If books can still have political impact (a big if), then Rage, Bob Woodward’s latest in his series of presidential profiles, should wind up an election-shaping blockbuster. He doesn’t merely quote anonymous sources dissing the policies and character of Donald Trump. He catches Trump himself in self-incriminating blather—17 interviews’ worth, from January to July of 2020—on the record, on tape. We’ve all been waiting for someone to leak secretly recorded tapes of Trump saying ghastly things. Who would have predicted that he’d say them to one of the world’s most famous reporters with a tape recorder in clear sight!
You’ve no doubt read or even heard the biggest scoop: Trump knew back in January that the coronavirus was much deadlier than the flu, that it spreads through the air, that it kills not just the elderly but young people too. Yet he told the public that all was well, that the germs would vanish soon—and, even now, he encourages thousands of barefaced supporters to attend jampacked rallies, makes fun of Joe Biden for wearing a mask, and pressures the Big Ten colleges to resume their football schedules, for his entertainment.
The genuine news here is that, contrary to what was thought at the time, Trump didn’t ignore the scientists or wave away their advice when the pandemic took off. No, he understood their analyses and forecasts perfectly well. He just decided not to do anything about it—and, worse still, to encourage others not to do much either. Before we could only speculate that Trump was personally responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands; now we know it.
Woodward scrounged up other, less reported, but still dramatic revelations.
For instance, he obtained the letters between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—“beautiful letters,” Trump has called them—and they reveal Trump was an even bigger chump than we’d figured. “Dear Excellency,” Kim’s first letter begins, and Woodward adds that Trump noted the ultra-respectful greeting “with pride.” Another Kim gem began, “I feel pleased to have formed good ties with such a powerful and preeminent statesman as Your Excellency,” then likened their next meeting to “a scene from a fantasy film.” Woodward reports that CIA analysts “marveled” at these letters, at how skillfully their author appealed “to Trump’s sense of grandiosity” and his desire to be seen taking “center stage in history.”
When Woodward asks what it was like to meet Kim at their first summit in Singapore, Trump responds, “It was the most cameras I think I’ve seen, more cameras than any human being in history,” even more than he’d seen at the Academy Awards.
He then gives Woodward a poster-size copy of a photo of Trump and Kim shaking hands at the border separating North and South Korea. “This is me and him,” he tells Woodward, all excited. “That’s the line, right? Then I walked over the line. Pretty cool.” He goes on to brag that Kim “tells me everything. … He killed his uncle and put the body right in the steps where the senators walked out. And the head was cut, sitting on the chest. … Nancy Pelosi said, ‘Oh, let’s impeach him.’ You think that’s tough? This is tough.”
What a fanboy. No wonder Kim and every other dictator on earth plays the American president like such a wondrously easy mark.
At one point, when talking about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump tells Woodward, “It’s funny, the relations I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. You know? Explain that to me someday, OK?” Woodward writes: “That might not be difficult, I thought, but I didn’t say anything.”
Throughout the book, Woodward proclaims shock (though one wonders why) at how shallow Trump is. Asked about his strategy for dealing with the plethora of crises hitting him, Trump replies, “I don’t have a strategy,” except to “do a good job.” Trump says he knew that he and Kim would get along instantly, in the same way that “you meet a woman, in one second you know whether or not it’s all going to happen.”
Over and over, Trump plasters his pathological insecurity on marquee display. “I don’t think Obama’s smart,” he says, adding, “Hey look, I went to the best schools, I did great. … You know, they talk about the elite … they have nice houses. No, I have much better than them, I have better everything than them, including education.” His uncle, as he has said many times, was a brilliant MIT professor who knew about nuclear weapons—“so I understand that stuff,” the president says. “You know, genetically.”
He boasts of being No. 1 on Twitter and Facebook, as if any grown human would care about such distinctions. Woodward then tracks it down and reports that, in fact, he has the ninth most popular account on Twitter and is outranked by several dozen on Facebook.
Finally, there is Trump’s—to put it generously—racial insensitivity. Amid the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, Woodward tells Trump that, as a privileged white person, he has only recently grasped the need to understand and address the anger and pain of Black people, and he asks Trump whether he has experienced a similar epiphany. Trump replies, “No. You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all”—then claims, for the umpteenth time, that he’s done more to help Black people than any president besides Abraham Lincoln, but adds, “honestly, I’m not feeling any love.”
“Trump is the wrong man for the job,” Woodward writes at the very end of the book, and while it’s not the stunner he clearly intended, it is a tiny eyebrow-raiser, in that it’s the sort of judgment that Woodward—the erstwhile upstart turned mild-mannered chronicler of the Washington high and mighty—has never expressed so openly in his previous books.
