Michael Wolff might be the most unreliable historian America has ever encountered, but at least he admits it. This is from the author’s note to Siege, the less-explosive sequel to his smash-hit “inside” account of the Trump presidency, Fire and Fury:
Dealing with sources in the Trump White House has continued to offer its own set of unique issues. A basic requirement of working there is, surely, the willingness to… delegitimize the truth… this has caused some of the same people who’ve undermined the public trust to become private truth-tellers… Interviewing such Janus-faced sources creates a dilemma, for it requires depending on people who lie to also tell the truth — and who also might later disavow the truth they have told.
Translation: “A lot of my sources are proven liars, and I knew this going into the project, but have reported what they said anyway as truth — and if they later say I’ve misquoted them, well, they’re liars.”
Wolff is the perfect biographer for the Trump era. He tells you it’s nearly impossible to try to sort out what is and isn’t true in Trumpworld, and that when covering an environment in which rule-following is in short supply, there’s no point in following rules. So you’re on your own in figuring out how much of what he writes is trustworthy.
Wolff was able to sell Fire and Fury as an “inside” account. That was based upon a few meetings in the Oval Office and a dubious claim about spending time overhearing things from “something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing” with Trump’s “non-disapproval.”
The book infuriated Trump and many of the people described in its pages, which of course ended the magic couch ride. The second book is a compendium of gossip he continued to collect post-exile, presumably from less prestigious couches.
The book is full of stuff that is lurid and sensational, but so dubious in its attributions that even in a review setting I’m afraid to repeat them. If you really want to know which female politician Trump’s claimed to have gotten a “blow job” from and which female White House aide Don. Jr. apparently wanted to “fuck,” this book is for you.
Wolff did, however, retain one chit from the Fire and Fury experience: continued access to Steve Bannon.
The former White House adviser and alt-right Pope Bannon is the first person mentioned in the acknowledgements, where Wolff calls him “the man arguably most responsible for making [Trump] president.” He praises Bannon for being one of the few people in Trumpland not to have accused him of making up quotes, adding, “It is a measure of Bannon’s character that he stood by his remarks in Fire and Fury without complaint, quibbles, or hurt feelings.”
Of course, if you’ve read Fire and Fury, it’s hard to imagine what “quibbles” Bannon might have had with the book — Wolff in that book made Bannon out to be a cross between Thomas Jefferson and Optimus Prime. He lards it on even thicker here.
The book’s second chapter, “The Do-Over,” is an unabashed slurpy-slobbery portrait of Bannon, described as “a fixer, power broker, and kingmaker without portfolio” (read: a job?). A scene describing a Bannon encounter with fellow gasbag ex-Svengali Larry Summers is a depressing enough metaphor about America’s two reigning political ideologies that you’ll feel like eating a grenade.
In Fire and Fury, Bannon sneered at the collusion probe but cackled with schadenfreude at the coming legal maelstrom. When he heard Mueller hired prosecutor Andrew Weissman, the “LeBron James of money laundering investigations,” he told Wolff he was convinced the Trump family would ultimately be swept away by financial prosecutions.
“They’re on a beach trying to stop a Category Five,” he said.
In Siege, Bannon continues this theme, laughing at the categorization of the Trump family as a “semi-criminal enterprise” (“I think we can drop the semi part”). He goes on to say “this is where it isn’t a witch hunt,” adding that Trump’s real crime is being, “just a crooked business guy… one worth fifty million dollars instead of ten billion… just another scumbag.”
Siege could have been an epic black comedy, and Wolff even seems to know it. In trying to assess where “Donald Trump falls on a vertiginous sliding scale of human behavior,” he describes a figure almost limitlessly guilty of every kind of corruption, personal and professional.
Upon becoming president, however, he is placed under a massive, unrelenting investigation by the same law enforcement bodies that allowed him for decades to get away with anything and everything. In a great cosmic joke, when justice finally springs to action, its agents go looking for the one crime in the legal code Trump apparently didn’t commit.
Wolff, for all his journalistic peccadilloes, is one of the few writers to tackle Trump who possesses both the sources and the sense of absurdity to tell this story.
He comes close to grasping the irony of the Trump Corrupticon not only becoming president but escaping a full-blown federal investigation aimed right at him when he writes about Trump’s staff marveling at their boss’s survival. Wolff describes Trump’s team as being completely indifferent to his fate (“they wouldn’t grieve… if he went down”), but adds:
They accepted the likelihood that the president would be taken down by the forces pursuing him, but also marveled at… the remarkable fact that he had not yet been taken down. Which led, however inexplicably, to the astonishing possibility that he might never be taken down.
The book describes, with varying degrees of believability, the Trump family’s fear about being felled by shady real estate deals, crooked loan applications, bank fraud and other legal problems.
It may yet play out that way, with investigations fobbed off on the Southern District of New York and other venues resulting in non-Russia–related probes that could decimate the Trump family fortune, ostensibly through seizure of ill-gotten gains. Wolff even puts the president’s favorite architectural manhood-prosthesis in the cross-hairs:
One potential casualty of a successful forfeiture action was the president’s signature piece of real estate: the government could seize Trump Tower.
