Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018
Before a crowd of more than 1,300 at Virginia Commonwealth University on Tuesday, legendary journalist Bob Woodward — author of the bestselling “Fear: Trump in the White House” — described a “nervous breakdown” in the executive branch and suggested the Trump administration is waging a “war on truth.”
“What is going on in the White House is there is a war on truth,” said Woodward, the iconic investigative journalist, author and associate editor of The Washington Post whose coverage of the Watergate scandal with Carl Bernstein won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1973. “You have to deal with truth. Truth is the foundation of how we have our debates and how people make their decisions.”
Woodward’s talk, “Truth, Freedom of Expression, Democracy and the Age of the American Presidency,” was part of the fall 2018 speaker series of the Humanities Research Center in the College of Humanities and Sciences and co-sponsored by VCU’s Office of the President and the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture.
Humanities Research Center Director Richard Godbeer, Ph.D., introduced Woodward, calling the journalist the “ultimate inside man” who has shed light on the secret inner workings of Washington over half a century.
“No one else in political investigative journalism has his clout, respect and reputation,” Godbeer said. “He has a way of getting insiders to open up, both on and off the record, in ways to reveal an intimate yet sweeping portrayal of Washington and the way it works.”
Woodward spoke in the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts and his talk was streamed to three overflow rooms, all of which were filled to capacity. A line to enter the Singleton Center began hours before his talk started and stretched for several blocks.
What is going on in the White House is there is a war on truth. You have to deal with truth. Truth is the foundation of how we have our debates and how people make their decisions.
‘He could not tell the truth’
Woodward is the author of 19 books, all of which have been national nonfiction bestsellers, chronicling American politics over nine presidencies. Much of his talk at VCU focused on his most recent work.
“I have done 19 books. The 19th, ‘Fear’ just came out. Trump loves it,” Woodward joked. “He accused me of being a Democratic operative. Somebody told me they were talking to Hillary Clinton and she was leaning over so hard, laughing.
“The job, I believe, of the journalist is political neutrality,” Woodward said. “I don't come at this with any partisan motive. I've been called a leftist. I've been called somebody on the right, a Republican, a Democrat. Somebody some months ago actually called me an ‘ultra centrist.’ Whatever that means, I'll accept it.”
The “war on truth” in the Trump White House, Woodward said, is best exemplified by a scene in “Fear” in which John Dowd, Trump’s then-attorney dealing with Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, held a mock interview with Trump on Jan. 27.
“They’re sitting there looking out at the Washington Monument, the Jefferson monument, and Dowd plays Mueller and starts asking Trump questions,” Woodward said. “And Trump starts making things up, says things that are not true, gets very emotional, very wound up.
“And finally, after this practice session, Dowd says: ‘See, you can't testify. You are not capable of telling the truth. And, if you’re under oath, and you do what you did here, you're going to wind up in an orange jumpsuit.’
“He literally concluded that the president was incapable of testifying because he could not control himself, his emotions,” Woodward said. “He could not tell the truth. This is the president's own lawyer reaching this conclusion.”
Dowd, along with other members of the Trump administration, has denied that Woodward’s portrayal in the book is accurate.
Preventing World War III
In another scene from “Fear” that Woodward described Tuesday, Gary Cohn, who was Trump’s chief economic adviser, realizes there is a draft letter on the president’s desk that would withdraw the United States from a South Korean trade deal. Cohn, Woodward said, feared that withdrawing from the deal would result in a geopolitical crisis and jeopardize national security.
“And so what does he do? He takes it off of the president's desk and puts it in a folder, realizing in the case of President Trump that if it's not on the desk or immediately available, he doesn't remember or does not think that he has to act on something,” Woodward said. “Gary Cohn is so worried, he asks the secretary of defense, [James] Mattis, to come to the Oval Office to tell the president, ‘You cannot do this. You cannot get out of this trade deal. It is the essence of national security.’ And for the moment, the president stays his hand.”
Then, on Jan. 19, the issue of South Korea comes up again at a National Security Council meeting, Woodward said. Trump, he said, seemed unable to understand why the U.S. relationship with South Korea was important for national security.
“‘Why are we doing this? Why are we spending all this money? Why do we have 28,000 American troops in South Korea and pay for it?’” Woodward said, quoting Trump. “‘Why this massive military presence in South Korea? What do we get from protecting all of these countries?’
“And Secretary of Defense Mattis is so concerned, he finally says to the president, ‘We're doing all of this to prevent World War III,’” Woodward said. “Can you imagine a secretary of defense in any administration having to tell the president we're doing all of these things to prevent World War III?”
