The strengths and weaknesses of Bob Woodward’s FEAR
The great strength of Woodward’s book FEAR (like that of Michael Wolff’s book FIRE AND FURY) is that it gives us an important inside view of goings-on in the White House. But FEAR is much less successful than FIRE AND FURY in connecting the inside view with the outside view — with what was going on — and being reported — outside the White House.
In a Twitter thread at the time of its publication, I compared FIRE AND FURY with Truffaut’s movie DAY FOR NIGHT, which is about the movie inside a movie that is being made. FEAR is much less successful than FIRE AND FURY at providing this perspective. But the inside intel about the White House that is presented by Woodward is interesting enough: it just has to be used with caution.
Woodward says that his interviews in the book were done under the journalistic rules of “deep background.” It is obvious from the text itself that Woodward relied heavily on relatively few individuals for most of the “deep background” interviews on which much (not all) of the book is based: Rob Porter; Lindsey Graham; Trump’s former personal attorney John Dowd; economic adviser Gary Cohn; and the ever accessible and loquacious Steve Bannon among them.
It is essential to keep in mind that the view of the White House and the world that one gets from FEAR is based very much on what Woodward was told by these individuals — and that the book is therefore skewed very much to how these individuals saw things. For anyone who has been following the Trump Administration carefully from the outside, that perspective can seem very weird — though illuminating for just that reason.
One example is Woodward’s discussion of the tax cuts. Here what I have called the outside view is almost completely missing. Woodward does mention that after the tax cut bill passed the Senate by a 51 to 48 vote, a senior Democratic senator, who seemed to be very agitated and with whom Gary Cohn was good friends, walked up to Cohn (Cohn undoubtedly narrated this story to Woodward) and said “This will do damage for the next decade. We’ll be undoing this for the next decade.”
But that’s it. There is no mention by Woodward that the overwhelming majority of economists at the time thought the tax cut bill was a terrible idea, and apparently still do. (I followed the political discussion about it at the time fairly closely.) But as long as one is aware that what I’ve called the “outside view” is largely missing from the book, it doesn’t really matter, because FEAR does give a lot of inside information about what Gary Cohn and virtually everyone else in the White House (who were unanimously in favor of the bill) thought about it. And that kind of information has its place and is important too.
It’s even worse for the Obamacare and health care debate, for which the book includes only a couple of one line, incidental remarks by or about Lindsey Graham and Reince Priebus. Healthcare and Obamacare get virtually no discussion in FEAR — perhaps because Woodward couldn’t lock in a “deep background” interview on this issue. Congressional Republicans complained that they couldn’t negotiate on health care with the White House because Trump knew nothing about this issue and didn’t seem interested in learning anything; and Trump may not have even had a point person on the issue that Woodward would have even found helpful. The Republican failure on health care, which came early in the Administration, was when the wheels first started to come off the Trump Train, so it is particularly unfortunate that FEAR is deficient in its coverage of this issue.
The same point applies to Woodward’s discussion of Russiagate — indeed it is particularly salient there. It is very important to keep in mind what Woodward is aiming to do in the book in his discussion of Russiagate (as it is with other issues): to provide important information about how the White House insiders thought about Russiagate and how they dealt with it. The reader is on safe ground here provided she keeps in mind that what Woodward is giving in the book is what the insiders in the White House thought about Russiagate and did about it — though it is also true, as I will argue shortly, that Woodward agrees with their views about Russiagate more than he should.
Consider what the book says about John Dowd as an example. (Dowd was clearly one of Woodward’s “deep background” interviewees).
As soon as advance preview copies of FEAR were made available to a select few, the Internet was agog with the news that John Dowd quit his job as one of President Trump’s personal lawyers because he could not in good conscience continue to represent a man who was a “fucking liar.” (That quote is actually what ends the book.)
We never do learn in the book exactly why Dowd thought Trump is a fucking liar. We learn more about why Dowd thought Trump is a fucking idiot, but we don’t even learn as much as we would like about that, and what we are told is confusing, because as Dowd relates it, it could be explained by the fact that Trump was so busy that he couldn’t be expected to perform well or remember much of anything.
The previewers told us that Dowd had put Trump through a practice interview session for a sit-down interview with Bob Mueller. We were also told that the practice interview was a disaster, and that Dowd and Sekulow told Mueller later that it was a disaster.
