A quick note about Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which upon a second pass still has, to put it mildly, some serious issues: As any art historian can pick out a forgery, veteran journalists reading this book will quickly spot an oversold narrative and perhaps unprecedented sourcing issues.
The tortured “Author’s Note” preceding the prologue almost reads like a novel in itself. In fact, trying to follow Wolff’s idea of what “off the record” means or does not mean is like trying to follow the hands of a three-card monte dealer. It just can’t be done.
As a White House source put it, Wolff’s narrative personality is almost like a comedy act in itself:
“He’s like the old Jon Lovitz character from Saturday Night Live,” the source said. “You know – ‘Yeah, I went to Harvard, that’s the ticket. And, yeah, I was on the couch in the West Wing for months, that’s the ticket.'”
Fire and Fury is really two books rolled into one. The first is a compelling nonfiction book about the intellectual divide in the modern right, as candidly hashed out to Wolff by influential figures like Steve Bannon and Roger Ailes and (seemingly?) Rupert Murdoch.
The second is a Primary Colors-style novel about what goes on behind various closed doors in the Trump White House, based on a few bits and pieces of fact, which are offset by mountains of eye-rollingly insupportable supposition, spiced with occasional stretches of believable analysis.
There is considerable debate in the media world, on both the left and the right, about the value of this book (even I’ve gone back and forth on it). In the end, I think it’s like a piece of moldy rye bread – you have to cut around the hairily sourced parts to keep from getting poisoned. But on a broad level, there is something to dig into.
Reading the book, there are at least a few real points about Trump that shine through:
1) Trump has almost no ideological convictions and is motivated almost entirely by the classic narcissistic value equation, i.e. how much praise or scorn he gets on a second-to-second basis, from whom, and why. Had he not run as a Republican – and in particular won on a platform scripted by a nationalist true believer like Bannon – he might very well by now have been pushed into a completely different kind of presidency. Trump wants so badly to be liked that, especially with the influence of Kushner and Ivanka, he might easily have allowed his White House to drift back toward his original politics, which (as New Yorkers and furious conservatives alike will clearly remember) was once squarely in the Bob Rubin rich-guy sort-of Democrat mold.
2) However, as Bannon points out in the book – correctly – Trump by now is so firmly entrenched in the consciousness of America’s intellectual elite as a villain that he will never be accepted by that crowd. The constant battering Trump gets from the press, especially, ensures that he will continue to lash out at them, forcing him continually to tack back to the only people who still like him – Bannon’s angry-man followers. This despite the fact that what Trump clearly craves is, instead, the approval of members of his own class.
3) The result is an insane paradox of an America led by a doomed and trapped psyche. This is a president who in another era might have been confined to the impact of an ordinary bad commander-in-chief (we’ve had many), i.e., sedated and/or scripted in public, and kept on the golf course the rest of the time while the empire runs on the dreary autopilot of donors, P.R. flacks and military advisers.
Instead, we get a leader whose most dangerous moments come during his ever-expanding calendar of hyper-tweeting downtime (incidentally, is anything more certain than the term “executive time” replacing “taking my talents to South beach” as this generation’s euphemism for masturbation?). All those crazed Trump tweets guarantee an endless cycle of paranoia and rebuke – and a permanently paralyzed White House.
Anyway, it’s a fascinating book. But too long for most people in the Internet age to actually read. So without further ado, here’s shorter Michael Wolff, in chapter form:
a) The Author’s Note:
See if you can make sense of this passage:
“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. Sometimes I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. In other instances I have, through a consistency in accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true.”
In other words: The unattributed facts you’re about to read are sometimes my best guess as to the truth, and sometimes someone else’s more dubious version, and you won’t know which is which, but – whatever, enjoy!
b) Prologue: Ailes and Bannon
This is the most interesting part of the book, and not just because Wolff has the stones to use the word “louche” in a sentence early on (there’s an “I went to college, honest” word choice about once every four pages in Fire and Fury). This passage alone sums up 30 years of the history of right-wing thinking:
“Ailes was convinced that Trump had no political beliefs or backbone. The fact that Trump had become the ultimate avatar of Fox’s angry common man was another sign that we were living in an upside-down world. The joke was on somebody – and Ailes thought it might be on him.”
