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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: 292811

Reported Deaths: 6613
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto19515228
Hinds18611385
Harrison16431275
Rankin12543261
Jackson12419216
Lee9641160
Madison9378194
Jones7857145
Forrest7094136
Lauderdale6760225
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Lamar581180
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Washington5135128
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Monroe3977126
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Hancock338673
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Tate299874
Pike298293
Scott291867
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Marion249878
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George229845
Newton223151
Winston220274
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Attala205969
Chickasaw200550
Holmes181470
Clay177848
Stone171129
Tallahatchie169239
Clarke168271
Calhoun155527
Smith151531
Yalobusha142236
Greene126533
Walthall123340
Noxubee122629
Perry120934
Montgomery120537
Lawrence119021
Carroll117223
Amite110732
Webster109229
Jefferson Davis99931
Tunica98023
Claiborne97329
Benton92524
Humphreys91326
Kemper89422
Quitman76614
Franklin75419
Choctaw69416
Wilkinson62226
Jefferson61027
Sharkey48817
Issaquena1676
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 490220

Reported Deaths: 9744
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson704661342
Mobile35810721
Madison32203443
Tuscaloosa23961409
Montgomery22417489
Shelby21773211
Baldwin19635272
Lee14883147
Morgan13571248
Etowah13118312
Calhoun13090283
Marshall11212203
Houston10036257
Limestone9321133
Elmore9313179
Cullman8864177
St. Clair8771220
Lauderdale8570210
DeKalb8419173
Talladega7450162
Walker6492249
Jackson6466102
Autauga617285
Blount6072125
Colbert5978118
Coffee5229100
Dale4614106
Russell401431
Franklin397675
Covington3948105
Chilton383196
Escambia376670
Tallapoosa3559139
Clarke342749
Dallas3396140
Chambers3393103
Pike292771
Lawrence281284
Marion280793
Winston245665
Bibb243759
Marengo238554
Geneva238468
Pickens223554
Barbour209550
Hale208464
Fayette199356
Butler195165
Henry182341
Cherokee176338
Monroe165638
Randolph162740
Washington156233
Crenshaw143353
Clay143254
Macon140543
Cleburne136539
Lamar131632
Lowndes130148
Wilcox120825
Bullock116534
Conecuh106523
Perry105327
Sumter98231
Coosa86823
Greene86732
Choctaw54723
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