Fear: Trump in the White House

Fear: Trump in the White House – Bob Woodward (read by Robert Petkoff)

Bob Woodward examines the Trump Presidency and how it came to be at its halfway point in 2018’s FEAR.

From mid-2015 through to January 2021, the world was inundated with a twenty-four hour news cycle revolving around former US President Donald Trump.  Like many, I couldn’t escape the constant coverage of his erratic behavior and Twitter rants.  It was exhausting to say the least.  Although there’s a good chance he may decide to run again in 2024 (God help us all), we’re finally on the other side of a dangerous, unhinged presidency that has not only caused irreparable harm in the United States, but the world.

Despite the allure of the many books written and released during Trump’s time in the Oval Office, I refused to read any of them until his ass was out the door.  I simply couldn’t imagine seeing his name all over social media, the nightly news and late night talk shows only to spend my precious reading time with him as well.  Now that we’ve all experienced a slight reprieve, I finally feel comfortable seeking out a few of those book.

Bob Woodword has a deeply impressive track record when it comes to covering past presidents.  He has spent a lifetime in political journalism since his groundbreaking work alongside Carl Bernstein on the downfall of Richard Nixon, so why wouldn’t he be the go-to guy for my first Trump examination?

From the very beginning, Woodward allows the reader a peak behind the curtain as to how both Steve Bannon and Kelly Anne Conway ultimately molded Trump into what he needed to become in order to win the Presidency; how he only needed to present himself as “not-Hilary” rather than Donald Trump.  With Trump seemingly on the ropes three months before Election Day, Conway had Trump lean even harder on the values of far-right conservatives while also establishing himself as the anti-Hilary; a guy who would support the nation’s forgotten out-of-work laborers and bring back manufacturing jobs.  All the more ironic given that Trump has made his fortune by stomping on the little guy while also sitting on a solid gold toilet.

The ins-and-outs of the insanity of the Trump campaign are covered in detail before going into the first few months of the Trump presidency in 2017.    There really wasn’t a period of time when things weren’t seemingly spinning out of control.  Woodword digs into the Comey meeting, Michael Flynn’s dealings with Russia, Trump’s disparaging remarks surrounding NATO, the New York Times article about the Trump/Russian meetings.

Despite winning, it’s pretty clear from the get-go that Trump had no real idea how to do this job and ultimately, he had no real desire to learn how to either.  He arrived in the Oval Office with opinions that had been formed over decades of beliefs.  Trump had this outdated, Rockwellian view of an America that no longer existed.  Trump constantly fought with advisors and experts when looking at topics such as the threat of North Korea, the over a decade long war in Afghanistan and his relentless obsession with getting out of and renegotiating trade deals.  Trump’s approach to everything was like performing brain surgery with a hammer.  As with many of his “problems”, he wanted quick, blunt answers to complicated questions.  Trump felt he knew the answers to everything and if he didn’t like evidence to the contrary, he would often dismiss facts as “bullshit”.  

He would hire people on the basis of their experience, but would only keep them on the basis of their loyalty given that he certainly didn’t want to be challenged.  In an example, Trump found the one Economist – Peter Navarro – who supported Trump’s distaste for the global economy and free trade, so he could support his own views, even when 99.999% of the rest of the world felt differently.  Trump campaigned on bringing back manufacturing jobs in an effort to get those integral votes from Middle America.  However, a problem being that in the past few decades, the US economy had shifted from an export-based manufacturing structure to primarily a service based economy, which is why those jobs left the US.  So, rather than admit he was wrong to promise the recovery of these industries and jobs, he wanted to upend the whole system out of fear of being portrayed as “weak” even when faced with statistics that show that Americans don’t really want to do those jobs anymore given their high rates of turnover.

This constant focus on looking “weak” is sickening.  Why can he not just admit he’s wrong? Even just once?  People are wrong all the time, no one is infallible.  Even after Charlottesville, he regretted having to walk back his remarks because someone on Fox said he had made a “course correction”.  This set off a domino effect where he tried to appeal to his base by again stating that both sides were equally responsible.  People within his administration resigned.  Someone painted a swastika on the door of his economic advisor Gary Cohn and rather than apologize to Gary, Trump doubled down on his view that he had done “nothing wrong” and berated Cohn.

But nothing comes close to Trump’s rivalry with the press, which seemed to drive most, if not all, his decisions.  He hated negative press.  He yearned for constant positive press – which isn’t how you run a presidency.  The press are always going to be critical of political figures – it was an irresponsible obsession.  His handlers even had to start altering his schedule so that he would not be able to watch Sunday evening programming on MSNBC or CNN.  He would spend hours ignoring his wife and family just to scream at the television.

Before I wrap this up, I should mention that I nabbed a copy of the audiobook from my local library for this one and can I just say that as a narrator, Robert Petkoff is about as close to perfection as you can get.  His cadence and delivery had me laser focused throughout.

All of this stuff is information that has already been reported widely, I believe.  So I guess I’m just beating a dead horse.  Still, it drove me up the wall to listen to at time.  Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I’ve got Woodward’s second book RAGE on deck.  I’ll leave you with some general pieces of nonsense:

General James Mattis advising that if speaking with Trump, you must not bring up the Press or Immigration, otherwise any meeting would quickly derail and it would be impossible to retain Trump’s attention.  General Kelly, one time Chief of Staff, said that if you do not capture Trump’s attention within thirty seconds, you could not expect to get it at all.

After Trump’s meeting with HR McMaster, Trump belittled his attire noting that McMaster looked like a “beer salesman”.  Woodward wrote, “..although noted for his own terrible wardrobe, (Steve) Bannon agreed.”

The inability for Trump to understand the need and requirement for KORUS (Korea-US Free Trade Agreement) and the coinciding THAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) system nearly drove me up the wall.  I don’t know how many times Woodward had to transcribe conversations where White House advisors tried to explain this over and over and over again.  It was unbelievable.

Tweeting, said the President, that’s the way I operate.  When Twitter increased their character limit from 140 to 280, Trump said it was “..good, but a shame really.  I was the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters.”

Bob Woodword’s FEAR is a portrait of an asshole.  There is no more apt word.

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