Why, why, why would the President grant Woodward so much access? And why would the famously denial-prone Trump allow Woodward to tape the conversations so that there can be no doubt about a) their authenticity or b) what he actually said?
Good question! And one that can only be answered by understanding Trump’s psyche and the unique role that Woodward plays in American politics.
Let’s start with Trump.
For all the attacks he lobs at the media, there is NO president who has more closely followed how he is covered and treated by the press than Trump. And it’s not even close. He is a voracious consumer of cable news as well as print newspapers. Cable TV has long been the lens through which he views the world and, since being elected president, the way that he analyzes — in real time — how he thinks he is doing.
Aside from those attempts to secure a legacy in stone — literally! — Trump regularly uses campaign rallies, supposed policy speeches and his Twitter feed to promote the idea that he really deserves to be considered as one of the best presidents ever.
So, that’s Trump.
Now to Woodward.
Woodward made his name, obviously, as one of the two reporters who broke the criminal enterprise overseen by President Richard Nixon and known as “Watergate.” In his later years, Woodward has turned almost exclusively to writing books — and books that chronicle the life and times of presidents in office. He wrote four books about George W. Bush’s eight years in the White House and two about Barack Obama. And in 2018, Woodward released “Fear” — his first book about the Trump White House.
In short: Woodward is writing the history of each president as it happens. He is the most recognizable and famous political journalist in the country. When Bob Woodward says he wants to write about you — even if you are a billionaire businessman or the president of the United States — you are flattered. And you see opportunity, because if you can convince Woodward that the coverage of you is unfair and biased and that you are really doing a great job, well, then, maybe history starts remembering you the way you want it to.
Every president who has cooperated with Woodward to some extent or another has been driven by the appeal of dealing with someone with the sort of influence they believe can shape how they are not just perceived in the moment but remembered. The appeal of telling the “real” story to a journalist of Woodward’s stature, bringing him in behind the curtain, is irresistible.
And never more so than with Trump, who is not only obsessed with how he is covered and what his legacy will be but also has a superhuman belief in his ability to talk his way in or out of almost anything. Trump views himself as a master manipulator, someone who is so good at reading other people that he knows how to get what he wants even as they think they are getting what they want.
Trump has two Achilles heels in politics and life. The first is that he cares so desperately about how people think of him and remember him that he is willing to do almost anything to impact his legacy. The second is that he believes far too much in his own ability to persuade. Woodward (and the book he has produced) cuts at both of the heels.
Which means that Trump was essentially poking at his own weakest spots with every single word he uttered to Woodward. And yet, he couldn’t stop himself.