YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Bookshelf. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. We’re continuing our conversation on the newly released bestselling book Peril. There is so much explosive reporting in it.
Joining us tonight in studio are the authors: Bob Woodward, associate editor at The Washington Post and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter; and Robert Costa, national political reporter for The Washington Post and, of course, former moderator of Washington Week. I have to say it again: It’s so exciting to be able to sit with you at this table, Robert.
ROBERT COSTA: It’s my honor to be with you.
MS. ALCINDOR: Thank you – thank you so much for being here.
The first thing I want to do is talk about the process of writing Peril, so I’m going to start with you, Bob. What were the challenges of writing this book? How did it work out? What did it look like behind the scenes?
BOB WOODWARD: Well, what we had is the luxury of time to work six, seven months on this nonstop, two of us. And as you think about when you go to do a book and get as far as you can new material behind the scenes, you realize that the pillar that is presented to you from the daily journalists like yourself, like the people at The Washington Post, even The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, you name it, if you don’t have that foundation you get nowhere. Once you get the foundation – and I think we came away with a deeper respect for the people who do that. So we started there and we divided people up, and people we knew, pursuits – I mean, just literally knocking on doors like old-time reporters, calling, and it, quite frankly, fit together. We had these pieces, and Bob, who’s an organizational genius if I may say that –
MR. COSTA: OK, all right, all right.
MR. WOODWARD: Oh, no, no, no, it’s true. You said, OK, now we have these loose ends, let’s divide it into five main parts, and then that gave us an organizational – some organization, and then we proceeded from there.
MR. COSTA: Just to add one quick point, we did want to really have a flow to it. And it’s interesting because we’re trying to tell the story of two presidencies, but using Bob’s method, chronology matters. You know, we start with the prologue – that brings you to the insurrection and the days after – but we really wanted to start with the Biden story because you got to understand the current president to understand Trump and vice versa, and chronology and scenes really tell history as it happens by going back and figuring out what people said, what really happened.
MR. WOODWARD: And doing long interviews when you work on something – I mean, I’m a lot – I’m more than twice Bob’s age.
MS. ALCINDOR: We can’t tell. (Laughs.)
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah, we can – I can, you can, he can. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: That’s not good for me. I look like I’m 78. (Laughter.)
MS. ALCINDOR: Possibly. I won’t say anything. (Laughs.)
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah, I’m 78, he’s 35. And long interviews – I mean, you did some interviews that were eight hours.
MS. ALCINDOR: Wow.
MR. COSTA: Well, there’s a few interviews where – there’s a few sources who I would say come over, and they would just stay. Sometimes I think people just didn’t want to go home or they didn’t have plans.
MR. WOODWARD: Because he would give them pizza.
MR. COSTA: I would give them pizza, chicken salad, sandwiches, fruit. One source in particular loved root beer; I got the best root beer you can buy at one of those gourmet grocery stores. Anything you can do to get the story within ethical bounds.
MR. WOODWARD: And then you talk to somebody and you ask the question: Who else should we talk to? And some of – I mean, somebody mentioned Senator Mike Lee, call him up. So we called him up, and, oh, there’s this memo that he got from John Eastman, from the White House, essentially proposing a plan to nullify the election and get Pence to do it step by step, and then discovering that Lee investigated and found there was nothing there. And that – we thought, oh, that is very significant, found – and so you go step by step, but you know, we salute the daily reporters who give us the foundation.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, something that I found that struck me while reading Peril – because I couldn’t put it down – was this idea that I felt like I was learning so many new things about former President Trump but also President Biden. It’s not just a book about Trump; it’s about Biden too. So, Robert, I’ll ask you: What sticks with you when you think about the new things that you learned about both of these presidents? And is there anything that you learned that sort of joins them together? They’re, of course, very different personalities, but some of them have – I should say both of them have some similarities as well.
MR. COSTA: Well, on President Biden we learned a lot about Afghanistan and his decision on that policy that was new to us and new in the book in terms of that story. But on a personal level we learned that President Biden has been pursuing the presidency for years going back to his 1988 run, his 2008 run, both failures, and he’s always had this ambition to be president, but once he’s actually won the presidency, based on our reporting, he doesn’t seem to love living in the White House. He enjoys having the lever of power on hand, but he doesn’t really like it inside 1600 so he goes home to Delaware pretty frequently, as you know, and he’s someone who doesn’t like that the people in the White House try to take his coat and put on his coat when he’s walking around the upstairs of the White House. And so we just kind of learned that presidents, just like anybody, have their own quirks, their own personalities.
MR. WOODWARD: And Ron Klain, the chief of staff, is – to Biden – is quoted in the book saying the president doesn’t really like living in the White House, and it’s because of this – it’s formal, it’s like some New York hotel, and Biden, as we know, wants to get to Wilmington as soon as he can as often as he can, and that is a character trait he has. And it’s – he discovers – I think it’s one of the powers of the presidency; if you want to go to Wilmington, you can go to Wilmington. No one’s going to say, no, you can’t, even though you were there last weekend.
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s, of course, I think really interesting thinking about just, really, I think looking at the powers of the presidency and saying, I can go home if I want to go home. That being said, I mean, there are serious topics in here, right, about sort of the state of democracy and the danger. We talked a bit about this, but the last words are peril remains. Speak a bit more about that and what it means that January 6 could have been or might be the beginning of something rather than the end of something.
