The reckless, gossip-addicted Michael Wolff is the perfect Trump biographer. And there's a chance the President knows itby / January 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Donald Trump’s administration keeps giving us firsts. One year on from his inauguration, we now have what is the most unflattering account of any sitting president in US history. The book is Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. Its picture of a dysfunctional White House ruled by an unfit president instantly leapt to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and then hurtled far beyond. The numbers were record-breaking: 1.4m hardbacks on order; 700,000 already shipped to bookstores. More remarkably, Wolff’s revelations have prompted a national debate on Trump’s mental competence—a debate the president failed to settle by declaring himself “a very stable genius.” Thanks to Wolff, too, we’ve had the spectacle of a televised cabinet meeting meant to show Trump as alert and well informed—though the magic dimmed when, in a follow-up session, he reportedly blurted out the phrase “shithole countries.”
All this is owed to a book that includes less discussion of policies and programmes than you’ll find in a single day’s edition of the New York Times or Washington Post. The 300 pages include only passing mentions of Trump’s big tax cut—the most far-reaching policy of its kind in 30 years; the months-long effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act also known as Obamacare; business deregulation, including Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords. There is little more on North Korea and Syria.
There’s plenty, however, on Russia, most of it via Wolff’s main source, Trump’s former political guru Steve Bannon, who describes the alleged collusion of “the three senior guys in the campaign”—Trump’s son Donald Jr, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his campaign manager Paul Manafort—as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic.” This sensational accusation alone created many hours of fodder for cable news speculation and commentary.
The Russia investigation is as cancerous as Watergate. And Wolff describes a White House in which the guilty look to save themselves and stab others in the back. “The lawyers, in disgust and alarm, saw, in effect, each principal becoming a witness to another principal’s potential misdeeds—all conspiring with one another to get their stories straight,” Wolff writes. “The persistent Trump idea that it is not a crime to lie to the media was regarded by the legal team as at best reckless and, in itself, potentially actionable.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Kushner “helped to co-ordinate a set of lurid leaks—alleging drinking, bad behaviour, personal life in disarray—about [Trump’s lawyer] Marc Kasowitz, who had advised the president to send the couple home. Shortly after the presidential party returned to Washington, Kasowitz was out.” All this even though Kasowitz had been loyal to Trump for years and “gotten him out of all kinds of jams,” Bannon told Wolff. “What did we have, a hundred women? Kasowitz took care of all of them.” Bannon meant those women who either had illicit relationships with Trump or who had been propositioned by him. A week after the book came out, the Wall Street Journal alleged that just before the 2016 election another Trump lawyer had paid $130,000 to a porn star (“Stormy Daniels”) to keep her from talking about an affair she had with Trump in 2006, a year after his marriage to his current wife Melania.
Titillating though all this is, the picture is a familiar one. As the New Yorker’s editor David Remnick has written, Wolff’s book “amplifies, in lurid anecdote and quotation, what we have been learning elsewhere every day for the past year.” Remnick is one of several journalists whom Wolff, while he was still collecting his sources, criticised for being too hard on Trump. Another was the New York Times’s White House reporter, Maggie Haberman. Her “front-page beat at the paper,” Wolff now writes, “which might be called the ‘weirdness of Donald Trump’ beat, involved producing vivid tales of eccentricities, questionable behaviour, and shit the president says, told in a knowing, deadpan style.”
Wolff’s attacks on the media got him on the president’s good side. Nothing Haberman wrote about Trump compares with this nugget:
“Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant sexual banter. Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fuck than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise… And all the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.”
Some of Fire and Fury’s leading detractors are Beltway correspondents who have been diligently trying to crack the code of an anarchic White House, only to be outdone by Wolff, a Manhattan journalist with a long history of writing about media, money and gossip. These subjects might seem to place Wolff outside the normal bounds of political reporters. But they have also made him a natural fit for this president and this White House. This isn’t because he’s a better reporter but, in many ways, because he’s an inferior one: less scrupulous, less careful, less protective of his sources. Wolff enjoyed another advantage. While members of the White House press corps were confined to the briefing room, Wolff, thanks to Bannon, got a blue “appointment badge,” which gave him a kind of antechamber or vestibule access.
Seated in the lobby, he could watch the Trump circus up close: the parade of visitors coming and going, often bewildered or appalled by a president whose attention span, impulsiveness, craving for attention and demand for instant gratification were like those of a young child, encircled by his family or sycophants. He could get their impressions, overhear what they said, jot it all down—and call it an interview. Wolff says he conducted “200 hours of interviews,” from “something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing.”
A couch in the West Wing? The idea can only offend the longtime correspondent who gradually cultivates sources over time, and can go back to them again and again—the beat reporters’ long siege—because he or she respects the tradecraft of discreet information-gathering: the comment given “on background” (quotable, but not for direct attribution), not to be confused with the one given on “deep background” (quotable with the most generalised attribution), or “off the record” (which in the US, but not the UK, means not to be quoted at all)—and then the search for the second or even third source to confirm what the first has told him or her. Wolff seems to have ignored these protocols. He can afford to “burn his sources” because he no longer needs them. He conducted a guerilla raid and has already moved on.
One of Wolff’s best items is a scathing email he says circulated widely in the White House: “It’s worse than you can imagine,” the author wrote. “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 mid-level policy-making jobs where the people will never see the light of day. I am in a constant state of shock and horror.”
“What lies behind this are long-standing differences between
two kinds of journalism: newspaper versus magazine.”
