The opening scene in “Fear” deals with a letter. A draft letter, more specifically, that announced President Donald Trump’s intention of withdrawing from the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement. It’s a piece of foreign policy seen as vital, by most experts, for maintaining a military alliance and top-secret intelligence operations with South Korea.
By September 2017, President Trump has been threatening to withdraw from the agreement for months. Staff in the West Wing are worried. So worried, in fact, that Gary Cohn — once his top economic adviser — steals the draft letter from his desk. “Got to protect the country,” Cohn is quoted as saying. It’s not the first time that one of Trump’s advisers will take unprecedented measures to reign in the president’s worst impulses.
Throughout the course of his newest book, investigative journalist Bob Woodward paints a portrait of a presidency on the verge of a “nervous breakdown” — one teetering on the precipice of total collapse. Woodward famously relied on hundreds of hours of interviews with largely anonymous sources, speaking on the condition of “deep background.” It’s an approach he pioneered during the Nixon administration, and one he’s continued to use throughout his coverage of four additional presidencies.
Woodward will offer his thoughts on Washington and the state of the American presidency at the Weinberg Center on Sunday, kicking off the 2019 Frederick Speaker Series. Before his appearance, he spoke with “72 Hours” about “Fear,” President Trump, and the ethics of using background sources in an era of “fake news.”
To start off, you've mentioned that you always planned to write a book within the first year or two of the 2016 presidency, which you thought Hillary Clinton would win. What, initially, did you plan to make that book about?
Woodward: It was going to be about her, if she was president. What she did and why she did it.
When and why did you decide to focus the book on the political dysfunction inside the Trump White House?
Woodward: Well, there are three paths I could have taken. I could have looked at the untruths. My newspaper, The Washington Post, published a full listing of the thousands of false statements President Trump made in the first months of his presidency. But often, those things are not of consequence. Like when the president and [former press secretary Sean Spicer] said the crowd at his inauguration was the biggest in history. That, obviously, was not of consequence.
The second path I could have taken was to look into the Mueller investigation, but I quite honestly did not find anything new there. It’s still ongoing, but I was not able to find new information about the president’s involvement with Russia. So, the third path was focusing on what he did as president and the policy decisions. And how those decisions were made. Of course, that’s what matters to people, and that’s what I had the luxury of focusing on for the last couple of years.
When you say you weren’t able to find anything new, in terms of the Mueller investigation, what do you mean by that?
Woodward: The important question in that investigation is, what did Trump do? And right now, there is not enough information out there to conclude whether he actually worked with the Russians.
What was your timeline for the book? I’m wondering when you started and when you decided to stop, especially given the amount of news that comes from the Trump administration.
Woodward: I started the very night after he was elected, and it became apparent this summer that I had enough of his major decision-making on China, on the Middle East, on the domestic stuff to finish and publish the book.
There’s a scene early in ‘Fear’ that immediately caught my attention, when Steve Bannon starts discussing an article in ‘The New York Times’ that referenced 20 unnamed Republican sources. Then Bannon goes to Bedminster, New Jersey, to meet with then-candidate Trump and his campaign team. And Bannon is basically explaining to Trump how they can discredit the story because, in his words, they don’t know ‘the veracity’ of those unnamed sources.
Woodward: Yes, of course.
Well, to start delving into that, I wondered when you first realized that discrediting journalists was going to be a big part of the communications strategy for this administration?
Woodward: Well, trying to discredit. And on one level, they may have succeeded. You do see them leveraging these claims of fake news, enemy of the people, with some success. But at the same time, I think there’s been a lot of great reporting on this administration that they have not been able to evade. What Trump did was, he adopted the old Nixon strategy of putting the conduct of the press on trial to deflect from his own behavior. And we’ll see how far that goes for him. To borrow one of Trump’s favorite expressions, ‘We’ll see.’
But knowing that, why did you decide to continue with the same ‘deep background’ approach that’s defined a lot of your reporting?
