The New York Times columnist Russell Baker once described the lot of the Washington reporter as the weary life of an ink-stained wretch condemned to “wear out his hams sitting in marble corridors waiting for important people to lie to him.” Bob Woodward doesn’t have to wait in marble corridors. Ever since he and his Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein wrote the best book yet published on the fall of a president—The Final Days, in which a drunken and half-mad Nixon destroys himself, raging like a tinhorn Lear—Woodward has been a singular force in American journalism.
His clout isn’t precisely the equivalent of subpoena power, and it doesn’t exactly constitute a protection racket, but it is something close to the cooperation agreements struck between prosecutors and witnesses. Important people are compelled to come to him with the understanding that they will be spared harsh sentences. They may spin furiously, but they lie to him at their peril. They will be protected by the invisibility cloak of “deep background.” Woodward says no one can get a straight story in Washington by conducting on-the-record interviews, so he exchanges anonymity for candor. He no longer has secret White House tapes to work with, so he often employs a hearsay technique: he will reconstruct word-for-word conversations among two or more participants based on the recollection of one person, who in effect dictates the substance of important passages. Where possible, he will back up his reporting with primary documents and secondary sources. If not, you’ll have to take his word for it.
Woodward is a fantastic fact-finder who cannot and will not analyze the facts he finds. “I am just not capable—and this is a grave fault—of taking A, B, C, and D and saying, ‘O.K., now E,’” he once told the great reporter and writer J. Anthony Lukas. And since he refrains from judging what his sources say, he runs the risk of becoming their prisoner, and, at worst, a stenographer to power. Lukas reflected, “I’m sure Bob realizes this, but his increasing dependence on access to very powerful people necessarily raises questions about whether he is serving the interests of his sources more than those of the public.” A careful reader can often suss out which sources are saying what. The question is whether they are telling him the truth. Here he serves his readers almost as well as his sources until, in the end, he doesn’t.
On the first page of Fear, the former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, steals a draft document off the president’s desk in the Oval Office. Had Trump signed it, he would have abrogated a trade agreement with South Korea. In Woodward’s eyes, this not only would have destroyed Washington’s security alliance with Seoul but would also have set the nuclear clock ticking toward World War III on the Korean peninsula, an extrapolation that if nothing else excites the imagination and raises our estimate of the banker’s bona fides. White House staff secretary Rob Porter slow-rolls deliberations over a new draft until the matter “disappeared in the haze” of Trump’s disordered mind.
In the prologue to Fear, Woodward reproduces the purloined letter—a very neat trick—and gives us the two-pronged thesis of the book. First and foremost, we are witnessing “a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.” This may not be breaking news, but it’s a vital and indisputable truth; Woodward’s work shows that good reporters will go to great lengths to prove what you think you already know. The second point is subject to debate: stalwart patriots opposed to Trump have infiltrated the West Wing and have worked to “block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses.”
Woodward’s sources justify their service to a man they see as a fool and a knave by providing stories in which the president creates potential disasters and, in moments of high drama, they save the republic. It can test the reader’s faith in humanity to see otherwise unprincipled men depict themselves as defenders of democracy. They want to be seen as unsung heroes, but there are no heroes here. They are collaborators in the execution of Trump’s vicious impulses on race and class and trade and economics, and exponents of his instinctive desire to let money and profit replace law and regulation as the machinery of government.
Cohn, having saved the world with an assist from Porter, later confronts Trump after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in which a peaceful counterprotester was killed. The president draws no distinction between neo-Nazis and racists on one side and leftists and liberals on the other. Cohn, a Jew, feels he cannot abide this moral atrocity, and says he will resign. Trump goes for his throat: “This is treason.” Cohn backs down, quickly persuaded that trillion-dollar tax cuts are more important than anything, including, apparently, his immortal soul. “If you think I’m betraying you, I will never do that,” he tells the president. “I will stay and get taxes done.”
Mammon gets the nod over God. Remember that Cohn is telling this story about himself and that Woodward records it deadpan. Commentary is left to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who commends Cohn for his sangfroid (according, of course, to Cohn) and adds, “I would have taken that resignation letter and shoved it up his ass six different times.”
Empty words, for Kelly has no such gumption. He was supposed to have been a countervailing force against Trump’s misrule, but he is soon defeated, reduced to jeremiads:
I’m the one guy standing in front of the president trying to protect him…. He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here.
By March of this year, as reliably reported by Woodward and the entire White House press corps, he was “greatly diminished…and had largely given up.” Sic transit General Kelly. A principled military man would have resigned long before.
