Reflections on Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House”


Bob Woodward is a renowned investigative journalist, author and historian. Among his 20 previous books, 12 have been best-sellers. This 2018 book confirms the negative image of Donald Trump which has been conveyed by his niece Mary L. Trump in her 2020 book and by countless authors and media commentators.

Woodward portrays the disorder in the operation of Trump’s White House: ‘’Chaos and disorder were inadequate to describe the situation. It was a free-for-all. ….. Trump had no understanding of how government functions. ……. The basic tactic Porter [Administrative Secretary] had employed from the Priebus days until now was to stall and delay, mention the legal roadblocks and occasionally to lift the drafts from the Resolute desk (p.261).’’

In his prologue Bob Woodward describes a political fiasco that was prevented in the White House in September 2017 by the chairman of the National Economic Counsel Gary Cohn, and by Staff Secretary Rob Porter. President Trump wanted to abruptly withdraw from the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement, known as KORUS, a treaty in effect since the 1950s. Trump wanted to eliminate an $18 billion annual trade deficit with South Korea and a $3.5 billion annual expenditure to maintain 28,500 U.S. troops in that country.

Cohn, Porter and their allies in the military establishment argued that South Korea played a vital role in U.S. intelligence in north-east Asia, and in addition had the potential of housing defense missiles that could eventually knock down North Korean nuclear attack missiles aimed at the U.S. It was argued that detectors located in South Korea could detect North Korean missile launches within seven seconds, whereas missile detection based in Alaska would take 15 minutes.

A letter from Trump to Moon Jae-in, president of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) was drafted and put on Trump’s desk. But before Trump could see it, Gary Cohn removed the letter from Trump’s desk and placed it in a folder marked ‘’KEEP’’. Woodward wrote: ‘’In the anarchy and disorder of the White House, and Trump’s mind, the president never noticed the missing letter.’’

The Secretary of Defense James Mattis, retired Marine general, was called upon to save the KORUS Treaty. Woodward wrote this excerpt from Mattis’s intervention: ‘’Mr. President, Kim Jung Un poses the most immediate threat to our national security. We need South Korea as an ally.’’

This episode about U.S. military presence in South Korea is also revealing with respect to the very short time scale involved in nuclear missile warfare, namely ten to thirty minutes. Such a short time scale opens the door to disastrous misinterpretations and miscalculations and does not reassure billions of people now living under the nuclear threat.

In Chapter 5 the author discusses financial aspects of the 2016 campaign involving Trump. Steve Bannon had suggested that Trump contribute $50 million of his own money to the campaign. But Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law thought that Trump would be not willing to contribute that much. After pressure was applied by several people Trump finally accepted to write a check for $10 million.

In Chapter 6, author Woodward writes about Trump’s choice of the Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a choice based on recommendations by retired Army General Jack Keane. Keane had said of Mattis: ‘’He’s a good man. …… He thinks things through. He spends time thinking through the problem. ….. He’s a man of courage and a man of integrity.’’  Woodward also mentioned that Mattis reads books all the time and has about 7,000 books in his library. This can be contrasted with Donald Trump who developed a reputation of ignoring books.

In this connection, let me remind readers that U.S. naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan published a book in 1890 entitled The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, a book whose importance was immediately understood and promoted by the elites of Germany, France, England, Japan and the United States. During the Second World War, England and the United States were able to dominate the Atlantic, the Arctic, the Pacific and the Mediterranean oceans. This domination over the oceans allowed the U.S. to support England and the Soviet Union with weapons and food, thus contributing in a major way to the Allied victory.  This is an excellent example of a single individual making a significant contribution to government matters.

In Chapters 12 and 13 author Woodward describes a few elements in the way that former president, Barack Obama, and President Trump have tackled the difficult problem of North Korean nuclear weapons.  On page 92 author Woodward wrote: ‘’in September 2016 Obama posed a sensitive question to his National Security Council: was it possible to launch a pre-emptive military strike, supported by cyber attacks, on North Korea to take out their nuclear and missile programs?’’

The military significance of this proposed strike must include the fact that the South Korean capital, Seoul, host to about ten million people, is only a few miles from the border with North Korea. The North Koreans maintain thousands of artillery pieces in caves near the border.  On page 94 Woodward wrote: ‘’The Pentagon reported that the only way ‘’to locate and destroy – with complete certainty — all components of North Korea’s nuclear program’’ was through a ground invasion.’’  Woodward noted that Obama rejected a pre-emptive strike, judging it to be ‘’folly.’’

In Chapter 13 Woodward concentrated on Trump’s approach to the North Korean nuclear weapon problem.  On page 99 Woodward relates a February 2017 meeting between Senator Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford. Graham found Dunford to be shaken by the latest request from Trump. Quoting Woodward: ‘’Trump was asking for a new war plan for a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea, Dunford confided. However, the intelligence on North Korea was not good enough, Dunford believed. ‘’We need better intelligence before I give the president a plan.’’ ‘’

On page 105 the author mentions some words that were exchanged between Senator John McCain, Graham and Trump regarding the North Korea problem. When Trump asked McCain what he thought, the latter replied: ‘’Very complicated,’’ he said. ‘’They can kill a million people in Seoul with conventional artillery. That’s what makes it so hard.’’ In contrast, Woodward went on: ‘’Graham offered a hawkish view: ‘’If a million people are going to die, they’re going to die over there, not here.’’ ‘’That’s pretty cold’’, Trump interjected.’’

