Michael Wolff, the author of the new book “Fire and Fury: Inside the
Trump White House,” extracts from which set the Internet ablaze on
Wednesday, is an experienced magazine journalist. Among the publications
on his résumé are New York, Vanity Fair, and the Hollywood
Reporter
. A chronicler of media, power, and wealth, Wolff is also
willing to dish the dirt, as he demonstrated in a gossipy tome about
Rupert Murdoch, which was published in 2008. After that book came out,
there was an inquest inside Murdoch’s News Corporation into who had
granted Wolff access. Fingers were pointed at Gary Ginsberg, a former
Clinton Administration official who served for years as Murdoch’s
political adviser, confidant, and fixer. Ginsberg subsequently lost his
job, and now works at Time Warner. But, as Wolff noted in a foreword to
the paperback edition of the book, Murdoch was the person primarily
responsible for the access he gained. The press baron “not only was
(mostly) a patient and convivial interviewee but also opened every door
I asked him to open,” Wolff wrote.

If there was a similar inquest at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue about Wolff’s
new book, it didn’t take long to identify a culprit. On Wednesday
afternoon, the White House press office put out a statement in Trump’s
name. “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency,” it
said. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind . . . . Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the
opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false
information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he
was. It is the only thing he does well.” The statement goes on,“Steve was
rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had
influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he
helped write phony books.”

The reason for Trump’s animus was obvious. “Fire and Fury” quotes
Bannon, Trump’s former senior political adviser, as having described the
June, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump, Jr., Jared
Kushner, Paul Manafort, and a group of people connected to Russia as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic,” and
as saying that the meeting should have been reported to the F.B.I. The book
contains myriad other damning comments about Trump and his family from
Bannon and other Trump advisers.

There can be no doubt that Wolff relied on Bannon heavily. The book, a
copy of which I obtained from the publisher, Henry Holt, on Wednesday, starts with the
rumpled former investment banker having dinner with Roger Ailes, the
late head of Fox News, in early January, 2017, and ends with Bannon
standing outside the headquarters of Breitbart, the conservative news
organization to which he returned after being ousted from the White
House, in August. In the index, Bannon’s entry is considerably longer
than anybody else’s except Trump’s.

Bannon wasn’t Wolff’s only source, though. The book is based on
“conversations that took place over a period of eighteen months with the
president, with most members of his senior staff—some of whom talked to
me dozens of times—and with many people who they in turn spoke to,”
Wolff writes in the author’s note. His original idea, he says, was to
write a fly-on-the-wall account of Trump’s first hundred days. “The
president himself encouraged this idea. But given the many fiefdoms in
the White House that came into open conflict from the first days of the
administration, there seemed no one person able to make this happen.
Equally, there was no one to say ‘Go away.’ Hence I became more a
constant interloper than an invited guest.”

Wolff’s methods will doubtless attract more scrutiny. In some places, he
re-creates entire scenes, complete with dialogue, without explicitly
identifying his sources. In others, he attributes withering comments
about Trump to some of his current and former aides: “For Steve Mnuchin and Reince
Priebus, the president was an ‘idiot.’ For Gary Cohn, he was ‘dumb as shit.’ For H.R.
McMaster he was a ‘dope.’ The list went on.” On Wednesday, two people quoted in the book, Tom Barrack, a longtime friend of Trump, and Katie Walsh, a former White House aide, denied having made the
negative comments about Trump that Wolff attributed to them. “We know
the book has a lot of things, so far that we’ve seen, that are
completely untrue,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee
Sanders, said.

Still, the over-all portrait that Wolff draws of a dysfunctional,
bitterly divided White House in the first six months of Trump’s
Presidency, before the appointment of John Kelly as chief of staff and
the subsequent firing of Bannon, has the whiff of authenticity about it—and it echoes news coverage at the time. Other details are impossible to confirm but damning if true. Such was the animosity between Bannon and
“Jarvanka”—Bannon’s dismissive term for Ivanka Trump and Jared
Kushner—Wolff reports, that, during one Oval Office meeting, Bannon
called Ivanka “a fucking liar,” to which Trump responded,“I told you
this is a tough town, baby.” Wolff also quotes Bannon commenting
gleefully after Trump decided to pull the United States out of the Paris
climate agreement, a decision that Ivanka opposed: “Score. The bitch is
dead.”

