USA TODAY’s Susan Page sat down with legendary reporter Bob Woodward and discussed his new book which focuses on Donald Trump’s time in the White House.
NEW YORK – Bob Woodward titled his new book “Fear,” the word Donald Trump once told the journalist described “real power.” But the author had other possibilities in his pocket: “Crazytown,” a quote he attributes to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, or maybe the phrase that Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, used to describe the Trump administration: “Zoo Without Walls.”
All the names suggest the portrait Woodward paints of a White House in chaos, led by an erratic president whose own top aides maneuver to prevent him from taking steps they worry could be catastrophic.
The book, being published Tuesday by Simon and Schuster, already has gotten the president’s attention. “The Woodward book is a Joke – just another assault against me, in a barrage of assaults, using now disproven unnamed and anonymous sources,” he declared in one of a string of derisive tweets Monday. “Many have already come forward to say the quotes by them, like the book, are fiction.”
Indeed, Kelly has denied that he called Trump “an idiot,” and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has denied that, after a particularly contentious National Security Council meeting, he said the president had the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.”
Woodward dismissed their written statements as unpersuasive. “That’s just the Washington denial machine,” he said Monday, a familiar formula designed to protect their jobs and preserve their relations with their boss. “I think people kind of get it.”
There is a certain symmetry to Woodward’s career. He came to fame at age 29, breaking crucial early stories on the Watergate break-in with Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein. The scandal would force President Richard Nixon to resign. Now, at age 75, Woodward is pursuing another embattled president, this one leading a tumultuous administration and awaiting the judgment of a special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The youthful reporter who was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie “All the President’s Men” now has a craggy face and a slight stoop. But Woodward found himself reprising the reporting tactics he deployed at the start of his career, before he was the nation’s most famous investigative reporter and the author now of 19 books.
“I became lazy,” he said. “I mean, over the years, I wasn’t going to people’s homes without an appointment,” knocking on the door and asking them to talk. That’s what he found himself doing again. “What the hell am I showing up at somebody’s house at 11 o’clock at night?” he sometimes wondered. Then he would remember the lessons from his mentor, legendary editor Ben Bradlee. “His message was always ‘Suck it up’ and ‘What have you got for me tomorrow?”
Woodward’s reporting has some critics. For one thing, he talked to sources on “deep background,” meaning he could cite their accounts but not attribute the information to them by name. That makes it harder for readers to assess just what to believe, and it makes it possible for sources to say one thing anonymously and something else for public consumption.
What Woodward got were details of what he dubbed “an administrative coup d’etat,” with senior aides removing papers from the president’s desk to prevent him from seeing them or signing them. He depicts national security aides rattled by the president’s contempt for the international infrastructure in security and trade that had been built since World War II.
Since details of the book leaked, some see those aides as protecting the country. Others warn they are undermining the Constitution by defying the decisions of the duly elected president.
Woodward insisted he doesn’t take a side in that debate. “Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? I just want to find out what happened,” he said. “Now it’s the political system’s turn, isn’t it?” He noted that during Watergate it was Congress that launched the Senate Watergate Committee and moved toward adopting articles of impeachment against Nixon, prompting him to resign.
But Woodward added this: “I think people better wake up to the nature of the war on truth and its consequence.”
When Trump phoned the journalist in early August, after his manuscript had been completed, Woodward told him why he had wanted to write the book. “As you know and are living, we are at a pivot point in history,” he said.
“Right,” the president responded.
There apparently is a robust market for the book. Even before the publication date Tuesday, thanks to pre-orders “Fear” was the No. 1 bestseller in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany. Simon & Schuster already had ordered a seventh printing that will bring the total number of hardcovers to 1 million copies. The high interest “says people are worried,” Woodward said.
President Donald Trump is labeling a tell-all book from journalist Bob Woodward a “work of fiction.” (Sept. 5)
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