the people around Trump are extremely thin. After Trump’s disgraceful response to Charlottesville, staff secretary Rob Porter apparently cajoled the president into giving a less grotesque speech about what occurred. Porter, who appears to be Woodward’s biggest source and therefore comes across relatively well—his resignation after allegations of domestic abuse is afforded less than a page—“felt it was a moment of victory, of actually doing some good for the country. He had served the president well. This made the endless hours of nonstop work worth it.” Naturally, within a day, Trump had backtracked and surprised precisely no one by making clear that he didn’t actually have a problem with Nazis, leaving Porter feeling that “Charlottesville was the breaking point” and wondering “if trying to repair [racial divisions] after Charlottesville was almost a lost cause.”

Unless Woodward is winking at readers with that “lost cause” reference, he doesn’t betray any acknowledgement of how absurd Porter’s musings seem, coming as they did years or months after birtherism, blatant bigotry, and a ban on certain Muslims from being allowed to enter the country. Nor does it ever seem to occur to Porter—or Gary Cohn, whose supposedly tortured post-Charlottesville dilemma is afforded considerable space—that Trump is a racist; that he will continue putting into effect racist policies; and that focusing, as the people around Trump do, on ensuring that the words of his speeches are inoffensive is really just a way of helping Trump politically so he can carry out his policies with less opposition.

The same cluelessness—or cynicism—arises in a number of other scenes Woodward stitches together. One occurs when Reince Priebus (another obvious source), Porter, Cohn, Hope Hicks, and Dan Scavino try to get Trump to rein in his tweeting. “As an extreme measure,” Woodward writes with a straight face, the staffers “proposed they set up a committee. They would draft some tweets that they believed Trump would like.” This plan naturally fails, but what exactly were they trying to accomplish, and why?

The story is presented as one in a long line of “here are the adults trying to moderate Trump” tales, but except for a cursory reference to the possibility of a tweet getting us into war with North Korea, it is very clear that the group simply thought Trump’s tweets were hurting him politically. (The impetus here was Trump’s attack on Mika Brzezinski.) It’s one thing to tell yourself you are saving the world from nuclear annihilation; it’s another to just wish the president was slightly less uncouth. (Sen. Lindsey Graham, who plays a ridiculously large role in the narrative, clearly presented himself to Woodward as one of the people reining in Trump. But his advice, too, is usually about tweeting less, or not “tweeting to your disadvantage.” When he weighs in on foreign policy, it is to push Trump to be more hawkish toward North Korea. Thanks a lot.)

But don’t tell the people who worked in the White House that maybe they didn’t actually do anything to mitigate the unfolding disaster, even though most readers of Woodward’s book will probably come away feeling grateful for their brave sacrifices. “A third of my job was trying to react to some of the really dangerous ideas that he had and try to give him reasons to believe that maybe they weren’t such good ideas,” Porter says at one point, in self-pitying fashion, and without any convincing specifics. And no matter how incompetent and horrible Trump is, his staff never throws in the towel. Porter, 20 pages after his “breaking point” over Charlottesville, is heard lamenting the incapacity of the president to fulfill his duties, but ascribes it to the specific stress of the Russia investigation. The dream will never die.

Woodward doesn’t offer too many opinions in the book, but he does admit to being a bit of a Russia skeptic, and seems somewhat sympathetic to the president’s troubles in this arena: “It was not just the distraction of Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation hanging over his head, but the constant media coverage that Trump had colluded with the Russians and/or obstructed justice, a real feeding frenzy—vicious, uncivil,” he writes. This might explain why the last several pages of the book are taken up with long accounts of Trump’s attorneys meeting with Mueller and his team, and why Mueller himself comes across as not very smart or engaged. But the larger problem here, and throughout, is that Woodward allows his sources’ oh-so-convenient accounts—in this case, Trump lawyer John Dowd’s version of his meetings with Mueller—to stand unchallenged. The same goes for Steve Bannon, who is quoted at length in the first half of the book. This is another narrative in which Bannon is endlessly colorful and foul-mouthed and larger-than-life, not to mention full of historical references, my favorite being one to Tiberius Gracchus—a Roman populist from a couple millennia ago who I and Woodward (and Bannon, at some point) had to Google. Woodward actually writes things like, “Bannon, always looking to history to serve his purposes, was reminded of President Lincoln’s almost mystical devotion to … ” Enough.

Woodward himself seems to suffer one of the same maladies as his sources: namely, the condition of thinking that a better version of Trump might exist out there. He rather solipsistically blames himself for saying some skeptical stuff about the FBI’s handling of the Russia case, which Trump saw and repeated. He even writes, “The episode played a big role in launching Trump’s war with the intelligence world, especially the FBI and Comey,” as if that war could have ever been averted given Trump’s contempt for democratic institutions and obvious corruption (which would inevitably get investigated). And sometimes, his quotes are just simply not believable as told or transcribed, which is a problem in most of his books on the last several presidencies. Of Afghanistan, Trump is reported to have said, “It’s a disaster there. It’s never going to be a functioning democracy.” I’d sooner believe the president sits up late at night reading Martin Luther King Jr. speeches than I would that he uses the phrase “functioning democracy” in casual conversation. I trust Woodward’s ability to decipher whether his sources are being honest more than I do Michael Wolff’s, whose dodgy book on the Trump presidency set a very low bar for works like this, but too much of Woodward’s narrative feels reliant on the firsthand accounts of a group of very untrustworthy people.

Where does all this leave John Kelly, the ultimate adult in the room who is often portrayed in the media as rubbing his temples in frustration with his toddler-like boss? Kelly enters and leaves meetings, gets angry and calms down, rants and raves, all to diminishing returns. He seems to find the president incurious and stupid and potentially dangerous, but nevertheless shares a slightly tamer version of his authoritarian instincts and disdain for immigrants. Despite supposedly exclaiming “We’re in Crazytown,” he also likes to pride himself on being “the only thing protecting the president from the press. … Everyone’s out to get us.” Like the other characters in the book, Kelly is insufficiently concerned about Trump’s contempt for democracy; unable to truly understand—regardless of his strong criticisms—how incapable of restraint Trump is; and compromised by his own sympathy for too much of the president’s agenda, which has a way of dulling any resistance to the worst aspects of it. If Trump won in part because of the bankruptcy of the Republican establishment and the withering of our institutions, it’s no surprise that the figures surrounding him are unequipped—intellectually, practically, and morally—for the current emergency.