A glimpse contained in the turbulent Trump White Home
Bob Woodward’s bestseller “Rage” has President Donald Trump at the center of almost every page. He should be. Interviewing the President 17 times, Woodward recapitulated the Trump presidency from the weeks leading up to Trump’s inauguration in late 2016 through the summer of 2020 when the pandemic hit the nation and the presidential campaign was in full swing.
Much of Woodward’s report will be known, if not repeated, to those who watch American political life zealously. For example, the chapters on the Müller report and impeachment are a well-mapped area. As are the pages devoted to Trump’s meddling in aid to Ukraine that provoked his impeachment.
The material describing the government’s response to the coronavirus as of January is so well organized that the reader gets a clearer sense of how the virus spread in Wuhan, how the American medical and political leadership reacted – slowly, awkward, indecisive, and with minimal Chinese cooperation – until the virus thrived in the United States.
According to Woodward, Trump is less the willful villain in the compromised virus response than a reluctant, self-interested compromise-maker who relies on the stock market and his re-election for the good of his country. Trump dreamed that the virus would go away “like a miracle”. At least he did until he was hospitalized and his wife, White House employees, generals, admirals, and lawmakers tested positive.
Trump also lied about his response. On January 31, Trump called more than 20 senior medical and national security advisers to the White House to discuss restricting travel from China. At least five people said restrictions are essential, including Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. Anthony Fauci. Trump said to Woodward: “I had a room with 20 to 21 people and everyone but me didn’t want this ban.” He repeated this lie several times.
Woodward had to figure out how to write about Trump without lapsing into tired “and then and then” linear prose, complemented by the President’s interviews that adhered to the turn of the calendar. In the first half of “Rage,” Woodward “escaped and then” by profiling three key players in the new Trump administration. Apparently he had interviewed Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Director of the National Security Agency Dan Coats several times. (There are so many intelligence agencies in this country that readers who are not in the business can easily get confused. The high-tech NSA handles the global surveillance, collection, and processing of domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.)
These men held positions of high responsibility, understood the tools of power, and recognized the importance of structured, detailed responses to complex challenges – Mattis in the military, Tillerson in Exxon, Coats during a lifetime in electoral politics. They came to Washington believing they should serve their country. Not correct. They should serve Trump’s whims, impulses, complaints, and unfounded prejudices.
Washington state Mattis had a useful metaphor to describe meetings with Trump. There would be a formal agenda or topic of the day, but Trump couldn’t stick to the script. Before long, Trump would theorize and grumble about things that are far from the agenda or topic. For Mattis, it was like driving through Seattle on the freeway and getting off at the wrong exit. It took hours to get back to the destination. Mattis resigned when he could no longer make false outcomes and what he called “criminal stupid” foreign policy decisions.
Tillerson was named Secretary of State because of his international business experience and global political ties. In Tillerson’s mind, the secretary’s job was to travel the world, forge international alliances, and protect American interests. Trump was not interested in alliances and believed he didn’t need any help to protect the nation’s interests. Tillerson was woken up at three a.m. to find out that he had been fired.
Coats, a serious Christian, struggled to put Trump in a biblical context before taking up the job at National Security. Coats saw himself – and Trump – in eternity, not as a secular framework. He and his wife discussed God’s plan. Coats read scripture and seek guidance. He concluded that serving Trump was part of God’s plan.
Dan Coats would have been better off reading the papers. The papers would have given him a clearer sense of Trump’s reality than the Old Testament. At work, Coats was mystified. He should give Trump his best advice. Trump was not interested. He was his own security advisor, just as he was his own secretary of state and his own minister of defense.
Trump fired Coats while Coats was playing golf. His cell phone rang with the message “Goodbye”.
The title of Woodward’s book “Rage” is curious until a reader has understood the book well. Trump told Woodward that he causes anger in some people for getting a lot done unlike other presidents. Now, as this country approaches Election Day 2020, we know that Donald Trump has told the truth at least once. He does a lot. And what he does causes anger in at least half of Americans.
Michael Carey is an occasional columnist and former editor of the editorial page of the Anchorage Daily News.