It takes a thief to catch a thief, and Michael Wolff, with his new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” is the ideal hustler to capture President Trump, whom Wolff describes as having a “twinkle in his eye, larceny in his soul.” Wolff, if memory serves, is similar, minus the twinkle. Gimlet eyes don’t twinkle.
Say what you will about Wolff: Unless the book is wholesale invention, something in his I’m-with-the-band swagger in the West Wing attracted awesomely sordid material from Trump’s scurvy syndicate. In John Sterling at Macmillan, the book has a masterful editor, and three fact-checkers reviewed it. So I’m betting “Fire and Fury” will withstand whatever charges of journalistic impropriety come at it.
And you’re a better woman than I am if you can look away.
Take Stephen Bannon’s unpulled punch in calling Donald Trump, Jr. “treasonous” for meeting with Russians in June 2016. Centrist and liberal media spent a year walking a prudent, scholarly line pontificating about the crimes Trump and his clan may or may not have committed. And suddenly everyone’s favorite warlock of the far-right comes right out with it: treason.
Wolff’s bomb cyclone of a book officially hits on Friday, but stormed up Amazon’s bestseller list this week after various passages leaked to the Guardian, prompting New York magazine to rush out an exclusive excerpt. Copies of the book then circulated, sub rosa, as the Steele dossier once did, which heightened my excitement when I scored one Thursday morning. To each his own, but I flipped first to the section explaining Trump’s belief that President Obama “wiretapped” him.
This delusion was, Wolff argues, an offshoot of Trump’s martyr complex. Wolff makes the point that Trump’s plan all along was to lose the election. Defeat would let Trump build a long-running reality franchise with a protagonist who was not a king but a living saint, shot through with arrows for the nation’s sins of — what? Political correctness? The Satans in the tale would be, of course, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Self-pity is a drug, and Trump, even from the Oval Office, couldn’t get clean. “The system was rigged,” Wolff writes. “The bureaucratic swamp, the intelligence agencies, the unfair courts, the lying media.” (Because many of Wolff’s interviews are with press amateurs who speak on background, on deep background, off and on the record, or without any ground rules, Wolff often narrates in free indirect discourse, a literary trick that allows third-person narration to slip in and out of a range of consciousnesses.)
In Wolff’s telling, Jared Kushner is also to blame for the wiretapping obsession. He passed on a galling tidbit from none other than former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: the speculation that the British may have kept the Trump campaign under surveillance, at the attenuated suggestion of President Obama. Wolff then gives some creepy, maybe exaggerated backstory: Blair was a “patron” of Kushner, having met him through Rupert Murdoch. Blair, Wolff writes, was eager to partner with the president’s son-in-law to further Blair’s financial interests in the Middle East, which he framed as dovetailing nicely with Kusher’s religio-politico-economic ones in the region.
After the CIA had soundly refuted Blair’s baseless conjecture, Trump’s self-pity was further aggravated by a Fox News report that amped up the rumor again. Thus at dawn on March 3, Trump repeated the nutty legend: “How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones…This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
Trump’s tweet, which pulled all kinds of intelligence alarms, was, therefore, the product of a bunch of incompetent and venal Iagos and one big chump. As we’ve come to expect.
“Fire & Fury” also chronicles the furious firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. According to Wolff, it wasn’t only Comey’s incipient Russia investigation that drove Trump to ditch him. Charlie Kushner, Jared’s ex-con father, had a role, too: He was terrified of the Justice Department as leaks from it had wrecked the Kushners’ Hail Mary deal with the Chinese to bail out the family’s drowning real estate empire. At the same time, Wolff writes, Trump’s “billionaires’ Cabinet” — people like Carl Icahn — knew the Justice Department well, having tangled with it a time or two. “They were always up on DOJ gossip,” Wolff writes. Former national security advisor Michael “Flynn was going to throw him in the soup. [Former campaign Chairman Paul] Manafort was going to roll. And it wasn’t just Russia. It was Atlantic City. And Mar-a-Lago. And Trump SoHo.” Comey was fired, then, because of all the stones he might turn over.
The various excerpts have already led to vehement pushback by Trump World characters. (Tom Barrack, a longtime friend of Trump, and Katie Walsh, a former White House aide, denied having made the negative comments about the president that Wolff attributed to them.) Trump even charged Bannon with mental illness Wednesday for selling him out to Wolff. “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency,” the president wrote on White House letterhead. Rage spurred him to eloquence: “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” Lovely zeugma, Mr. President.
With this statement, Trump seems to have hit his prose stride, and I hope we’ll hear more from him in this dead-to-me genre.
Among journalists, “Fire and Fury” has hydrated a handful of freeze-dried complaints about Wolff, a tireless panelist, devotee of the rich and snide opiner on media who is never not described as a “gadfly.” In a more serious key, Wolff has been faulted for making stuff up. Writing in the New Republic, Michelle Cottle argued in 2004 that “the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created — springing from Wolff’s imagination.” He has also been accused of flacking for Murdoch, although the Murdoch connection seems to have served him well in reporting “Fire and Fury.” A lion in winter, Murdoch is evidently bored by Trump’s idolatry of him, and now hardly conceals his contempt for his acolyte. My favorite line in the New York magazine excerpt is his. Here’s hoping it works without the obscenity: “‘What an idiot,’ said Murdoch, shrugging, as he got off the phone.”
It’s clear that Wolff uses all manner of sleight of hand — tricks common to a more reckless period in 20th century magazine journalism — to generate operatic effects in “Fire and Fury.” The dialogue, for example, is suspiciously Netflix-ready, although Wolff claims to have reported all from what he told New York was his “semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing.” He conducted about 200 interviews with capricious flakes, and Wolff also has some skeletons in his sourcing closet that someone’s bound to drag out.
But who cares, really? Wolff’s dislikable. He plays by his own rules. Big surprise. No one likable or rule-bound would have been able to abide this unsavory crew — Murdoch, Bannon, Roger Ailes, or, for God’s sake, Trump — long enough to squeeze this much big, fat, soapy story out of them.
Wolff’s ace has always been his excitement about cartoonish power dynamics among insufferable old men. In the past, this excitement has been decidedly uninfectious. But this time Wolff’s subjects are not boresville “moguls” with interchangeable faces and net worths but the president of the United States and his psycho crew. And, because the world finds itself at their mercy, we’d do well to hear their fetid locker room talk interpreted by a writer who can stomach it.
Virginia Heffernan writes about politics and culture for Opinion. This is her first regular column. @page88