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Rage: Book Review

Rage (2020), Bob Woodward, relatively long and current, adding some insight, but little that’s really new. I suppose this follows given Woodward’s methods and the subject: Donald Trump. Woodward ends the books by stating: “Trump is a living paradox. … When his performance as president is taken in it entirely, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job” (p. 390-2). [Jeffrey Goldberg’s reporting on how Trump considered the military “suckers and losers” was more important when it came out about the time as the Woodward book.

Woodward had 17 interviews with Trump, which were consistently long, rambling, often off-point, and sometimes incoherent. Trump could be insightful and courteous, but it seemed hit and miss. Mainly he was erratic and seemingly needed mental health care. For some reason, Woodward had to include most of these verbatim. Granted, random phone calls from your subject shortly before the book goes to press makes writing difficult. I found Woodward’s analysis of Jared Kushner and Kushner’s analysis of Trump the most useful (explained below).

The book starts with the initial indications of a pandemic developing in Wuhan, China. Trump seemed reasonably focused and made some reasonable decisions (not brilliant as he later claimed, but reasonable) like shutting down flights from China. Woodward had received his first Trump interview in December 2019. Quite a bit of the book is about the pandemic, with limited insight. Two points here. It is difficult to make decisions with limited information and constant updates with new information. (Dr. Anthony Fauci, for example, gave erroneous advice early on.) There is considerable coverage of the pandemic throughout the book, beginning in Chapter 30.

Chapter 1 started with James Mattis being invited to join the trump team by Pence. Mattis wanted to push for the continuation of NATO and ended up as Defense Secretary. The case is obvious for most, but Trump seemed to view all foreign treaties as bad, with allies as parasites. This would end badly. Mattis appreciated the increased funding, providing better readiness, training and weapons. However, he thought Trump’s attitude was “jingoism. It was a misguided form of nationalism” (p. 81). Mattis had it once Trump withdrew from Syria, leaving the Kurds defenseless. Trump then called him “the world’s most overrated general” (p. 143). “Mattis summarized, ‘When I was basically directed to do something that I thought went beyond stupid to felony stupid, strategically jeopardizing our place in the world and everything else, that’s when I quit’” (p. 143).

Chapter 2 was on Rex Tillerson for state. Woodward viewed Tillerson as reasonably competent, while others viewed Tillerson as the worst secretary of state ever (until Pompeo). Apparently, Tillerson ignored most of the people in the department. Tillerson did have a great relationship with Putin and Russia because of Exxon; [I’m not convinced that was in the best interests of the US]. Tillerson and Mattis disagreed about Russia and China and did not work well with each other. Of course, Trump fired Tillerson by tweet and replace him with Pompeo. Apparently Tillerson had called Trump “an f…ing moron.”

Senator Dan Coats also was a friend of Pence and became Director of National Intelligence, more or less in charge of the president’s daily brief (PDB) on sensitive intelligence. Woodward noted that Pence spent a good deal of time trying to understand those intelligence agencies. “Coats began to think Trump was impervious to facts. Trump had his own facts” Nearly everyone was an idiot, and almost every country was ripping off the United States” (p. 30). Trump also wanted to withdraw US troops from South Korea [I was stationed there for a year and well aware of the commitment of their military to defend the country] and Afghanistan: “get them out” (p. 69). “That’s crazy” Mattis told Coats. Also, “The president has no moral compass. … He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie” (p. 69). Coats was fired and he learned about it from the New York Times; he was to be replaced by John Ratcliffe, who was eventually confirmed in 2020. This was related to intelligence flagging Trump’s handling of Ukraine.

Trump didn’t believe in the National Security Council: “I don’t need an NSA. I just need myself. … Trump didn’t care for assessments or options. It was just whatever Trump wanted to do” (p. 115). “Key players such as Putin, Xi of China and Erdogan of Turkey would lie to Trump. They played Trump skillfully. They would roll out the red carpet for him, flatter him, then do what they wanted” (p. 116). There was evidence that malware was used in at least two Florida counties (e.g., erasing every tenth vote in black districts). He didn’t have a useful working team—for gathering information, identifying options, and making opinions; generally true of all phases of executive decision making.

Economics: “We’re going to put a tariff on all steel and aluminum on everything coming in, said the president, and see what happens” (p. 36). “My f…ing generals are a bunch of pussies. They care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals” (p. 37). Peter Navarro (something like a mercantilist economist) seemed to be all in encouraging tariffs. The World Trade Centers was on Trump’s list of organizations “ripping us off like crazy for 25, 30 years” (p. 224); in part for treating China and India as developing nations. Ditto the European Union. He said he would pull the US out of the WTO. He would claim he won the trade war with China.

North Korea proved a big deal. The Trump team called Obama’s “strategic patience” a disaster. Trump wanted action and options were given, from accepting North Korea as a nuclear power to regime change by covert action or military attack. Trump went for maximum pressure, like economic sanctions. Kim launched an IBM capable of reaching the US in July 2017; another was sent directly over Japan. Apparently, Trump thought the chance of war with North Korea was likely and claimed he averted war by meeting Kim. I’m not sure this was true, but Woodward seemed to think it possible. Kim met with Trump in 2018, participated with South Korea in the Olympics, and probably played Trump for all he could. They wrote gushing letters to each other, which Woodward including in some detail.

Mike Pompeo a former general and Tea Party Republican, became CIA Director. The CIA had problems over decades and Woodward talked about the “spectacular failure of the Iraq War. Intelligence established that Putin directed interference in the 2016 election for Trump, “political espionage at the highest level.” When Pompeo became Secretary of State, Gina Haspel became CIA Director.

Rod Rosenstein, deputy director Attorney General, is something of a Trump loyalist in Woodward’s telling (calling him a “pre-Fox News Republican). The FBI under James Comey had four open cases on Trump campaign aides, plus various Trumpers seemed to have lied about their contacts with Russians. Trump fired Comey, after demanding loyalty from him. Rosenstein established Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump went ballistic, but Graham pointed out that only Mueller could clear him.

Mueller’s scope was small, he didn’t interview Trump or his family. His final reports stated: “While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” (p. 154). Attorney General Barr claimed it was exculpatory and Trump claimed total exoneration. Then Rosenstein resigned in April, 2019. Woodward claims the flaw in Mueller’s investigation was: “the prosecutors never found an inside witness” (p. 160). Then 700 formal prosecutors argued that for anyone else, the evidence would: “result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice” (p. 161). “Mueller’s investigation led to 34 indictments, including Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, national security advisor Michael Flynn, political confidant Roger Stone, and a number of Russian nationals” (p. 164).

Then there was Trump interfering with Ukraine and withholding military aid until they investigated Burisma and Hunter Biden. This led up to the impeachment and failure to convict in the Senate on an almost straight partisan vote. Woodward did not spend much time on this.

Then George Floyd happened at the end of May. The big Trump event was the clearing of Lafayette Square of protestors violently so that Trump and his entourage could go to St. John’s Church and hold up a Bible. No speech, no rationale for being there. Later he claimed he was all for law and order. Bishop Budde was outraged, claiming the whole point was to inflame violence. Mattis stated: “Never did I dream that troops … would be ordered under any circumstances to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens” (p. 339). Graham claimed Trump could have set up a commission on policing and race. “Graham had a three-part police reform plan: police reform through executive order, a massive infrastructure bill to rebuild roads and schools and protect DACA” (p. 348).

One of the often-quoted remarks from the book had to do with Woodward trying to get Trump to admit to white privilege. Trump’s response: “No. You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. … I’ve done more for the Black community than anyone in history” (p. 358). Then: “I bring out the rage in people” (p. 369), the source of the books’ title. He claimed in July about a “new left-wing fascism: angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders and this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. … We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters” (p. 375).

The book returned to the pandemic in Chapter 30, giving a lot of background. Woodward noted that Fauci viewed the early decisions were fairly good, then started saying it would go away (and Fauci was blackballed from tv). “The Finest hour was over. Trump was laser-determined to open up the country. … Trump’s leadership was rudderless” (p. 353). A key point is China stonewalled the information. The genome was published by Chinese scientists and pulled quickly by the government, but not quick enough. Fauci’s Vaccine Research Center started on a vaccine, which was used by Moderna. Valid information came slowly. The CDC has an influenza-like illness surveillance network, which takes daily reports from health centers. Trump claimed that “anyone that needs a test can have a test” (p. 274), which would have been great if it was true.

The WHO eventually declared a pandemic in March. Fauci declared the testing for the virus was failing, partly because of faulty CDC test kits. Trump decided to shut down for 15 days in March, the first time, according to Graham, Trump made a decision not in his own best interest. Trump also refused to accept responsibility for response failures; it was China, governors and so on. He promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine. Kushner went after ventilators. Trump started the process to withdraw from the WHO because he claimed it protected China during the crisis.

“Trump never did seem willing to fully mobilize the federal government and continually seemed to push problems off on the states. There was no real management theory of the case or how to organize a massive enterprise to deal with one of the most complex emergencies the US had ever faced. … Graham said: He wants to be a wartime president, but he doesn’t want to own any more than he has to own” (p. 308). Graham pushed Trump to get a plan and explain it. Put someone in charge of testing, vaccines, and so on. “Graham felt it was hard to penetrate Trump World and find out who had influence with him” (p. 309). He both claimed total authority for the response and blamed Democrat governors for failing.

Fauci, Birx, and Redfield developed a plan to reopen the country on a three-phase process in April (the unemployment rate was exploding). Governors rushed to reopen—30 states by the end of April, with little regard to the process. Cases and deaths rose, as expected. Later, Trump went on offense by listing the times Fauci had been wrong. When Woodward asked him to grade his handling, Trump claimed: “I give ourselves an A” (p. 382).

