Politics & Government

‘He’s trying to burn down too many things’: Bob Woodward talks Trump, Watergate, ‘Fear’

Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward AP Photo

For months, famed author and journalist Bob Woodward has spoken to audiences across the nation about his best-selling book, “Fear: Trump in the White House.”

He has found that people are very concerned.

“They’re worried. They wonder how much of all the back and forth is political and how much of it is substantive,” said Woodward will make two appearances in North Carolina in early February. “My findings in this book are that we have a governing crisis.”

Woodward, along with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, broke open much of the Watergate scandal that sunk the presidency of Richard Nixon. He has chronicled every American president from Nixon to Trump, often gaining deep access to the inner workings of the White House and the decision-making process of presidents.

“Fear” sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week and was one of the top selling books of 2018.

“Fear: Trump in the White House,” by Bob Woodward, available on Sept. 11. Simon & Schuster via AP

Woodward, too, is concerned about what he sees as a president unprepared to tackle big challenges and rejecting bipartisan orthodoxy about America’s leadership in the world.

“People have come to accept what really should be unacceptable,” Woodward said.

He blamed himself and other journalists for failing to uncover Trump’s tax returns before voters went to the polls in 2016. In a break with tradition, Trump, a billionaire real estate investor and builder, refused to release his tax returns during the campaign or since taking office, often citing audits. Democrats in the House could obtain the tax returns.

Trump, despite losing the national popular vote, won an electoral college victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, stunning most pundits and political observers.

“Don’t you think historians are going to be spending the next 100 years trying to describe what happened in 2016, why that worked and the surprise and what people didn’t realize?” Woodward said. “... We should have had his tax returns. I fault myself. I should have worked harder in getting his tax returns. People told me that his tax returns are really a road map to who he is. If there was a senator running for president and you couldn’t get his voting record, you’d think that’s absurd, right? That’s who he is. That’s who she is. In the case of Trump, his tax returns are a window into that.”

Woodward will speak at the Durham Performing Arts Center on Feb. 2 and at the Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte on Feb. 3. Woodward said much of the events are a question-and-answer session with the audience.

“It’s quite eye-opening to hear what people really want to ask about,” he said.

Below is our conversation with Woodward. There are minor edits for content and clarity.

Q: During Watergate, Republicans were the ones that decided it was time. That this had reached a certain threshold and President Nixon had to go. Can the country ever come to a decision like that again, or is it simply too partisan?

A: What happened in the Nixon case, the tapes, the secret taping system, thousands of hours, finally were coming out and people could see, Republicans could see there was a massive series of crimes that the president had committed — obstruction of justice and wire tapping and getting the IRS to investigate Democrats, abuse of power. I guess the interesting way to try to answer that is it built over time, over two years, two months from the Watergate burglary until Nixon resigned. It was Aug. 7, 1974, after one of the final tapes came out, but actually not the most incriminating one. It was the volume of it and the extent of it and the language.

Your question, what happens with Republicans, is central. It’s about an accumulation of matters and evidence and the quality of the evidence. And I think we’re at a point where we don’t know.

In this May 7, 1973 file photo, reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won them a Pulitzer Prize, sit in the newsroom of the Washington Post in Washington. More than 40 years after they became the world’s most famous journalism duo, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are still making news. Bernstein was among three CNN reporters who last week broke the story of former Donald Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s allegation that Trump had advance knowledge of the June 2016 meeting between representatives of his campaign and Russian officials. On Tuesday, July 31, 2018, Woodward’s upcoming “Fear: Inside the Trump White House” was No. 1 on Amazon.com. (AP Photo, File) AP photo File

Q: You’ve covered nine presidents from Nixon to Trump. Was there a turning point or a tipping point, in your mind, for this kind of polarization, or has it been this slow and steady creep?

A: Easier to describe the creation of the universe. It’s there, isn’t it? And I tend to try to step back form the politics of it and focus on what can be discovered about what happened in the White House and the administration. When Trump called me in August to complain I hadn’t interviewed him, I noted that it’s a pivot point in history, which he agreed with. It really is a pivot point in history, much bigger than I think almost anyone thought.

Q: Given that access, and what you’ve seen from this White House, the staff turmoil, the current staffing levels, is the president and his team prepared to tackle big problems or multiple big problems — the government shutdown, a destabilizing Brexit, this attack in Syria? Is the team prepared given what you know about how the White House operates?

A: What you have to worry about is how they behave, what Trump does in a real crisis. I think they don’t know what to do in a crisis. He doesn’t have a strategy. He doesn’t think that way. In fact, he does not have a team. I think I have in the book, Reince Priebus, when he was chief of staff, concluding that it’s not a team of rivals like Lincoln had, but a team of predators. And that’s still I think the case and it’s not working. It’s a governing crisis of many dimensions.

Q: What scares you the most having reported on this White House and as an American citizen?

