Simon & Schuster, New York, 2020, 480 pages
Book Review published on: May 6, 2022
Fans of former President Donald Trump are going to hate this book, Rage. Conversely, for critics of his, the book will be a page turner. But what is not debatable is what Trump actually said, as recorded by the author over the course of seventeen interviews for this book, or that which was captured in the public domain.
Bob Woodward is a masterful writer, assembling the narrative in an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand format that allows for appreciation of the wider stage upon which the Trump administration actors played their roles. The backdrop for this story, the second of three books Woodward penned about this president, is the coronavirus odyssey, which takes the reader from the initial outbreak through September 2020.1 So, amidst the efforts to corral the virus, we get an inside look at Trump’s tumultuous reelection campaign, too.
For anyone who follows national politics much, the book will not provide any earth-shattering reveals. However, it does give us a wide-ranging assortment of character sketches that will, at times, astound the reader with juicy details of the intrigues within the confines of the Trump White House. For the purpose of this review, two will suffice.
Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis could not have been more ill-fitted to Trump’s world given the president’s controversial views on a host of subjects to include NATO membership, torture, and the American intelligence community. That being the case, Mattis was surprised to get a call from Mike Pence, the vice president-elect, asking if he would consider accepting the post of Defense Secretary. He immediately told Pence he was ineligible due to the seven-year prohibition on retired flag officers holding the highest Defense Department position after leaving active duty. But Pence assured him the restriction would not be a problem. Trump was convinced European allies were taking advantage of American security guarantees by failing to meet expected defense spending levels for decades. Despite this real issue, Mattis believed Trump was dead wrong about wanting to cut ties to the institution. “Yes, they have to do more. You’re absolutely right they need to spend more of their GDP on defense. You’re absolutely right to press them.”2 But Mattis strongly argued America needed NATO. As for torture, Trump approved of it as the seemingly quickest way to obtain needed information from terrorists. But Mattis told him, “We have to recognize that torture damages us. With a cup of coffee and a cigarette you can get just as much out of them.”3 Finally, Mattis aimed to soften Trump’s harsh view of the intelligence community, which he had bashed during the recent campaign. “We have the best spies in the world. … I was never surprised on a strategic or operational matter. Not once.”4
Having never served in the military, Trump was weak in the eyes of many when it came to national security. By contrast, Mattis had the bonafides. He had not sought the job but felt compelled to serve when asked. Much to the relief of those who worried about the potential makeup of Trump’s cabinet, Mattis was viewed as one of the “adults in the room,” bringing integrity and gravitas to the Pentagon. Mattis, a cool operator, was willing to give candid feedback. Maybe not surprisingly, he was fired by Barack Obama in 2013, presumably due to his perceived aggressiveness while serving as the CENTCOM commander confronting Iran when Obama was attempting to negotiate a nuclear deal with the rogue state.5 A single man all his life, Mattis called his mother to tell her the news of his nomination. He knew she loathed Trump. “How can you work for that man?” He replied simply, “Ma, last time I checked, I work for the Constitution. I’ll go back and read it again.” She relented, “All right.”6
Rex Tillerson, the longtime CEO of ExxonMobil, got calls from Trump’s minions too, but he ignored them. Later, Pence called; Tillerson picked up the line. Trump was attracted to Tillerson’s resume because he not only ran a huge, successful corporation, but also because he was a man of the world with a fine-tuned grasp of foreign affairs. Additionally, Tillerson’s closest relationship was with Vladimir Putin, whom he visited regularly. His intimate knowledge of Putin impressed Trump.
Tillerson told Trump he had a real opportunity to change the bilateral relationship, because Putin had given up on Obama long before. “Putin feels like we treat Russia like a banana republic.” He captivated Trump with a Putin anecdote from one of his excursions on the Russian president’s yacht. “You Americans think you won the Cold War. You did not win the Cold War. We never fought that war. We could have, but we didn’t,” which Tillerson confided “put chills up my spine.”7 As far as Tillerson was concerned, “Anybody who tries to think about Russia in terms of the Soviet era doesn’t know a thing about Russia.” Tillerson gave Trump what he considered the bottom line: “You can deal with Putin. Obama was never able to. There [was] just a fundamental dislike of one another. … Obama had a terrible disdain for Putin.” Tillerson went on to say Putin has a goal for Russia. “They want recognition of their role in the global order. And Putin wants respect as a leader of a great country. We’ve never been willing to give him either.”8
Tillerson went on to effortlessly cover a host of issues Trump’s administration would have to tackle. “Russia is an immediate challenge to you. China is a long-term challenge.”9 Tillerson really didn’t want the job, but mandatory retirement from ExxonMobil was staring him in the face and he worried what he would do next. He never served in the military and felt uneasy about it. Was this his opportunity to serve? Eventually, after speaking to his wife and several friends who had served as secretary of state, he convinced himself it was.10 But he had conditions—three to be precise—which he needed to flesh out with the president-elect, face-to-face. First, he had to have freedom to pick his own people. Second, Trump had to assure him that once engaged in the nomination fight, he would never withdraw his name. And finally, a promise the two would never have a public dispute.11 For Trump, who had built a reputation for nasty breakups with former business and romantic partners, this was a significant ask.
Mattis and Tillerson huddled before taking office and forged a pact whereby they agreed to collaborate extensively to shape and drive Trump’s foreign policy, to keep him from going too far afield. Leaving the conclave, they felt they had a good plan for keeping a handle on things. Time would demonstrate their confidence was misplaced.
Woodward takes the reader through a whirlwind of ups and downs for the administration, only some of which will be highlighted here. He paints Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence (DNI), as a man out of his element, continually baffled by Trump’s hostility toward the American intelligence community and its analysis and frustrated by his boss’s repeated rebuffs of his attempts to demonstrate its accuracy. Ultimately, Coats loses faith in Trump’s ability to tell the truth, let alone his capacity to appreciate what a DNI can and can’t do. Coats was exhausted, mentally, and physically, by having to continually explain to Trump that he could not intervene in the Mueller investigation of Trump’s alleged illicit activities. While the DNI had an oversight role for the half of the FBI that dealt with intelligence, he had no oversight of the criminal investigations side of things.
For a work that covers so much ground, this review can only mention in passing a multitude of interesting, albeit complex issues. We read on the infamous travel ban, and Woodward peppers us with Trump’s endless rants about how “The world is taking advantage of us!” He provides glimpses into the surreal, almost romantic, correspondence between Trump and Kim Jong-un that ultimately results in very little changing in that tension-filled bilateral relationship.
Then it is on to Crossfire Hurricane—the top-secret investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether there was any collaboration between Russian agents and members of the Trump campaign. Here, the reader is introduced to Jeff Sessions, then attorney general, a pandering Trump ally who recuses himself from the investigation, thereby earning the everlasting ire of his boss; Rob Rosenstein, the taciturn deputy attorney general who will ultimately control the special counsel, Robert Mueller and his investigation; and the controversial James Comey, director of the FBI, whose decision to reopen the Hillary Clinton classified email investigation just a week prior to the election may have cost her the victory.
Shortly after taking office, Trump invited the FBI director to dine with him at the White House. This is highly unusual, since the FBI is supposed to have a detached relationship with the president to uphold the perception of objectivity. In that meeting, Trump pointedly told Comey he needed to have his loyalty. Comey found this disturbing. His unwillingness to explicitly provide such fealty would ultimately cost him his job as Trump weathered the Russian collusion investigation. Later, when that investigation was transferred to an appointed special counsel, Trump continued to try and undermine the process. But whereas the special counsel previously had wide discretion regarding what they could look at and consider, the law changed and the special counsel (former FBI Director Robert Mueller) no longer had such latitude. In fact, the deputy attorney general had ultimate control now, which to many seemed like a neutering of the Office of Special Counsel. Still, Trump stewed and fretted.