This is the main theme of the book: That both the Republican establishment (as represented by the likes of Ailes and Murdoch) and the alt-right revolution (as represented by Bannon) think Trump is a fumbled football they can pick up and run into the end zone of power.
In the end, of course, the joke is on everyone, as Trump’s brain fumbles hopelessly out of bounds and neither side successfully appropriates his presidency, which becomes an endlessly circular, purposeless, narcissistic tweet-storm.
1. ELECTION DAY
Wolff becomes roughly the 40,000th writer to compare Trump’s campaign to The Producers. In classic Hollywood formula-script fashion, the Trump campaign is presented as composed of characters that each have their own desperate motivation to lose, only to each be crushed in their own way by the shocker result.
This chapter reads a lot like Shattered, the acid catalogue of finger-pointing that took place among high-ranking Clinton campaign figures after Hillary’s loss, except here it’s backwards. In this case, the characters start to blame each other for somehow transforming what Steve Bannon called a surefire “broke dick” loser campaign into a winner.
The only person who truly believed from the start that Trump would win is Melania, who had learned to expect, with religious certainty, that her husband would deliver upon the worst-case scenario in every situation. She was right.
2. Trump Tower
The president spends the Saturday after the election begging guests to stay to meet a late Rupert Murdoch, not yet realizing he is the president of the United States and probably should be at the top of every party’s A-list from now on.
The fate of Chris Christie and the White House chief-of-staff job is explained. Christie, who played a huge role in Trump’s election by being the first establishment Republican to endorse his candidacy (until then, Trump’s top backers were celebrity not-smart people like Gary Busey, John Daly, and Johnny Damon), would almost certainly have been chief of staff. But Trump does the unthinkable and gives daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner official posts in his White House, over the objections of noted ethicist Ann Coulter.
In his prosecutor days Christie had put Jared’s dad Charlie Kushner in jail in 2005 for tax evasion and witness tampering, among other things, so Christie is cashiered as an impossible fit with the family-run administration.
A number of other unsuitable candidates for the chief post are considered until Trump finally settles on Reince Priebus, a lifetime Republican functionary who lacks the willpower to refuse the suicidal assignment.
3. Day One
Everybody warns Trump not to mess with the intelligence community. “If you fuck with the intel community… you’ll have two or three years of a Russia investigation, and every day something else will leak out,” Jared is told by one of Wolff’s Someones.
Kushner, alarmed, comes up with a plan to build a bridge to the “IC” with a Day One presidential visit to the CIA. Trump dutifully shows up for the address and doesn’t take off his overcoat, lending him a “hulking gangster look” that may or may not have been designed to ingratiate him with an audience of spies.
He proceeds to go off on a lunatic rant about the size of the inauguration crowd, how God stopped the rain just in time to allow the great Trump to speak, and how he, Trump, didn’t really take down a bust of Martin Luther King, despite what a guy named Zeke from Time tweeted, because “I would never do that, I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King.”
This is the first of many bridge-building efforts that don’t work out so well.
Bannon goes from being a team player pre-election to being “focused on my shit.” He passes David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest around the White House so that staffers can learn what a political establishment looks like and to recognize a true presidential “mien” (Wolff went to college!). Foreigners, we learn, are the ne plus ultra mania of Trumpism (ibid).
A growing fault line inside the Trump White House is described as beginning to be visible between establishment GOP functionaries like Priebus, Spicer and Priebus deputy Katie Walsh on the one hand, and the likes of Bannon and ex-Jeff Sessions aide and seeming escaped med-school cadaver Stephen Miller on the other. Who will get the upper hand?