A: That the national security issues are so central and important to the position of the country and the world. As I report about former Secretary of Defense (James) Mattis — his resignation letter could have come right from the book — that he believes in alliances, he believes in trade deals, intelligence partnerships, and it’s worked.

In one of those meetings, July 20, 2017, he says that the greatest gift from the greatest generation is this rules-based international order and (Rex) Tillerson, then secretary of state, says this is what’s kept the peace for the last 70 years, and Trump rejects all of that. So there is an instability that I think is very, very dangerous. So many of the things since the book came out in the fall are, like people keep saying, “Oh, that’s another chapter for the book.” Same behavior, same attitudes.

Q: Are you optimistic at all? Is there anything that gives you optimism?

A: I’ve tried to do this for so many decades and it looks like this is the end of the world, this isn’t going to work and it generally does work. So I guess you have to be optimistic that there’s something, either events or new personalities, that will present new stability. But it doesn’t seem to be there. What really surprised me in the reporting, so many of the people who work closely with Trump are the most critical of him.

People will criticize Trump and say, “He’s not normal.” It was obvious when he was elected that he was not going to be normal. That’s OK. You can change things. But you can’t burn down the house if you have to live in it, and he’s trying to burn down too many things without leveraging some of the past and the agreements and traditions that helped the United States.

Copies of Bob Woodward’s “Fear” are seen for sale at Costco, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2018 in Arlington, Va. It’s not clear whether President Donald Trump has much to fear from “Fear” itself. But the book of that name has set off a yes-no war between author Bob Woodward and the president, using all the assets they can muster. Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP Photo

Q: Is there too much focus on Trump among media and reporters? Are there stories and scandals being missed?

A: One of the things I’ve seen in the last 47 years working here is the concentration of power in the presidency is only increased with time and presidents. They can start wars, they have incredible influence. To not cover Trump would be to miss that. Obviously more can be done.

You raise a good question about what are we missing because of the focus on Trump? But how do you not focus on Trump? In doing books on wars back to the first Gulf War back in 1991, Afghanistan, Iraq, wow, the presidents start those wars. They make that decision. That’s the most monumental decision the country makes, and it’s really in the hands of one person.

Q: Do you plan to write another book on President Trump?

A: I may. I may. It’s going to be an interesting year next year. I think one of the things that’s missed is, yes, the Democrats have taken control of the House in a very definitive way, but Democrats still only have 1/6th of the power. Trump has the Executive Branch, not necessarily control, but input into the Supreme Court and the Senate. So he has 5/6ths. So the power is not really changing.

Q: Is it Watergate 2 or something different? Is it worse than Watergate?

A: Some people say it is, some people say it’s not. These things turn on quality of evidence, and because there was so many thousands of hours of Nixon tapes and the crimes, it was just vivid. In the Reagan-Iran Contra or the Clinton-Lewinsky, you had investigations. We even ran a story in The Washington Post during Iran Contra saying that Reagan’s going to be indicted, which, of course, didn’t come close to happening.

All of those issues turned on evidence. Does (Special Counsel Robert) Mueller or the FBI or the Southern District (of New York) have the kind of evidence that will be compelling and conclusive? And the answer I have is I do not know. Do you? I’d say I would bet $1, and there’s a 50 percent chance there’s something there that’s giant and a 50 percent chance there isn’t.

Q: It needs to be a smoking gun, like the Nixon tapes ended up being, to kind of convince everyone.

A: I think so. Quality of evidence matters and you can have a partisan divide that is giant, but if (former Trump lawyer) Michael Cohen, who is known to tape matters, if he really has tapes and evidence, not just his testimony, but tapes and documents to show something illegal, that’s a big deal.

(Former Tennessee Sen.) Fred Thompson, I remember going to see him when he was senator, he’d been the Republican counsel for the Senate Watergate investigation, and this is really interesting. What’s he going to do in the Clinton impeachment? He didn’t vote for conviction. He said there’s no tapes. The Nixon tapes raised the bar so high in terms of evidence that is required or thought to be the standard, that if you don’t have them, there was impeachment with Clinton but no conviction.

(Editor’s note: Thompson voted not guilty on perjury, but guilty on obstruction of justice. Clinton was acquitted of both articles of impeachment in the Senate.)

Q: Watergate, the Nixon tapes, your coverage, it set the bar so high that if it comes up just short of that it may not move the needle?

A: Or way short of it. As you’ve asked quite rightly, there’s this gridlock and partisan flavor to everything. But real evidence, conclusive evidence or clear evidence makes a big difference. We don’t know what that is or isn’t at this point. So even in all the cross fire, it may be possible, and all the suspicion and the doubt and tweeting and all that goes on, maybe in the end it will turn on evidence.


“A Conversation with Bob Woodward” is Saturday, Feb. 2, at Durham Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $39.50. dpacnc.com

He will be at Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center Feb. 3 at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $24.50. blumenthalarts.org

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speculates as to why Donald Trump has not released his tax returns publicly Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, NC following the first presidential debate.