The author and former Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward interviewed Trump 18 times for his new book Rage. In a February interview, Trump revealed that he knew how serious a threat there was from COVID-19. Many commentators say Woodward should he have said something as soon as he learned this. I disagree.
What Woodward knew and when he knew it
The key question in the Watergate investigation — and Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigative reporting about it in the Washington Post — was, “What did the President know and when did he know it?“
The parallel ethical question in this case is “What did Bob Woodward know and when did he know it?” And just as crucially, “Once he knew it, was he obligated to say something?”
What did Woodward know? Well, if you actually listen to the recordings Woodward made of his conversations with the president, in February, he knew (1) that Trump was aware the virus was passed through the air, and (2) that it was far more deadly than the flu. Here’s the video and audio from CNN.
Did Woodward know the virus was deadly? No. He knew that Trump had been briefed. But Trump’s recollection has often proven to be faulty. It was the President’s duty to take appropriate action, since he had (or should have had) far better and more detailed information than Woodward had.
Because he withheld this information until the publication of his book, Woodward is now facing withering criticism. Here’s Charles P. Pierce in Esquire, for example (Pierce always uses an asterisk to indicate that Trump is not a legitimate president):
The interviews with the president* were conducted on the record. As early as January, Woodward could have broken a huge story quoting the president* himself about how the president* was lying to the public and risking the public health. Maybe it would have forced a change of policy that would have saved lives. (Probably not, given what we know about this president*’s modus operandi.) Woodward knew the truth behind the administration*’s deadly bungling—and worse—and he saved it for his book, which will be released to wild acclaim and huge profits after nearly 200,000 Americans have died because neither Donald Trump nor Bob Woodward wanted to risk anything substantial to keep the country informed.
Woodward defends his actions in an article in the Washington Post:
Woodward said his aim was to provide a fuller context than could occur in a news story: “I knew I could tell the second draft of history, and I knew I could tell it before the election.” (Former Washington Post publisher Phil Graham famously called journalism “the first rough draft of history.”)
What’s more, he said, there were at least two problems with what he heard from Trump in February that kept him from putting it in the newspaper at the time:
First, he didn’t know what the source of Trump’s information was. It wasn’t until months later — in May — that Woodward learned it came from a high-level intelligence briefing in January that was also described in Wednesday’s reporting about the book.
In February, what Trump told Woodward seemed hard to make sense of, the author told me — back then, Woodward said, there was no panic over the virus; even toward the final days of that month, Anthony S. Fauci was publicly assuring Americans there was no need to change their daily habits.
Second, Woodward said, “the biggest problem I had, which is always a problem with Trump, is I didn’t know if it was true.”
Let’s play out the counterfactual
Imagine, for a moment, that Woodward behaved as his critics would have had him behave. Imagine that he published the tape and showed, say, in March, that Trump had already told him that the virus was a serious problem.
Would the nation have risen up and taken action? Would governors have suddenly decided to take the virus more seriously and recommended masks? Would it have been easier to begin and maintain shutdowns?
I sincerely doubt it.
What you would have had was an equivocal statement from Trump, continuing his series of mixed messages about the virus. You would have had the very same debate that happened anyway, about whether the virus was serious enough to warrant radical action, or if such action would just damage the economy. You would have had Trump making the same statement then that he is making now — that he wasn’t talking so much about the dangers because he didn’t want to incite panic.
The idea that Bob Woodward’s “scoop” would have changed the nation’s course on COVID-19 is pure wishful thinking. Such a change would have required actual leadership from Trump regarding taking the virus seriously. Woodward could not have stampeded or scared Trump into being a leader on this topic. Trump was not going to do that, regardless, since treating the virus as a threat would have made him look weak.
Yes, Woodward would have gotten credit for a “gotcha.” It would have dominated the news for a day or two. And then we would have moved on. Given the number of shocking events that have happened since March, I doubt this would have even been on our minds right now.
One thing that would likely have happened is that Trump would have stopped speaking with Woodward, seeing him as an enemy. And that would have ended the insight Woodward was getting into Trump from the dozen-plus interviews that helped inform the book.
Now consider what Woodward actually did by waiting to publish and what that accomplished.
It allowed him to complete 18 interviews.
It allowed him to gather the context to clarify what Trump was hearing and what he and his colleagues actually did about it, and when.
It allowed him to publish a complete book with a series of revelations that may well contribute to taking down Trump’s presidency — in a time of maximum scrutiny, because it is just before the election.
Trump, not Woodward, is responsible for what happened
If you want to argue that Trump should have behaved differently in February, I’m there with you. His denials and excuses about not causing panic are lame. A president owes the truth to the nation he leads. The hundreds of thousands of people dead from COVID-19 are his responsibility, and can be traced directly to a lack of leadershp.
Woodward’s responsibility is to the truth. He’s not the best source of information on the virus — people like Anthony Fauci are. And his knowledge of what Trump told him in February would not have made a difference in February, or March, or April. Trump was lying then, and he’s lying now, about the seriousness of the virus.
Those of us who work on books know that it takes a while to assemble a complete case about what is happening. It’s rare that we come upon a fact that, if revealed at that moment, would save many lives. It’s convenient to believe that Woodward found such facts in his interviews with Trump, and he could have saved lives with them. But even in hindsight, it’s pretty hard to draw a straight line between what Woodward found — that Trump at a given moment in February had thought the virus was serious — and what happened or didn’t happen.
So I’m with Woodward here. You can hate on that all you want. But in the end, it’s up to the author’s judgment what to reveal and when. As entertaining as it to second-guess that author, the author’s commitment to the whole truth is crucial, and no amount of what-ifs can accurately project what might have happened if the author behaved differently.