Comments on Bob Woodward’s Newest Book

It's become a habit now to write brief (hopefully interesting as well) book reviews on "Goodreads" since it's a wonderful way to remember what books I've read, with the (one to five star) rating I felt each merited, and also some comments to remind me of the content and high/low spots of each. When one reads twenty-five or more books a year, at least for this "one," at times I can't remember if I've actually read a book, or certainly when.

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Fear: Trump in the White House, is Bob Woodward's latest book, and a very well documented and informative book on the Trump presidency for the first (nearly) two years. Filled with quotes and other directly attributable comments, only a long-time and true insider like Mr. Woodward could pull this off. No one has disputed the accuracy of the direct comments. It's too simplistic to say this is a very critical observation on Mr. Trump and his administration, although it is that. The chaos is constant, with key people coming and going, often not quite sure of the president's next action, even after speaking with him and gaining a commitment to do something. Positioning for access is constant.

Sections that were breathtaking involved the back and forth with General Kelly, the Chief of Staff, who most certainly tried hard to set up a logical system of access and procedure with the almost incorrigibly unmanageable president. Other major players include Trump's Staff Secretary (who reported to Kelly), the brilliant and able Rob Porter, and General Jim Mattis, Secretary of Defense. Gary Cohn, formerly president of Goldman Sachs, who joined the administration as a free-trade advocate and Chief Economic Adviser, is featured in a losing battle to convince the president that free trade is a major benefit to the US economy, and that trade deficits are not an important economic measure.

Cohn lost that argument to Trump and Peter Navarro, a hard-line opponent to international free-trade policies that resulted in countries like Japan, South Korea, China, and Germany running up large surpluses with the US. Cohn argued that the US is a service economy and we do this best, while other countries do other things best. He stressed that the significant annual trading deficits were unimportant as they undervalued the benefits unfairly. But job losses in the US are painful (and visible), and those mid-western states that narrowly but decisively allowed Trump to run the Electoral College table were a key reason for the president's election.

To that specific issue of international trade, jobs, economies in transition, and negative trading balances were featured in a high-profile front page story in the Wall Street Journal of Friday, November 16. Although Mr. Trump has shifted political parties and policy positions on Health Care, Abortion, and Taxes, he has been quite consistent on Trade. The WSJ article points out that Trump has felt, and felt deeply, since the 1980's that Trade Pacts have hurt the US; starting with Japan, and now running through South Korea and especially with China, these countries are taking advantage of the US, with resulting job losses and a hollowing out of essential industries and skills. Mr. Trump has not deviated from this position over decades, and takes a classic transactional assessment that in any deal (deal is a key word) there are champs and chumps. Arguments from Mattis and others state that for the US to provide security not only for South Korea but for the EU is much to our advantage, although it's difficult to tally up columns with numbers that are as visible as trade deficits and job losses in older industries. They posit that newer job additions in finance and service more that compensate for these losses, and the US economy has rarely been this robust, but this argument fails to win the day with Trump, especially when Navarro and Steve Bannon have his ear and there are vacant factories and idle older workers.

The most interesting part of the book, at least for me, is the final chapter, in which John Dowd, the president's lawyer regarding the Mueller special investigation, interacted with both Mr. Trump and Mr. Mueller as well as Jim Quarles, Mueller's key point man. The dialogue and incisive interaction on Dowd's part was breathtaking. Dowd had used a completely transparent approach and had voluntarily produced Niagara Falls-like quantities of documents and paperwork, and had concluded that as far as he could tell, Mr. Trump had not been involved in any conspiracy with the Russians to influence the election. On the other hand, Dowd also concluded that Mr. Trump fundamentally was unable to tell the truth, to be blunt, would meander around in his comments, and with his lack of precise memory on events, almost certainly would commit perjury if interviewed with his usual free-wheeling style of generating his own view of things. To be blunt, and Dowd is brutally direct on this, he felt the president was a (my word here - pathological) liar, and must respond to Mueller only in writing and only with overview by his attorneys. In the end, Dowd was unable to convince the President of this, so as Trump's lawyer and in good faith, he resigned.

The verbal back and forth between Dowd and Mueller and his team is spiced with numerous "f" bombs and brilliant arguments. To be honest, Mueller does not come off all that well in the account, holding back all the way, and one is left with the feeling that Dowd felt that Mueller would maneuver Trump, almost certainly, into self-inflicted perjury. The book concludes with what Mr. Dowd had seen in the Trump presidency. It was Trump's fatal flaw, but Dowd could not bring himself to say what he felt; "You're a fucking liar."


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