No one has ever produced a political exposé quite like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.
Journalists are supposed to protect their sources. But not all sources deserve to be protected and the best journalism, Janet Malcolm famously observed in The Journalist and the Murderer, often comes from reporters who seduce and then betray their subjects. The seduction comes in the promise that in return for access the journalist will portray the source “fairly”, ie nobly, heroically; the way they imagine themselves; the way they desperately want to be seen. The betrayal comes when the journalist uses their access to reveal the subject as they really are, or, at least, as the journalist prefers to depict them for the sake of a good story, which is never quite the same thing.
And any list of journalists most likely to stab you in the back for a story would have Michael Wolff’s name somewhere near the very top. A witty, talented gossip and media columnist and author with a nasty reputation for breaking embargos, burning sources, attributing off-the-record quotations and generally breaking all the rules of professional journalism, Wolff is the reporter the Trump administration bafflingly entrusted with inside access during the transition and first year of his presidency. Because he was one of the few journalists to write a flattering profile of Trump prior to the election – a device Wolff has used in the past to lure in previous victims – the White House communications team advised everyone in the new administration to cooperate with the journalist because the result would be “a positive book for the president”. Wolff interviewed Trump, his family, Steve Bannon and more than 200 Trump insiders or members of the administration, taking up a “semi-permanent couch in the West Wing” where he became “something quite close to an actual fly on the wall,” because, Wolff explains, there was no one person in Trump’s White House who had the authority to ever tell him to leave.
An instant classic of political reporting, The Fire and Fury is not so much an insight into the Trump administration as it is a detailed confirmation that it functions exactly how you imagine, and exactly how it’s been reported for the last 12 months: a rolling, brawling, ever-widening clusterfuck of incompetence, infighting and chaos, which Wolff documents with forensic detail and acidic prose.
“While the Trump administration has made hostility to the press a virtual policy,” he notes dryly in his introduction, “it has also been more open to the media than any White House in recent memory.” He goes on to note the odd journalistic conundrums of reporting on the Trump White House: confidential off-the-record or deep background conversations that were later casually put on the record or tweeted, sources who provided confidential accounts and then went on to share them wildly “as though liberated by their first utterances”, as well as Trump’s compulsive habit to call acquaintances – usually businessmen – late at night and subject them to extended monologues about the inside details of his administration, monologues which were often recorded and widely disseminated. There have been many gossipy campaign books and many inside-the-White-House books, but no one has ever written a political exposé quite like this. Wolff argues – convincingly – it was made possible by the fact that no one in Trump’s administration has the faintest idea of what they’re doing.
The book’s first and central claim is that Trump never intended to win the presidency. The plan all along was to lose. After all, how could he possibly win? Look at his background! Look at Hillary’s operation! Look at how much money she had! Look at the media coverage! Look at the damn polls! But the genius of it all was that for Trump losing was winning. Trump would claim that Crooked Hillary stole the election then use the momentum and power of his martyrdom to launch a new TV network with himself as the star. His daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner would become international celebrities and brand ambassadors. His spokeswoman Kelly-Anne Conway would become a hero of the conservative media. His campaign manager Steve Bannon – who kept insisting that they could win, proof to the rest of the campaign team of how crazy Bannon was – would become the head of the tea-party movement. Everyone would come up smiling! Trump refused to invest any money in his own campaign fund – what would be the point of that? – eventually, reluctantly loaning it ten million dollars and reacting with bemusement when wealthy patrons like Robert Mercer and Peter Thiel stepped forward to fund him. Why spend good money trying to win when it was obviously impossible, and the whole point was to lose?
And, Wolff argues, everything flowed from that. Presidential campaigns always vet their candidates so they aren’t surprised when their opponents hit them with negative stories. The Trump campaign didn’t bother. Nor did they vet their staffers, for the same reason. Normal campaigns would not, for example, hire Mike Flynn, a retired General with links to the Putin regime and Russian intelligence, or Paul Manafort, an international lobbyist with ties to dozens of corrupt despots the world over, who was already under investigation by US authorities. No candidate would stand if they couldn’t release their tax records, or if they had a long history of shady transactions in real estate and the casino industry, or an even longer history of alleged sexual assaults. You just couldn’t win with a background like that. Furthermore, all presidential campaigns set up a transition team, often run by a former US president or chief-of-staff to ensure a smooth-takeover of power and a new government staffed by political veterans so they could hit the ground running, taking advantage of a new administration’s brief honeymoon. None of these things happened.
