Like seemingly every reader in America, we eagerly awaited Bob Woodward‘s new book “Fear.” We had a special, additional interest. As frequent commentators on the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller, we were looking forward to additional information that would help us and the public understand the criminal and counterintelligence probe of President Trump and his associates.
But after reading and analyzing the book, we are disappointed to conclude that on this point it obscures rather than illuminates. The problem is that Woodward apparently fell for the false and self-serving narratives of those cooperating with him, while ignoring or minimizing a raft of independent evidence to the contrary, and failing to account for other constraints on his ability to get this part of his narrative right. As a result, his book should not be relied upon by those seeking to understand Mueller’s work.
I. Obstacles and constraints, compounded
In fairness to Woodward, his ability to obtain reliable information on the Russia investigation faced three constraints which other parts of his book do not.
First, the subject involves a counterintelligence and criminal investigation that leaves Woodward unable to apply his tradecraft of triangulating sources. The fact is that Mueller does not leak. That’s a methodological problem for Woodward. But he also compounds the problem, for example, by believing he can present quoted conversations in which the only participants are Trump’s attorneys and Mueller’s team. One result is long stretches of dialogue throughout the book that “seems extremely contrived,” as a leading investigative journalist on the Russia investigation noted.
Second, especially when it comes to the Russia investigation, Trump’s inner circle is willing to spread false information—often outright lies—and they are practiced in doing so. As a stinging review in the Columbia Journalism Review explained, “Woodward’s approach hasn’t changed; the climate in which his sources are viewed has. … In taking on the Trump presidency as his topic, Woodward is left to assemble a reliable book from unreliable sources.” Woodward compounds this problem by relying very, very heavily on Trump’s inner circle as his sources on Russia matters, including Trump’s lawyer John Dowd and Chief of Staff at the time Reince Priebus.
Third, writing a book on the Russia investigation is especially difficult because reports by investigative journalists and the release of government documents are updating what we know at a blistering pace. Just think: Woodward sent his manuscript to the publisher in March 2018. In the half year since then, the major source of Woodward’s insights—Dowd—resigned, FBI Director James Comey’s memos were declassified, the Senate released transcripts of the testimony of Trump Tower meeting participants, the Carter Page FISA application was declassified, the Wall Street Journal published emails between Roger Stone and a Wikileaks intermediary, emails and texts between Michael Cohen and Felix Sater revealed an attempted deal for Trump Tower Moscow lasting far into 2016, revelations broke of Russian influence on the election via the National Rifle Association, Mueller revealed connections between Paul Manafort and an operative with active ties to Russian military intelligence, and the Indictment of Russian military intelligence officials included several revelations—to name just a few.
II. Errors, made in one direction
These constraints do not simply raise concerns about the general reliability of books on this topic. The problem is more profound than that: these constraints, if not handled properly by a journalist, can skew the reporting in one direction, toward a false sense that evidence of Russia collusion is weak. That appears to be what happened with Woodward, especially given how he compounds the problem of using the Trump inner circle as sources. The most egregious errors are easily detected by close observers of the Russia investigation. Consider two examples out of several in the book.
1. Myth: Flynn lied
First, Woodward repeats a tall tale: that Priebus was shocked to learn in Jan. 2017, via then- Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, that Michael Flynn had lied to him and others in the White House about his Dec. 2016 calls with the Russian ambassador. Woodward writes, “Priebus had asked Flynn many times about any discussions. Flynn had firmly denied discussing the sanctions with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.”
This falsehood is contradicted by facts in the public record that Woodward neither acknowledges nor demonstrates awareness of to the reader. According to documents filed by the Special Counsel in federal court for Flynn’s guilty plea, Flynn did not keep the Trump circle in the dark. In Dec. 2016, Flynn consulted directly with a senior member of the presidential transition team, K.T. McFarland, who was with other senior members of the team at Mar-a-Lago, to discuss “what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian Ambassador about the U.S. Sanctions.” Immediately following their discussion, Flynn called Kislyak to discuss the sanctions. Shortly after the call, Flynn debriefed McFarland “to report on the substance of his call with the Russian Ambassador, including their discussion of the U.S. Sanctions,” Flynn admitted in federal court. In the course of these deliberations, McFarland emailed other transition team officials (her emails were obtained by the New York Times). In her email to Thomas Bossert, a transition official, she noted that Flynn would be speaking with the Russian ambassador and “key will be Russia’s response over the next few days.” Bossert forwarded McFarland’s email exchange to six other senior transition officials including Reince Priebus, Bannon, Sean Spicer, and Flynn.
At the risk of being overly harsh to one of our greatest reporters, this kind of flaw in Woodward’s book not only reprints a falsehood, but leads him far astray in his own investigative reporting. Imagine if Woodward had done his homework here. Instead of reprinting Priebus’ lie, Woodward would have to consider, more profoundly, why Priebus would lie to him about what really happened. Down that path is evidence of a cover up and conspiracy.
