Fear: Trump in the White House Review

Fear: Trump in the White HouseFear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure what I was expecting but not this. I was struck by how it read like an episode from The West Wing full of chaos and drama. Woodward managed to inject order into the chaos and in doing so, painted Trump in a somewhat sympathetic light. His journalistic sense of neutrality is on display as he presented the first year and half of the Trump presidency as a series of huge moments where Trump’s “instincts” enabled by manipulative forces from Steve Bannon, to Peter Navarro and Fox News clashed with the views of key advisors, like the generals and Gary Cohn, who tried to be the adults in the room. Woodward takes us through defining events including the bungled response to the tragedy at Charlottesville, the Twitter wars with North Korea, the steel tariff, and Trumps pulling out of the Paris accords and trade agreements. At every decision point, Trump seems to look through a lens with three filters that revealed how he would look to supporters and the media, how much it would cost and what would the U.S. (or he) get in return. For example, he couldn’t understand why the U.S. couldn’t mine all the minerals in Afghanistan, or why the U.S. had to spend so much on NATO and the defense of South Korea. He couldn’t understand why we don’t just put the U.S. military out for hire. His instincts are to run the country like a Trump business to make money or enhance the brand. And to Trump, the brand should be about toughness and winning. Everything is winning or losing. He scoffs at the word globalism, a term he clearly learned from Steve Bannon.

Significant attention is paid to the carping between the president and his advisors and their battle for power and influence. The narrative is critical of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner who seem to have their own agenda and to have unlimited access to the president, undermining others. Some of the more incendiary bits revealed how Trump’s closest advisors viewed him. One of Trump’s lawyers, John Dowd, called Trump (charitably) incapable of telling the truth. Secretary of State Tillerson called Trump a “moron”. Chief of Staff Kelly offered a variation on the theme calling Trump an “idiot” while National Economic Council Chair Gary Cohn called him an “asshole”.

What becomes clear in the narrative is just how impulsive Trump can be (something I think we all have observed) but also just how easily he can be talked down from a bad idea. Increasingly, though, trying to put controls on Trump so that rational and ordered decisions could be made became so frustrating and impossible that many of the “adults in the room” left the administration. Now Trump has few guardrails in place to save him and the country from his bad instincts, one of the reasons he was impeached. To compound matters, he is surrounded by yes men and manipulators who have their own (very often bad) agendas – think Pompeo, Miller, Kushner, and Barr.

What Woodward did not explore were the origins of Trump’s bad ideas – that free trade and a free press are bad, and by extension that democracy is bad; that alliances and agreements are bad; that regulations are bad; that immigration is bad; and that protests against white supremacy are bad. Trump’s racism has been on display for years dating back to housing discrimination rulings against Trump properties, the Central Park 5, and Trump’s erroneous claim that Obama was not born in the United States and was an illegitimate president. Woodward does not explore the roles of Bannon and Miller in any detail or the influence of Fox “News” propaganda on Trump’s world view. And importantly, there isn’t much on the cozy relationship between Putin, Trump and the Republicans. Trump appears to support policies that favor Russia over the interest of the U.S. Why is that?

But the book is really more of a document of the Trump presidency up close and behind the scenes as experienced by the major players. It does not attempt to explain how or why Trump got elected, or to suggest that Trump is a bad president, though definitely one we should fear. Nor does he suggest Trump should be impeached and removed. That is left up the reader, including the meaning of the title, Fear: Trump in the White House. My own interpretation is that we should fear Trump more than ever now precisely because the guardrails are off and all the adults are gone or have flipped and become enablers (like Lindsay Graham) leaving the controls to an impulsive, unpredictable, failed businessman who has terrible instincts, undemocratic ideas, and no clue how to govern.

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