Woodward: Because that’s the way you get the truth. I spoke to a great many people. I tape-recorded all those people with the agreement that I would use that information but not reveal where it came from. If you try to reach out to public officials to get statements on the record, you will get a press release version of the truth. And that information will not give you an accurate sense of the full story.
Were you more worried, in the case of this book, that information would be disavowed or discredited by sources?
Woodward: People will issue what I call a ‘survival denial.’ But nothing has been discredited. Certainly, there have been people from the administration who went out and publicly disavowed some of the statements in the book. But what you learn as a reporter — and I’m sure you know this, as well — is that if you’ve gotten something wrong, someone will call you or send you an email and complain about it privately. But no one has done that since the book came out.
Did you ever doubt the credibility of the people speaking to you? Because, in my mind, it seems that figures like Steve Bannon and Rob Porter might have personal incentives for cooperating—
Woodward: As you know, you always have to be skeptical. Trust, but verify. So, if you read the book, you’ll see that I was also quoting from notes and documents. If someone told me a story, I would say that I wanted documentation. Whenever you see a quote, it’s either directly from a source or I’ve seen it in one of the documents I used — notes, diaries, files, and other things like that.
Well, the first scene in the book describes how Gary Cohn stole a draft letter that would have terminated the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS)—
Woodward: Exactly. Take the KORUS letter. President Trump said that it never happened. That he would have fired Cohn if he had ever taken a document from his desk. Etcetera, etcetera. But [Trump] must not have looked closely at my book, then, because the letter is in there. It’s right at the very front.
Along the same lines as my earlier question, how do you make sure you’re not being manipulated by background sources? By people who might have their own reasons for wanting to tell a story a specific way?
Woodward: I’d give exactly the same answer. I verify accounts with other sources, and in many cases, I also have documentation to back up what they’re saying.
It just seems difficult to interview people like Steve Bannon or Rob Porter, for example. People who have lied publicly in the past.
Woodward: To a certain extent, yes. But I’m in the business of source protection, as you know. I’ve protected my sources for decades. So, I can’t comment on who I spoke to for the book.
Much has been made of the growing distrust in journalism and the media. Do you think it’s true? Have you seen a change in perception over the course of your career?
Woodward: Well, I think there’s certainly much more skepticism. I think many people are more skeptical and distrustful of journalists and the media than they have been before. But as journalists, we have to filter out the emotions as much as possible. We cannot react with shock every time this administration makes a decision. We have to remain level-headed and explain scenes in a way that is clear and authoritative. In the case of my book, I know that some people did not like that. But it remains the way that I think things should be done.
Well, I know some people have criticized the sources who seemed to have spoken to you for the book.
Woodward: Well, first of all, I don’t say who my sources are. So, I think somebody is drawing some sort of assumption that may or may not be correct. But honestly — can I be direct with you?
Woodward: All your questions have been about my sources and the press. And I think you’ve fallen into a trap. The real issue is what Trump is doing as president. That’s what people care about. That’s what I’m going to talk about onstage in Frederick. Presidents have an immense power to shape foreign and domestic policy — to make a difference in the lives of American people. And right now, we’re dealing with a breakdown in executive function. I think that’s the story that really matters.
I guess I just wonder if it’s still appropriate to use background sources at this point in American history. At least to the extent that they’re used today. Because as a young reporter, it often seems like we’re dealing with public officials who feel more comfortable lying, and a public that’s more and more distrustful of journalists.
Woodward: Yes, it’s necessary. How else do you find out what’s going on? You’re a reporter. In your career, do you find that you get the truth if you’re asking people to speak on the record at all times? Or do you find you get better information allowing people to speak on background?
There have definitely been occasions where I’ve gotten more insight on background.
