Fear — Trump in the White House review: Inside a troubled House

The Watergate journalist pieces together a damning account of the chaos that pervades the Trump administration

October 06, 2018 07:25 pm | Updated 07:25 pm IST

From a man renowned for his seminal reportage on eight U.S. presidencies, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, comes Fear , a damning account of the explosive volatility, unending chaos and boundless narcissism pervading the administration of Donald Trump, America’s 45th Commander-in-Chief.

Bob Woodward, Associate Editor at the Washington Post , two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and co-author of the epochal investigative newsbreaks on the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, has in a sense mirrored the core insight of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury — that there is a frightening degree of randomness behind policy outcomes of the White House.

‘Deep background’

Yet this fly-on-the-wall account sets itself apart from Wolff’s as it is pitched a couple of notches higher on the scale of journalistic credibility, rigour and restrained writing.

Early on, Woodward is quick to let readers know that the hundreds of hours of his interviews with first-hand sources, the basis of this narrative, were conducted on “deep background,” which essentially anonymises most quotations and comments, even if many of those were tape-recorded by the author and the sources were directly involved in White House meetings. Trump, of course, declined to be interviewed for Fear , but that is hardly surprising for a President who has been associated with a visceral distaste for the media more than any of his predecessors in recent history.

Nevertheless, even from the earliest pages of the book, it is evident that Woodward has pieced together a coherent picture of the unique operational style of the Trump White House — apparently driven in large part by a concerted, clandestine effort by a group of senior White House officials determined to “block what they believed were the President’s most dangerous impulses,” even if that was tantamount to “an administrative coup d’état, an undermining of the will of the President of the United States and his constitutional authority.”

Take the disturbing episode when Trump, driven by his obsession with eliminating trade deficits with partner countries, started questioning why the U.S. was paying $1 billion a year for an anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea. Despite the best efforts of Defence Secretary James Mattis and others to explain to their boss that it was North Korean leader Kim Jong Un who posed a serious threat to American interests and the long-standing free trade agreement with treaty ally South Korea, called KORUS, mattered for peace in the Korean Peninsula, events took a dangerous turn.

Perhaps responding to Trump’s outbursts in the Oval Office on this subject, his son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner penned a draft letter announcing that the U.S. would exit the deal. Though Chief Economic Advisor Gary Cohn and Staff Secretary Rob Porter tried their best, on September 5, 2017, the draft letter reached Resolute Desk. Cohn had to act fast, says Woodward, and he did — he literally snatched the letter, whose content is reproduced in full in the book, off the desk and Trump never laid eyes on that document.

Ear to the ground?

While the book is peppered with highly readable analyses of numerous other such incidents, where foreign and domestic policy outcomes teetered on the brink of a presidential tantrum, the candour of the entire narrative — down to the frequent use of profanity by the protagonists — reveals a different dimension of the Trump phenomenon.

Whatever you think of him and of #MAGA, it is evident from Woodward’s book that Trump’s 2016 campaign and his subsequent propaganda captured the mood, if not of a nation, of a disgruntled demographic subset aching for political change. Even Trump’s ideological mentors, such as the ultraconservative Steve Bannon, seem to have been caught off-guard by the early swell of Trump’s runaway popularity and then the subsequent growth of the “movement.”

When historians of the future revisit the tempestuous years of the Trump administration, what might stick out most as a defining quality of that era might be the infinitely long rope that the President’s adoring masses extended to him regardless of, nay, precisely to encourage more of, the many slights he committed, some fleeting and others unforgivable. The other prominent feature of this time would be the shadow of the Robert Mueller investigation of alleged Trump-Russia collusion, creeping across the White House.

Upsetting the world order

But what Fear leaves unsaid, for the reader to imagine, is the idea that history cannot be judged within the parochial confines of a national border or through the lens of a single hegemonic worldview, such as the one that Trump holds on economic and trade protectionism.

The upsetting of the world order as we knew it at the turn of the century and through the 2000s may have only just begun during the reign of Trump, and his populist-nationalist counterparts elsewhere in the world.

If there is a shortcoming in the 420-page book it is that too much of the prose is in the form of “He said, she said” conversational reportage. That can be tiring, and a periodic infusion of a narrative arc by the author would have broken the stylistic monotony.

Fear: Trump in the White House ; Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster India, ₹799.

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