Why ‘Fire and Fury’ Made Trump Erupt

Michael Wolff’s new book on President Donald Trump is either an abject work of fiction or among the scariest documents in recent memory. Recent developments argue for the latter.

The story it tells, of a chaotic White House occupied by an ill-prepared, if not unfit, President consumed by insecurities and vanity leaves us gasping for air. Democrats, the news media, and never Trump Republicans have made the same argument for months. But, here it’s not “the establishment,” not the “fake news,” nor “crooked Hillary” that are plunging the dagger into Trump — it is Trump’s employees, his friends, his allies. And, the picture that emerges is of a cartoonish character, mostly unaware of himself, oblivious to the demands of the office, and incapable of it besides.

There’s a lot of sloppiness about Wolff’s reporting, and reason to suspect his journalistic scruples. On several occasions, he gets names or titles wrong. He refers to Dick Armey as former Speaker of the House (he wasn’t), he misidentified Mike Berman, a lobbyist, for Mark Berman, the Washington Post reporter. And, several people have denied saying what he quotes them as saying or accuse him of quoting off-the-record comments by name.

And, those disinclined to believe it will point to what Wolff wrote in the book’s preface: “many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book.”

Nevertheless, a lot of this rings too true to be ignored. And, as Wolff has gleefully observed, Trump has spent the last two days demonstrating that the book’s broad themes are mostly on point.

A ‘Stable Genius’

On Saturday morning, in a jarringly unhinged set of Tweets, Trump declared himself a genius. “[T]hroughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” He cited his election win, which he says demonstrates he’s “not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!”

Normal people do not talk like this. Ronald Reagan, as Trump observed in his tweetstorm, also faced questions about his mental stability. But, he never provided such strong reasons to suggest that those questions were justified.

Inside Trump’s West Wing

In Wolff’s telling, Trump’s West Wing is populated by a cast of hangers-on, B-team politicos, family members and a smattering of earnest public servants, all of whom share, to varying degrees, a weary contempt for the man who occupies the Oval Office. The consensus view, Wolff tells NBC’s Today Show, is that “he’s like a child.”

A major theme of Fire and Fury is the low regard with which the people closest to Trump hold him. Eight different people close to Trump are quoted calling him an “idiot,” “moron,” “stupid,” or “dumb.”

“For Steve Mnuchin and [then-chief of staff] Reince Priebus, he was an ‘idiot,’” Wolff writes. “For Gary Cohn, he was ‘dumb as s**t.’ For H. R. McMaster he was a ‘dope.’” After a phone conversation, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who reportedly speaks frequently with the President, muttered “what a f—ing idiot” as he hung up from a particularly exasperating conversation.

In Wolff’s many months of reoccurring visits to the White House, peddling around the West Wing, interviewing, and loitering in the lobby making small talk, he develops a fluency in the inside jokes and unspoken gestures that document this contempt as well as the on the record quotes. Wolff describes Kellyanne Conway, among Trump’s most passionate public defenders, as privately expressing her view of him with “a whole series of facial expressions, eyes rolling, mouth agape, head snapping back.” Michael Anton, a senior official in Trump’s National Security Council, had “perfected a deft eye roll (referred to as the Anton eye roll).”

Fire and Fury’s account of the early months of the Trump Presidency is a surreal tale of people who never expected to be there, trying to figure out how to run the world’s most powerful country without an instruction manual. The picture Wolff paints is one of crippling dysfunction, a staff divided into factions and consumed by intramural squabbles, as an oblivious President live-Tweets Fox News and sucks up to grandees.

The story that Wolff tells reinforces the suspicion that Trump’s aspirations to the Presidency were driven far more by vanity than a genuine dedication to public service. In Wolff’s telling, it is Trump’s burning desire for fame and adulation that animate him above all else. All politicians have egos. But, what Wolff describes is a debilitating narcissism so epic that it blinds him.

