Washington Whispers: The Perils of Pablum
By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
In their new book, Peril, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa have delivered Woodward’s usual kind of book: entertaining and gossipy anecdotes lacking serious analytic substance.
If you’ve paid no attention to public affairs, been out of the country, or off the planet, and like to receive your information in the form of contrived vignettes that pull the reader along as quickly as a Dan Brown novel—and have just about the same staying power—then perhaps this book, purporting to examine both the Trump and Biden administrations, is the book for you.
But if you’ve paid attention at all to political events during 2020 and beyond, you’ll find Peril’s only important new information—how close we came to a successful domestic coup, as well as a possible nuclear war—are contained in the book’s 16-page prologue. Woodward and Costa have flagged these revelations in their flurry of TV interviews conducted to promote book sales. You can watch any of those interviews—on YouTube, if you missed the original broadcast—and save yourself the $30 plus tax. (Okay--$18 at Amazon.)
Well, admittedly, you might want to dip into Chapter 38 at your local bookstore. That chapter confirms that former Vice President Mike Pence was not a beleaguered hero of conscience who did the right thing in counting the electoral votes, but the spineless character who was desperate to find some way he could do Trump’s bidding to prevent the count.
The Meaningful Scoops:
The book’s prologue contains two important revelations. The first is that the Chinese were on high alert prior to the 2020 election, believing that Trump, desperate to retain power, would attack them in order to “create a crisis, present himself as the savior and use the gambit to win reelection.” The January 6 insurrection intensified this fear. So, on January 8, two days after the attack on the Capitol, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley called his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, chief of the Joint Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, to assure him that there was no chance that the United States would attack China; even if it did, he would give Li notice.
Milley subsequently acted to ensure former President Trump could not circumvent established protocols to launch an attack—nuclear or otherwise—on his own. On the day he talked to Li, Milley called a secret meeting of senior officers from the National Military Command Center to review the process and procedures for military action, including launching nuclear weapons. He emphasized to the attending senior officers that no matter what they were told, they must follow procedure, that informing him was part of the procedure, and that no action should be taken until he had been involved. According to the prologue, Milley went around the room, looked each officer in the eye, and required them individually to verbally confirm they understood.
As head of the Joint Chiefs, Milley was the main military advisor to former President Trump, but his role was oversight and advisory. He was not in the chain of command. And since he was not, Trump and his minions are now accusing Milley of treason, particularly for his conversation with General Li.
But both the White House and Milley’s spokesperson at the Pentagon have said that top U.S. commanders regularly communicate with their counterparts in other countries. Given the sycophantic yes-men surrounding the mad man who was in the White House, Milley’s exchanges with Li may have saved us from death in a Chinese preemptive strike. That makes Milley a patriot, not a turncoat.
The second important Woodward-Costa scoop in the prologue is a transcript they obtained of a January 8 phone conversation between General Milley and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Woodward and Costa portray Milley as the hero of their book, giving him credit not only for sidestepping a possible attack by China, but ensuring that President Biden’s inauguration came off peacefully.
But it is really Pelosi who deserves the credit, or who—at a minimum—should get the lion’s share of it. It is Pelosi’s tenacity in holding Milley’s feet to the fire in that phone conversation that appears to have pushed him into blocking Trump’s ability to go rogue and give a catastrophic command.
According to the transcript, Pelosi pulled no punches, at one point saying straight out: “it is a sad state of affairs for our country that we’ve been taken over by a dictator who used force against another branch of government.”
Pelosi asked sharp, direct questions but, in the beginning, Milley repeatedly tried to deflect, using a lot of words to impart nothing.
Pelosi asked: “What precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike?”
Milley replied: “I can tell you that we have a lot of checks in the system. And I can guarantee you, you can take it to the bank, that there’ll be, that the nuclear triggers are secure and we’re not going to do—we’re not going to allow anything crazy, illegal immoral or unethical to happen.”
Pelosi demanded to know the specific steps Milley would take. He responded with language like, “the precautions are procedures that we have in place…and they have to be legal…and there has to be a logical rationale…”
Referring to the insurrection just two days before, Pelosi pointed out: “But [President Trump] just did something illegal, immoral, and unethical and nobody stopped him. Nobody. Nobody at the White House. …The president incited it and nobody in the White House did anything about it.” Noting that Milley had said he wouldn’t let it happen, Pelosi said: “It already did happen. An assault on our democracy happened and nobody said, you can’t do that. Nobody.”
After many similar feints and efforts to deflect, Milley finally proclaimed “I agree 100 percent with everything you’ve said.” He finally vowed,, “The best I can do is give you my word and I’m going to prevent anything like that in the United States military.”
