In the pages of Rage, Jared Kushner acknowledges that Donald Trump is not wedded to the truth. Rather, both men find exaggeration a potent weapon in stirring opinion. Asked about the president’s propensity to inflate his achievements, Kushner responds: “Controversy elevates message.”
If so, both the president and his son-in-law should be eternally grateful to Bob Woodward, his latest book and the ensuing tumult. By the president’s own tape-recorded admission, he was acutely aware of the dangers posed by Covid-19 but elected to lie about the danger faced by the American public.
The plague did not vanish, more than 190,000 are dead. When Jonathan Karl of ABC News pressed the president at a press conference about his lie, he was on very solid ground. To say otherwise is delusional – or fan fiction. Kayleigh McEnany, the latest White House spokeswoman, knows that for sure.
While the president claims his sole aim was to avoid chaos, the pandemic has fused itself to the social fabric. As the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged, the effort to eradicate Covid-19 is a marathon not a sprint, and it is far from over.
And yet re-election is a real possibility. Florida has shifted, no longer leaning Democratic. A Biden-Harris win in Nevada appears less certain. Trump is down, but not out. Rage arrives at what may be an inflection point, formally published seven weeks before one of the most consequential electoral contests. However you slice it, the US stands polarized, a nation divided.
As expected from Woodward, those in proximity to power share their stories. James Mattis, the former defense secretary, Dan Coats, the former director of national intelligence, and Kushner all make more than cameo appearances. Coats is caught musing that Vladimir Putin must have something over the president.
“How else to explain the president’s behavior?” Woodward writes. “Coats could see no other explanation.”
Rage also catches the discomfort of Coats’ wife. As fate would have it, Trump dismissed Coats after unexpectedly running into the couple at one of his golf courses.
But what sets Rage apart from the Pulitzer-winning author’s earlier works is that Trump consented to be taped, on the record. In other words, the book possesses more than a patina of similarity to the famous televised interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon, the president Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down with their reporting on Watergate nearly a half-century ago.
Woodward recalls a famous Nixon quote, from more than 40 years earlier: “I gave them a sword. And they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I’d been in their position, I’d have done the same thing.”
The response is pure Trump: “Nixon was in a corner with his thumb stuck in his mouth.”
Rage makes clear that Trump’s affinity for dictators and strongmen is part of his DNA. In addition to capturing the bromance with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Woodward quotes Trump discussing his rapport with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, and others.
“It’s funny the relationships I have,” Trump says. “The tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them … Explain that to me someday.” The answer to that may have been evident to the president.
Senator Lindsey Graham also makes numerous appearances. According to Woodward, the South Carolina Republican served as a conduit between Bill Barr, the attorney general, and the White House. But Graham also appears as a friendly critic.
After seeing Trump wave a Bible in front of St John’s church, across from the White House, after peaceful protesters had been cleared with teargas, Graham exclaims that he has “never been more worried”. South Carolina’s senior senator explained that Trump could have responded to the racial unrest fomented by the murder of George Floyd like George Wallace, Nixon or Robert Kennedy.
Wallace was a segregationist governor of Alabama. Nixon fancied himself as the law-and-order candidate. Kennedy was a slain president’s younger brother, who tried to keep the peace after the killing of Martin Luther King and was then killed himself.
Trump opted to emulate Wallace.
As Graham saw things, incumbent presidents lack the luxury of acting as bystanders to events. In Woodward’s account, Trump is portrayed as preferring to claim credit even as he eschews responsibility.
While the coronavirus spread, Trump repeatedly let governors know the burden of shoring up their sick, their doctors and their people would fall on their shoulders first. Woodward emphasizes Trump’s reluctance to throw the weight of the federal government behind fighting Covid-19. It was to be the world’s greatest backstop.
In Graham’s words, Trump “wants to be a wartime president, but he doesn’t want to own any more than he has to own”.
And yet Rage also makes clear that Trump’s desire for accolades knows few bounds. After adopting a partial ban on travel to and from China, as urged by at least five advisers, Trump asserted that he had fathered and birthed the plan on his own.
“I had 21 people in my office,” he said. But only “one person had said we have to close it down. That was me.”
Woodward is puzzled by Trump’s cooperation. Unlike Nixon when Frost came calling, the president was not paid to be a witness against himself.
Rage comes with a definite viewpoint. Woodward contends that a “president must be willing to share the worst with the people, the bad the news with the good”. Instead of “truth-telling”, Woodward writes, Trump has “enshrined personal impulse as a governing principal”.
When Trump’s “performance is taken in its entirety”, he concludes, history will show that he was “the wrong man for the job”.
Perhaps. 3 November comes first.