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Bob Woodward Says Donald Trump “Does Not Understand Democracy”; Journalist Joins ‘Anna’ Post-Screening Panel To Talk Press Freedom, 2024 Election

When the National Press Club hosted a post-screening panel on the upcoming movie Anna, about Russian journalist and Vladimir Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya, the conversation — to not much of a surprise — led to Donald Trump and what his potential return to the White House would mean for democracy.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and former CIA director John Brennan joined journalist Bob Woodward for the post-screening event Wednesday evening, and each chimed in on the potential impact of another Trump presidency.

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Woodward, who released 20 audio interviews with Trump as part of The Trump Tapes in 2022, said, “I think an important question about Trump is, ‘Who is he?'”

“In the course of these interviews I asked him, ‘What’s the job of the president?’ And he said, ‘To protect the people.’ Now that’s a good answer. He did not protect the people [in the Covid crisis]. And if you get into this — I think it is hopeless to take a psychoanalytic trip — but I think it is helpful to see how he looks at himself. And he looks at himself as a figure of great prominence, great … kind of historic figure. And what he does not understand — and this is what is crippling, really important — he does not understand democracy. Why? Because democracy is about the others, the people. For Trump, the focus is himself. It’s all about himself. He does not comprehend democracy.”

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Woodward said that he is working on a book on how the Biden administration has handled Ukraine, a monumental crisis that he said that the president and his team had handled “with great seriousness, focus.” “It’s the hardest case in the world,” he said.

“If this had happened in the Trump administration, he would have had no idea … how to think it through, how to have the relations with other countries,” Woodward said. “What NATO has done, what other countries have done to stand up to Putin and Ukraine is quite remarkable, and it is something that has been led by the Biden administration.” He noted that when Trump was in office, “he was never confronted with a national security problem of that level, of that magnitude. It is something that we really need to think about. It is something that there needs to be more discussion and reporting.”

Woodward also told Swalwell and Brennan that he was “glad you both are not hiding your views and conclusions. I think more people need to speak out and say, ‘This is what I mean.'” He pointed to Brennan’s willingness “as former CIA director, to come out and say, ‘This is what I know about the world and the responsibility of America in that world and how Donald Trump is a threat to that. You want to write an op-ed piece?”

Some in the audience laughed.

Brennan said that he had a draft written.

Their comments came as the fate of a massive national security funding package that includes aid to Ukraine remains stalled in the House, with it still unclear when or if Speaker Mike Johnson will bring it to the floor.

Brennan warned that if the U.S. under a Trump administration “recedes from that responsibility [toward NATO], you will see quite a change in European attitudes. They are not going to be able to withstand the hot breath of a Russian military, invading Europe, without the United States involvement. And they will work deals with a Russia and a Putin. They don’t have the military wherewithal to stop them.”

Swalwell noted that Putin is “incredibly patient. … He doesn’t respond to the news of the day or the setbacks of the day, especially the ones that he has seen on the battlefield, because he is not a western leader. A western leader who is held to account by a free press has to respond to the news of the day and the setbacks of the day, and their tactics and their strategy. And with Putin, because there is not a free press in Russia, we think, how does he respond to all those Russian mothers who have lost their children on the battlefield? He doesn’t, he doesn’t have to, and so he can price in to how he is going to prosecute this war, that victory is going to be whatever he declares it to be.”

From left: Sean Penn, John Brennan and Rep. Eric Swalwell
From left: Sean Penn, John Brennan and Rep. Eric Swalwell

Anna stars Maxine Peake as Politkovskaya, the famed Russian journalist and critic of Putin who, after exposing atrocities in Chechnya, was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006. That date also is Putin’s birthday.

National Press Club president Emily Wilkins moderated the panel. Also speaking at the event was Mark Maxey, the president of Rolling Pictures and producer of Anna, as well as executive producer Sean Penn.

Penn said that the film, directed by James Strong, is “more personal than polemic. It just so successfully humanizes the portrayal of its subjects.”

Penn said that Politkovskaya was “uncommonly dedicated to her work, and telling the truth without fear or favor, and she was murdered for it.”

He noted that the movie was being screened “only a month after the murder of Alexei Navalny while our allies in Ukraine remain besieged, and while Putin, the nuclear-armed gangster behind all this death and destruction remains at large.” He added that while the film is a drama that will entertain audiences, “I believe equally it serves as a meditation on the ways we can regroup our sense of our own place and what our voices must do.”

The movie also pays tribute to more than 1,800 journalists who have been killed worldwide this century.

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