ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
On this chapter of our Bookshelf series I’m joined by my colleague Bob Woodward, Pulitzer Prize-winning associate editor at The Washington Post and the author of nonfiction bestsellers that have captured the modern presidency like no one else going back to his first book with Carl Bernstein about Watergate and President Nixon, All the President’s Men. Welcome, Bob.
BOB WOODWARD: Thank you. Nice to be here.
MR. COSTA: Bob, your latest book, Rage, is a deeply, deeply reported account of the Trump White House during the pandemic, and it hits on many other critical issues from national security to impeachment to the racial reckoning. Let’s begin, though, with your title, Rage. As we discussed in the broadcast, the president, then-candidate Trump, was sitting across from us at a table in 2016 and he said he knows he brings out rage in people. We walked away wondering if perhaps he had some self-awareness about who he is and how people see him, but Bob, he’s also always selling, always casting himself as the A-plus leader as we talked about in the program too, the winner, and that tends at times to cloud up any conversation or interview with him. So I want to start tonight with your interviews. How did you go about trying to get this president to be candid and truthful about the serious challenges facing him and this nation, knowing he would always try to bring any question back to his sale of all things Trump?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, first of all, it started before the virus really struck. It was in December when I went into the Oval Office and took my tape recorder out and plunked it down on the desk and said this is all for history, I’m going to do a book that comes out before the election, and so I was able to get what he was really thinking. We did over nine hours of interviews, which you know is extraordinary with anyone but a sitting president, over 10 months, and so I could prepare and I would call him or he would call me at unexpected times of the night, and there was a real attempt on my part to just – you know, just recently, I guess a day or two ago, he spoke very favorably of our conversations and said he did a great job and told everyone what he was thinking and doing, so I wanted to bring him out. And as you know, with Trump if you keep coming back and re-ask the question and have some new material to present to him, he will – he will engage, and he engaged with me in a way you’ve – you’ve read through the book and you realize that he really – we covered all the areas out there: the politics, the history of it, what he really cared about. And so it’s a profile of him, I believe.
MR. COSTA: Bob, you’ve had time now to reflect in several interviews, but as you sit back on Friday night here and look back at the book and the coverage of the book, which part of the book do you believe deserves more attention? What’s important that maybe hasn’t made a headline?
MR. WOODWARD: Oh, wow, I mean, there’s so many – it turns out there’s so many headlines in it. He’s in the process – and I was quite frankly surprised he was willing to do this, but when I did my first book on him, which he – I didn’t talk to him – he wouldn’t do it – you know, it was a process of drawing him out, and he wanted to talk. He wanted to – and many, many times he said, well, where’s this going to go, what’s happening, and I would just press on with the questions, and it is the entry into his mind, I believe, as much as you can because we covered the full range of subjects.
MR. COSTA: Bob, what did you learn about him that you didn’t know before? He’s one of the most famous people in the world, his personality is well-known, but when you’re on the phone with him does the character, the persona of President Trump fall away a bit? Is he different in those late-night calls than he may be sitting behind that Resolute Desk in the Oval Office?
MR. WOODWARD: Yes, he is because he would allow me to keep pressing on questions, and it was – it was an opportunity to dig into what he really thought. And of course, you always wonder whether you’re getting the real thoughts, but I think I did many, many times, and it was a – (laughs) – what a time, 10 months reporting this book, having all these conversations with him, other people, other sources I had, other officials. It opened up the White House and the Pentagon and the State Department and – just in a way that I rarely have had access to. So it’s kind of what I guess I would call a total universe portrait of him, and it’s jarring, it’s – particularly on the virus issue because the – let me go back to the January 28th meeting in the White House, when his national security adviser, O’Brien, laid out directly to him, said look, this coming issue of the virus is going to be here; and Matt Pottinger, the deputy, laid out the details, and he had contacts in China and was really able to tell the president in a very convincing way that this is coming here. And the president took that in. This was a top-secret meeting. It was not a meeting where the doctors attended and you – the description – it’s the first scene in the book. It’s the prologue, and it really takes you right at that moment when the president is learning that what’s – the virus that is coming is going to be a matter that, as, you know, Pottinger told him – said, look – made it very, very clear that the death rate is going to be extremely high.
MR. COSTA: He compared it to the flu pandemic from 1918. Bob, when you think back to that exchange you reported on in January, your February call with President Trump that’s gotten so much attention when he acknowledged he knew the virus would be deadly and airborne, you end this week with a book that’s shaping the way people are seeing this president just weeks before the election. You’ve also faced some criticism from some critics who have said you should have stepped forward with your reporting sooner. As you digest all of that criticism, what’s your response at week’s end as you move ahead?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, first of all, I did not know what – when he told me early on that this – I mean, he just laid it out in early February to me at a time when the virus was on no one’s mind. In a very clear way he said this is coming, and I didn’t know what it meant because the virus was – it really didn’t exist. There had been no deaths in the country. And so I moved on and tried to figure out exactly what was going on beforehand, and chased it down and discovered many months later – not until May – that, actually, he knew all of this early on, at the end of January. So you know, I – as you know, I have access to editors at The Washington Post where we both work, and I could have gone and said let’s do a story, but I did not see that there was a story because I did not know the full story and learned it really only in May.
