Bob Woodward's new book on the Trump presidency, "Fear," was released today, and its very detailed accounts of dialogue within the Trump Administration are making headlines.
The Washington Post published one such passage, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, tells a group of his colleagues Trump is "unhinged."
“He’s an idiot," Woodward quoted Kelly as saying. "It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
It's unclear who told Woodward Kelly said this, and Kelly has since released a statement insisting it's untrue.
Another Woodward passage has Trump saying he wants to kill Bashar al-Assad and called the secretary of defense, James Mattis, with instructions to assasinate him.
“Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump said, per Woodward. The Washington Post recounts what happens next: "Mattis told the president that he would get right on it. But after hanging up the phone, he told a senior aide: 'We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.'"
Again, it's unclear how Woodward was able to capture this level of specificity on both sides of the phone call. Mattis has likewise called the quotes phony, saying they're a "product of someone's rich imagination."
All of this juicy gossip is being reported in the press as fact, despite the checkered history of Woodward's credibility. The famed "All the President's Men" author is notorious for weaving narratives with vivid dialogue, but doing so using only second-hand sources who are -- months, if not years, later -- relying on their own memories, at best.
Author and columnist Max Holland reviewed the trove of notes Woodward use when authoring "All the Presidents" men and found "there are a number of inconsistencies between these notes and how the conversations are rendered in All the President’s Men":
"Phrases not enclosed in quotation marks in the notes are presented within quotes in the book, lending the impression that ["Deep Throat" aka former FBI associate director Mark Felt] spoke those exact words. Occasionally, the meaning of what he said is substantially altered. The book also contains information not present in the notes at all."
Woodward admitted to Holland that he relied on his own memory of his sources' memory when conjuring the dialogue used in his books:
In 2011, I asked Woodward about the discrepancies between his book and his Felt notes. Regarding his having put words into quotes that weren’t in quotes in the notes, he said, “I may have had a distinct recollection [while we were writing the book, and reviewing the notes] that something was in quotes ... and so I may have put quotes in it.” Regarding instances where information in the notes was altered, or where passages in the book are not reflected in the notes at all, he said, “It’s just like when you testify under oath in a courtroom. You may have some notes, and you may say, ‘The notes say this, but I recall that in addition.’”
Holland details a series of other problems in Woodward's book: Quotes are misrepresented to alter their meaning, other quotes are invented out of thin air, and Woodward uses only his imagination to assign motive to his sources.
Another Washington Post editor, Barry Sussman, said Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein often massage facts to create a better story. “Some of their writing is not true,” Sussman told the director of the movie, All the President's Men, Alan Pakula. “They’re wrong often on detail,” he said, and they “sentimentalize” the story.
Holland details other Woodward lapses:
Over the years, there would be other questionable Woodward episodes: a 1987 four-minute interview with ailing CIA director William Casey that the Casey family and the CIA said did not unfold as claimed, or warrant Woodward’s bold conclusion; the Valerie Plame affair, in which Woodward derided a special prosecutor’s investigation into the leaking of a CIA officer’s name, without telling the Post or the public that he was in fact the first reporter to receive the leak. (Woodward has stood by his reporting on Casey; regarding the Plame leak, he later apologized for not telling his boss at the Post.)
... Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate for The Washington Post was justly celebrated. But that should not excuse what came next: They wrote a self-glorifying account of their role, seemingly altered information from their notes, apparently reneged on a pledge to Deep Throat, then later downplayed evidence that Mark Felt was leaking for self-interested reasons. And finally, when a former Woodward lieutenant came across some facts that undermined the narrative that Woodstein had dined out on for decades, Woodward responded to this heresy by attacking the writer’s integrity.
In 1984, Woodward published a book about the actor John Belushi, "Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi." The project came about after Belushi, who hated Nixon and revered Woodward, died, and his wife, Judy, asked Woodward to investigate the LAPD's handling of his death.
"He took the access she offered and used it to write a scathing, lurid account of Belushi’s drug use and death," writes Tanner Colby, who wrote another Belushi biography years later. "Many of Belushi’s friends and family denounced it as biased and riddled with factual errors.
After Woodward burned Judy Belushi, she later turned to Colby to write a more balanced account of her husband's life. Colby recounts what happened next:
I handled most of the legwork, including all of the interviews and most of the research. Over the course of a year, page by page, source by source, I re-reported and rewrote one of Bob Woodward’s books.
... Over and over during the course of my reporting I’d hear a story that conflicted with Woodward’s account in Wired. I’d run back to Woodward’s index, look up the offending passage, and realize that, well, no, he’d put down the mechanics of the story more or less as they’d happened. But he’d so mangled the meaning and the context that his version had nothing to do with what I concluded had actually transpired.
As an example, Colby says Woodward totally made up a story about one of the most famous scenes in "Animal House," when Belushi's character, Bluto, makes his way through the school cafeteria, horrifying students with his boorish behavior. Colby says that everyone he spoke to involved in the production of the movie said Belushi completely improvised the scene, and it was a testament to his comic ability.
In Woodward's book, the scene is described as rehearsed, with the director John Landis coaching him through it:
Landis quickly discovered that John could be lazy and undisciplined. They were rehearsing a cafeteria scene, a perfect vehicle to set up Bluto’s insatiable cravings. Landis wanted John to walk down the cafeteria line and load his tray until it was a physical burden. As the camera started, Landis stood to one side shouting: “Take that! Put that in your pocket! Pile that on the tray! Eat that now, right there!” John followed each order, loading his pockets and tray, stuffing his mouth with a plate of Jello in one motion.
Why twist the story? In Woodward's telling, Belushi is "lazy and undisciplined," which fits with his larger, more sensationalized narrative about Belushi being an uncontrollable drug addict. Belushi's friends and family say Woodward ignored the actual story of who John Belushi was to instead focus almost entirely on sordid tales of drug use he knew would drive book sales.
When Woodward published "Plan of Attack" in 2004 about the Bush Administration's War on Terror, the same accusations haunted him. In that book, he quotes not only conversations he was not a party to, but the thoughts of those partaking in the conversations. (For more detail, The Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson penned a brutal takedown.)
Bob Woodward's credibility has come under attack from both sides of the aisle. In 2013, he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that White House Economic Adviser Gene Sperling threatened him, saying he would "regret" publishing comments Sperling made about then-President Obama's handling of the sequester. When Politico later published the email exchange that led Woodward to claim he'd been threatened, most viewed it as an ordinary exchange; Sperling had only said Woodward would "regret" publishing the comments because they were untrue and it would thus hurt his credibility.
Perhaps Woodward's cleaned up his act and his latest book is 100 percent factual, reported exactly as it happened in reality. But journalists covering "Fear" owe their readers and viewers a bit more circumspection, as Woodward's history demands they at least acknowledge he's only a partially reliable narrator.