That’s how you end up with a guy like Steve Bannon running the campaign. No serious candidate would ever let the white-nationalist and alt-right self-proclaimed Leninist who avowed that “darkness is good” and promised to “destroy society’, within a million miles of their campaign, let alone give them a job in the White House and a seat on the National Security Council. But through what Wolff refers to as a “rent in the fabric of reality” that’s where he winds up. Bannon is a major source for the book, but he doesn’t come out of it looking good. No one comes out of this looking good. All of the key players in the Trump administration smear and counter-smear each other in an orgy of mutually assured destruction. Wolff lets them destroy each other and then coolly performs the postmortems.
After the appalling revelation of his victory and Trump’s horrified realisation that he’d have to move out of his vast, sterile, gold-plated, air-conditioned triplex in New York and into the badly heated, confined, creaky, roach-infested residence of the White House, he was eventually able to convince himself that he’d meant to win all along: that he was a man of destiny who had bent history to his will and was poised to accomplish great things, although he wasn’t sure what they were. Meanwhile his dumbfounded campaign team scrambled to form an executive staff that could implement his agenda, whatever that was.
The hastily improvised transition led to an inexperienced, divided and doomed government. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus was appointed chief of staff, normally the most powerful figure in the White House in charge of everyone and everything; but Bannon was installed as chief strategist reporting directly to the President, and Jared and Ivanka, whom Bannon dubbed “Jarvanka” also reported directly to Trump as advisers to the president, with no fixed responsibilities or duties.
All three senior staffers had conflicting agendas. Priebus was a traditional Republican attempting to advance his party’s interests; Bannon was a white nationalist who despised the Republican Party and wanted to destroy the administrative state; Jarvanka were “Goldman Sachs Democrats” who wanted the White House to be business-focused, internationalist and moderate. All of them found ways to capture Trump’s interest and influence him, albeit for very brief periods of time, and which all tended to cancel each other out. Priebus offered the support of Congressional Republicans, Kushner had access to the world of businessmen and billionaires whose approval Trump craved, while Bannon represented the alt-right whose ideological agenda Trump had harnessed, which swept him to power. Or so Bannon claimed.
Because Trump never bothered to properly staff the West Wing, visitors with appointments with the president were often admitted at the front door by the Marine guards and then left to wander through the empty maze of unoccupied rooms until finally finding their way to the Oval Office where a huge crowd of retainers representing the different factions and various other hangers on – including Trump’s old sidekicks from The Apprentice – all attended every meeting, not wanting to yield any advantage to their foes in their absence.
Priebus, Jarvanka and Bannon waged covert war against each other from the shadows, anonymously leaking and briefing to the press while simultaneously expressing outrage at the torrent of leaks coming from the White House and demanding investigations into the source. Briefing the media was also, they discovered, an excellent way to reach the president, who rarely listened to any of his staff, or, if he did, never remembered anything they said (“The more you talked the less he listened”) and who never read anything (“he’s postliterate,” an aide explained to Wolff), but who watched hours of cable TV every day.
All veteran political operatives understand the game theory of internal leaks: yes, you can anonymously attack your colleagues via the media but then they can and will do the same to you, and you’ll all go down together and take your government and party down with you. But few members of Trump’s team were veteran operatives and even fewer cared even slightly about the fortunes of the Republican Party, so the leaks continued despite the damage to the administration and the president.
Nor do many of Trump’s staffers have any loyalty towards their leader. At the beginning many Trump staff credited him with almost magical powers. “Since his success was not explainable, he must have talents beyond what they could fathom. His instincts. Or his salesman’s gifts. Or his energy.” But as he stumbled from one self-inflicted disaster to another and became more bitter, confused and vicious towards everyone around him, the faith died and his competence and basic sanity came more and more into question. Wolff quotes a widely circulated email and attributes its views to former Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn, Trump’s Director of the National Economic Council:
It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything – not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored. And his staff is no better. Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant prick who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits. No one will survive the first year but his family. I hate the work, but feel I need to stay because I’m the only person there with a clue what he’s doing. The reason so few jobs have been filled is that they only accept people who pass ridiculous purity tests, even for midlevel policy-making jobs where the people will never see the light of day. I am in a constant state of shock and horror.