The email, says Wolff, was “purporting to represent the views of Gary Cohn,” Trump’s economic adviser. What does he mean? Did Cohn write it? Wolff has fudged the answer. So has Cohn, who has since told an interviewer that the passage doesn’t reflect his feelings and added: “You can say Gary Cohn has never written an email more than five words.” But if Cohn didn’t write it, why doesn’t he say so? Journalists have pounced on Wolff’s shading and elisions—and on his mistakes. He commits errors of various kinds, getting names and even titles wrong. He writes that CNN reproduced the text of the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, the former MI6 officer who investigated Trump’s Russia connections—but BuzzFeed first published its contents. Did Rupert Murdoch really mutter “what a fucking idiot” after a phone call with Trump, or was it “fucking moron” as Wolff has elsewhere written? But even the most meticulous journalists get things wrong, and fact-checking is not the same as reporting. One book can be error-free and get the larger story wrong. Another can be vulnerable on small details but get the big story right.
What lies behind this are long-standing differences between two kinds of journalism: newspaper versus magazine. In daily journalism, the emphasis is on nailing the facts. Reporters double as their own fact-checkers. A romantic version of this can be seen in the new Steven Spielberg movie The Post, which shows a team of seasoned Washington reporters digging through and cross-checking thousands of pages of the Pentagon Papers (which told the secret history of the Vietnam War) with the zeal of professional archivists. Magazine writing is more interpretive: it’s about translating material (interviews, overheard conversations, observed scenes) into vivid narratives. Wolff excels at this. His prose is clever, ambient, descriptive. His subjects inevitably become “characters,” who want things, like figures in fiction, and think aloud in inner voices. They move in a world of scenes. The best-paid magazine writers are storytellers. This is why magazines, unlike newspapers, often employ a team of fact-checkers to comb through the writer’s notes and interviews.
Consider the flashy opening scene in Fire and Fury—a dinner in a Greenwich Village townhouse attended by Bannon and Roger Ailes, the late CEO of Fox News, at the time two of the most powerful names in right-wing media. Wolff has been faulted for not disclosing that it was at his house. Actually, Wolff isn’t obliged to say this. More important is that he was able to host such a dinner. Ailes and Bannon came because Wolff is himself a personage, one of the crowd, not a hungry, rumpled newshound with his face pressed to the pane. In other words, Wolff’s true passport into Trumpworld wasn’t his special visitor’s badge. It was instead his long-time residence in Trump’s own milieu of aspirational Manhattan—and his easy parsing of its hieroglyphic of money and bullying conquest and of its totems and trophies, so distinct from Washington’s closed-door secrecy and back-channel navigations of secret influence and access. Thus Wolff convinces where more exacting reporters do not. Creatures of Washington, they can’t quite accept even now that Trump really is the president.
Wolff sees it all from the other side. Even as he exposes Trump, he makes us feel the poignancy of the president’s daily life, the ageing Manhattan roué, at sea in a world of policy experts and government officials who expect him to think and act in ways he doesn’t understand. Bored in Washington, he escapes to his gilded triplex in Trump Tower and his country clubs in Palm Beach, Florida and Bedminster, New Jersey. Of course such a president will tell his golf chums the White House is a “real dump,” and insist on “a refurbished West Wing—a paint job, new furniture, and new rugs, its look tilting toward the Trump Hotel.”
“Trump went on a rampage”
The criticism of Wolff is tied in with a false nostalgia for the supposedly more dignified and responsible White House storytelling of an earlier time, when the presidency was an almost sacred office. But this bred its own artifice, exemplified in the work of Bob Woodward, the dean of living White House stenographers who has written books about Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. In a celebrated dissent, Joan Didion once observed that Woodward’s approach was not all it seemed. Beneath the neutral surface of his reporting is a world of secret arrangements, akin to the plea bargains prosecutors contrive with favoured witnesses. Usually, “the story told by a criminal or civil informant is understood to be coloured by self-interest, the informant knows that his or her testimony will be unrespected, even reviled, subjected to rigorous examination and often rejection,” Didion wrote. “The informant who talks to Mr Woodward, on the other hand, knows that his or her testimony will be not only respected but burnished into the inside story.”
So too with Wolff, only he has been less sentimental—and more treacherous. Bannon’s gabbing has already cost him his job at Breitbart News and also got him a subpoena from Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating the Russia election scandal. Meanwhile, Wolff is getting richer. He could make as much as $7.4m in royalties (not counting a paperback and movie sale). And he has earned it. Wolff sees more clearly what his audience, and Trump’s, really want : more gossip, luridness, scandal, ugliness—more Trump, even if we despise him. The Trump scheming to bed his friends’ wives is the same Trump we heard on the Access Hollywood tape (“grab them by the pussy”) and the Trump, let us not forget, who went on to receive 46 per cent of the vote, after he had destroyed a Republican field some were calling the most talented in a generation. Trump can be blamed for a great deal but not for creating the conditions in which he was elected—something he himself did not expect and indeed did not want, if Wolff is to be believed.
It is puzzling to many that Trump—who has a well-publicised aversion to books, apart from his own, ghost-written The Art of the Deal—should have seized the role of inadvertent pitch man for Fire and Fury. When the first tidbits were released, Trump went on a rampage, even sending a cease-and-desist letter to Wolff’s publisher, who gleefully sped up the release. Trump has been involved in some 3,500 lawsuits. He had to know a legal protest would only boost sales. Could that have been his intent? Trump has an insatiable appetite for tabloid gossip. He too may realise that in Michael Wolff he has found just the man to tell his story.