The final book in Bob Woodward’s trilogy chronicling the Trump presidency and its aftermath is aptly named Peril. Woodward co-authored this third book with Robert Costa and released it in September 2021. While the first two books, Fear and Rage, together cover the Trump presidency prior to the historic 2020 election and its aftermath, Peril overlaps a bit with Rage and focuses on the extraordinary actions within the Trump administration, the Pentagon, and Congress in the lead up to the election, the administration’s attempts to thwart the legitimate outcome of losing reelection, and the first several months of the Biden administration. While the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol and the Department of Justice are hard at work investigating what happened from a legal perspective, Peril tells the story drawn from personal interviews of more than 200 people at the center of the events resulting in more than 6,000 pages of transcripts, much of the information never before seen in the news or in publicly released documents. In a historical context, this is an important book. It chronicles what happened from the perspective of those involved rather than strictly what was made public or reported in the news.
Woodward and Costa provide a note to their readers specifying that the interviews for the book were conducted as “deep background” such that the information contained therein could all be used, but the sources providing that information could not be specifically identified by name. They also specified that neither President Trump nor President Biden were interviewed directly, although they were often quoted by sources who heard their statements first hand and shared them in the course of their interviews. The book also provides an extensive source list of supplementary information obtained outside of the personal interviews. There is also a detailed index.
The question at the heart of the reporting is how the military and law enforcement missed the build-up and execution of the events that occurred on January 6, 2021, something that has never before happened at the U.S. Capitol. The big concern from the military’s perspective is that this wasn’t a single event but was instead potentially a practice run for something even bigger in the future. It forever changed the nation that the peaceful transfer of power did not happen after the 2020 election.
The certification of the Electoral College votes is normally a mostly ceremonial exercise confirming the votes of the electors slated during their December meeting following a general election. Woodward and Costa provide insight into the machinations taking place leading up to January 6th with Trump and his associates attempting to apply pressure on Vice President Pence to take actions not granted him by the Constitution to throw out votes they didn’t like. The Vice President sought resource after resource to see if there were any legal means to do what his President was asking of him, and time and time again the answer was no. He had no leeway. His role was explicitly stated in the Constitution thus:
“The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted.”
He had no other duty where the Electoral certification was concerned despite what Trump and his questionable legal team were suggesting. To the Vice President’s credit, even in the face of the unprecedented disruptions and dangers of the moment, he faithfully executed his duty. As Woodward and Costa make abundantly clear throughout the book, Trump had no respect for duty and demanded personal loyalty to him, not to the Constitution despite the oaths that all elected officials as well as the military take when assuming their positions. They reported on Trump’s laser focus on vengeance against those who cross him as told to them by everyone they interviewed.
Trump was also driven by a fierce desire for the spotlight. He needed the adulation of his supporters, no matter the cost. Many within his inner circle could see the damage his behavior was doing and tried to temper his actions, but he’d have none of that. He wanted what he wanted, and there was no appeasing him. Several members of his inner circle came across differently in the book than how they were portrayed in the press, and the internal battles were far fiercer than previously disclosed. Even AG Barr, although extremely conservative, tried to temper Trump’s actions to keep him within the law. When Barr finally resigned, it was because he recognized that he no longer had any effect on Trump and didn’t want to continue to be associated with his administration.
The book isn’t solely focused on Trump. It also highlights President Biden including his motivations for trying yet again in the 2020 election, and his administration’s actions during the transition and first few months of his presidency. We learn more about the workings of his inner circle. We also learn a great deal more about the real Biden behind closed doors who was deeply affected by what was happening in the country. The Biden administration came to realize that the previous administration left behind chaos with respect to the economy, the U.S. standing in the international community, and the pandemic response.
Biden broke convention in 2017 after Trump’s horrific response to Charlottesville. Despite the convention that a previous administration not criticize its successor, he had to speak out. That was when those around him started to suggest that he consider a 2020 presidential run though it took him time to work through his reservations and finally commit himself to that prospect with the full support of his family.
The Epilogue is chilling as it emphasizes the dangers we still face. From deep inside his inner sanctum in one of the most secure offices in the world, General Milley again pondered what he had missed leading up to the January 6th attack. He combed through videos, documents, and meetings with his senior staff. With respect to the insurrection, he couldn’t shake the feeling that January 6th had been a rehearsal based on his read of other historical revolutions. He replayed the 1905 revolution in Russia that was summarily dismissed as a failure, except that it wasn’t. It set in motion a movement that eventually executed a successful revolution in 1917 creating the Soviet Union and changing the course of world events. He couldn’t shake the feeling that a similar American revolution may have been set in motion. He told his senior staff, “What you might have seen was a precursor to something far worse down the road.”
As Milley had forecast, this was far from over. Trump wasn’t fading into the background. He continued spreading lies, especially the Big Lie that he won the election that he in fact lost. The danger is that his supporters continue to take him at his word despite all evidence to the contrary. While surreal, it is the reality we now face.
This book serves as a report and a warning to the nation. We are still in peril, and only together can we remain the democratic republic we know and love.