Julia Azari: What did you want to get out of this book? What, in general, did you get out of it?
Seth Masket: In some ways, I didn’t learn a ton that was new. It added some details to an impression that I think most of us already had about this White House.
But one of the things I wanted to understand was how senior staffers think about their own role in this White House. Do they think Trump is good at this? Do they think he’s bad and are just trying to keep him from going off the rails? I think the book was good on this front.
You’ve read a lot more presidential biographies than I have. What was your overall impression of this?
JA: I taught a whole course on political biographies once. Well, a one-credit course. And I started that course with David Foster Wallace’s essay on John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid. This is obviously a very different thing on multiple dimensions, though it’s a piece I’ve been thinking about some lately. It’s not really about staff, but it delves deeply into outsiderdom and political authenticity as themes. Woodward doesn’t necessarily frame the book this way, but those are important elements here as well.
Who is Trump, really, behind the scenes, and how did his political outsider status factor into various parts of how things work in the White House?
DFW sort of concludes that authenticity is a performance, even with someone whose character, like McCain’s, is demonstrable in other things we know about him.
Obviously Trump is a much different person, but one thing that struck me was the lack of performance in a certain way. Like, Trump’s public and private personas aren’t that different.
SM: I agree. I came away from Fear thinking that Trump’s behavior is less performative than most politicians’ behavior. That is, he sounded in his private conversations a lot like he does at his rallies, or during TV interviews, or in debates. Scattered, distracted, emphatic, etc.
He’ll be like, “I think this thing.” Then someone brings up a different consideration, and he takes up that opinion: “Wait, I think the other thing too!”
It’s a pretty common conversation to have with someone who doesn’t follow politics much.
SM: I’ve seen some Twitter/Facebook conversations, although I don’t know if anyone’s written up something serious. But it seems like the right read. Pretty much everything public opinion scholars have been saying about the average American voter for the past five decades is a great description of Trump.
JA: The outsiderdom thing seems worth talking about here too. Most politicians who try to depict themselves as outsiders are asking us to forget their long political careers (McCain, Bernie Sanders). Trump is really an outsider, and, per your comment about average voters, that really comes out in Fear.
SM: Yes. Not just because he doesn’t have a lot of ties in DC or a very polished DC manner. But also he seems… how to say this politely… almost completely innocent of political instinct or knowledge. And he’s determined not to learn anything new on this front.
JA: Yeah. The book makes a point to emphasize his lack of knowledge of how the treasury works or how national security works.
SM: I’ve written in the past that Trump is kind of a real-life version of “Dave,” and he’s showing the downsides of what’s basically a comedy conceit. It turns out it is possible to get someone in office who truly knows nothing about how government works. In the movie, Dave is able to do a considerable number of things (like balance the federal budget!) in part because he’s not bogged down by political knowledge and alliances. But there are important institutional limits, as well.
Anyway, this brings me to one of the questions we’d discussed beforehand: How does Fear portray power in the White House? Who’s in charge here?
JA: This question is destined for a presidency final exam, and it gets to one of the ideas that Richard Neustadt wrote about in his classic Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. Even presidential orders are not exactly self-executing. He can give them but someone needs to physically carry them out. And those people are the ones who have power in the White House depicted in the book. Rob Porter in particular.
SM: Yes. The book opens with an example of senior staff basically disappearing some material from Trump’s desk to keep his wishes from becoming policy.
This is, to some extent, not great for democracy, right? A president runs on an agenda and then tries to implement it but is thwarted by advisors. This isn’t even inter-branch checks-and-balances. These are loyal Trump appointees who nonetheless believe that enacting his agenda would be dangerous for the world. How are we supposed to process this?
JA: Yeah, and there was a lot of discussion of that following the publication of the book and then the infamous New York Times op-ed.
The thing is, this is actually not that new a question. This seems to happen frequently with Republican administrations, but there’s this question about who’s really in charge.
Here the comparison with a couple other inside the administration books is useful. One is Fred Greenstein’s book The Hidden-Hand Presidency, which took advantage of newly opened files in the Eisenhower archives to see if Ike was really as hands-off as people thought. He wasn’t.
He was better versed in policy, more immersed in details, and more politically calculating than many people had thought.
SM: This is a good point. We’ve understood for a long time that elections don’t just pick a president, but a presidential team, who are easily as important. But somehow this seems more urgent in a Trump administration. Perhaps because his own preferences appear so chaotic.
JA: With Fear, we get the opposite: a sense that people who are really, for the most part, outside of the public eye and Senate confirmation process and any semblance of accountability are, well, the deciders.
SM: And yet Trump has a tool Ike lacked: Twitter. We saw a few examples in the book where Trump clearly wanted something, whether it was a change in military policies on transgendered soldiers, or a more aggressive stance toward North Korea, or undermining trade pacts, etc., and his staff was trying to rein him in. Except that sometimes he would just tweet his preferences and form policy that way.
JA: The other point of contrast is Scott McClellan’s book What Happened. McClellan was press secretary in the Bush White House, and one of the things that’s really striking in his book about that White House is how top-down it was.
SM: I haven’t read that one, but this sounds right.
JA: Yeah. So Trump couldn’t make his staff end trade relations with South Korea — they could scuttle that by taking paper off his desk — but he could make them respond by tweeting things. This is the thing with Trump. Matt Glassman and Jonathan Bernstein have written quite a bit about his weakness in a Neustadtian sense, but everyone is always responding to him.
SM: That was Giuliani’s definition of leadership, right? He acts, and everyone else reacts.
JA: in the book? or in general?
SM: Both, I suppose. But that’s a fairly broad, and irresponsible, conception of leadership. It would also apply to a terrorist or a colicky baby.
JA: Oh yeah, in no way do I think that constitutes leadership. Influence yes.
