Bob Woodward: ‘In fairness to Trump, he hasn’t started a war’

Donald Trump has adopted Nixon’s Watergate strategy, says the veteran Washington reporter

He may still be associated in the public mind with the investigative reporting of the Watergate scandal which ultimately brought down US president Richard Nixon 45 years ago. And people may still associate him and his colleague Carl Bernstein with their portrayals by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men.

But, at the age of 76, Bob Woodward has now covered nine different American presidencies – 20 per cent of all the presidents the US has had. He has produced vast amounts of journalism and written a number of in-depth books about those administrations, particularly those of George W Bush and Barack Obama.

His methods – in-depth interviews with multiple sources, frequently off the record but verified to his satisfaction by corroborating witnesses – are sometimes criticised, and some of his conclusions – particularly his assertion that Saddam Hussein did in fact possess weapons of mass destruction – have been proven wrong.

But as a body of work, most of his writing has stood the test of time, and he is in a unique position to offer a long-term view on Donald Trump, which he does in his most recent book, Fear: Trump in the White House.


A recurring theme throughout Fear is the cliff edge of potential disaster on which the Trump administration perpetually teeters

“One really important point to understand about the American presidency is that the concentration of power is almost unimaginable,” he says. “Presidents can start wars on their own. The president has vast influence on the economy. And Trump, because he exploits the communication channels so aggressively with the tweets and the daily statements, he has enhanced his power, quite possibly more than any president, at least of the nine I’ve written about.”

What Woodward wanted to focus on in the book, he says, was the effects of Trump’s actions and behaviour on the wider world around him.

“I could focus on the lies he tells, the untruths – an astonishing number, and growing. Or on the investigation of the Russian meddling in the US election. Or lastly, what he did as president. I couldn’t find anything new about the Russian meddling, which I think now comports with what Mueller found. But what Trump does as president really has an impact on everyone in the country, quite frankly has an impact on everyone in the world. Instead of being a stabilising force, he is a destabilising force.

“We have, let’s face it, a governing crisis in this country. He’s not focused on governing. He does not have a process or a strategy except let’s make America great. And he will decide on the spur of the moment what to do. ”

A recurring theme throughout Fear is the cliff edge of potential disaster on which the administration perpetually teeters. The opening pages describe former chief economic advisor Gary Cohn stealing a document announcing the unilateral withdrawal of US troops from South Korea off the president's desk before he manages to sign it.

Woodward’s account is full of administration officials disobeying presidential orders or trying to pretend they haven’t received those orders. There must surely be a law of diminishing returns here, especially since Cohn and many others from the early months of the administration are now gone.

“Some of them remain,” says Woodward. “Three of my best sources on the Trump White House are not named in the book; their names don’t appear in any form. But he clearly feels emboldened.

“At the same time a lot of people, particularly those who are critics of Trump, still have that anxiety. But, well, he’s been there two years. That’s Trump, and you kind of expect it. In fairness to him, he hasn’t started a new war. The economy is chugging along quite well. Not as strong as Trump declares but everything Trump says is always an exaggeration.”

As for special counsel Robert Mueller’s report into allegations of co-ordination between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election, “it conforms with the erratic, impulsive, nervous breakdown of the presidency that I describe in my book.

"Look, let's face it, everyone in this country who covers Trump, almost everyone, was quite surprised that Mueller didn't find some secret co-ordination between Trump, or Trump aides, and Russia on the meddling and the election. On obstruction of justice he kind of comes out both ways.

“So what we have to do is, quite frankly, get over the Mueller report and absorb its findings, which are really important. Paint that picture of Trump doing things and saying things that are really out of line for the presidency.”

Vacuous punditry

What of Woodward’s own profession of journalism? Beset by economic challenges, upended by technological change, the sort of reportage with which he made his name has been supplanted in many quarters, it seems, by vacuous punditry and partisanship.

He recalls that, following Nixon's resignation, Katharine Graham, the publisher/owner of the Washington Post, wrote a personal letter to him and Carl Bernstein. warning them to "beware the demon pomposity".

