Bob Woodward, the celebrated journalist, author and associate editor of The Washington Post, shared keen insight gleaned from decades in the field on the Trump presidency, commenting on potential dangers he believes the U.S. now faces due to the president’s unprecedented and often unorthodox approach in determining domestic and foreign policies, during a riveting conversation Thursday with fellow reporter and moderator Michael Schmidt at Lisner Auditorium in northwest D.C.
The venue, located on the campus of George Washington University, continues to serve as a frequent choice for program Sponsor Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore that stands among the District’s favorite for the area’s literary community.
And despite objections issued by both the White House and upper-level administrative officials, past and present, all of whom refute several of the book’s assertions as fabrications or exaggerations, Woodward remains adamant as to the accuracy of his reporting.
In a statement obtained by CNN prior to the book’s release on Sept. 11, Woodward described Trump as an “emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader. He writes in his book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” that the staff’s efforts to circumvent the president could be best summarized as “a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.”
Woodward, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning news reporting co-written with Carl Bernstein on Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal of the 1970s and winner of a second Pulitzer for his lead reporter coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, pulls few punches in this timely analysis of Donald Trump and his presidency. Further and by his own admission, the author treads onto foreign soil, going well beyond the detailed, objective methodology he’s routinely employed in his previously published works that focus on American politics.
“No one has wanted to stand up to Trump — no one,” Woodward said. “But my wife and my longtime assistant, both of whom contributed significantly to the book to make it a real family affair, convinced me that I had to include my personal conclusions and concerns. It was a wise decision.”
Woodward, whose well-documented book illuminates a White House significantly more dysfunctional than the American public could have imagined.
“He’s involved in so many things in the U.S. and abroad, some clearly connected to personal interests or family-owned businesses, that it’s not uncommon for several within his inner circle to both steal or hide highly-sensitive letters, reports or memos which they fear might prompt him to respond irrationally,” Woodward said of the president.
“Consider, for example, his unexplainable fascination with trade tariffs and how they actually affect our economy and our position in the world,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of America’s economists unequivocally say it’s dangerous to tamper with already-established and agreed-upon trade tariffs, particularly without indisputable cause. Even Trump’s chief economist agrees.
“In addition, it can lead to our national security facing increased jeopardy,” Woodward said. “It has nothing to do with partisanship. Nonetheless, Trump insists on issuing threats that he may impose even higher tariffs if other countries refuse to yield to his demands.
“This is why I had no other choice but to include my own conclusions in the book. What we’re witnessing as a result of our president’s endless rhetoric is an intentional war on truth,” said Woodward, adding a succinctly-stated postscript, murmured by more than a few White House personnel and out of the range of the president’s hearing: “If you [Mr. President] would shut the f– up, you’d learn something.”
Woodward snickered when asked if we would see Trump testify as the Russian investigation continues.
“I’m sure his lawyers will do whatever’s necessary to maintain their efforts to keep that from ever happening,” he said. “For Trump, that would result in the worst scenario possible since we know he’s not one known to worry about telling the truth.”
Facts Matter, Not Memory
Woodward’s insistence on gathering copious notes, facts, figures, interviews and other forms of supporting data remains one of the hallmarks maintained throughout his career — a practice that has proved invaluable given the impressive number of presidents he’s covered.
“I look for and ask about specific dates, times, places — I’m suspicious when someone replies with some vague statement like ‘I believe it occurred one day in May,’” he said. “More often, stories which I knew to be true were those most often denied.
“It doesn’t matter what’s said. In the end, what matters is what’s actually done,” Woodward said. “So, in writing this book, I worked hard to keep the focus on what Donald Trump has done — not what he’s said. My fear, as it relates to the president, is that because he has such a closed mind, that we have no idea how he might respond or the actions he might take in the event of a sudden, unexpected crisis.
“I believe people talk to me because they know and trust me,” he said. “This isn’t the kind of profession suited for those who prefer today’s emphasis on computer-based reporting, repetitiveness or speed mode journalism. And while social media has given us tremendous benefits, if you want to get the whole story, if you want the truth, you must be willing to walk the streets, knock on office doors, go back to see people over and over again — even be willing to get hold of their home address and knock on their front door.”
With time running out, Woodward and Schmidt answered a few questions from the audience, including one from a local 10th-grader who wanted to know how to become a journalist with the skills and reputation commensurate to the two seated on stage.
Schmidt recalled how he eagerly accepted an entry-level position at The New York Times — one that he said had to be among the lowest of all jobs possible. However, he says he had achieved his goal: “I got in the door.”
Woodward, continuing in the upbeat tenor maintained throughout the evening, advised the inquisitive student to seek any summer internship that would expose him to the industry being careful to avoid at all costs any connection with The New York Times. His reply instantly elicited a roar of laughter from the packed auditorium’s audience.
Schmidt then read the final paragraph from Woodward’s book, most notably the last phrase — a sentence of just four words, that the author describes as Trump’s “tragic flaw.”
Woodward writes the following:
Trump had one overriding problem that [John] Dowd [Trump’s formal personal attorney who resigned as the president began facing increased scrutiny due to the escalation of the Mueller investigation] knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: “You’re a f—ing liar.”