Maureen Dowd: Trump desperately craves acceptance from the elites he denounces

President’s eager tone on tapes shows how keen he was to impress Bob Woodward

During his 2016 presidential bid, Donald Trump would sometimes pause from bashing elites and the media to speak with awe about a phone call he had with a Very Important Journalist. Trump puffed up with pride as he told the story to bemused rally-goers, who only moments before had been jeering at the press. It was, to say the least, a mixed message from the phony populist. During an interview in June 2016 at Trump Tower, Trump bragged to me about the call with the journalist, who turned out to be New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. Lately, Trump has been boasting about Friedman’s praise for the White House’s Israel-United Arab Emirates peace plan.

Like Stella Dallas in the 1930s movie, standing in the rain outside the gates of the mansion where her daughter is getting married, Trump has always had his nose pressed up against the window of the elites.

“For a man who has risen to the highest office on the planet, president Trump radiates insecurity,” former ambassador Kim Darroch wrote to his colleagues in London, in a leaked cable. Steve Bannon once told me that Trump was much more concerned about CNN’s coverage than Fox’s. Trump was not seeking affirmation from the night-time slate of Fox knuckleheads; they were in the bag. Unserious though he may be, Trump covets praise from serious people. And serious Fox’s Sean Hannity is not.

Trump searches for legitimacy even as he undercuts any chance of being seen as legitimate

Fresh off his win in 2016, he was eager to come talk to The New York Times. I’ve never seen Trump happier than in that hour with the “failing” New York Times. (He even got to upbraid me in front of my boss.) As we wrapped up, he told the assembled editors, reporters and Times brass: “It’s a great honour. I will say, the Times is, it’s a great, great American jewel. A world jewel. And I hope we can all get along.”


That same eager tone was echoed in the audio of Bob Woodward’s tapes with Trump, as the president warmly spoke the name “Bob” again and again, yearning for acceptance from the very establishment that he had denounced to win the Oval Office. Even though Woodward keeps writing books about Trump with titles that sound like Hitchcock horror flicks – first Fear and now Rage – Trump somehow thought he could win over the pillar of the Washington establishment.

“I brought something that I’ve never shown to anybody,” the president told the writer in December 2019. “I’m going to show it to you. I’ll get you something that’s sort of cool.” He had an aide bring photos of him with Kim Jong Un, including some capturing the moment when the two leaders stepped over the line between North and South Korea. “Pretty cool,” Trump gushed. “You know? Pretty cool. Right?” He added, “I mean, they’re cool pictures when you, you know, when you talk about iconic pictures; how about that?”

Poster boy

In a later interview, he gave Woodward a poster-size picture of himself and Kim, saying: “I don’t even know why I’m giving it to you. That’s my only one”. He trumpeted about Kim: “He never smiled before. I’m the only one he smiles with.”

Trump also bragged to the man who helped break the Watergate story, which sparked an impeachment inquiry, that he handled impeachment with more aplomb than his predecessors. “Nixon was in a corner with his thumb in his mouth,” Trump said. “Bill Clinton took it very, very hard. I don’t.” Woodward once told me that every president gets the psychoanalyst he deserves. But at least with Nixon, Woodward had to follow the money to expose the venality. With Trump, he simply had to turn on a recorder. Trump is his own whistleblower. As the Times’ Nick Confessore put it on MSNBC: “Trump is the first candidate for president to launch an October surprise against himself. It’s as if Nixon sent the Nixon tapes to Woodward in an envelope by FedEx.”

Trump searches for legitimacy even as he undercuts any chance of being seen as legitimate. He is fact-based and cogent on the Woodward tape talking in early February about how coronavirus is airborne and deadly and dangerous for young people. But he vitiated that by publicly downplaying the vital information for his own political advantage.

For more than a week, instead of focusing on his peace deals and his nomination for the “Noble Prize”, as a Trump campaign ad spelled it, everyone has been focused on a story that contends he called Americans who died in war “suckers” and “losers”.

Trump desperately wants approval even as he seems relentlessly driven to prove he’s not worthy of it. He may be ludicrously un-self-aware, but even he sensed that his tango with Woodward would end badly. It was fun for a while, bro-ing out in the Oval with his fellow septuagenarian big shot, batting around the finer points of white privilege. But it could not last.

“You’re probably going to screw me,” the president told the writer. “You know, because that’s the way it goes.” Even so, the unreflective Narcissus will never drag himself away from his reflecting pool. You know, because that’s the way it goes.

– New York Times