Bob Woodward: ‘I can’t think of a time I’ve felt more anxiety about the presidency’
Bob Woodward is associate editor of the Washington Post and the author of 20 books on American politics. In 50 years as a journalist he has covered nine presidents. His reporting on the Watergate break-in and cover-up with his colleague Carl Bernstein helped bring down Richard Nixon and won the Post a Pulitzer prize. His latest book about Donald Trump, Rage, is based on 10 hours of interviews, spread over 19 taped phone calls, often initiated by the president himself, in which Trump proved “only too willing to blow the whistle on himself”, as the Observer’s review noted.
There is an atmosphere in Washington of high anxiety. Trump is melting down, to put it charitably. His campaign has been about lashing out, about wanting his former political opponents – President Obama and Joe Biden, who’s now running against him, of course – to be indicted then charged. Then there was his announcement that he is not necessarily going to accept the electoral result against him. The idea that the president would put in doubt the basic process of democracy and voting is not only unacceptable, it is a nightmare.
Now you have the added factor that Trump’s also had Covid-19 and he’s on steroids, saying things like, “It is a blessing from God that I got the virus”. I can’t think of anything more absurd, or crueller, than calling it a blessing from God. More than 210,000 people have died in the US. For the president of the US to talk like that is unbelievable, but I think people have become numb to it. The outrages pile up, in a way. People have forgotten the risks. I think Kamala Harris put it very well in the vice-presidential debate: what’s happened in the US with Covid-19 is the biggest failure of the president to exercise his responsibilities, perhaps in the history of the US.
If there were to be some accident, some problem, during the final campaign weeks, he would capitalise on it
This is a really dangerous period before the election. I got to know Trump very well in hours and hours of interviews I did with him for my book, Rage, and I think if there were to be some accident, some problem, during the final campaign weeks, he would capitalise on it. Henry Kissinger, of all people, was warning recently that we should worry about some sort of crisis, and reminded people that the first world war started because of an accident. Probably no one’s wanting to start a war right now, but we have a climate in the Middle East, and in the South China Sea, which China has really militarised, where you could have some spark trigger a mild confrontation – not that I think Trump’s going to manufacture that.
Trump is not sufficiently tuned into the attitudes and experiences of other people, which is an essential requirement of a leader. After George Floyd was killed, I asked him about the tensions ignited in this country not seen since the heights of the civil rights movement. I said we were men of white privilege, that we’ve got to understand the pain and anger black people feel in this country. That’s when he said something that astonished me: “Wow, you sure drank the Kool-Aid! I don’t feel that at all.” He just rejected the idea that somehow white people have to understand the pain and anger of others. I think that’s one of his chief problems. He thinks in terms of his own pain and anger, and what he wants to do, which is to be re-elected.
Trump also told me the US has nuclear weapons that are so devastating even President Putin and President Xi of China don’t know about them. I’m not exactly sure even today whether he was exaggerating or talking about something real. But what’s a really important question to consider here is how much power is in the presidency: when we decide to go to war, whether you look at Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq, it’s all been led by the president, essentially, as commander in chief. As we’ve gone into a media environment of impatience and speed because of the internet, the president is also in this position to seize the airwaves. As his son-in-law Jared Kushner said, the news is going along and then Trump tweets something and everyone drops whatever it is. Trump realises this. He uses it. He has that power. He loves being in control. He loves the spectacle. The circumstances have all converged here to give him extraordinary power.
(November 3, 2020)
Polling day. However in many states people have been able to vote early either in person or by absentee ballot since September.
(November 23, 2020)
Washington is due to be the last state to stop accepting and counting votes – they must be postmarked on or before election day, but can be counted if they arrive as many as 20 days afterwards. In practice, however, Washington is among the safest Democratic party states and will have been called for one party or the other long before this deadline.
(December 8, 2020)
Deadline for states to resolve any disputes over the selection of their electors of the electoral college.
(December 14, 2020)
The electors meet in their respective state capitals to formally vote for the president and vice-president.
(January 6, 2021)
The electoral college votes are formally counted in a joint session of Congress. The president of the Senate announces who will be the next president of the United States.
(January 20, 2021)
The next president swears their oath and is inaugurated in a Washington DC ceremony.
Looking to the aftermath of the election, Trump’s set the table to say that if he doesn’t win, he’s going to be suspicious of mail-in votes. I think the question is: if he loses, will his political party get together and go see him and talk to him, and say, you can’t do this? You can’t do it to the Republican party and most importantly you can’t do it to the country. There has to be an orderly transference of power, if that’s what it comes to.
