Bob Woodward on Donald Trump: ‘He’s a threat to democracy’

For nine months in 2020, when the phone rang at Bob Woodward’s home in Georgetown, chances were it was a call he didn’t want to miss:

White House operator: “Mr. Woodward, the president…”
Trump: “Hi, Bob!”

Woodward noted, “The phone would ring; is it a robocall or is it Trump?”

Sometimes Woodward’s wife, journalist Elsa Walsh, answered the calls, which came in day and night. She joked: “I kind of say – like Princess Diana – that there were three people in this marriage: Bob, me and Donald Trump. And it was kind of endless.”

Woodward scattered tape recorders around the house, ready for the surprise calls.

Operator: “Go ahead, Mr. President. You are connected.”
Trump: “Hi, Bob!”
Woodward: “Sir, how are you?”

And Donald Trump was talking (“I respect Putin. I think Putin likes me. I think I like him”) and talking (“I said to the king, ‘King, you have to pay us for protection’ “), the pandemic, North Korea, Russia, race relations, just about anything.

Trump: “I bring out the rage. I bring out the rage. I always…I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do.”


Simon & Schuster

There were 16 phone calls, 20 total interviews, eight hours of conversations, which Woodward compiled into an audiobook, “The Trump Tapes,” out this week, published by Simon & Schuster (part of the parent company of CBS, Paramount Global).

Woodward told CBS News’ John Dickerson: “In many ways, this is the missing piece of the Trump story. We’ve heard a lot about Trump. He said a lot. But what did he say? do do in the presidency? And having time, I could go back and ask questions again and again.”

Woodward wrote about the calls, but hearing Trump in his own voice, he thinks, is enlightening: “I talked about it in the book I did, ‘Rage.’ But then I went back and I listened to these tapes and said, ‘My God, there’s a whole new Trump emerging.'”

Trump’s tone of voice provides insight into why he may have kept totems from his presidency at Mar-a-Lago, such as letters from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. It’s clearly a relationship he cherishes:

Trump: “We get along great. We’ve always gotten along great. … You meet someone and you have great chemistry, and there’s a lot of truth in that. You meet a woman, in a second, you know if it’s all going to happen or not. Okay? We had great chemistry together.”

The subjects go from humor…

Trump: “I said [to Kim], “Have you ever heard of the song ‘Rocket Man’?” He said, ‘No, no.’ “Have you ever heard of Elton John? ‘No no.’ I said, ‘I did you a great favor. I called you Rocket Man. He said, ‘You called me Little Rocket Man!'”

…seriously deadly…

Woodward: “Did you give Kim too much power?”
Trump: “No.”
Woodward: “Because if he’s defiant, if he shoots one of these ICBMs…”
Trump: “It’s okay.”
Woodward: “…what are you going to do, sir?”
Trump: “It doesn’t – let me tell you, whether I gave it to him or not, if he shoots, he shoots. And if he shoots, he shoots.”

Dickerson asked: “He says of the North Korean leader, ‘If he shoots, he shoots. How did you react to that?”

“I really froze,” Woodward replied. “Because Trump said it in a kind of, ‘If he shoots’, you know, kind of cavalier way. And, of course, that would be unthinkable.”

Bob Woodward, Washington Post reporter.

CBS News

A theme runs through the eight hours of tape: Trump thought the presidency was a one-man show

Trump: “I get people, they come up with ideas. But the ideas are mine, Bob. The ideas are mine. You want to know something? It’s all mine.”

But a personality-based presidency has been overtaken by COVID-19. What Woodward called one of the most amazing moments in his 50 years of reporting was learning that on January 28, 2020, just days after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States, the adviser Trump’s national security official, Robert O’Brien, had given him a grave warning:

O’Brien: “I think the exact phrase I used was, ‘This will be the greatest national security threat you will face during your presidency. I was pretty passionate about it.”

Yet, at a rally in New Hampshire two weeks later, Trump said: “It looks like in April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away. Hopefully it’s true!”

When Woodward learned of this discrepancy between what the president knew and what he said, he asked Trump why he hadn’t sounded the alarm:

Trump: “I always wanted to play it down because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Woodward: “Was there a moment in all of this, in the past two months, when you thought, ‘Ah, this is the leadership test of a lifetime’?”
Trump: “No!”

Woodward told Dickerson: ‘When you hear that voice and the way he assesses situations and himself, he drowns in himself. And at one point when I’m interviewing him and just making the commentary,’ I feel like I’m talking to a drowning man,’ when he talks about the virus, and he says, ‘We’ve got it under control.'”

Taken together, the recordings paint a revealing self-portrait.

Dickerson asked, “Does he consider the presidency a possession?”

“Yeah, I think he does,” Woodward replied. “I think [he considers it] as a trophy. And he has it. And he’s going to hold it.”

Which leads to one of Woodward’s biggest regrets: the question he didn’t ask. “There was a moment when I asked him, ‘I heard if you lose, you’re not going to leave the White House?'”

Woodward: “Everyone says Trump is going to stay in the White House if it’s contested. Have you thought…”
Trump: “Well, I’m not – I don’t even want to comment on this, Bob. I don’t want to comment on this right now. Hey, Bob, I’ve got all these people, I’ll talk to you later this evening !”

“That’s the only time he didn’t comment,” Woodward said. “And this, of course, was months before his loss. And I kinda slapped myself: Why didn’t I follow that a bit more?

Dickerson asked, “At the end of the book, ‘Rage,’ you said that Donald Trump was ‘singularly unfit to be president’. And now, listening to these tapes, you come to a more serious conclusion. What is that conclusion? “

“Trump was the wrong person for the job,” Woodward replied. “I realize now, two years later, that all January 6 Uprisingleads me to the conclusion that he’s not just the wrong person for the job, but he’s dangerous, and he’s a threat to democracy, and he’s a threat to the presidency, because he does not understand the basic obligations that arise from this Office.”

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Story produced by Jason Sacca. Publisher: Lauren Barnello.

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