Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff, Little, Brown, 321 pp, €17.50, ISBN 978-1408711392
A man convinced of his own talent, who refuses to take advice, who cannot resist teeth-grindingly terrible decisions, who alienates his closest companions but expects unconditional adoration. Such is the public image of the writer, director and star of what is widely regarded as the worst film ever made. Tommy Wiseau’s shambolic production of The Room was documented by co-star Greg Sestero in his memoir The Disaster Artist (latterly made into a film starring James Franco). The title, and the traits of its dominant character, could equally apply to Michael Wolff’s compelling account of Donald Trump’s first year as US president.
For Wolff, the best Hollywood analogy for Trump’s rise is Mel Brooks’s The Producers. Like the characters behind the musical Springtime for Hitler – who attempt to swindle investors by staging a surefire turkey – the reality TV star believed he could simultaneously fail and succeed. By this account, he never expected to win the 2016 US presidential election but thought the publicity it generated would make him the most famous man in the world, with, he told an ally, a “far more powerful brand and untold opportunities”. What followed his victory though is closer to the chaos behind Wiseau’s 2003 vanity project. Both show the perils of giving near-unfettered power to an overbearing and insecure man surrounded by people too timid to dissent, or who get pushed out for having the temerity to do so. The Room eventually became a cult success, with audiences ironically revelling in its tone-deaf dialogue, inept performances and baffling non-sequiturs. Trump’s period in the Oval Office has had plenty of these but it is unlikely it will be remembered as fondly. Both prove that with a bag of money and boundless capacity to bullshit, you can force yourself into any position – but that doesn’t mean you will be any good at it.
It will come as no surprise to most readers that Trump is impulsive, childish, mendacious and boorish. Fire and Fury is not mere gossip though. A portrait of the president’s personality might be of lesser importance if he had credible policies or something resembling a coherent political philosophy or track record. It is another when his character dictates his every action.
Trump may appear to thrive on antagonism – and he has no trouble finding it – but Fire and Fury shows a man desperate for approbation. It was “obvious to everyone that if he had a north star, it was just to be liked”, writes Wolff. “He was ever uncomprehending about why everyone did not like him, or why it should be so difficult to get everyone to like him.” Combined with this neediness is a paradoxical refusal to take criticism or back down on the smallest point. A populist with a totalitarian mindset, he attacks anyone he feels is not respecting him. This explains his inability to resist attacking the “fake news” media or exchange childish insults with the North Korean regime. He is thin-skinned in a way that politicians who work their way up cannot afford to be.
Not content with one of the most shocking election victories of all time (albeit losing the popular vote), he is irritated by the lack of stellar performers at his inauguration, then becomes angry about (accurate) reports that he drew a smaller crowd than Barack Obama. One senses he could win the 2020 election by a landslide and still use his acceptance speech to air his festering grudges, Father Ted-style.
Trump is that strangest of creatures: a confidence man with no confidence. Following the appointment of John Kelly as his second chief of staff, he keeps asking people if the taciturn general likes him. During a speech at the CIA not long after his inauguration, he asks: “Did everybody like my speech? You had to like it.” Not since Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman has a man been so obsessed with being well-liked.
This mania for approval was no doubt his reason for taking the bizarre step of staging an election-style rally less than a month after his inauguration (something he repeated at regular intervals throughout 2017). Trump’s galvanising effect on crowds during the election campaign has been well-documented: reading Fire and Fury, it seems the energy flowing the other way was more significant. Ask not what the president is doing for those cheering crowds; ask what they are doing for him.
What Trump fails to understand is that you can’t please all the people all the time. In his eyes, says Wolff, “he was the winner and now expected to be the object of awe, fascination, and favour. He expected this to be binary: a hostile media would turn into a fannish one.” He does not realise the downside of playing to the prejudices of the right-wing media, his natural gallery: “what conservative media elevated, liberal media would necessarily take down … [he] was desperately wounded by his treatment in the mainstream media. He obsessed on every slight until it was overtaken by the next slight.”
