Bob Woodward joined me Friday morning to discuss his new book “Fear”:
HH: I’m joined now by Bob Woodward, author of the brand-new book, Fear. And I have read every word of it, Bob. Welcome back, it’s good to have you.
BW: Thank you.
HH: Evelyn Duffy, your assistant, begins the book. Elsa Walsh, your wife, ends it, the kindness lady. So you bookend your book with these two ladies in the era of #MeToo. The sort of graciousness and appreciation of these two women is welcome, my hat tip to you.
BW: Well, no, they’ve worked, I mean, they’ve lived their lives around getting this book out and getting it right and checking everything. And you know, it is, as I say, Evelyn was in spirit and level of effort a co-author.
HH: Well, it’s just a wonderful way to begin and end. Now only one process question from me. Everyone spends time talking to Bob Woodward about process. I only have one process question, then we’ll go to the book. If all, if one of your sources who you have taped comes forward and publicly asks you to release those tapes, would you do so?
BW: Well, yes, I think, yes. I think I would. But I, you know, this is meticulously done trying to cross-reference everything and so forth. So I would expect of somebody would not want to release their information, because they’re confidential sources. And as you know, I protect my sources. I think that’s the, one of the building blocks of good journalism and book writing.
HH: Yeah, but I just think people who have been critical of you in the public, all they have to do is say hey, release my tapes, Bob, and we’ll find out whether Gary Cohn said what he said, and John Dowd said what he said, and Rob Porter said what they said. Now let’s get to the substance. I believe that if the president had actually read this book, and their team had read this book, they would not have attacked the book. They would have spun it differently, because there’s a lot complimentary in this book, the most important of which is John Dowd firmly believes, the president’s former lawyer, that the special counsel, Bob Mueller, has nothing. There’s no collusion, there’s nothing. It’s all a play to get an 18 USC 1001 perjury trap, and that POTUS should never sit down. Is that a fair assessment of what John Dowd believes?
BW: Oh, well, yeah, until we end. And finally, it, the point where Dowd resigns because he is convinced the president should not testify, Dowd concludes that Mueller had played him for a sucker, got all of the cooperation of 37 witnesses, a million pages-plus of campaign documents, 20,000 pages of White House documents. So in the end, as he says to the president, he said you were right. We can’t trust Mueller.
HH: And I tell you, Bob Woodward, I read this book as a lawyer. I’m not a defense lawyer, although I was at Justice. Dowd got played badly. Do you agree?
BW: Well, but he is the one who decided on the strategy – total cooperation. We’re going to let you, we’re opening the door completely. And some of the most sensitive material was given to Mueller. He was delighted to have it. It is quite true that Dowd concluded from his own work, remember, he spent eight months on this intensely, time with Mueller, time with the White House people, time with Trump. And he didn’t see anything there until the end.
HH: So let’s set aside the Comey firing, which as a Constitutional law professor, no one will ever persuade me can be obstruction. And Rod Rosenstein has laid out reasons why even if those weren’t the president’s reasons. Set aside the Comey firing. Did you, Bob Woodward, hear anything in your research in your interviews that sounded like espionage or collusion?
BW: I did not, and of course, I looked for it, looked for it hard. And so you know, there we are. We’re going to see what Mueller has, and Dowd may be right. He has something that Dowd and the president don’t know about, a secret witness or somebody who has changed their testimony. As you know, that often happens, and that can break open or turn a case.
HH: But you’ve seen no collusion?
BW: I have not.
HH: Let’s go to the surprises in the book. So much has not been reported about Fear. I want to tell you the most surprising thing, Page 132. “Russia had privately warned Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, that if there was a war in the Baltics, Russia would not hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons against NATO.” All right, Bob Woodward, that’s a headline. Has anyone picked up on that?
BW: They have not, very, very significant. And it’s part of the argument that President Trump and Dowd make, namely that this investigation, the Mueller investigation, is tying the president’s hands in being president. And he cites some examples, and that’s one of them. And of course, that’s pretty frightening.
