The Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward’s chilling warning for US democracy

The Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward’s chilling warning for US democracy

The Washington Post Watergate veteran’s 20 interviews with the now former president prove to be must-listen material

Bob Woodward has witnessed more than 50 years of depredation on the Potomac. Together with Carl Bernstein, he helped push Richard Nixon out the door. Only one president, however, left the veteran Washington Post reporter fearing for the future of the republic and democracy.

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His latest endeavor, subtitled “Bob Woodward’s Twenty Interviews with President Donald Trump”, is a passport to the heart of darkness. In June 2020, Trump confided: “I get people, they come up with ideas. But the ideas are mine, Bob. Want to know something? Everything is mine.” So much for the 24th Psalm: “The earth is the Lord’s.”

Trump whispered and sought to draw Woodward close. The author questions, pokes and curates. But in the end, his subject is left unbowed.

The Trump Tapes, an audiobook, is disturbingly relevant, an unplanned coda to Woodward’s print Trump trilogy. We hear Trump ladle out praise for Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Kim Jong-un is dear to his heart. Trump praises them for smarts, cunning and ruthlessness. He envies autocrats, seemingly wishes to join their ranks. A second term as president would provide that opportunity, Woodward argues.

The tapes convincingly demonstrate that Trump knew in early 2020 that Covid posed a mortal danger to the US, but balked at telling the whole truth. His re-election hung in the balance.

By the time Trump delivered his State of the Union address to Congress in February 2020, his national security team had delivered a stark warning. Yet Trump soft-pedaled the danger until his final months in office. Covid deaths in Republican America grew to outpace fatalities in Democratic states.

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, and Matthew Pottinger, his deputy, confirmed to Woodward that they warned Trump the coronavirus would be “the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency”. They expected the devastation to be brutal, akin to the flu epidemic of 1918.

Trump tacitly acknowledges receiving their message but does not dwell on Covid’s downside. He did not see it as his primary responsibility.

In February 2020, Trump assured Woodward that everything was OK in the US, adding “now we got a little bit of a setback with the China virus”. He added that Covid would “go away in a couple of months with the heat”. In summer 2020, asked if this were “the leadership test of a lifetime”, Trump offered an emphatic “no”.

He bragged of the US nuclear arsenal. “I have built a weapon system that nobody’s ever had in this country before,” Trump said. “We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before.”

The tapes again demonstrate that Trump holds the press in contempt but yearns for its approval. Trump flatters his interviewer as “a great historian” and “the great Bob Woodward”. His tropism toward Woodward and Maggie Haberman is of the same piece. Woodward doubled as de facto White House stenographer and chronicler, Haberman as psychiatrist. Trump would call without warning. Woodward scattered devices around his home, to record such conversations.

In the end, Trump smashed history’s clock. The US stands changed, possibly forever.

“There is no turning back for American politics,” Woodward observes. “Trump was and still is a huge force and indelible presence, with the most powerful political machine in the country. He has the largest group of followers, loyalists and fundraisers, exceeding that of even President Biden.”

Our divisions are unlikely to recede, Woodward worries. Trump better intuited where America stood in 2016 than any of his rivals. He grasped the impact of free trade, opioids and death by despair. He validated his base and relished his capacity to enrage. In the process, he obliterated the Republican legacy as the party of Abraham Lincoln and made the GOP his own.

Woodward acknowledges the power of Trump’s instincts. On tape, Trump places himself on par with the 16th president and claims to have outshone Lyndon Johnson and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

“No, I’ve done more,” he bristles, when pressed.

Not surprisingly, Woodward and Trump spar over culture. A son of an Illinois state judge, a graduate of Yale, Woodward asserts that he and Trump are beneficiaries of white privilege. Woodward served in the navy, Trump dodged Vietnam. Trump refuses to have any of it. He says Woodward’s formulation is not part of his worldview.

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Woodward also focuses on the anger unleashed by the murder of George Floyd. Trump revisits the ensuing riots. From the left, the slogan “Defund the police” is a gift that keeps on giving for Republicans. This election cycle, law and order appears to be the winning message – as it was in 1968, 1972, 1988 and 2016. Latino voters and Asian Americans drift to the GOP.

If Trump seeks the 2024 Republican nomination the crown will likely be his, together with excellent odds for re-election. Joe Biden’s ratings lumber. A criminal indictment might even burnish Trump’s allure to the faithful, albeit a conviction would be a wholly different matter.

Biden has ignored the cold fact that his election came with a singular mandate: that he not act like his predecessor – nothing more. Instead, the 46th president fashioned himself as FDR 2.0, striving to usher in a second New Deal via razor-thin Democratic margins in Congress.

On 8 November 2022, America will deliver a midterm verdict. Weeks later, Biden will turn 80. The country will be watching. So will an eager Trump and a vexed Woodward. No one said democracy was easy.


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