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Witcover: Latest Woodward book measures Trump and Biden

By Jules Witcover - | Oct 4, 2021


WASHINGTON — Investigative reporter Bob Woodward’s latest expository political book bears the name of a new co-author, Robert Costa, also of The Washington Post. Together they broaden their focus not only on the strengths and weaknesses of former president Donald Trump but also on those of the man who defeated him in 2020, President Joe Biden.

The result is a more expansive product in revealing the outcome of that election, the ouster of the crude and profane Trump and the surprising political resurrection of old political war horse Joe Biden. The public concern over the erratic behavior and judgment of Trump is measured against the promise of Biden for a return to normalcy in the conduct of the nation’s affairs. The chasm helps explain the fall of the one and the rise of the other.

The red meat of the book remains the details of the remarkable public service of the ranking American military leader, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. They document his deft intervention against Trump’s audacious effort to steal the 2020 presidential election.

Milley redeems himself as a once-used prop by Trump in the scandalous photo-op in which the president raised a Bible outside a church near the White House amid the the mass protests of the killing of George Floyd. The general regretted for appearing in uniform with Trump, and then moved on to isolate the president by fulfilling his own oath to protect the Constitution from partisan political involvement.

The book also discloses the unusual role played by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in urging General Milley to intercede to make sure Trump did not try to use military force — including a nuclear strike — to enhance his power. She phoned Milley directly and, according to a transcript obtained by the authors, asked: “What precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike? … This situation of this unhinged president could not be more dangerous. We must do everything that we can to protect the American people from his unbalanced assault on our country and our democracy.”

Milley replied to Pelosi: “I can guarantee you, you can take it to the bank, … that the nuclear triggers are secure, and we’re not going to allow anything crazy, illegal, immoral or unethical to happen. … The precautions that we have in place, which require authentication, certification and any instructions have to come from a competent authority and they have to be legal. And there has to be a logical rationale for any kind of use of nuclear weapon. Not just nuclear weapons, use of force. So I can assure you that we have rock solid systems in place. That there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell this president or any president can launch weapons illegally, immorally, unethically without proper certification.”

Nevertheless, the House speaker persisted. “But he just did something illegal, immoral and unethical, and nobody stopped him,” she said, “Nobody. Nobody at the White House. This escalated in the way it did because of the intent of the president.” She went on: “But it is a sad state of affairs for our country that we’ve been taken over by a dictator who used force against another branch of government. And he’s still sitting there. He should have been arrested. He should have been arrested on the spot. He had a coup d’etat against us so he can stay in office. There should be some way.” She thanked Milley and hung up the phone,

The book’s title, “Peril,” follows previous Woodward books titled “Rage” and “Fear,” which captured the chapter and verse of Trump’s descent into apparent mental dysfunction. The latest book also addresses how Biden’s long and orthodox practice of the art of politics, after 36 years on the Senate and eight as Barack Obama’s vice president, bolstered his stature. It also recognizes the significant role played by Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina in generating wide support from black voters in his state’s primary that revived Biden as a preferable alternative to the loose cannon of Donald Trump.

Further documented is how an unhinged president, in striving to survive his personal recklessness and incompetence, contributed mightily to his own defeat for reelection. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is quoted saying “being Donald Trump” was enough to cause the loss of his presidency. “Trump’s personality was his biggest problem,” he said, and “Joe was the opposite of Trump.” McConnell adds that Biden “had luck and a perfect matchup” in Trump. He notes that Trump had “a brotherhood” of cabinet members who “tried to push Trump toward normal. It was routinely a losing exercise” and a “futile” one.

In all, broadening this book to note how Biden’s own comeback contributed to Trump’s downfall has given the narrative more political clarity. At the same time, the double byline affirmed Woodward’s generosity in sharing credit for this significant contribution to our often-maligned political journalism.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.


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