“I think there’s a lot of pomposity, particularly on television,” he says. “On Fox News, it’s endless adoration of Trump and cheerleading for much of what he does. On CNN and MSNBC, it’s almost constant condemnation of what he does.

“I think the job of the reporter is to get the facts, find out what happened, be rigorous, deal with everyone and all sides.”

He cites the novelist Graham Greene. “He said ‘Don’t despise your enemies or those that you disagree with strongly. They have a case.’ I think it’s the job of the journalist to understand every case and find some way to present it and get what Carl Bernstein and I always called the best obtainable version of the truth, which is: can you verify?

“But it has to be obtainable. And of course you never get the full version of the truth and you have to realise that.”

But the reality now is that in a fragmented and tribalised media landscape, people pick the truth that suits their own prejudices. Does it depress him that there are many millions of people in the US who will never believe him, simply because of who he is and who he writes for?

‘Fake news’

“Look, Trump has very cleverly adopted the old Nixon strategy from Watergate,” he says. “What Nixon did was say ‘Oh, let’s make the conduct of the press the issue, not the conduct of the president.’ And Trump does that with these attacks about fake news and enemy of the people.

"Look, all of us in this business make mistakes. I've made too many. You have to step up to them and correct them if you can. At the same time I think the basic work of journalists in the United States, particularly for the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, a lot of the networks, it's all done in good faith.

“And for Trump to just issue this blanket declaration ‘Oh, it’s fake news. They’re enemies. They’re making things up.’ He’s wrong on that. And somehow we’re going to figure out, I believe, a way to establish more authority and credibility. As I did this book, as I had the time, I could go back to people and get diaries and notes and documentation. And there is an authenticity in the book that even Trump supporters realise.

We now have the Donald risk. And it's defining America now

“I’ve had many, not hundreds but dozens, that I’ve encountered, say ‘Yeah, I support Trump and I really believe in him and like him. I’ve read your book and I’m not sure I like all of it but I understand what’s going on.’ “

There’s an ongoing fascination, he acknowledges, with Watergate, fuelled in recent years by the parallels between American politics then and now. But there are many differences too. Does Woodward believe that Richard Nixon would have had to resign if there hadn’t been recording equipment installed in the Oval Office?

“No,” he says. “I think Nixon had to leave office because the Republicans turned against him because the quality of evidence on the secret tape recordings established the crimes and lies he had committed. The day Nixon resigned and left the White House he said in a very important farewell address the following: ‘Always remember others may hate you but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.’ Think of the wisdom in that.

“Nixon realised it was the hate that was the engine of his presidency, that the hate is what destroyed not his enemies, but him. And is Trump a hater? How is he different? There’s some similarities but these investigations in Congress are going to go on and maybe people will find more and new information.

Isn’t there, though, a profound difference between the political climate in the United States then and now? Party politics was less polarised and that allowed a cross-party coalition to emerge in Congress against Nixon.

“Yes, but again, the coalition against Nixon when the Republicans switched sides and said ‘Too many crimes, too many lies’, that was because of the evidence. But there is a polarisation here which in the end I think really serves no one except people who are on the extreme left and the extreme right. You’ve got to make deals.”

Woodward believes Trump’s experience of the election campaign, when people said he shouldn’t run, then that he couldn’t win the nomination and finally that he had no chance of winning the presidency, has fuelled his sense of self-validation.

“He knows he did it himself and so he is empowered,” he says. “The president has power no matter what, but he’s psychologically empowered. So instead of listening to people he tries to just say ‘Well this is my belief from 30 years ago’, or ‘This is my impulse this day’. There is not a governing process to control and manage these decisions and that’s the risk. We now have the Donald risk. And it’s defining America now.”

Fear: Trump in the White House is published by Simon and Schuster. A public conversation with Bob Woodward on the state of the US presidency, moderated by Fintan O’Toole, will take place in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on Monday, June 10th