Fear: Trump in the White House

Author: Bob Woodward
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published: 9/10/2019
With authoritative reporting honed through nine presidencies, author Bob Woodward reveals in unprecedented detail the harrowing life inside President Donald Trump’s White House and precisely how he makes decisions on major foreign and domestic policies.

Book Summary - Fear by Bob Woodward

Who should read this


  • Those who want a look inside the walls of the White House.
  • Those looking for insight into Trump’s daily life, behavior, and the reasons behind some of his decisions.
  • Those interested in the history of the Trump administration.


What you will learn


  • What difficulties Trump’s staffers and advisors face.
  • Assessments of Trump’s understanding of political issues like globalism, the economy, and white supremacy.
  • Why Trump is so popular with certain demographics.


Key Insights

In this book, journalist Bob Woodward, famed for his coverage of the Watergate scandal in the 70s, turns his investigations towards the Trump administration. Drawing on hours of witness interviews with insiders, he gives an even-handed account of the dynamics inside the White House, particularly how Trump’s infamous temperament has played out in practice, creating a chaotic and ill-prepared White House. Ultimately, he paints a frightening picture of Trump’s volatility and ignorance and the mounting anxieties of his advisors and staff.

Key Points

Trump was a political novice and Steve Bannon stepped in to organize the dysfunctional campaign.

In 2010, Donald Trump was considering a potential candidacy in the 2012 elections. Steve Bannon, then the leader of far-right political outlet Breitbart, visited Trump to speak about it. Bannon liked Trump and felt his populist attitude and disdain of political correctness meant that he could stand up for “the little man”. But quickly, Bannon started to realize the extent of Trump’s political inexperience and naivety.

As they spoke, Trump insisted that he had voted in every election (not realizing that public voting records indicated that he had only voted in a single primary in his lifetime). Donation records also indicated that most of his political donations had gone to Democrats. Bannon tried to explain how this could affect his chances as a candidate, but Trump couldn’t understand how this was relevant. Bannon struggled to take him very seriously.

When Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination, Bannon was surprised but intrigued. He noticed that the Trump campaign was getting far less positive coverage than Clinton, and there were stories everywhere about the messiness and disorganization of the campaign. With 85 days left before the election, Bannon went to work on the Trump campaign, re-organizing the agenda. Going forward, he said, they would focus on three issues: immigration, jobs, and foreign wars.

Bannon considered these things to be what set him most apart from his competitor, Democrat Hillary Clinton. He knew that Clinton would have trouble defending herself on these issues— she was a globalist who wanted to soften immigration rules, which Trump argued would lead to a loss of American jobs to foreign competitors— and a part of the political establishment that had brought about too many foreign military conflicts. As long as Trump emphasized these weaknesses, he had a chance at becoming President.

When the votes came in and Trump won the election, even Trump was caught off-guard. He hadn’t spent much time considering who he would employ in his transition to the White House. While Hillary Clinton had spent her entire life preparing to be president, says Woodward, Trump didn’t spend a minute.

As Trump staffed his office, he ran into issues with the director of the FBI, James Comey.

Trump picked an eclectic mix of people to fill his cabinet. His chief of staff was Reince Priebus, who was the liaison between the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign. He chose Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, a retired general, as secretary of defense. Bannon, who was brought on in the new position of “chief strategist”, felt that Mattis was too liberal and globalist. Trump, however, liked Mattis’ campaign to “annihilate” the terrorist group ISIS.

Next, Trump picked Rex Tillerson, an ex-CEO of ExxonMobil as his secretary of state. Trump respected Tillerson’s experience with billion-dollar deal-making around the world.

To head the economic team, Trump brought in Steve Mnuchin, a hedge fund manager, as secretary of the treasury and Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs as his head of the National Economic Council.

Finally, Trump chose Mike Flynn, a former Obama staffer that had been fired, as the national security advisor.

Over the next few years, much of Trump’s cabinet would resign, but Flynn was the first. He was forced to leave after it came out that he had negotiated with a Russian ambassador about sanctions before his tenure began.

During Flynn’s investigation, Trump bumped heads with James Comey, the director of the FBI, and one of the people in charge of Mike Flynn’s case. Comey briefed Trump on the evidence of Russian interference during the 2016 elections, including a data breach of the Democratic National Committee, and compiled evidence suggesting that the Russian government had evidence of Trump engaging in compromising relations with two Russian prostitutes. Trump developed an unfriendly relationship with the FBI, CIA, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as a result.

As he stepped into the White House, he hired his second national security advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. The hiring process was rushed and impulsive, with Trump skipping over the necessary protocols for removing an active-duty officer from the military.

In hiring, Trump cared a lot about appearances and hired only those that “looked the part”.

When Trump was hiring for his cabinet, he had a preference for the well-dressed. Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster arrived at his interview out of uniform and Trump told him he looked like a “beer salesman”, but when he showed up in his uniform, he was offered the job. Similarly, Trump passed over Fox News pundit John Bolton because he disliked his thick mustache and hired Rex Tillerson because he “looked the part”.

Trump’s cabinet quickly clashed about North and South Korea and started hesitating to let him make decisions.

As Trump began his term, he quickly expressed frustration about the U.S.’s relationship with South Korea. He couldn’t understand why the US was spending $10 billion dollars to build a missile defense system on South Korean territory which he called “piece of shit land”. He pointed out the Unites States had an $18 trade deficit with South Korea and felt the United States was duped by the country they were paying to protect. His advisors tried to explain to him that the relationship with South Korea was actually advantageous as North Korea threatened the world and tested their nuclear weapons. The missile system did protect South Korea, but it could also detect missiles sent towards the United States in a matter of seconds. They argued that American presence there was vital to national security.

Still, Trump wanted to use the missile system to renegotiate the Korean-US trade deal. Against the advice of his advisors, he walked out of a meeting after suggesting that all military personnel in South Korea be sent back to the States. After this meeting, secretary of state Tillerson called him a “fucking moron”.

In-office, his advisors quickly found Trump to have a short fuse. He often insulted his advisors and lashed out on Twitter. His advisors worried that in an impulsive moment, he would sign a military withdrawal letter on his desk and undermine national security. Trump’s top economic advisor Gary Cohn and Rob Porter, the staff secretary removed this letter from Trump’s stack of papers, not trusting him to make a careful decision. “I stole it off his desk,” Cohn said, “…to protect the country”.

The cabinet fought over Afghanistan.

Trump’s administration found another point of conflict in Afghanistan. Before his election, Trump had tweeted that the troops should be removed from Afghanistan calling the military presence there a “waste of billions”.

Trump, Bannon, and national security council chief of staff Lieutenant general Keith Kellogg wanted a total withdrawal of troops, but H.R. McMaster, the secretary of national security, wanted to reorganize the military presence there. He called his plan the R4 plan, R4 standing for reinforcing, realign, reconcile and regionalize. He hoped to put all their resources to better use in stable areas.

Bannon, on the other hand, wanted more CIA control in the region. He wanted to train local soldiers and create a paramilitary. In reality, the CIA was not willing to take on this responsibility, and pulling out would leave a power vacuum, guaranteeing Afghanistan as a hub for terrorist groups.

Trump was left with McMaster’s plan, sending 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan. As the situation in Afghanistan didn’t improve, Trump publicly berated McMaster for “tricking him” into accepting the plan.

After hearing in 2017 that the Chinese government was extracting copper from Afghanistan. Trump became furious with his team, suggesting they should be entitled to these minerals since they were spending billions in Afghanistan already. Later, it came out that the news of Chinese mineral extraction was fabricated.

Despite his deficient understanding of economics, Trump refused to listen to his advisors on most subjects, especially trade deals.

According to both Trump and Bannon, globalism was destroying American factory jobs and politicians were to blame. Trump’s economic advisor, Gary Cohn, disagreed. Cohn printed pages of data for the President, showing that free trade was a positive decision for the U.S. economy and that the country had moved from being a manufacturing economy to a service-based one. The biggest category of people leaving their jobs voluntarily, he explained, were factory workers heading towards less strenuous work.

After Trump refused to look at the data, Cohn made poster boards decorated with simple charts illustrating concepts like how by importing cheaper TVs, people could afford these goods and still have money to spend on coffee or restaurants. But Trump’s mind was made up and he waved Cohn away. Trump was determined to think of America as a place of factories, coal plants, and freight trains—he noted that Pennsylvania manufacturing towns were ruined after steel mills shuttered. Cohn explained that those communities were struggling to reinvent their economies in a world of constant change.

Woodward reminds us that the foundation of Trump’s business philosophy was to never show weakness and therefore, never admit to a wrong opinion. Trump once gave advice to a colleague that said “real power comes from fear and never backing down. You have to be strong, keep pushing forward, always deny and never admit you were wrong”.