Bannon invents the term “Jarvanka” to describe Jared Kushner and wife Ivanka Trump. Trump invites Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough to the White House and serves fish. Mika doesn’t eat fish. A long story about Kushner and the New York Observer is told that ends with an explanation about how Trump, who once sought to conquer the New York media scene, eventually had to flee it, going to Hollywood to become a reality star.
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This story is important because in Hollywood and then through the election, Trump becomes so famous that the coastal media set – which had effectively driven Trump from New York in the first place in search of less judgmental audiences in flyover country – is now once again forced to cover Trump; a “fabulous, incomprehensible irony,” as Wolff puts it.
Also in this chapter: Ivanka once dated an heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, Jamie Johnson, who cast her in a bizarre movie about the horrible travails of inheriting assloads of money, a film called Born Rich (ultimate marijuana challenge: get baked and watch a tuxedoed Jamie’s intro narration without laughing).
“If you have a douchebag dad, and everyone is open about it, then maybe it becomes fun and life a romantic comedy,” Wolff writes, channeling Ivanka. “Sort of.”
6. At Home
Trump is increasingly mad at the media, in particular at The New York Times, which has reported he stalks around the White House at late hours in a bathrobe.
Bannon’s interpretation of the bathrobe detail is that this is a way of depicting Trump as losing it, a la Norma Desmond, the spiraling loony ex-actress in Sunset Boulevard.
Trump complains to everyone that he doesn’t have a bathrobe, and moreover wouldn’t think of wearing one, and can’t believe people would think he does.
“Do I seem like a bathrobe kind of guy?” Wolff says he demands of “almost everyone” he spoke to in the wake of the Times story. This is the kind of thing that passes for important in the Trump White House.
Fire and Fury, while a devastating “notional” portrait of Trump generally, describes a White House that seems genuinely to believe the Russiagate scandal to be a complete hoax. The only crack here is that some of Wolff’s sources wonder what Michael Flynn might have “roped the president into.”
Wolff furthermore describes a White House that seems more concerned that Russiagate investigations might lead toward more-real revelations in unrelated business dealings.
Bannon says he likes Flynn, that Flynn reminds him of his uncles, but “that’s the problem, he reminds me of my uncles.”
Flynn, depending on what he says going forward, is, according to Wolff, maybe the most powerful person in Washington.
8. Org Chart
Priebus, says Wolff, is expected to lose his job “as soon as his losing it would not embarrass the president too much.”
Katie Walsh, the deputy chief of staff, is portrayed as a Stalinesque figure, quietly assuming all the real organizational responsibilities of the palace while a bunch of more bombastic and self-aggrandizing males proudly pretend to be in charge of the historic ongoing failure that is this presidency.
Trump’s ability to read is questioned. Then, that question is questioned, as Wolff notes that Trump can read headlines about himself. “He’s just a guy who really hated school,” Bannon says, “and he’s not going to start liking it now.”
It’s a long book but Wolff doesn’t have much material, so he fills a lot of it with the transcripts of that weird series of days in which Bannon touches Priebus on the knee at the CPAC conference, only to have Reince recoil (although this scene is not described in the book).
Rebekah Mercer, daughter and heiress to hedge fund manager and major right-wing donor Robert Mercer, who had rescued Trump’s floundering campaign after Pussygate, is seen saying the president’s insane CPAC speech (basically a declaration of war against the news media) showed him at his “most gracious and charming.”
Wolff discusses how Bannon, Trump and Kushner have differing views about Jews. This somehow becomes a segue to talk about how Goldman, Sachs vets like Gary Cohn and onetime Goldman philanthropic chief (and noted Davos schmoozer) Dina Powell were brought into the White House by Jarvanka. The new Goldman-enhanced team is given credit for composing Trump’s relatively sane speech to a joint session of Congress, for which he is, for a few brief hours, praised by almost everyone in the news media, even Van Jones. Jarvanka decrees that “Reaching Out” is the new watchword.