I take this last remark by Donald Trump as possibly one more example of the nuclear taboo at work, a moral norm that has been developing over the decades since 1945 according to author Nina Tannenwald.  The fact that General Joseph Dunford was ‘’shaken’’ by Trump’s request is noteworthy.

Chapter 15 deals with the war in Afghanistan. Before being elected Trump had often criticized the way President Obama was conducting the war in Afghanistan, the longest in American history. The U.S. had been spending about $50 billion a year in Afghanistan. It is well known that much of the U.S. money ended up enriching many people in positions of power in Afghanistan. Woodward wrote: ‘’American money was one of the poisons in the Afghan system.’’  Woodward wrote this in 2017-2018. In 2019-2020 Trump worked out an agreement with the Taliban for the U.S. and its allies to exit Afghanistan by the end of August 2021. This exit turned into a debacle and prompted many observers to note that the U.S. had wasted nearly one trillion dollars in the 20-year Afghan war.

On page 132, this terrifying paragraph appears, raising the spectre of nuclear war. (Recall that James Mattis  was Secretary of Defense under Trump). ‘’Russia had privately warned Mattis that if there was a war in the Baltics, Russia would not hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons against NATO. Mattis, with agreement from Dunford, began saying that Russia was an existential threat to the United States.’’

The current U.S. nuclear weapon policy is similar to the Russian one. Participants in the worldwide movement towards international security and nuclear disarmament ought to ask the leaders of the nine nuclear powers if they support the entanglement of conventional and nuclear weapons in their military planning?

On trade, Trump was especially critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) involving the U.S. Canada and Mexico. Peter Navarro, director of the National Trade Council, had said of NAFTA that it had been to Mexico’s and Canada’s advantage.  Trump and Navarro were proposing to impose tariffs on goods imported from Canada and Mexico. Gary Cohn, Chairman of the National Economic Council, was opposed to tariffs. Cohn argued that the U.S. economy had become one of services to an extent of over 80%, and that tariffs on imported goods would hurt the American economy.  After much debate NAFTA was replaced by the Canada US Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) which came into force on July 1, 2020.

In Chapter 23 author Bob Woodward explains how the White House decided in 2017 to get out of the Paris Agreement on climate change which had entered into force in November 2016. At that time Obama had pledged to cut down greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below the levels in 2005. Under Trump, his daughter Ivanka had been functioning as a ‘’first daughter’’ and advisor to the president. She was in favor of keeping the U.S. as a participant in the Paris Agreement.  She managed to have a few prominent business leaders, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook, who were supporters of the Paris Agreement, talk to her father. But in the end other forces prevailed in the White House and in June 2017 Trump announced that the U.S. would formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement in November 2020.  In 2021, the U.S. under Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement.

Chapter 26 reveals the rivalry that existed between Trump’s second national security advisor Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, on one side, and Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, on the other.  McMaster complained that Tillerson and Mattis were making decisions without consulting him. Rex Tillerson replied that Trump had difficulties making decisions, often making one on some day, and then reversing it a day or two later.

Chapter 27 expresses the opinion of many people in the White House that Trump’s behavior was often erratic and that his ideas were at times dangerous.  Chapter 28 at first is focused on foreign policy. Trump had named former Exxon Mobil chief executive officer Rex Tillerson to the Secretary of State post. Tillerson liked to exercise what amount of freedom usually comes with this prestigious job. In doing so he often clashed with Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser.

Trump’s general approach to foreign affairs was to prioritize personal relationships. About the Chinese president Xi Jinping Trump had declared: ‘’I have really good relations with Xi’’. The tariff battle that followed has reduced the credibility of this declaration.

Turning to domestic policy, Trump suffered a severe setback when on July 28, 2017, his attempt to replace Obamacare was defeated in Congress. Trump blamed Reince Priebus, his first chief of staff, and fired him.  Months after his departure from the White House Priebus said that he had been surrounded in the West Wing by ‘’high-ranking natural killers …’’  With predators fighting each other ‘’things don’t move’’, had said Priebus.

In Chapter 29 author Woodward dealt with the disquieting events that took place on August 11-12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.  On August 11th about 250 nationalist demonstrators marched across the campus of the University of Virginia chanting provoking statements. The following day fighting broke out between protesters and counter-protesters as the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was removed.  Moreover, a woman was killed, and 19 injured, by a car moving into the crowd.  When Trump addressed the media about these shocking events, he used the expression ‘’on many sides’’ to indicate that violent behavior was not confined to white supremacists but also showed up among their opponents.  Trump was broadly criticized for not showing a stronger disapproval of hatred-motivated groups.