What matters to Trump is not what he does but how it is received. This is a recipe for inconsistency when he tries to cater to two opposing right-wing tendencies: the anti-immigration, extremist “alt-right” and the establishment, pro-plutocrat Republican Party. He plays to the first with his inaugural address and its talk of “American carnage”, followed by his ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Both are driven by Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and former head of the far-right propaganda platform Breitbart. But after an intervention by his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, Trump delivers a more upbeat and politically conventional address to a joint session of Congress. He spends almost two days revelling in the ensuing good press. Similarly, his lukewarm opinion of his Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch becomes full-blooded enthusiasm after the appointment receives positive media coverage.
“The paradox of the Trump presidency was that it was both the most ideologically driven and the least,” writes Wolff. “It represented a deeply structural assault on liberal values … But from the start it was apparent that the Trump administration could just as easily turn into a country club Republican or a Wall Street Democrat regime. Or just a constant effort to keep Donald Trump happy.”
Bannon realises the importance of the last point. The essential Trump problem, as he sees it, is that he “hopelessly personalised everything”. The president arrives in the White House with a low opinion of Republican congressional leader Paul Ryan. “He had no views about Ryan’s political abilities, and paid no attention to Ryan’s actual positions. His view was personal. Ryan had insulted him – again and again.” He changes his mind after Ryan rises to a “movie-level of flattery and sucking-up painful to witness,” in the words of one Trump aide. The Republicans on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, decide that the prospect of an antiregulatory White House and tax reform are enough to outweigh the president’s outlandish behaviour – a decision they may come to regret.
Trump seems utterly uninterested in matters that do not concern him personally. He reads so little that some aides wonder if he is illiterate, but then note that he has no trouble with articles, or at least headlines, about himself. He hopes difficult decisions will make themselves, writes Wolff, and accedes to anyone who seems to know more about issues he does not care about. “He seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention.”
This indifference sparks a competition to influence him, and this is where the real drama of Fire and Fury lies. He begins his presidency floating like a vengeful and capricious god over the leaders of three warring factions: Bannon, the self-styled militant; Jared and Ivanka (dubbed “Jarvanka” by Bannon), who are described as New York Democrats; and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, the luckless messenger boy for the Republican establishment. Each provides something the president craves: “Bannon offered a rousing fuck-you show of force; Priebus offered flattery from the congressional leadership; Kushner offered the approval of blue-chip businessmen. So strong were these particular appeals that the president typically preferred not to distinguish between them. They were all exactly what he wanted from the presidency, and he didn’t understand he couldn’t have them all.” Wolff summarises their struggle: “Bannonites pursued their goal of breaking everything fast, Priebus’s [Republican National Committee] faction focused on the opportunities for the Republican agenda, Kushner and his wife did their best to make their unpredictable relative look temperate and rational. And in the middle was Trump.”
The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin titled her account of the Lincoln presidency Team of Rivals but Trump’s White House is more a confederacy of dunces. Each faction tries to steer him but he proves a tough man to “game”. While he might be moved today, writes Wolff, “nobody underestimated the complexities of continuing to move him in the same direction tomorrow”. Kushner attempts to line up a meeting with the Mexican president after the inauguration, believing his role to be “quietly following behind the president and with added nuance and subtlety clarifying the president’s real intentions, if not recasting them entirely”. The meeting is cancelled after Trump sends a volley of confrontational tweets about Mexico. Bannon tries to distance the administration from the row over Russian interference in the election by having all queries directed to the legal team, as the Clintons did during the Monica Lewinsky saga: “They set up an outside shop and Bill and Hillary never mentioned it again.” This fails in short order when Trump and key advisers cobble together a response to revelations that his son Don jnr and Jared Kushner met a Russian lawyer during the election campaign in the hopes of obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton. And, as ever, he cannot resist tweeting his uncensored thoughts about it.