HH: It is. Russia has never before threatened to use tacs, tactical nuclear weapons, against NATO since Russia became Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So that’s news breaking.
BW: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t know whether this was the only time, but this time, it did happen. And of course, the Secretary of Defense was mightily concerned.
HH: Another headline not reported. John Brennan, former CIA director, vociferous critic of President Trump, wanted to assassinate Kim Jung Un in a way that didn’t look like an assassination. You called it not regime change, but man change. Again, I don’t see anyone else who’s covered that.
BW: Well, he didn’t, what he did is presented it as an option. This is something you can do, and as the book reports in some detail, President Obama in his last months in office ordered the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies to look at the question, suppose we conducted a preemptive strike on North Korea, could we eliminate all of Kim Jung Un’s nuclear weapons? And they concluded they could not get them all, maybe 85, maybe 90%. And so Obama, I think quite rightly, concluded this won’t work. And one nuclear weapon going off anywhere would change history, because we had not had that since World War II.
HH: Some of the best reporting in the book is about O Plan 5027. This is the plan for the preemptive strike on North Korea put together for President Obama that he reviewed. And the 2017 drills, exercises, were not secure. Civilians picked up the chatter on the low-level bombing runs. I was stunned by that.
BW: Yes, I mean, this is, they were really working options. And as you well know, that’s the job of the Pentagon, of the intelligence people, and ultimately of the president.
HH: Page 98, a source tells you that President Obama and his team, they’ve been hiding the problem. That’s a quote about North Korea. They’ve been hiding the problem from the American people. Pretty devastating assessment. How good is that source?
BW: Couldn’t be better. And you know, they did. But at the end, or as we know now publicly, President Obama said to President Trump, it’s North Korea that will keep you up at night.
HH: But they’ve been hiding that from us. It’s just great reporting. Now your assessment, your analysis on Page 236. You start at 100 points with President Trump. The closer you are, the further away you get. I think that’s very astute, Bob Woodward, that you kind of run through your credit with him, and then you’re depleted. And like Rex Tillerson or Reince Priebus, you go, even though Reince is still close to him and talks to him a lot.
BW: Yes, exactly. And it, he uses people. Now look, all presidents use people, but there is a kind of insulting tone often. I mean, it’s not just been a tone. He insults people. And I think if you’re looking for what’s this book about, it’s about mismanaging the presidency, that so often I was struck by just the simple fact that Trump would do things that are not in his own interest if he would just kind of have advisors or listen and count to ten. And so what’s the, what is one of the realities of the Trump presidency? There’s a war on truth. We see it now in his statements about Puerto Rico. It’s not in his interest to make these claims.
HH: Although if he were not using what Conrad Black called, Lord Black calls is truthful hyperbole, and in the Art Of The Deal, he emphasizes exaggerations, he wouldn’t be Trump. And if he wasn’t Trump, he wouldn’t have gotten done what he’s gotten. Now the good side of Trump, I told people last night in a live audience, if you read Woodward’s book, you’re going to find two Trumps. There’s good Trump and bad Trump. And good Trump, as a guy who says on Page 193, that’s the only way I can be true to my base. He keeps his promises. He got out of the Paris deal, which I applaud. He gets out of the trade deals, which I criticize. But he was very strategic. Your accounting on Page 267, taxes first, then trade. Had a long argument, had to be true on the trade stuff, but he was going to get taxes done first. That’s very strategic, Bob Woodward.
BW: Yes, but often, there’s no strategy. For instance, the issue of China and trade violations. He had the chance to mobilize the world against China, but he went off on his own. And the whole plan was let’s do this, let’s get our allies, let’s get Europe, let’s get literally the world, and the world knows China cheats on trade. And there was a failure to mobilize that, and then he just went off on his own. And again, this is a case of him doing things that just are not in his interests, not in the country’s interests.
