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Why Woodward's book matters

There have been many books about the Trump White House in the past few months. Here's why this one matters.

Posted: Sep 6, 2018 11:25 AM
Updated: Sep 6, 2018 11:46 AM

The Trump White House has been rocked this week with early details from Bob Woodward's book "Fear: Trump in the White House." President Trump has, as usual, reacted aggressively to the book, which casts him as petulant and insecure, a man deeply out of his depth who is being purposely kept out of the loop by senior administration officials in order to keep the country safe.

This is not Woodward's first rodeo. He has written a series of books documenting each of our recent presidents. So how did the White Houses of George W. Bush and Barack Obama handle Woodward when they learned he was writing on them? For that answer I reached out to Jen Psaki, former White House communications director in the Obama administration (and a CNN contributor) and Ari Fleischer, who served as the press secretary for Bush.

Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Walk me through the thought process when you first heard that Woodward was working on a book about your boss, aka the president.

Psaki: It is part of the rite of passage in a White House press office. He writes about every president, so we knew it was coming. Early on I remember a part of me thinking, 'cool, I love his writing and books.' Of course that comes with a huge dose of anxiety when you are working in the White House he is writing about. And anxiety only increases once he has written the first book.

Woodward is not a White House reporter or someone waiting for statements or approval from the press office. We also knew that. So the monitoring of how the book was going and what exactly he had that was newsworthy was difficult, to say the least.

The first book on President Obama was about the decision-making around Afghanistan. It was early on, and we didn't have a defined strategy for any book. We definitely were better prepared the second time around, but it is really never a call you want.

Fleischer: Bob contacted Karen Hughes or Dan Bartlett (I don't remember who) to say he wanted to write a book about Bush's war on terror. The president decided he would cooperate with Bob, and that set the tone. If the president was cooperating, we all were cooperating -- not only in the White House but across the agencies.

Cillizza: Was there a strategy as to who would talk to Woodward and who wouldn't within the White House? Did people break those rules?

Psaki: We got better at this as the years in the White House continued just by trial and error. In the first few years we were just trying to survive in part because we were dealing with a massive financial crisis and in part because most of us had never worked in a White House, and we started off not even knowing where the bathrooms were located.

The core decision was -- are we going to participate or not, and at what level? We played it both ways with different books at times, setting up interviews and at other times trying to maintain the ability to say we didn't participate. Either way you go, it can be hard to control book narratives. People always break the rules. The difference is the anecdotes in Woodward's second book about Obama were about who was more responsible for the budget deal falling apart, not about how the senior staff were ignoring the orders of the President and keeping decision papers off his desk.

Fleischer: Given the fact that President talked to Woodward, we all did. I don't recall any meetings to plan who he could or could not talk to. As far as I recall, all top people Woodward wanted to talk with spoke to him.

Cillizza: Woodward sat down for his books with both Obama and Bush. How hard a decision was that to make? Was the president in favor of it?

Psaki: There is a calculation every White House makes regarding books and even big articles. If we participate, especially at the level of the president, we have less plausible deniability about the content and accuracy of the book.

President Obama was always very thoughtful about these decisions. We would present our recommendation and the reasoning, and he ultimately decided. He never felt like he absolutely had to sit down with a writer and never demanded it. But having the ability to walk through themes of the book that were related to the president's decision making ultimately felt like it was worth it.

Fleischer: It was an easy decision to make. I do think it's fair to say that when things are going well, Woodward can make them better. When things are not going well, he can make them worse. His first book was reflective of a popular president.

Cillizza: Once Woodward's book came out, what percent of the stuff in it came as a total shock to you? And how did you handle the negative press?

Psaki: Looking back, most of it should not have been a shock. The surprise was more about how detailed the leaks were about private conversations and negotiations.

There are only a few things you can do 1. Try to raise doubt about the accuracy by picking apart some pieces. 2. Attack the author. 3. Put out the people who are depicted in the book to pull it apart. We did versions of all of these. But ultimately when the themes of the book are not wildly wrong, it is only so effective to pull apart anecdotes. That is also the root of Trump's problem.

