The hottest book in the country lays out a devastating portrayal of President Trump as a larcenous “douchebag” “clown prince,” in the words of author Michael Wolff. But liberal editorializing could paradoxically end up making it harder to fulfill the author’s prediction that its revelations will bring an end to this presidency.
If half—hell, a quarter—of what Wolff reports is true, the country is in grave danger from the whims of an irrational presidency. But Wolff goes beyond reporting the wealth of insider knowledge he’s gathered by adding his own pronouncements on the president—going from a fly on the wall, as he describes his half-year residency at the White House, to a stinging hornet. “He was what he was. Twinkle in his eye, larceny in his soul,” he writes of Trump (p. 20). “If you have a douchebag dad, and if everyone is open about it, then maybe it becomes fun and life a romantic comedy—sort of,” writes Wolff (p. 79), imagining Ivanka Trump’s inner monologue.
Though Wolff says he interviewed over 200 people and recorded many of those conversations, he’s already being stereotyped as a partisan hack—embraced by those who already hate Trump but dismissed by everyone else (i.e., the people he needs to reach). NPR—far from a right-wing bastion—calls Fire and Fury a “seamy, gossipy, vindictive new book.” Wolff’s liberal media peers may just be jealous over what he pulled off: Haters gonna hate. But he’s given them ammunition to question the book’s integrity.
Instead of a journalist, Wolff is labeled a left-wing fabulist by critics like Fox News contributor Tammy Bruce. It’s unsurprising that highly partisan Fox falls in line behind Trump and embraces its own right-wing fables. But Fox is the country’s leading news source, and it reaches the people most in need of a critical view on the current president.
By reinforcing his image as part of the liberal elite media, Wolff allows critics to simply dismiss his reporting as a biased hit job. As Bruce says, “The book itself and the ensuing coverage are confessions that liberals and their media have abandoned reality for a fantasyland of fear, madness, and victimhood because, pathetically, it makes them feel better.”
It’s unfortunate that this trash talking is concentrated in roughly the first third of the 312-page book, where it might stop many people from reading further. It’s in the remainder of the book where Wolff provides a lively narrative that illuminates the major facets of the presidency: the Obamacare repeal and replace debacle, the Comey firing, the Trump Tower Russia meeting, and the purge of Bannon.
Wolff continues to skewer the players in later chapters, but in the context of stupid actions that justify the skewering. The better-balanced reporting comes after the initial chapters that people are most likely to read, and goes beyond the excerpts that ran in New York magazine and The Hollywood Reporter.
Show, Don’t Tell
A common piece of advice to writers is, “show, don’t tell.” Facts and actions will tell the story better than extensive commentary and exposition. Wolff could have easily followed that advice throughout Fire and Fury.
He has plenty to show from all those interviews and over a year on the scene. (He started his reporting during the campaign, and knew some players from a long career writing about the rich and powerful of New York and Hollywood.) Wolff gained impressive access to key sources, with firsthand accounts not only from axe-grinding former chief strategist Steve Bannon, but from insiders like Katie Walsh. As White House deputy chief of staff (before fleeing the administration in March, 2017), she had to juggle demands from the unwieldy triumvirate of her actual boss Reince Priebus, Bannon, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. Walsh had to ascertain concrete policy goals and action items from Trump’s wishes. According to Wolff, she describes the process as, “like trying to figure out what a child wants.” (p. 113)
The phrase “according to Wolff” is obligatory, since many sources dispute their attributed quotes. Hardly surprising: People often backpedal when their words appear in print. It’s harder when they’re on tape (although Trump has denied the Access Hollywood recordings), and Axios reports that Wolff has “dozens of hours” of taped interviews.
Without tapes, or fervent note-taking, it’s hard to imagine a writer capturing every utterance word-for-word. Although a phrase like, “What a fucking idiot,” which Rupert Murdoch, according to Wolff, said after a call with Trump (p. 36), might stand out in memory. As author of a hit Murdoch biography, Wolff had a relationship (albeit a contentious one) with the media titan, who along with late head of Fox News Roger Ailes, attended a dinner at Wolff’s commodious Manhattan townhouse in January 2017, where much was discussed.
Murdoch’s blunt pronouncement reportedly followed a phone conversation in which an ebullient Trump recounted his first meeting with Silicon Valley CEOs. “These guys really need my help. Obama was not very favorable to them, too much regulation,” Trump told Murdoch, according to Wolff. The media baron corrected him, saying, “for eight years these guys had Obama in their pocket. They practically ran the administration. They don’t need your help.” (p. 36)
Wolff piles on anecdotes of Trump having not only no knowledge of government, but no interest in acquiring knowledge. Typical is one about an aide from the early days of the campaign. “Sam Nunberg was sent to explain the Constitution to the candidate: ‘I got as far as the Fourth Amendment before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.'” (p. 16)
Curiously lacking is a phrase like “Nunberg said.” Is this a direct quote from Nunberg, or someone else saying what Nunberg said? Or someone saying what someone else said he said? Or is Wolff just editorializing?
On page 19, Wolff describes Rupert Murdoch as “doubtlessly certain Trump was a charlatan and a fool.” (p. 19) Did Murdoch say it to Wolff, perhaps at their dinner? Apparently not, as it’s not a quotation. Is Wolff confident enough in his accumulated knowledge of Murdoch’s views that he can pronounce what the man “doubtlessly” thinks? Or is Wolff putting his own conclusions in Murdoch’s head? Without making that clear, the author exposes himself to charges to making up stuff to suit his biases.