Cohn eventually gets taxes done and leaves without much fuss, presumably having prepared to reclaim his morals from the blind trust where he had parked them. Porter, who also abhorred the creeping fascism of Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville, tells Woodward, “This was no longer a presidency. This is no longer a White House.” And yet he stays too—until it is revealed that his two ex-wives have accused him of violent domestic abuse. Mr. Voice-of-Reason departs the scene; Woodward eases him offstage gently, writing that Porter departed “to focus on repairing relationships and healing.” Trump tweets that his aide has been “shattered and destroyed” by a mere allegation—and why should a man’s brilliant career be harmed just because he assaulted women?
The reader has searched long and in vain for an honest man among the cutthroats and sycophants who inhabit Trump’s world. Instead, Trump’s lawyer John Dowd retakes the stage and is given a star turn in the crucial final chapter of Fear. He has toiled for nearly a year, having graciously agreed to cut his usual retainer in half, to a mere $100,000 a month, but he soon finds he has an impossible case in defending the president from Mueller and, ultimately, from himself.
Lawyer and client have found common ground in their contempt for the special counsel and his investigation. “This is a royal fuck job by a bunch of losers,” Dowd has told the president upon entering his service. Then he tries to sweet-talk Mueller, who does not do sweet talk. And thus begins a long and grinding negotiation over whether Trump will answer questions under oath, voluntarily or in response to a subpoena. Dowd knows Trump is constitutionally incapable of straight answers; he has a potential perjurer for a client. He prepares for a showdown with the special counsel to try to get the president off the hook. And here Woodward falters.
Fear suffers from Woodward’s deference to his sources and his disrespect for Mueller. I guess that’s because he couldn’t get him to talk. The man leading the most politically charged federal investigation since Watergate is the missing element of this book. An appreciation of the breadth and depth of the special counsel’s work would have given it a counterpoint to the cacophony of crazytown. Instead, Woodward lets Dowd serve as a ventriloquist’s dummy for his own apparent antipathy toward Mueller. We are told without comment that Dowd thought Mueller had no important witnesses against Trump from inside the White House, that he believed “Mueller didn’t know the facts of the case,” and that he was “convinced that Mueller never had a Russian case or an obstruction case”—in short, that the special counsel is bluffing. No known basis exists for these assertions. Woodward is wrong to accept them at face value. As Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schimdt reported in The New York Times on September 18:
Mr. Dowd took Mr. Trump at his word that he had done nothing wrong and never conducted a full internal investigation to determine the president’s true legal exposure. During Mr. Dowd’s tenure, prosecutors interviewed at least 10 senior administration officials without Mr. Trump’s lawyers first learning what the witnesses planned to say, or debriefing their lawyers afterward—a basic step that could have given the president’s lawyers a view into what Mr. Mueller had learned.
Dowd should know that to take Trump at his word is a grievous misjudgment. In turn, the reader may wonder if Woodward’s bullshit detector was disabled when he talked to Dowd. It’s a tricky business building an airtight story with erratic sources. The frenetic final pages of Fear describe confrontations between Mueller and Dowd and their cohorts during two days in March 2018, and Dowd appears to be the only source for it all.
Dowd tries denial: “There’s no collusion. And the obstruction? It’s a joke.” He tries anger when Mueller suggests that he could get a grand jury subpoena to compel Trump’s testimony: “You go right the fuck ahead and get it!” Rage cuts no ice, so he tries bargaining: “Why don’t you just give us the questions?” Mueller and his team dictate forty-nine queries, and after Dowd studies them at the White House, he becomes depressed: “Mr. President, I cannot, as a lawyer, as an officer of the court, sit next to you and have you answer these questions when I full well know that you’re not really capable.” Trump could destroy his presidency if he lies under oath. Dowd finally comes to accept the awful truth; he admits defeat and resigns.
Woodward gives him the last line: “Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: ‘You’re a fucking liar.’” We too know this to be true. The killer quote tells us nothing new. We have bought the ticket for a frightening roller-coaster ride through the first fourteen months of an appalling administration, but when the ride is over we are back where we began—and we don’t fully understand where we’ve been or what we’ve seen. And that’s because, in the end, this book, like its subject, has power but lacks a moral compass.
Neither journalism nor history can rest entirely on anecdote. Their essential elements are irrefutable facts tempered with independent judgment. Daily journalism is mostly what just happened; history is mostly what it means. We need both and we need them now, no matter whether the information rests between hard covers, lands on our doorstep at dawn, or is beamed toward our eyeballs. In days to come, through the torments of this terrible presidency, better stories will be told, striking stronger blows against it. For now we can live with Fear.