Trump felt strongly about the U.S. trade deficit which had continued to grow as America’s service-based economy flourished. Cohn tried to soften this opinion by showing the president all the service-based businesses in Trump Tower—by shrinking the trade deficit, the economy would implode. Mnuchin agreed with Cohn. “I don’t want to hear it!” declared Trump, calling for a draft to get the United States out of NAFTA and KORUS. “TRADE IS BAD,” Trump wrote in his notes.

Cohn and Sonny Purdue, the secretary of agriculture, tried to explain that without NAFTA, the United States wouldn’t be able to export a surplus of $39 billion a year to Mexico and Canada. Instead, Trump said, “but they’re screwing us, and we gotta do something.” He ordered the staff secretary to draft a letter giving a 180-day notice to leave NAFTA. Rob Porter, the staff secretary, and Cohn procrastinated executing the decision. They felt that if they delayed things, Trump might forget about the decision, which often worked considered his short attention span and rapidly shifting interests.

The Russian investigation sent Trump into a rage.

On May 18th, 2017, Robert Mueller was appointed to head the investigation of Russian interference of Trump’s election, giving him the right to look at any evidence he wanted. Trump spent the day in a rage, going off on tirades around the White House. The Mueller appointment began after Trump decided he wanted to fire James Comey, the director of the FBI, who he thought was “out of control” for looking into Jared Kushner’s past deals.

Bannon knew that firing Comey would make the FBI more eager to keep pushing forward with the investigation. Trump ended up with Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. Trump’s advisors believed Rosenstein would be able to cool Trump down and convince him to not do anything impulsive, but Rosenstein helped the President write a memory explaining the reasons for Comey’s firing. Trump was pleased and quickly filed the memo, firing Comey.

Soon enough, it was revealed that Comey had notes from his meeting with Trump where it was revealed that he tried to interfere with Mike Flynn’s case. This obstruction was one of the reasons Rosenstein assigned Mueller to investigate Trump’s case. Trump felt completely stabbed in the back.

Although Trump compulsively lied, his supporters believed his personality made up for this and other shortcomings.

Famously, Trump has a tendency to lie in his tweets, to crowds of his supporters, and even to various world leaders. For example, he told Australian Prime Minister Turnbull that Australia would be exempt from his steel tariffs. When Cohn reminded the president of this promise eight months later, Trump told him that he would just deny it. Cohn, along with Trump’s attorney John Dowd, later called a “professional liar”.

But his lies weren’t always so selfish. Staffers would hear Trump speaking on the phone to the families of killed soldiers telling them that these soldiers were special and inventing flattering details about how much they were loved or how they were great leaders. Staffers found no evidence of these records.

On Twitter, Trump had little regard for the truth, but a greater interest in controversy and saying things that would get attention. He had his staff print out the tweets that got over 200,000 likes and studied these tweets for commonalities. He noticed that the most popular tweets were the most provocative.

After being reminded by his advisors that his comments about “grabbing women by the pussy” would hurt his chances of collaborating with female senators he replied, “This is who I am. This is how I communicate”. He believed this candidness had a lot to do with his winning.

Before Trump’s 2016 election, Woodward visited Texas to talk to a room of CEOs. When he asked the executives how many planned to vote for Trump, a majority of hands shot into the air. Woodward realized that maybe the polls, which we're predicting a sweep for Clinton, were miscalculating Trump’s appeal. Bannon felt similarly before the election, understanding that his alt-right leadership didn’t care about his ignorance or erratic behavior—his attitude and personality meant more to them.

Much of his political power, notes Woodward, comes down to telling his supporters what they want to hear.

Trump’s reckless tweets posed real threats. In 2018, he nearly provoked a nuclear war with North Korea through inflammatory posts.

In 2018, it became clear exactly how this reckless tweeting could cause widespread damage and harm. The tweets followed a speech made by Kim Jong-Un on New Year’s Day where he stated, “I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office…All of mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike.” When Trump learned the remarks, he told his advisors that the best course of action was to respond with force and intimidation, initiating a showdown.

The next day, Trump tweeted that he also had a nuclear button “but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my button works!”. Mattis and the other military leaders were alarmed that Trump would try and provoke a war with the childish dictator and publicly threaten nuclear war. According to his advisors, he also considered posting a tweet stating that he was evacuating all troops from South Korea, a more serious threat of initiating war. Luckily, the volatile performance and resulting tensions de-escalated with time.

Trump not only attacks the opposition as often as possible but bashes his advisors in private and publicly at any cost.

