interview

Bob Woodward on the ‘Best Obtainable Version of the Truth’ About Trump

Woodward arriving in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on January 3, 2017. Photo: Albin Lohr-Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

By the time I arrived at Bob Woodward’s townhouse in Georgetown on Friday morning, his latest book, Fear, was already in its ninth printing, with more copies sold on just the first day of its release than there are people living in the city of Washington.

Through the perspective of his sources, Woodward paints a choppy portrait of the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. You may have heard that it’s not going well, and Fear is here to add to that perception with some behind-the-scenes specifics. For instance, that Trump doesn’t understand how U.S. trade policy might relate to U.S. foreign policy. Or that when papers are stolen off his desk, he doesn’t notice — and doesn’t even remember that they existed — for weeks. Or that he orders his tweets printed out, so that he can study in analog the metrics of their reach. Or that he called his own attorney general “mentally retarded.”

The book unfolds as a series of stories about the officials and staffers in the administration who, to prevent catastrophes both domestic and international, must expertly navigate their relationship with the president, or hatch plots to distract him or coax him away from his most destructive whims.

Trump has responded to all of this in the most predictable of ways, amplifying the book through his tantrums against Woodward. Since the first details about its contents were published last week, it’s felt as though Fear is everywhere.

In Georgetown, however, it was literally true: Entering the author’s home required walking past a stack of the books on the floor. It’s a warm and colorful place, full of eye-catching paintings and, at this particular moment, lots of people and one medium-size dog. Woodward introduced me to his wife, the journalist Elsa Walsh, and then ushered me into a dining room. Over the course of 50 minutes, we discussed his philosophy and methods. But first, my tape recorder malfunctioned in front of America’s most famous journalist.

I wanted to begin with the end of the book. You decided to close with a quote, attributed to John Dowd as what he wanted to say to the president.
That he’s a … “You’re a fucking liar.”

Why that quote?
Because in many ways the book and the Trump presidency are about the war on truth. That is evident throughout and that his lawyer who worked with him for eight months, was a supporter of his, felt that he could not insult him and tell him that he was a fucking liar but that was his conclusion. That is documented in the book and the relationship that Dowd had with Trump: “You can’t testify. Testify means an orange jumpsuit.”

I wanted to talk to you about how you decide who is credible. It is difficult for me, sometimes, to determine who is credible, even at the most senior levels of the administration at this White House. Mostly at the most senior levels in some ways.
Particularly if it is on the record and public. It is kind of a press release.

I agree to a large extent. But I am curious how you decide who is credible. Because somebody like Rob Porter, he is obviously very present in this book. I won’t guess about your sourcing. There is a lot to suggest that his character is — there is a fundamental flaw there.
In what way?

Well, by some personal accounts he is a very flawed human being. He is allegedly abusive. There is a lot to call into question his honesty.
Say that again.

There is a lot to suggest that he may not be an honest individual, right? So why do you decide to trust somebody like that?
Well, I am not going into the sourcing but there are — you test it with other people and documents and notes and it makes a big difference when somebody tells you something and you get your hand on the document itself. So because I had the luxury of time, of essentially two years to work on this, not quite, even. Ever since Trump was elected you can cross-check and see.

Is it more difficult to do that with this administration than past administrations?
That’s a good question. They are all hard to get beneath the surface of the sort of press-release version of what goes on. At the same time, lots of people, as you know, feel distress and concern and some of the people were willing to talk out of conscience.

In a review, Isaac Chotiner at Slate asked if you were perhaps the last optimist.
Really? I have not seen this.

He had a lot of criticisms of the book and one of them is there is this sort of view, a bias towards the people who cooperated, and they are presented in an almost heroic way.
But see, he does not know that. No one knows that except for myself and my assistant Evelyn.

Do you think that is true?
I know it is true.

As a reader, there were a lot of moments in the book that it felt rather obvious when you attributed feelings or thoughts to the person in question. Whether that was Dowd or Gary Cohn or Rob Porter or Reince Priebus or Dave Bossie, where it just seems rather obvious who they are and that they spoke to you.
As you know, people take notes, and as I said in the beginning it either comes from the person himself or herself or it comes from somebody who recorded it right afterwards.

