What new insights does Bob Woodward’s latest book, Rage, offer? We learn that President Donald Trump is not the sharpest tool in the shed; members of his cabinet consider him a narcissistic fool, devoid of empathy and incapable of distinguishing between truth and falsehood. Trump blithely minimises the lethality of the coronavirus because he doesn’t want to look bad. He takes no responsibility for anything, boasts repeatedly about his wealth and genius, and shows nothing but contempt for those who happen to get in his way.
But we knew all this already, didn’t we? We already knew that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s former secretary of state, told colleagues that the president was “a moron” and that John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, often referred to him as an “idiot”. We knew that other senior officials have decried Trump’s “amorality” and “erratic behaviour”, and that Jim Mattis, his former secretary of defence, was “angry and appalled” by what he saw as Trumpian behaviour that made “a mockery of our Constitution”. We knew about Trump’s repeated assurances that the coronavirus would soon “disappear … like a miracle” and about his “perfect” phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, which led to his impeachment. We even knew that Trump considers America’s war dead “losers” and “suckers”.
The Age of Trump has been characterised by “shocking revelation” after “shocking revelation”, with the occasional “stunning revelation” thrown in for variety. Each new revelation is claimed to be the one that will end Trump’s presidency; each time, Trump blithely skips away from accountability, and his base remains loyal as ever.
Viewed in this context, Rage offers some fresh details and confirmation of old assumptions, but little that is likely to surprise anyone or change any minds. These incidents have lost their power to shock. What makes the book noteworthy is Woodward’s sad and subtle documentation of the ego, cowardice and self-delusion that, over and over, lead intelligent people to remain silent in the face of Trumpian outrages.
Woodward offers a detailed portrait of the president and some of his top aides. He tells us, for instance, that Mattis viewed Trump as “dangerous” and “unfit” for office, and ultimately resigned when he thought that Trump’s directives had shifted from merely stupid to “felony stupid”. For his part, Trump told White House trade adviser Peter Navarro that he considered his “f***ing generals” to be “a bunch of pussies”. Meanwhile, Woodward reveals, former director of national intelligence Dan Coats took seriously the possibility that Trump was “in Putin’s pocket” and “suspected the worst” of the president. Trump, Coats reportedly told Mattis, “doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie”. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was no more complimentary, commenting privately that Trump’s “attention span is like a minus number.”
Woodward similarly offers new particulars about Trump’s love-at-first-sight relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, gained through access to 25 previously unpublished letters between the two. Trump explains his instant connection to Kim by offering Woodward a creepy analogy: “You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s going to happen.”
Sure enough, the Trump-Kim relationship proceeded to unfold like a Harlequin romance. “I cannot forget that moment of history when I firmly held Your Excellency’s hand,” Kim wrote to Trump at Christmas in 2018. Later, in a letter dated 10 June 2019, Kim added, “Like the brief time we had together in Singapore a year ago, every minute we shared … in Hanoi was also a moment of glory that remains a precious memory.”
Trump, delighted by these effusions, agreed to meet with Kim in the Joint Security Area between North and South Korea on 30 June 2019. Standing on the South Korean side of the border, he asked Kim coyly, “Would you like me to come in?”
“Yes, I would like you to come in,” Kim responded, so Trump stepped onto North Korean soil. That night, he wrote his own gushy letter to Kim: “Being with you today was truly amazing.” (That this queasiness-inducing exchange occurred in the context of a deadly serious standoff over North Korean nuclear capabilities adds another surreal element.)
But it’s not all candlelight and romance in Trump Land. Trump, we learn, told Woodward that the coronavirus was far “more deadly” than “even your strenuous flus” as early as 7 February 2020, even as he acknowledged his intent to minimise the threat to the American public. And Woodward, for his part, decided to keep this disturbing news to himself; saving it for the book apparently took priority over letting the public know that their president was actively misleading them about a virus that has now killed nearly 200,000 Americans.
