A portrait of a president: fear and loathing in Donald Trump's White House
Bob Woodward is without doubt the greatest journalist of his generation. He is certainly the best known and, since his role in the expose of Richard Nixon and the Watergate cover-up in the early 1970s, in Washington he is also one of the most feared.
Appropriately enough, Mr Woodward’s latest book is entitled Fear and dissects the dysfunctional Trump White House in a portrait of the president that suggests he is unfit for any form of public office.
The headline stories of Donald Trump’s lack of attention, inability to focus, temper tantrums and his own personal fear of the Mueller investigation into his Russian links offer a stunningly detailed confirmation of what anyone paying attention to American politics over the past two years already knows.
Mr Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly is said to have described the president as an “idiot”, the White House as “Crazytown”, and according to Mr Woodward, has said plaintively: “I don’t know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
It’s a good question. Why, beyond patriotism and an idea of public service, would anyone wish to serve this president? Usually, a year or two in the White House – any White House, serving any president – is not just a badge of honour. It is also generally a shrewd career move, opening up the possibility of further lucrative employment in the private sector, perhaps the publication of memoirs, and a career as a TV pundit.
But the members of the Trump White House team are damaged by voluntarily working in Crazytown and many will have talked to Mr Woodward for reasons of self-preservation. When I worked in Washington during the Bill Clinton years, senior members of the administration would talk anonymously with him out of their own sense of fear – fear that their views, their spin, their contribution to the Clinton presidency would not be valued properly and that some rival would get his or her message across more effectively.
What is striking about Mr Woodward’s work is that it bears out the old Washington adage that there are two things no one should ever witness up close – the making of sausages and the making of laws. Politics and lawmaking, like sausage-making, is a grubby business.
The presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush senior and junior, plus Barack Obama, all had their low points and most of them were blighted in some way by scandal.
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Fear, however, takes us into a different league entirely. Whatever the flaws of Mr Trump’s predecessors, they all tried to the best of their ability to do what they believed were good things for their country.
Nixon was a mean-spirited man who took revenge on his enemies but compared to Mr Trump, he was bold, realistic, ambitious, thoughtful in foreign policy and – it almost chokes me to write this – a liberal progressive compared to today’s Republican party.
Reagan, grievously wounded in an assassination attempt, was portrayed – especially in European newspapers – as inattentive and not really in charge of policy.
But again, compared to Mr Trump, Reagan had the focus of a laser beam and the intellect of Albert Einstein. Like him or loathe him, Reagan had a few big conservative ideas – free markets, low taxes, strong defence – and he employed around him a brilliant team of people who implemented those ideas.
What is also clear is that while presidents have always had disloyal members of staff, the vast majority of those who served Nixon, Reagan, Mr Clinton, the Bushes and Mr Obama tended to adore the leader they worked for. When Mr Clinton’s adultery with Monica Lewinsky was revealed, staff members told me of their shock and disappointment, but not a single one of them resigned.
The big question underlying Mr Woodward’s careful demolition of the Trump presidency is what can be done about it. Perhaps not much.
The Mueller probe might uncover something so damaging that impeachment proceedings begin. But it is worth remembering that no sitting president has ever been removed from office by impeachment. The other route of removal – the 25th amendment – is beset with even more hurdles.
The Democrats might win big in November’s hugely important Congressional elections but the key to Mr Trump’s survival lies within his own Republican party.
Do Republican politicians in Congress really believe their own best interests – never mind the best interests of the United States – are served by Mr Trump in the White House? Might he be persuaded to resign rather than continue to make himself a laughing stock, divide Republicans and diminish America’s credibility worldwide?
The New York Times recently carried an extraordinary article by an anonymous senior official in the White House who claims that he and other staff members are “unsung heroes” who are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations”.
These sound like the excuses of someone who recognises that his or her career is doomed by being associated with Mr Trump.
Republican members of Congress could become true heroes if they find the courage to tell Mr Trump that for the good of America, he should quit the presidency before he tarnishes this great office and great country any more by his presence.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter
Updated: September 11, 2018 10:11 AM