Here is what Dowd and Sekulow told Mueller about how Dowd’s practice session with Trump went:
All of a sudden he’s the boss. But he’s getting information from all quarters, including the media every day. That is like tonnage. And the fact is, I don’t want him looking like an idiot. And I’m not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot. And you publish that transcript, because everything leaks in Washington, and the guys overseas are going to say, I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with that idiot for? He can’t even remember X, Y, Z with respect to his FBI director.”
Dowd was aware that he had illustrated the president was “clearly disabled.”
“John, I understand,” Mueller said.
As you can see, this is not entirely coherent, as there is a big difference between being unable to remember things because one is too busy and being an “idiot.”
The stuff in the book about Trump’s lying is even less clear.
Woodward’s account of Dowd’s practice interview session with Trump is in Chapter 40, pp. 327–329. According to the Dowd-Woodward account, everything went fine until the third and last question was covered, which concerned the firing of Comey. At that point, according to the account, Trump went off script and became unhinged. It is clear from the last paragraph of the book (see above) that Trump lied and made stuff up at that point, but we are not told what he said. In fact, the connection between the last paragraph of the book and that practice session is not made explicit in the book. The reader has to figure it out for himself, and I think this is a serious editing issue.
The session with Mueller where Dowd and Sekulow reenact Dowd’s practice session with Trump appears in Chapter 42, pp. 345–346. Here’s another part of account:
“Dowd decided to take an extraordinary step. “I have no secrets with you guys,” Dowd said. “I’m going to tell you about my conversation with the president of the United States on the subject of testimony.” He mentioned three of the questions he had taken Trump through up in the White House residence. On the third he had no clue. “He just made something up. That’s his nature.”
Dowd realized he had Mueller’s full attention.
“Jay,” he said to Sekulow, “you play the president. I’ll play Mueller. Okay?” They would role-play what Dowd had witnessed with the president. “Let’s talk about Comey.” Dowd asked about one of Trump’s Comey conversations. Sekulow’s answer was classic Trump — an answer spun out of thin air, with contradictions, made-up stuff, anger. A perfect performance. A perfect Trump.
“Gotcha! Gotcha, 1001!” Dowd said slamming the table, referring to the section of the U.S. Code that deals with false statements. “Gotcha, 1001!”
Dowd asked another simple question of Sekulow, still playing Trump.
“I don’t know,” Sekulow said. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Of course, it isn’t really surprising that Woodward and Dowd fail to tell us the lies that Trump told or what he just made up in the practice session, because that would have involved a very public violation of attorney-client privilege between Dowd and his client. But it is extraordinary enough that Dowd apparently did tell Mueller details about Trump’s lies and fabrication when questioned about the firing of Comey.
(No wonder that at that point “Dowd realized that he had Mueller’s full attention.”)
It is also extraordinary that Dowd never really addresses head-on the obvious question: WHY did Trump lie about Comey? Why did he just make stuff up?
The real truth — that Donald Trump had conned him, just like he cons everybody, maybe even cons himself — only starts to dawn on Dowd in a couple of places in FEAR.
One is on p. 348 of Chapter 42, where we read:
“Dowd thought it possible, even likely, that there was something that he didn’t know. “Bob, you guys are all wound up about something. There must be something here.””
The second occurrence is on the penultimate page of the book:
“After 47 years, Dowd knew the game, knew prosecutors. They built cases. With all the testimony and documents, Mueller could string together something that would look bad. Maybe they had something new and damning as he now more than half-suspected. Maybe some witness like Flynn had changed his testimony. Things like that happened and that could change the ball game dramatically. Former top aide comes clean, admits to lying, turns on the president. Dowd didn’t think so but he had to worry and consider the possibility.”
What is surprising is that Dowd thought that Mueller’s behavior — talking about subpoenaing the president, not accepting that all the documentation and the witness testimony of the 37 individuals participating in the Joint Defense Agreement established that there was no case for collusion, etc. — could only be accounted for on the grounds that “they had something new and damning” — perhaps someone flipping — that they didn’t know about.
This is surprising because it seems so disconnected from much of the public discussion about Russiagate that is not reported in FEAR.
