2023 Online Commentary, Personal Narrative finalist

The Trump Tapes

About the Project

In more than 50 years of reporting, Bob Woodward had never made public the full, raw transcripts of his interviews. But after reviewing the 20 interviews he conducted with Donald Trump during Trump’s last year as president, Woodward decided to open his notebook for the historical record.

“Trump is an unparalleled danger,” Woodward wrote in The Post’s Oct. 23 Opinions Essay. “When you listen to him on the range of issues from foreign policy to the virus to racial injustice, it’s clear he did not know what to do. Trump was overwhelmed by the job.”

Readers can listen and decide for themselves: The online essay has nearly two dozen audio clips drawn from eight-plus hours of on-the-record conversation. (The entirety of their exchanges were published in an audiobook later that month.) “I was struck by how Trump pounded in my ears in a way the printed page cannot capture,” Woodward wrote. The Post’s news reporting on the interviews — noting that at times “Trump holds forth in a mocking tone, with a hint of a sneer. At other points, he sounds meanderingly repetitive, or blazingly defiant.” — supports Woodward’s argument that the audio itself provides insights into the former president’s worldview.

The online essay seamlessly weaves audio and text exchanges, key points of which were highlighted in our social promotion, which also included audio clips. The questions and answers are revealing about both the journalist’s approach to acquiring information and the president’s approach to argument. Readers learn Woodward’s analysis (“In 2020, I ended ‘Rage’ with the following sentence: ‘When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.’ Two years later, I realize I didn’t go far enough.”). They also get Trump’s unvarnished perspective (“I get people, they come up with ideas. But, the ideas are mine, Bob. Want to know something? Everything is mine.”). Overall, Woodward asked Trump more than 600 questions, including: “What grade would you give yourself” on handling the coronavirus? And: “What have you learned about yourself?” The journalist who has chronicled the presidency since the Nixon administration concluded: “I believe the tapes show that Trump’s greatest failure was his handling of the coronavirus.”

Hearing their full exchange, Woodward wrote, “amplifies an understanding of Trump and the unique concentration of power in the presidency. In these interviews, you hear Trump relishing the authority of the presidency and relying on his personal instincts as the basis for major decisions. It’s a self-focus that gets in the way of his ability to do the job.” Ahead of Trump’s 2024 reelection bid, the conversation allows readers to hear the former president’s assessment of such challenges as the pandemic and the protests that followed George Floyd’s killing in 2020 — and consider what a future Trump presidency could be like.