The damning account of an incompetent and at times dangerous president in Bob Woodward's new book has riled supporters and foes of Donald Trump alike. But many Americans will simply ignore it, says Michael Knigge.
As excerpts of Fear: Trump in the White House, the upcoming book by legendary reporter Bob Woodward, were published in The Washington Post on Tuesday, the White House switched into full crisis management mode. President Donald Trump led the charge on Twitter, calling the book "already discredited" and musing whether the veteran investigative journalist Woodward was a "Democratic operative?"
Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, issued a carefully worded denial that he called his boss an idiot. Trump's former personal attorney, John Dowd, disputed that he described the president as a liar and that he warned him that if he testified in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe he could end up in an "orange jumpsuit." Defense Secretary James Mattis, who reportedly likened the president's behavior to that of a fifth- or sixth-grader, said in a statement that he never uttered the "contemptuous words" attributed to him the book.
White House denials
The White House also denied that the president's former economic advisor, Gary Cohn, "stole a letter off Trump's desk" to prevent him from nixing a trade deal with South Korea and that he "made a similar play" to keep Trump from leaving NAFTA. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, meanwhile said she never heard Trump suggest killing Syrian President Bashar Assad. She was responding to Woodward's claim that Pentagon chief Mattis engaged in subversive action similar to Cohn's when he ignored Trump's order to kill Assad after a chemical weapons attack.
So will Americans believe Woodward or the Trump White House?
The answer to that question is that it depends who you ask. For the liberal elites in major cities such as Washington, New York or San Francisco, the book is simply another confirmation that Trump is unfit for office and a danger to the country and the world. For staunch Trump supporters outside those liberal bastions, the book is simply another confirmation that journalists working in what is derisively called "the mainstream media" are out to get the president. This sentiment was nicely summed up by Infowars, the influential conspiracy theory website, which wrote that "it looks like WaPo journalist Bob Woodward's new book is another bash-fest symptomatic of Trump Derangement syndrome."
But that binary left-right perspective, which is often amplified through media coverage, thrives on stark opposites and leaves out a group often ignored by both political hacks and journalists alike, even though it is electorally crucial: nonpartisan Americans.
According to a Gallup study from January, 42 percent of Americans identified as independents in 2017 — just one point below a record high of 43 percent in 2014. That dwarfs the number of self-identified Democrats (29 percent) and Republicans (27 percent).
So how will many of those non-partisan Americans react to Woodward's new book and Trump's attack against it?
Probably the same way they react to the steady drip of similar episodes coming out of Trump-era Washington: by taking it with it a huge grain of salt and then largely ignoring it. That does not mean necessarily that they aren't interested in whether Trump's chief of staff called his boss a liar or not or whether an economic advisor swiped a document from Trump's desk. But it might, because — like it or not — much of the high-stakes political gossip that is fascinating for political partisans and the media is less so for Americans who are not politically involved.
Too busy for the political nitty-gritty
But more importantly, many ordinary Americans are so busy in their daily lives that they simply do not have the time and energy to devote to following the nitty-gritty of Washington politics. While that may seem strange to partisans, policy wonks and capital-based journalists, it is easily apparent and understandable when one speaks to people outside the political and media realm.
That does not mean that Woodward's account is not another important documentation of the nature and dysfunctionality of this White House. It is. But it does mean that one should not expect this book to be a revelatory game-changer for this administration just because it resonates in the echo chambers of partisan politics and the media.