Equally plausible is Wolff’s portrait of Trump as a one-dimensional figure
who had no conception that he could win the 2016 election; little clue
what to do after he did emerge victorious from the campaign trail; and
virtually no interest in, or aptitude for, acquiring the skills and
information needed to fulfill the role of President. “Here was,
arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency,” Wolff writes. The
Commander-in-Chief “didn’t process information in any conventional
sense—or, in a way, he didn’t process it at all.” He continues,

Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was
print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical
purposes he was no more than semiliterate  . . . . Some thought him
dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that
he didn’t read because he didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one
of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total
television.

But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He
preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise—no
matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. What’s more, he
had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were
worthy of attention.

Confirming long-running news accounts, Wolff reports that Trump often
retires in the early evening to his bedroom, where he has three
television screens, and interrupts his viewing only to converse by
telephone with his friends and cronies, some of them
fellow-billionaires. There are revealing, unconfirmed new anecdotes,
too, about Trump’s sexism and narcissism. In one meeting, Wolff says,
the President referred to Hope Hicks, his communications director, as “a
piece of tail.” In another meeting, he described Sally Yates, the former
acting Attorney General, whom he fired early in his term, after she
refused to defend his original travel ban, as “such a cunt.”

As Wolff tells it, Trump is, ultimately, a self-fixated performer rather
than a politician, and his primary goal is to monopolize public attention.
(“This man never takes a break from being Donald Trump,” Wolff quotes
Bannon as saying.) This depiction probably understates Trump’s devotion
to making money, as well as his racism and nativism, both of which go
back decades. But, in any case, even performer-Presidents have to make
some decisions, and Wolff devotes a good deal of space to the most
fateful call Trump has made so far: the firing of the F.B.I. director
James Comey, last May. Whether Trump’s firing of Comey amounts to
obstruction of justice is a central focus of the investigation being conducted
by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, into the President’s behavior.

In Wolff’s account, the battle lines inside the White House were clearly
drawn. Bannon, Reince Priebus, who served as chief of staff before
Kelly, and Donald McGahn, the White House counsel, were adamantly
opposed to firing Comey. “McGahn tried to explain that in fact Comey
himself was not running the Russia investigation, that without Comey the
investigation would proceed anyway,” Wolff writes. In an Oval Office
meeting, Bannon told Trump, “This Russian story is a third-tier story,
but you fire Comey and it’ll be the biggest story in the world.”

Ranged on the other side of the issue, according to Wolff, were some of
Trump’s cronies outside the White House, including Chris Christie and
Rudolph Giuliani, who “encouraged him to take the view that the DOJ was
resolved against him; it was all part of a holdover Obama plot.” Even
more important, Wolff goes on, was the concern of Charles Kushner,
Jared’s father, “channeled through his son and daughter-in-law, that the
Kushner family [business] dealings were getting wrapped up in the
pursuit of Trump.” As the President considered whether to get rid of
Comey, Jared and Ivanka “encouraged him, arguing the once possibly
charmable Comey was now a dangerous and uncontrollable player whose
profit would inevitably be their loss.”

But “Fire and Fury” also stresses that the prime mover in the firing of
Comey was Trump himself. In the end, the President cut almost all of his
advisers out of his final decision-making process:

Jared and Ivanka were urging the president on, but even
they did not know that the axe would shortly fall. Hope Hicks . . . didn’t
know. Steven Bannon, however much he worried that the president might
blow, didn’t know. His chief of staff didn’t know. And his press
secretary didn’t know. The president, on the verge of starting a war
with the FBI, the DOJ, and many in Congress, was going rogue.

Eight days after Trump fired Comey, Deputy Attorney General Rod
Rosenstein appointed Mueller to take over the Russia investigation.
Although the findings of Mueller’s probe aren’t yet known, and Trump’s
lawyers insist that the probe will clear the President of any wrongdoing, Wolff
was surely right to stress the momentousness of the decision to get rid
of the “rat”— Trump’s term for Comey. Wolff recounts near the end of the
book that, five months after Comey’s firing, Bannon was predicting the
collapse of Trump’s Presidency. Speaking in Breitbart’s headquarters,
which Bannon refers to as the Breitbart Embassy, Bannon told people
there was a 33.3-per-cent chance that the Mueller investigation would
lead to Trump’s impeachment, a 33.3-per-cent chance that Trump would
resign, “perhaps in the wake of a threat by the cabinet to act on the
Twenty-Fifth Amendment,” and a 33.3-per-cent chance that he would “limp
to the end of his term. In any event, there would certainly not be a
second term, or even an attempt at one. ‘He’s not going to make it,’
said Bannon at the Breitbart Embassy. ‘He’s lost his stuff.’ ”

LEAVE A REPLY