Another feature of Trump’s communication style is his tendency to always be on the attack, aggressively siding with his supporters and mercilessly belittling the opposition. In 2017, when neo-Nazi white supremacists were met with counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the death of a young counter-protestor. During his statement on the matter, he condemned the violence but stated in his characteristic improvisation that the problems were prevalent “on many sides”, effectively paralleling the counter-protestors with the bigotry of the neo-Nazis.

Trump was widely criticized, even by conservative leaders like Mitt Romney and John McCain, for the remark and his refusal to directly condemn the bigotry of the white supremacists. Trump followed the controversy with another speech calling for racial unity but resented the media’s coverage of this as an apology for his original remarks. He told his advisors that he didn’t like that it made him look weak. The next day, he told the media that the “alt-left” had charged at the neo-Nazis, again shifting the blame on the counter-protestors. David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, praised this statement.

Known for taking his claims about the opposition too far, Trump also lashed out at his own supporters and advisors in vicious displays. For example, before the 2016 election, when an Access Hollywood tape surfaced of Trump promoting sexual assault, Republicans recoiled from his candidacy. The National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told him to drop out, and many supporters like Governor Chris Christie and Kellyanne Conway canceled their television appearances to defend him on the morning news.

The former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, had to fill in for all of the dropped appearances, doing five programs throughout the day and defending Trump’s language as simply “locker-room talk”. When Giuliani saw Trump after the performance, Trump berated him for his attempt comparing him to a “little baby” that “needed to be changed”.

Later, in a meeting with Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn, he told him that “he should be treasury secretary” and that he’d hired the wrong person. The current treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, was sitting in the room.

Trump not only attacks the opposition as often as possible but bashes his advisors in private and publicly at any cost.

Naturally, many of those working in Trump’s cabinet resigned, finding the working environment too difficult to continue.

Chief of Staff Reince Priebus personally took on the task of curbing Trump’s volatile behavior. He called Trump’s bedroom the “devil’s workshop” since it was where Trump watched TV, got agitated over the coverage, and sent out distressing tweets. He called Sunday evenings the “witching hour”, when this was most likely to happen, and tried to schedule less TV time for Trump on these days. Still, Trump watched about six hours of cable news.

Priebus’ tipping point was when the vote to repeal Obamacare failed, as Trump believed this failure was the fault of Priebus, who was supposed to be his liaison to the Republican Party. In their final moments together, Priebus offered to help find a replacement for himself and Trump said he’d think about it over the weekend. As soon as they parted, however, Priebus saw that Trump immediately tweeted that he’d chosen John Kelly as his new Chief of Staff. Priebus disquieted that Trump had lied to him, understood Trump to be a person with limited empathy.

Soon enough, Steve Bannon also resigned. Trump’s animosity towards Bannon had been growing after finding that Bannon had told the media that Trump was willing to play along with the establishment and that Bannon had been a source for Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury. Bannon had also grown disillusioned with Trump, believing that Trump failed to enact any of his foreign policy ideas.

Next came Cohn, who resigned in 2018. His resignation came after helping to pass Trump’s tax bill which aimed to cut corporate tax rates to bring more companies back to the United States. Trump wanted to lower the tax rate close to Ireland’s which had an extremely low rate of 9 percent. Trump liked the idea of a 10 percent tax, mostly because the number was low and easy to remember and sell to his supporters. Cohn grew frustrated trying to explain to Trump that a drop in this percent, from 15 to 10 wouldn’t be a simple change.

When the tax bill was finalized, any real benefit to the economy was dubious. The real winners were the extremely wealthy and corporations who saw a large drop in their tax rates.

A few months later, Trump started to pass tariffs on imported metals, refusing to listen to Cohn’s advice against them. Cohn was sure this would hurt the economy including any US manufacturers that worked with steel and aluminum. Feeling like he was always fighting a losing battle, Cohn resigned.

The Main Take-away

Donald Trump, an inexperienced political leader, created a chaotic and tense White House from his first day in office. The cabinet fought about economic and foreign policy issues, with Trump refusing to listen to the experts he hired. Many of the advisors appointed to his office resigned within a couple of years, citing Trump’s refusal to listen to any advice and his erratic and stubborn behavior. This petulance, however, is a part of his appeal. He told his supporters what they wanted to hear, particularly by bullying the opposition, often in improvised lies.

About the Author

Bob Woodward is an American investigative journalist. He started working for the Washington Post in 1971 and is currently Associate Editor. In 1972, he did much of the original reporting on the Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. Since then, he has written 19 books on American politics and presidents.


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