Book review: “Fear” by Bob Woodward


“Fear” by Bob Woodward traces Donald Trump’s campaign to be US President from March 2010, then follows his Presidency until March 2018.

This is a very readable book. The text is set out with plenty of space between the lines, so that it feels like an “easy read”. The chapters are organised by subject, often looking at policy areas in turn. It is skilfully concise. I found it a “page turner”.

It is a serious book. Scores of “deep background” interviews of White House insiders were carefully transcribed and used. There are 28 pages of sources quoted. As Clive James once quipped:

Woodward checks his facts until they weep with boredom.

This is not a rag-bag collection of tales told out of school about Trump. It is a sober record of Trump’s campaign and the first fifteen months of his presidency. Woodward describes the White House process of policy evolution in such depth that the reader emerges with a better understanding of the Trump presidency.

An example of Woodward’s keen insight is on trade policy. Throughout several chapters of the book, we hear of the efforts of Gary Cohn to “educate” the president. Cohn was National Economic Council chairman from January 2017 to April 2018. Physically imposing and tough, Cohn was President and Co-Chief Operating Officer of the banking group, Goldman Sachs. He instinctively understands the economic basics which Trump does not understand, despite many attempts from his aides. The most basic “unorthodox view” which Trump has is that trade deficits are inherently bad. As Woodward writes:

Cohn was convinced that trade deficits were irrelevant and could be a good thing, allowing Americans to buy cheaper goods. Goods from Mexcio, Canada and China were flooding into the United States because they were competitively priced. Americans who spent less money on those imported goods had more money to spend on other products, services and savings. This was the efficiency of global markets.

Trump wasn’t buying that. Cohn had to bellow to Trump:

“Look..the only time our trade deficit goes down” were times like the financial crisis in 2008. “Our trade deficit goes down because our economy’s contracting. If you want our trade deficit to go down, we can make that happen. Let’s just blow up the economy!”

Later in the book, Bob Woodward writes:

Coming back from the G20 summit, Trump was editing an upcoming speech with Porter (his staff secretary at the time). Scribbling his thoughts in neat, clean penmanship, the president wrote “TRADE IS BAD”
Though he never said it in a speech he had finally found the summarizing phrase and truest expression of his protectionism, isolationism and fervent American nationalism.

In a powerful and brilliant move, Woodward illustrates that paragraph with the actual writing of Donald Trump:

Gary Cohn later resigned after Trump worked around him to enforce tariffs on Chinese imports.

What this episode brings home is that, despite White House aides advising him against things, Trump, in the end, carries out actions he has been talking about for thirty years. He has always been protectionist, isolationist and nationalist. He has never really understood trade in the orthodox sense. So in the end, he does what he has always said he would do and introduces tariffs. As Michael Goldfarb wrote in a very astute New York Times opinion piece earlier this year, Trump is not mentally ill but behaves like a rich racist, bigoted, sexist drunk at a country club:

As Year 2 of the Trump regime begins, it would probably be a good idea for everyone to stop looking for grand psychiatric theories about what makes Mr. Trump tick — it is insulting to people who suffer from real mental illness.
Those who want to resist Mr. Trump should accept that America is being governed by a country-club boor, backed up by other members of the club — a class that doesn’t worry that it will suffer if he makes a mistake.

By the way, it is worth remembering that there has always been a large chunk of the USA which favours isolationism – bringing up the drawbridges and looking after Uncle Sam, while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handcart. It has been one of the reasons that some British have been able to joke that ‘Uncle Sam always comes late to wars’.

The most extraordinary chapter of “Fear” is the final one. This presents a remarkably detailed account of negotiations between John Dowd, Trump’s lawyer until recently, and Robert Mueller, the special investigator. Dowd strenuously tries to persuade Trump not to testify to Mueller. He does not have much luck, stating, at length, with some exasperation that Trump must refuse to testify:

It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit.

Let’s face it, there are not many other journalists with the credibility and high, trustworthy reputation of Bob Woodward. This book should further polish that reputation. He goes for precision and accuracy, rather than setting out to shock – although there is plenty that is shocking in this tome.

“Fear” by Bob Woodward is available everywhere including Waterstones, W H Smith and Amazon.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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17 Comments

  • Innocent Bystander 8th Oct '18 - 12:05pm

    Paul,
    He has forced both Canada and Mexico to make significant concessions and is well on course to squeeze the same out of China. To the chagrin of his many detractors, detente on the Korean peninsula progresses day by day at a rate unthinkable before him. He has done more for American interests than the very nice, but ineffectual, Barrack Obama ever did.
    I will now crouch down in my foxhole and await your wrath.

