Michael Wolff’s bestselling new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, was, by all indications, a well-executed long con.
The big reveal
Wolff, a New York-based journalist, gained extended access to the West Wing after writing a couple of relatively complimentary pieces about President Donald Trump. When he left, Trumpworld believed they would receive in return a positive, laudatory book. Of course, they got the exact opposite. That says less about Wolff than about Trump and his circle, none of whom were apparently savvy enough to see through the author’s obvious ruse.
What results is a book that’s hugely entertaining and illuminating but also flawed in ways large and small.
Wolff addressed these topics and others at a Free Library of Philadelphia author event. In an onstage conversation with WHYY political commentator Dick Polman, Wolff discussed the book, defended himself from his critics, and was much more directly critical of Trump than he was on the page.
The hourlong event, which drew a full auditorium as well as two separate overflow rooms, also doubled as a chance for readers to get their hands on the copy of the book, which is sold out at many area bookstores. When lawyers for the president threatened to sue to block its publication, publisher Henry Holt and Co. responded by moving up the book’s release.This marked the first stop on Wolff’s national tour, and as of Tuesday, the book is already in its 11th printing.
Trump: "Appallingly stupid"
The crowd, perhaps unsurprisingly, was vocally anti-Trump and applauded when Polman mentioned the day's news that former White House chief strategist (and major Wolff source) Steve Bannon had been subpoenaed by special counsel Robert Mueller.
“Everyone around [the president] thinks he’s just appallingly stupid,” Wolff said. The author talked to more than 200 sources for the book, although the only ones he named specifically onstage were Bannon and communications-director-for-11-days Anthony Scaramucci. When asked by Polman if any of his sources said Trump is “actually doing a good job,” Wolff said simply, “No.”
In person, Wolff looks and sounds almost exactly like Fred Armisen’s impression of him, which debuted on Saturday Night Live a few nights earlier. Wolff was clear that he’s much more comfortable with his SNL caricature than Trump has been of Alec Baldwin’s. He declared himself in “extremely good spirits” about Armisen’s take.
Most of the key themes of the book — that Trump may very well be mentally unstable, that his White House is plagued by drama and infighting, and that the Russia story is real — are in line with most reporting on the Trump White House. The book also paints a picture of Trump as narcissistic, unsophisticated about policy, obsessed with petty grievances, and ostentatiously vulgar at all times.
Wolff confirms that everyone at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, including the president, loves leaking information to the press while simultaneously accusing their opponents of doing the same. Trump, Bannon, and others have a weakness for simply calling up reporters and unburdening themselves, on the record.
The author’s template is Bob Woodward’s series of behind-the-scenes blockbusters about various presidents, as well as Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s dishy Game Change books.
What makes Wolff’s exposé different is its wide variety of juicy details. We learn that Donald and Melania Trump most likely have almost no relationship and that Trump has paid “a hundred” settlements to various women. Around the White House, Ivanka Trump is seen as the president’s “wife” and Hope Hicks as his “daughter” — although the latter designation didn’t prevent the president from calling Hicks, to her face, “the best piece of tail [former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski] will ever have.”
The book also contains perhaps the best primer I’ve read on the specifics of the “Russia story.” There’s also some fascinating stuff about Trump’s complex relationship with Jews and Judaism. However, Bannon, a guy who’s rumored to hate Jews, is surprisingly adept at Yiddish, throwing around words like schmendrick in his long, inexplicably on-the-record rants.
On the downside
Questions have been raised about the truthfulness of the book’s reporting. But Wolff’s sources were mostly members of Trump’s inner circle inside and outside of the White House. If their allegations seem suspect, it’s worth remembering they’re mostly a collection of uncommonly self-serving bullshitters and exaggerators, and Wolff simply and unquestioningly wrote down everything they said.
The book is also thinly sourced. Multiple reporters have stated that its anecdotes (such as one involving Sen. Mitch McConnell blowing off Trump to get a haircut) were pitched to them but didn’t run because the reporters didn’t or couldn't confirm them. There’s also Wolff’s rather untraditional method of sourcing, which seems to reassemble conversations, whether he heard them or not, verbatim.
In addition, the book’s opening anecdote recalls a long dinner party with Steve Bannon and Roger Ailes. Not only was the dinner meant to be off the record (Wolff claims he secured permission from Ailes’s widow after the Fox News head’s death) but Wolff never discloses that the party happened at his own house.
At the Free Library, Wolff said, “This is a pretty good story, and I think I’ve told it in a compelling way.” He believes his book is so successful because he was the first to bring everything together. Yes, he was first, and there will certainly be many more books like his. Whether he got it right, however, will likely be left to the judgment of future historians of these eventful, ridiculous times.
To read Alaina Mabaso's account of the Free Library's Michael Wolff event, click here.