Is Bob Woodward Full Of Sh*t? A Question For The Ages!

Daniel Lippman and Lara Seligman at Politico reported yesterday that stories from Bob Woodward's new book about Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley secretly (and frantically!) calling China to reassure them that Donald Trump wasn't going to surprise-bomb them "are greatly exaggerated, according to two people familiar with the discussions."

So put your wiener dog back in the garage and simmer down, Marco Rubio and everybody else screaming TREASON!

Politico goes over Woodward's reporting:

A forthcoming book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa claims that Milley grew concerned about then-President Donald Trump's instability and the possibility that he might spark a war with China, prompting him to arrange a pair of secret phone calls with Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People's Liberation Army. The first was on Oct. 30, just four days before the presidential election, and the second on Jan. 8, two days after a mob of pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol.

During the calls, Milley reassured Li that the United States would not strike, and pledged to give his counterpart a heads up if Trump ordered an attack, according to The Washington Post.

"General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we're going to attack, I'm going to call you ahead of time. It's not going to be a surprise," Milley is reported to have said.

Politico reported out the same claims and according to a defense official, they are "grossly mischaracterized." Not all wrong, mind you. "Grossly mischaracterized." Keep those words in mind.

The official said the calls were not out of the ordinary, and the chairman was not frantically trying to reassure his counterpart.

Politico's reporting says this wasn't Milley gone "rogue" either, like the book implies. Politico says he "asked permission" of (acting) Defense Secretary Chris Miller on what we're guessing was that second call. (The first call was before the election, before Miller was acting SecDef.) Miller more or less confirmed this to Politico, saying he thinks it was "perfunctory/routine." Politico has a lot of confirmations like this from various sources. Woodward and his co-author Robert Costa say they're stickin' by their reporting.

Meanwhile, Axios reported this week that in the days before the election, when that first call happened, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper was ordering all kinds of back-channeling to the Chinese in response to what the Pentagon thought was bad intel the Chinese were getting about America's intentions. That's a heavy over-simplification of Axios's reporting, but like the Politico, it's quite a bit more nuanced than what Woodward is saying.

Which leads us to today's question:

Is Bob Woodward full of shit?

Well, let's just say that if we say Bob Woodward is full of shit, Bob Woodward might think we meant that his entire body, from his head down to his toes, and all parts in between, is literally FULL OF POOP. And that's not what we're saying at all. It's an expression, Bob.

Point is, we're getting the feeling that Woodward didn't necessarily get this wrong. He just might not have gotten it quite right either. He might be confused about the tone and/or tenor of what his sources told him. It seems everybody agrees that Milley talked to China twice, and that he told them to please relax. There just seems to be a lot of confusion over whether these were frantic top secret phone calls or totally routine or maybe shades of something in between.

In light of this week's controversy, people are tweeting a piece comedy writer Tanner Colby published in Slate about Woodward in 2013:

A little more than a week ago, during an interview with Politico, Bob Woodward came forward to claim he'd been threatened in an email by a "senior White House official" for daring to reveal certain details about the negotiations over the budget sequester. The White House responded by releasing the email exchange Woodward was referring to, which turned out to be nothing more than a cordial exchange between the reporter and Obama's economic adviser, Gene Sperling, who was clearly implying nothing more than that Woodward would "regret" taking a position that would soon be shown to be false.

A rather trivial scandal, but the incident did manage to raise important questions about Woodward's behavior. Was he cynically trumping up the administration's "threat," or does he just not know how to read an email? Pretty soon, those questions tipped over into the standard Beltway discussion that transpires anytime Woodward does anything. How accurate is his reporting? Does he deserve his legendary status?

Or rather, paraphrased for this week's news, did General Mark Milley really meet his Chinese counterpart under the bleachers and say war secrets to him as their naked bodies embraced, or is Bob just bein' a real Bob right now?

Colby then told the meat of his story, which was about how, in the course of writing a biography of the late great John Belushi, he ended up literally re-reporting the details of a book Woodward had written about Belushi, and found that Woodward had just gotten one billion things wrong. But the thing was, Woodward didn't get them wrong wrong. He just ... didn't seem to understand the meaning of the correct things he had reported out.

Colby explained:

He doesn't make Jonah Lehrer–level mistakes. There's never a smoking gun like an outright falsehood or a brazen ethical breach. And yet, in the final product, a lot of what Woodward writes comes off as being not quite right—some of it to the point where it can feel quite wrong. There's no question that he frequently ferrets out information that other reporters don't. But getting the scoop is only part of the equation. Once you have the facts, you have to present those facts in context and in proportion to other facts in order to accurately reflect reality. It's here that Woodward fails.

Not quite right. That seems to be the key here, maybe.

Colby said he'd often find in the course of his own reporting that a story from Woodward's book was just plain wrong. But then he'd go back and look up what Woodward had actually written, and find that Woodward had "put down the mechanics of the story more or less as they'd happened. But he'd so mangled the meaning and the context that his version had nothing to do with what I concluded had actually transpired." One of Colby's sources explained that Woodward got the pure facts of one particular story about Belushi right, but that he completely misunderstood the attitude around those facts, which made the story just wrong. Colby said Woodward's book about Belushi was like that "throughout."

All this seems to apply to our current situation.

So in light of all this, what are we to do with Woodward's reporting, which is often explosive and valuable? We think it's mostly the same thing we've been doing. Write about his revelations, use the words "If Woodward's reporting is correct" a whole bunch, and then if sources start coming forward to say "WHOA THERE, Bob Woodward seems to be doing that thing again," then also talk about that, like we are doing right now.

And if that doesn't happen, then it's possible it's because Woodward got it right.

Also we should probably watch out for stories where Woodward reports that the president's cat literally stole his tongue, or that the president has hurled a baby out an upstairs window at the White House along with a large tub of bathwater, or that there is a dead horse on the White House lawn right now and the president is beating it. God forbid the man writes about somebody getting thrown under the bus, he'll think he's doing the traffic report.


Be gentle with the old man, pobody's nerfect, that's what we are saying.

One thing is for sure, and it's that when Milley testifies in Congress in a couple weeks, we are liveblogging that shit.

[Politico / Slate]

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Evan Hurst

Evan Hurst is the managing editor of Wonkette, which means he is the boss of you, unless you are Rebecca, who is boss of him. His dog Lula is judging you right now.

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