In one of the more illuminating features of the book, Woodward pulls back the veil on Jared Kushner, the president’s mysterious son-in-law, on whom Trump depends heavily. Kushner, having Trump’s ear, rankled many within the cabinet—particularly Secretary of State Tillerson—with his unconventional advocacy on a variety of issues.
With each passing week, Trump’s antics wore on his cabinet selectees. In one exchange between Mattis and Coats, Mattis laments, “The president has no moral compass,” to which Coats replies, “True. To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”12
The tensions never abated and, in fact, grew. A frustrated Tillerson was quoted in a leak after a 20 July 2017 meeting calling Trump a “f*****g moron.”13 As Woodward points out, nothing could have triggered Trump’s insecurities more. So, not surprisingly, Tillerson got the axe. But the way it happened violated the pledges Trump had made to Tillerson before Tillerson consented to taking the job. A steady stream of firings would follow for months and years to come, always abrupt and often vicious.
When it was approaching the time to nominate a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mattis had two leading candidates to consider. The first, Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David “Fingers” Goldfein, was someone with whom Mattis had worked alongside in the past and for whom he had high regard. The other candidate was Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley. Mattis considered him a loud optimist, but effective. However, he felt Goldfein was better suited to be Joint Chiefs of Staff and Milley a good fit to helm NATO. Normally, the president goes with the recommendation of his defense secretary on such matters. However, in this case, Trump loyalists David Urban and Mike Pompeo, both West Pointers, urged the president to select Milley. Mattis felt this intercession hurt Milley’s reputation. He also thought the other service chiefs would not have selected him for the role due to his brashness.14 Nevertheless, Milley got the nod. Mattis felt the president had gotten it wrong but soldiered on. Clearly, he and Trump were not on the same page.
Meanwhile, the terrorist organization the Islamic State (ISIS) continued to ravage the Middle East. Headway had been made, but the battle was not yet won. Trump campaigned on defeating ISIS and Mattis had advocated a war of annihilation against it, which Trump loved.15 Mattis believed there was good progress, but it required continued effort; the United States needed to stay the course and avoid the temptation of a premature withdrawal. He was pleased by the fact American allies and friends appeared to be on board with this. But then came a tweet from the president that blindsided him: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” This was later followed up by another tweet: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”16 In effect, the United States was withdrawing from Syria. Trump had not consulted Mattis, nor did he provide any warning. It was the breaking point for the general. He submitted his letter of resignation, telling the president “You’re going to have to get the next secretary of defense to lose to ISIS. I’m not going to do it.”17 Mattis confided to Woodward, “When I was basically directed to do something I thought went beyond stupid to felony stupid, strategically jeopardizing our place in the world and everything else, that’s when I quit.”18
Honestly, the book covers so much ground and so many issues that much of it must await a reader’s eyes, for it cannot all be encapsulated here. But here is a taste. We witness the clash between Kushner and Trump’s second chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly; the attempted resignation of Dan Coats, the DNI, who no longer felt he could operate effectively under Trump’s domineering and dismissive attitude toward the American intelligence community (he wanted to resign then, but stayed on at Trump’s request, only to be fired later, at a time that better served Trump’s agenda); the closing of the Mueller Report, which “while it did not conclude the President committed a crime, it also [did] not exonerate him;” the first impeachment trial originating out of Trump’s attempts to withhold military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a Ukrainian investigation of Biden and his son over alleged corruption; the assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its special operations division known as the Quds Force, who had menaced the United States for decades—a giant step that risked inflaming regional tensions; a very detailed look into the almost sycophantic relationship between Trump and Senator Lindsey Graham, known in some corners as “The First Friend”; Trump’s tumultuous and strained relationship with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of the battle