Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2021, 512 pages
Book Review published on: May 27, 2022
“The transition from Donald J. Trump to President Joseph R. Biden Jr. stands as one of the most dangerous periods in American history.”1 This is how Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s book, Peril, opens, chronicling the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration.
The book is full of eye-popping quotes by leading figures from both the Trump and Biden camps, plus Pentagon officials. Readers will be stunned to learn the true extent of the rampant chaos behind the scenes in the aftermath of Trump’s election loss. That chaos only grew in the wake of the 6 January 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters who believed, despite no credible supporting evidence, that the election had been stolen.
Right out the gate, the reader is confronted with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Gen. Mark Milley placing an urgent call to his counterpart in China to allay fears the United States was about to attack Beijing. Milley’s rattled counterpart spewed question after question. “Was the American superpower unstable? Collapsing? What was going on?” Was the U.S. military going to attack China? To Gen. Li Zuocheng, Milley insisted, “Things may look unsteady, but that’s the nature of democracy. We are 100 percent steady. Everything is fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”2
It is shocking to think that the Chinese really believed the United States, specifically Trump, might, in desperation, create a crisis, present himself as a savior, and then use the episode to win reelection. That Milley believed such notions were preposterous was irrelevant. He had already talked the Chinese down two months earlier, immediately after the election. Now, their fears were compounded.
Milley was convinced Trump had suffered a serious mental decline post-election; he displayed frequent mania and screaming, and spewed unending conspiracy scenarios about how the Biden camp and the “deep state” had robbed him of victory on election night. So concerned was Milley about the Chinese apprehensions that he phoned Adm. Philip S. Davidson, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command commander, to suggest upcoming exercises be postponed to avoid any escalation. Of course, Milley had misled his Chinese counterpart when he told him the United States was “100 percent steady.”3 Things were jarring at best. Milley firmly believed the January 6 attack was a coup attempt and nothing short of treason, a “Reichstag moment.”4
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was enraged after January 6. She pressed Milley, asking, “What are the precautions available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike?” She was calling Milley because the newly appointed secretary of defense had yet to be confirmed by the Senate.5 What she sought was a public statement from the military to assure the American people the weapons were in competent hands. But Milley forcefully pushed back on her proposal to go public. Pelosi was a formidable politician and unyielding. “But [Trump] just did something illegal, immoral, and unethical and nobody stopped him.”6 He implored her to trust him that no catastrophic incident would be allowed to occur. Instead of a public statement, Milley decided to “pull a Schlesinger.”7 This was a reference to a former edict by then Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to military leaders in 1974, amid the Watergate scandal, to not follow orders that came directly from President Richard Nixon or his White House, without first checking with Schlesinger and the CJCS. Schlesinger and CJCS Gen. George S. Brown were concerned Nixon might skip the chain of command and contact leaders or units directly to order a strike that might alleviate his political troubles. They were unwilling to take that risk. So, too, was Milley, who comes off in this work as a thoughtful and dutiful—albeit sometimes brash—officer, methodically committed to a peaceful transfer of power.
Crammed within the book’s pages, we get an insider’s look at a trove of events that highlight the level of dysfunction inside the Trump White House. For instance, we see the interplay between then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and the president. Ryan was surprised by Trump’s victory in 2016 and was confounded by his personality throughout their time working together. Ryan would tell friends he had never met another human being like Trump and became convinced he had a personality disorder. Their frictional relationship began to emerge soon after Trump took office. The Charlottesville demonstration by white supremacists and neo-Nazis was a pivotal moment for them. With Trump taking a bruising from the media over his controversial statement that “there were good people on both sides” and that both sides shared the blame for the trouble, he called Ryan, venting profusely and shouting, “You’re not in the foxhole with me!”8 Ryan then yelled back, “Are you finished? May I have some time to speak now? You’re the President of the United States. You have a moral leadership obligation to get this right and not declare there is a moral equivalency here.”9 By early 2018, tired of Trump’s antics, Ryan announced he was resigning from Congress, which came as a shock to many given his youth and presidential potential.
Woodward and Costa then offer a deep dive on what things propel and weigh on Biden. He tragically lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash when he was only thirty and primed to take a seat in the Senate. In that same crash, his two boys narrowly escaped with their lives. Five years after the accident, the single father married Jill, a teacher and part-time model he had spotted on a billboard, but not before proposing five times. In the decades to follow, one son, Hunter, found himself in the throes of alcoholism, drug addiction, and financial chaos; his other surviving son, Beau, the twice-elected attorney general for the state of Delaware, died of brain cancer in 2015.
“Get up!” was Biden’s mantra. It was inherited from his father who made it a catchphrase. It seemed to echo throughout Biden’s life, no matter the calamity; you just kept pulling yourself up and moving forward. But Beau’s death absolutely devastated Biden and was a big factor in his decision not to run, as the sitting vice-president, for president in 2016. For the first time in over four decades, Biden would be out of politics.
