ROBERT COSTA: A legendary reporter shines a light on the Trump presidency. I’m Robert Costa. Tonight we welcome Bob Woodward to Washington Week.
A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bob Woodward depicts chaos inside the White House. Why are so many officials questioning President Trump’s decisions on trade, national security, and the showdown with the special counsel? Is the Trump administration on the brink of a nervous breakdown? We discuss the stakes for the president and the country, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Tonight, a special edition of our program: Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, joins us for a conversation about his new book, Fear: Trump in the White House. Bob traces Donald Trump’s journey from the campaign trail to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Bob, so glad to have you here.
BOB WOODWARD: Thank you.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of Pennsylvania Avenue, I think back to our conversation with then-candidate Trump in March of –
MR. WOODWARD: Two-and-a-half years ago.
MR. COSTA: Two-and-a-half years ago.
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah. And we sat in that little restaurant after – before going to his hotel, which was then undergoing renovation.
MR. COSTA: And do you remember what he told us? You told me then, Bob, that we need to find out how President Trump sees power. You said that’s the core of a presidency, how they use power. So what have you learned?
MR. WOODWARD: Yes, so much. But to go back to that moment, we’re talking about power. And what we did – Obama, of course, was the incumbent, so you and I went back and looked at some Obama statements, his first inaugural. He said, oh, it’s – you know, being president is about restraint and humility, and real power is not having to use violence. So we asked Trump, you know, what about power? And that’s when he said, real power is – I don’t even like to use the word – “fear.” And it was this moment – I kind of jumped in my chair; I think you did, too – that this is the clue.
MR. COSTA: So how does he use that power? Is there an ideology that’s driving this, or is it all about transactional politics?
MR. WOODWARD: It’s all about pragmatic moments, the application of ideas that he’s had going back often 30 years ago about national security, about the presidency, about trade, I mean, you name – about North Korea, about the North American Free Trade Agreement, about Europe. And what I’ve tried to do is say, OK, well, what does he do in each of these cases? But there’s a line between our discussion before going to see Trump and then talking to Trump. And the presidency is also about an obligation to the people who put you there, but not just the ones who elected you. And I always think the job of the president is to establish the next stage of good for a majority of people in the country – not a base, not one party, not interest groups. And this is one of the things he has not done.
MR. COSTA: What drives those views, though? You talk about 30 years, and in the book President Trump tells Gary Cohn, his former top economic advisor, I’ve had these views for 30 years. But why does he have those views?
MR. WOODWARD: He doesn’t answer. He just, that’s the way it is, and if you disagree with me – this is Trump saying this – you’re wrong. And so you can’t – we all have to grow. Presidents have to grow. And the ability to listen and change or modify, shift it a little bit, is the core of surviving in the presidency. And there is, as I said, this nervous breakdown, and I think it manifests itself in everything.
Now, you live in Trump world, covering it. What surprised you the most in this book?
MR. COSTA: What surprised me was the effort that’s being made by so many people around him to bring him back into the mainstream, back towards certain norms. You see that in the scene you detail at the Pentagon, in the so-called Tank at the Pentagon, where they try to explain to him the traditional alliances of U.S. foreign policy. He’s pretty dismissive about it all.
MR. WOODWARD: He’s insulting to people. And I mean, here you have Mattis, the secretary of defense, saying to him – puts up on the wall these maps of kind of the pillars of the old order: trade agreements; security agreements like NATO; and then the very sensitive, secret, top-secret, special access program intelligence partnerships – and Trump doesn’t buy into any of this. And they’re all discouraged on the economic side. Mnuchin tries to – Trump went, oh, we’ve got to declare China a currency manipulator. And he tells him, Mr. President, look, they used to, but they don’t now, and the law is very clear you can’t do it unless the – you can’t file and take action unless they’re doing it now. And Trump is just, declare it. You know, that – as if you can rule beyond the law.
MR. COSTA: That style in terms of foreign policy has a real cost. You write about how the U.S. came to the brink of a real dramatic situation with North Korea. The president was pulled back on tweeting about removing dependents from South Korea.