Fleischer: As I recall, the White House generally liked the first book, although there were some quotes (anonymous) that we did not like. There are of course criticisms of this matter or that matter, but for the most part, his first book was well-received.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "The single best thing for Trump to do in response to the Woodward book is ________." Now, explain.

Psaki: Have the legitimate and well-respected members of his team continue to go out and deny the accuracy of anecdotes and quotes. While we can all blow a hole in a lot of the statements including (John) Kelly's and (James) Mattis' given how carefully worded they are, they sow enough doubt that his supporters, and maybe even a swath of people in the middle, may not jump ship over the book. And stop talking and tweeting. Let surrogates do it for you.

Fleischer: "Be Trump."

For better or worse, President Trump reacts uniquely. That's who he is. He is authentic, and you know where he stands. In President Trump's defense, there is no question anonymity can give people license to say things that are incorrect or go too far. His chief of staff and defense secretary have denied what they were alleged to have said. Woodward doesn't make things up and someone told him these two people said these things. Trump and his staff are within their rights to challenge the accuracy of whoever fed the information to Woodward.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 343505

Reported Deaths: 7543
CountyCasesDeaths
Hinds23932444
DeSoto23229283
Harrison20527329
Rankin15411291
Jackson15232252
Madison10959227
Lee10719179
Jones9047169
Forrest8723159
Lauderdale7884244
Lowndes7054151
Lamar702989
Lafayette6548124
Washington5595139
Pearl River5196152
Bolivar4954134
Oktibbeha494398
Panola4771112
Warren4728128
Marshall4701106
Pontotoc447773
Union433279
Monroe4330137
Neshoba4281181
Hancock428088
Lincoln4176116
Pike3667113
Leflore3627125
Tate353388
Alcorn350974
Sunflower347694
Scott341176
Adams340988
Yazoo339376
Copiah324968
Simpson322891
Itawamba314680
Coahoma314085
Tippah306568
Prentiss298863
Covington293484
Leake285475
Marion284181
Wayne277543
George272251
Grenada269488
Newton262364
Tishomingo239770
Winston236784
Jasper230648
Stone229637
Attala226373
Chickasaw219060
Holmes200174
Clay197654
Clarke186880
Tallahatchie183742
Calhoun181332
Smith179235
Yalobusha171540
Walthall145748
Lawrence142826
Greene140134
Amite137543
Noxubee135235
Perry133538
Montgomery133044
Carroll126431
Webster121232
Jefferson Davis116734
Tunica114227
Benton106725
Claiborne105331
Kemper102429
Humphreys100133
Franklin87923
Quitman84719
Choctaw82619
Wilkinson78032
Jefferson71328
Sharkey51618
Issaquena1736
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 577463

Reported Deaths: 11510
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson841981589
Mobile47171860
Madison37047533
Tuscaloosa26915465
Shelby26873256
Montgomery25918625
Baldwin24499328
Lee16949181
Calhoun15252332
Morgan15017290
Etowah14778370
Marshall12933235
Houston11774292
Elmore10761217
St. Clair10617252
Limestone10574158
Cullman10363205
Lauderdale10083254
DeKalb9382191
Talladega8836188
Walker7681287
Autauga7479114
Jackson7317117
Blount7266139
Colbert6635142
Coffee6163132
Dale5453117
Russell470642
Chilton4682117
Covington4649125
Franklin450081
Tallapoosa4440156
Escambia427882
Chambers3898125
Dallas3717163
Clarke367763
Marion3427106
Pike327879
Lawrence3225101
Winston294973
Bibb284565
Geneva276383
Marengo259967
Barbour246261
Pickens240062
Butler238272
Hale232778
Fayette225264
Henry209245
Monroe197241
Randolph196744
Cherokee196348
Washington180139
Macon168752
Crenshaw165558
Clay163759
Cleburne160245
Lamar149938
Lowndes144854
Wilcox130531
Bullock126142
Conecuh119630
Coosa116929
Perry109928
Sumter109032
Greene98736
Choctaw64325
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