The reporting of Bob Woodward led to the only resignation of a president in our nation’s history. At the time, he was a young Washington Post reporter. Now he’s an associate editor at the Post, in addition to being a prolific author and teaching a journalism seminar this semester at Yale, his alma mater. Woodward’s latest book is Fear: Trump in the White House, and he will be at College Street Music Hall in New Haven on Jan. 22.
Have you ever done an interview and not been asked about Watergate?
It comes up.
If it happened now, with Trump instead of Nixon, how different would the fallout be?
In my journalism seminar that I teach [at Yale], the first class is exactly that question. How would Watergate be covered now by the news media in the internet age? It would be very different. Everything’s impatience and speed now. During Watergate, Carl Bernstein and I could work for two or three weeks on a single story. And editors would read drafts, offer ideas, suggestions, criticisms, check with this, what about that. Now if you have a new development in a story, somebody’s on you to see if you can get it on the website by noon.
Is there anything, in your opinion, that would make Trump resign?
I just don’t know. What I’ve tried to do in the book Fear is to go back and look at all the policies and the formulation of what happened inside the White House. In the news today is what Trump said about the [Jamal] Khashoggi killing, right? And in my book Fear I describe the origin of the relationship with Saudi Arabia, beginning the first month of the Trump presidency, driven by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and the extent to which secretary of state, secretary of defense, national security advisers, and the intelligence agencies told him [that] MbS [Mohammad bin Salman], who was then deputy crown prince, is not the answer to what’s going on. And Kushner drove it through, and Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. He went in May of last year. And so you see how Kushner and Trump ignored the warnings of the experts about MbS. There’s a scene in which Kushner gets up at the [National Security Council] meeting and just stands at the end of the table and says, “Yes, I know there are risks, but this is why I think we should do it.” And we now see the fruits of that, one of the fruits, namely the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. There were warnings aplenty to them.
What is the temperament of the American public today and how does it compare to during the time of Watergate?
Back in Watergate, Republicans, when they set up the Senate Watergate Committee to investigate Watergate — this was in February 1973, months after we’d written our main stories, months after Nixon had won a massive, 49-state landslide re-election — the Senate voted 77-0 to set up this committee to investigate Nixon. Dozens of Republicans signed on, saying we should get answers to these questions of what happened. I don’t think you would get a resolution through the United States Senate now where you would get 77-0 on a resolution to keep the colors in the American flag red, white and blue.
How do we get all Americans to trust the news again? Is that even possible?
Easier to describe the creation of the universe. But it’s a big job and it’s going to take a long time. Tone down the rhetoric. Don’t become emotionally unhinged one way or the other, and stick to the facts. Explain the development of policy, the example I gave you of the Saudi relationship.
Do you think the media is now too much a part of the story?
No, I think it’s just really hard, because Trump is very skillful at improving on the old Nixon strategy. Nixon’s strategy in ’72 when we wrote those stories was, oh, it’s character assassination. They really don’t have sources. And it’s let’s make the conduct of the Washington Post and their reporters the issue rather than Nixon’s conduct. And Trump does that. And he’s very effective at it and we take the bait. Now, you have to take some of the bait and cover these things, but it’s become not just daily, there can be two or three things a day that will drive the news cycle.
As somebody who’s done a little bit of investigating in your time, what do you think the past year has been like for Robert Mueller?
He’s a serious guy, he’s determined. I don’t think this has ever been published, I didn’t put it in my book, but one of the intelligence people who worked with Mueller for years said that Mueller was obviously determined to get to the bottom of any crime. And this person told me — really knew Mueller exceptionally well, worked with him for years — that Mueller was the sort of person that if you ripped the mattress tag off, and he found out about it, he would prosecute you. There’s some people who joke about Mueller as “Bobby the Mattress Tag Prosecutor.”
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that you have an extraordinary gift for getting people to spill their guts...
Well, you know, no. He said to spill their guts about things they shouldn’t be talking about. Now that’s the problem — that Gates thinks people are telling these things that shouldn’t be told. As you might imagine, I strongly disagree. I think they should be told. I think the biggest worry is secret government.
Regardless of the message, is there a particular medium that you believe still warrants the most trust? Is it newspapers?