I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place

David Runciman

  • Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward
    Simon & Schuster, 448 pp, £20.00, September 2018, ISBN 978 1 4711 8129 0

Some political theorists dislike the term ‘office politics’, on the grounds that the familiarity of the first word diminishes the significance of the second. Sure, they say, all workplaces contain their share of plots and vendettas, backstabbers and arse-lickers, people on the way up and all the ones they’ve trampled to get there. But actual politics is about more than that: the power it brings extends well beyond the immediate working environment. The German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who wanted to prevent the concept of the ‘political’ from becoming shorthand for any and all human conflict, no matter how petty, argued that the true mark of a political contest is that the stakes are existential.

This was not Existentialism – Schmitt wasn’t in the business of trying to help individuals find their own meaning in a meaningless world. What he meant was that in a truly political struggle the way of life of an entire community has to be on the line. The job of the political leader is to decide on what Schmitt called ‘the friend/enemy distinction’: who we can live with, and who we can’t. He meant it literally: if we can’t live with them we might have to kill them. Schmitt was, for a time, a Nazi, which means that his view is if anything even grimmer than it sounds. But it does make clear that squabbling over who gets to sit on the next appointments committee doesn’t necessarily deserve to be called politics. So how come office battles often feel all-consuming? It’s like the old joke about academic life: ‘Why are the disputes so poisonous? Because the stakes are so low.’

Bob Woodward’s new book about the first year of the Trump administration raises some of these thorny issues, but it turns them on their head. No one could doubt that having Trump in the White House is an existential matter: the president’s decisions have the potential to bring many ways of life to an end, including our own. The stakes could hardly be higher. Why then does reading about it so often feel like reading about any other dysfunctional workplace? The relentless backstabbing and arse-licking seem out of kilter with the seriousness of the situation. It makes for a deeply strange and curiously familiar environment. It is almost impossible to imagine what it would be like to work in the West Wing these days, given how far removed it currently is from anything that went on there before. Yet anyone who has ever worked with a narcissistic boss drunk on his or her own power will recognise it at once. The pettiness of Trumpworld is like the pettiness of our own world, but with nuclear weapons.

Woodward’s earlier books about presidential politics have often seemed as if hermetically sealed, so relentless is their focus on who was in the room and what took place there. He specialises in what might be called bureaucratic procedurals, in which deep background reporting builds up a picture of momentous decisions emerging out of the accumulations of small amounts of power in a complex machine. But it has always been clear, going all the way back to Watergate, that the world outside the room is what really matters. These were fights to control the destiny of the most powerful state in the world, on which the fate of many other states – from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria – would depend. With Trump it’s different: what happens inside the room often feels like all there is. In this White House the outside world struggles to get a look in. You really have to be there, because nothing else exists.

Take this description of the office away day from hell. Tired of their boss’s inability to understand that his impetuous decisions might have destructive ramifications for the international order, the secretary of defence, Jim Mattis, and chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, decided that what was needed was a change of scene. So in July last year they brought Trump to the Pentagon and arranged for a policy session to take place in its secure meeting room, known as ‘the Tank’. ‘The Tank had its appeal,’ Woodward writes. ‘Trump loved the room. Sometimes known as the Gold Room for its carpets and curtains, it is ornate and solemn, essentially a private, high-security retreat reflecting decades of history.’ So far, so good. Knowing that the president is a reluctant reader with a very limited attention span, Mattis and Cohn arranged a series of presentations to keep things visual and simple: maps of American commitments around the world, charts of import and export data, pictures of warships. Cohn’s obsession was to get Trump to understand that trade deficits don’t have to mean America is losing: he wanted the president to know that it’s possible to be in deficit and still to be growing the economy. But Trump soon lost patience. ‘I don’t want to hear that, it’s bullshit.’

