A Trump biographer reviews 'Fire and Fury'

In "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House," author Michael Wolff offers a caricature of the President as "an id...

Posted: Jan 6, 2018 6:32 PM
Updated: Jan 6, 2018 6:32 PM

In "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House," author Michael Wolff offers a caricature of the President as "an idiot surrounded by clowns," as one unnamed source puts it. It's an incomplete and unsatisfying sketch. But consider that his subject, Donald Trump, has described himself as a character in a comic book and Wolff's work can be regarded as truer than the President would have us believe.

Wolff is at his more accurate, and incisive, when he observes that "many of the accounts" of events offered by the President's team, "in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue." He then argues for our indulgence as he tries to describe reality.

The President's own lies and distortions, which are key features of his leadership style, make it impossible for anyone to rely on him and his aides in a normal way.

As a private citizen, Trump developed this squid-ink method so that he could sell himself like a human product. In falsely claiming that various starlets pursued him for dates, or the British royals were eying Trump real estate, he played a game with reality.

In a super-salesman, this habit was amusing. In a president, it is both frightening and dangerous. But while the distortion obscures Trump, it doesn't make him invisible and Wolff has spotted the outlines of his target. Among the broad strokes that seem accurate to me, based on my experience as a biographer of Trump and other sources:

  • Trump often fails to deal with the subject at hand, preferring to tell and retell anecdotes and stories that sound rehearsed. (He did this with me, many times.)
  • Trump is bored by briefings and uninterested in details. (He has long shown this trait.)
  • Trump demands extreme personal loyalty. (Also a Trump hallmark.)
  • Trump's leadership has created a battle royale environment with White House factions in constant conflict. (Consider the news of the past year.)
  • Trump believes "expertise" is "overrated." (He has said so to me.)
  • Sadly, Wolff's reporting on the disparaging things the President says about women and his effort to understand the appeal of white supremacy also seem true to the man.

In addition to creating the impression of a President ill-suited for the world's most important job, Wolff's broad brush paints a credible picture of those struggling to work with him or plotting their own ascents. In his telling, top officials call Trump "a dope" and a "moron" and "dumb as sh-t." Daughter Ivanka plans with her husband to one day become president herself, if the time comes. These points all seem credible.

No experience or additional sources are required to assess the damning portions of the book attributed to Trump strategist Steve Bannon because he has not denied being their source. In "Fire and Fury," Bannon is presented as Trump's brain and damns Donald Trump Jr.'s campaign meeting with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton as "treasonous."

As revealed by Wolff, Bannon may be the first person who ever took up the job of controlling Donald Trump and actually succeeded. Fully the President's equal when it comes to ego, and perhaps his superior on matters of policy and politics, Bannon suggests he knew more about the President's plans than Trump himself, and he regarded the President as "a big warm-hearted monkey."

Despite tabloidy prose, which makes it seem like he was present even when he wasn't, Wolff is convincing when he writes that White House operatives spent much time imagining movie-like scenarios.

On day one, advisers urged Trump and associates to avoid alienating the press, Congress and especially intelligence officials because "they will figure out a way to get back at you and you will have two or three years of a Russia investigation, and every day something else will leak out."

Led by an impetuous and erratic President, the White House couldn't take the high road with any constituency and, instead, commenced to battle with them all. Common sense suggests that wise men and women surely did counsel caution and Trump's performance confirms that he didn't follow their advice.