But when it comes to thoughts and feelings, I wonder how you think about how to protect your sources when it comes to that.
Suppose somebody’s [in a] situation and they come out and tell their deputy, “You know what I was thinking or what I thought when that occurred?” It is a common form of expression and if you have got the immediacy and a good source — so much of this is time against the problem. You just have to chip away at it and go back and try to get documents, and it is possible if you have time.

Do you like any of these people? Did you find any of them to be enjoyable human beings?
You mean the sources or the people in the White House?

Anyone in the administration or influencing it from the outside.
It is a good question, but I just go way back — I filter my own emotions out. They intrude so it becomes very — it is like the doctor operating on a patient. Do you like the patient, do you not like the patient? It is irrelevant. It is perhaps a bit cold, but I find that is the best path to find out what happens. If you start saying I like so-and-so or I don’t like so-and-so …
well I think, I hope, it is possible to have an impression of somebody, good or bad.

Right.
And then you filter it out. You filter that out.

You try to just kill it so it doesn’t influence anything.
Yeah.

I wanted to ask you about your relationship with Donald Trump. When did you meet him? 
Oh. There was a time in the ’80s when his book came out, The Art of the Deal. My former colleague, Carl Bernstein, called me up and said, “You know, this guy is amazing. We have got to go see him.” And I thought, really? And he said yeah. So, Carl was the driver and we went and interviewed him and there is a tape of it, but we were never able to find it, unfortunately.

Really?
Yeah. It would be an old cassette tape in one of those tape recorders. That’s when I met him and he keeps referring to it in the phone call where he called me last month. He referred to it. When [Robert] Costa and I interviewed him in 2016 when he was on the verge of getting the Republican nomination, he referred to it. I did not take notes. I was a little, kind of — I went along with Carl. Carl has good instincts.

Do you remember much about the conversation or what your impression of him was?
You know, it was Trump being Trump. All confidence and … but you know, I am being candid with you: If somebody told me this man is going to be president of the United States some day, I would have paid more attention.

And over the years, did you interact with him again. Did you maintain a relationship?
I think I went down to Mar-a-Lago once to give a speech. But that was 10, 15 years ago.

What do you think, if anything, people do not understand about this book?
In other words, what is my review …

Review of the reviews.
It’s very interesting.

I’m sorry to get all meta on you.
Oh. Well, you know Hugh Hewitt, you know who he is? A conservative, I did an interview with him and he read the book and he asked questions about Page 248 … and he said that he thinks it is a shame that Trump and people in the White House don’t read it, because he said that he saw some positive things in it. He actually said that he would air-drop copies to all the embassies in Washington so … if they want to see if this is who Trump is. And he said that, oh, it shows no collusion with Russia. Which is true. And I said that I did not find any, but in the end of the book when Dowd is reflecting on the situation, he says, or he concludes, that he and Trump got suckered by Mueller. Turning over all these witness interviews, corroborating documents and so forth, he concludes that Mueller may have something. I don’t know that, but I believe very strongly that the answer to the Russian collusion story is in Russia. Moscow. If somebody who is really going to get to the bottom of the root Russian collusion issue, the answer is in Moscow. If I were to go there, I don’t think I would ever come back.

You think you would be killed?
Yeah. It would be preposterous, given the nature of their regime and how they look at the press and so forth.

It would be preposterous to go there?
Yeah. I think so. Certainly at my age with a family. Maybe if I was 30 and somebody in the CIA was undercover and said, “Come and I can help you.” But that is unlikely, and I am certainly not 30.

Should a younger reporter take the bullet on that one then?
Yeah. What is the Willie Sutton joke about why do you rob banks? Because that is where the money is. Why do you go to the scene, why do you talk to people that were first hand witnesses, why do you try to get documents? Because that where the best version or the best obtainable version of the truth is. In the case of this, I am not going to Moscow.

This book, I noticed, is remarkably bare bones the way you have reported it. Some of your earlier books there is more scene-setting or character-building.
Well, this is a series of scenes.

Yeah, there is kind of a staccato effect to it all. I was wondering if that was intentional or that is just how it turned out.
Well, if you look at the books I have done they tend to be scenes. This happened, then this happened, and so forth. This is very much in that tradition I think.

During an interview maybe it was with Colbert you recounted how you showed up at a source’s house and they said, “Are you still doing this shit?”
Yes.