MR. WOODWARD: And this could – and just at the time the top North Korean leader had sent a message through intermediaries to H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, on December 4th of last year saying if you start withdrawing dependents, we will take that as a signal that war is imminent. Now, you have a volatile leader, Kim Jong-un. He’s got these nuclear weapons and there’s no predictable path for understanding how he might respond. And the Pentagon leadership went nuts about this and just said, you – and the tweet never went out, but had it, you know, God knows. And this is the problem. You are crisis managing – that’s what the presidency is about – and you got to have a team. You’ve got to have agreement on fundamentals. And they don’t have it.
MR. COSTA: Do the people around him who are taking documents off of his desk, different trade agreements the president’s trying to rip up, do they see themselves, when you talk to them, as heroes? Or do they know they are, in a sense, mounting, as you call it, an administrative coup d’etat?
MR. WOODWARD: There is lots of conscience in this, and the connection between trade and the military and the intelligence operations are very, very secret, but they are interwoven. And people who did this are saying to each other, got to save the country, one of them saying a third of my time is spent keeping bad things from happening. And so alarm bells are going off all the time.
MR. COSTA: Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist to the president, has called it an in-your-face state, this group of people around the president who are trying to corral him in a different direction, not necessarily a deep state. How do you see that whole effort?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, it’s – Trump will just do what he wants; and he’ll listen up to a point, then he will dismiss, like steel tariffs. Now, if you took a thousand economists and say do steel tariffs make sense – and I quote a document in the book where experts on the left, the right, the economists, Nobel Prize winners, Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, leading Democratic and Republican economists, send him a letter saying don’t do this; this will not work. And, of course, he does it and calls in the steel executives. Even John Kelly, the national – I’m sorry, the chief of staff, didn’t know that there was going to be this meeting, and Trump just does it. Under the law, he has that authority. Some people think he may be stretching it.
But now we are in the world of these trade wars, which he says he thinks he can win. Wow. Danger, danger. I mean, the fright that people feel about, you know – and there’s one point where he – Tom Bossert, who’s his cybersecurity chief – I mean, no one has talked about this – but he goes to see Trump. He’s going to go on television, on a Sunday show. And Trump says, tell them I’m putting tariffs on, up to 500 billion (dollars) on China. Now, this was four or five months ago, and of course that’s exactly where he’s heading. And the president’s so pumped up about this he says, you know, boy, it’s too bad it’s a Sunday show because if it were Monday and the markets were open you’d tank the markets. The president’s job is not to tank the markets; it’s to stabilize the markets.
I was really surprised by that, that he would – because, you know, he spent all this time in New York, understands finance in a way; in a way he does not. But to speak proudly of tanking the markets, potentially, I mean, what did you think? You cover – you live Trump day to day.
MR. COSTA: And you’ve had the opportunity to spend so much time talking to these key players inside, talking to you on deep background, revealing what really is happening. And what have you learned, though, about President Trump as a person? You say he knows the markets. What else does he know beyond the tweets?
MR. WOODWARD: But he doesn’t. I mean, he knows some of the markets. He knows they’re out there. But he thinks things like, oh, let’s just print money, run the presses. And, you know, they’re telling him, no, you can’t do that; you’ll run up the deficit. And as you know, economists on the left and the right, Republicans and Democrats, are really worried about the deficit spending. But it’s just, you know, let’s do it; let’s print money.
MR. COSTA: Secretary Jim Mattis in the Defense Department, Chief of Staff John Kelly, are they getting too much credit for keeping President Trump in line? Because he still seems to be going his own way on every front.
MR. WOODWARD: That’s a really interesting question. I mean, where is the credit? I think it happens at lots of levels. There are some people who have read the book now who say, well, you know, he hasn’t started a war, which is quite true. He’s talked about, you know, let’s assassinate or let’s go after – let’s kill the Syrian leader, Assad. He has – someone was telling me today – Hugh Hewitt, who’s a smart watcher most of the time on these things, said he wants to airdrop copies of the book to every embassy in Washington, because this will tell you how he’s working. It tells you a lot that’s new. But there is the mystery of the Trump personality which persists, don’t you think?