Woodward: Not just insight, but information. I’ve tried to explain it. It’s a necessity. My first job in journalism was at the Montgomery County Sentinel. And within the first week, you learn that you can try to get people on the record — and you do get them on the record, if you can — but usually, they won’t give you the same information. So, it’s a vital tool in getting a story, and getting a true story.
Well, moving onto policy, you paint a portrait in ‘Fear’ of these factions within the White House trying to reign in President Trump. Do you think those people were successful?
Woodward: That’s a good question. Sometimes, sometimes not. In some specific instances, [Secretary of Defense] Mattis fought Trump about a whole range of things and talked him down on things like NATO. If you remember, Trump never liked NATO and was very angry that the U.S. spends more on defense than other countries. In the third week of his presidency, he sent Mattis off to talk to those countries and become — as Trump said — become the ‘rent collector.’ I mean, just imagine. We have a president who makes a statement like, ‘You can have your NATO, but you have to become the rent collector for all these other countries.’ And saying that to refer to an agreement — an agreement, mind you — that in the next seven years, by 2024, everyone will be spending two percent of their [Gross Domestic Product] on defense. It’s just a fundamental lack of understanding on how things really operate.
How would you compare the Nixon administration with the current Trump administration?
Woodward: I would say the difference is that we have a governing crisis now in these areas of foreign policy and economics. What we don’t know is whether Trump is a criminal or will prove to be a criminal. We knew that Nixon was a serial liar and a serial criminal who covered up his involvement in the Watergate affair and pressured others to lie over the course of the investigation. We had much more evidence against Nixon. But of course, we don’t know how the investigation on Trump is going to turn out.
After speaking with so many foreign policy officials, do you think that President Trump has impacted the way America is perceived and treated abroad?
Woodward: That’s another good question. I have not been abroad to interview people on what they think of the administration. But I think it’s true — I think a lot of people are nervous about whether Trump is going to keep the commitments that the U.S. has made for decades. Just last month, in November, he tweeted that we lose ‘hundreds of billions’ of dollars in defense agreements abroad. I have not found anyone who agrees with that. And I think it’s perilous for a president to rail against these agreements, especially one who — by many accounts — does not fully understand them. You have someone like [former Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson who has to point out that these agreements have been keeping us safe for the last 70 years.
I also wanted to go back to something you’ve said in previous interviews, which is that people tend to get over-emotional over Trump. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Woodward: Well, I think American citizens should get emotional one way or another. But I think people in the media, especially on TV, have to stick to the news and try to dig in and explain exactly what happened. The way I, in my book, try to explain how we developed our current relationship with Saudi Arabia and [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman through Jared Kushner.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis was a major figure in your book. Were you surprised when he resigned earlier in December?
Woodward: Well, he hung on for almost two years. But I think I show the development of his frustration to the point where he’s telling the president that the point of all these things — things like NATO, KORUS, and our various agreements with allies all over the world — is to prevent World War III. I was frankly shocked when I heard that he had to explain to a sitting president that we made these agreements to prevent another war. Of course, in the book, I just report it. I don’t insert my own feelings. But I was shocked when I learned that.
You’ve reported on decades’ worth of presidential administrations by now. Is Trump different than anything we’ve seen before?
Woodward: Obviously, each president is different. And he’s quite different. Look, since the book came out in September, I’ve said that people need to wake up. We need to talk about what’s happened, what he’s done, his specific view of the world. President Trump was elected to be a disruptor, but you can only take that so far. You can’t burn down the house if you want to live in it. And he’s destroying our relationships abroad, he’s overseeing massive changes in domestic policy, and he’s doing all sorts of troubling things, like attacking the Federal Reserve. He just attacked the Fed again over the holidays. Like they’re going to bow to him? They’re an independent organization. I’ve reported on the Federal Reserve and they’re designed to be a completely independent organization that he’s now attacking for apparently political reasons.
As I said, we’re dealing with a breakdown in the executive structure. That’s the story that history will remember. He’s gambling with all these things. He was a big casino owner, and now he’s gambling with the future of the country.