When General John Kelly replaces Priebus as chief of staff, he is expected to bring a dose of military discipline. This too is short-lived. As the president fails to explicitly condemn white supremacists involved in disturbances in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in the death of a left-wing counterprotester, Heather Heyer, Kelly becomes merely the latest Trump staffer to experience a moment of awakening:
In the wake of this immolating news conference, all eyes were suddenly on Kelly – this was his baptism of Trump fire … Virtually the entire senior staff and cabinet of the Trump presidency, past and present, had travelled through the stages of adventure, challenge, frustration, battle, self-justification, and doubt, before finally having to confront the very real likelihood that the president they worked for – whose presidency they bore some official responsibility for – didn’t have the wherewithal to adequately function in his job. Now, after less than two weeks on the job, it was Kelly’s turn to stand at that precipice.
Aside from Jarvanka, Bannon persists longest in believing he can bend Trump to his agenda, seeing himself as the “auteur of the Trump presidency”. His politics may be retrograde but he is an astute judge of his boss’s character. Bannon recognises that the last person to speak to the president ends up with enormous (if not long-lasting) influence. He goes through Trump’s rantings to find something resembling policies to steer him towards. Kushner tries the same thing but gives up in frustration. Bannon is an Iago figure, dripping pure poison into Trump’s ear, acting as his “personal talk radio”. “Steve believes he’s Darth Vader and that Trump is called to the dark side,” says disaffected former deputy chief of staff Kate Walsh. Bannon’s two biggest “achievements” are the travel ban and Trump’s announcement that the US would pull out of the Paris climate accord.
This last step is particularly sweet for Bannon, representing not only a victory over the liberal consensus but over Ivanka in particular. An “antisocial, maladjusted, post-middle-aged man” raised in a working class Irish Catholic family, whose signature look is wearing two shirts at the same time, he repeatedly clashes with the president’s urbane daughter and her husband, both children of privilege. Both sides leak about each other extensively. (“In this, at least, Trump’s administration was achieving a landmark transparency,” notes Wolff, who has benefited handsomely from this porousness.)
Ivanka and Kushner see their task as keeping Bannon away from an essentially reasonable man yet they are behind some of Trump’s worst decisions: firing FBI director James Comey – a move Trump reportedly thought would make him a hero – and hiring the disastrous Anthony Scaramucci as communications director. They supposedly have Democratic leanings but one of Kushner’s most valued advisers is Henry Kissinger. Kushner and Ivanka also bring Gary Cohn and Dina Powell, two senior Goldman Sachs employees, into the White House ‑ ironic appointments given how Trump pilloried Hillary Clinton for her ties with Wall Street. Even after Kushner makes a series of high-profile errors of judgement, Trump muses about appointing him secretary of state. One paragraph from a memo leaked in April 2017, purportedly expressing Cohn’s views, condenses a sizeable chunk of Fire and Fury into three sentences: “Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant prick who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits.” The next sentence is prescient: “No one will survive the first year but his family.”
Bannon is naive to believe he can displace Trump’s daughter in the president’s affections, and his attempts to push his isolationist economic nationalism are largely frustrated. Trump is riled by any suggestion that Bannon is the brains of his operation, and indulges in “Borscht belt-style” mockery: “Guy looks homeless. Take a shower, Steve. You’ve worn those pants for six days. He says he’s made money. I don’t believe it.” After a possibly deliberately indiscreet media interview in which Bannon criticises his boss’s stance on North Korea, he is booted out of the White House.
In Bannon’s eyes, Trump is betraying Trumpism – and there is only one man who can save it. Returning to Breitbart, he plans to run for the presidency in 2020, telling allies he has the support of major Trump donors. These, he claims, include billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who also bankroll Breitbart. Their backing clearly came as news to them on the publication of Fire and Fury and within days they had forced him out of the organisation.
