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Interview

Bob Woodward: Trump mismanaged alliances. Biden has to fix it

US must rethink national interests over China, Japan and Koreas, journalist says

President Donald Trump spoke with Woodward for nine hours and 41 minutes in total, according to the journalist's count. (Photo courtesy of the White House) 

WASHINGTON -- Bob Woodward, the renowned journalist and author of "Rage," an inside look at U.S. President Donald Trump's handling of COVID-19, sat down with Nikkei to share insights gained from his 17 interviews with the president.

He characterized Trump's treatment of allies such as South Korea "insulting," while his almost "romantic" relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not deliver clear results as the president insisted. 

The veteran journalist, who watched then-Vice President Joe Biden closely when he was writing two books about former President Barack Obama, said the president-elect is "incredibly well versed in foreign policy, budget, political matters with the legislative branch, and understands where the levers are and what you have to do." 

But he said Biden and his incoming secretary of state Antony Blinken will have a daunting task of reestablishing ties with allies and making clear what American interests are.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: How was Trump's reception of your book "Rage"? 

A: After I finished my book in August, I picked up the phone and it was President Trump calling, after my book was done. And he said, "Can I get something in the book about the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE?"

I said: "The book is closed. I'm sorry. You know, something can't be added. But I need to tell you, Mr. President, that it's going to be a tough book and I'm going to make some judgments about you that you're not going to agree with."

And he said, "Well, are you writing about the coronavirus?"

I said: "Yes, of course. It's a big deal."

He said, "Well, how about the economy?"

I said: "The economy and the virus are together. They reinforce each other in a negative way."

"Do you really think so?" he said.

Journalist Bob Woodward speaks to Nikkei via video conference. 

I said, "Yes, I do."

He said, "Well, a little bit."

And I almost jumped out of my chair!

I said: "A little bit! The virus has strangled the economy in this country."

After he hung up, he tweeted an hour and a half later that the Woodward book is going to be fake news, because he knew I was going to make some harsh and very forceful, substantiated claims about what he did, what he had done.

Q: After speaking to many of Trump's aides, what did you learn about his handling of the coronavirus?

A: He has no plan right now -- months, almost a year after being warned -- and to take the stance of avoidance and negligence is irresponsible.

In one of the first interviews I did with him, I asked, "What's the job of the president?"

And he said, "The job of the president is to protect the people."

He failed to do that. He knew this was coming, it was going to be worse than the flu -- five times worse than the flu -- that it was airborne. He was told this is going to be this national security threat, "the biggest national security threat to your presidency."

Trump is joined by Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force in a coronavirus update briefing on Aug. 4, 2020, in the Oval Office. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

He did institute some restrictions on travel from China to prevent the virus from coming to the United States, but it was too late. China restricted travel inside China but not outside China.

And then they flew to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City and brought the virus with them, and that, of course accounts in large part for the terrible problem they had in New York City.

What happened is simple things: "Wash your hands." "Wear a mask." "Don't gather with large groups of people in a closed space." And "Make sure that you are responsible in your behavior with other people." Simple things that an individual can do could have saved many lives. And it didn't happen.

This is why, in my book, I conclude at the end that Trump is the wrong man for the job of being president of the United States. And, of course, now he has lost the election and will be out of office Jan. 20th.

It is a tragedy for this country. When histories are written of the Trump presidency, in a hundred years, they're going to begin with that January meeting, when he was warned by his national security advisers, in a top-secret meeting dealing with the highest-level intelligence, that this was coming and it was going to kill Americans on a very large scale.

As a test in leadership, it is a colossal failure, the likes of which I hope we never see in this country -- and in any other country, to be frank.

Q: The Nov. 3 presidential election ended up with Joe Biden gaining 306 electoral college votes.

A: Trump is trying to say it was rigged. It's never absolutely perfect, but there is no evidence -- zero in fact.

I've done reporting, investigative reporting, for 50 years almost in this country, and if somebody has a big story about a big scandal -- and it would be a big scandal if somebody stole ballots or burned them or ripped them up or found a way that they would not be counted -- somebody would call me.

There's the telephone. No calls! No calls from anyone saying, "Oh, you should come to this state" or "You should come to this city and you'll find this rat's nest of scandal and hidden ballots."

I was able to talk to Trump for nine hours and 41 minutes. That is a long time. You learn a lot about somebody, and you learn a good deal about yourself.

As I looked back at the transcripts of those interviews, I found out I would prepare questions, and the questions that really got the best answers were questions that were just spontaneous, simple questions like "Why?" "What were you thinking?" "What did so and so say?"

In doing the book, I had to work on it for almost a year, and spend that time calling Trump. I had a number I could call him at the White House. He would call me at 10 o'clock at night.

On May 25th of this year, George Floyd was killed by a white police officer and triggered a racial crisis in this country. I asked him: "Mr. President, you come from a world of white privilege. I come from a world of white privilege. My father was a judge and lawyer in Illinois."

And I said: "We need to understand, as products of white privilege, that black people in the United States feel anger and pain. We need to comprehend that as white men."

He just laughed to me and said: "Boy, you sure drank the Kool-Aid, Bob! I don't feel that way at all!"

In many ways, part of the story of Donald Trump is he does not know the extent to which he is his own worst enemy, he does not understand the extent to which he does things that do not help his cause -- they have the opposite effect.

Q: What do you expect from a Biden presidency?

A: Given what happened with the travel in the United States over the Thanksgiving holiday, it's going to spread. You have an increase, and then you have an increase on top of that.

We are in for very difficult times, and President-elect Biden is going to take office in January with this right on his shoulders because he will assume the office of president that Trump failed to organize in the most simple, rudimentary way.