Steve Bannon, at this point the president’s chief strategist, and therefore someone who had to be invited along, decided to jump in. What’s the value in defending the international order if America’s allies won’t give anything back? Trump had made it clear he wanted to tear up the Iran nuclear deal. ‘“Is one of your fucking great allies up in the European Union” going to back the president?’ Bannon wanted to know. ‘Give me one guy. One country. One company. Who’s going to back sanctions?’ Now Trump perked up. ‘“That’s what I’m talking about,” Trump said. “He just made my point. You talk about all these guys as allies. There’s not an ally up there. Answer Steve’s question. Who’s going to back us?”’ No one could answer Bannon’s question, so the president moved on to Afghanistan, where he couldn’t understand why he was spending so much money for so little return. ‘When are we going to start winning some wars? We’ve got these charts. When are we going to win some wars? Why are you jamming this down my throat?’ The charts weren’t helping. In fact they were making things worse. ‘You should be killing guys,’ Trump told the trained killers in the room. ‘You don’t need a strategy to kill people.’

By now it was clear that the meeting had backfired horribly. But no one knew how to get out of it. (H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, had already guessed which way it was heading and pleaded a family engagement to escape – every away day has one of those too.) The conversation circled back to trade deals. ‘“We’re upside down” on trade deals, Trump said. “We’re underwater on every one of these.” The other countries are making money. “Just look at all this stuff up there. We’re paying for it all.”’ Cohn tried to remind him that it was actually good for the US economy. ‘“I don’t want to hear that,” Trump replied. “It’s all bullshit.”’ Woodward is repeating himself here, which means he may have got his notes muddled up. What’s more likely is that everyone was just saying the same thing over and over again. Trump wanted to bring the money home, especially from South Korea. In desperation, Cohn asked him emolliently: ‘So, Mr President, what would you need in the region to sleep well at night?’ ‘I wouldn’t need a fucking thing. And I’d sleep like a baby.’

Just reading about this meeting feels intensely claustrophobic. Woodward, citing Trump’s then chief of staff Reince Priebus, sums it up: ‘The distrust in the room had been thick and corrosive. The atmosphere was primitive; everyone was ostensibly on the same side, but they had seemed suited up in battle armour, particularly the president. This was what craziness was like.’ It is also what a toxic working environment is like. All that’s missing is the attempt afterwards to brush it under the carpet and pretend that everyone can carry on as before. And inevitably Trump supplied it. ‘The meeting was great,’ he told reporters afterwards. ‘A very good meeting.’

The showpiece manifestation of the craziness is the one with which Woodward starts his book. Cohn, along with Trump’s staff secretary, Rob Porter, conspired to remove a letter from the president’s desk to prevent him from signing it. The letter in question was addressed to the president of South Korea, notifying him of Trump’s intention to terminate the US-Korea free trade agreement known as KORUS. For Cohn this would have been a disaster, fatally undermining American security interests in the region. It was also economically illiterate: Trump’s attempt to save money would end up costing his country dear. Cohn believed he was acting in the national interest. ‘I stole it off his desk … I wouldn’t let him see it. He’s never going to see that document. Got to protect the country.’ It makes sense. But it is also absurd. He is acting as though literally taking the issue outside the room is all that’s needed to make it go away. The American state is still a vast bureaucratic machine, and all pieces of paper must leave a trail. If this really is all it takes to make the problem disappear, then the US government is no longer a functioning political entity. It’s a workplace gone mad.

Woodward’s verbatim accounts of meetings and shouting matches – and there aren’t many meetings that stop short of becoming a shouting match – are all sourced anonymously, but it’s never very difficult to work out who the source is. Anyone who works with people they don’t trust and can’t stand has a version in their head of how a meeting should have gone and what it would have been good to say. Esprit d’escalier is the lingua franca of the Trump White House. For each set-piece occasion Woodward describes, there is usually a piece of dialogue that sounds like something someone wishes they had said. No doubt Woodward is faithfully recording what he was told. But what he was told is being remembered by people who have an incentive to appear to have seen through the president’s folly and told him so at the time. Often, the person in question is Cohn, who is the unspoken hero of this tale. That means it’s his tale that’s being spun.

In one meeting, Woodward reports, Cohn lost his patience with Trump and his favoured economic guru Peter Navarro, who had been reinforcing the president’s view that trade deficits mean America is getting screwed. ‘“If you just shut the fuck up and listen,” Cohn said to both Trump and Navarro, “you might learn something.”’ The only possible source for this exchange is Cohn. So did he actually say it? Sure he did, in his own mind. Another time, Trump claimed to Cohn that the historically low unemployment figures were down to his tariffs policy. ‘“You’re a fucking asshole,” Cohn said, half-joking and smacking Trump gently on his arm. Cohn turned to a Secret Service agent. “I just hit the president. If you want to shoot me, go ahead.”’ It’s the ‘half-joking’ that’s the giveaway: it’s precisely what Cohn would tell himself after the event. But it’s not just Cohn. At other points the source is clearly Bannon, because he’s the one who sounds as though he is telling truth to deranged power. When he catches Trump at one of his golf resorts obsessively watching the talking heads on CNN and brooding over their inability to appreciate his brilliance, Bannon tells him to get out more.

