CNN  — 

The news is stunning: President Donald Trump told longtime reporter Bob Woodward that he “wanted to always play [the threat posed by the coronavirus] down” and “still like[d] playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic” even as the virus that has now sickened more than 6.3 million Americans and killed almost 190,000 was beginning to rage across the United States.

What’s only slightly less stunning is this: Trump said that to Woodward in one of the 18(!) interviews he granted the reporter between December 5, 2019 and July 21, 2020. And this: Woodward recorded the audio of all of those interviews with Trump’s permission!

Why, why, why would the President grant Woodward so much access? And why would the famously denial-prone Trump allow Woodward to tape the conversations so that there can be no doubt about a) their authenticity or b) what he actually said?

Good question! And one that can only be answered by understanding Trump’s psyche and the unique role that Woodward plays in American politics.

Let’s start with Trump.

For all the attacks he lobs at the media, there is NO president who has more closely followed how he is covered and treated by the press than Trump. And it’s not even close. He is a voracious consumer of cable news as well as print newspapers. Cable TV has long been the lens through which he views the world and, since being elected president, the way that he analyzes – in real time – how he thinks he is doing.

That obsession with perception has naturally lead Trump into forever hunting out ways to cement his legacy in office. Whether that’s the almost farcical attempt to buy Greenland or his fascination with the possibility of his face being added to Mount Rushmore, Trump has shown a unbending focus on creating and preserving his legacy. (Trump thinks like a real estate developer; he goes big!)

Aside from those attempts to secure a legacy in stone – literally! – Trump regularly uses campaign rallies, supposed policy speeches and his Twitter feed to promote the idea that he really deserves to be considered as one of the best presidents ever.

“I’ve always said I can be more presidential than any president in history except for Honest Abe Lincoln, when he’s wearing the hat,” Trump said in 2019. In a speech at the United Nations in 2018, Trump said that “in less than two years my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” (The audience laughed.)

So, that’s Trump.

Now to Woodward.

Woodward made his name, obviously, as one of the two reporters who broke the criminal enterprise overseen by President Richard Nixon and known as “Watergate.” In his later years, Woodward has turned almost exclusively to writing books – and books that chronicle the life and times of presidents in office. He wrote four books about George W. Bush’s eight years in the White House and two about Barack Obama. And in 2018, Woodward released “Fear” – his first book about the Trump White House.

In short: Woodward is writing the history of each president as it happens. He is the most recognizable and famous political journalist in the country. When Bob Woodward says he wants to write about you – even if you are a billionaire businessman or the president of the United States – you are flattered. And you see opportunity, because if you can convince Woodward that the coverage of you is unfair and biased and that you are really doing a great job, well, then, maybe history starts remembering you the way you want it to.

Every president who has cooperated with Woodward to some extent or another has been driven by the appeal of dealing with someone with the sort of influence they believe can shape how they are not just perceived in the moment but remembered. The appeal of telling the “real” story to a journalist of Woodward’s stature, bringing him in behind the curtain, is irresistible.

And never more so than with Trump, who is not only obsessed with how he is covered and what his legacy will be but also has a superhuman belief in his ability to talk his way in or out of almost anything. Trump views himself as a master manipulator, someone who is so good at reading other people that he knows how to get what he wants even as they think they are getting what they want.

Which is why Trump was so frustrated with his lack of involvement in “Fear,” he called Woodward after the manuscript had already been finished to offer to participate.

As CNN’s Kaitlan Collins tweeted Wednesday: “Trump talked to Woodward 18 times for this book, a decision many are now questioning. One reason Trump was so irritated aides didn’t tell him about Woodward’s attempts to interview him for his last book was because he thought he could have made himself look better in it.”

Trump missed out on the last one and he damn sure wasn’t going to miss out on this one! Even if it meant granting unbelievably free access – 18 interviews!!! – to a journalist who had written a hugely critical book less than two years ago about his White House. (The lead of The New York Times review of “Fear” is incredible: “Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book, ‘Fear: Trump in the White House,’ is especially surprising. This is a White House that has leaked from Day 1. We knew things were bad. Woodward is here, like a state trooper knocking on the door at 3 a.m., to update the sorry details.”)

Trump has two Achilles heels in politics and life. The first is that he cares so desperately about how people think of him and remember him that he is willing to do almost anything to impact his legacy. The second is that he believes far too much in his own ability to persuade. Woodward (and the book he has produced) cuts at both of the heels.

Which means that Trump was essentially poking at his own weakest spots with every single word he uttered to Woodward. And yet, he couldn’t stop himself.