Famed Journalist Bob Woodward brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon with his reporting on the Watergate scandal. Now he talks to DER SPIEGEL about Donald Trump’s “catastrophic” handling of the coronavirus, the outcome of the coming election and his new book, “Rage.”
Interview Conducted By Roland Nelles
Washington seems dead amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the offices around the White House have been closed, and the few restaurants in the United States capital that have stayed open are usually empty.
Bob Woodward, 77, is also working from home. For decades, he has been among the most important chroniclers of political affairs in the capital. In the early 1970s, he uncovered the Watergate scandal together with his colleague Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post, leading to the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon. He later wrote books about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Woodward has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes.
For his new book, “Rage,” which was just published in German, he interviewed top government figures over a span of 10 months, including President Trump.
Die Lage: USA 2020Ihr wöchentliches Briefing zum Kampf ums Weiße Haus. Unsere US-Korrespondenten berichten für Sie jeden Mittwoch von vor Ort. Der Newsletter zum politischen Ereignis des Jahres.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, DER SPIEGEL spoke to Woodward via telephone.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Woodward, in your book, you conclude that Trump is the wrong man for the job of the presidency. Why?
Woodward: I concluded that the evidence is overwhelming that he failed catastrophically in managing the virus. In a top-secret meeting with his National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and others on Jan. 28, it was laid out to him in the clearest terms that a pandemic was coming, that it was going to be like the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed 675,000 people in this country. Fifty million people died in that pandemic a century ago. And Trump, instead of telling the public about it, covered it up.
DER SPIEGEL: As of now, more than 8 million people have been infected with the virus in the U.S. So far, 217,000 Americans have died.
Woodward: The president could have leveled with the public — particularly at his State of the Union Address on Feb. 4 when talking to Congress — and laid out what’s going on, what’s happening. He only spent, what, 15 seconds on the virus? He said we are doing everything we can. And 40 million people are watching this. He could have said, “I’ve been warned, and we have a major public health crisis coming.” And he did nothing of the kind.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for his behavior?
Woodward: I think, doing all this reporting on him and spending nine hours talking with him just this year, he doesn’t understand his responsibility as president to protect the people, and he doesn’t understand his responsibility to tell the truth. And he does not understand his moral responsibility to carry out the duties of the presidency. I know some Republican senators who agree that Trump is the wrong man for the job but will not say so publicly and are silent. Based on the evidence I had, I was not going to join the ranks of the silent.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump was willing to talk to you for your book, seemingly to explain his view of things. You conducted 18 interviews with him. Sometimes he called you during the night.
Woodward: It was after 10 in the evening.
DER SPIEGEL: You always had a voice recorder with you so that you could record him if he called you unexpectedly.
Woodward: I had to do that. Only once did I not have the machine with me and I couldn’t record him. So, I took notes.
DER SPIEGEL: How did the meetings with Trump in the Oval Office go?
Woodward: The first interview was on Dec. 5, 2019, so that’s last year. And I went in and took my little tape recorder, my Olympus tape recorder. I turned it on, put it down on the Resolute desk and said to him, “This is all on the record for a book that will come out in September and October,” and I repeatedly told him I was recording it. He knew that, acknowledged. I went into the office, and he had pictures of Kim Jong Un there. He had propped in the binder copies of the letters he had exchanged with Kim, and then in the center of the desk, he had these formal appointment orders for judgeships, which are very important to him. And it was kind of like these are the props he has.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump wanted to make an impression on you?
Woodward: He showed me the pictures of Kim Jong Un, which he said were unique. But they were all familiar. The same pictures were everywhere on the internet.
DER SPIEGEL: You write about these letters that Kim Jong Un sent to him that were full of flattery, in which Kim Jong Un called him “Excellency” and once wrote that his relationship with Trump was like a fantasy film. What were you thinking when you read through these letters?
Woodward: Well, I thought this is Trump doing it his way. He told me that all he gave Kim Jong Un was “a fucking meeting.” It was risky. But Trump argues that we have not had a war, and he thought there might be a war at one point. I am not so sure of that. This is something Trump maybe did right. Maybe he did it wrong. We don’t know. Having served in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam, painfully aware of war and its consequences, I have to give Trump some credit, for not having a war.
DER SPIEGEL: There were preparations for a nuclear strike. Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense at the time, went to the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. to pray.
Woodward: What a moment in history that the secretary of defense has to go pray and reflect on his responsibility that in order to protect our country, he may have to incinerate millions of people. It’s chilling.
DER SPIEGEL: There are a lot of interesting scenes in the book where you describe the relationship between Trump and other top officials, including Mattis and Rex Tillerson, the then secretary of state, and then Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. All these people come to the conclusion that this president is a threat to the national security of the United States. Why did they serve under him?
