04/10/2020

In an exclusive extract from his new book ‘Rage’, award-winning journalist Bob Woodward lights a fuse beneath the US president.

I believe that almost anything can happen in the Trump presidencyanything. Lots could get better or worse or much worse.Trump has talked very tough, often in a way that unsettles even his supporters. But he has not imposed martial law or suspended the Constitution, despite predictions of his opponents.
What did Trump want to accomplish? What were his goals? Too often he seemed not to know himself.
He and his Attorney-General, William Barr, have several times challenged the traditional rule of law. Using the justice system to reward friends and pay back enemies is petty and Nixonian. Constitutional government might seem wobbly at times, and that could change overnight. Still, democracy has held.
But leadership has failed. What did Trump want to accomplish? What were his goals? Too often he seemed not to know himself. Decision by tweet, often without warning to those charged with executing his policies, was one of the biggest sticks of dynamite behind the door.
On January 28, 2020, when Trumps national security adviser and his deputy warned Trump that the virus would be not might be, but would be the biggest national security threat to his presidency, the leadership clock had to be reset. It was a detailed forecast, supported by evidence and experience that unfortunately turned out to be correct. Presidents are the executive branch. There was a duty to warn. To listen, to plan, and to take care.
For nearly 50 years, Woodward seen here at right, with Carl Bernstein, who shared the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of the Watergate case in 1973 has written about nine presidents, from Nixon to Trump. AP
For a long time Trump hedged, as did others, and said the virus is worrisome but not yet, not now. There were good reasons to ride both horses, but there should have been more consistent and courageous outspokenness. Leading is almost always risky.
Trump vacillated, prevaricated and dodged his role as leader of the country despite his ‘I alone can fix it’ rhetoric.
The deep-seated hatreds of American politics flourished in the Trump years. He stoked them, and did not make concerted efforts to bring the country together. Nor did the Democrats. Trump felt deeply wronged by the Democrats, who felt deeply wronged by Trump. The walls between them only grew higher and thicker.
My 17 interviews with Trump presented a challenge. He denounced Fear, my first book on him, as untrue, a scam and a joke, calling me a Dem operative. Several of those closest to him told him that the book was true, and [senator and Trump ally] Lindsey Graham told him that I would not put words in his mouth and would report as accurately as possible.
Trump decided, for reasons that are not clear to me, that he would co-operate. To his mind, he would become a reliable source. He is reliable at times, completely unreliable at others, and often mixed. The interviews show he vacillated, prevaricated and at times dodged his role as leader of the country despite his I alone can fix it rhetoric.
Trump is a living paradox, capable of being friendly and appealing. He can also be savage and his treatment of people is often almost unbelievable.
In a time of crisis, the operational is much more important than the political or the personal. For tens of millions the optimistic American story has turned to a nightmare.
Like Trump, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to directly address the US public, but with a vastly different approach.  
My wife, Elsa Walsh, who had worked for years as a reporter for The Washington Post and then as a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I spent endless hours sifting through the story of the Trump presidency, talking intensely for the last year. What was the remedy, the course that could have been taken? we asked. Was there a way to do better?
Elsa suggested looking at a previous president who wanted to speak directly to the American people, unfiltered through the media, not just during troubling times but during a major crisis. The model was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Over his 12 years as president, FDR gave 30 fireside chats. His aides and the public often clamoured for more. FDR said no. It was important to limit his talks to the major events and to make them exceptional. He also said they were hard work, often requiring him to prepare personally for days.
The evening radio addresses concerned the toughest issues facing the country. In a calm and reassuring voice, he explained what the problem was, what the government was doing about it, and what was expected of the people.
Often the message was grim. Two days after Japans December 7, 1941, surprise bombing attack on Pearl Harbour, FDR spoke to the nation. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories the changing fortunes of war. So far, the news has been all bad. We have suffered a serious setback. He added, It will not only be a long war, it will be a hard war.
It was a question of survival. We are now fighting to maintain our right to live among our world neighbours in freedom and common decency.
FDR invited the American people in. We are all in it all the way. Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history.
A few months later, in another fireside chat, he asked Americans to pull out a world map to follow along with him as he described why the country needed to fight beyond Americas borders. Your government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst, without flinching or losing heart.
For nearly 50 years, I have written about nine presidents from Nixon to Trump 20 per cent of the 45 US presidents.
A president must be willing to share the worst with the people, the bad news with the good. All presidents have a large obligation to inform, warn, protect, to define goals and the true national interest. It should be a truth-telling response to the world, especially in crisis. Trump has, instead, enshrined personal impulse as a governing principle of his presidency.
When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.
This is an edited extract from Rage by Bob Woodward, published by Simon & Schuster.