Reviewed by Michael Fruitman
Those of a certain age will remember Bob Woodward’s work since 1972, when he first started writing his accounts, with Carl Bernstein in The Washington Post, chronicling Watergate. He has written 19 books since; the hallmark of Woodward’s writing is his ability to bring the reader inside the room, eavesdropping, as it were, on conversations among principals.
Fear follows this pattern. Woodward has talked with dozens if not hundreds of participants to put together the scenes he shares. The major difference between this book, however, and his others, such as All The President’s Men and The Final Days, is that the story of Trump in the White House is not yet over. Consequently, it ends rather abruptly, as if anticipating the chapters to follow. But while there is no denouement here, the scenes describing discussions between Trump and his aides—and among the aides alone—are, to this reader, disturbing nonetheless. [Note: We are asked to rely on Woodward’s words, or tapes, of what actually transpired; while this reviewer finds his presentation persuasive, this is something readers will have to evaluate for themselves.]
Few will be surprised by what the book reveals but, rather, they may be disgusted anew—not only by some of the language used but by the unprecedented lack of process, procedure, norms, and maturity with which our country’s business seems to be being handled.
Trump, we are told, arrives in the Oval Office about 10:30 each morning, after “executive time” watching Fox News and other programs and, of course, tweeting, which usually begins before 6:00 a.m. And while Staff Secretary Rob Porter (before his resignation for spousal abuse) sent him back to the residence each night with briefing papers for the next day, Trump is said to have rarely opened them, arriving with a cheery, “So, what’s on today’s agenda?”
Beyond the fact that, according to many reports, Trump does not read, he is not open to new information that clashes with long-held beliefs. He refutes data with “that’s bullshit.” The book describes scenes in which economic adviser Gary Cohn tries to explain the deleterious worldwide effects of tariffs; Trump cuts him off, insisting that he knows what he is doing—partly due to certain officials, such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and freelancer and trade-protectionist Peter Navarro slipping into the Oval without an appointment to push their contrary agenda, to the surprise and consternation of Chief of Staff John Kelly.
And the ever-present tonic that seems to lift Trump’s spirits when they are flagging? Another rally. Pick a large venue in a Midwestern state, fill it with supporters, and let him talk for 2 hours. That always does the trick.
To this reviewer, however, the main reaction to this compilation of scenes is more Waste than Fear. Beyond the ongoing disbelief among many of how this country could have elected someone as unconventional at best and dangerous at worst, there is a tremendous sense of waste—issues being ignored or dealt with in ways that will hurt the nation for decades to come. Issues in all areas of presidential purview: the image of America in the world, how Trump relates to world leaders, his fawning over dictators such as Vladimir Putin, his ignorance and lack of curiosity about the world.
National division over disparate political views is one thing. But leaving the United States in the hands of someone unable to fulfill the duties of president (as shown graphically in Fear), is another entirely—and more scary. We are told how traditional White House norms are ignored, and redundant mechanisms such as written approvals designed to check decisions, announcements, etc., before they are released simply not utilized. This is beyond the emperor having no clothes. The emperor is bleeding—all over us. And it’s just sheer luck that it hasn’t been worse.
Read this book? If you want one veteran’s look inside the daily life of the White House, yes. But while it reinforces the picture already painted of this president, it adds little to the portrait.