Bob Woodward on COVID, Kim Jong-un and "The Trump Tapes": "He's drowning in himself"

Legendary reporter releases full recordings of his Trump interviews — and it's even worse than you might think

By Heather Digby Parton


Published October 24, 2022 9:24AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump announces his list of potential Supreme Court nominees in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on September 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump announces his list of potential Supreme Court nominees in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House on September 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

Venerable reporter Bob Woodward has produced a new audiobook called "The Trump Tapes," which contains the 20 interviews he conducted with Donald Trump in the course of reporting and writing his three books about the ex-president's administration, "Fear," "Rage" and "Peril" (the latter with Robert Costa). Woodward has never released full interviews or raw transcripts before, but decided to do it this time because Trump's words don't come across the same way in print. I think that's true. I've read a number of Trump books over the past five years and I'm always struck by the fact that he doesn't seem quite on the page as he does on video, even when the authors are quoting him saying something we've all seen or heard.

(Of course Trump now says the tapes actually belong to him and claims he's already hired lawyers to sue Woodward, whom he describes as a very sleazy guy. One would expect nothing less.)

Woodward shared some of the audio in a piece for the Washington Post over the weekend in advance of the audiobook's release this week. One of its most interesting aspects is the extent to which Woodward himself was clearly appalled by the man he was interviewing. That's been pretty clear in the previously published books and interviews but it really comes through in this piece. This is a reporter who's interviewed every president of the last 50 years and many other powerful officials, and he sounds ... spooked.

Some of the exchanges in the article are familiar ground but always worth revisiting since Trump is clearly close to announcing that he's running again in 2024. (At a rally in Texas over the weekend he said, "I will probably have to do it again.") Woodward provides one of the discussions about Trump's relationship with Kim Jong-un, which the then-president considered beyond special:

Woodward: The CIA says about Kim Jong Un that he's "cunning, crafty but ultimately stupid."
Trump: I disagree. He's cunning. He's crafty. And he's very smart. You know.
Woodward: Why does the CIA say that?
Trump: Because they don't know. Okay? Because they don't know. They have no idea. I'm the only one that knows. I'm the only one he deals with. He won't deal with anybody else …The word chemistry. You meet somebody and you have a good chemistry. You meet a woman. In one second you know whether or not it's all going to happen...

Woodward: And is this all designed to drive Kim to the negotiating table?
Trump: No. No. It was designed for whatever reason, it was designed. Who knows? Instinctively. Let's talk instinct.
Woodward: Do you get a sense he's wooing you?
Trump: No, I get —
Woodward: Or building a relationship of trust?
Trump: — a sense — I get a sense he likes me. I think he likes me. Okay, so, you know he's got a great piece of land. He's in between Russia, China and South Korea. In the real estate business we'd say, "Great location." You understand?

Listening to him say such idiotic things in the intimacy of private conversations is even more unnerving than watching him do it in front of a crowd. Woodward writes:

Trump's voice is a concussive instrument. Fast and loud. He hits hard and will lower his volume to underscore for effect. He is staggeringly incautious and repetitive, as if saying something often and loud enough will make it true.

When asked if he'd given Kim too much power and what he would do if the North Korean leader shot off one of his ICBMs, Trump responded, "doesn't matter... let me tell you, whether I gave it to him or not, if he shoots he shoots." He literally cared about nothing but this supposed personal relationship, which seemed largely to exist in his own head, and just shrugs off the prospect of a nuclear strike by a rogue nation. It's deeply bizarre.

Trump literally cared about nothing but his supposed personal relationship with Kim Jong-un, which existed largely in his head, and just shrugged off the prospect of a nuclear strike.

Woodward was perhaps most upset by Trump's attitude toward the pandemic, which sounds even more dreadful than it did in real time. Woodward asks at one point if Trump thinks the crisis — in which the entire world economy was shut down and thousands were dying every day — was "the leadership test of a lifetime" and Trump barks out "No!" It is an exceedingly weird response. He consistently tells Woodward that everything is going great, while clearly failing to grasp the gravity of the situation.

Woodward says he believes that "the tapes show that Trump's greatest failure was his handling of the coronavirus, which as of October 2022 has killed more than 1 million Americans." There is no doubt of that in my mind either. I continue to be amazed that it seems to be forgotten among Trump's many crimes, scandals and misdeeds.

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There are a number of committees and commissions charged with looking at the COVID crisis but they mostly seem concerned with where all the money went, which is important. The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has released a number of reports on the Trump administration's failures, to very little fanfare. Just last week, for example: 

A committee report last summer laid out evidence of the administration's similar pressure on the FDA. But so far there has been almost no media attention on how poorly Trump and his administration handled that terrifying first year.

That level of malfeasance, which had such terrible consequences for millions of people, should not be allowed to disappear down the memory hole. Perhaps Woodward's new book and the attendant publicity, given his personal focus on the issue, can put it back on the agenda.

When Woodward appeared on "CBS Sunday Morning," he told host John Dickerson:

Trump was the wrong man for the job. But I realize now, two years later, all the Jan. 6 insurrection, leads me to the conclusion that he's not just the wrong man for the job, he's dangerous. He is a threat to democracy and he's a threat to the presidency, because he doesn't understand the core obligations that come with that office.

Unfortunately, Trump is the clear frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination and could be back in the White House in a little over two years. The recording of Trump saying the following says it all:

Trump: ... I get people. They come up with ideas. But the ideas are mine, Bob. The ideas are mine.
Woodward: And then?
Trump: Want to know something? Everything is mine.

Woodward told Dickerson, "When you hear this voice and the way he assesses situations and himself, he's drowning in himself." Yes, he is — and he's taking the country down with him. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Audiobook Bob Woodward Books Commentary Donald Trump Elections Republicans The Trump Tapes