After Bannon’s departure, what is the future of Trumpism? If Fire and Fury shows anything, it is that the biggest sale Trump ever made was not in real estate but in convincing people that he somehow represented America’s forgotten white working class. True, he may feed on some of their deepest prejudices and fears, but the biggest – the only – beneficiary is always himself. With Trump’s alt-right guru out of the picture, the Republican establishment’s influence might have been expected to increase. For a brief period, this seemed to be the case, with major tax cuts signed into law in December last year and the president delivering a more orthodox state of the union address a month later. Economically at least, it looked like old-fashioned business as usual, with added barbs and erratic behaviour as a sideshow. Then the sideshow moved centre stage in March as Trump announced tariffs on metals and Chinese imports, sending stocks plummeting. The measures ostensibly play to his rust belt base but these voters could be among the worst hit by reciprocal Chinese tariffs. And while US steel makers have raised prices by as much as 35 per cent, this has stunted growth at manufacturers using their product. It’s unlikely any of this bothers Trump, who is more concerned with playing the protectionist strongman than thinking through the real-world consequences of his actions.
If the economy worsens and the blue-collar jobs he promised to create do not materialise, will Trump face a rebellion from the very forces that helped him win the presidency? One episode in Fire and Fury sadly suggests that the anger and posturing might be enough to keep him afloat. Giving a speech in Alabama in support of the Republican establishment’s choice as a Senate candidate against the Bannon-backed Roy Moore, Trump senses he is losing the crowd. He switches to ranting about American footballers protesting against police brutality by “taking a knee” during the national anthem. It gets a standing ovation and dominates the next news cycle.
Wolff, in a podcast interview with the Economist, has insisted that Trump will not run again in 2020, so the question of how to beat him may be moot. The Republican establishment will have to decide whether it embraces his tenure and the voters who love his abrasive style or breathes a collective sigh of relief and attempts to move towards the centre ground. Moderate voters alienated by Trump may not forgive their indulgence of the president either way. Wolff puts forward Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, as the most likely torchbearer of Trumpism. True, in December she uttered the very Trumpian line that the US would be “taking names” of states voting to censure the US for moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. But it is questionable whether a woman born into an Indian Sikh family could rally the openly racist and misogynistic elements who vocally supported Trump. That’s not to say another rabble-rouser would not be able to exploit them.
Meanwhile, if they do face Trump himself a second time, the Democrats need to find a way past his bluster. They need what they lacked last time – an effective communicator, and in this sense the now-discounted prospect of running Oprah Winfrey was not as desperate as it might have seemed. But, as Trump proves, talking is one thing and action is another. To beat the inveterate salesman – albeit a snake oil salesman – the Democrats have to sell the public something better. Throwing mud at Trump is easy, and he has provided a plentiful supply, but he is a man who revels in gutter fighting and will resort to the worst kind of personal insults and lies to achieve his ultimate aim of making himself look superior (one is tempted to say “unimpeachable”). The 2016 election has been cast as a victory for the white working class but it would be wrong for the Democrats to try to out-Trump Trump, to focus on that group to the exclusion of others, or to buy into the impression that those voters alone are the victims of globalisation. There will be moderate Republicans who voted for Trump out of party loyalty and protest voters who now see through him who will be ready to switch to a credible Democrat. Not to forget the 45 per cent of the electorate who did not turn out last time. Offer them something tangible to vote for and the hardcore right-wing extremists are reduced to marginal status.
This optimistic view assumes enough voters will be interested in the substance of what candidates say, rather than how they say it. But Trump’s rise suggests that huge numbers of them are as bent on instant gratification as he is. Voting becomes not a tactical decision with long-term consequences but a release of anger or a stamp of approval for a satisfying performance. Wolff describes Obama as an “inspirational communicator” whose tragedy was that he could not command much interest. But for JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy and self-appointed voice of the forgotten white working class, Obama alienated some voters because “he is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor – which, of course he is … His accent – clean, perfect, neutral – is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening …” Never mind initiatives like Obamacare – which his successor and polar opposite swore to abolish – just listen to how he sounds. When politics becomes a reality TV show, it should be no surprise that a reality TV star excels.