Rage was written in a hurry, and at times it shows. “Trump called me unexpectedly on Friday, June 19,” Woodward relates on page 356. Eighteen pages later, he writes, “Trump called me unexpectedly on Wednesday, July 8.” Six pages after that, he tells us, “Trump called me unexpectedly on the morning of Tuesday, July 21.” (You’d think that by then, Woodward might have found Trump’s phone calls a bit less unexpected.) The book’s narrative structure is disjointed; chapters shift focus seemingly at random.
Still, Woodward’s prose offers readers that delicious, vicarious sense of being an insider, right there in the room with Bob, a witness to presidential sulks and boasts. Stung by Woodward’s observation that many people considered Barack Obama to be intelligent, Trump declares Obama “highly overrated” and launches into a soliloquy on his own superior genetics and possessions: “I had an uncle who was a professor at MIT … and my father was smarter than he was. It’s good stock. You know they talk about the elite … Ah, they have nice houses. No. I have much better than them. I have better everything than them.”
Rage also shows how Trump’s massive ego and bullying routinely turned top government officials into cowering enablers. Woodward reports that the vice president never challenges Trump; to Mike Pence’s old friend Dan Coats, he seemed to have become “passive, subservient and obedient”. Describing White House discussions about whether Trump should fire FBI director James Comey, Woodward relates that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein thought Comey should instead be allowed to resign voluntarily, but, not wanting to displease Trump, he “stayed quiet”. After Comey’s unceremonious dismissal, Trump summoned FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe and bragged that he had received “hundreds of messages from FBI people saying how delighted they are” about Comey’s ouster. McCabe, writes Woodward, believed that most people in the FBI “were upset, not delighted”, but he “did not want to say any of this to the president and contradict him”, so, like Rosenstein, he kept quiet. Similarly, Mattis and Coats, appalled by the president’s behavior, “found themselves often looking across the table at each other in the Situation Room with concern”, Woodward tells us – but they too remained silent.
And so, for the most part, does Woodward himself. His scoops derive from his ability to convince people who should know better that he’s really on their side; it’s a journalistic technique that requires the reporter to flatter rather than challenge.
At times, he even seems to slip from obsequiousness into the role of mentor: listening to Trump’s justifications for his request that the Ukrainian president launch an investigation of Joe Biden, for instance, Woodward pauses his questions to offer Trump some unsolicited advice. “I’m going to tell you something from my experience,” he says. “I’m telling you, from too many decades of experience in cases like this, if you apologised it would go away.” Trump naturally ignores this guidance, but the reader can’t help but wonder: why is a journalist giving political counsel to the subject of his reporting?
Later, in another bizarre exchange, Woodward urges Trump to display a tad more empathy toward racial justice protesters. (The president, true to form, has been exulting in his ability “to send in the military” to deal with the protesters, whom he describes, variously, as “these poor radical lefts” and as “arsonists … thugs … anarchists” and “very bad people”.) Woodward, in response, attempts to explain “white privilege” to an incredulous Trump. “Do you have any sense that that privilege has isolated you?” the reporter asks. “And that we white, privileged people have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain, particularly, black people feel?”
But not even Bob Woodward can coax Trump into empathy. “No,” Trump informs him. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you?” He goes on to boast about all he’s done for “the black people”.
Still, Woodward’s trademark mix of flattery and avuncular guidance does what it’s designed to do: it gets Trump talking. And talking, and talking. (Against the advice of his staff, Trump allowed Woodward to tape 18 on-the-record interviews.) If Rage breaks little ground, Woodward nonetheless eventually becomes the favoured recipient of the ultimate nugget of Trumpian philosophy. Asked if someone else had helped him write his speeches, Trump tells Woodward: “Yeah, I get people. They come up with ideas. But the ideas are mine, Bob. The ideas are mine.”
Then, Trump adds a fitting coda: “Want to know something? Everything’s mine. You know, everything is mine.”