It’s hard to know who would listen to the entirety of The Trump Tapes, an audio-only publication of the complete recordings of the 20 interviews Bob Woodward conducted with the president while researching his three books on Trump. Releasing such material isn’t something Woodward has ever done before, but listening to Trump speak at length, he says in his introduction, “is a completely different experience to listening to snatches of interviews on television or the internet.” He’s right about that. Although Trump’s tendency to view any interaction as an opportunity to monologue means that the interviews at times resemble his speeches, hearing a showboating Trump blather for hours, trying to impress Woodward, really makes clear just how excruciatingly dull and self-obsessed the former president is. It might even convince his fans.
Historians, perhaps, will want to hear all of this, and Woodward has long been taken with the notion that he is a kind of historian, that his books will be enshrined in the annals of the nation. For Trump’s critics, however, there’s the undeniable bummer of having to listen to 11½ hours of that voice, whining, bragging, wheedling, crowing. Compounding this irritation is Trump’s habit of repeating the same things over and over and over and over again. It’s one thing to be told that Trump harps on a limited selection of themes and stories, typically inane, and often incorrect or reductive: Other nations are ripping off the U.S.; James Comey is stupid; no collusion!; Trump gave James Mattis the nickname “Mad Dog”; etc. It’s an entirely different matter to listen to him do it in real time, blithely derailing any conversation going in a direction he doesn’t like with the same old shit.
Perhaps the only people who would look forward to listening to these tapes are Trump’s supporters. If they do listen to all 20 interviews, I think it’s not impossible the experience might rid them of their delusions. Yes, I know that for his hardcore base, Trumpism has become an unshakable faith, but for those closer to the fence, making them smoke a whole pack of unfiltered Trump might be the only possible cure. Instead of witnessing the straight shooter they believe him to be, they will experience a politician wriggling and squirming and changing the subject. The longer you hear Trump talk, the more glaringly obvious it becomes that he cares only about himself and his own glorification. A bottomless pit that can never be filled with sufficient praise or admiration, Trump repeatedly cites validation from the kind of authorities (experts, professors, elites) that his political followers hold in contempt. The more he boasts and proclaims himself the first! the only! the best!, the harder it is to ignore his yawning insecurity.
And then there’s Trump’s weird, crushlike obsession with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, his rhapsodies about how Kim addresses him as “Your Excellency,” how “brilliant” Kim is, how he’s a better golfer than Tiger Woods, and how Trump is the only person who can make Kim smile. Again, you may be aware of this fixation, but it’s easier to grasp the madness of it when you actually hear Trump demand Woodward look at photos of himself with Kim every time they sit down for an interview. He even gives Woodward a poster-size print of one of these photos, insisting that it be rolled in a tube, presumably thinking Woodward will stick it on his wall like a Harry Styles fan.
The Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward’s Twenty Interviews with President Donald Trump
By Bob Woodward. Simon & Schuster Audio.
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Any MAGA fan worth his salt hates the mainstream media, the failing New York Times, the Amazon Washington Post. But listen to these recordings to hear Trump, over and over, shamelessly fawn over a famous Post journalist. As Maggie Haberman notes in her recent biography, Confidence Man, Trump’s grasp of the international scene (like his views on many issues) is stuck in the 1980s. In his eyes, Bob Woodward is a star undimmed, fresh off the triumph of his Watergate reporting, a big shot whose very attention is flattering. Several times Trump explains to minions present during the interviews that Woodward considered writing a book about him decades earlier, a story that Woodward has to correct repeatedly. (Woodward and his then–reporting partner Carl Bernstein interviewed Trump in 1987 for a story that never got off the ground.)
Eventually, Trump began calling Woodward at home, partly to complain about A Very Stable Genius, a book written by Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, but also to extract a promise that Woodward wouldn’t make fun of Kim, his BFF. Woodward took to leaving recording devices near the landlines in his home to capture these impromptu conversations.
Trump issues so many falsehoods over these interviews that Woodward frequently interjects from the present day to correct him or clarify the record. And Woodward did push back during Trump’s diatribes. He defended Rucker and Leonnig, and even tried to get Trump to see that the transcript of his phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not as exculpatory as Trump insisted. “I knew from our past interviews,” 2022 Woodward says, “once Trump dug in he’d be immovable, especially in the middle of his impeachment trial. I was trying to get him to instead look at it from a different perspective. And I wanted to engage him with the broader policy question.” I admit it: I laughed. Had he not been paying attention during the previous umpteen hours he’d spent talking with the guy?
There are occasions, too, when Woodward makes the mistake of so many Trump staffers and tries to advise the president. Presumably he thought that he had the opportunity to direct or even shape a rudderless leader in a time of national crisis. Plenty of Trump Cabinet officials and aides had their spirits broken on that wheel, but hubris is as common in venerable journalists as it is in public officials. At one point, Woodward observes to Trump that the FBI’s use of the dubious Steele dossier to justify the wiretapping of Carter Page, a minor foreign policy aide to Trump’s 2016 campaign, was out of line and presented an occasion to urge reform of the FBI’s accountability in seeking authorization for such surveillance. That reform was needed, but Woodward didn’t seem to realize how foolhardy it was to urge such a course on a president who had no grasp of the principles involved—who, indeed, was in favor of FBI overreach, except when it was inflicted on himself and his friends.
Perhaps I’m wrong about the potential effect of these recordings on borderline Trump supporters. After all, Woodward and so many of the people who worked for Trump continued to kid themselves about who he was and what he was capable of, even after spending hours with the man. “Trump does not believe in democracy,” Woodward says in his epilogue. “That is my central conclusion.” The most mystifying thing is how long it took him to reach it.