His first great presidential scoop came via a shadowy car park and a source known as Deep Throat. His latest arrived in the broad daylight of the Oval Office and a president only too willing to blow the whistle on himself.
Bob Woodward, whose reporting on the Watergate break-in and cover-up with his colleague Carl Bernstein helped bring down Richard Nixon, found himself recording more than nine hours of conversation with Donald Trump about the coronavirus pandemic, race relations and myriad other topics for his latest book, Rage.
It will go down in history as one of the strangest relationships between interviewer and subject, between increasingly concerned citizen and blithely narcissistic commander-in-chief, unfolding through late-night phone calls – often initiated without warning by Trump – and in the White House itself. Before one 90-minute interview in the Oval Office, Woodward writes, Trump asked his photographer to take their picture.
“While we did, he explained he liked long neckties so the back could be tucked in the label. ‘Don’t you hate it when it flies?’ He took me on a tour of his hideaway office, the spot where President Clinton had secretly met with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The ‘Monica Room’, Trump called it, and gave a knowing smirk.”
Trump was piqued that he did not take part in Woodward’s previous book, Fear, which reached damning conclusions about his administration, so was determined to give his version of events for Rage. But there are moments when it seems his vanity is unable to resist and he is overly eager to impress “Bob”, a patrician white male three years his senior who was played by Robert Redford in All the President’s Men.
As Woodward recalls of this “surreal time” starting last December, Trump initiated seven phone calls, sometimes at 10pm, sometimes at weekends. The author had to keep a tape recorder to hand at all times.
“I’ve been a reporter almost 50 years and I never had an experience like this,” he tells the Guardian by phone from his home in Georgetown, Washington, conjuring the image of a president rambling around the White House at night without much else to do.
“I call him the night prowler. I think it’s true. He doesn’t drink. He has this kind of savage energy and it comes through in some of the recordings I’ve released. It comes through in his rallies. So for me, it’s a window into his mind. It’s much like, as somebody said, the Nixon tapes where you see what he’s actually thinking and doing.”
As one journalist observed on MSNBC: “Trump is the first candidate for president to launch an October surprise against himself. It’s as if Nixon sent the Nixon tapes to Woodward in an envelope by FedEx.”
Woodward, 77, continues: “He allowed me to press him personally and I could do an interrogation of him that the House and the Senate could not do on impeachment. I let him have his say, and he does say things that he wants to say, but he also let me press him in a way that I don’t even think his top aides or family can press him. I learned an awful lot about his attitudes towards Black Lives Matter, the economy, the virus. It’s all there.”
‘A grotesque, sad, tragic failure’
The biggest headline from the book concerns the pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, the highest toll in the world. It opens with a top secret briefing – regarded by Woodward as “probably one of the most important meetings in American history, this century anyway” – on the afternoon of 28 January. Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, warned Trump: “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”
In Woodward’s telling, Trump’s head popped up.
The president would tell Woodward in early February the virus was “more deadly than even your strenuous flus”. Yet publicly he continued minimising the risk, comparing it to the flu and insisting it would go away while holding rallies and refusing to wear a mask. He tried to rationalise this to Woodward on 19 March: “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
At a town hall event this week, Trump contradicted that remark: “Yeah, well I didn’t downplay it. I actually, in many ways I up-played it in terms of action.”
Whereas Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had faith in people to look the worst in the eye during the second world war, Woodward argues, “Trump didn’t understand us. The negligence and the intellectual incapacity is staggering to see in our leader. He has the megaphone; he had the information on 28 January.
“It’s a grotesque, sad, tragic failure of Trump letting himself down, the Republican party down and the country down – and in fact, the world….