Bob Woodward Talks Trump and the Business of Truth

Legendary journalist’s latest book, “Fear,” depicts “a White House going through a nervous breakdown.”

Image of Bob Woodward discussing "Fear" with Michael Schmidt of the New York Times.
Bob Woodward discussed "Fear" with Michael Schmidt of the New York Times. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
October 01, 2018

By Ruth Steinhardt

Journalist Bob Woodward visited Lisner Auditorium Thursday to discuss his latest book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” a conversation that covered the Trump presidency, the Supreme Court hearings and the state of journalism.

The event was presented by the George Washington University and Politics and Prose. New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt moderated the discussion.

Mr. Woodward cemented his reputation for scrupulous reporting with “All the President’s Men,” his 1974 book with fellow Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein on the Watergate burglaries and the subsequent Nixon administration cover-up.

In the years since, Mr. Woodward has written about eight presidents. Known for their careful sourcing, his books rely on many hours of firsthand interviews and on extensive documentation, including meeting notes, memoranda and personal diaries.

So in discussing Thursday’s hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, Mr. Woodward’s interest was in the problem of memory. Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh were the only witnesses called to the hearing, making it difficult either to corroborate or disprove Dr. Ford’s allegation of assault.

“One source doesn’t work,” Mr. Woodward said. “You’ve got to get two sources and some kind of documentation.”

The portrait of the Trump White House in “Fear” is as dysfunctional as it is detailed. Mr. Trump disregards briefings, insults his advisers and Tweets policy changes without warning. Aides snatch papers from the president’s desk, hiding sensitive information with which they feel he cannot be trusted.

Mr. Trump himself shows an aggressive unwillingness to take on information he doesn’t like, and Mr. Woodward said his trade war with China is an example of that stubborn ignorance in action. Americans purchase imported articles from China because they’re cheap and high quality, but “Trump somehow has in his head that the Chinese are taking that money from us, that they’re stealing,” Mr. Woodward said. “He will not get that out of his head.”

In one telling scene Mr. Woodward recounted Thursday, an aide plays the role of special investigator Robert Muller and lobs a few practice questions at Mr. Trump, who “makes things up, lies and loses emotional control.”

Finally, the aide tells Mr. Trump he cannot testify—“or it’ll be an orange jumpsuit,” meaning prison time.

“My conclusion in the book is that this is an administration and a White House going through a nervous breakdown,” Mr. Woodward said.

“Fear” was an instant bestseller upon its release in early September. But Mr. Woodward said sometimes a search for truth has to be its own reward. He remembered a conversation with then-Washington Post owner Katharine Graham after Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972.

“Nobody believed the Watergate stories,” Mr. Woodward said, and he was starting to lose faith in the efficacy of his reporting. But Ms. Graham, who Mr. Woodward said was an example of “real gutsy leadership in news media,” insisted he pursue the truth even more aggressively.

“Why do we do this?” Ms. Graham asked rhetorically. Mr. Woodward didn’t know.

“Because that’s the business we’re in,” Ms. Graham replied.

It’s a business that can’t afford partisanship, Mr. Woodward said, and he doesn’t consider himself part of the “resistance” against Trump.

“I try to stay on this side of the non-resistance and be very empirical and very factual,” he said.

That commitment to empiricism shows in Mr. Woodward’s extreme care with sources. He said he extensively prepares for every interview, consuming everything he can to get insight into the subject—including decades-old writings. “It’s not a ruse,” Mr. Woodward said. “I want to know how you think.”

“My larger theory of the case is to take you as seriously as you take yourself.”

Mr. Woodward said another key to effective journalism is that it should step out of the virtual world and into the physical. Reporters should appear not just in a subject’s missed call list or email inbox, but also on his doorstep.

“We’re not showing up enough, we’ve got to show up, and it means physical presence,” he said. “You’ve got to get out of that technology-oriented mode and out of that impatience and speed mode.”

And after preparing, showing up and finding as much documentary evidence as they can, journalists should be ready to draw their own conclusions, Mr. Woodward said.

“Stories that I know are true have been denied,” he said. “Sometimes the stronger the denial, the more truth is there.”

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