Bannon, who “cast himself as a Cassandra to anyone who would listen,” correctly predicts the adulation won’t last. Because the virtue of Donald Trump, at least to Bannon, is that he will never be accepted by the “cosmopolitan elite,” which by extension includes the news media – which in turn means Bannon will have the White House back in violent conflict with the right people soon enough.
Jeff Sessions becomes the center of the latest Russiagate controversy. Trump doesn’t understand why talking to the Russians was a big deal.
Tony Blair visits Jared Kushner in a freelance diplomacy capacity and purportedly lets on that the British may have had the Trump campaign under surveillance. This becomes an obsession with Trump, who goes bonkers when he sees Bret Baier interview Paul Ryan on Fox on March 3rd, 2017, quoting a Circa report about surveillance involving the Trump Tower.
It seems like Baier just misspoke in using the word “wiretap,” but Trump goes nuts and tweet-storms at 4:35 a.m. that Trump Tower had its “wires tapped.”
Then he calls Priebus and holds the phone up so that he, Priebus, can hear a playback of the interview between Baier and Ryan, who appears to kinda-sorta endorse the Circa report in the appearance. Ryan later tells Priebus he was just “BS-ing through the interview.”
12. Repeal and Replace
The effort to undo Obamacare fails spectacularly in an episode that either speaks to the total incompetence of the Trump White House, or to a brilliant strategic move by Steve Bannon to demonstrate to Trump the total impotence of Paul Ryan and establishment pols like him. Or both, or neither.
13. Bannon Agonistes
Steve Bannon sees America as hopelessly divided into two hostile groups, one of which will win and one of which will lose. It is a modern undeclared civil war in which the rise of one side will mean, necessarily, the marginalization of the other.
Bannon had originally succeeded in making Trump a believer of this idea. Now, however, the failure of the health care debacle has instead begun to convince Trump that Bannon has to go. The logic here, as relayed by Wolff:
“Bannon’s efforts to use the epic health care fail as evidence that the establishment was the enemy had hopelessly backfired. Trump saw the health care failure as his own failure, but since he didn’t have failures, it couldn’t be a failure, and would in fact be a success – if not now, soon. So Bannon, a Cassandra on the sidelines, was the problem.“
The “centrist” wing of the Trump White House and inner circle, which by now includes not just Jarvanka but also Rupert Murdoch, begins to shark-circle around Bannon and point to him as the cause of all trouble.
The Mercers, who had rescued Trump’s campaign and installed Bannon, apply pressure to keep Bannon around. A compromise is reached: Bannon will begin leaving at more reasonable hours, and not lingering in case Trump needs a dinner companion.
14. Situation Room
“The unique problem here,” writes Wolff, “was partly how to get information to someone who did not (or could not or would not) read.”
Trump says of H.R. McMaster, his post-Flynn National Security Advisor: “That guy bores the shit out of me… He looks like a beer salesman.”
Then Trump sees McMaster perform well on Morning Joe and decides he’s made a good hire.
Bannon has pushed Trump pretty far into what is described as a radical isolationist posture toward the Middle East (or, as Bannon puts it more succinctly, “Fuck ’em”).
Now, however, a chemical attack in Syria takes place, and Ivanka and Dina Powell – this is according to Bannon – get Trump’s eyes in front of pictures of child chemical-warfare victims “foaming at the mouth.”
Trump, Bannon says, melts. He may not like to read, but pictures work. The president (allegedly) calls “a friend” that night. “The foam,” Wolff reports him saying. “All that foam.”
Trump launches a missile attack in response, and informs the visiting first couple of China over a dinner of “Dover Sole, haricots verts, and thumbelina carrots” that the attack has been completed. Fire and Fury has a fish motif.
Bannon (and the Chinese) are mortified, but everyone else is thrilled that, for the first time, Trump shows evidence of being “manageable.”
