Stephen Miller, senior adviser for policy to President Trump, tried several times during the interview to both praise Trump as a “political genius” and criticize [CNN’s] political coverage … Miller wanted to continue the interview but was asked to leave. Ultimately, CNN security escorted him from [the] set because the live show was about to resume. – USA Today, 8 January 2018
Lawmakers concerned about President Donald Trump’s mental state summoned Yale University psychiatry professor Dr. Bandy X. Lee to Capitol Hill last month for two days of briefings about his recent behavior … Her professional warning to Capitol Hill: “He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.” – Politico, 3 January 2018
In the knife dance that is modern American politics, there yet remain a few rituals. After all the sturm and drang of a presidential campaign—much of it highly orchestrated for maximum televisual effect—the nation is supposed to come together on Inauguration Day, put divisions aside, and support the new Commander in Chief. For a bit. The honeymoon period keeps getting shorter and the jokes at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner keep getting sharper, but it’s there.
For Barack Obama, it probably lasted until the passage of the Affordable Care Act, after which you suddenly needed a sniper scope to find a news story with much positive to say about the administration. Due to the aftershocks of 9/11 and a deep desire by many to not think that the country was being led by a disastrous lightweight, George W. Bush didn’t see the press truly turn on him until the double-tap of Katrina in 2005 and then Bob Woodward’s portrait of dysfunction State of Denial the following year. But here we are, just 12 months into the presidency of Donald J. Trump and already just about every writer in the nation has sharpened their pens into knives. But despite the reams of Trump denunciations that have hit screens and bookshelves, none will probably be seen to have cut as deep as Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury.
Fire and Fury is not a classic. Wolff is one of those gadfly Manhattan media-about-media tail-eating who’s up-who’s down types who probably knows the color of the carpet in Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair office but couldn’t tell you how much a subway ride costs. He isn’t a journalist in the Woodward sense, with every point fact-checked three ways to Sunday and clear attributions for each quote. This is a distinction that much of the heavy-breathing about Wolff’s loosey-goosey style and occasional flubbing of minor details, misses entirely.
Fire and Fury has not become the kind of must-read bestseller that the publishing world hasn’t seen in forever because it tells us anything we didn’t already know. It is flying off shelves and the subject of seemingly every major news broadcast because it yokes together the fire alarms of reporting about Trump’s dangerous inadequacies and moral bankruptcy that America and the world have been hearing since late 2016 into a coherent narrative. Scary, profane, and opportunistic, packed with cheap shots and smart dashes of insight, it renders in one bright Technicolor blast everything that we have been learning in one gut-sinking Washington Post or New York Times dispatch after another.
Wolff is working in the mode of a slicked-up latter-day New Journalist. Hunter S. Thompson without the bleary-eyed political thundering; a less dashing Gay Talese. He didn’t go through the press office and arrange sit-down interviews with Donald Trump’s comms people like he would have had to do in previous administrations, which actually had things like gatekeepers and schedules. Wolff talked his way into a sort-of approval from the President and started on 20 January 2017 and “took up something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing.” Incredibly, they talked. And talked. And he listened.
The result is like the Beltway version of Tom Wolfe hopping a ride with the Merry Pranksters and letting everybody read about what the hell that was like in his big bomb-run of a book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. For this Fox News era version of that hurtle from reality, Wolff marinated in the fug of invective, bitter gossip, and leaking and counter-leaking that is (then and now, no matter what Trump’s media enablers try to claim in the post-John Kelly days) as salient a characteristic of the Trump White House as the President’s inability to consider anything other than how it affects him.
In Wolff’s telling, based on soaking up the reactions of the sycophants and operators who flooded in and out of the office during those first weeks, Trump is a charlatan with a “twinkle in his eye, larceny in his soul” who, excepting a few details about construction, “knew nothing”. A confounding and vacuous contradiction, he was a self-styled strongman who loved appeasing people. A classically malignant narcissist, he was “impetuous and yet did not like to make decisions.” Trump’s foreign policy was even harder to discern: “His advisers didn’t know know whether he was an isolationist or a militarist, or whether he could distinguish between the two.”
As one staff member put it, trying to figure out how to turn Trump’s roiling and repetitive stream-of-consciousness babble and tantrums into public policy was “like trying to figure out what a child wants. He didn’t read. He didn’t listen. He didn’t understand. “He was post-literate,” Wolff writes. “Total television.” None of this will surprise anybody who has seen or watched—to take just one of many painful, staring-into-the-void moments of this presidency—Trump’s borderline schizophrenic rant to CIA officers at Langley early in his presidency, which Wolff reproduces here at length.
Almost worse in Fire and Fury than the president himself are the phalanxes of advisers and opportunists who catch a ride on the Trump train to further their own careers or supposedly keep the country from going off the rails. A swirling constellation of flunkies orbiting a black hole of self-regard, the administration descended almost immediately into infighting and chaos, what Wolff terms the “daily Trump clusterfuck”. Dutiful operatives like Reine Priebus and Sean Spicer tried to figure out how to turn Trump’s off-the-cuff nationalist screeds towards something resembling Republican politics.