HH: But he has a core belief. I’ll come back to the Afghanistan conversations. I am glad we’re in Afghanistan. I think it’s a forward operating base in the world close to Pakistan and its nukes. I don’t want to leave. But President Trump has not been persuaded by many, many different advisors. And on Page 257, he said we’ve lost all these lives. We’ve spent all this money. You know, it sounded to me like the recollections that Kennedy was having about Vietnam, and maybe clarity that no other president has had about the graveyard of empires, Bob Woodward.
BW: Well, he makes his argument, but then he gives into the generals who want several thousand more troops. They changed the rules of engagement. They do things, key maneuver, a key part of Trump’s strategy on this is we are not going to announce the number of troops that we have, so that so much of the coverage of the Afghan war and going back to 2001 was that, the debate of how many troops are going on, how many troops are coming out. And he and Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, just said nope, we’re not doing that anymore. At the same time, there is a meeting, July 19th of last year on Afghanistan where the president berates the generals…
HH: In the tank.
HH: In the tank? Is that the one you described in the tank at the Pentagon?
BW: No, no, this was a day before the tank meeting. And the president says the soldiers on the ground could run things better than you. There’s a 25-minute dressing down of the generals. Trump says well, why can’t we hire mercenaries to do this? I mean, you know the trap of hiring mercenaries. And then Mattis says to the president, we need to know if the commander-in-chief is fully with us or not. We can’t fight a half-assed war anymore.
HH: Mattis comes off very well in this book, as does a number of other people, Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel, Pence. Let me say to you, though, there’s a Iago and there’s a Loki. The god of mischief in the White House is Peter Navarro. Now I’ve known him for 20 years, Bob Woodward. He’s affable, he’s completely amiable. He’s very seductive, and he’s a quack. And if you line up 100 economists, 100 trade economists, and 99 of them say A, he’ll say B. And that, to me, is like if you have 100 cancer oncologists and they say treat your cancer this way, and one guy says laetrile, well, that’s the equivalent of Peter Navarro. And I think Gary Cohn said he is the source of all, or no, John Kelly. Peter Navarro is the source of all the chaos in the White House, right?
BW: Yes. And central to understanding Peter Navarro’s role, he believes very much, like the president, and Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary, that these trade deficits with other countries are a disaster. And any, as you say, if you line up 100 economists, and 99 of them are going to say actually, the trade deficits benefit people in the United States, because we are buying things abroad cheaper, better quality. If they weren’t cheaper, if they weren’t better quality in the marketplace, they would not, they would not be bought. They would not be competitive. And this actually is something, these trade deficits help Americans. I don’t know whether you would agree with this, economically, but they do, because they have more money to spend on other things. They also have money to save, which is crucial, as you know, to…
HH: Bob, I do agree with that, although I think the president intuits that the trade deficit is a proxy for a calculation of power and balance, and that as a proxy for power and balance, a trade deficit is sort of a warning sign that the power and balance is occurring because of bad deals. That’s his intuition. I don’t think he’s right, economically. He might be right, geopolitically.
BW: That’s very abstract, Hugh.
HH: It is very abstract, but I think that’s his gut.
BW: I mean, and as we know, Trump does not think abstractly.
HH: But his gut does. I mean, I think he’s much more of an instinctual leader than anybody gets. Now let me go, let me get to some other stuff here. I don’t want to run out of time.
BW: Okay, you really went through this, Hugh.
HH: Oh, I’ve got so many notes. It’s obvious to me, you don’t have to confirm or deny it, that the people who didn’t talk to you are Pence, Pompeo, Tom Cotton, John Bolton, Jim Mattis and Gina Haspel, and therefore the president can trust those people. But one guy who did talk to you is Tillerson. And I’ve got to say, the portrait of Rex Tillerson is he was a disaster. How could you not tell your national security advisor about Qatar? I mean, how could you not tell McMaster that you’re doing that?
