Comparing Donald Trump’s presidency to traditional operations in Washington is like comparing dog years to human years. In his “insider” report from the White House, journalist Michael Wolff rushes through the first seven months of Trump’s presidency. But measured in terms of the sheer number of controversies and affairs, his book can compete with works that look back on entire presidencies: imaginary masses attending the inauguration, travel bans; the 24 day tenure of Security Adviser Michael Flynn; the wiretapping allegations against Obama; the repeated failure of the health care reform; the air strike against Syria; the firing of FBI Chief Comey and the nomination of an attorney general/special prosecutor; the grotesque entourage in Riyadh; the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement; the short-lived rise and fall of communications director Anthony Scaramucci; the resignations of Press Secretary Spicer and Chief of Staff Priebus; the spontaneous fire-and-fury-threat to North Korea; the far-right rally in Charlottesville; the thunderous exit of Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.
A further controversy that could be added to this list is Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” itself. But this won’t happen because Wolff had to give up the “semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing” months ago. His story is incomplete because it ends when Chief of Staff John Kelly starts a new era. Wolff describes a triangle of chaos that no longer exists. Political arsonist Bannon, Trump’s business-oriented son-in-law Jared Kushner, and the technocrat Priebus fought and paralyzed each other. But what matters most is the man at the center. Donald Trump did not understand “why he couldn’t have [it] all. He wanted to break things, he wanted Congress to give him bills to sign, and he wanted the love and respect of New York machers and socialites.”
“He Knew Nothing”
Wolff portrays a president who was clueless, void of ideas, disinterested, unable to learn, focused solely on appearances, immature, paranoid, dishonest, irascible and hopelessly narcissistic. The last time Trump, his children and his advisers agreed on something was during the election campaign about the fact that the candidate could not and should not become president. Apparently, Trump only wanted to become “the most famous man in the world,” without submitting himself to the stress and modest living arrangements of the White House. The plan did not pan out. “He had somehow won the race for president, but his brain seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job. He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus,” Wolff writes. “On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect.” Trump was a successful businessman but “he knew nothing and could not even read a business report … For all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate,” Wolff says. Answering a concerned confidant’s question about who he can rely on, Trump allegedly said: “I’m speaking with myself […].”
Wolff provides a list of swearwords which Trump’s “friends” allegedly called the president: “idiot, dope, crazy and stupid, dumb as shit.” That is another reason why “Fire and Fury” is marketed as a tell-all book. But at no point does Trump’s incompetence become more apparent than when Wolff quotes his more incoherent speeches, such as the hard to comprehend pieces of thought he strung together at the CIA headquarters on his first day in office.
Wolff describes Kushner, Bannon and Preibus attacking each other daily. Even more leaks are likely to have come from the president himself when he made phone calls in the evenings to pour his heart out to friends or acquaintances. “In this, at least, Trump’s administration was achieving a landmark transparency,” Wolff mocks. This also explains why all his book does is offer new details, such as Trump himself changing the sheets on his bed out of fear of being poisoned and getting panic attacks when someone touches his toothbrush. He allegedly called Comey a “rat” and despised security adviser H.R. McMaster because he looked like a beer salesman. Trump’s staff apparently explained his Russia policy through the lens of Trump’s need for Putin’s respect. The Russian actually did not want to meet him at a beauty pageant in Moscow in 2013.
Wolff claims Bannon was the source for a story in The New York Times in which the president allegedly owns a bathrobe, thus reminding the reader how unreliable his main source is. Those of us who want to understand how today’s White House works will regret that Wolff consulted with Bannon and one of Priebus’s confidantes but did not establish a connection with Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Unlike the others, the president’s daughter and son-in-law are still at the White House. The book conveniently ends before Trump signed the tax reform and thereby scored a big success.
There is little doubt that the core of Wolff’s story is true. His book gets to the heart of the abnormality of what is going on at the center of the Western power. But before taking every detail at face value, we should read the introduction. It warns that the White House is confronting us with contradictions and lies. “[…] [That] looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, [are] an elemental thread of the book.”