For weeks leading up to the publication of Bob Woodward’s latest book, West Wing aides were chatting about how damaging some of President Donald Trump’s quotes would be. In the past couple weeks, two senior Trump administration officials told The Daily Beast they were quietly gaming out how to combat or downplay what they’d heard was going to appear in the published work, and attempting to ferret out what other big tidbits would be in there as well.
“It’s been known for a while that this was going to be something that… needed some dealing-with,” one of the officials said. “The anticipation was that it would probably be worse than the other [earlier] Woodward book.”
That sense of impending dread stood in contrast to how the president initially felt about Woodward’s Rage, which deals with Trump’s handling of a range of high-stakes national security issues in addition to the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump was “ecstatic” about the prospect of sitting for interviews with Woodward, according to a White House official, and relished some of his conversations with the famous Washington Post journalist.
Ultimately, Trump spoke with Woodward 18 times for the book. And at some point along the way, he had a change of heart, becoming convinced that Woodward was using him. Trump then began rage-tweeting the very reporter with whom he was so psyched to go on the record.
“The Bob Woodward book will be a FAKE, as always, just as many of the others have been,” the president tweeted, seemingly out of the blue, last month. Later that month, Trump logged back on to blast the veteran reporter as a “social pretender” who “never has anything good to say.”
It is unclear when, exactly, Trump decided that the Woodward book could prove harmful. According to a person with direct knowledge, Trump privately said before sitting for interviews with Woodward, that one reason he was looking forward to doing so was because of how “fair” the journalist was to him on the issue of “Russian collusion.” However, late last month this source recalled the president complaining unprompted that the then-upcoming Woodward book would be filled with “fake stories,” and that the author was a “big phony.” The source did not recall Trump bringing up any of the stories or quotes he directly gave Woodward.
The damage done by Rage’s release was apparent mere moments after the first stories about the book were published, with the White House scrambling to lay out a defense and struggling to find a coherent one.
In a briefing on Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump “never downplayed the virus” despite Wooward quoting Trump saying he had done just that having known in early February that it was deadly and airborne. Less than an hour later, Trump himself admitted that he had indeed downplayed the pandemic, believing keeping people calm outweighed expressing alarm to Americans about the disease.
“Well, as you said, in order to reduce panic, perhaps that’s so,” Trump said when asked if he downplayed the severity of the pandemic. “The fact is, I'm a cheerleader for this country. I love our country, and I don't want people to be frightened. I don't want to create panic, as you say. Certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.”
The remarks were part of a string of dizzying moments on Wednesday with White House aides casting blame over who had convinced the president it was a good idea to sit down with Woodward. Among those pinpointed for the decision was Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a close Trump confidant who acknowledged in a brief interview with The Daily Beast that he had recommended to the president that he talk to the longtime Washington Post scribe.
“Yeah. The last book Woodward wrote, Trump said he didn’t know that he had wanted to be interviewed,” Graham recalled. “So I said, well, the guy is a well-known presidential author. And, you know, you got a chance to tell your side of the story. The president agreed and there you go.”
Graham went on to dismiss the idea that Trump was wrong to have downplayed the pandemic publicly. “The idea,” he said, “of the president saying we're not all going to die seems smart to me.” But the public reaction to the Woodward book was yet another example of how the president and his team are often operating on vastly different planes, with Trump supremely confident in his ability to BS his way through any crisis and his aides often left to pick up the mess.
The president has often felt that his interviews are smashing successes even when they’ve been widely panned by others, including by his own senior advisers, as pointless, self-implicating, or counterproductive.. In the wake of an interview with Axios earlier this summer—during which Trump trotted out an argument about coronavirus death stats that bordered on grotesque self-parody—the president gushed to several individuals close to him about how well the Q&A turned out and how he’d made some great TV, according to two people familiar with his private remarks.
“He said it went very well and that Biden could never stand up to that kind of questioning,” one of the sources said. “He absolutely was not mad about it.”
Such self-assuredness likely contributed to Trump’s decision to sit down with Woodward. So too did the reaction to Woodward’s first book on the Trump presidency. While it contained some revelations about Trump’s ignorance of important foreign policy issues, that work—titled Fear—was seen as a dud that lacked a literary punch or many shocking surprises about the president’s first year in the White House. It was also criticized for conspicuously papering over one of the major scandals of the first several years of the administration, describing former senior Trump aide Rob Porter’s White House activities in detail, while barely noting the abuse allegations that led to Porter’s departure.
Trump, as Graham noted, never sat down with Woodward for Fear, a decision that was notable in the restraint that it showed. The longtime investigative journalist has vexed many White Houses with his work—though his depiction of George W. Bush in Bush At War was seen as somewhat sympathetic. And, usually, presidents and their teams decide that it’s better to play ball than to let Woodward chip away at a story by getting source after source to eventually break their silence.
“Yes, you almost always have to talk to him,” Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary for President Barack Obama, told The Daily Beast. “Woodward is a superb journalist. He reconstructs meetings like a puzzle. He knows it all before you start the interview. But the book isn’t going to be a heroic tale. It’s something to be survived through putting some context around what is almost always the messy process of governing.”
But excerpts of Rage suggest that it will likely be one of Woodward’s more engrossing presidential reads, akin to his dismantling of the Nixon White House and investigation of the Reagan-era CIA.
In addition to the president’s on-record comments about the severity of the impending coronavirus pandemic in February, Rage details Trump’s bizarre close relationship with brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, as well as private (and unsupported) suspicions by former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats that Russia has damaging information on Trump. The book also catalogues the full extent of the White House’s knowledge and fumbling of the coronavirus pandemic, from alarm bells earlier in the year, to the federal government’s inaction during crucial months leading up to the spread of the virus in the United States.
Indeed, many of the revelations in the book are newsworthy enough that media critics and journalists wondered whether Woodward should have disclosed Trump’s warnings about the pandemic sooner to jolt the public into understanding the severity of the impending coronavirus pandemic.
In an email to The Daily Beast, a Washington Post spokesperson said the reason the information was not disclosed in the paper earlier is Woodward’s “book work is done independently of The Post,” and the paper did not know the contents of the book until receiving a copy in recent days.