Trump goes on, Woodward said, to complain that the U.S. is losing too much money in trade with South Korea, China and others. “‘I think we could be so rich, if we weren't stupid,’” Woodward quoted Trump. “‘We’re being played as suckers, especially in all of the efforts we make in Europe with NATO.’
“The president just does not understand what is happening here,” Woodward said.
He literally concluded that the president was incapable of testifying because he could not control himself, his emotions. He could not tell the truth. This is the president's own lawyer reaching this conclusion.
‘A nervous breakdown’
Woodward suggested that a “nervous breakdown” had occurred in the Trump White House, as demonstrated by a scene in “Fear” in which then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is meeting in then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ office to review Tillerson’s work and whether he was meeting his objectives.
“Tillerson [says], ‘You guys in the White House, you don't have your act together,’” Woodward said. “This is all from notes that somebody took, by the way. ‘The president can't make a decision. He doesn't know how to make a decision. He won't make a decision. When he makes a decision, he changes his mind a couple of days later.’”
As Tillerson is talking, H.R. McMaster, national security adviser, comes in and accuses Tillerson of refusing to work with the White House and of “affirmatively undermining the national security process,” Woodward said.
“Tillerson then says, ‘Oh, you know. Of course that's not true. You know sometimes I'm out of the country and I can’t take your call,’” Woodward said. “Now imagine, you're secretary of state, you're abroad somewhere and they tell you there's a call from the White House. The national security adviser would like to talk to you and you're too busy to take the call?”
Such a breakdown among top Trump administration officials, Woodward said, is worrisome.
“God help us if we have a crisis,” he said. “Because that’s when presidents and their administration and their team are tested. And if there's no team, if there is a living, vibrating nervous breakdown going on, [they] can't deal with a crisis. And crises come to the presidency all of the time.”
The demon pomposity
In addition to “Fear,” Woodward also spoke extensively about the state of the news media.
He recalled how, after Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of The Washington Post’s Watergate coverage, the Post’s publisher and owner, Katharine Graham, wrote Woodward and Bernstein a letter with the advice: “Beware the demon pomposity.” Or, as Woodward described it, “that crippling syndrome of self-importance, self-satisfaction, smugness, which overtakes all professions in the media.”
“You can see it on television, you can see it in the writings, you can see it certainly in politics,” he said. “I think you even see the demon pomposity loose in academic life.”
The new media landscape, he said, has become driven by speed and impatience, and, too often, politics over nonpartisan journalism.
“I was talking to a Republican senator recently and I said, ‘I really worry about my business, the news media.’ And he said, ‘Oh, don't worry about your business. Everyone knows — Republicans, Democrats, left, right, center — that the news media is just another form of politics.’ Unfortunately, there is too much truth in that. We have become willfully members of a political dynamic rather than trying to call it down the middle, trying to deal with facts.”
The job, I believe, of the journalist is political neutrality. I don't come at this with any partisan motive. I've been called a leftist. I've been called somebody on the right, a Republican, a Democrat. Somebody some months ago actually called me an ‘ultra centrist.’ Whatever that means, I'll accept it.
Woodward, whose books famously rely on anonymous or deep background sources, defended the use of unnamed sources in journalism, saying they are the only way to get the truth.
“If I go to the White House or somebody's house at night and say, ‘Gee, I want you to tell me what’s going on, on the record,’ I'm going to get a press release. People do not, unfortunately, tell the truth on the record most of the time.
“So if somebody who's in a position to know something, or should know something, you grant them anonymity,” he said. “But the deal is, what you tell me has to be the truth. And if it doesn't check out, I'm coming back at you and the deal may be off.”
Journalism, he said, needs more anonymous sources, particularly in the Trump era.
“My argument is, and this is not popular in journalism, I think we need more. Not off the record, we need deep background or background sources,” he said. “Because then you can get the truth. Too many lies on the record.”
During a Q&A, Woodward was asked his thoughts about a New York Times op/ed written by an anonymous official headlined “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.”
“It didn't have any specifics,” Woodward said. “It’s very important who the [author] is. And we don't know. Some editors at The New York Times know. I would think it’d have to be somebody with some authority, but there are no specifics. I was citing the example [earlier] about the national security adviser meeting with the chief of staff and the secretary of state. Exactly when they met, where and what they said. If that person who wrote that anonymous article came to me, I'd say, ‘That's great. Now I want some specifics.’ If I couldn't get the specifics, I would say, ‘Take it to The New York Times.’
“That was a cheap shot,” he added. “I think the reporters on the news side of The New York Times would have reacted the way I said.”
Woodward was also asked what advice he has for young, aspiring journalists.
“What advice for aspiring journalists? Work for a newspaper that Jeff Bezos buys,” he said. “It's not just the money. I’ve known him for years and he really is a believer in independent, aggressive press.”