2. Myth: The Steele dossier is uncorroborated “garbage”
Woodward repeats another tall tale by repeatedly questioning the veracity of the Steele dossier, suggesting, for example that the dossier is “uncorroborated,” “scurrilous, unverified” suspect information that would “pollute” the CIA’s “formal assessment” of Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 election in support of president-elect Trump. Woodward goes so far as to include a transcript of an interview he conducted on Fox News where he called the dossier “a garbage document that should never have been presented as part of an intelligence briefing,” and implies that at the time the intelligence community briefed the President-elect in Jan. 2017 on the dossier the FBI did not “try to track down its origins, even locate some of the sources and see if any confirmation can be found.” President-elect Trump thanked Woodward on Twitter for Woodward’s attack on the document.
We now know this Trump canard–that the dossier is uncorroborated garbage–to be false. Yet Woodward persists in repeating it. Long before Woodward published his book, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “some of the substantive content of the dossier we were able to corroborate in our Intelligence Community assessment which from other sources in which we had very high confidence.” A House Intelligence Committee minority report stated that the Justice Department obtained information through “multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele’s reporting.” Even the discredited majority report (the “Nunes Memo”) had to admit the Steele dossier was corroborated but claimed it was “only marginally corroborated” at a certain stage. The later declassification of James Comey’s memos show that the then-FBI director had a one-on-one meeting with Priebus in Jan. 2017 where he told the Chief of Staff that “the analysts from all three agencies agreed it was relevant and that portions of the material were corroborated by other intelligence.” It’s no surprise Priebus failed to tell Woodward that.
Notably, Woodward’s description of the Steele dossier is connected to his very lengthy assessment that the intelligence community was wrong to brief President-elect Trump on the existence of the dossier. Despite his drawn-out analysis, Woodward does not assess Comey’s explanation, given under penalty of perjury, for why the choice was made. “I was briefing him on it because we had been told by the media it was about to launch. We didn’t want to be keeping that from him,” the former director testified.
3. When the President’s lawyer is your source
The most fanciful descriptions of the Russia investigation appear to come directly from Trump’s lawyer’s depictions of it. Woodward paints Dowd as a master of all the information against the president, who faithfully knows there is no case. In this telling, Dowd even begins to doubt Mueller’s knowledge of the facts compared to Dowd’s own. Woodward writes, “Dowd began to think that Mueller didn’t know the facts of the case. Under the joint defense agreement with some 37 witnesses, Dowd had received debriefings from the lawyers for them.” Dowd informs Trump that his and Ty Cobb’s approach to cooperating with Mueller’s prosecutors enables Trump’s lawyers to obtain “a 3D picture of what was in their heads.”
This picture is painfully at odds with other reporting. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt, Pulitzer Prize winners for reporting on Trump’s advisors and the Russia investigation, wrote:
Mr. Dowd took Mr. Trump at his word that he had done nothing wrong and never conducted a full internal investigation to determine the president’s true legal exposure. During Mr. Dowd’s tenure, prosecutors interviewed at least 10 senior administration officials without Mr. Trump’s lawyers first learning what the witnesses planned to say, or debriefing their lawyers afterward — a basic step that could have given the president’s lawyers a view into what Mr. Mueller had learned. And once Mr. Dowd was gone, the new legal team had to spend at least 20 hours interviewing the president about the episodes under investigation, another necessary step Mr. Dowd and his associates had apparently not completed. (Emphasis added).
Last year, Matt Apuzzo and Schmidt had reported the same problem with Cobb revealing that “some lawyers connected to the investigation say that Mr. Cobb has been too willing to take the president at his word.” These lapses in Dowd and Cobbs’ handling of the case also led to former Trump campaign lawyer and White House Counsel Don McGahn cooperating extensively with Mueller over the course of 30 hours of interviews without Trump’s lawyers even asking McGahn what he said.
Against this backdrop, Woodward’s unqualified repetition of Dowd’s assessments is a disservice to the reader. Woodward repeats claims like, “Dowd had found no Trump tapes or witnesses unfavorable to Trump other than Comey.” But how would Dowd know if his team wasn’t checking with those witnesses before and after they spoke with the Special Counsel? Woodward also writes that Dowd “believed that no one, other than Flynn, had lied to investigators”—a statement that is ludicrous on its face given all the indictments, guilty pleas, and other part of the public record involving false statements by Trump associates to the FBI and other federal authorities. The picture Dowd create culminates in a drawing in which, according to FEAR, “Dowd remained convinced that Mueller never had a Russian case or an obstruction case. He was looking for the perjury trap.” Color both of us and former federal prosecutors incredulous.
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Flaws of this kind in Woodward’s discussion of the Mueller investigation represent a wasted opportunity. To a greater degree than has been the case since his outstanding reporting on Watergate, the nation is in need of accurate investigative reporting to help us calibrate where the Mueller investigation is headed, and so the fate of “all the president’s men (and women),” not to mention the president himself. Unfortunately, readers of Fear who are looking for leads in that regard instead risk being misled.
Image: The newly released book ‘Fear’ by Bob Woodward is displayed at a Barnes and Noble bookstore on September 11, 2018 in Corte Madera, California — Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images