The other big “newsbreak” (as Wolff’s publisher calls it) in the book is that Robert Mueller’s Office of Special Counsel readied a draft of an indictment of president Trump for obstruction of justice by the spring of 2018.
“According to the draft,” Wolff writes, “Donald Trump’s scheme to obstruct justice began on the seventh day of his administration.” The three-count indictment ostensibly would have charged him with attempting to protect General Michael Flynn from prosecution, with covering up his son’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, and with retaliation against Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, among other things.
But Mueller in Wolff’s telling chooses not to press forward, over the objections of some of his team. He is weighed down by what Wolff un-ironically describes as his “nagging belief” that he had “no such authority” to be the “corrective to the louche and corrupt president.”
I’m the last person who should ever complain about thesaurus-murdering prose, but Wolff — who also wrote about Trump’s “louche” behavior in Fire and Fury — takes it to a new level. The Wolffian translation of “deep state,” for instance, is “intelligence community myrmidons.” He makes George Will sound like Tony Danza. For no other reason than that, his books are at least entertaining.
Like bruises on a corpse, Wolff’s pages are also covered all over with extravagant literary allusions. Mueller in Siege becomes a “Hamlet figure.” The description of the special counsel as an overgrown pearl-clutcher who can’t make up his mind about anything seems to have come at least in part from Bannon, an admirer of Lenin whose humorous take on Mueller’s investigation is that it was insufficiently arbitrary and authoritarian – “never send a Marine to do a hit man’s job.”
Maybe, but the investigation as Wolff describes it seems plenty arrogant and stupid. In one scene, Mueller prosecutors Aaron Zelinsky and Jeannie Rhee sniff in Trump’s metaphorical underwear drawer:
The two prosecutors also devled into the president’s personal life. How often did he cheat on his wife? With whom? How were trysts arranged? What were the president’s sexual interests?
With what Wolff describes as a prosecutorial “embarrassment of riches” to look at in Trump’s past – “bankruptcies, financial ledgermain, dubious associations, and general sense of impunity” — why were these idiots looking at Trump’s sex life? If they were looking at sex crime, that would be one thing. But infidelity?
It seems especially dim given that Mueller was concerned with avoiding the example of Ken Starr, who he believed “undermined the office of the presidency.”
Wolff spends a lot of time describing Mueller’s “ambivalence.” His Mueller is frozen by the dilemma of charging a sitting president with obstruction of an investigation into an undiscovered conspiracy. “If that ‘predicate event’ did not occur,” Wolff writes, channeling the Special Counsel, “could the president… be fairly accused of obstructing justice?”
Since Mueller in the end appears to have answered that question in the negative, Wolff in his final pages concludes that “Hamlet” took two years to decide to do nothing. Wolff even ends up agreeing with Trump’s capsule description of Mueller:
And then [Trump] delivered a scornful critique of Robert Mueller: “What an asshole.”
And there, perhaps, Trump had something of a point. If this was the result – a pass on conspiracy and equivocation on obstruction – how could you not have hastened it along, or worse, how could you have fostered the exact opposite impression? For two years, the secret tribunal had let the nation assume Trump’s peril and guilt. How had it taken nearly twenty-two months to grill a nothing burger?
Like the Mueller report, Wolff’s book is a Rorschach test. Readers will see in it what they want. If you want to revel in tales of Trump’s narcissism, and you’re willing to buy the notion that everything (or anything) in the book is true, there’s plenty in there. There’s a hilarious scene, for instance, where Trump meets National Enquirer editor Dylan Howard and quizzes him about how much more copy he sells when “I’m on the cover instead of just a celebrity?”
Howard tells him, fifteen to twenty percent more. A few minutes later, Trump responds, “So I sell fifty percent more than any of the movie stars?”
It’s like I said, Howard replies: 15 to 20 percent.
“Let’s call it 40,” says Trump.
Trump does sell, but that’s the problem. His salability guarantees an endless stream of Trump content (which Trump himself is of course expert at turning to his advantage), but what’s worse is Trump-mania has cartoonized the press landscape, leaving us awash in endless piles of oversimplified pro- and anti- narratives, and blind to better stories, like the one Wolff almost chose to write.
Wolff can be a funny writer, and there are stretches of Siege where he reaches for high comedy, describing Trump-Mueller as an epic struggle between corruption and inadequacy, with both sides — along with all of us — losing. But Siege ends up mostly being a cheap catalogue of half-believable rumors about who backstabbed whom, and who slept with whom, interspersed with a lot of pretend-outrage, so the author can market his book on MSNBC, even as he makes Steve Bannon out to be a genius.
Wolff puts halos on the people who talk to him, and savages the ones who don’t, and this is all pretty transparent, in the same way some fast food restaurants have stopped bothering to make the cheese look real — who cares, you’ll eat it anyway. And we will, just like we did with his last book.