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Bob Woodward, who with his then fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein famously helped bring down Richard Nixon, has another explosive exposé. But this one implicates the reporter as well as a president. In his new book Rage, Woodward reveals that in private, recorded conversations Donald Trump made clear he was aware of the far-reaching deadliness of Covid-19 early this year, at a time when when he was publicly downplaying the disease.
On February 7, Trump told Woodward, “It goes through air, Bob. That’s always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch, you don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air, and that’s how it’s passed. And so, that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than your—you know, your, even your strenuous flus.” In a follow-up conversation on March 19, Trump said, “I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
As my Nation colleague John Nichols rightly notes, Trump’s words are genuinely scandalous. They contradicted his frequent public statements, which continue to this day, minimizing Covid-19. Democrats have jumped on Trump’s comments as manna from heaven.
But Woodward’s own role in holding back the recordings for more than half a year while he prepared his book is itself troubling. A president of the United States privately contradicting his public words is a huge news story—particularly when it effects the health of countless Americans. Woodward is one of the most famous journalists of the day, so why didn’t he immediately report the news?
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Trump himself is using Woodward’s long silence to suggest that the comments were no big deal. On Thursday, Trump tweeted, “Bob Woodward had my quotes for many months. If he thought they were so bad or dangerous, why didn’t he immediately report them in an effort to save lives? Didn’t he have an obligation to do so? No, because he knew they were good and proper answers.” Later at a press conference Trump said, “If Bob Woodward thought what I said was bad then he should have immediately, right after I said it, gone out to the authorities so they can prepare.”
Trump has half a point. It’s absurd to say Woodward should have gone to “the authorities,” since Trump himself is the president. But Woodward could have made the comments public—which would have empowered critics of Trump’s inaction, giving them ammunition in the fight for a more comprehensive pandemic policy.
Writing in Jacobin, Andrew Perez and David Sirota accuse Woodward of violating his duty as a journalist. “He was informed of the crime taking place,” Perez and Sirota argue. “And yet rather than immediately using his platform—possibly the biggest media platform in the entire world—to sound an alarm, Woodward instead followed a code of omerta that aided and abetted the wrongdoing.”
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan offers a more nuanced assessment, although one that in the end is also damning in its own way. “I don’t know if putting the book’s newsiest revelations out there in something closer to real time would have made a difference,” Sullivan writes. “They might very well have been denied and soon forgotten in the constant rush of new scandals and lies. Still, the chance—even if it’s a slim chance—that those revelations could have saved lives is a powerful argument against waiting this long.”
The practice of reporters withholding news from daily journalism in order to publish books has become frequent, if controversial. In his just-published Donald Trump v. The United States, New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt offers substantial new details about the Mueller investigation that didn’t make it into his reporting. Last year two other Times reporters, Michael Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, revealed in their Border Wars that Trump had suggested migrants be shot in the leg. Again, this was news that the Times didn’t see fit to print.
There’s an obvious pecuniary motive at work: Books about Trump, particularly if they contain scandalous new revelations, have frequently topped the best-seller lists. Squirreling away secrets for these books has become a lucrative way for reporters to supplement their income.
Woodward’s case is more complicated. As Sullivan notes, Woodward “is no longer a Post employee, though he maintains an affiliation and the honorific title of associate editor. He’s no longer in the daily journalism business.”
If Woodward is not a daily journalist, what is he? Woodward claims he’s writing “the second draft of history.” The first draft would be the daily newspaper, with Woodward’s books adding to the record with deeper reporting and context.
But if Woodward is a historian, he’s one of a very particular and retrograde kind: He’s a court chronicler, recording the minutiae of modern Washington with the diligence that the duc de Saint-Simon brought to the Versailles of Louis XIV. Court history, long on gossip and palace intrigue but short on analysis, is usually found in monarchies and empires.
In 1996, Joan Didion surveyed six of Woodward’s tomes for The New York Review of Books and drew attention to “Mr. Woodward’s rather eerie aversion to engaging the ramifications of what people say to him.” She added that there was a “disinclination of Mr. Woodward’s to exert cognitive energy on what he is told.” This “disinclination” offers another explanation, in addition to the obvious monetary one, for why Woodward sat on the explosive news he found out about Trump.
In an acute paragraph, Didion notes that Woodward’s superficial focus on personal drama often serves the interest of the Washington insiders he writes about:
That this crude personalization works to narrow the focus, to circumscribe the range of possible discussion or speculation, is, for the people who find it useful to talk to Mr. Woodward, its point. What they have in Mr. Woodward is a widely trusted reporter, even an American icon, who can be relied upon to present a Washington in which problematic or questionable matters will be definitively resolved by the discovery, or by the demonstration that there has been no discovery, of “the smoking gun,” “the evidence.” Should such narrowly-defined “evidence” be found, he can then be relied upon to demonstrate, “fairly,” that the only fingerprints on the smoking gun are those of the one bad apple in the barrel, the single rogue agent in the tapestry of decent intentions.
Didion’s point that Woodward’s gossip-mongering helps defuse scandals certainly applies to Woodward’s reporting in the Trump era. It’s noteworthy that Woodward continued to enjoy the status of being “widely trusted” even after he published his first Trump book, Fear (2018). In that book, Woodward offered many juicy stories about how Trump’s underlings didn’t respect him and often thwarted his agenda. But, as Alex Shephard noted in The New Republic, in Fear, “the Russia investigation is largely dismissed in Trumpian terms, as an overhyped political witch hunt, hardly the stuff of Watergate.”
Trump himself clearly felt he had more to gain from trying to shape the narrative by talking to Woodward than he would suffer from whatever scurrilous details the reporter might uncover. According to Woodward, Trump would call him up “frequently” and “unexpectedly.” Logs show that these calls lasted as long as half an hour.
The fact that Trump ended up making explosive comments to Woodward is a function of the president’s own lack of discretion. Woodward was all set to be a dutiful court historian, but Trump was such a blabbermouth that he handed the reporter an unexpected scoop. Inadvertently, Trump and Woodward have demonstrated that stenography sometimes has a value.