It was five minutes after noon on Aug. 9 and in the East Room of the White House. The president was speaking a few simple words that history might have dismissed as un-majestic, maybe even trite.
Except, at that moment, he was speaking the words he knew his fellow citizens most needed to hear: “Truth is the glue that holds government together.”
It was 1974 and President Gerald Ford had been in office for all of five minutes. He had just been sworn in as America’s 38th president. His predecessor, Richard Nixon, was flying west, probably over Kansas, having resigned and left the White House in disgrace that morning for having ordered the Watergate scandal cover-up and then lied to us all about it.
The ordinary guy who became our unelected president understood that on that day, he needed to address and reassure a worldwide audience: “I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our government but civilization itself. That bond, though strained, is unbroken at home and abroad.”
Truth. Today, sadly, America’s essential bond of democracy and governance is not just strained but broken, at home and abroad. A world that once felt it could rely upon America’s word now knows it cannot trust our unbelievable 45th president. The Washington Post’s fact-checker reports Trump is approaching 5,000 false or misleading statements in his two year presidency.
So there is both much that’s new, yet nothing really new, in all the sad and disillusioning detailed reporting in Bob Woodward’s newly released book, “Fear: Trump in the White House.”
“Fear” is listed as Woodward’s 18th book. But in its larger context it may not even be a book at all. Woodward’s “Fear” is functioning as America’s de facto warning siren. It has emitted a stream of alarms, in the form of detailed accounts about a president who is a compulsive liar.
Trump often seems to be not just deceiving others but even himself. He is seen impulsively ordering actions that insiders say aren’t the result of fact-based decisions, but delusions. First reports of Woodward’s book were followed by a bizarre New York Times op-ed column, by a self-proclaimed anonymous Trump insider, who confesses to being part of an inside resistance movement that seeks to thwart Trump’s dangerously delusional impulses.
Note: We’ve been there before too. The Nixon tapes reveal Nixon repeatedly ordering chief of staff H. R. Haldeman to firebomb the Brookings Institution progressive think tank; Haldeman said yes, sir, but never did.
Woodward’s book begins by reporting a stunning incident: Trump’s former chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, ex-president of Goldman Sachs, stole a letter from Trump’s Oval Office desk to prevent Trump from signing and sending it to South Korea’s president. In it, Trump stated he was terminating the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement; Cohn was appalled that Trump didn’t understand the pact made it possible for the U.S. military to detect a North Korean missile launching in seven seconds and shoot it down before it reached California in just 38 minutes.
Woodward also reports that John Dowd, then-Trump’s lawyer, met with special counsel Robert Mueller to warn that Trump proved in rehearsals he couldn’t stop himself from lying in live questioning — and would fail any perjury trap.
Woodward’s book index contains a line that has probably never appeared in any historical work. Under “Trump, Donald,” there is this: “as liar, 208-9, 235, 320, 338, 353, 357.”
Trump long ago mastered the secret of the art of lying. He simply lies to his people in the same way he lies to himself — by saying things that make him feel good. He doesn’t seem to care (or even be aware!) that he’s just made up his facts. Neither do his people.
So it is that Woodward’s book ends oddly — with a non-quote from a non-happening: Dowd resigned as Trump’s attorney having seen “the tragic flaw” — but Dowd “could not bring himself to say to the president: ‘You’re a (f-ing) liar.’”
America’s presidential soap opera may end oddly, too. The GOP leaders seem to have succumbed to Dowd’s disease. They have seen Trump’s tragic flaw, but they don’t have the guts to tell Trump’s true believers what they urgently need to hear.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected].