Review: Bob Woodward's "Fear: Trump in the White House"

In a much-discussed early moment of Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House, he reveals how two members of the administration, Rob Porter and Gary Cohn, would remove documents from the President’s desk that they did not want him to sign. While this has been celebrated, Woodward points out, “It was no less than an administrative coup d’etat, an undermining of the will of the president of the United States and his constitutional authority” (xix). We spend so much time either relieved that someone stopped him from doing things we deem dangerous or refuting these claims in order to protect a president we like that we miss a key point. A point I wish Woodward returned to more often - that these people are engaging in some deeply problematic, unconstitutional behavior and casting themselves as heroes in the process. Cohn says “Got to protect the country,” but it seems the more honorable thing would be to let the people know what is happening and then allow the constitutional process to take its course. 

Woodward does a convincing job of showing what he describes as “a nervous breakdown of the executive power,” but I worry that we are all too close to the moment to see this problem for what it is. We are either outraged at the President or outraged at his detractors. What we should be outraged by is something that is objectively true: we have crossed a line in the way the executive functions and we must figure out if there is a way back. 

 Trump and former Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, in happier times.

Trump and former Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, in happier times.

Much of the book will be familiar to anyone who pays attention to the news, which I imagine is anyone willing to read it. We get the Trump we’ve heard so much about: the casual lies, the shocking disinterest, the unsettling rage. What is different is the depth that Woodward provides, in the form of his traditional deep-background sources. While it wasn’t always difficult to guess who his sources were in his previous book on the Obama or Bush administrations, it is abundantly clear that this is a story told almost entirely through the eyes of Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn, and Rob Porter. And through their perspective, they come across as men pushing back against the chaos and trying to keep the administration (and the world, it seems) from collapsing into chaos. I found this deeply unconvincing, however. These are men who willingly signed up for the job and knew precisely who they were working with from the start. There was never a moment when anyone could say that they didn’t know who Trump was or what he was going to be like once in office. So I did not feel a great deal of sympathy for the people who helped him make it into an office they knew he shouldn’t occupy and then lied and covered for him until they were eventually pushed out. 

 Gary Cohn and Rob Porter walking behind Chief of Staff, John Kelly.

Gary Cohn and Rob Porter walking behind Chief of Staff, John Kelly.

This is not to say I feel any sympathy for Trump, either. I tend to keep my politics out of these posts (as much as I can), but I think it’s safe to say that I’m not a fan. What I struggle with when reading these books, however, is the difficulty of removing myself from the emotions of the moment. As someone with a deep respect for history, I feel it necessary to be aware of my personal feelings about the people I study. But when you’re living amidst the noise and tumult of the moment under analysis, it becomes hard to make the distinction between myself as would-be historian and as a political person with ideals about which I care quite deeply. And if I’m having that hard a time, I can only wonder how difficult it can be for the people we’re relying on as sources for this book. Like any source, they have a vested interest in spinning the story in their favor, but I can’t help feeling torn between my understanding of that on a basic level and my resentment to these people on a personal/political level. Rob Porter is a known abuser of women and was happy to work in close proximity to Donald Trump for almost two years. So to see him cast as a man trying valiantly to save us from Trump’s madness is hard to take. 

That said, I found Woodward’s book compelling and worth my time. He did as effective a job as possible under the conditions and I greatly admire his long legacy of work on the presidency. It’s certainly not his fault that his subject comes with such significant and unavoidable baggage.