It would take the specter of Trump and his four-year reign to pull Biden back into the fray after years away from it. In some ways, he came to believe his son was urging him on from beyond the grave. “Get up!” Initially, it did not appear that he himself would run. “I just want to get us to a place where we can beat Donald Trump. I don’t have to be the person to beat him.”10 Others, though, felt his perceived authenticity would serve him well in a contest against Trump’s acidic and divisive personality.
Throughout the book, we are given glimpses into both men’s tendencies and fixations. For instance, Trump simultaneously adopted military imagery and language but was often brutally critical of military leaders. He had isolationist and unpredictable instincts when it came to policy. As Woodward and Costa note, at one point, he was consumed with the new Gerald Ford Class aircraft carrier—particularly its cost and the placement of the “island” on the deck. He would routinely rage that generals and admirals were terrible at acquisitions and deal making on big ticket items, thereby guaranteeing the military was always robbed by defense contractors. But it was the placement of the island on the carrier deck that really frustrated him. “It doesn’t look right. I have an eye for aesthetics. Can’t you tell?” Navy leaders went on to tell him there was a logical reason for its placement there, but he remained dissatisfied. “It just doesn’t look right.”11
Another interesting saga was the one between Trump and his second attorney general, Bill Barr. Trump had effectively pushed his first appointee to the position, former Sen. Jeff Sessions, out the door for his recusal from the investigation into possible ties between Russia and his election committee, which infuriated the president. Barr, while a staunch supporter of the president overall, was continually flummoxed by the president’s intervention into Department of Justice business that threatened to compromise investigations and his unending accusations of voter fraud connected to his electoral loss in 2020. With regard to the latter, the back-and-forth is illuminating.
Barr: “It’s too bad it worked out the way it did.”
Trump: “Well, we won. We won by a lot. And, you know, it’s fraud. Bill, we can’t let them get away with this. … I hear that you guys are hanging back. You’re not—somehow you don’t think it’s your role to look at this.”
Barr: “No, Mr. President, that’s not correct. You know, it’s not our role to take sides. The Justice Department can’t take sides … That’s what we have elections to decide.”
Barr: “But the problem is this stuff about the voting machines is just bullshit.” “The allegations were not panning out.”12
But there was no sign Trump was going to listen to Barr’s reasoning. He was aiming to ratchet things up, calling various state legislators and cobbling together a legal team of sycophants and ideologues (Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and others). Barr pulled no punches in his assessment of the legal efforts to overturn the election results. Regarding the legal team Trump put together, he was not sparing: “These f*****g nuts. Clown car.”13 With regard to the legal challenges themselves: “We have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome of the election.”14
Woodward and Costa also shine a light on Mike Pence’s agonizing attempt to discern what to do about the electoral tally on 6 January 2021. Most memorable is a frank exchange between him and former vice president, and fellow Indianan, Dan Quayle. For a figure not known to be very forceful, Quayle delivers a blunt message to Pence: “Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away.” When Pence offers up a possible rationalization suggested to him for stopping the count, Quayle interrupts him saying, “You don’t, just stop it. … Mike, don’t even talk about it.” Quayle then blasts Trump’s assertion the election had been stolen from him, saying such protestations were ridiculous and eroded public trust. “There’s no evidence.”15
In this torrid and turbulent account, Sen. Lindsey Graham comes across as a strange combination of Republican furor and pragmatism, toggling between support and tough love for Trump, friendship and realism. Trump repeatedly harangued his “First Friend” with the mantra he got cheated in the election.16 Trump lamented, “They purged 100,000 people from the rolls [in Georgia].” Pushing back, Graham’s surprising candor is notable: “Mr. President, with all due respect, that doesn’t mean you won Georgia. The allegations you’re making about the election don’t hold water. A few minor ballot problems, that was it, not anywhere close to something that could change the outcome in any state.”17 Also clearly evident is his loyalty to Trump: “Mr. President, the greatest comeback in history is possible. You’ve been written off as dead because of January the 6th. If you, as the party leader, could lead us to a 2022 victory and you came back to take the White House, it would be the biggest comeback in American history.” He goes on to urge him to do something alien to his nature. “You’ve got to prove to [naysayers] that you can change.”18
As stated at the outset, the book is a look into both administrations. But in all honesty, the Biden coverage is less interesting and salacious. In many respects, Biden’s ascendancy to the White House was a repudiation of many Trump policies and a subsequent reversion to many Obama-era ones. There is a decidedly more tranquil process once he assumes the mantle, and the politics of the day are more conventional. That said, there are still some turbulent episodes. One in particular had to do with Biden’s rather blunt messaging to Vladimir Putin.
