By Bob D'Angelo
How does one sell a book about President Donald Trump that sets it apart from the others?
Well, the publisher can use a photograph of a grumpy-looking Trump on the cover, but that’s been done before. Or peddle a book written by one of journalism’s greatest reporters with extensive on-the-record comments from the president.
Now, that’s a keeper.
Rage (Simon & Schuster; hardback; $30; 452 pages) sold 600,000 copies in its first week after publication on Sept. 15. Bob Woodward’s 20th book is a chaotic and at times disturbing look at Trump’s first term, covering a wide range of subjects including the coronavirus, foreign policy, leadership philosophies, the economy and public perceptions of the mercurial president.
The businessman president is portrayed at odds with his military and medical advisers, believing his aggressive style can carry the day. He rips his generals and questions their guts while downplaying conclusions and recommendations of the medical experts.
Trump was not interviewed for Fear, Woodward’s 2018 book about the current administration. He gave Woodward unprecedented access for Rage, with 17 on-the-record interviews — 16 of which were recorded. The interviews occurred between December 2019 and July 2020. Why Trump submitted to Woodward’s questioning is anyone’s guess. Perhaps Trump thought he could charm Woodward, but that never happened. Woodward, 77, has written about nine presidents and has shared two Pulitzer Prizes during his 49 years at The Washington Post, where he is currently an associate editor. He is not cowed by the Oval Office or its inhabitant.
In fact, Trump appears star-struck at times, telling his wife, Melania, during one telephone interview, “I’m talking with Bob Woodward.”
Woodward, along with Carl Bernstein, helped bring down Richard Nixon with their reporting on the Watergate scandal during the 1970s. So, if Trump thought he was going to get a free pass, he was mistaken.
Woodward allows Trump to talk a great deal, which he does. The President was accessible but apprehensive. “Let’s see if we can actually get a fair book,” he tells Woodward, returning to the subject several times during the narrative.
“I hope you treat me better than (George W.) Bush, because you made him look like a stupid moron,” Trump says. “Which he was.”
He lectures Woodward at times, telling him that if the author writes “a bad book,” he would be “right in front of my election.”
“That’s a beauty,” Trump tells Woodward. “That’s terrible.”
Sometimes, it is better to glean information from sources around the main subject, rather than going to the source. Trump used the interviews to ramble incessantly about subjects that bothered or appealed to him — the Mueller report, “fake news” and the economy. Trump tells Woodward that he has done more for Blacks than any president since Abraham Lincoln (this all seems old since the tapes have been played so much on media outlets), ignoring the substantial contributions of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example.
Woodward tries to pin Trump down on policy and his governing style, reminding the President that “this is all for serious history,” but mostly, it did not happen. In April 2020, Woodward presented Trump with a “list of 14 critical areas” to address, but the President basically ignored them.
“We were speaking past each other, almost from different universes,” Woodward writes.
The reader can see how the book evolves, starting with vignettes about Trump’s top aides. By the end of Rage, the focus is on COVID-19. Advance snippets from the book teased readers with Trump telling Woodward that the coronavirus was “deadly stuff,” months before acknowledging it to the nation.
Woodward’s original intent in writing Rage was to gain some insights about the national security team Trump built after his election. His narrative is buttressed by “hundreds of hours” of interviews with mostly anonymous sources who provided Woodward with “deep background.”
Eventually, Woodward would get much more.
While Woodward’s prose is not riveting, he still presents some interesting information about the drama that always seems to swirl around Trump. There is plenty of sniping among his staff, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigning after believing Trump’s orders bordered on “felony stupid.” Dan Coats, who was the director of national intelligence, allegedly told Mattis that Trump “doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”
Even Anthony Fauci, the genial director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, believed the President’s attention span “was like a minus number.”
“His sole purpose is to get reelected,” Fauci said.
Woodward’s foreign policy forays revolve around China’s president, Xi Jinping, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Woodward goes into detail about 25 previously unpublished letters between Trump and Kim, which amount to a lovefest between leaders.