Woodward: Well, he recruited them. All three of them‑‑Mattis, Tillerson, and Coats‑‑were at the end of their careers. He made pledges or implied they were going to have control of their departments and access to him. And this is one of his frauds, one of his broken promises. Trump just ignored them, issued orders by tweet, no organization, no consultation. As Mattis says, it’s government by Trump’s impulse of the moment, dangerous, hazardous, makes no sense. This is a leadership failure.
DER SPIEGEL: You exposed the Watergate scandal. Is Trump in any way comparable to Richard Nixon?
Woodward: Nixon was a criminal, and we wrote that. And it was proven with his secret tape recordings. No one has proven that Trump is a criminal to my satisfaction. Yes, there are lots of questions. There’s the Mueller investigation, the impeachment, but no one ever established criminality on his part. Trump has failed above all to protect the country from the pandemic. In Vietnam, the total number of deaths on the American side was 58,000, and the pandemic will soon have caused four times as many deaths in the U.S. It is the president’s duty to warn the people. Trump did not do that. Instead, he denied and failed to manage the crisis. And there is still no plan.
DER SPIEGEL: Many people would say that democracy is in danger in the United States, and that Trump wants to govern like an autocrat. Do you agree?
Woodward: I write in the book that leadership failed, but democracy is holding on, at least for the moment. He doesn’t go around shutting down the press. No one has raided my offices or home. The free press still operates. We have a functioning electoral system, though he’s attacked that too.
DER SPIEGEL: The polls strongly suggest that Trump is going to lose the election on Nov. 3.
Woodward: Well, it is certainly possible that he is going to win. A number of people think it’s not possible. I don’t believe the polls. I talked to him at some length about this. Are you familiar with Barbara Tuchman’s book, “The Guns of August”?
DER SPIEGEL: … about the outbreak of World War I …
Woodward: … which I talked to Trump about. Barbara Tuchman points out that in Europe before the war, the old order was dying, and people didn’t realize it. And I think in 2016, in this country, the old order was dying. Both parties failed to meet the moment. They didn’t understand the expressed and unexpressed views of the populace. And in an amazing way, Trump intuitively, not intellectually, I believe, but intuitively understood this. And he saw history’s clock in 2016. That’s how he won. I talked to him about it, and he said, “Yes, I did.” And he said he’s going to do it again.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think that Trump is not going to accept the outcome of the election if he doesn’t get elected?
Woodward: Well, he said that, and, you know, he casts suspicion. Here again is the unthinkable. If there’s any responsibility a president has, it’s to ensure the transfer of power, ensure the integrity of the voting process, the most basic right that Americans have, and he’s trampled all over it and said, “We won’t know who’s been elected.” There is an unprecedented level of chaos and disorganization threatening the election.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you worried about your country’s future?
Woodward: Yes. How can you not be worried now? We may have been living in a bubble in this country for hundreds of years. Yes, there have been some extremely difficult and terrible times for Americans. There have been crises like the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam. Now Trump has destroyed any sense of innocence. How do you restore trust in the institutions? I mean in us, for example, the news media. We are mistrusted. We have to acknowledge that.
DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean for you?
Woodward: I learned something that truly surprised me in the last month. The book comes out, and a reporter at CNN, Jamie Gangel, and my wife, Elsa Walsh, persuaded me, “Oh, put out audio of people, conversations with Trump.” And I said, well, you know, it’s in the book. They said, “No. You’ve got to put out the audio so people can hear themselves. People don’t trust the news media, but when they hear it themselves, they’ll accept it” ‑‑ because Trump has the most recognizable voice in the world. People will have heard those and say, “Ah. That’s him. That’s what he’s saying. This is the context.” I think in the end people accepted the truths in this book also because they heard these recordings of the conversations. Nobody shouted “fake news.”
DER SPIEGEL: You recently recounted on U.S. television that Katharine Graham, your boss at the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, warned you that you shouldn’t become overconfident as a journalist. Why is the story important to you?
Woodward: In 1974, after Nixon had resigned, she wrote Carl Bernstein and myself a letter on a yellow legal pad: “Dear Carl and Bob, you did some of the stories about Nixon, and he’s gone. Now, that’s fine, but don’t start thinking too highly of yourselves. Let me give you some advice. The advice is: Beware of the demon of pomposity.” As you know, pomposity stalks the halls of all institutions in the United States, not just the media, but business, politics, academia, you name it. There’s a lot of pomposity, over‑self‑confidence, and I thought that was a really important warning, important advice.
DER SPIEGEL: We understood that to mean you worry you might have been too harsh in your judgment of Donald Trump. Are you going too far as a journalist here? Would it be better as a reporter to stick to reporting the facts rather than saying at the end of a book: He’s the wrong man for the job?
Woodward: No, I don’t think I went too far. I’ve been thinking about whether I was leaving my territory a little bit there as a reporter. But I feel that I definitely have enough insight to make a judgement in this regard.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Woodward, we thank you for this interview.
Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” was published in the United States by Simon & Schuster in September. The German edition was published on Oct. 16 by Hanser Verlag.