Dishy political books such as Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House are typically assailed for centring on palace machinations at the expense of policy substance, for privileging White House turf battles over meaningful debates about national challenges. In keeping with that tradition, Wolff’s book is littered with insults and intrigue, backstabbing and dysfunction.
In this case, however, such focus seems sadly appropriate. If there is one thing we’ve learned during the first year of the Trump presidency — something that Fire and Fury affirms — it is that in this White House, the intrigue is the thing; substance is almost incidental, while policy is often just a weapon wielded in the service of careerism, vanity, personal advantage and brand management. The president himself appears driven by insecurity, ego and a constant fear of ridicule and failure more than by any ideological conviction. “He hopelessly personalised everything,” Wolff writes of Trump’s first nine months in the Oval Office. “He saw the world in commercial and show business terms: someone else was always trying to one-up you, someone else was always trying to take the limelight.”
The central players in Wolff’s account are former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, former chief of staff Reince Priebus and somehow-still-hanging-on senior adviser Jared Kushner. “Bannon was the alt-right militant. Kushner was the New York Democrat. And Priebus was the establishment Republican,” Wolff writes, and these contrasting viewpoints clashed in Trump’s frenetic, distracted and uninterested mind. “It was quite clear that deciding between contradictory policy approaches was not his style of leadership,” Wolff writes of the president. “He simply hoped that difficult decisions would make themselves.”
What is going on behind the closed doors of Trump’s White House?
Trump’s disdain for policy details was evident in some of the most crucial decisions and initiatives of his young presidency. During the transition period, when House Speaker Paul Ryan and Representative Tom Price (who would become Trump’s first secretary of health and human services) came to discuss the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, the president-elect kept “trying to turn the conversation to golf,” Wolff reports. “The details of the contested legislation were, to him, particularly boring; his attention would begin wandering from the first words of a policy discussion. He would have been able to enumerate few of the particulars of Obamacare.” In one meeting, he blurted out conservative heresy — “Why can’t Medicare simply cover everybody?” — less out of any policy conviction than in an effort to just move on.
When Trump had to decide how to respond to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in April, his initial reaction was telling. “To both Kushner and [national security adviser H.R.] McMaster,” Wolff writes, “it seemed obvious that the president was more annoyed about having to think about the attack than by the attack itself.” Similarly, the administration’s deliberations over how to proceed with the war in Afghanistan underscored how Trump “did not like to make decisions, at least not ones that seemed to corner him into having to analyse a problem.”
A particularly brutal moment, Wolff reports, came in March, when Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh confronted Kushner about Trump’s key objectives. “Just give me the three things the president wants to focus on,” she pleaded. “What are the three priorities of this White House?” Kushner’s response: “Yes, we should probably have that conversation.”
Establishing policy priorities has not been, well, a priority for this White House. “The president, while proposing the most radical departure from governing and policy norms in several generations,” Wolff writes, “had few specific ideas about how to turn his themes and vitriol into policy, nor a team that could reasonably unite behind him.” Senior staffers proposed conflicting ideas that might enhance their own power bases; rather than flowing down from the president, policy bubbled up somewhat randomly. “It was a process of suggesting, in throw-it-against-the-wall style, what the president might want, and hoping he might then think that he had thought of this himself.”
Instead, the president has been preoccupied with his often negative portrayals in the news media, a nearly lifelong obsession. He does not view criticism as a response to his positions and statements, but as a personal attack. “For entirely unfair reasons, ad hominem reasons, the media just did not like him. Ridiculed him. Cruelly. Why?”
Trump complained that journalists’ attacks against him were without precedent. “He had reviewed the treatment of all other presidents in the media and there was nothing like this ever, even of [Richard] Nixon who was treated very unfairly.” It’s vintage Trump: he must claim he’s the best at being treated the worst.
