On Tuesday, thanks to a strange combination of circumstances, I found myself for the first time in an amazon.com bookstore in the Dedham Mall. Inevitably, I suppose, I picked Bob Woodward's new book, Fear, off the shelf, and within 20 minutes I knew that I was going to buy it. I have now read it. It's gotten a great deal of attention, of course, but only at a very general level, focusing on the President's iffy relations with his staff. The book is actually an interesting study of the Trump Administration's dealing with three issues: tariffs, immigration, and national security policy, especially with respect to North Korea and Afghanistan. It also includes a particular perspective, which we shall explore, on the Mueller investigation. I learned a lot from it.
All Bob Woodward's books are based on conversations with favorite sources, and he rarely makes any attempt to conceal who they are. In this case, his principal sources appear to be Lindsay Graham. who describes his own bromance with President Trump in considerable detail; former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; former chief economic adviser and Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn; Steve Bannon; former staff Secretary Rob Porter, who had to quit the White House over accusations of spousal abuse; White House trade adviser Peter Navarro (although I was not as sure about his role as the others): former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus; former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster; White House Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert; and former Trump attorney John Dowd. Although retired Generals James Mattis, now Secretary of Defense, and John Kelly, now White House Chief of Staff, play very big roles in the book, I did not see any clear evidence that either of them had been much of a source for it. Donald Trump has no one to blame but himself for the book, which is composed mostly of the recollections of those who found it impossible to work for him.
Let's get the boilerplate out of the way. President Trump is an unstable, narcissistic, constantly abusive man, who uses verbal abuse to assert control over everyone around him. Steve Bannon apparently saw Trump do this with both Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, who had the political experience Trump lacked, during the campaign, and there are far too many other instances of this tactic in the book to be worth mentioning. The text also confirms his short attention span and his inability to keep medium- and long-term goals in mind. Several subordinates, including Kelly, have tried to institute some kind of regular procedure for White House decision-making, but without success. Trump gives orders, and subordinates begin implementing them, before other more important subordinates know what has happened. That is why some have been driven to removing dangerous policy papers from his desk before he can sign them, or trying to make sure that they never get there in the first place. All of this is rather frightening, and one of the key reasons why Trump should never have been President, but it is not the main thing I saw in the book.
Donald Trump does hold strong, anti-establishment views on certain issues, and believes with some justification that voters preferred him in 2016 because of them. One might argue, indeed, that Fear as about Trump's own attempts to make democracy work by imposing those views on the federal government and the Republican establishment. Thanks to Cohn and perhaps Navarro, we learn the most, probably, about his views on globalism and international trade, which break very sharply, of course, with mainstream thinking in both political parties since the late 1940s. Trump genuinely believes that the open international economy that the US has worked so hard to create hurts the US far more than it helps us. He believes that a trade deficit with any country proves that we are being taken advantage of--especially if the United States is also helping pay for the defense of that country. "Globalist" is one of his favorite epithets. In the first fifteen months or so of his presidency, however, he could not make much progress against the united opposition of the Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin (who does not seem to have talked to Woodward), his chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, and the heads of his national security establishment, all of whom were firmly committed to the postwar world order. He did however bring some allies into the government, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Cohen and White House adviser Peter Navarro, who share his views that tariffs can help the United States. Cohen, in fact, left the White House early this year, when those advisers managed a successful end-around and Trump actually imposed tariffs on China, much earlier than had been thought possible. That was only the beginning, of course, of successive rounds of tariffs, as well as of the renegotiation of NAFTA. So far our free trade agreement with South Korea has survived Trump's attempts to do a way with it. We do not know how much further Trump will be able to go, or what these steps will do to the US economy.
A second, more interesting case, for me, was Afghanistan. Here Woodward's treatment reveals a lot not only about Trump, but about our national security establishment 17 years after 9/11. It has learned nothing.
In his own way, Donald Trump seems to have grasped an essential truth of our time: that creating a new Afghanistan in our image of democracy is an entirely hopeless enterprise, and that it has little or nothing to do with the problem of preventing terrorist attacks in the United States or elsewhere. Successive administrations have ramped our commitment there up and down for political reasons without facing these facts, and when pushed, senior military a civilian national security types still argue that a new 9/11 might be mounted from Afghanistan if we ever pull out. These views confirmed for me, once again, the extent to which George W. Bush and his administration reshaped our view of the world, disastrously, by arguing that the democratizing of a whole region was necessary to protect us at home. The saddest expression of such views in the book come from Lindsay Graham, who bluntly told Trump that the United States is fighting an endless war against evil in the world, from Nazism through Communism to Islamic extremism, with some new threat already waiting in the wings. Generals Kelly and Mattis also believe that Iran represents a serious threat to US national security (Woodward's book did not reach the point at which Trump actually junked the Iranian nuclear agreement.) Trump argued repeatedly with Kelly, Mattis, and H. R. McMaster about Afghanistan and would have been delighted to give up the whole enterprise--but in the end, he caved, and the commitment increased slightly again and loosened rules of engagement. He had to give up the idea of turning responsibility for the war over to the CIA because the agency didn't want it--they want it to remain the Pentagon's failure, not theirs. On the other hand, the President has carried out another threat and suspended security assistance to Pakistan, finally recognizing, perhaps, that our Pakistani "ally" has been on the other side of the Afghanistan war all along.
