From the Military’s Lips to Your Ears: A Trip Through the Reporting of Bob Woodward

By Ray Locker

Key leaders of the military have serious reservations about the mental stability of President Donald Trump, leading them to leak wildly to author Bob Woodward, according to stories in his latest book, "Fear."

The initial reports about the book indicate a military in virtual rebellion against Trump, disregarding his orders about attacking Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The players most prominently mentioned in Woodward’s book — White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, both former Marine generals — made the routine denials of cooperating with Woodward, but their connections are clear.

Both played dramatic roles in anecdotes involving them and few other people. Both had been reported as saying similar things in other media reports. Both followed the pattern established in other Woodward books of telling stories that reflected badly on elected officials, but well on the military.

In a Jan. 19 2018 National Security Council meeting, Woodward reported, Trump downgraded the importance of the U.S. military presence in South Korea and questioned why the United States was spending money there at all. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mattis told him.

Kelly often lost his temper and called Trump “unhinged,” Woodward wrote. “He’s an idiot,” Kelly said, according to Woodward. “It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”

Woodward, a former Navy officer with one of the military’s highest security clearances, has gone to this well often, for example:

In The "Final Days", his book with Carl Bernstein about the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger instructed the military units around Washington to stand down in case Nixon sought to deploy them to remain in power as Congress tried to impeach him.
Military leaders groused about President George H.W. Bush’s plans to invade Panama in 1989 in conversations in Pentagon featured in "The Commanders", his 1991 book about military leaders.
The brass praised and then pilloried President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then his botched handling of the occupation in Woodward’s series of books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Someone in the Pentagon gave Woodward the Afghanistan war recommendations from General Stanley McChrystal in 2009, a leak that altered the course of President Barack Obama’s war planning.
Each time, those suspected of talking to Woodward denied doing so, but that’s what Woodward allows his sources to do. He lets them talk and usually gets them to disparage the civilian leadership.

As the "New York Times" review of "Fear" said: “Fear is a typical Woodward book in that named sources for scenes, thoughts and quotations appear only sometimes. Woodward has never been a graceful writer, but the prose here is unusually wooden. It’s as if he wants to make a statement that, at this historical juncture, simple factual pine-board competence should suffice.”

This reflects his military career that ended with a stint delivering Top Secret messages from the Pentagon, where he worked for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the White House. There, as reported by Jim Hougan in "Secret Agenda" and Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin in "Silent Coup", he briefed Alexander Haig about daily military developments.

Haig was then Nixon’s Deputy National Security Adviser. Four sources, including Moorer and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, told Colodny and Gettlin that Woodward briefed Haig, who later turned into one of Woodward’s best sources.

Woodward says for "Fear" he recorded all of his interviews, although we will most likely never hear them or read the transcripts. We have to trust him that he is telling the truth, which can be a tricky proposition. The interview notes he took while working on his first book, "All the President’s Men", show that he quoted one source, the legendary “Deep Throat,” telling him things that the notes indicate he never said.

In "Fear", the issue is not whether Woodward’s sources told him the truth. It’s that the military is in rebellion against the president and using Woodward again to uncritically parrot their words without providing any deeper analysis. "Fear" shows an out-of-control president courtesy of military sources who know their old friend Bob Woodward will take care of them.