Key questions include 'Did Trump talk to Wolff or not?' and 'Who authorized Wolff's access?'
The White House appears to be asking people to hold two contradictory ideas in their heads
“Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff’s explosive account of President Donald Trump’s first year in the White House, has created mass chaos within Trumpworld – and it’s just out for sale Friday at bookstores around the country.
The Trump response to excerpts of the book released over the last 48 hours – via the President himself as well as a number of his top current and former aides – has only added to that sense of a car hurtling down a road at an absolutely unsustainable speed.
We – or at least I – still have way more questions than answers about the Wolff book, the President’s reaction to it and what it all tells us about the man who runs the US government.
Here are 10 questions – ranging from the most basic to the incredibly broad – that I have.
1. Did Trump talk to Wolff or not?
On Thursday night, Trump tweeted that he “never spoke” to Wolff for the book. On the NBC’s “Today” show Friday morning, Wolff said that he “absolutely spoke to the President,” adding: “Whether he realized it was an interview or not, I don’t know. but it certainly was not off the record.”
Both of these things can’t be true. And, ask yourself this: Why would Wolff lie about something as easily provable as whether or not he talked to Trump? If it can be proven he didn’t, the whole book would be called into question.
2. Who authorized Wolff’s access?
There appears to be a lot of CYA work happening in the White House over who decided to give Wolff as much access as he appears to have gotten into the inner working of Trumpworld. “There are probably more than 30 requests for access to information from Michael Wolff that were repeatedly denied,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted Thursday. But, Wolff has on the record quotes from people like Steve Bannon and Katie Walsh, both of whom were high-ranking officials in Trumpworld. And, White House reporters have confirmed seeing Wolff around the building a whole lot of the time over the first year. Did Trump say it was OK for Wolff to be around? If not, who did?
3. If the book is all lies, why did Trump go off on Steve Bannon this week?
The White House appears to be asking people to hold two totally contradictory ideas in their heads:
- The Wolff book is a total fantasy, built on lies and the active imagination of a Trump hater
- Bannon, the former top political strategist in Trump world, is a terrible and disloyal person because of what he told Wolff in the book.
You don’t get to have both of those things be true. Either Wolff is totally wrong about everything or the book – and Bannon’s quotes in it – is generally credible.
4. Is Trump really deteriorating mentally?
The center of the book is the idea that Trump is not competent to be president. But, there’s a question within that question: Is Trump deteriorating mentally while in office or simply acting in the same bullying, impetuous ways he has his whole life? Wolff suggested on “Today” that he believes Trump is deteriorating – noting that stories Trump would repeat every 30 minutes in conversations with friends he is now repeating every 10 minutes. I want to know whether there are more examples like that in the Wolff book. Because as I noted Thursday, there is a BIG difference between making the case Trump is temperamentally unfit for the job and making the case he is mentally unfit for it.
5. Who is in Trump’s phone-calling circle?
In the excerpt of the Wolff book published in New York magazine earlier this week, this paragraph jumped out at me:
“If he was not having his 6:30 dinner with Steve Bannon, then, more to his liking, he was in bed by that time with a cheeseburger, watching his three screens and making phone calls — the phone was his true contact point with the world — to a small group of friends, who charted his rising and falling levels of agitation through the evening and then compared notes with one another.”
First: A cheeseburger in bed at 6:30 p.m. sounds delightful.
Second: Who are these people that Trump is regularly reaching out to? I assume Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy is one. But who are the others? These people – the sounding boards of the most powerful man in the country (and maybe the world) – have a massive amount of power in their own rights. So, who the heck are they?
6. Who is the real Ivanka Trump?
One of the passages in the Wolff book that, to my mind, hasn’t received nearly enough attention is this bit about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner:
“Balancing risk against reward, both Jared and Ivanka decided to accept roles in the West Wing over the advice of almost everyone they knew. It was a joint decision by the couple, and, in some sense, a joint job. Between themselves, the two had made an earnest deal: If sometime in the future the opportunity arose, she’d be the one to run for president. The first woman president, Ivanka entertained, would not be Hillary Clinton; it would be Ivanka Trump.”
Uh, what? First of all, the presumption built into that anecdote is MASSIVE. But, more broadly and importantly, the image of Ivanka Trump portrayed in the Wolff book – hugely ambitious, dismissive of her father – is at direct odds with the image Ivanka has worked very hard to cultivate since coming to Washington. Is she the mannered, kind humanitarian? Or the sharp-elbowed operator?
7. How much television does Trump actually watch?
He says almost none. All you have to do is look at his Twitter feed to know that’s not true. The Wolff book casts him as a cable TV obsessive. “In the first days, he ordered two television screens in addition to the one already there,” writes Wolff of Trump’s early moments in the White House when he says the President retreated into his bedroom and also had a lock installed on the door. Is Trump constantly keeping on eye on the TV – even in meetings on, you know, important topics? I am constantly reminded of this Trump interview with the Washington Post’s Phil Rucker in 2016 in which Trump stops five times to watch TV.
8. How much did John Kelly change things?
Much of what we’ve seen from the excerpts of the book predate General John Kelly’s arrival as Trump’s chief of staff. Following Kelly’s installation, there were a series of stories about how the general was putting in place structures that would make communicating with Trump much more orderly and stable.
Did he? Because the free-wheeling talk-a-thon that Wolff presents as the early days of the Trump White House seem entirely unsustainable and yet totally in keeping with how Trump had conducted his entire life. And one thing we know about Trump is that he usually gets what he wants – or complains until he does.
9. Who does the President actually trust?
The portrait of Trump in the Wolff book is of a deeply mercurial man who seems to distrust everyone around him in some sort of rotating order. And, the people around him, again according to Wolff, are deeply disdainful and dismissive of Trump.
That’s a toxic mix for anyone – particularly someone who is in the most high-stress job in the country. Everyone needs a few people – or one person – whom they trust implicitly. And whom they listen to and value what they are being told. Wolff’s book suggests Trump doesn’t have that person – and, more frighteningly – may not believe he needs that person.
10. Where the heck is Mike Pence?
If you watch the Trump White House through the lens of cable TV, it seems like the vice president is a near-constant companion to Trump. He’s constantly standing off of Trump’s shoulder as the President signs this order or that piece of legislation, clapping and smiling on cue.
But, in the Wolff book excerpt at least, Pence is nowhere to be seen. The lone reference to him is this: “Gail Collins, who had written a Times column unfavorably comparing Trump to Vice-President Mike Pence, was ‘a moron.’”
Lots and lots of establishment Republican types have invested a lot of time and energy into the idea that Pence, whom they know and trust, is constantly on hand to manage Trump’s worst instincts. But what if that’s just not true?