I want to get to one of our other questions: Does anyone come off well in this book? Is anyone moral or principled?
SM: So clearly one of the figures that gave the most time to Woodward was [former Trump economics adviser] Gary Cohn. I was so puzzled by him. He really does seem to take a lot of time to try to explain to Trump how federal economic policies work and, indeed, how the economy works. But there was a moment after [white nationalist protests and violence in] Charlottesville, Virginia — which plays a large role in this book — where Cohn was so irate about Trump’s “good people on both sides” comments that he apparently considered a principled resignation and went to Trump with it.
And somehow Trump convinced him to stay on board. But then Cohn resigns later over a process dispute over tariffs.
I certainly felt I understood Cohn’s frustrations in that moment. But it seems like he lost a lot of moral standing by staying when he did and leaving when he did.
There’s a similar moment with former Trump lawyer John Dowd. Dowd comes off giving strong legal advice toward the end of the book trying to talk Trump out of meeting with Mueller. But he never says to Trump his main reason motivating the advice: He is certain that Trump will lie under oath.
I was really struck by the lack of principled resignations. I suppose anyone really bothered by Trump’s day-to-day behavior or the casual bigotry wouldn’t have gone to work for him in the first place. But to a remarkable degree, Trump’s team has stayed in place even when they suggest they’re dealing with significant moral quandaries.
JA: Didn’t he tell Trump not to testify because he “wasn’t a good witness”?
SM: Yes, but it was couched in, “The presidency is really a lot of mental work, and you might forget stuff and look bad,” rather than, “You have a tendency to lie a lot.”
JA: Do you think Charlottesville is the biggest moral quandary in the book?
SM: It seemed to me that there were two major moral quandaries. One was Charlottesville. I had forgotten how many prominent Republicans had distanced themselves from Trump on that one. The other was the Access Hollywood tape, which was of course during the campaign. And again with that one, a lot of GOP leaders backed away from Trump.
JA: “Backed away/distanced” is good language to use. Not separated in any meaningful sense.
SM: What’s interesting in the book’s account is that people in the inner circle in the campaign, including, I think, Reince Priebus, basically said Trump had to quit after the Access Hollywood tape came out. They saw House Speaker Paul Ryan and others pulling their support, and they said, “It’s over,” and said Trump had to drop out. Allegedly, Mike Pence was already on board to head the ticket and tap Condi Rice as VP!
It amazes me how many things are just assumed to be “what has to happen now.” And it turns out if the candidate refuses to do it, it needn’t happen. Trump simply refused to drop out. The polls didn’t move much, and most of the GOP came back to him.
JA: Between this and Donna Brazile’s book, maybe we should empower parties to do more in the event of late-breaking crises (when she talks about thinking about replacing Hillary Clinton after her health issues in September 2016).
SM: Yeah, but we also saw the constraints on her. If Priebus had somehow had the power to simply remove the presidential nominee and replace him with someone else in October 2016, is there any way he actually does it? I really doubt it.
Did anyone else come off as principled to you? I’m curious what you thought of Bannon.
JA: Let me preface by saying I think the things Bannon stands for are truly repugnant. But he comes off as weirdly refreshing in this book — like he’s the person who calls out the bullshit and tries to articulate some kind of consistent political project. The way this is presented, alongside the Charlottesville story, kind of highlights — perhaps unintentionally — how unequipped mainstream politics and mainstream journalism are to deal with the likes of Bannon, the alt-right/neo-Nazis, etc.
SM: I agree with this.
JA: I think Bannon asking David Bossie “president of what country” upon hearing the news that Trump wants to run, is my favorite line of the whole book and that really makes me feel some kind of way.
SM: He comes off as the closest in this book to the person who “makes” the president, the person who spots a potential political talent several years out and thinks his message can resonate with the anti-immigration crowd. I think Kellyanne Conway played a similar role but she’s kind of related to the background in this book.
JA: Also, what is coming out of this discussion is that the people who dislike racism aren’t really willing to stand up for principles, but the people who embrace it are.
SM: Yes, that is a very good summation.
JA: There are not very many women in this book. Hope Hicks and Kellyanne Conway and Melania and Ivanka are all pretty marginal.
SM: I mean, there are not very many women in this White House. But more than show up in the book! That could be a function of who gave interviews and who didn’t, or narrative choices by Woodward, or something else.
JA: We haven’t really gotten into this, which probably reveals our own bias toward what we know (communications, party politics), but a lot of the book is military and security strategy.
JA: Where there aren’t very many women. There are a lot of people who express deep skepticism about Trump, even while working for him (most of whom have denied it publicly).
SM: I suppose White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is a pretty important figure in this regard. We see Trump’s instinctive deference to anyone in a military uniform. But also Kelly’s pretty obvious frustrations with someone who’s willing to throw away alliances and important military advantages simply because he has an idea that America’s allies are “taking advantage” of the US.
JA: Yes, that pretty much sums up the contradiction.
But we need to wrap up. Final thoughts?
SM: Whether we’re talking about military or economic policy, we see a lot of the same dynamic. Trump has a worldview shared by almost no one in DC: Trade is bad, allies are moochers, the US economy is all about manufacturing, etc. And his advisers try at great length to disabuse him of these notions, and he refuses to learn. So they undermine him.
Does that sound right?
JA: It does, but I’m not sure how to articulate my final thought.
SM: I’ll ask a final question. Should we feel reassured that there’s an unelected group of advisors trying to protect the president, and us, from his most dangerous instincts?
JA: I guess that’s better than unchecked dangerous instincts. But I don’t think the book is supposed to be reassuring.
The structure of the executive branch only makes sense if the person at the top has both judgment and respect from those who work there. One of those is sometimes missing, to be sure, but not both consistently, I don’t think.
Author: Seth Masket