BW: That you’re doing that to people, because that is one of the shocking things. Tillerson goes off on his own. The Qatar, the oil-rich, very small country in the Middle East, very important because of all the oil wealth they have, he goes off and makes a deal, signs a memo of understanding with the Qatar foreign minister on terrorism and the financing, and attacking the financing of terrorism, very important. Literally…
BW: The National Security Advisor learns about this from reading it in the press. And you know, how do you do this? There’s no, there is this kind of, as McMaster says to people in the White House, said he’s trying to cooperate and do what the president wants. They’re, Tillerson and Mattis, who were as they are called the team of two, would often go off on their own. And there is a confrontation in the Chief of Staff’s office, which I think is one of the critical moments where McMaster comes in. It’s supposed to be review between Priebus and Tillerson, and sits there and just unleashes and says you are undermining the whole national security process to Tillerson, and Tillerson makes it very, very clear he runs the State Department, don’t contact anyone, don’t even contact, you’re not going to get any approval on anything from his chief of staff. You had to do it directly with him.
HH: You know, and what’s amazing, Tillerson was such a bad secretary. Nice man, but a bad secretary of State, he has no strategic grasp, no vision, whereas the guy who had it right? Jared Kushner. You write about this as length. He called the shot on MBS, the new leader of Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince. He called that shot.
BW: Didn’t he? I mean, all by himself, essentially. And there’s a meeting that, top cabinet people, and they’re all saying oh, no, this guy, you know, all the intel people are saying MBS, who was then-deputy crown prince, is not the person to deal with. And Jared Kushner, who has good contacts through Israeli intelligence, by the way, which his critical here, says well, let’s try it. And the whole summit in Saudi Arabia, President Trump’s first visit abroad, was to Saudi Arabia. And they set up a team, United States-Saudi Arabia, the Gulf cooperation council countries, and Israel. And it’s all about thwarting Iran.
HH: And boy, does Fear, my highest compliment to Fear is you lay out the reality of Iran, because obviously, people around Mattis have talked to you. And Mattis gets Iran. He knows Soleimani is a threat. The president gets Iran because of Mattis and because of Jared. They understand it. They know that that is a rogue regime, and the JCPOA is not to be trusted. What do you make, by the way, John Kerry was my guest two days ago, he admitted that he’s been holding meetings with Zarif since leaving office, three or four, maybe more. What do you make of that?
BW: And tell people who Zarif is, so remind me.
HH: He’s the foreign minister of Iran.
HH: Yeah. So I was out at the Aspen Security Forum, Bob Woodward, and Ali Shahabi, who is the head of the Arabia Institute, stood up and said the Iranians seized our sailors under President Obama. They won’t even come near your boats under Donald Trump. That’s true, isn’t it?
BW: Well, yes. And Trump has made it clear he’s going to be tough. If you look back on the Obama presidency, he just wasn’t tough enough. David Cameron, when he was British Prime Minister, I talked to him about Obama, and while Obama was president. And he said I like him, he’s so smart, but no one’s afraid of him. And you cannot operate in the world of Assad’s and Putin’s and you name the thugs around the world…
HH: Khamenei, Assad, Putin. Those are the big three.
BW: Yeah, and you’ve got to be tough with these people. And…
HH: So Bob Woodward, this leads me to the assessment of Fear. I want to air drop hundreds of copies in every foreign embassy, because it underscores the madman theory attributed to Nixon, my old boss, and your old adversary, that people around the world have got to think the guy in the White House is a little bit nuts. That sets up a strategic advantage. I think Fear underscores you cannot reliably predict what Donald Trump will do, and you’d better not cross him. Fair?
BW: Yes, you can look at, but you also have to manage. And this is a management disaster. And that’s why I say there is a nervous breakdown of the executive power. There is, and you, too many people, and I spent a year and a half, almost two years of my life on this, immersed, spending hundreds of hours with the people dealing with the president, and on the national security issues. We haven’t got to the economic issues in detail. People are there, we don’t know what he’s going to order. We don’t know what he’s going to do. And as you know, you can’t run the presidency on impulses. You can’t run it out of the back of your pocket.