It's going to be hell, quite frankly, for Joe Biden's first weeks and months as president unless something miraculously happens.

Biden won more of the popular vote and more of the states than Trump did. But Trump still won 73 million votes. That is significant, and he's going to be a force in American politics, obviously, for a while.

Q: Will Biden be able to get things done?

A: I wrote two books about President Obama, and Biden was the vice president at the time. I discovered, and the book showed, that Biden is incredibly well versed in foreign policy, budget, political matters with the legislative branch, and understands where the levers are and what you have to do. He very much believes in getting along with people if at all possible.

There is a videotape of Biden 10 years ago visiting Sen. Mitch McConnell, now the Republican Senate majority leader. McConnell and Biden were friends! They spent 25 years in the Senate together.
They're on opposite sides, but there is this tape of Biden going down to the Mitch McConnell Center at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

Biden is there giving a speech, and McConnell is sitting behind him. Biden says: "We're in the Senate -- Republicans, Democrats -- and sometimes we really like each other. We really, do, like, each, other."

And McConnell is sitting in the back and is going "Yes."

Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell enter a joint session of Congress in January 2017.   © Reuters

Are they going to be able to work things out? In the old tradition of the United States Senate, the way they work things out is "one for you, one for me, one for you, one for me." In other words, you compromise. You get about half of what you want and you have to give up half of what you want.

Whether Biden and McConnell will work that way is going to be, certainly, one of the most fascinating stories in Washington in the coming years of the Biden presidency. 

Q: What should we expect from Biden's East Asia policies?

A: Japan, South Korea, China and North Korea -- there is always lots of trouble brewing there. President Trump says, "Oh, we are allowing South Korea to exist, because we pay for all these troops there."

Well, actually, it turns out we don't pay that much for them; the South Koreans paid 92% to build a new Camp Humphries in South Korea. But Trump thinks, "Oh, no, we're suckers, we're losers," and that is not true.

The people who have done this -- particularly the generals and the admirals in the United States military -- say the expenditures on those alliances are the best money that's spent. It has worked in Europe and East Asia for a long time.

Trump told me at one point about the South Koreans. He said, "You know, we allow them to exist." I mean, what an insulting thing to say to a country -- "We are allowing you to exist"? We are not "allowing" South Korea to exist; they exist on their own. It's not something that we're handing out.

An intelligence officer was telling me the other day that Trump has unsettled relations between the United States and other countries. But he said: "Look, Trump happened. Don't pretend Trump did not happen.  He has shaken things up and the result has been a significant distrust of the United States and that's got to be repaired, and you can't do it with one phone call or one meeting."

The Biden national security team is going to have a lot of work to do.    

President-elect Joe Biden listens as his Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware on Nov. 24.   © AP

Q, What is your expectation of future U.S.-China relations under a Biden administration, in terms of competition in the economy and global security?

A, There has got to be a new relationship with China. The first conversations I had with Trump about China were: "You know, we love President Xi Jinping and China," and "President Xi was doing so well handling the virus," and finally, when reality stormed in, Trump said "Oh, you can't trust Xi, you can't trust the Chinese."

There has to be some sort of working relationship with the Chinese. Competitive, but also operating within reasonable bounds.

Trump launched a trade war against China, and this has led to some bad feelings and some difficulties. Trade wars, well they're also complex.

Tony Blinken, President Biden's nominee for secretary of state, is going to have a job as large as any human being has ever had, to sort all of this out, establish what American interests are, make it clear. Also, solidify the relationships but also make sure that we don't go too far in some of these relationships.

In my book, I describe these confidential letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un. Kim says, "Well, our relationship is like it's out of a fantasy film." And there was something romantic about it. Trump would sit in the Oval Office and say to me: "Well, we didn't have a war. We didn't have a war." And that's true.

But where that relationship goes now is not clear. North Korea has sufficient nuclear weapons to cause havoc -- not just in East Asia but in the world. That's one of these volatile relationships that's got to be managed and redirected in American interests with a kind of clarity, not ambiguity.

Trump would always say to me: "Well, I know what Kim Jong Un is thinking. He's told me everything." Well, the intelligence people don't buy that, that Trump knows everything.

Trump was confident that he knew what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was thinking. Intelligence officials do not agree, Woodward says. (Photo courtesy of the White House) 

What's the nature of the relationship with Japan? How is it going to grow? How is it going to be fixed? Because even though there were some stories about the great relationship between Trump and Abe, I think there was probably more tension there.

I quote some things at secret meetings where Trump is really saying, "Hey, look, we're paying and providing this defense for Japan" and making it quite clear that he thought we shouldn't spend as much.

It's almost as if Trump thought he was the chief financial officer of the United States. Whenever he would get more money from allies or someone, he would pat himself on the back and say: "Look, I got more spending for defense. I got this or that from Japan or South Korea."

Putting the world back together again is going to be a giant responsibility for the new president.

Q: What is the degree of your concern of what has happened in Iran, with the apparent killing of their top nuclear weapons coordinator?

A: Obviously, the best evidence is that the Israelis did this, that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu did it, probably with approval or acknowledgement by Trump or the Trump administration. Going into a country and killing anybody is, technically, an act of war, and it is dangerous.

People had better be careful. You can't go around and do these things in an organized world. And it reflects the disorganization and the incoherence of the relationships in the Middle East and in the world.

After I got out of college in the 1960s, I served in the United States Navy for five years, on ships, and saw up close the Vietnam War. And having written 20 books -- and six or seven of them are about presidents' wars -- wars really don't solve problems; they create problems.

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