Not all the accounts are second or third-hand, though. Wolff says that he spent about three hours interviewing Trump, gaining firsthand knowledge of the president during the campaign and the first months of the administration. The White House disputes how much time the two spent together. But it doesn’t take long for the president to start babbling semi-coherently, as during a recent 30-minute New York Times interview in which Trump obsessively repeats assertions of “no collusion” with Russia in Rain Man fashion.
Disdain Takes Away From Devastating Reporting
The damning anecdotes of incompetence or underhandedness go on for hundreds of pages—not only about Trump but about Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, sons Donald and Eric Trump, advisor Stephen Miller, short-lived national security advisor Michael Flynn, and many more. Why isn’t that enough for Wolff? Why does he have to insert himself as one of the witnesses—proclaiming his disdain for Trump and crew with poetically devastating language, yet expecting a justifiably suspicious American public to trust his reporting?
Wolff’s contempt for his subjects goes beyond Trump. He compares the entire campaign team to the “larcenous and dopey heroes” of Mel Brooks’s satire The Producers (p. 15). Melania Trump hopes her husband will lose so she “could return to inconspicuously lunching.” (p. 18) Steven Miller is “a fifty-five-year-old trapped in a thirty-two-year-old’s body” (p. 64). Jared Kushner is an “arriviste”—a ruthlessly self-seeking nouveau riche. (p. 75) Wolff describes Trump Tower after the election as “like an alien spaceship—the Death Star—on Fifth Avenue,” (p 24). So is Trump Darth Vader, or Emperor Palpatine? You might expect, and chuckle at, such a skewering if it came from a comedian.
In considering Ivanka Trump’s career as a businesswoman, Wolff remarks that, “In many ways, it had been an unexpected journey, requiring more discipline than you might expect from a contented, distracted, run-of-the-mill socialite.” (p. 79). Katie Walsh he describes as “pretty but with a permanently grim expression” (p. 111)—retrograde phrasing in the #metoo era.
Related: Ivanka Trump Doesn’t Flinch
This language, and so much more of the book, defies Wolff’s own advice to journalists. “Yes, you do want to be stenographers,” he says in a November 2016 Digiday podcast after publication of his big-score interview with Steve Bannon. “That’s a very significant piece of journalism, to be a stenographer. We don’t want to hear you,” he says, about the views of the journalist.
In a February 2017 Newsweek column, Wolff chided the adversarial stance of the New York Times, “with its almost daily diet of Trump apocalypse front-page stories.” Wolff contrasted that with the Wall Street Journal‘s textbook White House reporting. “Don’t editorialize,” wrote Wolff, describing the approach. “…Dispute the story if you need to, but don’t necessarily make the story about the dispute. Hold your fire. Don’t let your personal views into the story.”
As impressive as Wolff’s intrepid reporting is his lyrical, sometimes baroque, writing; but the desire to sound especially clever may get in the way of sounding objective. Reading Fire and Fury on my Kindle, I used the tap-to-look-up feature liberally to learn or relearn a wealth of vocabulary: revanchism, ebullience, sagacious, calumny, suborned, encomiums, truculent, persiflage, commodious, solipsism. Wolff describes Steve Bannon’s impression on White House staffers as a “voluble, aphoristic, shambolic, witty, off-the-cuff figure” (p. 60). The author builds textual roller coasters like, “It was all too possible that the hardly plausible would lead to the totally credible.” (p. 102)
Wolff has authored several nonfiction books but here he adds some literary touches, though they sometimes obscure, rather than illuminate, the reporting. Fire And Fury starts with a fluent, seemingly factual narrative of the chaotic campaign, the surprise Election Day results, the disappointing inauguration day, and the undisciplined first weeks. But it soon drifts from accounts and anecdotes, quotes and paraphrasing, to grandiose exposition.
What was, to many of the people who knew Trump well, much more confounding was that he had managed to win this election, and arrive at this ultimate accomplishment, wholly lacking what in some obvious sense must be the main requirement of the job, what neuroscientists would call executive function. He had somehow won the race for president, but his brain seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job. He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus; he had never been able to tailor his behavior to what the goals at hand reasonably required. On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect.
That’s horrifying, and really important to know—if it’s accurate. But I don’t trust such a radical pronouncement coming on page 24. The only backing it has is a few previous accounts earlier in the book, many of them unsourced. Reading on, well past page 100, I saw examples of Trump’s intellectual disconnect and his misadventures to support Wolff’s view; but initially, it reads like a screed.
Fire and Fury has a pattern of making broad pronouncements that could be true, based on chatter about Trump going back decades, or extrapolations from past behavior. But they often lack evidence or examples. I’m not saying Wolff’s assessments are made up; I’m saying I can’t tell for sure whether or not they are made up.
“Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed,” Wolff writes on page 23, without saying who said that Trump had said it.
“Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate,” reads a pronouncement on page. 113. Who are the “some” who “believed” that? The author doesn’t say, but he continues by noting that, “There was some argument about this…” and that “Some thought him dyslexic…”
The backdrop to all this is Wolff’s reputation among many critics for preferring what sounds good to what happened. “The scenes in his columns aren’t re-created so much as created–springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events,” wrote Michelle Cottle in a 2004 New Republic profile of the author, back when he mainly penned catty, gossipy columns about media personalities.
Yet despite the biased tone and sometimes vague sourcing, Fire and Fury is a worthwhile, important read. (At the very least, check out the excerpted magazine versions.) If you tackle the book, work through the first eight chapters to learn facts without getting hung up on spin. The farther you read beyond that, the more meaningful insights you’ll gain.
Wolff has done a lot of work to reveal the inner workings of a most unusual White House and to reveal buckets of unsettling news. For all we know, it may all be true. But given Wolff’s prejudicial approach, and love for impactful prose, it may be harder for people to believe that he put facts, all the facts, above all else.