It was now obvious that Russia had persistently interfered in the American electoral process in both 2016 and 2020, albeit with greater success in the former. Add to that a spate of cyberattacks, poisonings, and attempted assassination attempts on Russian dissidents in the West by Putin’s henchmen and the stage was set for a confrontation. In a televised interview, Biden was asked if he thought Putin was a killer and responded affirmatively. Later, in a phone call with Putin, the Russian president told him “I’m upset you called me a killer,” to which Biden replied, “I was asked a question. I gave an answer.”19 Biden’s intent in the exchange was, among other things, to put Putin on notice that his relationship with the United States was going to be a lot cooler than the one he experienced with Trump. Biden laid out a list of accusations to which Putin defiantly replied, “You’re wrong about everything. You have no evidence. We didn’t interfere in your election. We didn’t do any of these things.”20 Biden put no stock in Putin’s denials. He proceeded to outline a series of sanctions, emphasizing they were the direct result of specific Russian actions. The two leaders would later meet in an icy face-to-face where Biden famously said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul,” to which Putin smiled and said, “We understand one another.”21 Juicy stuff!
Another tantalizing snippet we get regarding the Biden White House is the tough fight to approve a massive funding package to buoy the economy amid the pandemic. With the Senate split right down the middle, the vice-president’s role in tight votes was going to be crucial. Of course, this presumed the Democrats would vote in unison. Enter West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, likely the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus in that wing of Congress. He would prove, time and again, to be a thorn in Biden’s side, aggravating a lot of his fellow Democrats with his obstinacy. As a fellow Democratic senator put it to him, “The reality is, you’ve got a whole bunch of colleagues right down the hall who are pretty upset with you. Do you realize that? You know, you’ve been governor. Nothing’s perfect. You try to get it to be good. You’re being selfish.”22 Though Manchin seemed to crave adoration from his fellow legislators, he balked at what he considered unwise, fiscally indefensible, over-the-top government spending. He wanted to see people returning to work rather than staying home, drawing unemployment benefits; he was concerned businesses would be unable to find employees. Not surprisingly, his recurring push back on Biden imperatives was driving the president mad. “What the f**k are you doing, Joe? Come on, man. Look … it’s time for this to be over. You’ve won, Joe. You’re going to come out of this looking like you’re the most powerful senator … like you’re the dealmaker.”23 But Manchin had lots of unresolved issues with Biden’s mammoth spending bill (totaling nearly $2 trillion). He complained, “They act like they’re going to shove it down my throat. They can kiss my ass.” Adding, “Nobody hired me up here. Nobody can fire me up here. Only my team in West Virginia and I’ve got to answer to them.”24 To this day, Manchin continues to be a roadblock to some of Biden’s most ambitious spending goals.
Obviously, this short review cannot do justice to the book. There are so many delicious quotes within it. The authors should be applauded for the scintillating expose provided here that reads like a fine wine going down—smooth, textured. While the stories hardly paint an uplifting picture of how politics is done, they do showcase the riveting personalities and complexities involved in a well-organized, easy-to-read, easily digestible seventy-two-chapter format. Kudos to Woodward and Costa!
- Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Peril (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021).
- Ibid., xiii.
- Ibid., xviii.
- Ibid., xix.
- Trump fired the previous secretary, Mark Esper, just days prior.
- Woodward and Costa, Peril, xxi.
- Ibid., xxv.
- Richard Cherwitz, “Americans Must Have the Courage to Protest Trump Often and Loudly,” Des Moines Register (website), 23 August 2018, accessed 29 March 2022, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/2018/08/23/donald-trump-racism-anti-semitism-opinion-protest-white-supremacist-kkk-ku-klux-klan-neo-nazis/1073206002/.
- Woodward and Costa, Peril, 9.
- Joe Biden, as quoted in Woodward and Costa, Peril, 19.
- Woodward and Costa, Peril, 26.
- Ibid., 165–66. Attorney General Bill Barr and Chris Wray, the FBI director, set up two meetings with computer experts at the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, who walked them through the operations of the machines and how microchips and methods made cheating all but impossible.
- Ibid., 167.
- Ibid., 169.
- Ibid., 199–200.
- Graham was frequently referred to as the “First Friend” because of his close relationship with Trump and his valued role as a counselor and go-between.
- Woodward and Costa, Peril, 411.
- Ibid., 411–12.
- Ibid., 401.
- Woodward and Costa, Peril, 402. Corroborated by significant intelligence from multiple sources.
- Ibid., 403.
- Debbie Stabenow, as quoted in Woodward and Costa, Peril, 361–62.
- Joe Biden, as quoted in Woodward and Costa, Peril, 364.
- Joe Manchin, as quoted in Woodward and Costa, Peril, 364.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas