Recommendation: If you’ve been living under a rock for the last five years, but otherwise you can probably skip
Where to read: In the middle of the actual desert
Read with: The wine of your choice … from Devil’s Lair
In brief: I have not read Woodward and Costa’s previous works on the Trump administration but this was $5 on Apple Books, which I think is a pretty good excuse for reading out of order. One of the perils (get it) of publishing this kind of book, however, is that the juicy bits make news so there is nothing surprising left if you actually read it. It’s also long on detail and short on critical thought.
Bob Woodward, of All the President’s Men fame, and his colleague at The Washington Post, Robert Costa have written two previous books about the Trump administration. Fear, published in 2018, covered the early years of the Trump presidency and caused something of a ruckus. Rage, the follow up published in 2020, caused even more uproar – Trump had a significant number of interviews with Woodward and encouraged many members of his administration to do the same, presumably in the hope he would be able to charm Woodward. Suffice to say this did not entirely work.
Peril covers the last year of the Trump presidency, the Biden campaign and the early days of his administration including the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. It provides quite the study in contrasts, alternating between frankly boring chapters on the Biden camp and slightly alarming chapters covering the goings on in the Trump White House. As usual, Woodward and Costa claim to have done exhaustive research and they do certainly appear to be very well sourced. All these sources are on ‘deep background’ but I for one would bet a pretty penny that Mark Milley (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs), Bill Barr (then Attorney General) and Lindsay Graham were prominent among them. The reason you can tell is because these are the ones who get favourable treatment – the whole book could be read as a hagiography of Milley and Barr who, by their own accounts, were bravely enduring Trump’s madness for the selfless purpose of protecting American democracy.
For all that, it is frustratingly hollow. There are plenty of anecdotes, plenty of details, plenty of reputation-burnishing (or rehabilitating) stories about various members of the administration trying to do the right thing, but no real depth or analysis. There is also no, as some reviewers have noted, “bullshit detector” when it comes to the stories told by pet sources and seemingly very little appetite for follow up questions or alternative view points. Some independent thought may have gone into writing the book, but if there is, there is no evidence of it. Frankly, it appears as though they arranged anecdotes into a roughly chronological order, picked the version they liked the most and then hit print.
It is also at least 100 pages too long. This, combined with the penchant for ultimately meaningless details, makes it a rather tedious. If I had literally anything else downloaded on the iPad in the middle of the desert once the sun had gone down, I sincerely doubt I would have finished it. To be fair, nothing in it was really news – I pay probably too much attention to goings on in the United States and, as I say, all the juicy bits were reported on already.