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Interview With Bob Woodward, Part 1


Ask Bob Woodward for the long view, and you could get a long answer. Woodward started reporting for The Washington Post in 1971. He's covered nine presidents, though not all would give him an interview.

BOB WOODWARD: Nixon would never talk to me. And a couple of others I did not - declined to be interviewed also.

KELLY: Well, Woodward accepted our invitation for an interview. We sat down at his house here in Washington last night, socially distanced 10 or so feet apart. The occasion was to talk about his new book "Rage." It has made news for revelations about the president and what he knew when about the pandemic. You'll hear me question Woodward about that elsewhere on the show tonight. In this part of our interview, I wanted to focus Woodward's thoughts on some of the other threats facing our country, including North Korea and the nuclear standoff in 2017.

Based on your reporting, how close did we come to war with North Korea?

WOODWARD: I think given North Korea is a rogue nation, they have, as I report, probably a couple of dozen nuclear weapons well-hidden and concealed that it scared Secretary of Defense Mattis so much that he would sleep in his gym clothes. There was a light in his bathroom as he - if he was in the shower and they detected a North Korean launch.

KELLY: He was worried he might have to issue orders for a nuclear strike on North Korea...

WOODWARD: Yes, exactly right. But...

KELLY: ...Not just shoot down an incoming missile.

WOODWARD: Yes because what - if the first missile was coming toward the United States and there was a possibility that they had a nuclear weapon, President Trump - and President Trump told me this. He authorized Secretary of Defense Mattis on his own to shoot it down. If Kim saw that, he might launch all of his other weapons. I quote Mattis saying, "no one has a right to incinerate millions of people," but he had to face that. He was not worried that Trump was going to launch against North Korea preemptively. He believes that the problem was Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.

KELLY: In the epilogue, you wrote about Mattis, about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, about Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats - the trio of original senior - the senior national security team, all of whom, in your judgment, were acting in good faith, well-intentioned, trying to answer a call to public service. You say to the reader, just slow down. Think about this for a moment. The top national security leaders thought the president of the United States was a danger to the country. In your decades of reporting on Washington, have you ever encountered that?

WOODWARD: Well, in the case of Nixon, the Congress and the Republican leaders in Congress decided that Nixon was criminal and should not serve and went to him and told him that it was over. And...

KELLY: But I'm talking about senior national security leaders who served this president coming out and saying not just, I don't like him anymore, and not just, I disagreed with this or that policy, but he poses a threat to the security of the country.


KELLY: I know you and Carl Bernstein have written about the end of Watergate and Nixon unraveling, questions about his stability. How does that moment compare to now?

WOODWARD: You know, I don't know. I mean, I think President Trump was willing to talk extensively. He called me spontaneously, I think, seven times over the last 10 months. I called him, I think, seven times, and he either answered right away or called me back.

KELLY: You hung up from at least one of those calls. I know 'cause you write about it. The April 5 one, you said, I hung up distressed, beyond being a reporter, feeling worried for the country.

WOODWARD: Yes because I had done a lot of reporting on what needed to be done with the virus. And in that call, I wanted to give him a chance. And I said, look. You're going to be judged by the virus. This is - at that point, 160,000 people were dead. I was pushing him to deal with it quite frankly, and this is a reporter's question from reporting and talking to other officials. And at the end of the book, as you may recall, I say, in totality, Trump is the wrong man for the job.

KELLY: Is that a first for you - issuing a ruling on the fitness of a president for the job?

WOODWARD: Well, for the first Trump book "Fear," I said very explicitly that there is a nervous breakdown of the executive branch.

KELLY: You make it personal in this one, though...


KELLY: ...You know, writing, Trump is the wrong man for the job.

WOODWARD: It's a conclusion and a judgment based on overwhelming evidence.

KELLY: And can you briefly describe why? Why did you feel the need to come down with that judgment on this president now?

WOODWARD: Because I had extensive information that he failed to keep the country safe when he knew and had information that could keep the country much safer because he failed to tell the truth. And if there's a tragedy in all of this - and I think there is - it's that Trump who said, I wanted to play it down because I didn't want to create a panic. And my study of nine presidents - 20% of the presidents we've had - and the history before that is when the country's told the truth, they don't panic.

KELLY: Last thing - we are in this moment where, whatever your politics, Americans are scared. Everything feels so unsettled. The future of our democracy, the future of our country feels at stake. And so I guess I'm curious. You, Bob Woodward - how worried are you? Having lived through and having driven a million news cycles, does this feel different?

WOODWARD: You know, there's a lot of worry about what Trump will do - that he'll put troops in the street. And he did...

KELLY: Yeah.

WOODWARD: ...In a very limited way. And there - and I asked him this question. Suppose you lose. What are you going to do in the election? And he said, I don't want to comment on that. But we still - we can sit and have this conversation, and I can make the kind of judgments of our leader that journalists in many countries in the world cannot make. So I say in the book that for the moment, democracy is held, but leadership has failed.

KELLY: Bob Woodward, thank you.

WOODWARD: Thank you.

KELLY: His new book is titled simply "Rage."

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "VENTURA" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.