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Woodward's taped time with Trump reveals much about both the author and his subject

Simon & Schuster

The voice of Bob Woodward is well known in Washington and former President Trump's is familiar worldwide. But we listen to both in a new way in Woodward's new audiobook The Trump Tapes.

Woodward has released raw audio of a score of interviews he did with Trump in 2019 and 2020. Trump has responded by saying on Fox News that he will sue Woodward (calling him "very sleazy"), not because the tapes are inaccurate but because Trump says they belong to him and he needs to be compensated for their sale.

The interviews were arranged to inform Woodward's second book on the Trump presidency, Rage, which appeared just before Trump lost his bid for re-election. The president had not cooperated with the reporter's earlier Trump book, Fear, a highly critical study that appeared in 2018.

Initially conducted in the Oval Office, the series continued for months with Trump often making surprise phone calls to Woodward at home or on his cellphone.

In these hours of Trump's recorded voice, we hear him striving to court Woodward's favor, praising him as "a great historian" and "the great Bob Woodward." Yet these interviews veer often into disagreements and even debates.

One topic comes to dominate the discussion: the Covid virus that came to dominate the election year. In February 2020, Trump tells Woodward that everything is fine in America but "now we got a little bit of a setback with the China virus" that will "go away in a couple of months with the heat."

Later, Trump clings to his "got it under control" line tenaciously as Woodward recites all the evidence to the contrary.

We hear Trump repeatedly tell Woodward he was the lone voice urging the U.S. be closed to arrivals from China in early 2020. He says he did this in defiance of a roomful of advisers who rejected this idea.

Woodward comes back with notes from nearly everyone else who had been in that room, all saying that at least four or five others (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's leading epidemiologist) called for that same shutdown at the same meeting. Trump denies this again and again, insisting he was "all alone" and bringing it up regularly as though Woodward had never heard it before.

It's March 19 when Trump says he'll "never get credit for the great stuff" he's doing and adding that he did not want people to know how bad and deadly Covid could be because he did not want to "panic the people."

We hear Woodward's voice asking questions throughout the recordings. He has also recorded a commentary, so we hear him fact-checking and correcting the president.

Trump seems fully aware that Woodward is not just another reporter. He may even have been briefed on the reporter's career built on books about presidents, starting with his first, All the President's Men, which recounted his contribution to the downfall of Richard Nixon nearly half a century ago.

Since then, presidents have sat down with Woodward to get their side of the story across. That has been a required exercise, if only because the longtime Washington Post journalist relentlessly interviews all the other key players in each administration in search of the unvarnished and the unofficial.

But it may have taken Trump aback when Woodward went back to the Covid response critique with such fervor. Woodward's role here shifts from reporter to debater, notably in the April 5, 2020 interview when he shares a list he has compiled of "16 things" he believes Trump needs to do to get on top of the virus. When the call is over, we hear Woodward's wife, the journalist Elsa Walsh, wondering aloud if he should be talking to the president like that.

Listening to these tapes now, the topics are as familiar as Trump's raspy baritone (which grows bellicose at times and verges on a bellow). On substance, Trump dwells on an agenda that ranges from his grievances to his notions of his greatest hits. The grievances feature his "very unfair" treatment by Democrats, RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), the "dishonest media" and the federal establishment — also known as "the Deep State" and "The Swamp."

We also hear an unrepentant Trump bragging about how he kept Congress from sanctioning the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman over the murder of Saudi Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post who was sharply critical of the prince. "I saved his ass," Trump says, "and it wasn't easy."

Trump's rhetoric remains as it has been since his emergence as a candidate in 2015, delivered drenched in a sense of victimhood that endures even now in his messages on "Truth Social." The main difference is that here his frequent profanities are left intact.

Among the achievements he wants Woodward to emphasize are the judicial appointments he made from a list compiled by the Federalist Society and promoted by Mitch McConnell, who was then the Senate Majority Leader. This number grows with each interview, with Trump eventually claiming it was 280 and Woodward adding a note to say it was, in the end, a still impressive 234.

