Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Bob Woodward said Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s failure to bring order in a time of turmoil is a tragedy for voters.
“He has a plan almost for nothing,” Woodward said. “It’s all seat-of-the-pants, impulse driven.”
In the keynote event of the 2020 Texas Tribune Festival, the longtime journalist and author discussed the process of writing “Rage,” his second book on the Trump presidency; his decision to not publicly reveal the extent of what Trump knew about the coronavirus until publication; and Tuesday night’s chaotic debate.
Woodward said while many people were surprised by the tumultuous debate, he thought its impact would diminish in a couple of weeks. The pandemic and its accompanying economic consequences will ultimately decide the election, he said.
And in 2020, Woodward said, there is always the next surprise.
“Trump loves governing by spectacle, governing by surprise and governing with a kind of irresponsibility to ... what’s the job of the president,” said Woodward, 77, who has covered nine presidents during a career that spans five decades. His coverage of the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Trump has routinely upended norms as president, giving the Medal of Freedom to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh at the 2020 State of the Union, using the White House to give his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination and giving a July Fourth campaign speech from Mount Rushmore.
In the last line of the book, Woodward took a rare stand in calling the president “The wrong man for the job.” Tribune CEO Evan Smith, who interviewed Woodward during the keynote conversation, asked why Woodward felt it was necessary to take such a stand.
“It was not a matter for me of an option but an obligation,” Woodward said.
Woodward added that the characterization was based on overwhelming evidence and that he did not want to be like Republicans, like “some of them in your state” — referring to U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn — who he said have failed to speak up about Trump’s fitness for the job.
Senate Republicans have overwhelmingly backed Trump’s actions on COVID-19 and his other controversial decisions as president.
For Woodward’s last book, “Fear,” Trump did not speak with Woodward, which he said he later regretted. For “Rage,” Woodward had 19 conversations with the president starting in December.
A week before the book was published, The Washington Post published several recordings along with an article outlining the book’s major findings. In those recordings, Trump admitted downplaying the threat posed by the virus despite knowing it was much worse than the flu.
Trump explained in the recordings that he didn’t want to cause a panic. More than six months into the pandemic, more than 200,000 Americans have died from the virus.
While Woodward said it wasn’t always the plan to publish those recordings, he ultimately decided to release them to add clarity to his reporting and let the public hear the president’s own words.
Still, many journalists and other public figures have questioned Woodward for waiting to tell the public about the extent of Trump’s knowledge about the virus. Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told Trump in January it was the single greatest national security threat he’d face in his presidency, according to Woodward.
At a journalism conference last week, reporters pushed Woodward to explain his reasoning, arguing the recordings could have saved lives and allowed the public to hold the president accountable in real time.
On Wednesday, Woodward repeated the explanation he gave at the conference. He said he initially thought Trump was referring to the virus’ threat to China during that February conversation, and he wasn’t able to confirm until May that O’Brien informed Trump of the true threat to U.S. citizens. He didn’t address why he didn’t reveal the information at that time.
In their last conversation for the book, Woodward noted that Trump was surprised at Woodward’s statement that the pandemic and its impact on the economy were more important than a deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
When Trump said the pandemic and the economy were only “a little bit” related, “I almost fell out of my chair,” Woodward said.