There are two conclusions to be drawn from Bob Woodward’s disturbing new account of paranoia and dysfunction in the White House: Wow, how did things get so bad? And, after turning the next page: Wow, things could have been even worse.
In Fear: Trump in the White House, the veteran reporter sets about building a picture of the way in which the president’s flaws – the short attention span, the narcissism, and a brutal lack of empathy – render him almost incapable of doing the job.
And it could be worse. You will know the headlines by now, how aides snatched documents from the Resolute Desk to prevent them being signed (Gary Cohn, then White House chief economic adviser) or quietly ignored the order to assassinate a head of state (Jim Mattis, at the Pentagon, who drew up plans for missile strikes on Syria rather than to kill Bashar al-Assad).
The Telegraph obtained an early copy of the book, which is due to be published on Tuesday. And there are still extraordinary nuggets to be unearthed, like the way he very nearly declared war on North Korea with a tweet.
At the start of the year, he had been engaged in a very public tussle with Kim Jong-un over the size of their respective nuclear buttons. Provocative, maybe. Crass, certainly. But worse could easily have followed.
“This is all about leader versus leader,” mused Trump at one point apparently. “Man versus man. Me versus Kim.”
In his book, Woodward reveals that Mr Trump wanted to send a tweet ordering US military dependents – thousands of family members of 28,500 troops - to leave South Korea.
It sent his national security staff into panic mode. A senior figure in the North Korean politburo had already signalled to them that any evacuation would be interpreted in Pyongyang as a precursor to military attack.
Knowing that, Mr Trump’s tweet would effectively be a declaration war, likely provoking Kim into attacking South Korea with conventional arms or worse.
The tweet was not sent. But it serves as one of the most alarming examples of how his staff had to fight fires on an almost daily basis.
At times they used persuasion. At other times subterfuge, routinely punting proposals into the long grass of memo rewrites and legal reviews.
“Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president’s most dangerous impulses,” writes Woodward. “It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world.”
As you would expect from a reporter who has written about eight presidents and is credited with a role in bringing down Richard Nixon, dates and details build a dense supporting framework around the anecdotes. This is not an account that can be dismissed easily.
It makes for a devastating portrait of a brutal president, who accuses his national security adviser of dressing like a “beer salesman” and calls his attorney general “mentally retarded”.
But if the sourcing is copper-bottomed, at times the prose is leaden. Woodward’s detached style may be refreshing in these polarised times but too often it plods.
Part of the problem is the subject matter. Woodward wants to take us inside every decision – the guiding principles, the weighing of factors and the outcome. The Middle East, Afghanistan, trade policy all get the big treatment. But it becomes quickly apparent that this White House will not yield to Woodward’s conventional analysis. Decisions are not such much made as announced, arriving almost out of the ether.
On one page Mr Trump announces that Nato might be obsolete. At dinner (over dessert) he is persuaded it may actually have some merit after all, only for a few pages later to go back to saying that Nato is obsolete. Analyse that!
So although Woodward is strong on the portrait - delivering a frightening account of a President obsessed with his enemies, who lacks the basic political skills to meet on his promises or the cunning to stay ahead of federal investigators - it feels as if the narrative is only half written.
Part of the problem is that the author comes squarely from the liberal elite, and relied heavily on sources with similar outlook. This is not someone who understands populists, their motivations or their reasoning.
But his struggles revealer a deeper problem. Can this most unconventional of White Houses be captured within the conventions of traditional political writing at all? Can Mr Trump’s quixotic style ever be bound into some 360 pages?
Having ridden to the White House by subverting the norms of TV reporting and declared war on fake news it is starting to feel as if now traditional biography is struggling to cope with Mr Trump’s presidency.
Perhaps the best way to tell the story of these times might be in the form of a different medium or genre. How about an oral history or even something in the style of a graphic novel? How better to capture the passion, the flip flops and the absurdity. I’m only half joking.