The arguments over Afghanistan fit into a broader fight--famously argued out, without result, in the "tank" at the Pentagon--over the fundamental principles of post-1945 foreign policy, in which Trump does not believe. That meeting ended without agreement on anything--trade, troops in South Korea, or what to do about Iran--and after Trump left, Tillerson called him a "fucking moron." The international order, he thinks, hurts us more than it helps us. Unable to change his mind, both Mattis and Tillerson began simply blowing the White House off over a number of key issues pretty early on. Tillerson, of course, has now given way to Mike Pompeo, who is falling in line on certain human rights issues, and Mattis is rumored to be on his way out soon. On trade, Trump has made some personnel changes that allowed him to move policy in the direction he favors--which, let us face it, is what elected Presidents should do. But it is not yet clear that the President will have a team more in line with his own thinking, especially since John Bolton, who has replaced H. R. McMaster--who kept trying to persuade the President with facts--and Bolton remains an ardent neocon.
Woodward ends the story of the crisis over North Korea well before Trump's summit with Kim Jong Il in Singapore--another hint of truly new policies. His account of that crisis will raise your hairs. Successive administrations have thought seriously about a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, but have backed away because it might be too dangerous. They also have the fantasy--very popular in many contexts in recent decades--that they could transform the whole situation with a decapitation strike that would kill Kim Jong Il. At one point Trump was narrowly prevented from perhaps setting off a war by pulling US military dependents out of South Korea, which the North might easily have taken as a signal of an imminent US attack. The military trained for an all out conventional strike against North Korea in the fall of 2017, Mattis, on the other hand--like many of the officers I worked with at the Naval War College--accepted realistically that the United States could deter North Korea, and that it had no choice.
What has happened since Woodward turned in his book has opened up new vistas. Trump evidently decided against the military option and adopted a new "solution"--to make peace with North Korea thanks to his own personal relationship with Kim Jong Il. This seems to be his favorite solution for intractable international problems, and Woodward reports him saying similar things about the relationship he claims to have with Xi Jinping of China. (He does not discuss relations with Russia or the summit with Putin.) So far, Kim Jong Il seems willing to play along with this fantasy, but without making the really serious concessions necessary to assure that he is giving up his nuclear weapons. In any case, it seems most unlikely that the idea that we cannot allow North Korea to threaten the US with nukes--one also enunciated by Barack Obama--will go away any time soon.
And thanks again to Lindsay Graham, we learn a good deal more about the other issue Trump appears to care the most about, immigration. Along with White House aide Steven Miller (who is a minor character in this book), Trump is convinced that the US needs a wall and an end to "chain migration," which allows individual immigrants to bring in their families. Graham is a moderate on immigration but bizarrely, there is nothing in the book, I believe, about the idea of a path to citizenship for our 11 million illegals, except for the DACA cases. Here Trump feels strongly enough to have blocked any compromise even on DACA with a bipartisan group in Congress. The next time he tweets about the necessity of the wall, I shall be reminded that this is the way he has also talked about imposing tariffs and pulling troops out of South Korea or Afghanistan--topics upon which he is loathe to give up his views even though he can't get his way.
Woodward does not seem to have any sources inside the Mueller investigation, and his treatment to Trump, Russia, and related issues is somewhere between weak and non-existent, because his only source was the President's former attorney John Dowd. Dowd evidently convinced himself that his client was innocent (as attorneys are wont to do) and that since the White House provided all available evidence--without showing collusion--there wasn't any. He only feared that Trump would commit perjury if he testified. The Cohen and Manafort guilty pleas occurred after the book was done, and I don't think this section of the book will hold up.
I put the book down feeling more strongly than ever that there are at least two different levels to the Trump Administration. On the one hand, the President is giving certain key Republican constituencies such as the Federalist Society, the religious right, and the Koch lobby almost everything they want, including a conservative Supreme Court, a completely different attitude in the Department of Education, and an end to a whole host of environmental regulations. This is largely what any Republican President would have done, and lies squarely within the long-term trend of US politics since the 1980s. On the other hand, Donald Trump has his own ideas about tariffs and national security--and is moving closer to implementing many of them. Meanwhile, much of our national security posture--a legacy of the Bush II and other administrations--is, indeed, doing us no good. This situation leaves essentially no room for thoughtful, good government, or for time and energy to address a whole host of very serious problems at home, including health care (which Woodward also left out) and infrastructure. The problem is not simply what Trump and the Republicans are doing, but what they will inevitably fail to do.