Other aspects of Wolff's reporting, which are based on his sources alone, many of them unnamed, fall into the "who knows if it could be true?" category. Among those are:

  • Trump was upset that he couldn't stay in his Washington hotel on the eve of his inauguration.
  • Press secretary Sean Spicer was appalled by the President's distorted view of his inauguration.
  • Bannon motivated the anti-immigrant actions in the early-days White House.
  • The President's feud with TV host Mika Brzezinski was energized when she remarked, in the Oval Office, that she had been there often with her father, who was Jimmy Carter's national security adviser.
  • Bannon dismissed the notion of a Trump campaign conspiracy with Russia because the Trump team wasn't competent enough to conduct a conspiracy.
  • Weeks into the presidency, Ivanka Trump complained, "(T)hings are so messed up and I don't know how to fix it."
  • Trump enjoyed going to bed at 6:30 p.m. with a cheeseburger dinner.
  • He controls his own tweets.
  • He truly believed FBI Director James Comey was a grandstander -- "Comey was a rat," said Trump -- who deserved firing.
  • Bannon, who managed to influence Trump more than others, finally lost in the struggle for the President's ear, which was waged against Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump whom Wolff depicts as inhabiting a "self-created fantasy like life."

Altogether, the Trump White House emerges in Wolff's telling as a place of intrigue, initial hope and ultimate despair. At the start Trump folks believed they could "make this work" but within months "there was literally not one member of the senior staff who could any longer be confident of that premise."

Some of what Wolff presents is so speculative that his critics, and the President's most ardent defenders, will be able to pick his work apart. These excesses will diminish the book's impact and, ultimately, do a disservice to the historical record.

The President and his allies perhaps would be right to express outrage over how Wolff and his sources -- Bannon chief among them -- treat his family.

However, the impression conveyed by "Fire and Fury" is true to both the man and what we have experienced, together, since he campaigned and then took office. It sketches the outline that will no doubt be filled in by future events and accounts, and is thus essential reading.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 149940

Reported Deaths: 3779
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto10097104
Hinds9984199
Harrison7116110
Jackson6360119
Rankin5588103
Lee509195
Madison4799106
Forrest383186
Jones357688
Lauderdale3496147
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Washington3179107
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Marshall217250
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Pontotoc199928
Monroe198177
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Lincoln190865
Warren176857
Tate169851
Union167325
Copiah164140
Pike162658
Yazoo156039
Scott154829
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Simpson148353
Prentiss146230
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Leake134944
Holmes130861
George125524
Tippah125230
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Winston122224
Hancock121139
Wayne117923
Marion116646
Attala113034
Tishomingo109442
Chickasaw107632
Newton105629
Tallahatchie97027
Clay91327
Clarke90553
Jasper82822
Stone77014
Walthall76928
Calhoun75513
Montgomery74525
Carroll72415
Lawrence71814
Smith71316
Yalobusha71327
Noxubee71017
Perry67026
Tunica61019
Greene60322
Claiborne58616
Jefferson Davis57017
Amite54014
Humphreys53619
Benton49318
Quitman4927
Webster44314
Kemper43618
Wilkinson39822
Jefferson35211
Franklin3395
Choctaw3357
Sharkey30917
Issaquena1164
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 244993

Reported Deaths: 3572
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson32314500
Mobile19859361
Madison13223148
Tuscaloosa13049154
Montgomery12342236
Shelby1031577
Baldwin873398
Lee775766
Morgan662650
Calhoun6301119
Etowah627666
Marshall627255
Houston525638
DeKalb485536
Cullman439442
Limestone425145
St. Clair419555
Lauderdale407854
Elmore406864
Walker3657111
Talladega351454
Jackson320423
Colbert311942
Blount292240
Autauga273542
Franklin252633
Coffee245415
Dale232654
Dallas226232
Chilton223438
Russell22193
Covington218934
Escambia198331
Chambers176850
Tallapoosa176391
Pike158614
Clarke158419
Marion140236
Winston133023
Lawrence127936
Pickens123518
Geneva12218
Marengo121524
Bibb117917
Barbour117310
Butler116541
Randolph102921
Cherokee102224
Hale97031
Clay91924
Fayette91616
Washington91219
Henry8546
Lowndes79929
Monroe78911
Cleburne77214
Macon73722
Crenshaw71130
Bullock69619
Perry6886
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Lamar6798
Wilcox63518
Sumter58122
Greene42618
Choctaw42213
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