This is the level of anxiety I have now as a reporter: I go to sleep and get up in the middle of the night and start checking the news because God knows what might have happened. We are sitting on pins and needles in this country about every moment, every action, every assessment, and it is draining. I think lots of people have got to the point where they are tuning Trump and the political situation out as well as they can.
Unfortunately, the impacts on people’s lives carry on, given the virus, given there’s no plan, or organised way of dealing with this. It’s all seat-of-the-pants impulsive decision-making. I can’t think of a time – and I’ve been a reporter for nearly 50 years – where I’ve felt more anxiety about the country and the presidency and the future. JR
Mary Trump: ‘If he wins, it’s over. Democracy is over’
Mary Trump is a psychologist and the niece of Donald Trump. Her father, Fred Trump Jr, the president’s older brother, died when she was 16. Her tell-all book about the president and the Trump family, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, sold almost 1m copies on the first day it was published in July this year.
My theory about the way Donald has run his campaign is that he knows he’s in desperate shape, so he’s going to burn it all down, sow more chaos and division, because that’s where he succeeds. He knows that he’s losing – he’ll deny it mightily – and at some level he understands what’s at stake. If he loses, he’s probably going to prison. So, if he’s going down, he’s going to take us all down with him.
I’ve always believed that deep down Donald is a terrified little boy. The amount of fear he’s feeling now has got to be unhinging him. Not only did he get sick with the virus, there’s the tax story and his prospects in the election looking really bad right now. He’s got to be absolutely panicked.
Throughout the campaign I thought that the absolute worst scenario would be for him to get the virus and then get well. I know that sounds awful. He’s ignored the severity of the pandemic all year because the idea of illness as weakness is so deeply ingrained in my family, that even an association with it is unacceptable, and that’s why now we’ve got 210,000 Americans dead. But now his statement – you can beat it, don’t be afraid of it – is going to result in more people becoming sick, and many of those will die. Even before he said that, I believed he was engaging in mass murder, but that sealed it for me. Anybody who’s capable of putting hundreds of millions of people at risk to avoid looking bad doesn’t care about you.
He’s always trying to see what he can get away with and he’s always got away with everything. No one holds him accountable
Since Donald was elected, I’ve been surprised by nothing he’s done or said. But I have been shocked by the wholesale abdication of responsibility by the Republican party during this election campaign and throughout the past four years. I didn’t understand the extent to which they would be willing to enable him in Congress and in his cabinet. If they had done their job and acted as a separate branch of government, he would have been contained. By siding with him 100% of the time, they have ensured we are now faced with several concurrent disasters that are getting exponentially worse.
No other president in history has been able to push the envelope the way Donald does. He’s always trying to see what he can get away with and, as I have seen through the course of his life, he’s always got away with everything. No one holds him accountable. He constantly gets rewarded for failing. The Republicans understood what he was capable of and have allowed him to push through an agenda that is completely at odds with what the majority wants.
In Donald, I see somebody who is afraid, lonely, desperate, unloved. I hesitate to paint a compassionate portrait of him because he’s so culpable. However, I do have compassion for the three-year-old who was without his mother for a whole year when she was sick. That loss of affection and having no one to soothe him was deeply harmful. And when she recovered to the extent that she did, she did nothing to heal the wounds of that separation, and that’s before we get to my grandfather, who was always an awful person, capable of such abject cruelty and sadism. So now we have an adult Donald who is sad, lonely, ignorant but who also has immense power – and that is a terrifying prospect.
People need to stop worrying about what might happen if he loses but doesn’t accept the results and laugh in his face. That’s the best way to undermine him. If he wins, it won’t be legitimate. He’s already using the powers of his office to shake people’s confidence in mail-in voting at a time when people want to be voting by mail during the pandemic. He’s telling his followers if Biden wins it will have been rigged, telling them to show up at the polls to make sure there’s no fraud, which is voter intimidation. If you’re a black person in America and a bunch of white guys with automatic weapons are standing outside the polling station you won’t want to vote, which is exactly what Donald wants to happen.
