His first great presidential scoop came via a shadowy car park and a source known as Deep Throat. His latest arrived in the broad daylight of the Oval Office and a president only too willing to blow the whistle on himself.
Bob Woodward, whose reporting on the Watergate break-in and cover-up with his colleague Carl Bernstein helped bring down Richard Nixon, found himself recording more than nine hours of conversation with Donald Trump about the coronavirus pandemic, race relations and myriad other topics for his latest book, Rage.
It will go down in history as one of the strangest relationships between interviewer and subject, between increasingly concerned citizen and blithely narcissistic commander-in-chief, unfolding through late-night phone calls – often initiated without warning by Trump – and in the White House itself. Before one 90-minute interview in the Oval Office, Woodward writes, Trump asked his photographer to take their picture.
“While we did, he explained he liked long neckties so the back could be tucked in the label. ‘Don’t you hate it when it flies?’ He took me on a tour of his hideaway office, the spot where President Clinton had secretly met with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The ‘Monica Room’, Trump called it, and gave a knowing smirk.”
Trump was piqued that he did not take part in Woodward’s previous book, Fear, which reached damning conclusions about his administration, so was determined to give his version of events for Rage. But there are moments when it seems his vanity is unable to resist and he is overly eager to impress “Bob”, a patrician white male three years his senior who was played by Robert Redford in All the President’s Men.
As Woodward recalls of this “surreal time” starting last December, Trump initiated seven phone calls, sometimes at 10pm, sometimes at weekends. The author had to keep a tape recorder to hand at all times.
“I’ve been a reporter almost 50 years and I never had an experience like this,” he tells the Guardian by phone from his home in Georgetown, Washington, conjuring the image of a president rambling around the White House at night without much else to do.
“I call him the night prowler. I think it’s true. He doesn’t drink. He has this kind of savage energy and it comes through in some of the recordings I’ve released. It comes through in his rallies. So for me, it’s a window into his mind. It’s much like, as somebody said, the Nixon tapes where you see what he’s actually thinking and doing.”
As one journalist observed 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.”
Woodward, 77, continues: “He allowed me to press him personally and I could do an interrogation of him that the House and the Senate could not do on impeachment. I let him have his say, and he does say things that he wants to say, but he also let me press him in a way that I don’t even think his top aides or family can press him. I learned an awful lot about his attitudes towards Black Lives Matter, the economy, the virus. It’s all there.”
‘A grotesque, sad, tragic failure’
The biggest headline from the book concerns the pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, the highest toll in the world. It opens with a top secret briefing – regarded by Woodward as “probably one of the most important meetings in American history, this century anyway” – on the afternoon of 28 January. Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, warned Trump: “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”
In Woodward’s telling, Trump’s head popped up.
The president would tell Woodward in early February the virus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus”. Yet publicly he continued minimising the risk, comparing it to the flu and insisting it would go away while holding rallies and refusing to wear a mask. He tried to rationalise this to Woodward on 19 March: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
At a town hall event this week, Trump contradicted that remark: “Yeah, well I didn’t downplay it. I actually, in many ways I up-played it in terms of action.”
Whereas Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had faith in people to look the worst in the eye during the second world war, Woodward argues, “Trump didn’t understand us. The negligence and the intellectual incapacity is staggering to see in our leader. He has the megaphone; he had the information on 28 January.
“It’s a grotesque, sad, tragic failure of Trump letting himself down, the Republican party down and the country down – and in fact, the world. The historians are going to put it all together as the lost month of February 2020.”
The other defining issue of the year has been an uprising against racial injustice following the police killing of George Floyd, an African American man, in Minneapolis in May. In one interview, Woodward confronted Trump about the need both men have to step into someone else’s shoes.
“I said, ‘Look, I am somebody who comes from white privilege.’ My father was a lawyer and a judge in Illinois, and I reminded Trump he came from this white privilege also, and I just asked do you understand the anger and pain that particularly Black people feel in this country? He just mocks me and he says, ‘No, you really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you, wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.’