Woodward was fairly positive about Jared Kushner, an MBA who tried to get things done “below the wave,” essentially as a de facto chief of staff: “Kushner’s efforts were those of one person in an ambiguously defined role, attempting to remake part of the government bureaucracy in the image of a streamlined corporation” (p. 328). Actual Chief of Staff John Kelly left in 2019. According to Kushner: “If you make the economic benefits big enough, people will say yes” (p. 65). [This works much of the time in business, but problematic in government policy.]

Kushner stated: “If people try to get a quick answer out of him, it’s easy. You can get him to decide in your favor by limiting his information. But you better be sure as hell that people with competing views aren’t going to find their way to him. … (based on Trump’s background in real estate) You make a deal. There’s still a lot of details to work out. So you could always change you mind if the details don’t fall into place. … Incomplete information, inadequate staffing—the appearance of impulsive decision making was all someone else’s fault, according to Kushner” (p. 146). Kelly just called it “crazytown.”

Kushner gave Woodward four writings that explained Trump: First was Peggy Noonan: “He’s crazy … a circus act … a living insult … an unhinged or not-fully-hinged quality that feels like a screwball tragedy … and it’s kind of working” (p. 257). Then the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there. The Cheshire Cat’s strategy was one of endurance and persistence, not direction” (p. 257). Third was Chris Wipple’s book The Gatekeepers, about the president’s chiefs of staff, who had the “fate of the country in their hands. … Trump clearly had no idea how to govern yet was reluctant to follow the advice of his first two chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and John Kelly.” (p. 258). Finally, Scott Adams Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. Scott applauded Trump for his misstatements as “intentional wrongness persuasion. Adams argues Trump can invent any reality for most voters on most issues, and all you remember is that he provided his reasons, he didn’t apologize, and his opponents called him a liar like they always do” (p. 258). “Controversy elevates message. … A hair-splitting, fact checking debate … is irrelevant. … When combined, Kushner’s four texts painted President Trump as crazy, aimless, stubborn and manipulative” (p. 259).

In Kushner’s view: “The president has pushed the boundaries, yes. He’s not done the normal things. But it was the right thing for people. Everything is on track for the big blowout” (p. 260). “He’s unpredictable, which is a great strength. Nobody knows where that line is” (p. 261). “Trump’s background in business had taught him there’s no deal until you sign on the line. … So he’ll always be flexible” (p. 262). “One of Trump’s greatest strengths was he somehow manages to have his enemies self-destruct and make stupid mistakes” (p. 263). “In meetings, Kushner said, Trump was an expert at cross-examination. … So that’s his way of reading people. … Do they hold their ground? Do they buckle? … That’s why the most dangerous people around the president are overconfident idiots. … Trump did a full hostile takeover” (p. 263). “One of Trump’s greatest skills is figuring out how to trigger the other side by picking fights with them where he makes them take stupid positions” (p. 266).

Kushner was given the task of getting Covid tests up to an adequate level; his guess in May 2020 was 80 million tests a month by September (when only 8.4 million had been done in total). His idea was to deal with every governor starting with Cuomo in New York. Cuomo was at 20,000 tests a day and wanted 45,000. Kushner tried to identify lab capacity in each state. [Sounds okay, if there was follow-through, transparency and information widely available. Some people can get tests, some can’t. Locally, I can’t figure out why there seems no consistency if it was handled correctly.]

“The shadowy presence of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is another imponderable. Highly competent but often shockingly misguided in his assessments, Kushner’s role is jarring. Was there no one else to act as chief of staff? (p. 388). My problem with Kushner was he was given one impossible job after another, then he would make headlines; little if any result, then he would disappear and get another task.

“But Trump’s staff and cabinet rarely got a clear definition of direction or policy. … Believing that everyday the facts change is simply another version of Kellyanne Conway’s 2017 statement that there are ‘alternative facts’” (p. 262).

“Senator Lindsey Graham, Trump’s First Friend, has often been portrayed as embarrassingly and shamelessly subservient to the president, but actually at times provided wise counsel, urging Trump to take a strategic view” (p. 389).

[The] Trump presidency was riddled with ambivalence, set on an uncertain curse, swinging from combativeness to conciliation, and whipsawing from one statement or action to the opposite. … The oversized personality. The failure to organize. The lack of discipline. The lack of trust in others he had picked, in experts. The undermining or attempted undermining of so many American institutions. The failure to be a calming, healing voice. The unwillingness to acknowledge error. The failure to do his homework. To extend the olive branch. To listen carefully to others. To craft a plan” (p. 385-6). “The country was in real turmoil. The virus was out of control. The economy was in crisis with more than 40 million out of work. A powerful reckoning on racism and inequality was upon us. There seemed to be nor end in sight, and certainly no clear path to get there” (p. 386).

“Trump said the intelligence people needed to go back to school. The generals were stupid. The media was fake news. Trump had spent so many years undermining people who challenged him. … By undermining so many others not only had he shaken confidence in them but he had shaken confidence in himself. … I close out this book with a belief that almost anything can happen in the Trump presidency” (p. 387). Woodward points out Trump “has not imposed martial law or suspended the Constitution. … Still, democracy has held” (p. 388). [We’ll see.]


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