Why are you still doing this shit?
Well, as you know, I have always thought that if somebody came from Mars and spent a year in the United States and then went back and said, who are the people that have the best jobs. [It’s] the reporters. We get to do interesting things, we get to make momentary entries into people’s lives when they are interesting and then get the hell out when they cease to be interesting. Hope Hicks is still interesting, but not as interesting as when she was working in the White House.

Okay, if that’s what you think.
Well, I think because I am interested in what happens, how decisions are made. That doesn’t mean that she would not be a useful path to information now.

It is interesting you phrase it that way. When you look at these people who work there or who have worked there, do you view them as paths to information or do you try to understand them as human beings?
Well, what drives them and so forth obviously is important, but my aim is to find out what happened. That’s what we need. Suppose we knew everything that happened in the Trump White House. Suppose there was a tape recorder and a video of Trump every minute.

He would love that.
Well, it would be illuminating, right? The term Carl Bernstein and I developed a long time ago is “the best obtainable version of the truth.” There has been a lot of reporting on the lies, the things that are untrue. But the question is, what are the consequences of those things that are untrue. How does Trump make decisions? As you go through the book — it is all immense new amounts of detail about North Korea, about Afghanistan, about the Middle East, taxes, immigration, trade issues … that is what affects people.

Do you think there is more emphasis on the why than the how?
No. I think there has been superb reporting, but there is a lot of new material I have about, say, Afghanistan. The meetings and Mattis finally saying to the president, “We need to know if the commander-in-chief is with us. We can can’t fight a half-assed war anymore.” Very illuminating about Trump and Mattis and the process and what was eventually decided to do in Afghanistan.

I am curious if you believe that objectivity is achievable.
Never pure objectivity, of course. But you can improve on it.

Is it desirable to you?
I have said this before as I have done all these interviews — people in our business have become emotionally overwrought by Trump. And I can understand that, but that is not our job. Our job is to figure out what happened, and I think it is very important to be cool about it. That does not mean that you don’t care or you are not engaged. It certainly is not politicized. I have been accused of being on the left or on the right, and somebody actually called me an “ultracentrist.”

Since the election, there seems to be an expectation from the opposition to the president that journalists should do something about the way things turned out. There’s expectation for journalists to be activists. I’m wondering if you feel that as well.
I think that’s not our job. I think there’s been too much — or the appearance of — partisanship. Ken Burns, the documentarian, we talked some time ago, and he said, “You will have written books or done reporting on 20 percent of the presidents that we’ve had.” And that’s a lot of time in history from Nixon to Trump, and there is always a climate of opinion about politics and the press. I’m pretty convinced it’s important to learn to contain yourself emotionally. You asked the question, “Do I like some of the people in the …” I have to say that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question — and I’ve never thought of it. Because I don’t think it’s relevant. And I’m sure if I had a psychiatrist who could … “Do you like so and so or,” we could dig into that. But it’s not … You know obviously I repeat myself on this, I just think that’s … I never thought about it.

What I meant by that was not, like, do you want to hang out with them on the weekend. But more do you think they are decent people?
Decent people. Truth-tellers.

I think if you feel that somebody is a decent person coming from a good place, or at least not coming from a bad place … I mean that has something to do with whether or not you can take them seriously as a source, a credible source. Right?
A series of interesting questions.

I feel as though sometimes I’m checking the account of a White House official who is a known liar against another White House official’s account, and they are also a known liar. And it’s like, well, what do you do?
This is the zoo without walls.

An iconic quote. Right?
Yeah. And that’s a zoo without walls and what does he say — if you have a rat and a mole and a this and a that and so forth.

And a seal …
That’s pretty vividly descriptive and important, and if you’ve got people you can’t trust, then you go elsewhere. But I’m not going to spend a dozen hours or a couple of dozen hours as I did with some people involved without having a trust. And it’s not as you say one White House official who doesn’t tell the truth and another White House official … I think you can penetrate under that for something like a book.

We’ve got internet culture driving impatience — give it to me now. Tell me. You get something and somebody will say, Well, can we get it on the website at noon? And the answer is no. [Laughs.] And so, in writing a book, you have to kind of withdraw from the process of the daily news coverage — which I love and have immense respect, reverence for — in order to keep working the case and the specific scenes and information and finding people and going to see them and staying in their home. It helps to get in their home. People feel more confident in their home. “Do you have any documents?” “No.” “Any notes?” “No.” Well, nobody’s ever worked in the White House that didn’t take something home. And then on the third visit, you say, any documents really, you know, would help. “Well, let me go upstairs and see.” And then coming down, literally, [with] two boxes. And from zero documentation to two boxes. Now those are the moments you feel good about the process — which is a process of delay, patience, and trust, and people know I still work for the Post and they see it doesn’t appear in the paper.