But Trump also claims credit for a robust pre-Covid economy and a record-setting stock market and the escape from a nuclear war with North Korea he alleges would have been inevitable had his rival, Hillary Clinton, won the Electoral College in 2016.

Trump spends considerable time seeking Woodward's acknowledgement of the "breakthrough" with Kim Jong Un, the youthful and curious dictator of North Korea. Trump can scarcely contain his fascination with the way Kim eliminated his rivals for the dictatorship, including the beheading of an uncle. Trump offers to share Kim's letters (which are classified information) with Woodward but asks him not to say how he got them.

Trump also leans into his resentments over the "Russia hoax" and the FBI's alleged plot to get him, and his first impeachment. (The latter followed his delay of military aid to Ukraine while he was asking that country to launch or announce an investigation of Joe Biden and his son Hunter.)

Perhaps the most repeated of several Trump mantras is "I've done more than any other president in less than three years" (which becomes three-and-a-half years as the interviews and months roll by). That refrain reappears regularly, sometimes several times in a single conversation, demonstrating Trump's career-long reliance on repetition for effect.

It also extends in surprising directions, as when he says: "I've done more for Black people than any president other than the late great Abe," Trump says, alluding to Abraham Lincoln. When Woodward brings up Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and created the Great Society programs, Trump fires back with: "No, I've done more."

Occasionally we hear other voices besides those of the two principals. Woodward interviews Robert O'Brien, who was Trump's National Security Advisor, and O'Brien's deputy Matthew Pottinger. Both confirm that they warned Trump the virus from China would be "the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency."

We also hear briefly from First Lady Melania Trump, and from daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. Also audible in the background is Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who turns up while Trump is talking to Woodward. Trump calls the senator "Linds."

Questions will surely be asked regarding Woodward's motivation for this audiobook. On one level, he is simply reiterating the case he made a year ago regarding Trump's fitness for office. He observes in his prologue that reading something someone said does not have the force of hearing it in that person's own voice. (That is a case NPR and other audio-based communicators have been making for many years.)

There is no question that hearing Trump has an impact that reading alone cannot match. Woodward in his epilogue speaks of "the real Trump...pounding in my ears in a way that the printed page does not capture."

It is also possible that Woodward is responding here to critics who have faulted his work and that of other Trump chroniclers. At least some reporters who have written books about Trump have been accused of withholding newsworthy nuggets, keeping them secret and fresh for their books. Woodward is showing in his own way how difficult it is to do journalism and historiography at the same time.

He is also asking Trump to be reflective about his place in history and the portents of his presidency. He tries to get Trump to comment on something historian Barbara Tuchman wrote about Europe in 1914, just before the First World War. "On history's clock it was sunset," Tuchman wrote.

Woodward then adds: "Just over a century later, the year 2016 and the election of Trump as president turned out to be another sunset. The old political order was dying and is now dead."

Trump responds by praising his own remarkable "instinct" for perceiving the weakness of both major political parties when he did and exploiting it to get elected himself. Woodward calls this "grabbing history's clock." He says the idea of that has Trump literally bouncing up and down in his chair, saying "yes and I am going to do it again in 2020" — as triumphant as Woodward is worried.

In a Morning Edition interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep airing Monday, Woodward speaks of how "the power of the audio" brings home something disturbing about Trump. "His voice is so consumed with himself and how he feels and his conclusions."

Woodward says Trump "is not comfortable with democracy," adding later that Trump "does not understand democracy." He returns to Trump's assertion that "Everything is mine," an echo of his 2016 convention claim that "Only I can fix it."

"It's so off the tracks, you don't know what to do with it," Woodward says to Inskeep. "It's almost unexplainable. So what do you as a reporter? You just put it all out there and let the people decide."

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for