Reviewed 10/19/2018

Fear, by Bob Woodward

Trump in the White House
Bob Woodward
New York: Simon & Schuster, September 2018




ISBN-13 978-1-5011-7551-0
ISBN 1-5011-7551-3 420pp. HC/FCI $30.00

Since Donald Trump obtained the top job at the White House and proceeded to wreck the place, many have been written books to tell us about aspects of the problem: about Trump's long involvement with elements of organized crime, notably the Russian Mafiya which sprang up after the collapse of the USSR; about his lack of understanding of almost everything someone running the country needs to know; about the deep-seated insecurity which leads him to boast of his genius and bluster his way along; about his malignant narcissism which impels him to demand loyalty but never to give it; about his disorganized mind and short attention span; and about his overwhelming greed for money which is alloyed with a profound inability to generate honest profits.

Yet I doubt you will soon read a book which paints as chilling a portrait of the Trump tragedy as this one by Bob Woodward. Here is my paraphrase of the incident with which, in his Prologue, he begins his tale.1

The letter lay on the Resolute Desk awaiting Trump's signature. It announced his intention to withdraw from KORUS: the free-trade pact binding South Korea and the U.S.

That pact supported the 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea to deter aggression by its rogue neighbor to the north. It supported a bilateral intelligence operation that would warn us within seven seconds if missiles were launched from North Korea — missiles that soon could carry nuclear warheads to the U.S. (The next-best warning would come from sites in Alaska: a far-distant second best of 15 minutes.)

KORUS was, therefore, arguably the most important agreement of a fabric of agreements stitched together since the end of World War II by America and its allies, binding them to cooperate in economic endeavors and in peacekeeping efforts that have kept the world free from nuclear war. And why did Trump want to end it? He was furious over an $18 billion trade deficit with South Korea.

But Trump never got to sign that letter, because his economics adviser Gary Cohn purloined it from his desk.2

This was just one instance when Trump's withdrawal from KORUS needed thwarting, because his anger over being "slighted" by South Korea led someone to keep drafting letters and placing them on his desk. And South Korea was only one of the nations he perceived to be slighting America. And as we know, Trump always hits back against perceived slights. We also know that one nation is generally immune to such retaliation by Trump: the nation headed by Vladimir Putin. It all adds up to a grim picture. The man who runs the executive branch of our government simply doesn't know what's going on — in economics, in military matters, in national security, in relationships with allies, and in anything having to do with science.

True to his reputation, Woodward has done outstanding journalism here. He presents a great many conversations that show Trump to be an absolute nincompoop determined to reject any and all advice if it conflicts with his preconceptions and prejudices. I reproduce portions of two conversations here to give you an idea of Trump's "leadership" style.

The first comes from a discussion on funding his transition team.3

Money questions ignited Trump. When he learned that Christie, who would be the head of his transition team, was raising money for the operation, he summoned him and Bannon to Trump Tower.

"Where the fuck is the money?" Trump asked Christie. "I need money for my campaign. I'm putting money in my campaign, and you're fucking stealing from me." He saw it as all his.

Christie defended his efforts. This was for the required transition effort in case Trump won.

Trump said that Mitt Romney has spent too much time on transition meetings as the nominee in 2012, and not enough time on campaign events. "That's why he lost. You're jinxing me.," he told Christie. "I don't want a transition. I'm shutting down the transition. I told you from day one it was just an honorary title. You're jinxing me. I'm not going to spend a second on it."

"Whoa," Bannon interjected. A transition might make sense.

"It's jinxing me," Trump said. "I can't have one."

Okay, let's do this," Bannon said. "I'll shut the whole thing down. What do you think Morning Joe's going to say tomorrow? You've got a lot of confidence and you're going to be president, right?"

Trump agreed, finally and reluctantly, to a slimmed-down, skeletal version of the transition. Christie would cease fundraising.

"He can have his transition, Trump said, "but I don't want anything to do with it."

– Page 42

Next comes a discussion on Iran sanctions and free trade. Note how Trump assumes the allies should just fall in line with whatever he wants.

This is going to be fun, Bannon thought, as Mattis made the case that the organizing principles of the past were still workable and necessary.

There it was—the beating heart of the problem, Bannon thought.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson followed.

"This is what has kept the peace for 70 years," the former Texas oilman said.

It was more of the old world order to Bannon: expensive, limitless engagements, promises and kept.

Trump was shaking his head, disagreeing, although he did not say anything.

Cohn spoke next. He made the case for free trade: Mexico, Canada, Japan, Europe, South Korea. He presented the import and export data. We're a huge exporter of agricultural products, about $130 billion a year, he noted. We need these countries to buy our agricultural products. The whole middle of the United States is basically farmers, he said.

Most of them were Trump voters.


Trade deficits were growing the U.S. economy, Cohn asserted.

"I don't want to hear that," Trump said. "It's all bullshit!"

Treasure Secretary Mnuchin, another Goldman veteran, spoke about the importance of the security allies and trading partners.

Trump turned to look at Bannon. Then he looked again. Bannon took this as a signal.

"Hang on for a second," Bannon said to everyone as he stood up. "Let's get real."

He picked one of the most controversial international agreements that bound the United States to this global order."The president wants to decertify the Iranian deal and you guys are slow-walking it. It's a terrible deal. He wants to decertify so he can renegotiate." Trump would not just tear it up, as he'd promised in the campaign.

"One of the things he wants to do is" impose sanctions on Iran, the chief strategist said. "Is one of your fucking great allies up in the European Union" going to back the president? All this talk about being our partners. "Give me one that's going to back the president on sanctions?"

"Give me one guy," Bannon said. "One country. One company. Who's going to back sanctions."

Nobody answered.

"That's what I'm talking about," Trump said. "He just made my point. You talk about all these guys as allies. There's not an ally up there. Answer Steve's question. Who's going to back us?"

Tillerson said, "The best we can tell, they're not in violation of anything." All the intelligence agencies agreed on this. It was the critical point. How could they impose new sanctions, if there was no violation of the agreement?

"They're all making money," Trump said, noting the European Union was trading and making big deals with Iran. "And nobody's going to have our back."

– Pages 220-221

Lindsey Graham, Jared Kushner, and Rob Porter come off rather well in this book; Bannon and Tillerson do not. Ivanka tries to get her father to stay in the Paris Accords, but otherwise appears in the book as a sort of ghost, entering meetings unannounced, often just sitting there saying nothing.

Woodward's scholarship is fine, but the way, following a rough chronology of the conversations, he mixes topics at random — and the way he "hybridizes" them, quoting one sentence (as above) then paraphrasing the rest of the comment — makes the book hard to read. Of course this is the best way to show us the chaotic day-to-day operation of this administration. It certainly gets the point across. It has extensive end notes, a great, great index, and few errors. I'll give it a 4.5. It is an essential read but not, in my opinion, a keeper.

1 I chose this formatting to emphasis the high stakes involved...
2 This is an essential part of the problem. With some justification, White House spokespeople have condemned the actions of Gary Cohn and the other "thwarters" as a kind of administrative coup. But Woodward tells us that such letters normally came to Trump via staff secretary Rob Porter, while this one — dated 5 September 2017 — reached the desk "through an unknown channel."
3 A broadly similar conversation, and much more on the Trump transition, can be found in The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis.
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