The constant comparisons of Donald Trump’s White House to Richard Nixon’s administration and to the Watergate scandal in particular (although given the details, John Oliver’s term “Stupid Watergate” is a more accurate descriptor) made a book like this almost inevitable. Given all the parallels between the two administrations – a corrupt president mired in scandal, the vilification of the press for reporting inconvenient truths, and the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into apparent efforts to undermine the electoral system – who better to write about Trump than Bob Woodward, one of the two journalists (alongside Carl Bernstein) who helped cause Nixon’s downfall? Woodward’s new book, titled Fear: Trump in the White House, ultimately doesn’t make any earthshattering revelations on par with Nixon ordering the Watergate break-in, but it reveals and re-confirms enough about the inner workings of the Trump administration to make anyone afraid.
The book’s main thesis is that, simply put, Trump is completely unfit for the presidency (both in terms of knowledge and general behaviour), and that the various officials working underneath him have essentially taken over governing to mitigate the damage of his whims (Woodward describes this as a coup, though others disagree on the term). Examples of both abound throughout, with the book beginning with now-former economic advisor Gary Cohn and White House staff secretary Rob Porter (who resigned earlier this year after multiple allegations of domestic abuse emerged) attempting to stop Trump from withdrawing the US from a free-trade agreement with South Korea by snatching a copy of the letter off his desk and destroying any copies that are floating around the White House. Trump is repeatedly shown to either not understand or occasionally not care why his policy proposals could harm US interests, such as his insistence that other countries are taking advantage of the US defending them and that free trade is somehow harmful to the US, in spite of numerous arguments with advisors who try to bring up the facts. He also comes across as outright cruel to his subordinates on occasion, referring to Attorney General Jeff Sessions as “‘mentally retarded’” and a “‘dumb Southerner’” while saying that those who are resigning are committing treason against him, to highlight a few.
It’s also made clear that officials working for Trump have little regard for him. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refers to Trump as a “‘moron’” in response to his insistence that the US should only deploy its military to countries that pay for its presence, for example, while Secretary of Defence John Mattis considers Trump to have the mentality of “‘a fifth or sixth grader’” after another meeting where he proposes pulling out of the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, this leads to many essentially working against Trump’s wishes, such as Mattis essentially ignoring an order to bomb Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in response to a chemical weapons attack, or Porter and Cohn keeping Trump from signing papers by hiding them until he forgets about them entirely. Others, like Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro, end up acting as enablers for Trump’s whims, encouraging isolationist policies and referring to his critics as globalists who want him to fail. All of this is shown to be completely abnormal for any kind of government, resulting in a breakdown of the normal policy process.
Woodward’s approach to assembling Fear is fairly straightforward: interviews with Trump administration officials (both current and former) where nothing is left off the table. And while none of the people he actually spoke to are named (tragically, nobody gets a nickname, much less one on par with Deep Throat), the way the book is written makes it easy to guess a few. Chief among them are Cohn, Porter, and former chief of staff Reince Priebus, who have lengthy sections of the book presented from their perspectives in such detail that it would be surprising to find out that they didn’t talk to Woodward. One critique of the book is that these figures come across as overly sympathetic so that they come across as the sane adults in the White House – the allegations against Porter, for example, are briefly mentioned in a single prefunctory paragraph that appears to be included primarily to explain his sudden disappearance from the narrative. This is not to say that they shouldn’t be believed: Woodward has a reputation for scrupulously corroborating his information, and includes evidence to support the claims made in Fear, such as an image of the draft letter that Gary Cohn snatched from the Oval Office.
Another criticism of the book is that it doesn’t really go into detail about whether or not Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia – the bare facts of the controversy are brought up, but the reader isn’t given a clear idea as to whether the accusations are actually true or not (possibly due to Fear only going up to around March 2018). This, too, can ultimately be overlooked: there’s already enough to give the impression of Trump as a stupid and cruel narcissist who isn’t fit for the presidency without even having to delve into how corrupt he is. Ultimately, Fear accomplishes its goal of highlighting the dysfunction of the Trump White House – there’s plenty to be afraid of beyond fear itself.
Mark Haichin is a PhD student with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He has a Masters in International Relations (Research) from the London School of Economics, UK. He specialises in issues relating to nuclear deterrence and proliferation. In addition, he has strong research interests in terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international relations.
This article is a cross-post from Mark’s Policy Musings.
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