I have a kind of minor logistical question for you. So in your conversation with the president out there, you’re talking about your process by which you request an interview with him. You say you went to Kellyanne [Conway], you went to Raj Shah. You went through Lindsey Graham.
And three other people which we never got to.

I was just curious: Did you try to go through the regular channel of requesting it through Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Not that it’s so easy.
Yeah, I’ve tried even Lindsey Graham, which is the one he acknowledged, though Kellyanne kind of acknowledged.

Kellyanne said she didn’t bring the request directly to him, correct?
Yeah, yeah.

But she’s …
And he said, “You should have told me!” And … then he said, “People are afraid.” That’s the title of the book. [Laughs.]

It could have been called “People Are Afraid.”
Well, it could have been called lots of things. But that’s out of his mouth about …

That interview. One more question …
Sure.

I was curious what you thought of Fire and Fury. You referenced it in the book, but …
Yeah. I think, just a different style and it got some of the sociology right about the relationships but there … the scenes that are with Roger Ailes or with Rupert Murdoch. It’s basically devoid of the decision-making and process matters. And sometimes there’s a process, sometimes there’s not a process, which I try to describe. And I thought that, you know, that was not the focus of his book.

Did you find it to be a credible book?
I mean, as they say, I think it got the sociology largely right. The relationships and so forth. But 50 years from now what’s going to be important about the Trump presidency is what he does or doesn’t do. And if I’m right, as I believe I am, it’s a nervous breakdown.

What does that mean? Do you use that phrase …
Exactly what’s on display there, nervous breakdown. Things are not connected. There is not … there is impulse, decisions. I think that the most ardent Trump supporter could read the book and not feel comfortable about the management and the staying the course. There’s not a team. You know, it’s a team of predators, or people who just disagree with the president.

How did you decide to describe it as a nervous breakdown? I was speaking yesterday to someone who is very close to the president and a strong supporter of his, and they were taking issue with that phrase. And I was curious because it is a divisive way of explaining the book.
I think it’s accurate. And I think it’s demonstrated.

Is that your assessment or did it come from somebody else in your reporting?
No, no, this is kind of what I got. What’s the summary here? Nervous breakdown.

Does that not imply that there was a time when it was not broken down? When the Trump presidency was not in disarray the way it is according to your book?
I’m describing what happened. At first, I think it covers the first 15 months of his presidency. And I think it’s an accurate summary. Time and time again, you know, John Kelly puts out these memos: “We’re going to have a process, no more seat-of-the-pants decisions, everything has to be …” [Laughs.] You’re smiling, because you’ve covered the White House. And that “we will have a formal decision memo, signed on everything,” and then time and time again, the president goes off … calling the steel executives and deciding we’re imposing tariffs. Steel tariffs! Which [to] everyone but Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross … makes no sense.

There were times that I was reading it where I thought that I don’t know if I would necessarily trust the principal who appeared to be telling you something. That was mostly with the campaign stuff — but I’m not going to explain reporting to you.
A number of people have said they’ve heard some of these things off the record. Of course that’s the technique people use: “Oh, that’s off the record, we’re going to seal it away,” and not let the public know. And people would say, I want to say this off the record. I said no. No off the record.

I think reporters have been so liberal in granting anonymity that officials are shocked when you say no. Did you find that?
Yeah. But not shocked — but would then tell anyway.

Yes!
And be background so I could use it.

They don’t put up a fight.
But see then, this isn’t anonymity. This is really the source is confidential but the information and the players are not. So it’s …

Anonymity, even if they’re not removing themselves from the scene …
Well, it’s the wrong word. Because it suggests to people, oh, maybe the reporter doesn’t even know.

Well, people are stupid, though, right?
No, no, I think people are actually smart.

Wow, really?
Yeah!

Interesting.
I think so. And it’s part of the optimism. I need to go, I’m sorry — you’re nice to come by.

Interview With Fear Author Bob Woodward