Woodward and Costa present a deadpan, nonpartisan chronicle of the events leading up to and following Trump’s election defeat.
Bob Woodward – journalism legend and associate editor of the Washington Post – and Robert Costa, the Post’s national political reporter, showcase their remarkable access to the White House with their blow-by-blow reporting of an unprecedented crisis in US governance. They take readers from the lead-up to the 2020 election through to the summer of 2021, focusing on Donald Trump, Joe Biden and the turbulent presidential transition.
Offering chronologically organized anecdotes with scant analysis, the authors leave readers to draw their own conclusions – to a point. The one-word title – in line with Woodward’s previous works on the Trump presidency – aptly describes the threat to American democracy.
Woodward and Costa note, with characteristic understatement, that Trump was erratic and narcissistic.
Do not humiliate Trump in public. Humiliating a narcissist risked real danger, a frantic lashing out if he felt threatened or criticized.Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
Trump showed either ignorance of or disdain for precedent, propriety and procedure. The authors assert that House Speaker Paul Ryan’s weariness in dealing with Trump led him to resign.
A long-serving senator and Barack Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden wasn’t surprised at Trump’s first election victory, Woodward and Costa explain; he understood Trump’s connection with working-class voters.
Biden argued if people stayed silent, the nation’s civic fabric would grow threadbare, with more terror in the streets. Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
But Biden faced an uphill battle. Many considered him boring and old. Progressives lambasted him for his Iraq war support, his tough-on-crime attitude and his mismanagement of the Anita Hill case. Trump, as Woodward and Costa divulge, tried to investigate Biden’s connections to a Ukrainian energy company; this led to Trump’s first impeachment and to, the authors found, Biden’s son Hunter’s drug relapse.
The coronavirus hit the United States in January 2020. It slowed the economy and revealed Trump’s mismanagement. The authors recount how Trump staged rallies, despite his staff’s warning they would be “superspreader” events. Trump fomented conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and election fraud, and he pressured vaccine developers and regulators to bypass safety protocols. Trump ended up contracting COVID-19.
Trump made rash and inconsistent decisions about Afghanistan and Iran policies. Concerns arose within the White House, Woodward and Costa unveil, that Trump would manufacture a crisis with China to distract from his failures.
This was a president who traced political capital through public statements and media hits. Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
Election night started strong for Trump but turned against him. Biden won by connecting with Black and working-class voters. Trump stoked claims of fraud with shoddy data and cheerleading from Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon. Trump filed lawsuits contesting the election results, but the suits failed. Giuliani bombastically touted evidence-free election fraud conspiracies, particularly at a press conference outside the Four Seasons Total Landscaping business, which made Trump a laughingstock.
Woodward and Costa chronicle that Trump fired staff, including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, for not kowtowing sufficiently. The authors describe White House staffers as fearful that, without Esper around to keep him in check, Trump would go around the bend. Trump became so irrational, and the Giuliani-led effort so absurd, that Trump’s team members debated resigning, as his attorney general William Barr did.
Woodward and Costa describe two Senate races in Georgia that would determine whether Democrats won the House of Representatives. Trump’s claims of election fraud deterred Republican voters, and both Democrats won. The certification of the presidential election was to take place at a special joint session of Congress on January 6, 2021.
The authors cite rumors that seven states submitted double elector slates. Pro-Trump legal scholar John Eastman suggested that if those states’ electors were voided, Trump could claim victory. Trump pressured Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to certify the vote. Woodward and Costa note with surprise that, despite constant Trump attacks, Pence declined.
The man who had acceded to Trump’s every request, who had never publicly disagreed or criticized him once he became vice president, would not do him this final favor.Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
Trump supporters demanded that electors pledged to Biden be freed to vote for someone else – which is not legal. Trump lawyer Sidney Powell wanted to seize voting machines under the National Emergencies Act.
The Capitol police, the National Guard and other security forces were woefully unprepared on January 6. Trump supporters mobbed the Capitol building, resulting in death and injury. Rioters attacked police officers.
The rioters were everywhere in the Capitol. No one was in control. Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
As Trump watched on television, his staff encouraged him to go on Twitter and stop the riot, but his response was delayed and inadequate. Afterward, members of Congress returned to the Capitol and certified Biden’s victory in the early hours of January 7. Woodward and Costa list the many people, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who argued the attack was a Trump-instigated coup attempt.
Some White House officials, Woodward and Costa found, regarded the impulsive, unpredictable Trump as suffering a “serious mental decline,” and they worried he might take rash military action. China’s leaders feared Trump would attack. Russia and Iran went on high alert.
Trump didn’t attend Biden’s inauguration or call him.
There was no playbook for securing a post-insurrection inauguration. Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
The authors remind readers that Trump’s current seeming quiet stems from social media banning him after the insurrection. Many fear that January 6, 2021, was a mere precursor of worse to come as Trump considers another run.
The Historical Record
Woodward’s noncommittal reporting has long had an irksome quality. His refusal to contextualize certain events seems to stem from his claiming an archaic – and pretty much illusory – notion of journalistic objectivity. But here, he and Costa appear to be playing a longer game by their refusal to drill deeply into the events they depict with astonishing detail and a decently readable style.
The authors apparently seek to establish a reliable historical record that, given their in-depth research and avoidance of partisanship, not even the most fervent Trump supporter could call fake news. And indeed, they present the incontrovertible, terrifying, objective truth.
Bob Woodward’s books include Fear, Rage, Obama’s Wars and Wired. He co-authored All The President’s Men and The Final Days with Carl Bernstein.