There is a long discussion about what to do about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The universal assessment is that Trump can dish it out but can’t take it, and is not particularly funny – at least not “in that kind of humorous way,” Kellyanne Conway is quoted as saying.
There is relief among the staff when it is decided Trump will not attend. He instead goes to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he inspects a line of “colorful wheelbarrows.”
Wolff’s telling of the Comey firing story seems to come almost entirely from Bannon’s viewpoint. Most of the theories of what happened seem to involve the family, and Ivanka in particular, being afraid the Russia investigation will eventually lead to personal business matters. “The daughter will take down the father,” Bannon-Cassandra prophesies on.
A huge part of Trump’s problem in Washington, Bannon says, is his inability to understand the mindset of people who seek collective prestige – the “association with hegemonic organizations and a sense of higher cause” – as opposed to individual aggrandizement. Trump, Bannon explains, doesn’t get the idea and continually insults career functionaries for being what they’re supposed to be, because he doesn’t understand anyone who would want that kind of job.
17. Abroad and At Home
Trump and the family pack up for a trip to the Middle East to establish peace there. No problem! They go to Saudi Arabia to visit the Crown Prince of the House of Saud, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a.k.a. MBS.
They don’t establish peace in the Middle East. But they do have a $75 million party thrown for them, where the fam gets driven around in gold golf carts and Trump gets to sit “on a throne-like chair.”
18. Bannon Redux
Bannon exults in Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, another move designed to permanently place Trump on the other side of a battle with the cultural elite. Bannon crudely says this is a blow to Ivanka.
“Score,” he is quoted as saying. “The bitch is dead.”
19. Mika Who?
Bannon is quoted as saying that, in his estimation, there is no way Donald Trump Jr. did not bring the dirt-promising Russian delegation led by Natalia Veselnitskaya up to his father’s office. “The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the 26th floor is zero,” Bannon says.
The Urban Dictionary defines a “jumo” as “used universally to insult any person/s regardless their gender, race, nationality, etc.”
20. McMaster and Scaramucci
On the reason Anthony Scaramucci wasn’t hired initially: “The problem was that, really, nobody liked him.”
21. Bannon and Scaramucci
Bannon is feeling superior because Gary Cohn, “once a killer enemy,” is by summer trying to curry favor, in search of a Fed Chair appointment.
Cohn is “licking my balls,” Bannon says, in an image viciously relayed without warning by Wolff.
Bannon also seems pleased to hear that special prosecutor Robert Mueller has hired Andrew Weissman to his team. Bannon thinks this is deliciously bad news for Jarvanka, who now, Bannon says, have “the LeBron James of money laundering investigations” on their tail.
“You realize where all this is going,” Bannon says. “This is about money laundering.”
And once again, Bannon-Cassandra predicts that Mueller will steamroll through Manafort straight into Trump family business dealings, Deutsche Bank, etc., what Bannon calls the “greasy shit.”
“They’re on a beach trying to stop a Category Five,” he says.
22. General Kelly
After Charlottesville, Jarvanka urges the hyper-tweeting, defensive and clearly tone-deaf Trump to take a strident posture condemning hate groups and racialists.
Bannon counsels against it, saying, “It will be clear his heart’s not in it.”
Bannon also advises against the disastrous impromptu presser at Trump Tower that Trump does anyway, sinking the White House into major crisis after Charlottesville.
Bannon at this point calls Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect and gives the interview that will seal his fate – and not coincidentally, provide the end of Wolff’s narrative. In the curiously unguarded interview, he says of his enemies in the White House: “They’re wetting themselves.”
Leaving us in the moment we’re in now: with Bannon sidelined, but billionaires like Trump and Mercer and permanent Beltwayers back piloting this ghost ship of a presidency. Will Mueller find the “greasy shit” and put an end to it all? Or will the Trump family complete the full Producers-style four-year jail sentence?
What a crazy story. If only we weren’t really living it.