Maybe it’s all Senator Lindsey Graham’s fault.
“It was Lindsey Graham who helped convince Donald Trump to talk to Bob Woodward,” Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson told his TV audience Wednesday night. “Lindsey Graham brokered that meeting. Lindsey Graham even sat in on the first interview between Bob Woodward and the president. How’d that turn out?”
It hasn’t turned out well, of course. Trump admitted in a taped interview with the veteran investigative reporter that he knew in February that the coronavirus was far more serious than he was acknowledging publicly. At least 190,000 Americans have since died from COVID-19, hurried to their graves by Trump’s faltering, apathetic response to the pandemic.
Trump spent nine hours across 18 interviews with Woodward for his new book, “Rage,” which has also spurred lots of finger-pointing in the White House. Senior Trump aides, according to Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, are also casting about for targets to blame for granting Woodward relatively lavish access to the president, as well as to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and many others.
I don’t work for Fox News or the White House, but I can help both outfits sort through the blame game: It’s Trump’s fault, and nobody else’s.Trump is a media junkie who has a fixation on the very same reporters he loves to castigate, and he has a limitless belief in his own powers of persuasion. He has spent decades jousting with the media, successfully and unsuccessfully, to shape his public image while snaring his ultimate prize along the way: the spotlight. Trump as a canny, experienced entrepreneur willing to break things to get the job done was a media creation that “The Apprentice” put on steroids — and a chimera that helped propel him into the White House.
In reality, Trump is like a juvenile delinquent: willing to break things just because he likes to break things. Still, he always believes that his version of himself and events will eventually win out. So he keeps his shoulder to the wheel, constantly engaging with the media even if it’s counterproductive and leads to self-immolation.
Trump spent dozens of hours with me across scores of interviews for a biography published in 2005, “TrumpNation.” I wasn’t unfamiliar with Trump when I began working on the book.
I was the research assistant for the late Wayne Barrett on his book, “Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth,” which remains the foundational Trump biography. Trump so feared and loathed Barrett that he had him arrested for trespassing when the two of us attended a Trump birthday bash in Atlantic City in the early 1990s. I also interviewed Trump at length in the mid-’90s for a book I wrote about gambling, and I covered him extensively as a reporter for The New York Times in the early 2000s. None of my coverage was purely positive; most of it was sharply critical. Yet he kept cultivating our relationship, phoning me at odd hours for years, mailing me envelopes packed with positive news clippings, and persuading an assortment of advocates to reach out to me with tales of his grandeur and derring-do.
Toward the end of our time together on my book, as he drove me to one of his golf courses, he said he would smear me in the media if my portrayal was negative. Why bother cooperating with me in the first place, I asked? Trump explained.
“Number one, it’s going to be an experience for me. Number two, I do enjoy your company. Number three, I want to see if you get it right,” he told me. “It’s almost like a competitive thing with me. I almost wanna see if you can get Trump.”
“Why not just blow me off entirely?” I asked.
“Because I’m sort of curious. And I think you are starting to get me much better than you started to get me when you first came up to my office.”
Then he added: “I’m not saying this to try to convince you to try to do a good book or bad book. I think people are tired of seeing the negative s—t. You know one of the reasons my books sell is because they’re positive. People don’t want to read about a negative Trump.”
My book turned out to portray a negative Trump. He then sued me for libel and lost. During the litigation, he had to produce his tax returns and other financial records, and he also had to sit for two damning days of depositions. The depositions, in which Trump, under oath, was forced to admit 30 times that he had lied over the years about all sorts of stuff are now a permanent part of the public record and his legacy. Trump would have been wise not to sue.
Trump would have been wiser not to cooperate with my book in the first place, and he would have been wise not to have cooperated with Woodward’s book, either. He didn’t cooperate with “Fear,” Woodward’s previous book, and that probably saved him some additional grief. But here’s the rub: Trump isn’t wise.
Trump regretted not cooperating with “Fear,” convincing himself that it would have come out glowingly if he had engaged more directly with the reporter who brought down Richard Nixon. “It would have been a better book if I talked to him,” Trump said in 2018, according to The Washington Post. So he ambled into the ring for round two, certain that he could steer the effort toward a positive outcome. Graham and others might have laced up his gloves and escorted him to his corner, but it was Trump’s choice. At age 74, he’s been battling and courting the media for the better part of 50 years. He knows the game. In an interview Wednesday with The Washington Post’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, about why he didn’t publish newsworthy portions of his book earlier, Woodward thought it was notable that Trump called him at night. But as any reporter who has spent more than one minute with Trump will tell you, once he begins the dance it’s an all-hours affair.
Trump courts the media 24/7 because he is addicted to it, and addicts can’t help themselves.
Much of what Woodward has so diligently reported confirms much of what a raft of other reporting about Trump’s White House tenure has already revealed: He doesn’t care about properly managing an epic public health crisis, doesn’t care about the well-being of Black Americans, happily takes cheap shots at the military, is dangerously loose-lipped about national security issues, has an ill-informed and chaotic approach to foreign policy, and is wildly unfit to be president.
Trump, in Woodward’s account, is the guy we’ve always known him to be, a con man and a carny act. And once again, Trump has been undone by his own words.
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Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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