MR. COSTA: Bob, you’ve been covering presidents for 50 years. When you look at President Trump and evaluate him, you write at the end of the book he’s the wrong man for the job. But beyond that assessment, Bob, how does he compare to other presidents you’ve reported on up close?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, he is – he has got such a large ego. He wanted to, I think, influence me in all of this, and I promised I would listen to him, but he can deny anything, you know, without batting his eye, so you had to dig into it and explain, you know, what’s he really up to. And as we learn in journalism, you are a reporter; you’re not a psychiatrist. And I wanted to – I learned very early from my old boss Ben Bradlee, the editor of The Washington Post during Watergate, that you just kind of plow on and gather as much information as you can. And Trump – it’s not that he was necessarily in denial. He was so interested in projecting his own version of reality, and it took me some time, quite frankly, to dig into it, and to tell the full story.
MR. COSTA: Where do you think American democracy is, Bob, after sitting in that Oval Office, sitting on those phone calls? Where is this nation if this man you’ve deeply covered is in the Oval Office, and we’re now facing a Supreme Court vacancy and an ongoing pandemic? Where is this country at?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, we’re going to have an election. It’s going to be very confusing. It’s going to be hard to tell who is the winner. And Trump has thrown all kinds of roadblocks. I was just listening the other day to somebody talking about Michigan, and saying, well, under their law after – they have 30 days after the vote this coming November 3rd to turn in their final results. And so, you know, what is that going to mean? It’s going to be, I think, a level of political and moral chaos that perhaps we have not experienced in this country for decades, if not longer.
MR. COSTA: And what happens to all those tapes, Bob? We appreciated you sharing some of the tape tonight on Washington Week. Much appreciated. Nine-plus hours. What do you do with all of that?
MR. WOODWARD: Well, as my publisher of the book tries to emphasize to me, we are selling a book not audios. And we are, and only by putting the pieces together in the book can you figure out what’s really going on, what Trump is saying, what the other players are doing here. There’s a full portrait of people very close to him. And we have – at least for me, as a reporter, I look at it. You never get absolute, you know, tapes on everything and the full story. But it’s what we used to call the best obtainable version of the truth.
MR. COSTA: I love that phrase. And you and Carl Bernstein have used it for years. And final question, Bob: One part of the book I really thought was compelling, and it deserves more attention, the sections on Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state, the section on Dan Coats, the sections on Jim Mattis. All of these top national security officials, administration officials, Cabinet members. Deep reporting here, Bob, a lot of it on background. Without revealing any sourcing, of course, do you expect some of these figures to speak up, like the aide to Vice President Pence did this week, and put their names out there on the record in the weeks before the election?
MR. WOODWARD: I’m not exactly sure. But I have such authority because I was able to talk to people and go to them and, as you know, record the interviews. So I’ve got quite an archive of people here. And I – you know, there’s no wobble in it. Often there is wobble. You’re not actually sure. But I’ve talked to the people. I had the luxury of time to go back, and back, go back to President Trump and ask him questions. The whole catalogue of those times with him – (laughs) – it was a very, very intense period. And my wife, Elsa, whom you know, was the – my partner in all of this and kept prodding me – you know, you’ve got to go back, chase this down, talk to these people. I would write a draft and hand it to her, and she would then, say, oh, bring it back with as many marks on a page as my typewritten script. And it was a little chilling at first, and I realize she is much wiser than I. (Laughs.) And she went through the book really six times, and kept telling me, you know, make it clear, check this, make sure you’ve run this to the ground as closely as you can. Get in there and call so-and-so. So it gave me an opportunity to present as complete a picture as I think is possible.
MR. COSTA: No, she’s a terrific reporter in her own right. Have long read Elsa Walsh and, of course, Bob Woodward. And, Bob, you’ve taught us a lot of lessons over the years, including myself, about get the documents, get the tape, do the basics, do it right. We’ll leave it there, Bob. Congratulations on this bestseller, another one, Rage, by Bob Woodward. Really appreciate your time tonight.
MR. WOODWARD: Thanks.
MR. COSTA: And thank you all for joining us. We’ll leave it there for this latest edition of our Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re there, sign up for our weekly newsletter. You’ll get a note from me every Friday about what we’re going to talk about on the show, who’s on, and what matters. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.