A Leader’s Initiative: The Trump-Woodward Tapes
by Boran GÖHER
When U.S bestseller and globally renowned investigative journalist Robert Woodward secured an up-to-then unseen agreement with President Donald Trump for interviews to use in his then-unpublished book Rage, many people were curious as to what a meeting between the man who uncovered the Watergate incident and one of the most controversial presidents of recent United States history would yield. Now that Rage has come out earlier this month and the interview tapes have been released to the public immediately prior, we can now say that, as expected, there is some significant knowledge worth being discussed in these tapes.
Occupying the majority of the interviews’ discussion and a sizeable portion of the book is the topic of the COVID-19 response. The most striking information is the opinion of Donald Trump on the virus in the early days of the pandemic. Despite his public statements around the same time, which greatly downplayed the significance of the virus, Trump’s private conversations with Woodward seems to indicate that he had perfectly understood how dangerous the virus was. In the interviews Trump clearly states the novel coronavirus is many times more deadly than the regular flu, stating “this is five percent versus one percent and less than one percent.” (1). This contrasts his public statements around that time which contained quotes like “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” And “Federal Government is working very well with the Governors and State officials. Good things will happen!” (2).
Then can we say that Woodward has caught Trump on the wrong foot? Could this be a game-ending blow for his re-election in November? Most likely not. Firstly, while it is now undeniable that Trump has purposefully downplayed the significance of COVID-19, he has never made any attempt to deny it. In fact, he has openly come out and stated that he has done so to Woodward. In the interviews, Trump has defended his actions with the following words: “I wanted to always play it down, I still like playing it down because I don’t want to create a panic.” (3). In the eyes of Donald J. Trump, and possibly most of his supporters, his actions were simply the actions of a strong leader who took executive initiative when faced with a difficult and unexpected situation. Critics and pundits are very quick to present the truth of the current state of the United States and the, honestly, overwhelmingly numerous facts and statistics relating to the pandemic’s spread and damage in the country. Yet perhaps, they would do best not to place too much hope on the reality and the number of things, the science and the math of things. In this post-truth age of democratized information creation, those things do little to swerve voters, so long as they don’t destabilize the image of whatever politician they support, and the new info we have gotten does not at all break the strong, unconventional yet traditional leader image Trump has.
Speaking of strong leaders, according to the interviews, Trump feels an inexplicable pull towards them. Of course, strong means authoritarian in this context. The POTUS has repeatedly praised Kim-Jong Un and Vladimir Putin according to Woodward. He even gave the following snippet about Turkey’s Erdogan: “I get on very well with Erdogan. Everyone says, ‘what a horrible guy’ but for me, it works out.” Says Trump. “It is funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. Explain that to me someday, OK, but maybe it is not a bad thing.” (4)
Whether or not that is a bad thing is up for debate, it is ammunition for the opposition and yet another sign of their leader’s strength for his fanbase, who do not mind the authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump. But perhaps that is not too hard to predict when it has already been predicted, and by Donald Trump, no less! "You're probably going to screw me," Trump says. "You know, because that's the way it goes." (5). Trump knew very well that what he said could turn against him in Woodward’s hands, yet he still went through with it. That, to some extent, shows the confidence that, whatever may happen, he trusts his voters not to leave his side.
That being said, we have not yet reached the end of this story. There is bound to be much debate over both Woodward’s book and interview in the coming days. The date being so close to the election, no doubt both sides will try to influence results. Yet, what Rage contains is just another drop of water in the pool of Trump contradicting himself and performing his duties in a sub-par manner. Still, nobody can say whether the pool has overflown or not at this point, best we can do is to simply wait and see the concrete results from the 2020 Presidential Elections.