Trump might be a terrible president and a terrible person but he’s a great character. The narcissistic, bored, orange-haired vacuum at the centre of everything: the man who didn’t want to be there. If there’s one thing you can say in Trump’s defence, though, it’s that he never tried to hide who he was. There’s a famous book called What it Takes by Richard Ben Cramer about the 1998 presidential election, and it documents the personal qualities, skills and accomplishments politicians allegedly need to compete for the White House. Trump has none of them: in many ways he’s the opposite of everything American presidents are supposed to be. Yet there he is.
Something has obviously gone wrong – alarmingly wrong – with America’s politics, but Trump comes across here as a symptom rather than a cause. The wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now he’s trapped in the Oval Office forced to listen to budget briefings and strategy presentations when he’d rather be judging beauty contests or golfing, while the media – whose approval seems to be the one thing he genuinely cares about – shred him for his incompetence, and the special prosecutor investigating his campaign’s links to Russian intelligence draws ever closer.
It’s hard to know what Trump coverage to pay attention to. It’s so relentless, and some of what happens is bizarre and frightening; but because of this much of the coverage occurs in a state of extended hysteria: even the banal is elevated to the status of unprecedented outrage. A few days ago Trump took credit for the fact that there were no domestic air crashes in the US during his first 12 months in office. It’s the sort of silly thing politicians the world over congratulate themselves for every day, and always have done, and no one cares or even notices, but Trump’s tweet touched off another global wave of frenzied condemnation: it was yet more proof of his evil and his madness.
One of the strengths of Wolff’s book is that it acknowledges the role the media ecosystem plays in enabling and enraging Trump, filtering out all the exaggerated nonsense and focusing on the most epic disasters. The first half of Fire and Fury is a gossipy dissection of the White House’s key players, tragic flaws and bitter divides while, the second documents their doomed attempts to engage with the rest of the government, run the country and lead the world. It functions as a supercut of Trump’s greatest blunders. Remember the time he fired the FBI director on a whim? Or the time he issued a travel ban on Muslims without consulting the State Department? Or the time he gave a rambling, bitter, obscene speech to the Boy Scouts? The time he refused to condemn a Neo-Nazi murderer? Remember Scaramucci? Amid all the drama about Russia hacking the election and Trump’s tweets about the size of his nuclear button I’d forgotten about the Mooch.
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Shortly after Trump was elected the New York Times published a book review of a new Hitler biography crafted to imply that Trump was Hitler. At about the same time Timothy Synder, a historian at Yale published On Tyranny, which became a bestseller. Synder specialised in the rise of totalitarian regimes and his book was a warning to the people of America. It was happening again, Synder warned, tyranny was nigh, and it would move with astonishing speed and ruthlessness to take over America’s institutions. Believing that this outcome was a foregone conclusion, Snyder advised his readers on how best to resist a totalitarian dictatorship.
In the final chapter of Fire and Fury Steve Bannon – who would have loved to do all of the terrible things Snyder warned about, but would surely have failed even if the president’s children hadn’t fought him to a standstill at every opportunity and eventually forced him to resign – puts Trump’s chances of making it to the end of his term at 33%. Either he resigns (33%), or is impeached (33%), or he limps to the end of the fourth year. No way would there be a second term. Never happen. And that’s why, he announces near the end of the book, he, Steve Bannon would radicalise the Republican Party and be president in 2020. “It’s going to be wild as shit.”
I hope Snyder reads Wolff’s book and takes comfort in it. Terrible things are happening in America and in its foreign policy, but that’s been the case for many decades now, under both Republican and Democratic Presidents. If anything, Trump’s presence in the White House makes it harder for the Republican Party to deliver on its deranged and radical policy agenda. Instead of seizing control of the criminal justice system and the deep state, Trump and his dwindling rabble of supporters are under siege by them. For a book about the worst people in the world occupying the most powerful positions in the world, Fire and Fury is oddly reassuring.
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House will soon be available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.