WEB EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Bob Woodward
Washington Post Associate Editor and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Bob Woodward was the keynote speaker at the National Defense Industrial Association’s 100th Anniversary dinner Oct. 30. Prior to his speech, he sat down with National Defense Magazine’s Editor in Chief Stew Magnuson. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. You have primarily been covering the presidencies over the past decades. How would you compare this administration’s relationship with the military and its leaders to the past?
A. Well, I've done books on nine [presidents] and reporting for the Washington Post on nine presidents. It was [documentary maker] Ken Burns who recently reminded me that's 20 percent of the presidents we've had, which is a lot — from Nixon to Trump. And so I think the question in terms of national defense is, what is the job of the president? What should the president be doing? And we have a range of performances by presidents in terms of supporting the military or being not so supportive of the military.
Obviously, Trump is one of the most gung-ho supporters of the military. But what's interesting — and this is in the first Trump book I did, Fear — is there's a paradox in all of this. He's a supporter of the military very dramatically. But he's dovish. He doesn't like these endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, as we've seen recently.
It's a striking paradox and where that goes in the end, obviously we don't know. I remember about President Obama. This was I think 2013 or so. I had a breakfast with David Cameron, who was the British prime minister at that time. And I asked: “What do you think of Obama?” And he said, “Oh, I really like him. He's so smart.” Pause. “But no one's afraid of him.” And I think that's a legitimate critique of Obama. But he also was inconsistent. I mean, here's a man as commander in chief who put 30,000 more troops into the Afghanistan war and very much thought to be on the dovish side of things.
It was 2016, another reporter and I were interviewing Trump, who was just on the verge of getting the Republican nomination. … And Obama had said in a very interesting way that real power is not having to use violence. So we asked Trump, ... "So what's real power?" We didn't have a video of it. I wish we did in some ways because it was almost Shakespearean. It was like Hamlet and a sign to the audience: “This is what I think. This is what's going on.” And Trump said real power is fear, which is the title of the book.
And, I think it can safely be said that Trump scares the bejesus out of people.
Q. Getting back to the original question, how was the relationship with his first defense secretary? Was there more to the resignation than what was publicly stated?
A. Certainly that they got along for a while and then [Defense Secretary James] Mattis resigned over the issues I described in the book — Mattis feeling very deeply the importance of the alliances — NATO, South Korea, the 200,000 troops we have deployed around the world, right? And Trump at these meetings, which I recount … is just on fire. “Why are we spending all this money? We're suckers.” And that's one of the things Trump did — and I think to this day — he still says. I think he doesn't get the importance of alliances and how they leverage U.S. power. And I think that's really unfortunate.
Q. Many of NDIA’s members are defense contractors. And President Trump has famously waded into their world. One of the first instances was him complaining about how the Air Force One replacement cost too much. Then he inserted himself in the JEDI cloud computing contract debate. Amazon, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, was competing for it. And Trump advocated for the Navy returning to using steam power on the Ford-class aircraft carrier. Is this unprecedented? Or has it happened with other presidents behind the scenes?
A. It's astonishingly unusual and I'm not sure it serves his purpose. He's very attuned to cutting costs on some things and as you suggest, he gets into the weeds on it. “We should do it this way or do it that way.” Returning to the question: what's the job of the president? One of the jobs of the president is to be a talent scout and get somebody to be defense secretary and say, “Okay, I want them to approve and we're going to meet on it. But you know, you run the show with me as somebody standing on the sidelines.” And he won't do that. And I think that has resulted in lots of people leaving his administration, his cabinet officers or White House people, either resigning or being fired.
Q. On that note, the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t had a long history, but we have never seen this kind of turnover in leadership…
A. One thing about Trump — and I'm now doing a second book on him — and my book is as tough as any book on him because I think we have a governing crisis. I think he doesn't focus on governing. One of the critiques of him is, he’s not normal. He's violating all these norms. For God sake, he was elected to violate these norms. That's what his supporters expect him to do — to be a hell-raiser. So people shouldn't be surprised at that, but there should be some way where expertise should trump — no pun intended — his instincts. ... In my book, I have scenes where they will say, “Where did you get these ideas?" And he will say, “Well, I've had them for 30 years.” As if that's sufficient.
Q. So how important is it to his followers that he finish building a border wall? Funding it has become a real sticking point in budget negotiations. Will his re-election hang on this issue?
A. No. I mean as long as he's making an effort and then he's able to go out politically and say, “I tried. They are thwarting me. They're stopping me.” And I think it's really interesting to speculate on what's going to happen in the election.
Q. That was going to be an upcoming question: your prediction on the election.
A. I don't predict as I have done because I've been wrong. One of the things I'm going to mention tonight is looking at how presidents get elected. I think there is a universal appreciation on the left, the right, Democrats, Republicans for the exercise of strong presidential power. And I think Trump certainly is a manifestation of that. “I'm going to be strong. I'm going to be tough. No one's going to push me around. I've got my ideas.” And it will be interesting if there can be a Democrat who will come along.
If you go back to the Clinton election in 1992, Bush, George Herbert Walker Bush Sr. had come off the Gulf war, his approval rating was even in the nineties in some cases. And [President Bill] Clinton beat him by saying, “I'm going to use presidential power to fix the economy for you.” We haven't heard that from any of the Democrats about how they're going to use presidential power. The Democratic debates so far have sounded like the Senate subcommittee on health insurance doing the markup.
Q. The other issue that's been in the headlines lately is the recent raid on the ISIS al-Baghdadi compound. Trump said it eclipsed the Obama bin Laden raid. What’s your take on that?
A. This is Trump at his most boastful. When Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, said, “I have a nuclear button,” Trump's response was, “My new nuclear is bigger than yours.” And this is [him saying], "My raid is bigger and more important." And you know, they're both important. I think that's kind of a not a very good useful debate. What is interesting — as has been pointed out — the intelligence agencies, special ops people. … Seven of my 19 books had been about wars. And look at the military. This is a finely tuned machine that we saw. Intelligence is such a critical part of that. And Trump's war with the intelligence agencies, I don't think serves him.
Topics: Defense Department