In terms of ousting Trump, Wolff has opined that Fire and Fury might do the Democrats’ job for them. The book, based on interviews and observations acquired when he took a “semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing”, was received with a degree of scepticism. There was handwringing over his unattributed quotes, as if they were not a mainstay of political reporting. And where was the proof that Donald Trump is an overgrown child? (Apart from everything he says and does?) True, Wolff relies extensively on leaks and gossip, and he acknowledges some inconsistencies, but he offers a more complete and insightful portrait of Trump than can be gleaned from day-to-day reportage, where – to use his word – one episode of “ohmygodness” follows another. Wolff has none of the anger of Trump’s media critics and he does not give them an easy ride. Many, he believes, are stung by a victory they did not think could happen and are “drunk on virtue”. “The media was failing to judge the relative importance of Trump events: most Trump events came to naught (arguably all of them did), and yet all were greeted with equal shock and horror,” he writes. In the meantime, Wolff waited in the long grass drawing up a more detailed picture.
Fire and Fury’s account of the skulduggery and ineptitude in the White House also gives the lie to some Republican voters’ wishful pre-election notion that Trump, while not the master of detail, would surround himself with “good people”. In fact, the prospect of the president being reined in by his advisers is becoming more remote. Since the book’s publication, the list of White House departures has swelled to include the supposedly moderating influences of Gary Cohn, secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, and communications director Hope Hicks. The most recent, at the time of writing, was national security adviser HR McMaster. The cautious former lieutenant general is to be replaced by arch-hawk John Bolton, a man who previously made, in Wolff’s words, an “aggressive, light-up-the-world, go-to-war-pitch” for the job. In the battle for the mortal soul of Donald J Trump, the devils on one shoulder far outnumber the angels on the other.
Wolff is gossipy, in contrast with what he sees as the pompous tone of previous books on US presidents. “Bob Woodward … wrote a long shelf of books in which even the most misguided presidential action seemed part of an epochal march of ultimate responsibility and life-and-death decision-making,” he writes. This is the opposite.
In keeping with this iconoclasm, Fire and Fury is peppered with waspish asides. Bannon comes under pressure, “the strain etching ever deeper lines into his already ruined face”. Deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh represents “at least to herself, a certain Republican ideal: clean, brisk, orderly, efficient.” In an old YouTube video, Ivanka has “something like a Valley Girl accent – which would transform in the years ahead into something like a Disney princess voice”. (Outside the book, however, Wolff did overstep the boundary between insightful gossip and scurrility, when using a TV interview to imply that Trump and Haley were having an affair, something she strenuously denied).
Fire and Fury has damaged Trump’s already battered credibility but it is not enough on its own to fell him. It gives the impression that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia might come closer to doing so: while it might not pin anything on the president directly, the pressure might be enough for him to resign amid a flurry of pardons. That, however, began to look less likely after Republicans on the House intelligence committee released a contested memo on how the FBI used a Democrat-funded dossier as part of their case to persuade a judge to let them spy on a Trump aide. This handed the president the ammunition to smear the investigation and declare, with his customary disregard for the truth, that it “totally vindicated” him. Democrats who hope the Russia investigation will be their golden ticket to getting Trump out of the White House should take note: don’t hold your breath.
Trump’s “vindication” claim recalls an episode from NBC journalist Katy Tur’s Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, an incident that is as telling as anything in Fire and Fury. Trump is giving a press conference in Florida after Mitt Romney mocked his failed business ventures. At the side of the room are piles of raw steaks, bottles of wine, pallets of water and a magazine, all of which appear to be Trump products. On closer inspection, it turns out the “Trump Steaks” are from a Palm Beach butcher, the water is from a plant that lets buyers put their own names on the label and the magazine is something similar. The wine bottles are indeed from a winery called Trump but a disclaimer on its website says it is not “owned, managed or affiliated with Donald J Trump, The Trump Organization or any of their affiliates”. “I brought some things,” Trump announces to the media. “Trump Steaks – where are the steaks? We have Trump Steaks.” He goes on to claim ownership of every item on the display. “And by the way, the winery … it’s the largest winery on the east coast”. It isn’t, writes Tur. “I own it 100 per cent, no mortgage, no debt.” He doesn’t.
This is Trump in a nutshell: throwing out a bogus story to make himself feel good. Whether enough voters realise, or care, by the time the next election rolls around is the big question.
Jon Smith has worked at The Irish Times, Irish Daily Mail, The Sunday Times and the Daily Mirror.