Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” is an amusing read, but the title and author credit are wrong. It should be called “Getting Even,” by Steve Bannon as told to Michael Wolff.
The only substantive criticism that can be made of the book, really, is why Wolff devoted the entire thing to picking apart personalities and so few pages to important issues, aside from the underlying issue of Trump’s unfitness for office.
In defense of Wolff, Trump seems to have little to no grasp of issues, so that would have been a very short book. Nor would anyone want to read it.
The criticisms of Wolff’s reporting so far have been mild to pathetic. The Washington Post published a pathetic one under an overblown headline stating that Wolff had made a “damaging admission:” that he’d say whatever he had to say to get an interview with the powers in the White House. Oh, really?
That bit of nonsense pales before Trump’s threat to sue Wolff and his publisher for defamation — before Trump or his lawyers had read the book.
In fact, aside from some of the direct quotations, Wolff’s reporting is incontrovertible, as all of the events were reported as they happened: the disorder, the backbiting and sniping, the overt lies and lack of direction from the least-experienced and least-informed crew ever to move into the White House.
On Sunday this week, after Trump informed the world that “my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” a paragraph in a Page 1 New York Times story began: “Mr. Trump’s self-absorption, impulsiveness, lack of empathy, obsessive focus on slights, tenuous grasp of facts and penchant for sometime far-fetched conspiracy theories …” and this was a straight news story. According to Wolff, most of Trump’s Cabinet members would have no objection to that.
One could ask why Wolff thought it necessary to write a 310-page kneecapping of a sitting president, but the answer is obvious: because the man is dangerous.
Because the man is also powerful, it’s probably important for our country to know what Wolff insists Trump’s Cabinet and staff know already. Briefly: that he has no impulse control, is relentlessly self-centered, that he “hopelessly personalize(s) everything” and is “helpless not to” — hence his running fights with virtually everyone — that he is “helpless not to express … out loud” whatever he happens to be thinking, that he’s too impatient to read even a 3-page briefing paper, and that he treats people like used Kleenex.
Wolff’s achievement — and it is an impressive one — is to record the proof. As far as what the Post laughably implied was some sort of trespass upon ethics, Wolff says on page two of his Author’s Note that the Trump White House was so disorganized from Day One that no one seemed to have the authority to tell him to go away.
The first 70 pages get off to a rollicking start, as Wolff unfolds his theory that neither Trump nor anyone else at the top of his campaign — except for Steve Bannon, evil genius — expected or even wanted to win the election. It was all about adding cachet, and money, to their brands.
The next 30 pages are the weakest in the book, as Wolff has a bit too much fun letting his main characters eviscerate one another. He straightens up around page 100, though, and by page 250 it becomes difficult to put down, as Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation proceeds and Bannon insists it will end up being about money laundering in the Kushner and Trump real estate fiefdoms.
When Wolff declines to provide direct quotations, his sources are easy to identify: Who comes out of it looking good? Who is even slightly likable? Bannon is obviously the main source. There is nothing unkind in the book about Sean Spicer. Katie Walsh, a White House deputy chief of staff, appears as one who can keep her head when all about her are losing theirs. Rupert Murdoch and the late Roger Ailes appear as distant sages, far more reasonable than they would be were Wolff actually writing a hit job, as Trump and his supporters claim.
Perhaps the cruelest chapter is the third, where Wolff provides 800 lightly edited words of Trump’s now famous Jan. 21 speech to CIA officers, at CIA headquarters. Trump’s fatuous self-congratulations roll on and on, for two pages, devoid of anything but preening. It's a tour de force of idiocy.
Another great bit that this reviewer has not seen in other reviews is Wolff’s claim that nine top Washington law firms refused to represent the White House in the Russia investigation — not for political or ethical reasons, but because they thought Trump would stiff them for their fees.
The cruelest review of Wolff's book came from Russia expert Masha Gessen, in the Sunday, Jan. 7 online edition of The New Yorker. She calls it a poorly written rehash of stories already reported by the responsible press, i.e., the Times and the Post.
Well, of course. But Wolff got the quotes.
“His writing is comically bad,” Gessen says — a ridiculous claim. No one expects immortal prose in “ripped-from-today’s-headlines” journalism qua history. Wolff does a fine job of keeping the story going. There is nothing wrong with his writing.
A few reporters have managed to pick an honest few nits — who broke that story? Buzzfeed or CNN? — but there’s nothing in the book that undermines Wolff’s credibility.
His publisher, Henry Holt, could have done a better job. There are numerous who/whom mistakes, other grammatical howlers and typos, including “pubic venom” and “a dream long differed.”
But all in all, the book delivers what it advertises: a close-up look at the most dysfunctional White House since the dying days of the Nixon administration.
(Michael Wolff, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” Henry Holt & Co., 321 pages (with index), $30.)