Monday, January 20, 2020

No. 350: Bob Woodward's Aptly Named Book About Decision Making in the Trump White House

In 1972, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then young reporters at The Washington Post, began investigating a minor burglary at an office in the Watergate complex. Their investigation grew into a major story that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. In the process, "Woodstein" became arguably two of the most famous reporters in the history of journalism.

Woodward is now a top editor at the Post. Over the years he has written 19 books—all best sellers—and he has received a long list of awards, including Pulitzers. He has written several books about Nixon, and books about other presidents, including Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes, and Obama. He has also written about the Supreme Court, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Reserve Board.

Woodward's most recent book, published in September 2018, is entitled Fear: Trump in the White House. I read it when it was published. I concluded it was aptly titled, because I came away from it fearful about the future of our country. Because of everything that happened during the impeachment inquiry (following publication of Fear), I decided to reread the book.

I came away from the second reading even more fearful for our country. Just as I was finishing my second reading, Trump decided to assassinate Iran's top general. Iran retaliated with a missile attack against two military bases in Iraq. Also, apparently by mistake, Iran shot down a passenger jetliner that was taking off from the Tehran airport bound for the capital of Ukraine, tragically killing all those aboard.

Pages 300-302 of the book describe the relationship between Trump and Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea, in early 2018. That was prior to their meetings, which occurred after the book was published. Here are three paragraphs of the description (italics are in the original):
Lingering after receiving his President's Daily Brief on January 2 [2018], President Trump said, "In this job I'm playing five hands of poker simultaneously, and right now we're winning most of the hands. Iran is busting up and the regime is under intense pressure. Pakistan is terrified of losing all of our security aid and reimbursements. And South Korea is going to capitulate to us on trade and talks with North Korea." He seemed on top of the world but he didn't mention the fifth poker hand.
Real power is fear.
The answer on North Korea was to scare Kim Jung Un. "He's a bully," Trump told [then staff secretary Rob] Porter. "He's a tough guy. The way to deal with those people is by being tough. And I'm going to intimidate him and I'm going to outfox him."
Page 302 of the book also describes some dangerous advice Trump received from U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. Graham had suggested publicly that it was time to start withdrawing U.S. military dependents from South Korea, an action that "could provoke Kim." Fortunately, a month later "Graham seemed to have a change of heart."

At this writing (January 17), the Senators have been sworn in, and the impeachment trial is set to begin on January 21. I recommend that anyone who has not read Woodward's book do so.