Deconstructing Woodward

Bob Woodward (Hillel Steinberg via Flickr)

by Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

The blockbuster New York Times anonymous article on staff resistance at the White House coincided with the release of Bob Woodward’s most recent book, both of them leveling similar allegations against the Trump administration. Woodward, an associate editor of the Washington Post called the anonymous op-ed sub-standard and undeserving of publication. Susan Glasser of The New Yorker, however, has aptly written, “It was as if one of Woodward’s sources had chosen to publish a real-time epilogue in the pages of the Times.”

Indeed, the op-ed and the book both hammer home nearly identical points about Trump’s need for adult supervision, his penchant to do things at the spur of the moment, without being “derailed by forethought,” his dangerous and impulsive inclinations, and so on. In other words, the op-ed confirms the book’s central thesis about a chaotic White House led by an ignorant and impetuous president, although Woodward steers clear of ascribing “amorality” to Trump as the op-ed’s anonymous author has done. What is more, both heap praise on Trump on the policy side while questioning his personal style of presidency. But there is a more organic connection between the book and the op-ed.

Although it focuses on the debates and decision-making in Trump’s White House, Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House devotes the first 50 pages to the familiar story of Trump’s campaign and the crucial role played by Steve Bannon as well as his big donors. Conspicuously absent however, is any reference to two of Trump’s biggest donors, namely, Sheldon Adelson and Bernard Marcus, who are also the board members of the Likudist Republican Jewish Committee.

In fact, such omissions can be found aplenty in the book. For example, there is no mention of the Israel lobby’s efforts to influence Trump on the Iran nuclear deal or of the role of far-right John Bolton, who assumed the position of national security advisor in March 2018 while Woodward’s book was still in progress. Similarly, Woodward ignores the fact that Trump fired his initial secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, partly because of the latter’s support for the Iran nuclear deal. Incredibly, Woodward cites Trump’s statement on Tillerson’s firing while editing out the Iran reference. As a result, there is no discussion of why Trump replaced his national security advisor and secretary of state with more hawkish and virulently anti-Iran voices. Such gaps in explanation point to the author’s political agenda, which the media has seriously misrepresented as being anti-Trump.

On the contrary, Woodward’s book, while critical of aspects of Trump’s personality traits and their negative impact on decision-making, is on the whole a strong endorsement of the main contours of Trump’s presidency. This stance explains why Woodward is dismissive of the Steele dossier on Trump and unfairly criticizes former FBI director, James Comey for including it in the intelligence report to the president (Comey defended his choice by noting the FBI’s assessment that the sources in that dossier were “credible”). Similarly, Woodward devotes considerable attention to the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, yet does so by and large through the prism of Trump’s attorney, John Dowd, whose conclusions and interpretations Woodward often accepts at face value.

In fact, with respect to Trump himself, Woodward is not entirely negative. His book highlights Trump’s penchant for “crowdsourcing” before making any decision, his flexibility and pragmatism, and his willingness to modify his positions after being persuaded by better arguments, such as on NAFTA or NATO.

Meanwhile, the book’s opening big bang about an economic adviser’s claim to have removed the withdrawal order from a trade agreement with South Korea from Trump’s desk at the Oval Office does not withstand critical scrutiny. Whereas at first Woodward claims that this order, which Trump had not seen, had come from “unknown channels,” subsequently he revises himself: “At least twice, Porter had the order drafted as the president had directed. And at least twice Cohen or Porter took it from his desk.” Rob Porter was a staff secretary who resigned after allegations of sexual abuse by his ex-wives surfaced. The book is full of testimonials from Porter, suggesting that he was more influential than was probably the case. It’s an example of Woodward’s pattern of adopting witness accounts at face value. The possibility that some of these witnesses may have been less than candid in their recollection of events or may have bent the facts in order to shine in the book simply does not occur to the veteran investigative author.

Nor is Woodward ever troubled by the scarcity of information about any of the dozens of policy decisions and debates covered in his journalistic narrative. He simply ignores the possibility that the secret national security discussions on Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen may have been different from the ones he cites in the book. Yet Woodward surely must know the limits of his fact-gathering endeavor.

Moreover, the book can hardly be said to be strictly objective. For instance, Woodward demonizes Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has been integrated in national politics and is an important arm of national defense against threats from neighboring Israel. In comparison, Woodward fails to utter a word of criticism of the corrupt and dictatorial Saudi leadership, which has been exporting its Wahhabi radicalism and bullying neighbors such as Qatar and Yemen with assistance from Western nations. Also, Woodward steers clear of Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, thanks in part to the efforts of his ardently pro-Israel son-in-law Jared Kushner. Woodward fails to ask why this inexperienced 37-year-old plays such an important role in shaping Trump’s foreign policies,

Woodward could have easily concluded his book with a series of policy recommendations, such as calling for an end to Trumpian nepotism. Yet he fails to do so. However, he targets the relatively pragmatic defense secretary James Mattis by attributing to him Trump-bashing remarks that Mattis has adamantly denied making. Mattis, who is against a U.S. war with Iran, is out of step with the White House warmongers, who see the Pentagon chief as an impediment to their hawkish agenda.   Although Trump has defended Mattis against Woodward’s insinuations, the pressure to replace Mattis with another more hawkish defense secretary is still ongoing.

To his credit, Woodward admits that the administration’s Iran policy has left it without any major ally in the international arena. The likes of Mattis and Tillerson repeatedly defended the Iran nuclear deal to no avail, as the forces opposed to the normalization of relations with Iran prevailed. This development alone should have prompted Woodward to rethink his assessment of Trump’s flexibility, pragmatism, and willingness to change his positions. By no means anti-Trump, Bob Woodward has produced a book that, for all its gossipy tidbits, gives far more respectability to Trump’s program than it deserves.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team and the author of several books on Iran’s foreign affairs, including Iran Nuclear Accord and the Remaking of the Middle East (with Nader Entessar). 

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  1. A great critical review debunking this pitiful editor getting huge mileage from the NYTimes piece which is well coordinated with his book. Woodward is a self-serving opportunistic shallow journalist whose writing style reminds me of 11th graders, quite juvenile and dangerous closet warmonger. My hats off to the author for his timely critique.

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