by Bob Woodward
Reviewed date: 2020 Sep 26
475 pages
cover art

The book seems scattershot. Unlike John Bolton's book, in Rage it's often unclear if Donald Trump is narcissistic and incompetent or whether he's just unconventional and likes to shake things up. Woodward tells us what happens (mostly relating to foreign policy vis-a-vis North Korea), but you have to pay close attention to the reactions of Trump's cabinet members and his staff to tell that he's not just unconventional, he's dangerously unfit. Skip a word or blink and you'll miss the significance. Frankly I don't know why Woodward bothers to tell us this. Fifteen chapters and 112 pages in, he's written nothing of value.

What did Trump know and when did he know it?
The big news about this book, and the reason I bought it, are the interviews Trump gave to Woodward where he talked frankly about the pandemic and how bad it was going to be. The question I had, which many others had, is why, if Woodward knew this from Trump in January and February, he didn't say something publicly to warn Americans.

The book makes it clear that Woodward, like everyone else, did not understand in January and February and March that the pandemic was a big deal. He was confused by Donald Trump's statements about the pandemic, and it was only later that Woodward learned key details about who had warned Trump and when, that Woodward really pieced together how deeply Donald Trump had purposefully misled and deceived the American public. By that time, the pandemic was in full swing and no amount of blowing the whistle would have made any difference.

Keep in mind, back in January and February, we all saw and should have known that the pandemic was coming, but we ignored it because we truly didn't think it could happen to us. The President knew because his advisors warned him forcefully, and Donald Trump understood their warnings, as revealed in the interviews he gave Woodward. But Woodward didn't believe it, not truly, and because Donald Trump deliberately lied to the public to downplay the virus, the public didn't really believe it. It didn't become real to Americans until the NBA suspended the season. Only at that point did Americans realize that despite the cheery words from Donald Trump, the virus had arrived and everything changed overnight.

I remember: I did my pre-pandemic shopping run on Tuesday, March 10 and everything was normal. The NBA cancelled the season on March 11. On March 12 I went back to the store to pick up some things I'd forgotten, and it was a madhouse. Kroger was packed. The checkout line snaked halfway around the store; I walked out without buying anything.

Lindsey Graham
Bob Woodward must have talked to Senator Lindsey Graham on background, or somebody very close to him, because there are an awful lot of details about conversations between Graham and Donald Trump. What I learned: Graham has Trump's ear, and has some influence. Donald Trump demands complete loyalty, so Graham has to toe the line in public, but behind the scenes Graham is a savvy political operator. He's not pulling Trump's strings, but he's the closest thing to it, if you believe Bob Woodward. Then again, maybe Woodward just got a lot of time with Graham and that's why he figures so prominently in the book.

Graham told Trump again that his opponent wasn't Biden, "It's the coronavirus." His presidency would be defined by this. He said Trump would win the election if "in October, we've got a vaccine around the corner and therapies on the shelf and we have been doing a lot of testing and there hasn't been a major outbreak and people are beginning to go to football games in small numbers and the economy's back." But "if we go too far too quick and there's another outbreak and the economy falters, you're in trouble." [p. 318]

Jared Kushner
He's a business executive and out of his league. Business savvy doesn't translate directly into politics.

This pandemic didn't have to happen to us
Donald Trump thinks Xi Jinping deliberately allowed the virus to escape China and get out into the world so that China wouldn't be the only nation to suffer. And smart, non-partisan experts agree with that assessment.

Trump continued, "I think what could've happened, Bob, is it got away from them and [President Xi] didn't want to contain it from the rest of the world because it would've put him at a big disadvantage. And we were already beating them very badly. You know, on trade."

Now I was utterly surprised. It had never occurred to me that Trump would think President Xi had intentionally let the virus spread. [p. 332]

National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien shared Trump's suspicions about Xi and China. In a West Wing White House meeting more than two weeks later, June 11, O'Brien told an aide that China had concealed what was happening.

"They covered it up," he said, referring to the government's attempts to conceal the genetic sequencing on the virus. "One lab published it, and then it was immediately taken down and the lab was threatened."

O'Brien continued, "It appears that they closed down travel all through China so that this disease couldn't get to Shanghai or Beijing and other key cities. But at the same time they're letting other folks travel from Wuhan to all over Europe and infected Europe and infected the United States. That's not good. But whatever happened the Chinese have repurposed it into a bioweapon. And they're using it, they're attempting to take advantage of Covid to gain a geopolitical advantage over the United States and the free world, and to replace the United States as the leading power in the world."

O'Brien considered Trump's assertion that Xi "didn't want to contain it from the rest of the world because it would've put him at a big disadvantage" as "an absolutely reasonable hypothesis." [p. 333]

"It was difficult to understand how China had aggressive travel restrictions within China, and yet did not move to any travel restrictions" for people who wanted to leave China and go abroad, Redfield said.

"If there would have been one major, global action that could've really saved hundreds of thousands of lives, it's if they had just shut down their out-of-China travel at the same time they shut down their intra-China travel.

"They really started moving in the latter part of January. That's where they quarantined people. That's where they shut down the city. That's where they stopped the trains. They really locked down all of Wuhan at one point. I think they quarantined over 11 million people. You couldn't go from Wuhan to Beijing, but you could go from Wuhan to London." [p. 335]

Let me be clear. The virus was naturally-occuring. It is not a bioweapon. It was not engineered in a lab. It was not deliberately released. It was a predictable accident of nature; these things happen. Once the Chinese knew what was happening to them, though, I am deeply suspicious of their actions, and I believe Donald Trump, Robert O'Brien, and Robert Redfield are probably right: China intentionally allowed it to spread beyond their borders.

The conclusion
All Donald Trump cares about is reelection, ratings, and the economy. He has zero empathy.

Not altogether worth reading
Except for the bit about China deliberately allowing the virus to escape into the world so that they wouldn't be at a disadvantage as the only nation to suffer the pandemic, I didn't find Bob Woodward's book useful or informative. There was no real narrative, no real attempt at analysis. It wasn't even a chronicle of events over a particular time period; it was whatever bits of information Woodward got from whoever was willing to talk to him, with no overall story to fit it into. I guess I'm glad he wrote it, sort of, but except for that China bit, this one isn't a winner.

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