MR. COSTA: And the mystery of the Republican Party persists. You have all these advisors and officials in the book trying to bring President Trump in a different direction. But where are the Republican leaders – Speaker Ryan, Majority Leader McConnell? They seem to barely figure in this effort to keep Trump moving toward the center.
MR. WOODWARD: That’s exactly right. And of course, this is – a lot of people have compared this to the Nixon case and Watergate, which I spent years of my life on. And at a certain point it tipped, and the Republicans said – as Barry Goldwater, the former late senator from Arizona finally went and said: Too many lies, too many crimes. And Nixon resigned the next day. Where that tipping point is with Trump, if there is one, we don’t know. Somebody who knows him well after the book came out said: He’s going to lash out at you. Which he’s done. He is a master at changing the conversation, as you know. And so you – we’re going to see efforts to change the conversation, which is fine.
But it’s – the core thought I have, there’s a war on truth. And the book ends with John Dowd, his lawyer for eight months in the Mueller investigation – he won’t tell him this, because it’s too insulting – but he said: You’re an effing liar. That’s the summation. And you can’t run this complex country on untruth.
MR. COSTA: How much is that Mueller investigation, the special counsel looking into Russian interference in the 2016, hovering over this presidency, fueling the anger?
MR. WOODWARD: Immensely so. More so than I thought in – there were a couple of scenes where Trump asks Dowd to go to Mueller and say: You know, the president wants you to know that the Egyptian President el-Sisi – a real tyrant – called and negotiated with Trump about getting some charity worker released from Egypt, which happened. And then Trump recounts what el-Sisi said. Said – you know, and Trump’s telling Dowd, this guy, el-Sisi, is a killer. He’s a real killer. He’ll make you sweat on the phone. And then he – Trump assumes the gravelly voice of el-Sisi and says: Donald what about this investigation? What’s going on here? Will you still be around? Suppose I need a favor?
MR. COSTA: So he feels that kind of burden in operating foreign policy. He can’t escape it. Can’t escape the Russia probe, day in, day out.
MR. WOODWARD: That’s right. And when he – the day after Mueller was appointed in May of last year, there is a long, extended scene in the Oval Office, in the dining room, where Trump is just beside himself. Doesn’t really sit down. Is just on his feet, back and forth, TiVo-ing all the cable news and looking at some of it and just saying, you know, how has this happened? He realized the calamity of having a special counsel. And he said: They’ll get – Mueller is going to go into every phase of my life. I am – I am – I mean, he feels and sounds like he’s been tied up by this, right at the outset.
MR. COSTA: I mean, rightfully. If you think about what happened on Friday – earlier today, Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, decides to plead guilty to money laundering, cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. It doesn’t stop.
MR. WOODWARD: It doesn’t, but I mean, you would know more about this. Would Manafort know much? I think he was just brought in to manage the campaign for a short period of time for the Republican National Convention. Do you think he knows much about –
MR. COSTA: Well, he just – he’s connected to the Trump – he was the chairman of the Trump campaign. My point is, is that every day President Trump, whether it’s in a conversation with a world leader or with his staff, he haunted in a sense by this Russia investigation.
MR. WOODWARD: He definitely is. And here’s the interesting question for our business, the media. How do we cover him aggressively but fairly? Because there are lots of people, his supporters, who think we’ve adopted a tone of snideness. And, you know, how do you get that? I mean, I –
MR. COSTA: How do you do it?
MR. WOODWARD: How do you do it?
MR. COSTA: Well, I’m just – you think about the Trump voter. Whenever you go meet them on the campaign trail they say the economy’s strong, they like the nominees for the Supreme Court. They think President Trump’s doing fine. So there’s a disconnect in the country – parts of the country – those who are alarmed by President Trump and those who say he’s doing just fine.
MR. WOODWARD: Well, I think the answer, as always, as you and I have talked over the last couple of years, more reporting. What really happened? What did they say? What was the final resolution of some of these things? Or at least, the temporary resolution because often there isn’t a final one.