To cite one example: Woodward reports that Dowd believes that the memo that the White House team put together about Flynn’s firing shows that Trump was not guilty of obstruction of justice in this matter. Of course, we don’t have that memo to know for sure, but we do have a 31 July 2018 article in the New York Review of Books by Murray Waas that shows that Mueller must have the obstruction of justice case on this matter virtually in the bag.
This is just one instance out of many where Trump’s legal team seems clueless. But that’s okay, as long as one accepts the book’s limitations for what they are. We needed to learn — first hand as it were — that they were and are clueless, because that helps to explain a lot that is otherwise inexplicable.
We know now that Dowd, Sekulow, Giuliani and others actually believed (and mostly continue to believe) Trump’s assertions of innocence, as well as similar assertions by at least 37 other individuals in the Joint Defense Agreement, including Manafort. So when Giuliani as Trump’s surrogate has ranted on Fox News about a “witch hunt” and how they are going to shred the kind of report (or reports) that they fully expect Mueller will write, they actually believe all that.
Incredible, but apparently true (except for the fact, as I have mentioned, that Dowd at least was beginning to have doubts).
There are other instances in FEAR where much of the public discussion of Russiagate gets slighted as a consequence of the heavily insider-oriented view of things in FEAR; and there is also one instance in particular where Woodward himself needs to be faulted. It occurs at Chapter 8 p. 71, where Woodward gives us his opinion of the Steele dossier:
On January 15, five days before the inauguration, I appeared on Fox News Sunday. I said, “I’ve lived in this world for 45 years where you get things and people make allegations. That is a garbage document. It never should have been presented as part of an intelligence briefing. Trump’s right to be upset about that.” The intelligence officials, “who are terrific and have done great work, made a mistake here, and when people make mistakes they should apologize.” I said the normal route for such information, as in past administrations, was passing it to the incoming White House counsel. Let the new president’s lawyer handle the hot potato.
Later that afternoon Trump tweeted: “Thank you to Bob Woodward who said, ‘That is a garbage document . . . it never should have been presented . . . Trump’s right to be upset (angry) . . .”
I was not delighted to appear to have taken sides, but I felt strongly that such a document, even in an abbreviated form, really was “garbage” and should have been handled differently.
The episode played a big role in launching Trump’s war with the intelligence world, especially the FBI and Comey.
I have followed all things Russiagate, and Steele in particular, very closely, and I saw this interview of Woodward on Fox News on February 15. I had read the Steele dossier the night it was published on January 10. I was unimpressed with Woodward’s dismissive, even contemptuous, attitude toward the dossier on February 15, and there is even more reason to be unimpressed with it now. In FEAR, Woodward has doubled down on his opinion of Steele, and I have no doubt that history will not deal kindly with him over it.
Even Woodward has to acknowledge in FEAR (p. 62) that then CIA Director John Brennan noted at the time that the dossier was important because it “substantiated” what the intelligence community was already doing. “This will add substantiation to what we are doing,” Brennan told Clapper when he recommended the dossier to him. “It was not proof, but it seemed to be on the same trail.”
So much for Woodward’s opinion that the Steele dossier is a “garbage” document. Wasn’t true then, and isn’t true now. Woodward should simply give it up and admit he was wrong.
(Carl Bernstein, who remains close friends with Woodward, has always been a more reliable guide to Russiagate — and also much less skeptical about allegations of collusion — than Woodward.)
To anyone who has been paying attention, the Steele dossier has appeared more and more to be the road map or theory of the case of the Mueller probe. I have written extensively about this, and will not repeat the evidence or arguments here, but the interested reader can find plenty of it in writings of mine that are indexed here.
But it is important to note that Woodward’s opinion, then and now, about the Steele dossier is exactly the way the insiders in FEAR feel about the dossier.
Dowd, for example, expresses a similarly dismissive view of the dossier to Mueller in one of the sessions he had with him (p. 327). Mueller probably thought Dowd was a fucking idiot by then, but that doesn’t detract from the value of the book. FEAR shouldn’t be read to find out what happened; it should be read to find out what insiders in the White House thought about things — and of course, for the wealth of evidence it presents that Trump is totally unfit to be president.
For that purpose the Woodward book is valuable.