“It’s about the awareness of what’s going on in the country that he governs. The Black Lives Matter movement was a slap in the face for all of us, particularly white privilege. It was all around us, it was obvious, there was articulation of it. There was support for it by white people.
“It’s a revolution of sorts and you connect directly to the civil rights movement and the awareness of what was going on and he didn’t understand it. He said, ‘Law and order, Bob, law and order, that’s what we’re going to do.’ Well, OK, there’s a problem there and it needs to be addressed very seriously, but law and order’s not enough.”
Associate editor of the Washington Post, where he has worked for 49 years, Woodward is a shoe leather reporter of the old school for whom the border between fact and opinion is sacrosanct – the antithesis of journalists who flood social media with “hot takes”. So it is all the more surprising and striking that, in the book’s final sentence, he reaches an unequivocal conclusion: “Trump is the wrong man for the job.”
He explains by phone: “You have to tell the truth and you can’t dodge that if that’s what you believe the truth to be. As a reporter, one plus one equals two: you can say that. And this is factual. It’s overwhelming. It’s incontrovertible and, as people are saying, it’s bulletproof. So I left it in.”
Woodward does not, however, see it as his place to opine on whether Trump should resign. Nor does he pass judgment on the people who voted for Trump in 2016 and might do so again in November’s election against Joe Biden.
“I think it’s a giant mistake to say, as some columnists do, any decent person can see what’s going on. I know Trump supporters: financial advisers, business people, workers, law enforcement people, police officers, military people, and they are decent people and they’ve reached a conclusion. I don’t fight them on their conclusion. As I see them, I give out free copies of my book and say, ‘Read this.’”
Woodward talked to Trump about a book, The Guns of August, by the historian Barbara Tuchman, about the causes of the first world war.
“I raised the book and Trump didn’t know what I was talking about. But I said she makes the point that before world war one, the old order was dying in a blaze and I said to him I think in 2016 the old order was dying: the Republican party, the Democratic party were not in tune with what was going on in this country.
“Barbara Tuchman talks about history’s clock and I said to Trump, ‘You seized history’s clock. You got it. You knew what was going on, and what was going on is that people were disgusted with people like me from the Washington Post, and there’s an elitism and a smugness and a self-satisfaction that people don’t like and I don’t like it.’”
Woodward remembers a letter from Katharine Graham, owner and publisher of the Post, after Nixon’s resignation in 1974. “Dear Carl and Bob,” it said, on yellow legal stationery, “Now, you did some of the stories about Nixon and he’s resigned, but don’t start thinking too highly of yourselves and let me give you some advice. The advice is, ‘Beware the demon pomposity.’”
Woodward adds: “There really wasn’t anything I didn’t discuss with Trump. I said, ‘You’re president and there are two Americas out there.’ And he said yep, and he understood that he’d seized history’s clock. I think we in the media lost that sense in 2016.
“So people say, ‘Oh, Trump is violating norms.’ For years I’ve laughed about that. I say he was elected to violate norms! That’s what the expectation was. We missed the pivot in history, just like the old order at the beginning of the 20th century. The old order before was dying and it was replaced by a new order, which we know about, and the new order has been Trump and we’ve got to face it.”
‘I gave him the truth’
A month ago Trump called Woodward again, asking him to include in the book a US-backed peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. It was too late: it had gone to press. But Woodward took the opportunity to give his subject a dose of bracing honesty that it seems few White House aides or congressional Republicans are willing to do.
“I gave him the truth. I said, ‘Look, the book’s going to be tough. There’s going to be judgements you’re not going to like.’ And we turned to the virus and I said the election’s about the virus and your handling of it. He said, ‘You really think so?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘What about the economy?’ I said, ‘Well, they’re related, as you know,’ and he said, ‘A little bit.’ In astonishment, I said, ‘A little bit?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, they’re related.’
“And then at the end of that conversation, he said, ‘Well, it looks like I didn’t get you on this book. I’ll get you on the next.’”
Would Woodward, who has written about nine American presidents, hope to make it 10 if Biden wins?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m getting old.”