Chapter 30 elaborates the negative consequences of the shocking events in Charlottesville on August 11-12.  Several military leaders distanced themselves from Trump’s reaction to the Charlottesville events.  They all expressed the commitment of their institution to eradicating racial and other types of hatred.  As an example, Woodward quoted Chief of Staff of the Army Mark Milley thus (p. 246): ‘’The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.’’

Adding to these declarations, Woodward describes several resignations that took place in Trump’s American Manufacturing Council and in his National Economic Council headed by Chairman Gary Cohn. Trump ended up abolishing both councils.  Trump was especially upset with Cohn’s resignation. Cohn had done a lot of work on tax reform. On page 249 Woodward describes how Trump treated Cohn when the latter announced his resignation. ‘’This is treason,’’ Trump said.

In Chapter 31 Woodward tackles the complex situation in the Middle East. On page 256 the author quotes Trump addressing the military and intelligence leaders specialized in matters concerning ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a terrorist organization.  H.R. McMaster had made the case for adding up to 4,000 U.S. troops to the forces in Iraq. McMaster’s key argument was to prevent al Qaeda or other terrorists from hitting the U.S. homeland or other allies.

Trump assembled several top advisers regarding the potential implementation of a 25% tariff across the board on steel imports. He met with strong opposition. It was agreed that tax reform had to be dealt with first.

In Chapter 33 author Woodward tackles at first the trade relationship with China. National Economic Council Chairman Gary Cohn was unhappy with the way in which China dealt with American intellectual property. The Trump administration’s way of looking at this question was to say that China had stolen 600 billion dollars worth of U.S. intellectual property. Gary Cohn and U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer wanted to open a formal investigation of China’s trade practices. But Trump was opposed because, as he said, of his special relationship with Xi Jinping. He wanted to focus on imported steel tariffs. His opponents in the White House argued that such tariffs would hurt the U.S. economy.

In Chapter 36, Woodward reveals what went on in the White House when in early 2018 President Trump and Prime Minister Kim Jong Un exchanged nuclear threats. The exchange began on New Year’s Day with Kim Jong Un reminding the world that he had a ‘’nuclear button’’ on his desk that would allow him to attack the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles. Woodward comments that this ‘’was an ugly and provocative threat’’. In my opinion, that is right, but what is also true is that the five major nuclear powers all have larger ‘’nuclear buttons’’ and have yet to pledge no first use.

In the next paragraph headed by ‘’Real Power is Fear’’ Woodward wrote: ‘’The answer on North Korea was to scare Kim Jong Un. ‘’He’s a bully Trump told Porter. ‘’He’s a tough guy. The way to deal with those people is by being tough. And I’m going to intimidate him and I’m going to outfox him.’’  In the evening of January second Trump tweeted an insulting message to Kim Jong Un and boasted that he too had a ‘’nuclear button’’, but one much more powerful than the North Korean one.  The diplomatic community was shocked.

Many users of Tweet wondered if Trump had violated the Tweet platform’s terms of service by threatening nuclear war. But Trump went even further by asking White House staff if he should tweet an order to the military to send home all dependents of the 28,500 soldiers deployed in South Korea. One month previously the White House had received a message from the North Korea Politburo asserting that the evacuation of U.S. civilians from South Korea would be interpreted by the North as a preparation of an attack on their country. On page 302 Woodward wrote: ‘’The possible tweets scared the daylights out of the Pentagon leadership – Mattis and Dunford.’’  Fortunately, the Tweet did not go out.  Nevertheless, it’s incredible to think that a tweet could initiate a war.

Chapter 37 justifies the word ‘’Fear’’ in the book’s title.  The Chapter starts with a repetition of arguments by James Mattis and other high-level staff that the U.S. must maintain a strong alliance with South Korea and keep 28,500 troops stationed there. Moving away from South Korea would – it is argued – increase the risk of nuclear war. The nuclear ‘’option’’ must be left on the table. On page 308 author Woodward addresses an additional risk that Obama had anxiously envisaged, namely the explosion of a nuclear bomb over an American city.  With computer networks becoming more prevalent in the military establishments, what guaranty do we have that some nuclear-tipped missile will not be launched by mistake – or as Adam G. Wynne has suggested, through a computer system glitch – and destroy an American city?  Let us remember that two pistol shots on June 28, 1914, killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.  This double murder was used to justify military operations that over the month of July quickly escalated to World War 1.

In Chapter 41 the scary topic of nuclear war is again brought up. This time it’s a question of cyberattacks. Some experts have pointed out that countries like China, Russia, North Korea and Iran have developed their skills in hacking their way into computer systems, some of them located in the U.S. To deter such cyberattacks, here is what Woodward has heard from certain experts (quoting page 340): ‘’The full force of the U.S. military, including nuclear weapons, would have to be a central part of the deterrent.’’  Something close to that had also been written in February 2018 in the Nuclear Posture Review published online by the Pentagon.  Woodward quotes Trump as being very unhappy with vulnerability to cyberattacks. For once we can agree with him.

Nevertheless, the overall judgment that we can draw from Bob Woodward’s book is that putting the responsibility of nuclear weapons in Donald Trump’s hands was imprudent.

Michel is a retired physicist, and a director of Science for Peace.

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