  • John Marriott 8th Oct '18 - 1:55pm

    Watching Trump on TV I sometimes wonder whether he is being brought to us courtesy of National Lampoon. Does anyone remember when George Bush Senior and Dan Quayle were performing their famous double act? The joke went something like this: What’s the most frightening call the Vice President could receive? Answer: “Dan, it’s George. I’m not feeling well.” Perhaps we could turn that on its head for today’s circumstances. What’s the most pleasing call the Vice President could receive? Answer: “Hi, Mike. It’s Donald here. I’m resigning as of now.” Oh, yes please!

  • Innocent Bystander 8th Oct '18 - 3:33pm

    Paul,
    I burn no candle for a draft dodger like Trump, but I like the truth (even if it doesn’t mean much to him) and that stuff from Cohn is just ‘stuff’. Maybe, maybe not. Korean detente is down to him, no matter what the bitter critics say. I think he is good at spotting weakness and exploiting it. He may have, instinctively, felt that Kim Jong-Un wanted to move his regime forward and needed a face saving trigger. Trump’s combination of threats of fire and fury and the offer of a handshake has broken the impasse. Of course Moon Jae-in is capitalising and rightly so. Only he could and I hope the rapprochement continues.
    There is a case, you know, for kicking over apple carts and smashing long held paradigms. I think it’s what a lot of voters are looking for.
    So I dislike Trump for his many unpleasant qualities but I don’t let that distort my appraisal of what he has done for the people who voted for him.

  • Innocent Bystander 8th Oct '18 - 5:46pm

    Paul,
    I defer to your superior knowledge of the US political scene but according to CNN’s predictions Trump isn’t President at all.
    But the future is fascinating and voters are being unpredictable all over the world.
    And we shall see.

  • Innocent Bystander 8th Oct '18 - 6:06pm

    Paul.
    I am not rooting for Trump at all. I just see interesting lessons in all of this as voters seem to be defying predictions (and sometimes their own interests) to send messages to those who thought they had politics all ‘sussed out’.

  • Establishment `remain-focussed` Lib Dems don’t get it but `innocent bystander` does.

    `Had 40,000 votes (out of 120 million votes cast) in the three states mentioned above gone to Clinton instead of Trump, then Hilary Clinton would have won` – surely the main point is why did she not get them (apart from regarding them as `in the bag`). It’s because ordinary people want firm borders and migration control, want to given a stake in the capitalist economy and want to preserve western values.

    `The key question is ‘where are these voters who are still enamoured with him?’` probably talking to their neighbours having a good laugh at the establishment’s expense yet keeping coy to pollsters.

    And finally `If Trump has such an enamoured base, why did he lose a US Senate seat to the Democrats in Alabama, of all places – the reddest of red states – in December 2017?` It’s simple – Trump and Jones were two sides of the same cheek. Both are applecart topplers, both demand change and bringing USA and Alabama into the 21st century and both demand new realities. The only surprise is the GOP candidate in Alabama got so many votes.

  • jayne mansfield 8th Oct '18 - 9:14pm

    @Paul Walter,
    Apparently not.

    I can no longer attempt to read and assimilate large amounts of text, but I have put this book on my Christmas wish list.

  • John Marriott 8th Oct '18 - 9:14pm

    @Paul Walter
    Obviously not, Paul. Given your experience on LDV you should be well aware of the tangential nature of threads. I’ve nothing personally against bats. The phrase I would have chosen begins with ‘flying’!

  • The interesting thing about Trump is how he took the Republican nomination. The presidency was a two horse race with a fairly fixed electoral base. It’s pretty rare for either party to be in office for more than two terms. Rather than anything Trump did the shock really came from overconfidence born of forgetting that Republicans do vote.

    As for how history will view Trump. I’m not convinced he will be seen as worse than Nixon or Bush Jr or even , without the undue deference of the retrospective re-invention, that he’s really worse than Reagan. The Republican Party has not produced an actively good President since Eisenhower.

  • John Marriott 9th Oct '18 - 8:36am

    Don’t be so upset, Paul. I should have added, as someone whose tastes and opinions often fail to find resonance on LDV, “Welcome to the club”. As far as Trump is concerned, despite Bob Woodward’s pedigree, many of us wish, in the immortal words of Gavin Williamson, that he would just ‘go away’.

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