against Covid-19; the back-and-forth China trade deal; Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, aka MBS and the brutal murder and dismemberment of critic Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey and Trump’s acquiescence to it; the exponential spread of the virus, and foiled attempts to get to the root of it inside China; the bizarre ways Trump sought to undermine his own medical advisor (Fauci) in public; an intriguing, and disturbing discussion about whether China purposely released Covid-19; and Trump’s intense clash with the left following the murder of George Floyd and the ascendance of Black Lives Matter. “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run all over you, you’ll look like a bunch of jerks.”19
In summation, Woodward gives us a stunning look inside Trump’s White House operation. It is worth noting the former president conducted seventeen interviews with Woodward for this book, so the authenticity of it is impregnable. It is a damning portrait. Many of his own cabinet officers tear into his leadership, or lack thereof. Mattis, for instance, long silent after leaving the Pentagon and fed up with what he saw, exclaimed in the midst of the racial justice protests, that “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try … Instead, he tries to divide us.”20
The coronavirus, more than any other issue, would come to define his presidency. Many deep-seated hatreds enmeshed within American politics came to the forefront during Trump’s tenure. Trump stoked the embers and made little effort to unite the country. But the Democratic opposition was complicit, too. The author laments “the walls between them only grew higher and thicker.”21
Woodward forcefully makes the case that Trump’s presidency was an abject failure in terms of leadership and is struck by former president’s seeming ambivalence regarding his role in all of it. In possibly the most powerful segment of the entire book, the epilogue, he, with the acknowledged help of his wife, delivers a poignant comparison between Trump and a predecessor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and their respective use of the bully pulpit at their disposal.
During his twelve years as president, FDR gave thirty “fireside chats.” His aides, and much of the public, asked for more. But FDR refused, believing he should limit his talks to major events and ensure those deliveries were exceptional. In a calm and reassuring voice, FDR explained the problem, identified what the government was doing about it, and laid out what was expected of the American people. Frequently, the message he had to deliver was bleak. It was, for all intents and purposes, the laying out of a grand strategy. And he invited the people in, so as to appreciate the fact hard work lay ahead, that sacrifice was involved. Though often Machiavellian in his political tactics, he had an abiding faith in the fortitude of his audience. “Your government has unmistakable confidence in your ability to hear the worst, without flinching or losing heart.”22 In that regard, every president has an obligation to define goals and the national interest. But Woodward concludes Trump, instead, enshrined personal impulse as a governing principle and was most assuredly the wrong man for the job.23
Woodward’s book is an important contribution to our understanding of how the American political system functions and sheds light on the complicated nature of civil-military relations. It is a dazzling read with an amazing amount of insider commentary.
- His first book about Donald Trump was titled Fear: Trump in the White House; his second was Rage; and his third book was Peril. With titles like Fear, Rage, and Peril, Woodward reveals his view of this president without one ever having to crack the spine of one of his books.
- Gen. (Ret.) James Mattis, U.S. Marine Corps, as quoted in Bob Woodward, Rage (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 3.
- Ibid., 4.
- CENTCOM is an acronym for Central Command which runs military operations for the United States within a specified area of responsibility (AOR) assigned it via the National Security Strategy of the United States.
- Mattis, as quoted in Woodward, Rage, 5.
- Rex Tillerson, as quoted in Woodward, Rage, 9.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 11.
- Condoleezza Rice, James Baker III, and George Schultz.
- Tillerson, as quoted in Woodward, Rage, 14.
- Mattis and Dan Coats, as quoted in Woodward, Rage, 69.
- Tillerson, as quoted in Woodward, Rage, 96.
- Woodward, Rage, 130–33.
- Ibid., 137.
- Ibid., 138.
- Ibid., 141.
- Ibid., 143.
- Trump, as quoted in Woodward, Rage, 337.
- Mattis, as quoted in Woodward, Rage, 339.
- Woodward, Rage, 389.
- President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as quoted in Woodward, Rage, 391.
- Woodward, Rage, 392.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas