Earlier this month, Bob Woodward made news when he and a colleague conducted a long, wild interview with Donald Trump for the Washington Post, the newspaper Woodward has worked at for more than four decades. It has been more than 40 years now since Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke one of the biggest stories in American history: the Watergate burglary and the Nixon administration’s attempt to cover it up. Since that time, Woodward has written a string of best-selling books, which are always much-discussed but are also frequently controversial. Some critics believe Woodward offers positive portrayals in exchange for access.
With a Republican front-runner who makes Richard Nixon appear mature and stable by comparison, I called up Woodward to get his view on the 2016 campaign and the craft of journalism. We talked about Trump’s command of the issues, how the internet has changed reporting, and why Woodward views himself as—of all things—an outsider. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Chotiner: What did you make of Trump on a personal level?
Bob Woodward: Well, I don’t have a current book project, and I told the editors at the Post, “I want to work on the campaign, all the candidates, people seeking the Republican nomination, people seeking the Democratic one.” That’s what I’m doing. With Bob Costa, who’s one of the terrific young reporters we have, we asked to talk to Trump and sent him some question areas, and he agreed to do it. We wanted to do it in person. He was quite open and willing to answer questions. My approach and Costa’s approach is to ask difficult questions but also let him explain what he’s doing.
When you were talking to him, did he seem more like a kid who doesn’t know the answer to a question and is trying to figure out what to say, or someone who has full confidence in what he’s saying?
Well, there’s no loss of confidence, to say the least. Sometimes he had answers, sometimes he clearly had not thought about the questions. We kept pressing him. I think it took 10 or 15 minutes just to get an answer of who did he consult, and exactly how did he decide to run for president.
So you thought he was confident, and not bluffing?
It was Joe Scarborough the other day, on his Morning Joe story, saying that a lot of people have very strong feelings about Trump, negative, positive, whatever, and the job of the reporter is to be empirical and gather facts. I’m not taking a position. I want to find out as much as I can about him.
You are seen as a Washington insider, an establishment person. Has the rise of Trump changed the way you view the process or shaken your faith in the wisdom of a governing elite to make things work?
No, no. Look, I’ve always been an outsider. I scramble hard to preserve my outsider status, if you will. Sometimes people agree, or sometimes people disagree, but I’m not—
You really see yourself as an outsider?
I do. Well, look at the books. People have said I’m a Republican, people have said I’m a Democrat, I’m from the right, I’m from the left. If you go through, people will make arguments, but I’m just trying to be factual.
That’s what, you know, the whole internet culture of impatience and speed is, “Summarize it, put it in a category, make it simple,” and I don’t think these candidates … I mean, we’ve got to do a full excavation.
You were once asked how you got people to cooperate for your books. You said this:
They know that I am going to reflect their point of view. One of my earlier books, somebody called me who was in it and said “How am I going to come out?” and I said “Well, essentially, I write self-portraits.” They really are self-portraits, because I go to people and I say but who are you? What are you doing? Where do you fit in?
Is that still how you see your books?
Yeah, but that’s not blindly. I mean, if you look at the story we did on the Trump interview, he says he’s going to eliminate the national debt, what, in eight years? Nineteen trillion dollars.
It’s exciting, it’s going to be gone in eight years.
Yeah. Then, we asked other people, and there’s a sentence in there that says that people who know the economy and are experts say that’s impossible.
Right, right. Well—
Same about the wall. He has his say. You know, there are other points of view. Now, it was interesting. After that story, after it came out, what was it Trump said? He said we’re great reporters and the story was pretty accurate and pretty fair.
The reason I asked about that quote is that you said you were an outsider. One critique of your books, from Joan Didion among others, is that you’re too much of an insider, that a reader can tell who your sources are because you are nice to them and so on. It seems like—
But, you know, can I say that’s absurd?
Who thinks I was nice to them? George W. Bush, I wrote four books on him, and the third one was called State of Denial, in which I said he’d lied—I’m sorry, did not tell the truth about how bad the Iraq war was going. Then, I did the fourth book and asked to interview him, and people said, “He’ll never talk to you,” and he did. They arranged it. I remember a colleague of mine at the Post said, “Be careful when you go over to the White House. They’re going to put a bag over your head and throw you in the Potomac.” But he then did three hours of interviews. A little tense, but he answered the questions as he wanted to answer them, and then his answers are in the book.
Do you think that your first two books on Bush, in hindsight, were too bullish on what the administration was capable of accomplishing?
Have you read them?
I have, yeah.
