WASHINGTON — Presidents over the decades thought they could manage Bob Woodward and many, as Karl Rove put it this week, came to regret it. Then came Donald J. Trump, who being Donald J. Trump thought so much of his powers of persuasion that he opened up to Mr. Woodward not once or twice but an astonishing 18 times.
So President Trump may have 18 times as many reasons for regret, as the latest blockbuster from Mr. Woodward reveals a president who privately understood how deadly the coronavirus really was even as he was telling the public the opposite. With an election 53 days away, perhaps no other president who talked with Mr. Woodward did as much to undermine himself.
The question consuming Washington this week is why did he talk in the first place? Why give so much access to a journalist who made his reputation taking down a president during Watergate? And the answer is: because he is Donald Trump. He has infinite faith in his ability to spin his own story. He is forever seeking approval and validation from celebrity and establishment figures like Mr. Woodward. And as much as he likes to excoriate the “fake news,” he is drawn irresistibly to the spotlight.
“He can’t help himself,” said Timothy L. O’Brien, who experienced it firsthand in writing his own book on Mr. Trump during his business days. “He’s profoundly addicted to public attention and the media is his vehicle for making sure he gets it. His view is he can live with negative coverage and positive coverage. He can’t live with no coverage. So he constantly puts himself in the cross hairs.”
White House aides and allies are in the meantime busily setting up circular firing squads to affix blame. Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, has been faulting Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, for facilitating the interviews.
But advisers know that no amount of advice would have stopped Mr. Trump from cooperating with an author like Mr. Woodward once he decided he wanted to. As Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, put it in an unrelated interview last month, “He always needs to touch the flame.”
Mr. Trump even seemed to understand the risk from the beginning and then proceeded anyway. During his first interview with Mr. Woodward for the book last December, aides tried to end it after a while, but the president brushed them off. “Go ahead,” he said to Mr. Woodward. “I find it interesting. I love this guy. Even though he writes shit about me.”
Mr. Woodward has enjoyed access to the Oval Office that few journalists of his generation have. He interviewed President Bill Clinton for “The Agenda.” He interviewed President George W. Bush for two books in a row, at which point Mr. Bush, feeling singed, refused to talk for the third book, only to switch gears and cooperate again with Mr. Woodward for his fourth book. President Barack Obama spoke with Mr. Woodward for both books on his administration.
Mr. Trump first met Mr. Woodward in the 1980s when the Washington Post reporter tagged along with his former Watergate reporting partner, Carl Bernstein, for an interview that led nowhere in particular. But Mr. Trump remembered and was clearly flattered at the interest. By the time he ran for president in 2016, he was glad to give Mr. Woodward and his colleague Robert Costa an interview for The Post.
He also appreciated it when Mr. Woodward publicly disparaged the dossier of unverified claims about Mr. Trump collected by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer working for the Democrats. After Mr. Woodward called that “a garbage document” on “Fox News Sunday” in January 2017, Mr. Trump quickly wrote on Twitter, “Thank you to Bob Woodward.”
The president did not speak with him for “Fear,” Mr. Woodward’s first book on Mr. Trump published in 2018, a decision that the president blamed on his staff and regretted because he believed he could have made the account more positive. As a result, Mr. Trump decided early on to cooperate with “Rage,” to be published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster, reasoning that he would be able to better shape the narrative.
That is the same logic many presidents have adopted with Mr. Woodward — better to pet the bear than to poke him. “I remember President Bush telling me that he thought it was important for history, given the significance of the attacks of 9/11, to capture the details of the decisions while people’s recollections were still fresh,” said Karen Hughes, who was Mr. Bush’s White House counselor.
But there have always been limits. Mr. Obama, for instance, spoke once for each book near the end of the reporting so he could correct or rebut information the author had picked up elsewhere.
“What Trump did was neither normal or advisable,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “Instead of just sitting down for an interview, Trump treated a reporter famous for bringing down a president like his personal sounding board. It is truly one of the most stupidly self-destructive communications decisions made by a politician in memory.”
Indeed, Mr. Trump called Mr. Woodward at night when aides presumably were not around. He gave Mr. Woodward a phone number so that the author could call in and leave a message to have him call back without going through the elaborate bureaucracy that a presidential interview involves in a normal White House. Altogether, they talked 17 times before the book was finished and then an 18th time after the draft was done but before it went to press.
Mr. Trump called once more on Aug. 14, for a 19th conversation, hoping to persuade Mr. Woodward to include the recently brokered diplomatic breakthrough with Israel and the United Arab Emirates, but it was too late to update the book by that point.
To Mr. Trump, Mr. Woodward is an exemplar of the Washington establishment the president believes has never respected him. He seemed excited to be talking with him. At one point, according to the book, when Melania Trump walked in, the president boasted, “Honey, I’m talking to Bob Woodward.”
“He’s sort of the establishment media’s version of Zeus, and I think that makes him irresistible to Mr. Trump, in particular,” said Mr. O’Brien, now a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. “It actually reflects how deeply insecure he is about his own self-worth.”
Like other journalists, Mr. O’Brien saw this phenomenon personally. Mr. Trump spent dozens of hours with him for scores of interviews for “TrumpNation,” a biography published in 2005 when Mr. O’Brien worked for The New York Times. Mr. Trump then sued Mr. O’Brien after the book was published, and lost the lawsuit.
At one point during their conversations, Mr. Trump told Mr. O’Brien he would smear him in the media if he did not like the book. Mr. O’Brien asked Mr. Trump why then was he cooperating. Mr. Trump replied that it was “an experience” for him and he enjoyed the author’s company, but also saw it as a challenge. “It’s almost like a competitive thing with me,” Mr. Trump said. “I almost wanna see if you can get Trump.”
Now president, Mr. Trump gave a similar answer on Thursday when asked why he talked with Mr. Woodward. “Bob Woodward is somebody that I respect, just from hearing the name for many, many years, not knowing too much about his work, not caring about his work,” Mr. Trump told reporters at a news briefing. “But I thought it would be interesting to talk to him for a period of calls.”
“I did it out of curiosity,” he added, “because I do have respect and I want to see, I wonder whether or not somebody like that can write good. I don’t think he can, but let’s see what happens.”