In the wake of his bestselling book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” much has been written questioning the accuracy of Bob Woodward’s past reporting, including his celebrated Watergate journalism.
This criticism is off the mark because it misses the true weakness of his journalism while attacking its strength. Woodward is meticulous in his reporting and accurately communicates at least part of what he has been told.
But that does not mean he always gives the reader a true and complete picture of his subject.
One example of this tendency is Woodward’s book on the late John Belushi. Those close to the deceased comic actor, including longtime friend Dan Ackroyd, have claimed that Woodward’s picture of Belushi did not remotely capture this complex person.
Likely, one infers, much was also left on the cutting room floor in “Fear” as was seemingly the case with Belushi.
During Watergate, few outside Washington, D.C., became aware that the Washington Post not only favored the Democratic Party but also, in essence, was the house organ of the Democratic National Committee (“DNC”).
Indeed, the paper’s General Counsel, the well-connected Democratic politician Joseph Califano, was also the general counsel of the DNC. Also, Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee reportedly had been a CIA asset in his past overseas assignments.
Immediately after the burglary arrest, two things became clear to Mark Felt, the FBI associate director who headed the investigation: (a) the burglars were listening to meretricious conversations between prominent DNC visitors and professional ladies; and (b) the CIA was most likely involved, perhaps unknown to most of the White House operatives.
Reporting the whole truth would have been devastating to the DNC and the Democratic Party, so protecting the CIA’s prostitute-taping operation necessarily protected the DNC as well.
When the question of whether the part-time employer of ex-CIA agent Howard Hunt, Mullen and Company, was a CIA front arose (answer: it was), Woodward correctly but misleadingly quoted its president, future Utah Senator Robert Bennett, as saying the allegation must be referring to work his company had done for Radio Free Cuba “in the 1960s.”
When FBI agents expressed puzzlement at the purpose of the wiretapping (given the tawdry conversations), Woodward reported, “But there is no question that intelligence gathering was … a major part of it.” An obvious interpretation was that “intelligence” meant campaign intelligence, which was not true.
Both of these statements were literally true but reported, as were many others, so as to give the reader a false impression.
A more extensive treatment of this reporting is Watergate Journalism: The Seeds of Our Discontent. In essence, Woodward won a Pulitzer Prize for nailing Nixon with literally true — but misleading and incomplete — journalism.
While “Fear” is well-written and has the feel of meticulous reporting, no one knows how much savvy and sane thinking of Trump was left on the cutting room floor. Is there a cunning method to the president’s madness? We are not told and are left to guess.
But we do know that Woodward has intentionally robbed us of the context that would come from examining the hand President Trump was dealt by President Obama, whom Woodward treats with reverence.
Trump faces, for instance, the seemingly insuperable challenge of getting the Taliban under control and to the bargaining table in an out-of-control Afghanistan.
President Obama had been given a country under military dominance, albeit by virtue of 100,000 troops sent by President Bush, and squandered that advantage by a unilateral, nonstrategic drawdown of troops, leaving Trump with but 8,400, and an Afghanistan gone wild.
A more intractable problem is posed by President Obama’s decision to ignore the advice of 100-percent of his national security team, his generals and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to leave in Iraq 20,000 — minimum 10,000 — troops. Much blood and a trillion of treasure were thereby wasted, as Sunnis were forced from the ruling junta, ISIS was born and thrived, Syria destabilized, Iran more hegemonic, and Russia more influential.
So, who is proven to be more dangerous in his military decision making: Trump or Obama? Woodward does not give us guidance.
Similarly, his job of dealing with North Korea has been made even more difficult by Obama’s reckless decision to overthrow Libyan strongman Moamar Gaddafi. Gaddafi had ceased terrorism and abandoned his nuclear program under U.S. pressure, and his demise at American hands is likely not lost on Kim Jong Un, as Trump asks him to do exactly as Gaddafi did.
So while Woodward paints a frightening picture, to be sure, of the hotblooded decision-making temperament of President Trump, he certainly avoids informing the reader of the comparative process of the supposedly cool and collected prior chief executive. At the end of the day, it may well be that Trump assesses military advice more wisely than Obama.
Woodward documents the president’s habitual dissembling, usually on minor matters, but he does not remind the reader of outrageous, rehearsed lies on major matters by Obama, such as: if you like your doctor, you can keep him. And: the Benghazi attacks were spontaneous and caused by a video.
If there is any doubt but that Woodward is deliberately cooking the books, note his treatment of the flimsy basis for the “Russian Collusion” investigation. Regarding the “peeing prostitute” claim in the Steele Dossier, he tells us: “It was a spectacular allegation. There was no indication who Source D might be.”
Source D, as we now know, is the same as Source E, a supposed Trump campaign and Trump Organization insider, who alleged the actual collusion. When the Dossier first surfaced, Woodward may not have known who Source D was.
The CIA’s John Brennan and the FBI’s James Comey, however, both knew the time — and Woodward knew by the time he submitted his book — that this source was Sergei Millian, a Russian intelligence asset falsely posing as a Trump insider of long standing.
This is important because while Woodward spares no details as to Trump’s constant fulmination and frustrations on the “Russiagate” Investigation, he also knows very well that this investigation was fraudulent from the outset.
A president was being distracted from his duties by false allegations — a true scandal about the concoction of a false scandal. But not a peep from Woodward about this disgusting tableau.
It would, however, be irresponsible to dismiss out of hand Woodward’s negative portrait of President Trump; one not surprising to either side of our gaping social divide but disturbing nonetheless.
Woodward’s book is entertaining, will earn him millions and, who knows, perhaps even a Pulitzer Prize. But in fraught times, when so much hangs in the balance, both as to domestic and national security issues, it does us no good as citizens to consider a one-sided treatment rendered without some good faith attempt to depict opposing considerations.
In Watergate, Woodward withheld key information. A criminal prosecutor concealing similarly would have been likely disbarred, as was prosecutor Michael Nifong of Duke Lacrosse infamy.
Is the target in this book — President Trump — guilty or innocent of the charges which Woodward levies? Unfortunately, we must withhold judgment, because the prosecuting journalist has not presented all the evidence.
John D. O’Connor is the San Francisco attorney who represented W. Mark Felt during his revelation as Deep Throat in 2005. O’Connor is the co-author of “A G-Man’s Life: The FBI, Being ‘Deep Throat,’ and the Struggle for Honor in Washington” and is a producer of “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” (2017), written and directed by Peter Landesman.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.