I have read a lot of biographies in my life and many of those focused on the lives of U.S. presidents; but it's rare for me to read a book about a sitting president. I made an exception with Fear: Trump in the White House - partly because it was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Bob Woodward, whose books I've always admired; and partly because Donald Trump's presidency - on which this focuses - is different from any other presidency.
So less than two years into his term, I am reading about Trump's ascent to power.
Woodward describes some of the positives of the Trump presidency. For example, he spends a lot of time discussing a decisive and successful strike on a Syrian air base in response to Syrian President Assad's use of chemical weapons on children, in violation of international law.
But Trump supporters will probably not remember the positive coverage, because there are so many unfavourable descriptions of the President. After the first third of Fear, Woodward's descriptions of Mr. Trump are largely unflattering.
The title of the book comes from a Donald Trump quote: "Real power is fear.", a sentiment he has expressed multiple times.
Entering the White House, Donald Trump had very little understanding of the most basic principles of economics or policy or politics or governing.
For example, he repeatedly suggested that printing more money was a viable solution to the deficit.
Worse, Trump had no interest in correcting his misconceptions. After trying unsuccessfully to educate Trump on the fact that the U.S. had years ago moved from a manufacturing-based economy to a service based economy, a frustrated advisor asked the president "Why do you have these views?" to which Mr. Trump replied, "I just always have."
He displayed similar ignorance and stubbornness in other matters.
He repeatedly insisted to his advisors that the U.S. should not spend money defending other countries and resisted the argument that doing so was an investment in American security. For example, forward-positioned American troops in South Korea reduce the alert time of a potential North Korean nuclear launch from 15 minutes down to 7 seconds. His generals and economic advisors praised this as a good investment. Despite this, Trump would raise the issue every few months, arguing that the U.S. was wasting money in South Korea.
He repeatedly insisted on huge increases in tariffs, despite advice from his economic advisors that doing so would damage the economy.
Donald Trump takes pride in his decisive action, but he often does so without seeking advice or ignoring expert advice.
He pushed hard for withdrawing from Paris Climate Accord with little consultation about the legality and impact.
He declared via Twitter that transgenders would not be allowed in the military - a major policy decision that broke a campaign promise and defied existing laws. He justified it by grossly overestimating the cost and impact transgender soldiers had on the military. The military refused to enforce this ban and it ultimately failed after an expensive court battle.
In choosing his advisors and staff, Donald Trump values personal loyalty to Donald Trump over experience, intelligence, or other qualifications.
Once hired, he ruled his people by intimidation and bullying, often publicly insulting his staff. He took delight in setting one staff member against another. The result is an abundance of infighting within the White House, which made it difficult for everyone to act in a unified manner.
The advisors in the administration do everything in their power to mitigate Trump's worse impulses. Since reasoning often fails, they often deliberately delayed executing on a directive or they stole papers from the president's desk to prevent him from signing an order or even thinking about it.
This worked because the president's attention span is short, and he has no list of things to accomplish - neither on paper nor in his head. When a paper was removed from his desk, he often did not miss it.
In one of the lowest points in the Trump presidency, the president refused to condemn Nazis and Klansmen marching in Charlottesville, VA, chanting racists slogans, such as "Jews will not replace us". Trump's initial response placed blame "on both sides". His advisors finally convinced him to deliver a speech a few days later, explicitly condemning the white supremacist groups; but Trump almost immediately regretted doing so, complaining that it made him look weak. A few days later, he reverted to his equivalency argument stating there were "very fine people on both sides". His handling of the incident drew praise from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and almost universal criticism from non-racists in both political parties.
Fear largely paints a picture of a petty, impetuous, ill-tempered, easily distracted, stubborn, president with little ability to listen or learn
The president's pre-conceived notions (often based on ignorance), his poor listening skills, and his frequent refusal to consider opposing viewpoints often made life frustrating for his advisors, many of whom left shortly after taking the position.
Not surprisingly, Donald Trump himself declared the book "fake", even without reading it. And Trump supporters often close their mind to anything critical of their hero, labeling any criticism - fair or otherwise as "fake news". But several things reinforce the credibility of this book. One is Woodward's reputation: He has won two Pulitzer Prizes and has written critical of public figures in both major parties. The other is that the picture Woodward paints of the president in private is consistent with the image Trump projects through Twitter and his rallies. He has never shied away from personal attacks or name-calling; he frequently overstates his own abilities in speeches, claiming to be the best in the world at multiple skills; and his closest associates have publicly attacked on another.
Woodward conducted hundreds of hours of interviews for this book. He does not identify many of his sources, but it's not difficult to guess some of them, particularly when he reports on a private conversation between Trump and one other person. Woodward requested an interview with the president, but never received a reply.
The author writes in the straightforward style of a professional journalist. Woodward seldom asserts his own opinion. Instead, he quotes the opinions of others in the administration.
Woodward closes the book with a disagreement between Trump and his lawyer about whether the President should testify as part of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump insists he would be an excellent witness. His lawyer tries to tactfully discourage Trump from testifying (he even threatens to resign as his lawyer) because he knows that Trump is a habitual liar and will almost certainly commit perjury during any sworn testimony.
As I write this review, my hope is that Donald Trump will notice it and label me an enemy, as he does with so many who disagree with him.