Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
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.”
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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.