Cover image of "Peril," an account of the Trump-Biden transition

Many of the thousands of books about Donald Trump that have seen the light of day in recent years—Amazon lists more than 30,000—were written by people with an axe to grind or a reputation to restore. Not so the latest of Bob Woodward’s twenty-one books, Peril, coauthored with fellow Washington Post journalist Robert Costa. Nor does the story they tell about the Trump-Biden transition rehash the four years of Trump’s time in the White House. It is, instead, a journalistic account of the dangerous time from November 3, 2020 to the summer of 2021 as the 45th president left office and the 46th moved into the White House. And most of the sources the authors use to describe the scene inside the Trump Administration are Right-Wing Republicans who were among the president’s most outspoken supporters.

Not the usual sources

To judge from the number of times they and their recollections are cited in the text, Woodward and Costa’s principal sources about Trump’s side of the story were Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Attorney General Bill Barr, Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Mike Lee, and Vice President Mike Pence as well as Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley and Keith Kellogg, Mike Pence’s national security adviser. Apparently, these men themselves didn’t necessarily share with the authors all the remarks attributed to them. Woodward and Costa report in a Note to Readers that they built the book around “hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 200 firsthand participants and witnesses to these events.” It’s likely that much of what those men are quoted as having said was recorded by staff members who were in the room at the time.

On the Democratic side, the names that crop up most frequently are Congressman James Clyburn, Chief of Staff Ron Klain, coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Many others are cited less frequently. They’re all quoted for remarks during the presidential campaign and during the fraught days of the Trump-Biden transition.

Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa (2021) 506 pages ★★★★★ 

Image of Donald Trump leaving the White House on January 20, capping the formal end to the Trump-Biden transition
On January 20, 2021, breaking with two centuries of precedent, Donald Trump skipped Joe Biden’s inauguration as President. Here, he mounts the stairs to Marine One, on his way to Florida. Image: Mandel Ngan – AFP

An insightful report full of new information

The authors’ publicist released information before the book’s publication about the explosive news with which the story opens. Shortly after Trump’s loss in the election, and again just after January 6, General Mark Milley called his counterpart in China to reassure him that there would be no strategic surprises. The Chinese, viewing Trump’s refusal to accept his loss, feared he might start a war to distract the public’s attention and secure a path to stay in office. Milley assured him that the military would not let this happen. And this news has been treated as the most important, and for most commentators the only, new information in the book. That is far from the case. This is a full-bodied account of the Trump-Biden transition, including the disputes that surrounded the Electoral College and the events of January 6, 2021, when Donald Trump triggered the storming of the Congress.

Woodward and Costa report many conversations in which some of those closest to President Trump pleaded, cajoled, and even demanded that he stop claiming he was “cheated” in the election. Many of these exchanges involved a liberal use of the F-word. For example, Bill Barr told him “they think you’re a f***ing a**hole.” Mike Pence was more polite but equally adamant when Trump repeatedly attempted to order him to refuse to accept the results of the Electoral College, defying two centuries of Constitutional law. That Trump continues to peddle this flagrant distortion of reality means either that he (a) has completely lost touch with his senses, or (b), and more likely, the bogus claim represents a long-standing plan on his part to regain office by any means whatsoever—a plan that long predates the November 2020 election.

About the authors

Image of Bob Woodward, coauthor of this book about the Trump-Biden transition
Bob Woodward. Image: Jared Soares for The New York Times

Bob Woodward has worked for the Washington Post since 1971. Barely a year after he began at the paper, he and another young reporter, Carl Bernstein, did much of the original reporting on the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. In the half-century since, he has written twenty-one books on politics and current affairs, half of which have topped bestseller lists across the country. As Wikipedia points out, he has never won the Pulitzer Prize for any of his reporting, though his contributions to team efforts have helped the Post win several Pulitzers. Woodward was born in Illinois in 1943, the son of a judge, and graduated from Yale in 1965. He served a five-year term in the US Navy before joining the Post.

Image of Robert Costa, coauthor of this account of the Trump-Biden transition

Robert Costa is less than half the age of his coauthor. He was born in 1985, more than a dozen years after Woodward’s breakthrough reporting on Watergate. Although he worked for the conservative National Review for several years before joining the Post in January 2014, he has said he’s “not on the conservative team.” He is probably best known to the public as a commentator on politics and public affairs for both NBC, MSNBC, and PBS. Costa is a graduate of Notre Dame University and holds a master’s degree in politics from Cambridge University. This account of the Trump-Biden transition is his first book.

For more reading

This is one of The best books of 2021.

I’ve also reviewed Bob Woodward’s 2018 book, Fear: Trump in the White House (Bob Woodward’s new book reveals how Trump makes policy). I read several others before launching this blog in 2010.

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