Trump’s clothier daughter Ivanka Trump and her callow real-estate magnate husband Jared Kushner—”Jarvanka” to Bannon—tried to hang as close as possible to him, supposedly to bend him more toward their more inclusive Michael Bloomberg style of urban conservatism. Unallied types like Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, a sucker-up of the first order who comes off as the hated Jonah of this highly unfunny episode of Veep, don’t last long in this den of vipers.
The only one who got any real traction for some time was Bannon, the anti-hero of Wolff’s tale. Because he never seemed able to stop talking, in a profane stream of footnoted promulgations—which set him apart from the rest of the Trumpians in large part for making it clear that he has read the occasional book—Bannon provides the densest blocks of material for Wolff’s narrative.
Bannon’s big set-pieces, raucous dinner conversations that bracket Fire and Fury, are not just the most obscenity-filled scenes in the book, but the most revealing. This takes place just after the presidential victory that nobody in the Trump camp thought he would get, including Trump himself, who thought “losing was winning” and that he could end up another rich white bloviating “martyr to crooked Hillary”. Bannon waxes profane on his puppet president is about to Make America Great Again and reassures a nervous Roger Ailes that Trump “gets it”.
At the later dinner, Bannon announces that Trump just signed his own death warrant by telling a reporter that the FBI investigation into his operation had no right to look into his finances, saying in likely prophetic fashion, “this is all about money laundering.” Bannon then laughs incredulously about the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between campaign officials and various shadowy Russians, which he seems to believe will doom the entire presidency. Somehow holding himself apart from the operation that he would soon be booted from after Jarvanka outmaneuvered him, Bannon declares that moment was it for the White House. “I came up with a solution for his broke-dick campaign in about a day,” he says, “but I don’t see this. I don’t see a plan for getting through.”
Ruined and self-congratulatory and gasbag as he is, Bannon helps color in and highlight one of Wolff’s more worrisome themes. For all his campaign’s heavy-breathing about the supposed mandate from those resentful white Americans which the Ivy League-educated millionaire Trump thought he was channeling, nobody knew what “Trumpism” was, even Trump. Bannon was the only one who could articulate it, in part because he was savvy enough to simply project his isolationist white-backlash clash-of-civilizations rage into a form that Trump could somewhat comprehend and repeat. Staffer Katie Walsh described the resulting vacuum—either directly to Wolff or to somebody who told Wolff—as “bitter rivalries joined to vast incompetence and an uncertain mission.” She would know, having in March 2017 asked Kushner what the White House’s top three priorities were, and he blandly replied, “we should probably have that conversation.”
Fire and Fury moves like a rocket, but it has some of the same sense of drift as that administration. Wolff rarely paints a scene and makes it clear who all the players are in his conversations, allowing strings of dialogue and statements to bob around out there like balloons. He isn’t one for long-arc narrative structure, preferring the short and punchy set-pieces that string the book together. He colors things with some pithy descriptions of his players. Followers of Bannon’s outsized media presence will recognize him in Wolff’s balloon-puncturing take on his gilded biography of Goldman Sachs and Hollywood riches, describing him as “A type. Alcohol. Bad marriages. Cash-strapped in a business where the measure of success is excess of riches. Ever scheming. Ever disappointed.” Stephen Miller, the abrasive hate merchant who reminds everybody of their school’s most dyspeptic Young Republican, he dispenses with much more quickly: A “fifty-five-year-old trapped in a thirty-two-year-old’s body.”
But for all the drama that followed the book’s release, from yet another threatened Trump lawsuit to the lightning-speed defenestration of Bannon from his insurgent lair at Breitbart, what really matters here is what Fire and Fury says about Trump. What’s most striking about all the scorn directed at Trump here is not its tenor (Rupert Murdoch’s succinct “what a fucking idiot” about sums it up) but the source: It’s pretty much all from inside the White House. Wolff isn’t quoting Democrats. These are Republicans, frequently ones working near Trump. They were the ones, after all, who had to put up with his tirades and repetition, the fact that “while he was most often influenced by the last person he spoke to, [Trump] did not actually listen to anyone.” They had to deal with the fact that “he demanded you pay attention and then decided you were weak for groveling.” These were the ones who should have been most loyal to him.
Yet, throughout Wolff’s narrative, when they’re not complaining about what an idiot the president is, these loyal conservatives are leaking stories to the mainstream press that they are supposed to despise. Every now and again, the more dedicated ideologues like Bannon will manage to get around to trying to accomplish something, like pulling out of the Paris Accords or dropping the ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries. But for the most part, this White House comes off as essentially the same adult day-care center that we have been reading about in all those leaked stories flooding front pages for the past year.
Wolff didn’t get to this story first. He has just told it the best. Maybe, just maybe, this telling will make it stick.