‘What are you doing? Why do you do this? Cut this off. It’s not meaningful. Just enjoy yourself.’

Trump’s response would often go like this: ‘You see that? That’s a fucking lie. Who the fuck’s …’

Bannon would say, ‘Go play some slap and tickle with Melania.’

Or at least Bannon would think that. Seriously, who in their right mind would actually say it?

Almost no one in this book comes across as authentically themselves, because each source is replaying the events so as to come out of them with a minimum of dignity. Since there is no dignity to be had in Trump’s White House, this often sounds forced and fake. The one person who appears to be himself throughout is the one person whom Woodward acknowledges at the outset did not grant an interview for the book: Trump. The president emerges as a bizarre and brutish character, but his behaviour has a strong streak of consistency. He cannot bear to be wrong and he will never admit defeat. He changes his mind but only because he forgets what he has done. When his opinions are ingrained they are immovable. In another self-serving anecdote for which Cohn must be the source, Woodward reports this circular exchange:

Several times Cohn asked the president, ‘Why do you have these views?’

‘I just do,’ Trump replied. ‘I’ve had these views for 30 years.’

‘That doesn’t mean they’re right,’ Cohn said. ‘I had the view for 15 years I could play professional football. Doesn’t mean I was right.’

Did Cohn really deliver the punchline to the president’s face? Maybe. But Trump definitely delivered the set-up.

*

None of this means that Trump is impervious to regret. Far from it. The most consistent theme of the entire book is the president’s nagging obsession with having appointed the wrong people to serve him, or having kept others in post too long. It is remarkable how much of his conversation is taken up with hiring and firing. Being Trump, he never believes his judgment was at fault. What he thinks is that he was misled at the job interview stage. Hence the violent, implacable loathing he develops for his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, someone he had gone out of his way to praise (‘a great man’) in his acceptance speech on election night. The problem comes when Sessions recuses himself from the Russia investigation, paving the way for his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel. Trump considers it a betrayal, not just because it threatens to undermine his presidency, but because it didn’t come up when he offered Sessions his job. ‘How do you take a job and then recuse yourself?’ Trump wanted to know. ‘If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair – and that’s a mild word – to the president.’

The grievance naturally extends to Mueller, not just because he took the job Rosenstein offered and made Trump’s life hell, but because he did it after Trump had decided not to employ him. ‘Why was Mueller picked? Trump asked. “He was just in here and I didn’t hire him for the FBI,” Trump raged. “Of course he’s got an axe to grind with me.”’ And before Mueller there was James Comey, whom Trump fired as director of the FBI, thereby provoking an enormous and entirely predictable backlash. But Trump can’t understand it. He fired him! ‘I am the president. I can fire anybody that I want. They can’t be investigating me for firing Comey. And Comey deserved to be fired! Everybody hated him. He was awful.’ And on and on.

Once Trump decides he doesn’t want you, that’s meant to be it. You don’t come back in through another door. Or at least not unless Trump is the one who opens it. Often, he plumps for or against people on a whim, heavily influenced by whether he likes the way they look. Hope Hicks, his impossibly glamorous press secretary, commanded his respect because she cut the kind of figure he expected of his employees. ‘She had the two qualities important to Trump,’ Woodward writes. ‘Loyalty and good looks.’ With men, Trump likes a certain physical gravitas, of the kind he believes that he himself has in spades. Rex Tillerson, big and ponderous, got the nod as secretary of state because he had the necessary heft. ‘Trump told aides that Tillerson looked the part he would play on the world stage. “A very Trumpian-inspired pick,” Kellyanne Conway said on television, promising “big impact”.’ Meanwhile, John Bolton didn’t make the grade after his interview for the role of national security adviser, despite giving just the kind of responses that Trump preferred to hear. ‘His answers were fine, but Trump did not like his big, bushy moustache. He didn’t look the part.’ That said, Tillerson eventually got fired as secretary of state, after it was widely reported that he had called Trump a moron. Bolton is now national security adviser. And he still has the moustache.