Wolff’s account colors in what we probably already knew. Trump’s obsession with the size of his inauguration crowd, his pointless insistence that voter fraud accounted for Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin, and the daily stream of self-aggrandizing tweets already provided pretty good evidence that he was unhealthily self-obsessed.

Trump was elected, in large part, because he came from outside Washington. A certain lack of understanding of the finer points of a vast Federal bureaucracy was to be expected.

Voters understood much of this going in, and weren’t too bothered by it. Many Trump supporters, disgusted at what they view as a weak and cowardly Republican establishment, see Trump’s bravado is no vice. They elected him to tell it like it is and don’t much mind, even applaud, the bucking egotism that he brings with it. It was what they believed equipped Trump to bring about forceful change, to drain the swamp and throw out the “establishment” on its ear.

Trump was elected, in large part, because he came from outside Washington. A certain lack of understanding of the finer points of a vast Federal bureaucracy was to be expected. But, the Trump of Wolff’s account is more than just unprepared, he is too wrapped in self-absorption to recognize this, much less correct it. A year into his Presidency, his grasp of policy appears as tenuous as ever.

Still, despite all this, Trump’s Presidency has seen some successes. Tax reform, a strengthening economy, and gains against ISIS are all real accomplishments. Many of the early fears about Trump have proven unfounded. After some initial shock and awe, his administration settled into something that looked more like a conventional Republican policy agenda. He hasn’t pulled out of NAFTA or NATO. Threats of a trade war with China have faded. Whatever authoritarian tendencies Trump may have are tempered by a fundamental lack of aptitude for pulling levers of political power.

The question now is how much real effect the book will have. Wolff’s account hardens the opposition against him. This might make independents more reluctant to return to the Trump fold. But, Trump supporters are generally unwilling to accept negative information about Trump. They will assume that it’s more fake news. Still, coming from Trump allies, it is a little harder to ignore.

The Bannon Break

The comments of Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon are a particularly sharp sword aimed at the heart of Trump’s base. There has long been a tension between Trump and Bannon over who is the true leader of the anti-establishment populist movement that propelled the former to the Oval Office. Is it Bannon, the evangelist who gave the movement its intellectual form, or Trump, the man its adherents championed as President? Now that Bannon has sailed away from Trump-land and burned his ships, will Trump fans be less credulous of him?

Bannon’s comments were remarkable for their savagery. He struck Trump where it hurt the most: Russia and his children. Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer to get dirt on Hillary was “treasonous” and Special Counsel Robert Mueller was going to get Trump for money laundering whether or not he was complicit in Russia’s election meddling…right after he cracks Don Junior “like an egg.”

Bannon, whose proselytizing of populist bombast defined the Trump movement, cannot be easily dismissed as an establishment shill. But, Bannon’s relationship with Donald Trump was always one of cynical opportunism. His break with Trump must be seen in the same light. Ultimately, when forced to choose between the two, most Trump supporters will choose the President. Yet, the episode may plant seeds of doubt that could diminish the enthusiasm of Trump’s supporters to defend him in the future.


Even dismissing Bannon’s likely self-serving attacks, and accounting for Wolff’s embellishments, the impression  of a chaotic early White House led by a man unprepared and possibly unfit for the office, is hard to shake.

In succeeding months, John Kelly appears to have contained at least some of the chaos. With the passage of tax reform and the subduing of ISIS, Trump’s Administration has notched some real successes too.

Yet, Trump’s flaws are still on regular display in the petty resentments, boisterous self-promotion and rampant perfidy that pours forth from his Twitter feed. And, there’s little to suggest that he’s developed a proficiency or even a basic grasp of policy details.

Make no mistake, Michael Wolff is out to sell books. And his cartoonish portrayal of a bumbling President is surely overwrought. But, Wolff’s account, as gossipy and unreliable as it may be, adds texture to what most people already suspect: the emperor has no clothes.

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