The first thing to say about Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is that it’s a rattling good read – bitchy, salacious and defamatory in Michael Wolff’s well-practised style. The second thing is that even those folks who have qualms about accepting its assertions at face value must be shocked at the ineptitude, amateurishness and stupidity of the players in the drama.
The third thing is that, true or not, the book’s napalm attack on Donald Trump and his entourage will either kill his presidency – or make it.
The book has just become available in Australia but I downloaded a Kindle copy from Amazon.com.
The enfant terrible of the New York media scene has made a career out of sweet-talking himself into the confidence of moguls to write devastating columns or even books about them. Rupert Murdoch regretted assisting him to write The Man Who Owns the News. This time Wolff insinuated himself into Trump’s consciousness by regularly criticising the media’s coverage, attacking CNN’s fake news and railing against the portrayal of Trump as “an inept and craven sociopath.” Given his reputation for biting the hand, the fact that he was permitted free access to the West Wing does lend credibility to his descriptions of dysfunct and disorganisation. As one un-friend of Wolff’s commented: “Donald Trump and Michael Wolff deserve one another. They’re like conjoined twins tied at the ego.”
Candidly, Wolff admitted that when he sought fly-on-the wall status in the White House there was no one to say “Go away”, so he became more a constant interloper than an invited guest. Like a leech in the swamp, fastening onto any unsuspecting passerby, he sucked up unguarded gossip and prompted critical opinions. As respected New York Times editor David Carr observed about Wolff’s book on Murdoch: “Factual errors be damned, Wolff prefers the purity of his constructs.”
Wolff’s construct for Fire and Fury was simple – Donald J Trump is not fit to be president of the United States. So he is painted as ignorant, with a short attention span, and without political beliefs or backbone, a rebel without a cause, but with a pathological need for approval. Even mentally unstable.
At the end of 312 pages, the reader is left wondering where all this information came from. Ingenuously, Wolff explained his sources: Some spoke on “so-called deep background, a convention of contemporary political books that allows for a disembodied description of events provided by an unnamed witness to them”; off-the-record interviews, and other sources who spoke on the basis that their material would not become public until the book came out! Clearly, Stephen K Bannon was a major source, as was Katie Walsh, former deputy chief of staff. Readers can play guessing games about others.
The stage is set in the book’s prologue. It purports to record verbatim the conversation between Roger Ailes, former head of Fox News and Steve Bannon at a dinner party in a Greenwich Village town house just before the Inauguration. It is meant to depict Bannon as the puppetmaster behind the throne, the only intellectual in the Trump circle. As he rattled off all the policies to be implemented from Day 1, Ailes kept voicing his skepticism: “Does Donald know?”
New York journalists doubted the accuracy of the quotes, recalling comments many years before in The New Republic that “the scenes in his columns are not recreated so much as created – springing from his imagination rather than actual events. It then came out that it was Wolff’s dinner party, in his home. Another guest, Janice Min, the former editor of The Hollywood Reporter, where Wolff is a columnist, swore every word was absolutely accurate. She would say that, wouldn’t she?
Wolff has his own construct for the U.S. election: Trump never believed he would win. “He wasn’t going to win! Losing was winning,” he writes. Trump would be the most famous man in the world – a martyr to crooked Hillary Clinton. “Not only did Trump disregard the potential conflicts of his business deals and real estate holdings, he audaciously refused to release his tax returns. Why should he if he wasn’t going to win?” (editor’s note: not that Trump is alone in keeping things to himself. Bill Clinton refused to release his medical records, prompting near-inaudible media speculation about his reasons; Barack Obama similarly sat on his academic record, again to near universal silence on the part of the media.)
As Wolff tells it, the candidate and his top lieutenants believed they could get all the benefits of almost becoming president without having to change their behaviour or fundamental worldview one whit. It followed that
“There was in fact no real campaign because there was no real organisation, or at best only a uniquely dysfunctional one … Even as Trump eliminated the sixteen other Republican candidates, however far-fetched that might have seemed, it did not make the ultimate goal of winning the presidency any less preposterous.”
No evidence is offered for this interpretation. This was all post facto conjecture, of times before Wolff occupied his privileged perch on the White House couch. It reflects accurately his method – the inspired acidic inventions of a New York gossip columnist, not the factual limitations of a mainstream political reporter.
The book is particularly cruel to Melania Trump. Donald promised her — no, offered her — a solemn guarantee there was simply no way he would win. “And even for a chronically – he would say helplessly – unfaithful husband, this was one promise to his wife that he seemed sure to keep.” And “Melania Trump could return to inconspicuously lunching.”