Even in Schmitt’s terms, hiring and firing is part of the essence of politics. When you’re in the business of making the friend/enemy distinction, it really does matter who is on the appointments committee. Yet in Trump’s case it’s more than that: he doesn’t have any other register. Granting employment and terminating it is his modus operandi. When he reaches a tricky impasse in a conversation, his way out is to make a job offer. Lindsay Graham, the Republican senator, came to see him to explain that the Afghan war was unwinnable. ‘“We’re going to fail on the political,” [Graham] said. A peace settlement with the Taliban was the only way out … Trump had a solution. Did Graham want to be the ambassador to Pakistan? “No I don’t want to be ambassador to Pakistan,” Graham said. They left it at that.’ Meanwhile, the extraordinary turnover of senior officials in his administration, which has already consigned many of the leading characters in this book to history, is testament to Trump’s terminal inability to find any meaningful space between disagreement and dismissal.

Apart from his immediate family, almost the only person who is there at the beginning of the story and has remained by his side throughout is Conway. For anyone wanting to learn how it’s done, her job interview to serve as his campaign manager, which took place during the early stages of his bid for the presidency, is a model of how Trump likes to see these things go. He took a shine to her after she came to organise the recording of some campaign ads. He asked her whether she agreed that he was a much better candidate than Hillary Clinton. ‘Well, yes, sir,’ she replied, ‘no poll necessary.’

‘Do you think you can run this thing?’ he asked.

‘What is “this thing”?’ she asked. ‘I’m running this photo shoot.’

‘The campaign,’ Trump said. ‘The whole thing. Are you willing to not see your kids for a few months?’

She accepted on the spot. ‘Sir, I can do that for you. You can win this race. I do not consider myself your peer. I will never address you by your first name.’

Since Conway and Trump were the only two people present for this conversation, Conway must be the source. No wonder Trump likes her so much. Of all the characters in this book, she is the only one who doesn’t seem to set much store by her own dignity.

Later on, scarred by what he sees as the repeated failure of candidates for one job or another to be fully on board with him, he decided to dispense with interviews altogether. Indeed, he even dispensed with the formal job offer and started recruiting by diktat. When Reince Priebus went, driven to the point of no return by Trump’s lunatic decision to hire and then fire Anthony Scaramucci as his press secretary over a ten-day period, one of his final acts was to recommend General John Kelly as a possible replacement. Trump said they should mull it over. Then, a few hours later, Priebus got an alert for the latest tweet from @realdonaldtrump: ‘I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F. Kelly as White House Chief of Staff. He is a Great American …’ Priebus got in touch with Kelly, who told him that he first heard about it the same way Priebus did. Kelly had just had to call his wife and ‘explain that he had no choice but to accept after being offered one of the most important jobs in the world via tweet’. It was, by Trump’s standards, a pretty seamless manoeuvre: no one knew what was happening, so no one had a chance to stitch him up. At the time of writing, Kelly is still in post.

*

For the most part, Woodward tells his story straight and leaves the reader to draw the moral, though he also makes sure that the moral is hard to miss. Occasionally he provides some commentary to spell it out. The key passage in the book is this one, which he appends to the story of Priebus’s departure and Kelly’s arrival:

The most important part of Trump’s world was the ring right outside of the bull’s-eye: the people that Trump thought perhaps he should have hired, or who had worked for him and he’d gotten rid of and now thought, maybe I shouldn’t have. It was the people who were either there or should have been there, or associates or acquaintances that owed nothing to him and were around him but didn’t come in for anything. It was that outside circle that had the most power, not the people on the inside. It wasn’t Kelly or Priebus or Bannon.

Trump is haunted by the lingering presence of the hires he should have fired and the fires he should have hired. He spends much of his time railing at these ghosts. Woodward calls it power but it’s more like the opposite of power: these shadowy figures are what stand in the way of anyone else getting anything done.

