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Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
As a consummate marketer and master of the political insider, “tell all” genre, Bob Woodward has the public poised for breathless revelations in his new book Rage, quoting the ultimate insider, President Trump. While we should all expect to enjoy the momentary sugar high of this literary cotton candy, we should not be so credulous as to believe that this book will actually have substance.
But how can that be so? Let’s put aside the obvious question of why the president spoke on the record to a journalist who has specialized in taking down Republican presidents. Woodward’s acolytes at CNN and the New York Times say that Woodward’s book will show Trump’s “conscious deception” of the American public, by “downplaying” the virus, leading to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
But in fact it may well be that it is Woodward who is perpetrating a massive fraud on the public. The astute, skeptical reader is well advised when approaching Rage to consider Woodward’s history of sensational but questionable journalism.
As recounted in Postgate: How the Washington Post Betrayed Deep Throat, Covered up Watergate and Began Today’s Partisan Advocacy Journalism, Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein so powerfully reported the Watergate scandal that they drove out a sitting president from office, the only time in our nation’s history. But the reporters did so fraudulently, concealing a raft of material facts which, while not exculpating Nixon for his coverup, would have shown that intelligence agency skullduggery, unbeknownst to Nixon, was at the heart of the criminality, and not the ill-conceived, worthless and puzzling campaign spying operation that Woodward reported so falsely.
With his newfound fame for protecting Deep Throat, Woodward gained unprecedented access to “insiders” willing to talk. But he learned a powerful lesson after his two fairly reported bestsellers, Bush at War and Plan of Attack, generally favorable to President George W. Bush’s pursuit of the Iraq war. With the terrorist threat now subdued, the anti-Bush left came down hard on Woodward for being too kind to Bush. Woodward promptly rewrote his own history, State of Denial, and the masterful Commander-in-Chief Bush was now replaced by a feckless, numbskull frat boy who ordered hamburgers during a key strategy meeting. Woodward learned that in a choice between deception of his audience and alienation of the left, the former course is both safer and more profitable.
With these techniques of deception in mind, we easily discern how Rage will distort the truth to defame Trump. “Downplaying” the virus, if that means concealing facts of its deadliness at crucial times, would be concerning. But informing the citizens of its deadliness, while projecting calmness and optimism, given its unknown spread, is commendable. So which is it?
This is where Woodward plays a shell game, claiming Trump deceived the public about the virus’s deadliness, as opposed to truthfully seeking calm in the face of uncertain spread. Trump had strongly warned of the dangerous virus in his February 4 State of the Union address, after shutting down China travel. In fact as of late February 2020, before there were any deaths in the United States (the first was February 29 in Seattle), the American public clearly over-estimated the deadliness of the virus, putting expected fatalities at about 5% of cases, whereas in fact China was reporting 2.1% and public health officials thought that with unreported and asymptomatic cases, the figure could go below 1%, which in fact was the case. As cases had spread beyond China, a spooked stock market slid precipitously on February 27, mirroring public fear.
So was Trump guilty of “conscious deception,” or is Woodward consciously deceiving us about a serious public health matter by sowing distrust in an important public health messenger?
What exactly did Trump “downplay”? Panic. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Trump distorted nothing:
I didn’t see any discrepancies between what he told us and what we told him and what he ultimately came out publicly and said … He really didn’t say anything different than we discussed when we were with him…
[Trump] wanted to make sure the country wouldn’t get down and out about things … I don’t recall anything that was a gross distortion in anything I spoke to him about.
On March 10, Trump urged the public to stay calm (there were only eleven deaths at the time) saying, perhaps too optimistically, he hoped it “would eventually go away.” But that statement caused no harm; the public was frightened enough and balancing with calm was good leadership.
To Trump’s credit, he turned on a dime after March 10, declaring a National Emergency on March 13 (41 dead) with a ban on cruise lines, and closure of libraries and schools, followed by an advisory on nonessential travel, causing toilet paper to become scarce by March 13. Trump’s nationally advised shutdown followed on March 15 (50 deaths).
Interestingly, on the left, politicians were resistant to a shutdown. New York’s Andrew Cuomo, who had sent infected patients to nursing homes, and Bill DeBlasio, who urged enthusiastic bar patronage as late as March 15, and when they did “shut down” bars, they allowed them to serve large crowds outside, losing thousands of lives by these actions, with both officials contributing exponentially to the spread.
So once we reexamine the actual history, we see that Woodward, relying on the miasma of public memory, is deliberately deceiving about whether Trump was deceiving.
Rage is of course doubly designed – to defeat Trump electorally and to empty the pockets, to the reporter’s profit, of Trump-hating readers. But who is harming the public by dishonest messaging, Trump or Woodward? Woodward said he did not know Trump was speaking falsely until May, but claims so dishonestly because he learned all he needed by March 19, when he knew Trump was acting in good faith.
“You’re probably going to screw me,” Trump told Woodward. “And in the end you’ll probably write a lousy book.”
After you read this book, the prediction here is that you will agree wholeheartedly with both of these statements.