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‘Rage’ review: A reporter and a President

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On January 28, 2020, at the President’s daily intelligence briefing, Robert O’Brien, Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, warned his boss of a new virus infection that was spreading from China. “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” he said. Despite the warning, Americans went about their daily lives, writes Bob Woodward in his latest White House chronicle, Rage, “including more than 60 million who travelled by air domestically that month.” Woodward, the journalist who broke the Watergate scandal that led to the fall of President Richard Nixon in August 1974, confronted President Trump later about his early knowledge about the virus outbreak. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told him. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”

Political thriller

The question that is likely to haunt Americans is whether the administration did its best with that early warning to prepare the country for the deadly global pandemic, which has infected 8 million Americans and caused the deaths of over 220,000. There are several such moments in Rage, which puts the U.S. President in a predictable poor light. Woodward, who wrote Fear in 2018 about the first year of the Trump White House, builds on that account in Rage to offer a window into the thinking and working of President Trump. His smooth prose and engaging writing style make the book read like a political thriller with real-life characters.

Woodward says he wrote the book based on “hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand participants and witnesses to these events”. His sources are almost entirely anonymous. But the detailed descriptions of White House conversations and those encounters between officials such as former Defence Secretary James Mattis and Dan Coats, former Director of National Intelligence, suggest that they were among Woodward’s sources. He quotes Trump’s Cabinet members disparaging the President, like most other Trump White House books do. Mattis says, “The President has no moral compass.” According to Coats, Trump “doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie”. Anthony Fauci, America’s top Infectious Diseases doctor, says Trump’s attention span is “like a minus number”.

Woodward took 18 on-the-record interviews with Trump over a period of seven months for the book. “This is all for serious history, Mr. President,” he tells Trump. But Trump comes out of these interviews as a self-obsessed, attention-seeking, boastful leader who doesn’t care for facts. In these interviews, Trump repeats his well-known foreign policy positions. “The world is taking advantage of us... we are the piggy bank that everyone likes to rob,” he told Woodward. He also thinks Barack Obama, his predecessor, was “highly overrated”.

Insight on diplomacy

While the book generally confirms what the public already knows about the Trump presidency, it also offers some insights into his foreign policy. In one of the interviews, Trump admits that the U.S. had come “really close to war with North Korea”. Woodward has got access to 25 previously unpublished letters between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Both leaders seem thrilled about their meetings in the letters. “You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen,” Trump tells Woodward about his meeting with Kim. In one letter, Kim writes, “I cannot forget that moment of history when I firmly held Your Excellency’s hand.”

On Israel-Palestine, Woodward writes Trump had always supported Israel. But a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, in which the President was shown a video which then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson thought was “fabricated”, further strengthened Trump’s pro-Israel bias. The video, made of a series of spliced-together comments from Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, sounded as if he was “ordering the murder of Children”. The next day when he met Abbas, Trump called him a “murderer and liar”.

The book also shows that engaging with Russia’s Vladimir Putin was one of the priorities of Trump. One of the reasons why Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil chief, was chosen as Secretary of State was his connections with Putin. The Russian President, according to Tillerson, had given up on Obama, who “doesn’t do anything he says he is going to do...I will wait for your next President.” Both Putin and Trump wanted a new beginning. But it didn’t happen, as the structural problems in U.S.-Russia relations continued to dominate ties.

For Woodward, the old-school pro-establishment liberal who doesn’t hide his sympathetic views about generals, corporate America and the intelligence elite of the administration and bureaucracy, Trump is a misfit. “When his performance as President is taken in its entirety, Trump is the wrong man for the job,” Woodward writes in the conclusion. America will decide whether Trump will get a second presidency in a few days.

Rage; Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, ₹899.

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