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Bob Woodward nearly a decade ago, talking about Watergate

Wait, So Now We’re Blaming Bob Woodward?

We really that mad he might go 2 for 2 in bringing down corrupt Presidents?

Seeing many ludicrous push-backs to the revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book about the Trump Presidency.

Just to quickly make sure we’re all on the same page: Woodward has Trump on tape admitting both that he knew COVID-19 was extremely serious as far back as January, and also admitting, in March, that he was deliberately downplaying it to the American public.

So at first what we see most widely in response, mostly from Trump supporters, is simply an assertion that the President of the United States deliberately lying to the American people, while simultaneously admitting that lie to a member of the media, only really matters to the media. Nobody else will or should give a hoot. But that doesn’t seem to stick.

But then something else does start sticking, and from several angles. And it comes hard and fast on my social media: both from Trump supporters, and also some highly respectable journalists. That maybe Woodward deserves to be demonized too. As much as Trump. Maybe even more, because we all already know Trump lies all the time. Because Woodward held back information he had on tape from his conversations with Trump from as far back as January, which might have made a difference in the course and outcomes of the pandemic had he released it at the time Trump told him, instead of hanging on to it until he finished his book.

So will and should that controversy eclipse the content of the book itself? Which seems to otherwise powerfully serve as the best evidence yet that we’ve never experienced a Presidency before with the same level of corruption and mendacity that comes with Trump, at least not in our lifetimes. And also that we now we have irrefutable proof that Trump really is the worst of the worst, the lying-est of the liars, and doesn’t care about people at all except himself.

We know at least one person who’d like the book to be buried under a pile of ethical concerns about its author. (Even though Woodward isn’t particularly “liberal media”, and wrote books critical of Democratic Presidents too.) And that’s the President. Trump verily launching himself onto that bandwagon, saying if what he told Woodward was “bad” then:

He should’ve immediately — right after I said it — gone out to the authorities.”

So in some ways it seems the only effective possible way to distract from the unimpeachable nature of Woodward’s work, because he has tapes of everything and it’s really really bad, is to question and then condemn his methods and motives. Until one man’s inaction begins to cancel out the other man’s misdeeds. Or at least becomes a fog where the clearest picture yet of Trump’s lying and corruption becomes jumbled with a tale of media misconduct.

From a political perspective, the best possible outcome for Trump is to bury Woodward under a mountain of criticism so relentlessly that the main plot of this story becomes one of a reporter acting so obsessively to take down Trump that he loses sight of the public good, not of Trump acting horribly negligently, with tapes to prove it: to the point at which Trump couldn’t get away anymore with saying he didn’t do and say what he actually did and said.

This should be slamming the lid on the Trump presidency, not perpetuating the self-promoted myth that Trump’s a target and a victim for the ages.

If Bob Woodward was a White House beat reporter, and it was obvious he’d been saving his juiciest stuff up for a book, that criticism might be valid.

But it’s not. Because he’s not.

Woodward was working on a huge project. A history book. Not a breaking news story. Getting the job done he set out to do necessitated developing a continuing relationship with Trump. Woodward needed to become a confidant. Or at least someone Trump would want to impress and thus brag to. That’s not a disingenuous thing for a reporter to do: if they do not have the skills to get close to their subject, they aren’t very good at their job. It doesn’t mean it’s not a real relationship. Actually, it needs to be. And it’s still up to the person you’re writing about what they do or don’t ultimately tell you.

And Woodward is not trying to keep up with and explain a chain of unfolding events. He is trying to inspect and analyze the President’s thinking that’s resulting in whatever actions he then takes. So it’s still reporting, but it’s a completely different kind of reporting than someone on a daily or weekly beat.

So in order for his book to pack a punch Woodward requires unfettered access. You may remember that Trump complained bitterly after Woodward’s prior book about him did not include any direct comments or explanations from the President. In a phone call Woodward recorded and released at that time, he explained to Trump that he’d put in many interview requests through various White House channels, and he’d been ignored. Trump said he didn’t know about that.

OK, but isn’t it still Woodward’s responsibility as a journalist to put the public good above all else? (As is Trump’s as President?) Yes, of course!

But isn’t it in the public’s interest to tell the most complete story possible especially if you’ve worked for years to achieve a level of access no other reporter of his caliber is likely to get? Will history view Trump based only on one thing he said on January 28th or February 7th or March 19th? Or on his whole body of work?

And that’s another point that’s important: this isn’t the product of just one interview with the President. Even though Trump talked to Woodward a bunch of times in January and February, he didn’t reveal to Woodward that he was deliberately downplaying it until the middle of March.

By then, we all knew it was going to be bad because at least in major Eastern cities and states. People were already getting sick and dying around us. And yes, Trump was still downplaying it. So what if he’d been confronted with that fact at that time? Would he suddenly have been forced to be compassionate and empathic? Or would he have lied and equivocated even more? We can’t answer that. We can’t know.

Yes the President’s behavior was shameful. Does that mean Woodward shares that shame?

Would Trump have worn a mask if Woodward had released the tape with Trump admitting he was downplaying? Pretty sure I know the answer. Pretty sure also Trump would’ve stopped cooperating with Woodward had he done that.

But also fair to presume it might’ve made some difference.

So here’s what it comes down to as I see it: was it worth losing the entirety of the book to come out with the tapes sooner? The answer Woodward apparently came to was no.

If you want to say definitively you would’ve made a different choice that’s understandable.

I believe had I been in that position my decision would’ve been based on the context in which I viewed the project. The enormity of what Woodward was able to access is astounding. And that’s just based on little snippets of the book so far.

I might’ve tipped some White House reporters off, and let them try to confirm on their own, but admittedly that would’ve been hard without tapes to back them up. Especially with a President this eely.

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