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For a president so interested in cable news, Donald Trump may be finding his biggest problem is another form of media: books. Leaked stories about a new book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward have exploded across cable news this week and sent the White House scrambling to reply. Excerpts in The Washington Post include multiple accounts alleging top aides have questioned the president’s intelligence and demeanor. It comes after other books have also painted an image of White House chaos. Mr. Woodward’s book may offer a preview of how history books will treat the current presidency. That does not mean they will necessarily be as critical, but they will draw similarly on wide-ranging interviews with insiders. The story of the Trump presidency may be less and less under the president’s control from here. Woodward’s approach of shaping seamless narratives – partly using anonymous sources – has its critics. But historian David Greenberg says that “pound for pound, year after year, nobody has taught us more or brought more information to bear on what is happening at the highest levels of government.”
President Trump appears intensely interested in how he is portrayed on cable news. As a former reality show star, he’s involved in decisions about who is dispatched to defend the White House on television, what they’re supposed to say, and general strategy for fighting negative broadcast stories. He’s so detail-oriented in this area that reportedly he’s decided to film some recent statements in the Rose Garden because he believes the lighting outdoors makes him look better.
That makes it ironic that some of the biggest media crises of his presidency have had their roots in a much older, slower, denser medium: books.
The pattern began in July 2017, with “Devil’s Bargain,” the book by journalist Joshua Green that portrayed now-fired aide Steve Bannon as a key strategist behind Mr. Trump’s election. Then this spring came fired FBI Director Jim Comey’s memoir, “A Higher Loyalty,” which questioned Trump’s honesty. Both were No. 1 New York Times bestsellers.
This year a string of books also has portrayed purported dysfunction in the White House itself. Journalist Michael Wolff gained remarkable access for his “Fire and Fury,” though critics have faulted what some say is Mr. Wolff’s sloppy reporting. Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant and White House aide fired for allegedly abusing her office, weighed in with “Unhinged,” a gossipy tell-all unexpectedly supported in parts by secret tape recordings. Both these reached the top Times bestseller spot, as well.
But it’s the third book in what’s now a “chaos trilogy” that the White House might find the hardest to counter in the public marketplace of ideas. Veteran reporter Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House” does not even come out until next Tuesday. But leaked stories about its contents, including multiple accounts alleging top aides have questioned the president’s intelligence and demeanor, have exploded across cable news and sent the White House scrambling to reply.
Woodward is a preview of how some history books might treat the Trump presidency after it is over. That does not mean they will necessarily be as critical, but they will draw on the same sort of sources – wide-ranging interviews with former and current officials. The story of the Trump presidency may be less and less under the president’s control from here.
Woodward’s approach of shaping seamless narratives has its critics. But “pound for pound, year after year, nobody has taught us more or brought more information to bear on what is happening at the highest levels of government,” says David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University and author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”
White House response
In some ways the White House response to the preliminary news gust from Woodward’s forthcoming book reflects the book’s theme of a White House that is chaotic every day – riven by factions, dismissive of the man in the Oval Office, constantly one step behind events.
Administration spokespeople were slow to respond to this week’s initial Washington Post story on the book’s contents, which includes accounts of top aides calling Trump “moron” and “idiot,” sometimes with profane adjectives attached. The Post also released tape of a Trump-Woodward phone call from August, in which the president says no one ever told him that Woodward wanted to interview him. Trump then semi-contradicts this, saying that Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had told him, but he had received no official notice of the request from communications staffers.
On Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, however, the White House geared up, with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly issuing statements forcefully denying their use of derogatory words about their boss, and calling the book “fiction.”
But White House aides weren’t saying that the White House is in fact a “smooth-running machine,” as Trump sometimes insists. Woodward’s book attributes some of its more hair-raising scenes, such as Mr. Kelly’s rants about his boss, to interviews with multiple (unnamed) officials who were present at the time. That’s difficult to completely refute. By Wednesday afternoon, White House reporters noted a slight change in the tone of official statements, implicitly accepting some internal strife.
“Almost everyone agrees that my Administration has done more in less than two years than any other Administration in the history of our Country,” tweeted Trump on Wednesday. “I’m tough as hell on people & if I weren’t nothing would get done. Also, I question everybody & everything-which is why I got elected!”
If nothing else, it is apparent that dozens of former and current Trump staffers did talk to Woodward. Many seem to have sat for hours. If past practice is any guide, Woodward taped many of those interviews, says Dr. Greenberg, who was an assistant to the journalist for three years in the early 1990s.
Trump’s core supporters won’t believe Woodward’s book, or may not care if the stories actually are true. Trump critics are quick to believe the worst. In that sense, “Fear” probably won’t change many minds in a country already divided over the Trump presidency.
But in general, Trump is not known for assiduous adherence to the facts, given the many fact-checker tabulations of his misstatements. Woodward, however, is a brand known for dogged reporting since Richard Nixon was in office.
Woodward a digger for detail
Woodward isn’t interested in analytical writing, theorizing, or other abstract aspects of journalism, says Greenberg. He’s a “just the facts, sir,” reporter.
“One thing I think Woodward does really well, because he is interested in information, is that he will ask questions like, ‘When did you meet so-and-so? What was the first thing you said when you met them?’ and so on,” says Greenberg.
Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Obama all cooperated with Woodward to some degree in books about their presidency. All had some complaints about particular incidents or depictions. Some officials, such as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have battled publicly with the author over their portrayals.
Going forward, the questions “Fear” has raised for Trump include: Can he disprove any of it? Will anyone else quit? Will more stories come out? On Wednesday afternoon, The New York Times published an opinion story purportedly written by an anonymous senior Trump official. In the piece, the official says they are indeed working to contain the worst instincts of a president they feel is erratic and unsuited for the job.
“Many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office,” the story says.