It may have been the Pelosi conversation that brought home to Milley the severity of the situation and the need to take further action. It was that same day he summoned the senior officers from the National Military Command Center and forced from each the commitment to call him first before taking any action, regardless of who gave the command.
Furthermore, although Milley had told Pelosi he did not want to make a public statement because it “would be misconstrued in 50 different directions,” the day after he spoke with her, he presented a draft public memo to the military stating that January 6 was a direct assault on our constitutional process and that on January 20, 2021, “President-elect Biden will be inaugurated and will become our 46th Commander-in-Chief.” Milley gave copies to the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon, saying he could sign it by himself or they all could. They read it and all signed the letter, which went out on January 12.
It’s been my longstanding belief that as the military goes, so goes any nation. That is, when a democracy is challenged, whether it survives depends upon whose side the military takes. Thank goodness a military leader took the side of democracy here. But I still think Woodward and Costa should have given Pelosi more of her due for that.
The rest of the book:
On any page that one opens, Peril reads like fiction. I don’t mean that Woodward and Costa are
making up the relevant facts but that they use fiction-writing techniques intended to make the book a breezy read. But they add annoying flourishes—not to mention dialogue—they could not possibly know without being present. This approach tends to diminish the book’s credibility.
They try, preemptively, to defend this with a note to the reader placed after their epilogue. There they write: “all interviews for this book were conducted under the journalistic ground rule of ‘deep background.’ This means that all the information could be used but we would not say who provided it.”
They write that the book was based on hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 200 firsthand participants and witnesses to the events, nearly all tape-recorded.
But the authors also write: “When we have attributed exact quotations, thoughts or conclusions to the participants, that information comes from the person, a colleague with direct knowledge, or from government or personal documents, calendars, diaries, emails, meeting notes, transcripts, and other records.”
Using records is one thing. But to manufacture quoted dialogue based on “a colleague with direct knowledge” lacks integrity—especially when the authors are setting out whole scenes with extensive dialogue to which they were not personally privy. At a minimum, rather than a general disclaimer at the end of the book, such scenes should note that they are being rendered “according to a source”—even if an anonymous source.
In an interview on September 21, Stephen Colbert touched upon one example of what is wrong with the entire book. Colbert suggested, “Barr had to have cooperated with you, because at one point it says, ‘…thought Barr.’ How would you know what Barr thought unless Barr told you?” Trying to suggest other ways they could get access to Barr’s thoughts, Woodward responded that Barr could “have a diary…” But this deflection was disingenuous because Woodward and Costa would not get access to Barr’s diary without Barr’s cooperation. The book is rife with such liberties taken, stating what people thought or felt without attribution.
Colbert also hit on another flaw in the book, asking, “How many of the people talking to you for this book are trying to rehabilitate their own image by saying, ‘I always thought it was bad. I pushed back’?” Woodward acknowledged, “No question about that.”
Colbert’s question and Woodward’s answer go to the book’s lack of critical analysis. Woodward and Costa take whatever anyone says to them at face value. There’s no assessment of whether what has been said is self-serving. These authors may argue that that’s not their job. However, when you merely accept and regurgitate what’s said to you without questioning it or analyzing it, you are not practicing serious investigative journalism but allowing yourself to be used as a propagandist.
It is only in the three and half page epilogue that Woodward and Costa make any pretense of analysis. And there they have the nerve to write of the January 6 coup attempt: “The conventional wisdom, which had settled into Washington, was that there had been warnings. But Milley knew the internet chatter had lacked coherence and did not provide the specific credible intelligence that could avert a catastrophe…It had been a grave U.S. intelligence failure.”
Actually, the so-called “conventional wisdom” in those first days after the attack was the exact opposite. It was claimed that there had not been enough specific credible intelligence to warrant stronger protections of the Capitol, and some called it an intelligence failure.
But there were enough public warning signs, over a course of weeks if not months, that every sane person in the country—and particularly in the House and Senate—was holding their breath, fearful of what might happen on January 6. Some senators and representatives went to the Capitol that day with trepidation. Some, concerned about the possibility of extreme violence, told their staffs to stay home. Moreover, claiming that failure to protect the Capitol was the result of an intelligence failure without addressing the fact Trump’s Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller held back deployment of the National Guard is journalistic malpractice.
Finally, despite the epilogue’s last line, “Peril remains,” Woodward and Costa hedge their bets, refusing to commit themselves to any real conclusion. They state that when they interviewed Trump in March 2016, “we recognized he was an extraordinary political force, in many ways right out of the American playbook…But we also saw darkness.” If either Woodward or Costa had any insight, they would have recognized Trump as right out of Goebbels’ playbook and the Hitler-Putin mold of dictators.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.