The titles of Bob Woodward’s three books on the Trump administration – “Fear,” “Rage,” and now “Peril” – are appropriately blunt. The books, about the choppy flow of events that accompanied Donald Trump’s tenure, are written in a mostly choppy clip.
The frantic pace is redoubled in “Peril”, written with Robert Costa, Woodward’s colleague at the Washington Post. Divided into 72 short chapters, it spans the last two years of dizzying news. But as it covers the 2020 campaign season and the course of the pandemic and the protests after the murder of George Floyd and the first months of Joseph Biden’s presidency, the centerpiece of the book is the riot on Capitol Hill on the 6th. January, and his main concern is how President Trump behaved before and after this crisis.
Books like this love to be in the news, and this one wastes no time. Its opening pages recount how, last October and again in January, after the riot, General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had secret conversations with his Chinese counterparts to assure them that the United States was “100% stable” despite what they could see and hear. “Everything is fine, he told them, but democracy can sometimes be messy.
The Chinese feared Trump was rampaging globally in a desperate attempt to secure his power. Milley went through the process of nuclear strikes and other acts of war with his colleagues, to make sure nothing was triggered without his knowledge. He was, write Woodward and Costa, “overseeing the mobilization of the US state of national security without the knowledge of the American people or the rest of the world.”
The writers then return to begin charting the course for the extraordinary events of January 6, alternating Republicans’ attempts to circle Trump’s strangest behavior with scenes of Biden weighing in on whether to compete in the 2020 race.
The day after the election, speaking to Kellyanne Conway, Trump “seemed ready, at least in private, to admit defeat.”
Enter Rudy Giuliani.
The former New York mayor becomes a bigger player here than in previous books. (A particularly brutal set of consecutive entries for him in the index reads: “hair dye incident,” “hospitalized with coronavirus.”)
In “Fear,” Woodward noted that Giuliani was the only Trump activist to appear on a prominent Sunday morning talk show in support of his candidate the week the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape was leaked. He actually took part in five shows, a rare feat. In the end, Woodward writes, he was “exhausted, practically bled”, but had “proven his dedication and friendship.” His reward? “Rudy, you are a baby! Trump allegedly yelled at him in front of staff members on a plane later that day. “I have never seen a worse defense of myself in my life. They took your diaper off right there. You are like a little baby who needed to be changed. When are you gonna be a man?
It will be up to psychologists, not historians, to write the definitive account of why Giuliani has remained so loyal to the president, but in “Peril” he is described as the main force behind Trump’s refusal to let the elections take place.
“I have eight affidavits,” Giuliani said in a room of friends and campaign officials three days after the election, alluding to the scale of the alleged electoral fraud. Later that same day, in front of Trump and others: “I have 27 affidavits!” And again the same day, he urged Trump to put him in charge. “I have 80 affidavits.”
Woodward and Costa ask Trump to tell advisers that, yes, Giuliani is “crazy”, but “none of the sane lawyers can represent me because they have been pressured.”
Lee Holmes, chief attorney for Trump supporter Senator Lindsey Graham, is described in “Peril” as “astonished at the overbreadth” of the fraud allegations by Giuliani and others. Holmes wrote to Graham that the data behind the claims was “a concoction, with an intimidating tone and eighth grade handwriting.” (Graham disagreed. “Third year,” he said.)
The note on the sources of this book is almost identical to the notes of the two previous books. The authors interviewed more than 200 first-hand participants and witnesses, although none were named. Quotes are apparently used around words that are more secure, but there is a seemingly arbitrary pattern in how these marks are used and are not used even in the same brief conversations.
And as usual, although the sources are not named, some people get the kind of soft glow light that suggests they were especially helpful to the authors. In this book, much of that light falls on Milley and William P. Barr, Trump’s attorney general from November 2018 to December 2020.
It was reported when Barr resigned that his relationship with Trump had deteriorated because Barr did not want to give in to the president’s belief in voter fraud. In “Peril”, this resistance is enriched by a few long and pointed speeches, recalled verbatim with suspicion. “Your team is a bunch of clowns,” explains one of Barr’s confrontations. “They are inadmissible in the firmness and details that they present as if it were an indisputable fact. It’s not.”
Milley looks admirable and conscientious if you believe – as Woodward and Costa seem to believe – that someone had to work surreptitiously to counter the destabilizing effects of Trump during the transition to power. (Milley, who remains chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Biden, has unsurprisingly come under fire from the right for his alleged disloyalty to Trump. Biden has publicly expressed his confidence in Milley since the release of the revelations from the delivered.)
In addition to Milley’s actions, the book drew attention to a scene where – read this next part slowly – former Vice President Dan Quayle makes sense of Pence. Trump had suggested to Pence that he had the power to essentially change the election result as head of the Senate, an idea Quayle told Pence was “absurd and dangerous.” Woodward and Costa write, with rare tongue-in-cheek, “Pence has finally accepted that acting to overturn the election would be contrary to his traditional view of conservatism. “
Trump tweeted about the ballots on the morning they needed to be certified: “All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the United States, AND WE WILL WIN. Do it Mike, it’s time for extreme courage! “Extreme courage” is not the first sentence one uses to describe Pence after reading “Peril”.
The vice president has spoken half-heartedly about electoral issues in public to stay on Trump’s good side “without going full Giuliani,” Woodward and Costa write. As certification nears, he has asked many lawyers to consider his options. It doesn’t look like he wanted them to give him as much power as he just wanted to avoid a confrontation with Trump.
En route to Capitol Hill on January 6, Pence issued a letter saying he did not have “unilateral authority” to decide which electoral votes would be counted. His reward? About an hour later, protesters inside the Capitol chanted his hanging.
When Trump sacked Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper less than a week after the election, Milley saw it, write Woodward and Costa, as part of a “senseless march towards more and more disorder.” .
The sad truth is that the mess is dramatic. As a result of the riot, “Peril” loses its strength. A prolonged account of the security efforts leading up to Biden’s inauguration seems considerably less urgent after the fact. Even more fatally for the book’s momentum, Woodward and Costa devote 20 pages – a life by their standards of pace – to behind-the-scenes negotiations for President Biden’s $ 1.9 billion stimulus package. It involves a lot of back and forth with Joe Manchin, the West Virginia senator whose crucial vote was seen as uncertain. Sources may have given Woodward and Costa all the details of these negotiations, but the authors were not required to use all of the latter.
The book sets up a final rally, helped by the circumstances. In light of recent events, a late section of Biden’s decision to end the American war in Afghanistan up close is very absorbing. Authors recount Biden’s resistance to war when he was Obama’s vice president: Biden has long insisted that the purpose of US engagement in the country was to lessen the threat of Al Qaeda and no to crush the Taliban. He maintained his strategy despite the advisers who presented him with a “staggering list of possible human catastrophes and political consequences”.
As “Peril” nears its end, the Delta variant blurs the picture of the pandemic, and that’s not the only detail that makes it read like a cliffhanger. “Trump was not dormant,” write the authors. He was throwing rallies for his followers and receiving good news about his place in the early polls for 2024. As an episode of an immortal Marvel franchise, for its entire show, “Peril” ends with a dismaying sense of prologue.