MR. WOODWARD: Yes, I mean, the cliche past is prologue applies here. It’s because Trump is on the scene aggressively. I mean, as you know, when people ask him are you going to run, he’ll say to his supporters, well, I’m not going to answer that question but you’ll like the answer. China’s on the march. This is really an important foreign policy/domestic issue, how do you deal with China. Trump didn’t figure that out; Biden hasn’t figured it out yet. And if you want to look ahead and say where’s the United States going to be in 10 years, tell us whether we work things out with China or whether the hostility grew, President Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao and he has put his agenda right out there, and it’s not that anyone gets to vote on it; he decides. It is not a real democracy, as we know. So what that – where that lands and where Trump lands and where I think – and Bob and I talk about this – the January 6 investigation, where does that go? What does that tell us about Trump? What does it tell us about our own country? What does it tell us – I think there is a lot to learn.
And the Senate Watergate committee back in 1973 was the gold standard for investigating Watergate and Nixon, and they brought up all of the people – John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general, campaign manager, closest to Nixon, and he testified, Mitchell. And we’re sitting there – this is 1973 – jaws on the table because Mitchell’s saying, oh, there were all the White House horrors, all these things that – I mean, nightmares; they were doing this, they were doing that. And everyone dumped the story out about a presidency out of control, no regard for the law. And so I guess we have – I hope we’re not fantasizing –
MR. COSTA: Well, we’ve encountered our own horrors in this process. You see that the story hasn’t still fully been told. We try to tell a better story, a fuller story, a portrait of how close this country came to the brink not only in terms of a domestic political crisis, but the most eye-opening thing for us in our reporting was this wasn’t just an insurrection that had an isolated effect on the American political scene; this has national security consequences. The world watches the United States, and there’s a phrase in the prologue, needles up. The whole national security apparatus in this country was on edge: What would other countries do if they saw the U.S. was having instability? And we’re still in that kind of fragile political and national security moment.
MR. WOODWARD: And the – this is the reason General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, acted and had these calls with his Chinese counterpart, which we document in detail. And now, you know, this leans into next week, when Milley is going to testify and answer questions about why he did what he did. We found no evidence – President – former President Trump has accused Milley of high – I mean, treason.
MR. COSTA: Treason, which is only happening during wartime, according to the Constitution.
MR. WOODWARD: And we found no actions that were treasonous. Milley was under immense pressure from what the Chinese were responding to because of Trump.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, Robert, I want to ask you, you understand Trump’s origin story better than almost any reporter; what does Trump make of all this? Is he concerned at all, when you’re talking to sources, or does he think that this is the way into his next chapter into power? Is he watching all of this and sitting back thinking, this is the road back to the White House?
MR. COSTA: To answer that question, I’d just go back to my first notebook on Donald Trump. 2011, I started to talk to him as a reporter, and what was he doing in 2011? Birtherism. And I remember talking to him at CPAC, that conservative conference, in New York and on the phone, and he was stirring it up on birtherism, thinking this was maybe the path to the nomination in 2012; ultimately decided not to run. But he saw birtherism and the agitation and the anxiety and the true unease it caused as something that excited him politically. He kept going into it. And you see that same personality trait now. Instead of looking at a political and domestic civic fire and saying, we have to put it out, he sometimes says, politically, let’s pour fuel on it.
MR. WOODWARD: I mean, not just sometimes; he’s doing that all the time. But he realized – I once talked to him in the Oval Office for the earlier book, Rage, and we’re sitting there at the Resolute Desk and he’s got all his, you know, pictures with Kim Jong-un and orders appointing people to judgeships and so forth, and we discussed about the old order in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. In 2016, both the old order in those two parties was fading, was disappearing, changing, and he seized it in a way I think historians are going to be writing about for a hundred years.
MR. COSTA: What’s the phrase you told Trump, you seized what? History’s clock.
MR. WOODWARD: Yeah, you seized history’s clock, and I pointed to that old clock in the Oval Office, and he said, yes, and I’ll do it again. And so he’s driven to this. I think he’s – now, can you sell, make the rationale for a candidacy? Oh, last time the election was stolen and, it turns out, there’s no proof that it was stolen; is that going to mobilize sufficient members of the Republican Party or Americans?
MS. ALCINDOR: And where does President Biden stand in all of this, when you think about the fact that he ran as a sort of anti-Trump candidate, but now you have the French comparing him to former President Trump, saying that this new defense deal, that it was wrong, that it was not in the right way, and that the decision was sort of impulsive? You also have immigration activists comparing him to former President Trump, saying, you’re not treating people humanely, all this, though, as President Biden just this week gave his first address to the U.N. saying America’s back, we are going to figure this out, we’re going to have allies. What do you make of the situation that presents President Biden, or that he’s presented with here, in the way that he’s handling it?
MR. COSTA: Welcome to the presidency. There’s a scene in the book where President Biden has made his decision on Afghanistan and he’s watching television and people are saying, this is chaos, this is terrible, people who are his friends, his political allies, and he turns to his aides and he wonders, I didn’t think it was going to be like this; they embraced me when I won; I’m not Trump and I’ve always had kind of this position on Afghanistan, as we trace in the book. But the criticism of that Afghanistan decision was immediate and tough. And he said, this is really tough. And then he looks over at the desk and he taps on it and he goes, the buck really does stop here.
MS. ALCINDOR: Wow.
MR. WOODWARD: A wakeup call.
MS. ALCINDOR: A complete wakeup call.
Well, thank you so much. We’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thank you to Bob and Robert for joining us, sharing all this reporting about your book.
Make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a look at all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Thanks for watching. Good night from Washington.