Acclaimed journalist Bob Woodward explained his decision to release tapes of his 20 interviews with Donald Trump, saying he had finally recognized the “unprecedented danger” the former president poses to American democracy.
His three books on the Trump presidency, Woodward said, “didn’t go far enough”.
The veteran reporter will release an audiobook, The Trump Tapes, on Tuesday. On Sunday, he published excerpts of an essay for the Washington Post, the paper for which he and Carl Bernstein covered the Watergate scandal that toppled Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.
Woodward, 79, has portrayed every president since. His three Trump books – Fear, Rage and Peril, the last written with Robert Costa – were instant bestsellers.
But by Woodward’s own admission, these books exercised reporting caution when it came to passing judgment, even as they chronicled four chaotic years that culminated in the January 6 Capitol attack.
Woodward’s decision to pass judgment now did not meet with universal praise.
Oliver Willis, a writer for the American Independent, a progressive outlet, pointed to recent criticism of journalists, including Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, for allegedly having important reports for Trump books. Willis said Woodward essentially saying “Guyer, I kind of feel like Trump might be a fascist” was a “perfect example of how ivory tower journalism fails to inform the public”.
Seth Abramson, author of three books on Trump, said: “I don’t know how it happened, but the Trump cinephiles, who knew this for sure because of their research in 2016 and 2017, were outsold by Bob Woodward 10-to-1, even though he only came to this conclusion now. A failure of media, or of publishing? Or both?”
In the Post, Woodward elaborated on his change of heart.
“There is no turning back for American politics,” he wrote. “Trump was and still is a tremendous force and indelible presence with the most powerful political machine in the country. He has the largest group of followers, loyalists and fundraisers, surpassing even the president’s [Joe] Biden.
“In 2020 I finished Rage with the following sentence: ‘When his performance as president is taken as a whole, I can only come to one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.’
“Two years later, I realize I didn’t go far enough. Trump is an unprecedented danger. When you listen to him on the range of issues from foreign policy to [coronavirus] to racial injustice, it’s clear he didn’t know what to do. Trump was overwhelmed by the job.”
In June 2020, Woodward said, he asked Trump if he had help writing a speech on law and order amid national protests for racial justice.
Trump said: “I understand people, they come up with ideas. But the ideas are mine, Bob. You want to know something? Everything is mine.”
Woodward wrote: “The voice, almost whispering and intimate, is so revealing. I think it’s Trump’s view of the presidency. Everything is mine. The presidency is mine. it’s still my. The only point of view that matters is mine.
“The Trump tapes leave no doubt that after four years in office, Trump has learned where the levers of power are, and full control means installing absolute loyalists in key Cabinet and White House positions.
“The record now shows that Trump has led—and continues to lead—a seditious conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election that is, in effect, an attempt to destroy democracy.
“Trump is a reminder of how easy it is to break things you don’t understand – democracy and the presidency.”
Left-leaning writers were not uniformly skeptical of Woodward’s motives. In the New Republic, Michael Tomasky said he hoped the ties could sway voters in the looming midterm elections, where a Republican Party firmly in Trump’s grip is poised to take the House and perhaps the Senate.
Tomasky wrote: “I hope against hope that the media frenzy that will attend this release will bring Trump back into focus as an issue in this election. There may be nukes buried in the tapes that have been withheld from the selective leaks .
“One wonders if Woodward is holding any news quotes until Tuesday.”
Tomasky added: “At least let’s hope so, because what has been striking in recent weeks is the extent to which Trump has disappeared from the election conversation.”
Republicans aiming to take House and Senate seats, governors’ mansions and key state posts will hope things stay that way.
Trump is in legal jeopardy on several fronts, from investigations into the Capitol attack and attempts to overturn the 2020 election to a legal battle over his preservation of White House records, criminal and civil cases related to his business activities, and a libel suit by author E Jean Carroll, who says Trump raped her.
The former president denies wrongdoing and continues to float a third run at the White House. On Sunday, Woodward told CBS that he regretted not pressing Trump about whether he would leave the White House if he lost in 2020.
On the relevant tape, Woodward says: “Everybody says Trump will stay in the White House if it’s contested. Have you thought . . .”
Trump interjects: “Well, I’m not — I don’t even want to comment on that, Bob. I don’t want to comment on that at this point. Hey Bob, I’ve got all these people, I’ll talk to you later tonight!”
Woodward said: “That’s the only time he didn’t have any comments. And of course this was months before his loss. And I kind of said to myself: Why didn’t I follow up on that a little bit more?”