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

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 314710

Reported Deaths: 7254
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21646260
Hinds20369416
Harrison17949309
Rankin13643278
Jackson13450246
Madison10113217
Lee9986174
Jones8384163
Forrest7689152
Lauderdale7198240
Lowndes6403148
Lamar623686
Lafayette6203119
Washington5341134
Bolivar4802132
Oktibbeha462998
Panola4596107
Pearl River4519146
Marshall4450103
Warren4393121
Pontotoc420872
Monroe4115133
Union411176
Neshoba4031176
Lincoln3969110
Hancock379586
Leflore3498125
Sunflower336290
Tate334784
Pike3327105
Scott316274
Alcorn313368
Yazoo311770
Itawamba300577
Copiah297465
Coahoma295579
Simpson295388
Tippah288768
Adams286982
Prentiss280060
Marion269380
Leake268473
Wayne262841
Grenada261587
Covington259881
George248148
Newton246862
Winston227581
Tishomingo227067
Jasper221148
Attala214473
Chickasaw208057
Holmes189174
Clay185554
Stone182833
Tallahatchie178941
Clarke178080
Calhoun170932
Yalobusha164638
Smith162534
Walthall134245
Greene130633
Lawrence128724
Montgomery127142
Noxubee126734
Perry126338
Amite123142
Carroll121829
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis107133
Tunica105726
Claiborne102430
Benton100025
Humphreys96733
Kemper95828
Franklin83923
Quitman81116
Choctaw76418
Wilkinson67531
Jefferson65728
Sharkey50217
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 539829

Reported Deaths: 11038
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson798271529
Mobile41261809
Madison35132506
Tuscaloosa25915455
Shelby25294249
Montgomery24705593
Baldwin21392310
Lee15987172
Calhoun14569319
Morgan14422280
Etowah13918353
Marshall12275225
Houston10641282
Elmore10147206
Limestone10065151
St. Clair9946245
Cullman9761194
Lauderdale9457243
DeKalb8865188
Talladega8339176
Walker7260278
Autauga7001108
Jackson6836112
Blount6771139
Colbert6320135
Coffee5578118
Dale4876113
Russell445138
Chilton4369113
Franklin426282
Covington4138118
Tallapoosa4044153
Escambia394777
Chambers3590123
Dallas3568153
Clarke351461
Marion3137101
Pike311977
Lawrence302698
Winston275773
Bibb264564
Geneva254078
Marengo249665
Pickens234862
Barbour232056
Hale223978
Butler219069
Fayette212662
Henry189643
Cherokee184645
Randolph182442
Monroe178141
Washington167739
Macon161150
Clay157157
Crenshaw153557
Cleburne149641
Lamar143236
Lowndes140553
Wilcox127430
Bullock123242
Conecuh110829
Coosa109228
Perry107826
Sumter104932
Greene92634
Choctaw61024
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