MR. COSTA: How does the president see race? There’s this episode in this book about Charlottesville in 2017. He calls his speech where he apologizes for his initial remarks or backtracks them, “the worst mistake of his presidency.” What does that tell us?
MR. WOODWARD: I mean, this is so – he says about Charlottesville, oh, both sides are responsible. And there is an eruption of, wait a minute, you’re saying Nazis are fine? And so then Rob Porter, the staff secretary, and Sarah Sanders work with him on a speech which he gives, which is a healing speech, on Sunday. And – but if you look at that, if you ran it, you would see it’s kind of like a hostage tape. He’s saying things he doesn’t necessarily believe. But he said them. And then he watches a little Fox News and people are saying it’s a course correction. And he blows up and says: That’s the worst effing speech I ever gave. How could I do that? Who talked me into it? And then the next Monday he reverts to his original position in a very stark way.
MR. COSTA: Does that tell us about how he sees race? Or does that just tell us how President Trump never wants to be on the defensive?
MR. WOODWARD: That’s a – I can’t answer that question. All I can do is show it. And you see the reaction to people. And what it suggests to a number is that it means the war, the race war in this country, will never end unless you have a president who’s going to take steps to heal. And I was really shocked at that. I thought for a few words you create such nervousness that you throw fuel on this racial discord in the country. And it’s out of the mainstream. And I think you have to look at every day – like this is the way the people in the White House look at it – which is who knows what’s going to happen. The tweets – I mean, they start the day, you know this, reading the tweets because no one knows what’s going to come.
MR. COSTA: Because he’s upstairs alone in the executive residence of the White House tweeting by himself. When you think about all the challenges you’ve laid out here Bob – in the book, in your reporting – are the challenges surrounding President Trump different – in a different class than the challenges that you’ve encountered with the nine other presidents you’ve observed?
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah, this is – this is unique, because it is – there’s not an operating theory. There’s not a team building. I keep going back to you’ve got to have a team. It’s just like here on your show. You have a team. I’ve met all your producers. I know they do all the work, not you.
MR. COSTA: (Laughs.) Very true.
MR. WOODWARD: And that at The Washington Post, you have a team. You need a team. And collaboration is the only way you get to solutions. And a leader has to listen. And I think the listening skills of a leader are among the most important. And he just doesn’t want to listen. He wants to talk. And he wants to – it’s a very troubling time. And people who want to pretend it’s not troubling are kidding themselves.
MR. COSTA: Well, are the institutions – Congress, the federal agencies, the norms in this country – are they holding?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, it could be tested. And this is when you have – when there’s a real crisis. How do you – (coughs) – excuse me – how does he make his decision in a way that will take from his disruptor instincts and the paths that these institutions that have been handed him. When people say it’s not normal, I kind of – of course it’s not normal. He won on not being normal. You don’t have to be normal. But you have to be – you can’t go around – I mean, you talk to – I was talking to some of the BBC people today. And, my God, you know, in the – in Europe they’re just saying, what is going on? This book is the bestseller in Europe – imagine that. That just doesn’t happen. That’s because people wonder where this all ends.
MR. COSTA: Whether it’s in Europe, inside of the White House, even now in 2018, there’s a mass effort to try to understand President Trump. Again and again people are asking the question: Who is he?
MR. WOODWARD: Yes. And unfortunately, his lawyer John Dowd gets the closing comment in this book. And that is that he’s an effing liar. And this theme – our newspaper, 4,200-and-so-many lies or distortions – that’s important. I think most important is what he does on national security. That’s where you can make a mistake, where you have to have the secretary of defense tell you: We’re doing all these things to prevent World War III – job one for a president. And then you have the beleaguered Trump in the Mueller probe, which he just – as John Dowd says – you know, he’s really disabled. He can’t tell the truth.
MR. COSTA: Bob Woodward, thank you so much for your reporting, your insights now and for the past four decades. Appreciate your time. Thanks for being here.
MR. WOODWARD: Thanks, Bob.
MR. COSTA: Our conversation will continue on the Washington Week Extra. You can find this week’s special edition right now and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. And to everyone affected by Hurricane Florence, please be safe. We are thinking of you.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us.