Peril review: Bob Woodward Trump trilogy ends on note of dire warning

Donald Trump is out of a job but far from gone and forgotten. The 45th president stokes the lie of a rigged election while his rallies pack more wallop than a Sunday sermon and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

“We won the election twice!” Trump shouts. His base has come to believe. They see themselves in him and are ready to die for him – literally. Covid vaccines? Let the liberals take them.

Deep red Mississippi leads in Covid deaths per capita. Florida’s death toll has risen above 50,000. This week alone, the Sunshine State lost more than 2,500. Then again, a century and a half ago, about 258,000 men died for the Confederacy rather than end slavery. “Freedom?” Whatever.

One thing is certain: against this carnage-filled backdrop Bob Woodward’s latest book is aptly titled indeed.

Written with Robert Costa, another Washington Post reporter, Peril caps a Trump trilogy by one half of the team that took down Richard Nixon. As was the case with Fear and Rage, Peril is meticulously researched. Quotes fly off the page. The prose, however, stays dry.

This is a curated narrative of events and people but it comes with a point of view. The authors recall Trump’s admission that “real power [is] fear”, and that he evokes “rage”.

Peril quotes Brad Parscale, a discarded campaign manager, about Trump’s return to the stage after his ejection from the White House.

“I don’t think he sees it as a comeback,” Parscale says. “He sees it as vengeance.”

Parscale knows of whom and what he speaks. His words are chilling and sobering both.

The pages of Peril are replete with the voices of Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Bill Barr, Trump’s second attorney general. Each seeks to salvage a tarnished reputation, Milley’s somewhat, Barr’s badly.

In June 2020, wearing combat fatigues, Milley marched with Trump across Lafayette Square, a historic space outside the White House which had been forcibly cleared of anti-racism protesters so the president could stage a photo op at a church. The general regrets the episode. Others, less so.

In an earlier Trump book, I Alone Can Fix It, Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker, also of the Post, captured Milley telling aides just days before the attack on the Capitol on 6 January, “This is a Reichstag moment.” This week, in the aftermath of reports based on Peril of Milley’s contacts with China in the waning days of the Trump administration, seeking to reassure an uncertain adversary, Joe Biden came to the general’s defense.

As for Barr, for 20 months he bent the justice department to the president’s will. Fortunately, he refused in the end to break it. Overturning the election was a far greater ask than pouring dirt over the special counsel’s report on Trump and Russia or running interference for Paul Manafort, Trump’s convicted-then-pardoned campaign manager. Barr, it seems, wants back into the establishment – having smashed his fist in its eye.

Woodward and Costa recount Barr’s Senate confirmation hearing, in which he promised to allow Robert Mueller to complete the Russia investigation, Trump’s enraged reaction and an intervention by his wife, Melania. According to the author, Barr may have owed his job to her.

Emmett Flood, then counsel to Trump, conveyed to Barr his mood.

“The president’s going crazy,” he said. “You said nice things about Bob Mueller.”

Melania was having none of it, reportedly scolding her husband: “Are you crazy?”

In a vintagely Trumpian moment, she also said Barr was “right out of central casting”.

In another intriguing bit of pure political dish, Mitch McConnell is seen in the Senate cloakroom, joking at Trump’s expense.

“Do you know why [former secretary of state Rex] Tillerson was able to say he didn’t call the president a ‘moron’?” the Senate Republican leader asks.

“Because he called him a ‘fucking moron’.”

By contrast, McConnell has kind words for Biden – a man he is dedicated to rendering a one-term president. America’s cold civil war goes on. Some, sometimes, still send messages across no man’s land.

Woodward and Costa show Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, the goddess of alternative facts, reminding Trump that he turned voters off in his second election. In 2020, Trump underperformed among white voters without a college degree and ran behind congressional Republicans.

“Get back to basics,” Conway tells him. Stop with the grievances and obsessing over the election. From the looks of things, Trump has discounted her advice. Conway has a book of her own due out in 2022. Score-settling awaits.

Police detain a person as supporters of Donald Trump riot at the US Capitol on 6 January.
Police detain a person as supporters of Donald Trump riot at the US Capitol on 6 January. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Ending somewhere near the political present, Woodward and Costa shed light on the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Senator Lindsey Graham with it.

In office, Trump affixed his signature to a document titled “Memorandum for the Acting Secretary of Defense: Withdrawal from Somalia and Afghanistan”. It declared: “I hereby direct you to withdraw all US forces from the Federal Republic of Somalia no later than 31 December 2020 and from the Islamic Republican of Afghanistan no later than 15 January 2021.”

Apparatchiks were baffled as to where the memo had come from. Then they blocked it. Trump folded when confronted.

As for Graham, the South Carolina Republican and presidential golfing buddy expresses “hate” for both Trump and Biden over Afghanistan.

Graham and Biden were friends once. As Graham has repeatedly trashed Hunter Biden, expect the fissure between him and the new president to prove to be long lasting. As for Graham and Trump, it’s a question of who needs whom more at any given moment. With John McCain gone, it’s a good bet Graham will latch on to an alpha dog again.

Fittingly, in their closing sentence, Woodward and Costa ponder the fate of the American experiment itself.

“Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power?

“Peril remains.”

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