HH: And he’s susceptible to quacks like Navarro. That’s what makes me most upset, and Bannon, who is Iago. Bannon comes off as a very malignant force in this White House. You know, Reince Priebus comes off as the angel of light, and Bannon is around playing to the president’s worst instincts, and I’m glad he’s gone. I’ve talked to him once in my life. I don’t know him. But I want to get to just a couple more things before I run out of time with you.
HH: His branding, he wanted to call the tax cut bill, this is in your book, Fear, the cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut cut bill. And you know what? If they had done that, it would be better branded than it is today. But they wouldn’t listen to him, Bob Woodward.
BW: Well, and the they is Congress.
HH: Yes, Paul Ryan and, yeah.
BW: Yeah, they were doing to do it their way. The tax cut, I have a whole chapter on this. And as I point out, you have five conservative Republicans on the Hill, and Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman-Sachs. This is the Democrats’ nightmare. They are the ones that made this tax bill. And it gives to the average person a few hundred dollar tax break here and there, which will expire in a couple of years. And the big people, the big corporations, got away with permanent tax cuts, right?
HH: And I think that’s good for the economy. So I’m not going to…
HH: But that’s true. It’s very well-chronicled. Two last things I want to cover with you. I love Lindsey Graham. He’s like the best radio guest after Trump. Trump’s the best radio guest in the world. Lindsey is funny as hell. But he’s also a political theorist. On Page 121, he explained to the president, good versus evil is the story of the world. It’s never over. It’s never in doubt. Lindsey is actually kind of a balancing wheel for the president.
BW: Yes. I mean, there is such wisdom out of Lindsey Graham’s mouth, and that’s one example, because the president, like all leaders, as you know, when is it going to not become dangerous? And Lindsey Graham says it’s always going to be dangerous. Don’t kid yourself.
HH: And then finally, this is the high, and I made lots of notes on the book. It’s a great read, by the way.
BW: Thank you.
HH: And the thing that comes through is the people around Trump who are most upset are those who are most invested in the world, post-World War II rule of law world order, the old rules, the old World Bank rules, trade agreements, people who believe in the ordered institutions of post-World War II modernity. George Schultz has articulated this to my personally at the time. And Trump does not believe this. And I am here to say, you know, 1913 arrived, and no one knew that the old rules weren’t going to work anymore. Maybe Trump has intuited that the world order of the post-World War II era is over, Bob Woodward.
BW: Yes, but if you take that meeting in the tank last year, which I think is a window on the war that’s going on, you have to, when you become president you inherit this framework. Like Mattis says to the president in this meeting, the great gift of the Greatest Generation is this rules-based international democratic order. And Tillerson says this is what’s kept the peace for 70 years, and they’re right. And Trump is saying it’s all B.S. And you have to, if you move into a house and you’re going to have to live there, you can’t burn it down and break all the furniture.
HH: Unless it’s about to fall down. Here’s my premise. I don’t know if it’s true.
HH: China is not playing by that rules-based system. They’re building artificial islands. They’re buying Africa. They’re using diplomacy by debt. Maybe Trump’s the first guy to recognize that if the, your near-peer competitor isn’t playing by the rules, the rules don’t mean a damn thing.
BW: Okay, but you have to live in that house of the old order. You can change it, but, and presidents have changed it. My God, look at the history of the presidency pivoting. But you can’t come in and break all the china and all the furniture. You have to somehow find a way to say okay, this is the old order, I understand it, we’re going to change. And the three pillars of that old order are the trade deals, the security arrangements like NATO or the security arrangements where we keep 28,000 troops in South Korea. That’s a lot. And then the third pillar which we don’t see much about are the top secret intelligence partnerships. And those are a big deal, and people like Mattis, like Gary Cohn, were almost broke out in hives when they discovered that the president wanted to get out of that South Korean trade deal, which is part of the whole, the special, you know about this, special access programs that are actually…
HH: Sure, the Five Eyes, the Five Eyes, yeah.
BW: Yeah, but that these are the things that buy a degree of security that’s central to the survival in, you know, of this country, very, very important.
HH: I agree.
BW: And you can’t come in and just break it all up and say I want change. Change, effective change, needs to include a very rational process, and you can’t do it in a week.
HH: It wasn’t, and again, Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman, a big Mattis, Mattis, a big Barbara Tuchman fan, sometimes those rules change overnight and you don’t know it. I’ve got to say once a week now, John Bolton, Jim Mattis and Mike Pompeo are sitting down to talk about the world. I can’t think of three better people. And I love Bolton, I love Pompeo. I think the president has great confidence in all three of those. But outside of the White House, all is calm and managed by pros. Who do you think replaces, after you’ve done all this, who do you think should replace Kelly, who is clearly at the end of his 100 points, so that you bring the most order possible?
BW: Well, I, you know, I don’t, that’s out of my lane. My lane here is to report as scrupulously as I can, and find out what happened. And you have the political system out there that’s either going to deal with the reality of Trump or not. But I’m, I’ve done this for 47 years. This is the ninth president I’ve done work on for the Washington Post or in books, and it’s 20% of the presidents we’ve had. And I’ve never seen anything like this. This is high risk, and let there be a crisis. You have to have a team if there’s a crisis. Look at 9/11, the response to it, and Afghanistan, and in the intelligence world. You look back on it now from 2018, and it worked. We didn’t have, we have not had another major terrorist attack in the United States.
HH: Well, I do trust Pompeo, Bolton and Mattis. Let me ask you to conclude, though. You covered all these presidents. You’ve been covering the intel community for a long time, sometimes controversially. It is clear in Fear that you believe the intelligence community failed the president-elect, in fact that it acted irresponsibly. You criticize Comey for including that annex. You criticize the Bureau for producing that intelligence. I don’t know that anyone inside the White House knows how severe a critic you are of the intel community during the transition. I mean, you are hard on them, Bob Woodward.
BW: Yes, but they, the idea that a summary of that dossier you present to the president two weeks before, well, he was president-elect, and he’s two weeks away from the inauguration, I know for a fact from reporting back in the Clinton days, Bernie Nussbaum, who was the White House counsel, when they brought stuff like that, I call it garbage, you know what Bernie Nussbaum did? You know, he was Clinton’s guy, and you can imagine the stuff that might have been coming in on Clinton. Bernie Nussbaum put it in the burn bag. He said you know, let’s let things roll on. Let’s let, and the president was quite alarmed at that, and I think it set the tone, the relationship he had with the intelligence community. And at one point, he said you know, I just don’t believe these human sources. These are people who sold out their community, or their country. And yes, I am. I think that was a giant mistake.
BW: At the same time…
HH: That’s the best part of the book in terms of, I mean, if the Trump people had read the book, they would have seized on that. Very last question, Bob Woodward, I just want to confirm, at the end of two years of writing this book, this intensive effort, you saw no effort, you, personally, had no evidence of collusion or espionage by the president presented to you?
BW: That is correct. But here’s what’s important. You know where the answer to that is? See, I do on the ground reporting with real people, documents, notes, diaries. The answer to that question, where does it lie, not in the United States. It lies in Russia. And if Russia weren’t Russia, I’d go there and try to report on this. But if I went there.
HH: You might not come back, Bob Woodward.
BW: Not may not, I wouldn’t come back.
HH: You wouldn’t come back.
BW: And so this is, this is a really, always go, they always, the joke about the bank. You know, they robbed the bank, because that’s where the money is. As a reporter, you need to go where the information is. And in this case, the answer is in Russia. And it’s out of the reach of journalists. The intel community, their report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, I think, is quite strong and good and well-based. But they, you know, they can do things that reporters can’t do. So you’re right. I found none, but I didn’t spend a year in Russia doing the kind of reporting that would have to be done to make an assessment.
HH: Bob Woodward, Fear is a great read. I appreciate you taking the time with me today.
BW: Thank you. Good talking to you.
End of interview.