If he stays in the Oval Office, I’m going to try to get a British passport because I don’t think I’ll fare well. He’s an extraordinarily vindictive person surrounded by people who are willing to help him be vindictive. But that’s personal: in terms of the country, if he wins, it’s over. Democracy is over. The western alliance is over. We’ll be entering an incredibly dark period of autocracy on a global scale. JR
John Bolton: ‘He was envious of leaders like Putin, Xi Jinping and Erdoğan’
John Bolton was US national security adviser under Donald Trump from 2018 to 2019. Having started his career as a lawyer, he held senior roles in the state department and justice department during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and George W Bush, who appointed him 25th US ambassador to the United Nations. His book about the Trump presidency, The Room Where It Happened, was published in June this year.
People complain that Trump has a short attention span, myself included. But when it comes to his own re-election he has an infinite attention span. Decisions are made not on the basis of the pros and cons of the policies being debated but on what the domestic political blowback could be. Every president takes politics into account but with Trump it’s qualitatively different. It’s not just a factor. It’s the factor.
Everything is a distinct transaction – maybe that’s how you’re successful in the real-estate business. If he doesn’t see the immediate bottom line impact, he wants to move on to something else. For example, with our close allies, he says things like: “Here we are defending you and you don’t pay for our bases and you have trade surpluses with us.” Well, we’re not there to defend them. We’re there because we have a mutual defence alliance. We think it’s in our interest as much as the allies’ interest to be forwardly deployed. We’re not there as mercenaries. And we wouldn’t want to be there as mercenaries. But he doesn’t get that.
I think his election campaign is in deep trouble. Because of what happened in 2016, when everybody thought Hillary was going to win, he can say the polls are fake news and that he’ll win anyway. And he’ll say that right up to election night and probably after it. But unless the pollsters have done absolutely nothing to try to fix their methodology since 2016, you have to say that he’s in trouble. Each day you get closer to the election, by definition it’s that much harder to make up the gap. Nothing in life is certain but it looks like he’s heading for a pretty substantial defeat.
I once said to a psychologist that Trump doesn’t have character and he said, sure he does, he has a character defect
He’s trying to turn his Covid-19 infection to his advantage. I assume that’s what he thought he was doing with his grand entrance to the White House, posing on the balcony like Il Duce. I think it had the opposite effect. One thing I’ve been waiting for is the wave of sympathy that you would expect from the American people when their leader is taken ill. Maybe it’s out there but there isn’t any evidence of it at this point.
I had certainly heard all the criticisms of Donald Trump before I took the job of national security adviser but I felt that the gravity of the presidency, the weight of the responsibility, would have an effect on him the way it’s had on every contemporary American president once they took office. It turned out I wasn’t right.
The transition and opening six months were bungled and a lot of Trumpian habits and attitudes were formed in that period. Although I had aspirations to create more orderly policy processes in the national security area, it was too late to do it. I was in retrospect overly optimistic that I could correct problems that were inherent in Trump’s approach to the job from the get-go.
It became clear in ways that I previously found impossible to contemplate that he had no philosophy, no grand strategy, he didn’t think in policy terms. Every day was a new adventure. And the way I think successful foreign policy is laid out is by careful analysis and deliberation, careful implementation, review and persistence. All of these are things that basically don’t exist in the Trump administration. There was so much that he didn’t know and he has very little inclination to learn it. It’s hard to have an evolving conversation when his data base never changes.
I don’t regret taking the job. I went in and lasted for as long as I could and then I came out and wrote a book so everybody would know exactly what was going on. There are still people in there now who are trying to get him to do the right thing. One thing I worry about in a second term is that people like that will simply not join the administration. Up until now, it was reasonable to say, I’ve got enough confidence I can make a difference. It’s very hard to make that argument now after four years.
I don’t think he has the character or fitness to be president. I once said to a psychologist that Trump doesn’t have character and the psychologist said, sure he does, he has a character defect. So I’ll leave that to the shrinks. We never should have nominated him. Nobody ever said that politics ends up with the best people for government. But there’s something wrong when someone like this can prevail.
I think he was kind of envious of leaders like Putin, Xi Jinping and Erdoğan. They are big guys and they do big guy things and he wants to be a big guy too. I can’t explain why he has this affinity for authoritarian leaders but there’s no doubt he does.
I don’t believe he was reluctant to employ me because of my moustache, as some people say. Would he have made a flip remark about it at some point? Sure, that’s entirely possible. Whatever his flip remarks – and he’s derogatory about almost everybody, sooner rather than later – he did hire me and I actually lasted 17 months. If Trump loses and leaves on 20 January, of the four national security advisers, I will be the longest serving.
