Bob Woodward on President Trump“He’s capable of some empathy, but his focus is on himself.”

As heard on The Ryan Tubridy Show

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If you’ve written a stack of best-selling books, won two Pulitzer Prizes and Robert Redford has played you in a movie, you might be tempted to cruise a little as you head towards 80. Not so Bob Woodward. His book Rage, part of an ongoing look at the Trump White House, was published last month. It’s his 20th book and the second on the current U.S. administration, following Fear in 2018.  Woodward settled in with Ryan Tubridy this morning for a wide-ranging chat on the 45th U.S. president, the Trump administration’s pandemic response, the 2020 election and the future of American democracy.

Before diving into politics, Ryan wanted Bob Woodward’s personal impression of President Trump. Did Woodward agree with those who claimed that the president lacked empathy? The veteran reporter gave a nuanced reply; citing something he wrote in his 2018 book, Fear:

“He’s capable of some empathy, but his focus is on himself.”

Woodward doesn’t hold back, when it comes to reports of  President Trump’s reluctance to leave office, whatever the outcome of the November 3rd elections:

“Trump is assassinating the presidency, because, as we are less than two weeks before the election here, Trump has made continuous statements that he will not accept a peaceful transfer of power.” 

In Woodward’s view, President Trump’s constant critique of the voting process is chipping away at the cornerstone of American democracy:

“He has said we can’t count on the electoral system, of course, which is the basis in any democracy for constitutional legitimacy.”  

The election on November 3rd will not be the end of President Trump’s period in office, even if he is voted out, Woodward says. A unique feature of the American electoral system sees the sitting president stay in office for more than 70 days after the election:

“We have November, December and most of January until a new president takes office, or Trump takes office again. So that’s three months that Trump is going to be president still.” 

What will happen during this “lame duck” session is uncertain, Woodward says, and the uncertainty is not helped by the President’s allegations of potential voter fraud, especially concerning mail-in ballots. What is clear, Woodward says, is that President Trump has never shied away from using the powers of his office, powers which have grown steadily in his time as a political journalist. Having reported on 9 American presidents, Bob Woodward says he has seen the office evolve over the past 50 years:

“The concentration of power in the presidency has only gone up. And so Trump, by seizing control of the communication system in this country; I don’t mean illegally, just by doing the unexpected, and exercising his power; that he has probably more power than any president, certainly since Nixon.” 

And with that handy segue into Nixon, Ryan asks the reporter who shot to fame in the Watergate era, covering events which led to a presidential resignation, will history be kinder to Nixon or to Trump? Woodward points to one obvious difference between the two:

“Clearly, Nixon was a criminal. And that’s why his own party, the Republican Party, forced him out of office and made it clear he didn’t have the support and so Nixon voluntarily resigned. In the case of Trump, the crimes have not been proven.” 

While he is highly critical of President Trump, Bob Woodward hints at a deeper, more systemic failure in U.S. politics. He points to the fact that it was the “American system” that nominated Donald Trump and ultimately elected him to the highest office in the land:

“When history is written, Trump’s failure to heed the warnings he was given is going to be probably the story of the failure of the American presidency and the American system to nominate and elect someone who responsibly would  carry out the duties of president. And Trump’s actions are not only a calamity but they are irresponsible. I think there is a moral dimension to this because of the depth and magnitude of that failure.” 

There’s more on Putin, polls and pandemic pronouncements in Bob Woodward’s full interview with Ryan Tubridy, which you can listen back to here.

Bob Woodward’s latest book Rage is published by Simon and Schuster and is out now.

Ruth Kennedy

© The Listener 2020

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