Yet Woodward is right about Bannon, who totally misunderstands his role, which is to people Trump’s imagination rather than to control it. Bannon has delusions of grandeur. He is convinced that he was the one who stage-managed Trump’s election victory. ‘I realised,’ he said later, ‘I’m the director and he’s the actor.’ This couldn’t be further from the truth. No one can direct Trump because he is incapable of sustaining an act. At another point Bannon decides that he is the impresario and Trump, who can fill any stadium simply by showing up and ad-libbing for a couple of hours, is ‘the rock star’. But Trump is no rock star either. He lacks the requisite exuberance. In the end, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the most familiar impression of Trump is the correct one. The template for this presidency is reality television. The lead character is playing a part that depends on his own words and actions and yet is entirely contrived. The drama is organised around a series of showdowns and confrontations when everything seems to be on the line and yet nothing is really at stake. Each episode ends with some people staying and others being sent home. This seems to matter enormously at the time and yet it is hard to remember from one week to the next why anyone cared. From one season to the next it is hard even to remember who the main players were, and sometimes the winners are the hardest of all to remember. Yet everyone knows whose show it is. And we can’t stop watching.

This could be The Apprentice. Even so, something is missing. Struggling through Woodward’s account, I had a strong sense that Trump reminded me of someone I had seen regularly on TV, but it wasn’t TV’s Donald Trump. Then I got it. The working environment this White House brings to mind is a reality show that displays a deeper level of truth by being entirely unreal. Woodward’s book reads more than anything like a mockumentary, and the person Trump most resembles is David Brent from The Office. He has the grating inadequacy, the knee-jerk nastiness, the comical self-delusion. But he also has something of the pathos. He even has moments when his inability to see anything beyond the situation at hand is just what the situation needs. Woodward describes the way Trump would speak on the phone to the parents of soldiers killed in action.

‘I’m looking at his picture – such a beautiful boy,’ Trump said in one call to family members. Where did he grow up? Where did he go to school? Why did he join the service?

‘I’ve got the record here,’ Trump said. ‘There are reports here that say how much he was loved. He was a great leader.’

Some in the Oval Office had copies of the service records. None of what Trump cited was there. He was just making it up. He knew what the families wanted to hear.

It goes without saying that Trump is a liar. But the lying is not the essence of who he is. It is a product of his neediness, combined with his inability ever to let someone else have the last word. His advisers cannot get him to apologise for anything, because he cannot ever be seen to back down. After the ‘grab-them-by-the-pussy’ tape was released in the last weeks of the 2016 campaign, Trump refused to admit fault, despite the frantic efforts of Conway and others to get him to read out a statement that said: ‘My language was inappropriate, not acceptable for a president.’ He throws it out. ‘This is bullshit. This is weak. You guys are weak.’ They try to reword it. Trump got through two lines and baulked. ‘I’m not doing this,’ he said. And he didn’t. Rudy Giuliani had been among those who tried to get Trump to read a statement of contrition, and when he refused Giuliani was the only member of his team willing to go on television to defend him. When Jake Tapper of CNN said Trump’s words had offered a picture of sexual assault that was ‘really offensive on a basic human level’, Giuliani could only say: ‘Yes, it is.’ Afterwards, Trump told his loyal ally: ‘Rudy, you’re a baby! I’ve never seen a worse defence of me in my life. They took your diaper off right there. You’re like a little baby that needed to be changed. When are you going to be a man?’

On the very rare occasions Trump does offer an apology, it makes things worse. After the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville which left one protester dead and many injured, Trump initially blamed the violence on both sides. Then following an outcry, he was persuaded to deliver a statement in which he condemned the neo-Nazis who were responsible. Then following widespread praise for having changed course, he went back to his original position, insisting that ‘there are two sides to every story.’ He told Porter, who had constructed the act of contrition for him: ‘You never make those concessions. You never apologise. I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Why look weak?’ This is the reason Trump’s lawyer John Dowd knew Trump must never be allowed to testify before the Mueller inquiry. You cannot put this man on the stand, Dowd says at the end of Fear, because Trump is ‘a fucking liar’. But liars take the stand all the time. It’s because Trump literally does not know when to shut up that he would destroy himself. Dowd eventually quit after Trump insisted he would make an excellent witness. Dowd reminded Trump of the time he gave a deposition to a lawyer in Florida. ‘When the lawyer had asked him what he did for a living, it had taken Trump about 16 pages to answer the question.’ Those weren’t 16 pages of lies. He was shadow-boxing the ghosts in his head, with no one to stop him.