When the unexpected happened on November 8, according to Wolff, Don Jr told a friend his father looked as if he had seen a ghost. In this summation paragraph, he back-hands both the new president and his closest adviser:
“There was, in the space of little more than an hour, in Steve Bannon’s not unamused observation, a befuddled Trump morphing into a disbelieving Trump and then a quite horrified Trump. But still to come was the final transformation: suddenly, Donald Trump became a man who believed that he deserved to be and was wholly capable of being the president of the United States.”
The most dramatic description of election night – from someone who wasn’t there.
When excerpts of the book were first leaked, journalists fastened on two inter-linked themes – Steve Bannon’s vicious repudiation of the president he had helped to create, and the notorious Trump Tower meeting of Trump operatives with Russians supposedly offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
In the book, Bannon describes the meeting Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Krushner had with the Russians as ‘treasonous’ and ‘unpatriotic’. He adds that at the very least they should have reported the meeting to the FBI. But the account went on, ‘practically nobody doubted that Don Jr, would have wanted his father to know that he seized the initiative. The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixty floor is zero,” said an astonished and derisive Bannon.
According to Wolff, the significance of the meeting with the Russians did not dawn on the players, or on Trump himself, at the time. Later, at a dinner party, Bannon harangued his friends to emphasise the seriousness of the Special Prosecutor’ interest in the meeting:
“You realise where this is going. This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose Weissmann first and he is a money-laundering guy. Their path to f***ing Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and Jared Krushner….it’s as plain as the hair on your face.”
“They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”
The schism that rapidly developed in the White House between the ‘Bannonites’ and the ‘Jarvankas’ (the coined name for Jared and Trump’s daughter Ivanka) explains why Bannon was so ready to stick the knife into Kushner. Bannon, “an antisocial, maladjusted post-middle-aged man” seriously believed his purpose was to change the country, changing it quickly, and truly. “This was modern civil war; to restore the country built on the virtue and character and strength of the American workingman, circa 1955-65.”
The Jarvankas came to regard Bannon as more diabolical than Rasputin, and he had to be kept away from the president. They understood that Trump was happiest with a normal, incremental, two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach to politics, a new sort of centrism. Bannon failed because he tried to use Trump to implement his own idea of how to go about saving the nation. If true, this perceptive remark reveals his frustration: “I now understand what it is like to be in the court of the Tudors.”
But if the book exposes Trump’s crassness and Bannon’s overbearing self-importance, it really lays bare the damaging naivety of the Jarvankas. Although family members with Donald Trump’s ear, they had no institutional standing in the White House. (Ivanka had insisted that her official designation was Staffer/First Daughter). This group had been responsible for some of the most damaging of Trump’s policy blunders: The invitation to the Mexican President in an amateurish attempt at diplomacy; urging the new surge of troops to Afghanistan; the sacking of James Comey, leaving the president open to a charge of obstruction of justice.
Since the book was published, Bannon has gone from the White House and been expelled from Breitbart News by the Mercer family, its funders and his former mentors. Trump, under the influence of the Jarvankas, is U-turning into a more conventional, more predictable president. He’s preparing to sign a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) amnesty deal, reversing his policy to deport individuals who entered America as minors. “This should be a bill of love, truly. It should be a bill of love” – in his characteristic repetition – “and we can do that,” Trump said. He’s down-sizing the border wall too: “We don’t need a 2000-mile wall…where you have rivers and mountains and every else protecting, but we need a wall for a fairly good portion,” he said. Trump is mainstreaming, hunkering down for the coming storm.
An interview with Special Prosecutor Mueller looms, with no clear ideas how to combat the picture of the president as likely a fool and liar, as painted by James Comey. Trump’s warning to Mueller, in a television interview, to stay away from his family finances is almost certain to guarantee a subpoena of his tax returns. But the most difficult to explain will be the letter Trump personally dictated, secretly while on Air Force One, claiming the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians was only about adoption policy, and nothing to do with Hillary Clinton. That lie was exposed within 24 hours, when the e-mail chain discussing the plan was leaked.
The reader is left – as the author intended – with the feeling that the U.S. and its presidency are at a turning point. Whether Trump crashes and burns, or by dint of his salesman’s instinct for survival reaches an accommodation with the G.O.P. mandarins, abandoning his boast to “drain the swamp”, is unpredictable. But then, most of the happenings in this book were unpredictable fifteen months ago.
It would be a mistake to read this book as history. It makes no pretence to be a balanced account; its emphasis on the conflicts produces an overwhelmingly negative narrative. But for Australian readers it does shed light on the personalities seeking to influence the most politically naïve president in living memory. President Trump’s achievements, minimized if not ignored altogether, appear as the flaccid outcomes of competing pressures from rival factions.
So much is credible. How much is true? So many will want to believe it all.