It’s not like there was a battle between us over two competing worldviews, because he doesn’t have a worldview. And that was the hardest thing for me to understand and appreciate. AA
Anthony Scaramucci: ‘He’s out there doing ridiculous things and I fear for the world’
Anthony Scaramucci was a little-known New York financier when Donald Trump made him the White House director of communications in July 2017. He was fired just 11 days later after a string of public relations gaffes but remained a vocal Trump loyalist for the next two years. However, the president’s racist attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of colour led Scaramucci to withdraw his support. Since then he has become an outspoken critic of Trump, who frequently lashes out at Scaramucci on Twitter. His book, Trump: The Blue-Collar President, was published in 2018.
In our country we’re so polarised now you have to hate the person you disagree with. But I don’t hate Donald Trump. If anything I’m somewhat sympathetic to him because there’s obviously something wrong with him. There’s a screw loose and you don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that. You just have to look at the manic behaviour, the absurdity, the lack of maturity. He’s not a fully developed adult. He’s out there doing ridiculous things and I fear for the world and I fear for the country. There’s something wrong with him and the people around him are too afraid of him to intervene on his behalf.
He talked about “draining the swamp” but the swamp is now like a gold-plated hot tub. He’s taken the corruption up to a whole new level. I think if he loses the election, it’s over for him. I don’t see how he can survive this. He’ll probably get indicted. However, if he does, he probably won’t serve in jail – I don’t think America likes putting its ex-presidents in jail. So he’ll most likely get prosecuted with his sentence commuted.
He likes to mud-wrestle his opponents but he can’t do that with Joe Biden because Biden is an old-school disciplined politician. His positive-negative differentials are 20% higher than Hillary Clinton’s. But I’m smart enough to know that the polls are closer than people think.
If Trump wins, there is going to be a further destruction of American society. He’ll start to dismantle the institutions of our democracy, and the country will become weaker as a result of it. There’ll be more disorder, more protests, more racial tension.
He’s unfit to serve in the office of the president. He’s not a leader. He’s an un-American bully
The move back to the White House, after hospital, tried to create these optics that he’s a superman. But you’ve got 210,000 Americans dead, so if you do a matrix, there’s about 9 million Americans who have had family or friends hurt by the virus, so that’s not going to play with them. He’s a minority politician, he’s a minority president. He’s never had the popular vote; he will have won the electoral college twice, and lost the popular vote twice.
The fact is he’s an idiot. He’s unfit to serve in the office of the president. He doesn’t have the management capability. He doesn’t have the ability to empathise. He’s not a leader. He’s an un-American bully. You could say he had a lot of those attributes as a candidate in 2016 so why did I support him? And I would say, yes, I chose to overlook that because I was trying to be loyal to my party and its nominee.
I started out disliking him. Then I thought, OK, I’m in the Republican party, he’s going to be the Republican candidate and now he’s won the presidency, so he’s going to be the first Republican president since George W Bush, let me figure out a way to like him. I worked for him and I have to own that for the rest of my life.
I’ve acknowledged my mistake, I’ve apologised for it, and I’ve admitted that I was wrong in my political judgment and assessment of him as an individual and as a political leader. People say to me, he hasn’t changed at all, and I accept that. But I’ve changed. I’m way more psychologically minded. I’m more aware of the pain and trouble he’s causing people.
I’m very happy I got fired. It probably saved my marriage and my business career. I was loyal to him for two years but the year after my book came out he told four women who were democratically elected to Congress – three of whom were born in the US, the other a naturalised citizen – to go back to the countries they originally came from. They told my Italian-American grandparents that 100 years ago. When I said that he was being racist, he started going after my wife on Twitter. I told Mayor Giuliani: “You’re disavowing your personal integrity and your family’s history by supporting this man.” You can’t talk like that as the American president in 2020. He’s a despicable guy.
I don’t think most of his supporters think he’s the best man for the job. They see him as a culture warrior, though. The conservative news outlets have told them that we have a full-on culture war going on in the United States, and he is the last white man standing to protect America from the black and Hispanic latte-drinking transvestites who are going to take over their government and culture.
The president’s strategy is let’s see if I can turn out every racist in America, and he hopes there are enough to beat the non-racists. The secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s supporting him because Pompeo looks in the mirror and sees a future president.
We have 63 million people in the US who have voted for Trump for one reason or another, and what I can do is explain my change of heart. We now have almost four complete years of data on his ineptitude. It’s nothing personal, he’s not the right person to be president of the United States. AA