The first one was about Afghanistan. I mean, go look at it. It raised questions about where that’s going, and how it was led. The second one was about how he decided to go to war, and that’s a meticulous account of documents, intelligence, reports. You can look at that. It simply is. Jill Abramson, the former editor of the New York Times, did a review of those books and said, “It’s the best we’re going to get.” There’s lots of negative stuff about Bush.
Speaking of journalism—
Don’t get sucked into the simplification that we’re now all living with, which is, “Is this thumbs up, thumbs down?” Go look at those books, and you will see that they have … it’s the best account. What’s the language? The best obtainable version of the truth.
Are you at Fox News in some formal arrangement, or just occasionally on air?
What I do is appear on two television shows, MSNBC’s Morning Joe and Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace.
I think you could say cable news and Fox are as responsible as the internet for the type of stuff you’re talking about, where you have to pick one side or another.
But not Chris Wallace. Have you ever watched his show?
I watch his show. I think it’s a very good show, but there are obviously other shows on that network.
It’s not ideological, and that’s where, you know, everything gets lumped in the same barrel, and that’s the mistake I think people make.
What did you make of Spotlight?
Great movie. What’s great about that movie is not only the mechanics of the investigative reporting, but at the end, it’s the Michael Keaton character who asks the hard question, which is, “Where were we? What did we do? How much did we know beforehand? Did we do enough?”
I won’t make you say it’s the best journalism movie of all time.
It’s a great movie.
Your newspaper was bought by Jeff Bezos. What do you make of him?
I think he’s a serious owner and really believes in the Post being an independent, aggressive voice.
Do you think it’s hard for the Post to cover Amazon or the tech industry because he’s there?
You know, they do it. It’s not like the Senate, which is a core of one of the Post’s beats, but they do it well, and they always say Bezos owns the Washington Post.
Is he particularly hands on or off, compared with previous owners? [The Washington Post’s previous owner is the Graham Holdings Co., which owns Slate.]
Well, he’s got a day job in Seattle.
So I’ve read, yeah.
I mean, I’ve known him for years. He’s serious, he’s provided the resources, and if you look at the political coverage in the Post, recently, or the last year, I just think it’s far superior to anything anybody is doing.
What do you make of the Panama Papers, and the fact that, in our new internet era, so much journalism relies on leaked data?
Well, I think the Panama Papers are a great story, and I think it’s astonishing they kept it secret for so long. There are so many dimensions to it. They’re still working on it. Last week I did an interview with the BBC. Radio interview. Also on the show was the guy who heads the journalism collective in Washington that’s done this.
We were going through and the BBC interviewer was saying to him, “So, what new revelations do you have? What’s new? Give us something hot,” and he kept driving at this. I finally said to the interviewer, “You know, here you are. It’s the BBC, this distinguished broadcast operation, and you’ve got internet-itis. You want to know what’s the latest, what’s next, and here’s somebody’s group of people who have done some of the most serious journalism of the era, and they’ve explained, ‘We’re not going to be able to tell you everything, we’ve got to draw the connections, these are, what, 11 million pages?’ ” Have you ever read 11 million pages of anything?
Wasn’t your last Bush book that long? Just kidding, go on.
No, it wasn’t. I hope not. So. I mean, there’s “internet-itis” out there.
Do you think that if the Watergate story was breaking now, at the slow speed it broke for you guys, do you think you would be pulled off the story?
No, no, I think this is where owners and editors matter. I think Marty Baron, who is the editor of the Post—he was the editor of the Globe when they did the Catholic priest story—with Bezos, the culture is, “let’s dig.”
What’s your relationship like with Carl Bernstein these days?
Good. He is supposed to call me this afternoon.
Did your relationship with legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee change after the Jeff Himmelman book? [Himmelman reported that Bradlee occasionally expressed doubts about the veracity of certain details of Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate story; Bradlee later said he backed Woodward fully.]
Not at all. I mean, there was no reason to. Ben said some things in an interview about 25 years ago, before he was doing his own memoir, and since then, Mark Felt and all the business about Deep Throat has come out and established itself, and that’s kind of it.
Do you miss Bradlee?
Oh, I miss Ben. Oh, yeah. Somebody just asked me the other day about favorite scenes from All the President’s Men, and the ones I cited were Ben saying he’s going to stand by his reporters, and then the other one where he told us we didn’t have a story, and he said, “You just don’t have it yet.”
Last question: Did you ever cover a contested convention?
[Pauses and laughs.]
Is that a bad question?
No, no. That’s forward-looking. We’ll see. Isn’t it an interesting time? Even for a 73-year-old, it gets the reporting juices going.