Wolff’s prose is lively and entertaining — Fire and Fury is at times a riveting read — but the author has something of a mixed reputation as a faithful chronicler of reality. As The Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi points out, Wolff “has been accused of not just recreating scenes in his books and columns, but of creating them wholesale.” In a prefatory author’s note to this latest book, Wolff writes that the work is based on more than 200 interviews with campaign and White House staffers over the past 18 months, and he claims that shortly after Trump’s inauguration, he “took up something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing.” He says he sometimes offers conflicting accounts of particular events so readers can make their own judgments, and in other instances he has “settled on a version of events I believe to be true.”
‘Believe’ is not a terribly comforting word. ‘Know’ or ‘confirm’ is better.
Some of the juiciest tidbits in Fire and Fury are also among the pettiest, with Wolff listing pejoratives that various associates and staffers have supposedly levelled toward the president (not to his face, of course). McMaster called him a “dope.” Priebus, an “idiot.” Rupert Murdoch upgraded that to “f****** idiot,” while economic adviser Gary Cohn went with “dumb as s***” Campaign hands branded Don Jr and Eric Trump “Uday and Qusay,” after Saddam Hussein’s sons, while former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski dismissed Kushner as “the butler.” Bannon sarcastically called Ivanka Trump and Kushner “the geniuses”, and suggested that Don Jr’s infamous June 2016 meeting with a bunch of shady Russians at Trump Tower was “treasonous.” (Wolff himself calls the meeting “imbecilic,” “alarming” and “comical.”)
Got all that straight?
The White House, in the most predictable response ever, has threatened libel charges and called on publishers Henry Holt and Co. to cease and desist from disseminating the book. (The publisher’s response was to move up the release date.) Trump’s ire has been trained most forcefully on Bannon, who looms as the book’s spirit animal and most crucial and recurring source. Fire and Fury almost has a “by Steve Bannon as told to Michael Wolff” vibe to it.
But more than the insults and trolling — and frankly, what is Trumpier than a bunch of demeaning nicknames? — the most damning thing this book reveals is the extent to which the Trump team, and the president himself, were simply unprepared to govern. They did not expect to win the election, so they didn’t bother to get ready. Despite promising voters that he would start winning so much that they’d get tired of it, Trump apparently made a different pledge to Melania, who feared the disruption of her easy, sheltered existence. “He offered his wife a solemn guarantee: there was simply no way he would win.”
With the presidency suddenly in hand, they didn’t have a plan, they didn’t have a purpose and they barely had a team. “Nobody had a political background,” Wolff writes of the transition staff. “Nobody had a policy background. Nobody had a legislative background.” Least of all the increasingly angry and erratic new president.
Wolff lists a number of rationalisations that Trump aides and friends relied upon to postpone an inevitable reckoning with the president’s shortcomings. Maybe Trump’s constant distortions of fact simply reflected “the basic lack of guile, pretence, and impulse control” that had helped him connect with voters on the trail. Or maybe he wasn’t acting presidential because, having been wealthy and powerful for so long, “the big deal of being president was not so apparent to him.” Perhaps his indiscriminate ignorance was offset by his political instincts — he won the presidency, after all — and some held out hope that “Trump must know what he was doing, his intuition must be profound.”
There are more of these, and they’re even less persuasive.
The president’s mental capacity has become a subject of debate, and in this book Wolff suggests that Trump’s faculties are deteriorating. He describes the president as “semiliterate,” unable to conduct a meaningful one-on-one exchange with another person and prone to awkward repetitions in speech. Wolff is not, it should be stressed, a mental health professional, and his concerns seem to mix temperamental with cognitive fitness for the job. But if it is true, as Wolff reports, that those close to Trump are confronting the question of whether the president has “the wherewithal to adequately function in his job”, that becomes a matter of public concern, especially when the commander-in-chief is tweeting about his big, powerful nuclear button.
Yes, we should probably have that conversation.
The reviewer is associate editor and nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post
*By arrangement with The Washington Post
Fire and Fury: Inside
By Michael Wolff
Henry Holt and Co., US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 21st, 2018