Bob Woodward’s voice is well known in Washington and former President Trump’s is known around the world. But we hear both in a new way in Woodward’s new audiobook The Trump tapes.
Woodward released the transcript and raw audio of about 20 interviews he did with Trump in 2019 and 2020. Trump responded by saying on Fox News that he would sue Woodward (calling him “very sordid” ), not because the tapes are inaccurate but because Trump says they belong to him and he should be compensated for their sale.
The interviews were arranged to inform Woodward’s second book on the trump presidency, Rage, which appeared just before Trump lost his re-election bid. The president had not cooperated with the the journalist’s previous book on Trump, To fear, a very critical study published in 2018.
Initially conducted in the Oval Office, the series continued for months, with Trump often making surprise phone calls to Woodward at home or on his cellphone.
During these hours of Trump’s recorded voice, we hear him straining to court Woodward’s favor, praising him as “a great historian” and “the great Bob Woodward.” Yet these conversations often degenerate into disagreements and even debates.
One subject comes to dominate the discussion: the Covid virus which has come to dominate the election year. In February 2020, Trump tells Woodward that everything is fine in America but “now we have a little setback with the Chinese virus” which “will go away in a few months with the heat.”
Later, Trump tenaciously clings to his “under control” line as Woodward recites all the evidence to the contrary.
We hear Trump repeatedly tell Woodward that he was the only voice urging the United States to shut down arrivals from China in early 2020. He says he did so in defiance of a room full of councilors who rejected this idea.
Woodward returns with notes from almost everyone in that room, all saying that at least four or five others (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top epidemiologist) called for this same shutdown at the same meeting . Trump denies it again and again, insisting he was “all alone” and regularly mentioning it as if Woodward had never heard of it before.
It was March 19 when Trump said he “will never be recognized for the good things” he did and added that he didn’t want people to know how bad and deadly Covid could be because he didn’t want to “freak people out”.
We hear Woodward’s voice asking questions throughout the recordings. He also recorded the comment that appears in the written transcript, so we hear him checking and correcting the president.
Trump seems fully aware that Woodward is not just another reporter. He may even have learned of the journalist’s career built on books about presidents, starting with his first, All the president’s men, which recounted his contribution to the downfall of Richard Nixon nearly half a century ago.
Since then, the presidents have sat down with Woodward to push their side of the story. It was a necessary exercise, if only because the long Washington Post The journalist relentlessly interviews all the other key players in each administration in search of the unvarnished and the unofficial.
But it may have surprised Trump when Woodward returned to criticizing the Covid response with such fervor. Woodward’s role shifts from journalist to debater here, most notably in the April 5, 2020 interview when he shares a list he compiled of “16 things” he thinks Trump needs to do to bring the virus under control. When the call ends, we hear Woodward’s wife, reporter Elsa Walsh, wondering aloud if he should talk to the president like that.
Listening to these tapes now, the topics are as familiar as Trump’s raspy baritone (which at times gets belligerent and close to breathless). On substance, Trump dwells on an agenda that ranges from his grievances to his notions of his greatest successes. Grievances center on his “very unfair” treatment by Democrats, RINOs (Republicans in name only), “rogue media” and the federal establishment – also known as the “deep state” and “the swamp”. “.
We also hear an unrepentant Trump bragging about preventing Congress from sanctioning Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman for the murder of Saudi Arabian Jamal Khashoggi, columnist for The Washington Post who strongly criticized the prince. “I saved his life,” Trump says, “and it wasn’t easy.”
Trump’s rhetoric remains as it has been since he emerged as a candidate in 2015, uttered infused with a sense of victimhood that continues to this day in his posts on “Truth Social.” The main difference is that here his frequent profanity is left untouched.
Among the accomplishments he wants Woodward to highlight are the judicial appointments he made from a list compiled by the Federalist Society and promoted by Mitch McConnell, who was then Senate Majority Leader. That number increases with each interview, with Trump eventually claiming it was 280 and Woodward adding a footnote to say it was, ultimately, a still impressive 234.
But Trump also claims credit for a robust pre-Covid economy and record stock market and escaping nuclear war with North Korea, he says, would have been inevitable had his rival, Hillary Clinton, had won the Electoral College in 2016.
Trump spends considerable time seeking Woodward’s acknowledgment of the “breakthrough” with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s curious young dictator. Trump can barely contain his fascination with the way Kim took out rivals for dictatorship, including the beheading of an uncle. Trump offers to share Kim’s letters (which are classified information) with Woodward but asks him not to say how he got them.
Trump also dwells on his resentments over the “Russia hoax” and the alleged FBI plot to get him, and his first impeachment. (The latter followed its delay in military aid to Ukraine as it called on that country to launch or announce an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter.)
Perhaps the most repeated of several Trump mantras is “I’ve done more than any other president in less than three years” (which becomes three and a half years over interviews and months). This refrain reappears regularly, sometimes multiple times in the same conversation, demonstrating Trump’s career-long reliance on repetition for effect.
It also extends in surprising directions, like when he says, “I’ve done more for black people than any president other than the late great Abe,” Trump says, alluding to Abraham Lincoln. When Woodward brings up Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and created the Great Society programs, Trump fires back with, “No, I did more.”
Sometimes we hear voices other than those of the two principals. Woodward interviews Robert O’Brien, who was Trump’s national security adviser, and O’Brien’s deputy, Matthew Pottinger. Both confirm that they warned Trump that the virus from China would be “the greatest national security threat you face during your presidency.”
We also hear briefly from First Lady Melania Trump, as well as her daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, who shows up while Trump speaks to Woodward, is also audible in the background. Trump calls the senator “Linds”.
Questions will surely be asked regarding Woodward’s motivation for this audiobook. On one level, he is simply reiterating the case he made a year ago regarding Trump’s fitness for office. He observes in his prologue that reading something someone said lacks the strength to hear it in his own voice. (It’s a case that NPR and other audio-based communicators have been making for many years.)
There is no doubt that hearing Trump has an impact that reading alone cannot match. Woodward in his epilogue speaks of the “real Trump…beating in my ears in a way the printed page does not capture”.
It’s also possible that Woodward is responding here to critics who have criticized his work and that of other Trump columnists. At least some journalists who have written books about Trump have been accused of withholding newsworthy nuggets, keeping them secret and fresh for their books. Woodward shows in his own way how difficult it is to do journalism and historiography at the same time.
He also asks Trump to reflect on his place in history and the omens of his presidency. He’s trying to get Trump to comment on something historian Barbara Tuchman wrote about Europe in 1914, just before World War I. “On the history clock, it was sunset,” Tuchman wrote.
Woodward then adds: “A little over a century later, the year 2016 and the election of Trump as President turned out to be another sunset. The old political order was dying and is now dead.”
Trump responds by praising his own remarkable “instinct” for perceiving the weakness of both major political parties when he did and exploiting it to get himself elected. Woodward calls it “the clock of history”. He says the thought of it literally makes Trump bounce in his chair, saying “yes and I’m going to do it again in 2020” – as triumphant as Woodward is concerned.
In a Morning Edition interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep that aired Oct. 24, Woodward explains how “the power of audio” brings something unsettling about Trump. “His voice is so absorbed in himself, how he feels and his conclusions.”
Woodward says Trump “is not comfortable with democracy”, later adding that Trump “doesn’t understand democracy”. He goes back to Trump’s assertion that “It’s all mine,” an echo of his assertion from the 2016 convention that “Only I can fix it.”
“It’s so off track, you don’t know what to do with it,” Woodward told Inskeep. “It’s almost inexplicable. So what do you do as a journalist? You just lay it all out and let the people decide.”