Yet in Woodward’s meticulous account of office intrigues, the president’s men don’t seem to be trembling with fright. What they mostly feel is contempt for Trump or pity for his ignorance and the “teenage logic” of his obsessively vented grievances. Hence their deft “administrative coup d’état”: by purloining documents from Trump’s desk or slow-walking his intemperate orders, his aides have effectively benched him.
For the most part, Woodward tells his story straight and leaves the reader to draw the moral, though he also makes sure that the moral is hard to miss. Occasionally he provides some commentary to spell it out...
There are two conclusions to be drawn from Bob Woodward's disturbing new account of paranoia and dysfunction in the White House: Wow, how did things get so bad? And, after turning the next page: Wow, things could have been even worse.
In Fear: Trump in the White House, the veteran reporter sets about building a picture of the way in which the president's flaws - the short attention span, the narcissism, and a brutal lack of empathy - render him almost incapable of doing the job...But if the sourcing is copper-bottomed, at times the prose is leaden. Woodward's detached style may be refreshing in these polarised times but too often it plods. Part of the problem is the subject matter. Woodward wants to take us inside every decision - the guiding principles, the weighing of factors and the outcome...So although Woodward is strong on the portrait - delivering a frightening account of a president obsessed with his enemies, who lacks the basic political skills to meet on his promises or the cunning to stay ahead of federal investigators - it feels as if the narrative is only half written.
Fuelling his narrative is an astonishing cast of rogues, ideologues, self-made millionaires and men in uniform who have spent the last two years passing in and out of Trump’s administration. As such, it’s more entertaining than Woodward’s previous plods. Reince Priebus, the former Republican party chief, describes his former White House colleagues as less a team of rivals than a bunch of “predators”, scrapping among themselves for the big man’s favour
I also wish Woodward, who has that preternatural earnestness that often afflicts successful American journalists, could manage a lighter touch sometimes; perhaps tease some of the protagonists? Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist, becomes, per Woodward, a foul-mouthed renaissance man: always pushing for disruption, but disruption grounded on a world view of quite enviable historical sophistication. Lincoln is invoked one minute, Tiberius Gracchus (really) the next. It’s funny, but Woodward doesn’t see it.
This is not an account that can be dismissed easily. It makes for a devastating portrait of a brutal president, who accuses his national security adviser of dressing like a “beer salesman” and calls his attorney general “mentally retarded”... But if the sourcing is copper-bottomed, at times the prose is leaden. Woodward’s detached style may be refreshing in these polarised times but too often it plods... Part of the problem is that the author comes squarely from the liberal elite, and relied heavily on sources with similar outlook. This is not someone who understands populists, their motivations or their reasoning... Having ridden to the White House by subverting the norms of TV reporting and declared war on fake news it is starting to feel as if now traditional biography is struggling to cope with Mr Trump’s presidency.
Woodward himself seems to suffer one of the same maladies as his sources: namely, the condition of thinking that a better version of Trump might exist out there. He rather solipsistically blames himself for saying some skeptical stuff about the FBI’s handling of the Russia case, which Trump saw and repeated ... And sometimes, his quotes are just simply not believable as told or transcribed, which is a problem in most of his books on the last several presidencies.
Like Joe Friday on Dragnet, Jack Webb’s television classic, Woodward’s Fear is big on facts and short on hyperventilation. It is not Fire and Fury redux or Omarosa 2.0. Rather, it is a sober account of how we reached this vertiginous point. Woodward’s words are quotidian but the story he tells is chilling. Like Trump himself, the characters that populate Woodward’s narrative are Runyonesque and foul-mouthed.
If this book has a single point to drive home, it is that the president of the United States is a congenital liar. I wish “Fear” had other points to make. I wanted more context, more passion, a bit of irony and certainly more simple history. Surely Woodward, of all people, has worthwhile comparisons to make between Trump and Richard Nixon. But this is not Woodward’s way. “Fear” picks up little narrative momentum. It’s a slow tropical storm of a book, not a hurricane. You turn the pages because Woodward, as he accumulates the queasy-making details, delivers on the promise of his title.