At age 77, well over half a lifetime after he and Carl Bernstein took down President Richard Nixon with their reporting on Watergate, Woodward seems more willing—perhaps entitled—to put himself in the narrative and state his own views explicitly.
In many ways, though, he’s the same Woodward. He’s an unparalleled amasser of secret documents, inside facts, dazzling scoops. But he’s also a prisoner of those scoops. He doesn’t quite know what to do with them. He fastidiously counts all the rings on the fallen trees, but doesn’t look closely at the forest or why the trees fell.
In a 1989 Playboy interview, conducted by the journalist-historian J. Anthony Lukas, Woodward acknowledged that analysis was not his strong point, adding, “I am just not capable—and this is a grave fault—of taking A, B, C, and D, and saying, ‘OK, now E.’ ”
If you want to know the motives Kim had in meeting with Trump, or why their second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, was a disaster, Woodward is not your go-to author. If you’re looking for a tour of the broader political landscape in which Trump exercises power, again, look elsewhere.
What Woodward does is paint a picture of presidents dealing with power and crises. Even here, he is dependent on his sources, and you can always tell who Woodward’s best sources are, because they’re the ones who come off looking best. Retired Gen. Jim Mattis, who resigned in protest as Trump’s first secretary of defense, was clearly a big source for this book. Hence we read: “Mattis had a stoic Marine exterior and attention-getting ramrod posture, but his bright, open and inviting smile softened his presence.”
Another major source is Dan Coats, whom Trump fired as director of national intelligence. Hence: “Still waters ran deep in Dan Coats. He was cool and not defensive, unintimidated by complexity. Mattis found himself often thinking that Coats was a model of what was needed in government service—though maybe he was too decent.”
Woodward also seems to have talked a lot with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser, and so describes him as “intelligent, organized, self-confident, and arrogant”—words that Kushner has probably dined out on. But even Woodward sees through Kushner’s craven shallowness. He quotes former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (another well-treated source) as finding Kushner’s kowtowing toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “nauseating to watch.” And he quotes Kushner saying, after Mattis and Tillerson and others have quit or been fired, “We’ve gotten rid of a lot of the overconfident idiots,” so the administration now has “a lot more thoughtful people who kind of know their place and know what to do”—thus proving that Kushner is every bit as self-immolating and prone to projection as his father-in-law.
Rage is better and more valuable than Fear, Woodward’s first book about Trump’s presidency, because it’s built around his conversations with Trump himself—and the gasoline the president pours on himself is, even by his standards, remarkable.
Why did Trump agree to talk with Woodward? In part for the same reason many powerful people do: because it means they’ll end up in the history books, and if they can charm Woodward, they’ll come off well. Trump clearly thought he could charm Woodward. He quotes Trump as saying that Fear “was horrendous, but that was my fault. I would’ve loved to have seen you. But they didn’t tell me you were calling.” This too is a lie: Sen. Lindsey Graham urged Trump to talk to Woodward for that book and for this one, too—a favor that Woodward returns by saying that Graham sometimes “provided wise counsel, urging Trump to take a strategic view.” For instance, Graham tells Trump (or at least tells Woodward that he told Trump) that the president’s “law and order” approach to the nation’s racial tensions is reminiscent of George Wallace and that it will lose him the election.
So Trump does talk to Woodward, for hours on end. Now and then, Trump worries out loud that the ploy won’t work. “I hope I’m not wasting my time,” he tells Woodward. He remembers that George W. Bush “spent all that time with you, and you made him look like a fool.” The Trump book will probably be “a lousy book” too, Trump says, because this is what journalists do to him, this is what everybody does to him.
At one point in the book, Trump complains to Graham about all the unfairness dropped on him—the pandemic, the lockdown, the Floyd killing, the protests. “It’s part of being president,” Graham replies. “Things happen.”
But no, Trump sees himself as the object of cosmic unfairness, of universal victimhood. During one of their interviews, Trump plays Woodward video clips from his 2019 State of the Union address. The camera shows Sen. Bernie Sanders, who, to Woodward, “looked bored,” though Trump saw it differently. “They hate me,” Trump says. “You’re seeing hate.” Then there’s a shot of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “a bland, unemotional look on her face.” Trump exclaims, “Hate!” Then a shot of Sen. Kamala Harris, “who had a straight, even polite look on her face.” Trump points his finger and shouts, “Hate! See the hate! See the hate!”
Woodward isn’t the first author or journalist to portray Trump as a dangerous, deceptive, paranoid narcissist who’s in way over his head. But he is the first to transcribe Trump proving the point from his own lips, over and over, apparently without knowing it, which makes him more dangerous still. For that, Rage is a treasure trove.
Slate’s editorial director for audio is Bob Woodward’s son-in-law. He did not have any role in editing this article.
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