It’s one of Washington’s oldest traditions, a new Bob Woodward book drops and throws the White House into turmoil. What makes this particular volume unique, besides its co-author Robert Costa, is that “Peril” chronicles the transition between two different Administrations.
If you’ve ever read any of Woodward’s books, and I’ve read over a dozen of them, you know they aren’t like most other historical works. The legendary newspaper writer uses sparse prose to run through a timeline, only diving deep into a particular subject when he’s uncovered new information about that person or event. These habits tend to produce volumes that aren’t exactly masterpieces, yet remain incredibly difficult to put down.
This method, of course, produces some frustration. If history is the art of completing as much as possible an intricate jigsaw puzzle, then Bob Woodward is the greatest compiler of pieces in modern American history. On the other hand, he often lacks the imagination to put those pieces in their proper place, robbing the reader of a fuller picture.
Nevertheless, Peril is probably the best of Woodward’s trilogy on Trump. Given that Woodward’s best work tends to involve co-writers, this is likely the result of Costa’s influence. According to the acknowledgments, the junior partner came up with the idea of a twin Biden-Trump structure. Regardless of the aforementioned familiar criticisms, “Peril” remains a must-read for all political and news junkies.
The Final Days of Trump?
Can any writer really gain insight into Donald Trump’s psyche? Not really, but what Woodward and Costa can do is bring us a conversation between Trump and one of his favorite aides, Hope Hicks, where they discuss why he refuses to admit defeat.
“It’s not who I am to give up. It’s not in me to do that,” he tells Hicks. “I don’t care about my legacy. My legacy doesn’t matter. If I lose, that will be my legacy. My people expect me to fight, and if I don’t, I’ll lose ‘em.”
Throughout the book, the authors show how Trump is buoyed by the intense support he enjoys from his base. On the night of January 5th, when Pence again told Trump he couldn’t overrule the election results, Trump motions to the supportive crowds gathered outside the White House.
“Well, what if these people say you do?,” Trump asks his VP. “If these people say you had the power, wouldn’t you want to?”
Additionally intriguing are the 2020 campaign observations of people like Kellyanne Conway and even Attorney General Bill Barr.
Woodward and Costa describe a revealing conversation between Barr and Trump that runs for pages, information which could only have come from Barr himself. The AG delivers a lengthy and telling lecture about how Trump’s abrasive personality imperials their shared success.
Conway, on the other hand, felt that Trump’s 2020 campaign grew too large and lacked the insurgent energy of 2016.
After Trump leaves office, Sen. Lindsey Graham becomes the self-appointed liaison between the former President and the Republican Party. Graham sees them as two entities bound together despite mutual disgust.
“I don’t see how we come back without him, and I don’t see how we get there without him changing,” Graham astutely notes while surveying the post January 6th landscape.
Biden Takes On Trump, COVID and Afghanistan
Meanwhile, Woodward and Costa got plenty of material from top players in the Biden campaign and White House as well, including Ron Klain and Anita Dunn. Most surprisingly, though, we get the insights of Mike Donilon, who for decades has served as Biden’s seldom-seen right hand man.
For example, Donilon recounts testing Biden’s ‘battle for the soul of the nation’ message with a South Carolina focus group made up mostly of black women. The ads moved the women to tears and convinced Donilon that they had the right message for 2020.
The authors relate the passage of the Biden Administration’s first legislation priority, the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which required the intense courting of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. It ultimately took two Presidential calls from an exasperated Biden to get Manchin to finally agree to support the package. Manchin’s stubbornness exhausted his Senate colleagues, leading Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow to seek out Manchin and admonish him as selfish.
The other major Biden White House initiative covered in this volume is the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. After feeling that Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and the military establishment boxed President Obama into an escalation in 2009, President Biden remains determined to avoid a repeat of history.
For a time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin favored prolonging the occupation to give the Afghan government leverage with the Taliban. President Biden, however, felt this plan would only lead to more troops and yet another attempt at nation-building.
“If the mission is to preserve the Ghani government, I would not send my own son,” Biden pointedly concludes.
Woodward and the Military
The first news reports on the book focused on Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley’s fears that Donald Trump would destroy American democracy. The authors clearly believed Milley’s efforts to hold the international order together in the final days of Trump’s presidency were their most explosive revelations as well, since they chose them as the book’s prologue.
These sections are an excellent illustration of perhaps Woodward’s greatest skill, extracting the thoughts, plans and actions of America’s top military officers. In fact, you could cobble together a fascinating portrait of the post-9/11 U.S. armed forces through Woodward’s past nine presidential books.
Aside from Biden and Trump themselves, Milley is likely the most prevalent individual in this book, and he’s given plenty of space to provide his own (self-serving) view of events. After feeling he was tricked into participating in Trump’s June 1st march through Lafayette Park, it’s clear that Milley is making his case to history through Woodward.
It appears he also wanted to make a good early impression with his new Commander-in-Chief. At one point, Milley implores the Joint Chiefs to never box in a President, and the General actually manages to get this whole speech included in the book.
Yet I’d have to imagine that any honeymoon between Biden and the generals is already over. Given all the turmoil that resulted from the Administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Woodward and Costa are likely at this very moment collecting critical accounts from the Chiefs and the Pentagon for their next volume.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Milley’s account is sure to inflame those Trump supporters who believe that a ‘deep state’ was internally undermining their chief executive. Following the example of Nixon’s Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, Milley cut a troubled President in his final days out from the chain of command. Left unresolved once again were the dangers that could result from such a plot.
Altogether, this book is less the finale of a Trump trilogy and more the first of potentially several joint Biden-Trump volumes. As Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale explained, “He had an army. An army for Trump. He wants that back.”
“I don’t think he sees it as a comeback,” Parscale concluded. “He sees it as vengeance.”
So expect to see Woodward and Costa’s ‘Vengeance’ on bookshelves next fall.