Trump tells Woodward that his connection to Kim was like meeting a woman.
“In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen,” he says.
That’s a page out of the Leo Durocher book of dating. According to a story written by noted author Roger Kahn, The Lip once told a younger baseball player that when you show up for a date at 7 p.m., make your first strong move at 7:05. If she says no, well, the night is still young. But if she says yes, “Well, then, hello my dear.”
“Some damned famous broads say OK pretty quick,” Durocher said.
Not sure if Trump ever knew about Durocher or his philosophy, but the strategy appears to be similar. By the way, None of the letters exchanged between Trump and Kim included the phrase, “hello, my dear.”
Two men close to the president are surprisingly portrayed in a more positive light. For example, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, is characterized as organized and detail-oriented, a go-getter who makes things happen.
Predictably, he is also a big admirer of his father-in-law.
Whereas Trump explains to Woodward that in the presidency, “there’s dynamite behind every door,” Kushner argued that the President “has walked through many doors with dynamite” and survived.
Trump has “mastered the presidency like never before,” Kushner said. And while Trump “pushed the boundaries” of the presidency and had “not done the normal thing,” it was “the right thing for people.” Kushner also argues that Trump’s unpredictability was “a great strength,” and that no one can be certain “where that line is” that the President would not cross.
Kushner pointed to four texts that would help outsiders understand Trump — an extremely negative 2018 column by Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal that noted the President was “crazy … and it’s kind of working.” Noonan also called Trump a “circus act” and a “living insult.” The second was the character of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Kushner, paraphrasing the cat, said “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”
The third item was Chris Whipple’s book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. Whipple added a chapter in 2018 that claimed Trump “clearly had no idea how to govern” but refused to follow the advice of his chiefs of staff (Reince Priebus and John Kelly). The fourth item was a piece written by the creator of the Dilbert cartoon strip, Scott Adams: Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter.”
The second Trump confidante is Sen. Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina senator is portrayed as a “First Friend” who tries to keep the president on point.
“You’re your own best messenger and you’re also your own worst enemy” in the daily coronavirus task force news conferences, Graham tells Trump, who seems more concerned about how many people are watching the briefings.
Graham also tells Trump that the decision to walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square across the street from the White House and show reporters a Bible was a bungled photo-op.
“Right now, if the election were held, you would lose,” Graham told Trump, who vigorously disagreed.
Graham also offers his opinions on the group that occupied the downtown streets in Seattle.
“Some of these people are just insane,” Graham says. “But you’ve got to be more than the law-and-order guy. You’re going to have to be the guy that puts points on the board for the country.”
Throughout the controversies and news bombshells (CNN’s Wolf Blitzer has used “bombshell” so often, one wonders if he is shell-shocked by now), Trump has remained resilient, deflecting controversies and blaming the media for his woes.
“Trump is a living paradox,” Woodward writes, “capable of being friendly and appealing. He can also be savage and his treatment of people is often almost unbelievable.”
How November’s presidential election pans out is anyone’s guess, but Trump is already planning ahead. Despite outrageous statements, insults, repetitive talking points, indicted cronies, disgruntled former staff members and a strategy that encourages divisiveness, Trump remains a true, political Teflon Don. He’s no John Gotti, but nothing seems to stick to Trump, although Sunday’s exclusive by The New York Times, which analyzed more than two decades of Trump’s tax returns and found evidence of major financial losses and years of tax avoidance, might do the trick. As always, that remains to be seen.
The Times’ bombshell (sorry, Wolf) wasn’t known when Woodward interviewed Trump earlier this year. In typical optimistic fashion, the President assured the journalist in July that the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crash that followed would be brought under control, sooner than later.
“Don’t worry about it, Bob. Okay?” Trump says. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll get to do another book. You’ll find I was right.”
There is a lot of first-person observations by Woodward in Rage, but it helps the reader to understand what he was thinking during his interviews. There is plenty of shock value in Rage, but there is also some solid reporting.
And that was to be expected.