• Local
  • Pittsfield, MA
  • more weather >

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Siege’ reveals the constant provocations, never-ending nastiness of the Trump administration

By Saturday, Jul 20, 2019 Arts & Entertainment 18

Siege
Michael Wolff
Copyright © 2019 Michael Wolff
Henry Holt and Co.

(Language alert: The president and his friends often use language that some evangelicals might find offensive—oh, wait, you voted for him. But for the rest of you concerned with cursing, I suggest you move on.)

Michael Wolff, the author of the runaway bestseller “Fire and Fury” is back. It doesn’t take long before “Siege” reveals why so little—besides the constant provocations and never-ending nastiness—has been accomplished by this administration: “Before long, a constant preoccupation of senior staffers in the Trump White House was to know as little as possible. It was a wrong-side-up world: where being ‘in the room’ was traditionally the most sought-after status, now you wanted to stay out of meetings. You wanted to avoid being a witness to conversations; you wanted to avoid being witnessed being a witness to conversations, at least if you were smart …

“The White House, it rapidly dawned on almost everyone who worked there—even as it became one more reason not to work there—was the scene of an ongoing criminal investigation, one that could potentially ensnare anyone who was anywhere near it.” (Emphasis added.)

Even more than “Fire and Fury,” based in large part on Wolff’s months-long occupation of the White House, “Siege” requires the belief that the many unnamed witnesses, and Wolff himself, are accurately portraying events as they really happened.

Wolff claims: “Many of Trump’s pre–White House cronies continue to both listen to him and support him; at the same time, as an expression both of their concern and of their incredulity, they report among one another, and to others as well, on his temper, mood, and impulses. In general, I have found that the closer people are to him, the more alarmed they have found themselves at various points about his mental state. They all speculate about how this will end—badly for him, they almost all conclude. (Emphasis added.)

Wolff forces us down Alice’s rabbit hole. Episode after episode reveals a mean-spirited, self-absorbed bully who doesn’t read, study or listen to anyone who says anything he disagrees with. He insults almost everybody. His July 11, 2019, tweets suggest six more years of his presidency; maybe 10, maybe 14 years; disparages the Fake News; and mocks possible Dem opponents like Biden, Warren and Buttigieg while imagining himself the best ever:

Donald Trump’s tweet of July 11, 2019, reminding us he’s a great-looking stable genius

Back to Wolff: “My primary goal in Siege is to create a readable and intuitive narrative … to write the near equivalent of a real-time history of this extraordinary moment … A final goal is pure portraiture: Donald Trump as an extreme, almost hallucinatory, and certainly cautionary, American character. To accomplish this, to gain the perspective and to find the voices necessary to tell the larger story, I provided anonymity to any source who requested it … With regard to the Mueller investigation, the narrative I provide is based on internal documents given to me by sources close to the Office of the Special Counsel.”

Readable it is, but I’m taking “Siege” with many grains of salt. Nevertheless, “Siege” is very much a product of the hallucinatory Trumpian times we are living through. I know from previous efforts for The Edge that there’s a small but full-throated chorus of commenters—I’m not sure they’re actually readers—who charge me with Trump Derangement Syndrome. But no one suffers more severely from Trump Derangement Syndrome than the deranged Donald Trump, those who serve/served him in the White House, and the most vociferous of Trump supporters.

Wolff writes: “A basic requirement of working there is, surely, the willingness to infinitely rationalize or delegitimize the truth, and, when necessary, to outright lie. In fact, I believe this has caused some of the same people who have undermined the public trust to become private truth-tellers. This is their devil’s bargain …

“For instance, most crucially, the president, by a wide range of the people in close contact with him, is often described in maximal terms of mental instability. ‘I have never met anyone crazier than Donald Trump’ is the wording of one staff member who has spent almost countless hours with the president. Something like this has been expressed to me by a dozen others with firsthand experience.” (Emphasis added).

Of course, he is the true stable genius and the others are dumb: ‘It’s playing the game,’ he explained in one of his frequent monologues about his own superiority and everyone else’s stupidity. ‘I’m good at the game. Maybe I’m the best. Really, I could be the best. I think I am the best. I’m very good. Very cool. Most people are afraid that the worst might happen. But it doesn’t, unless you’re stupid. And I’m not stupid.’” (Emphasis added).

There is, of course, something so very comforting about derangement—no pesky self-knowledge, no humility required.

Wolff tells a newsworthy story that weaves together Jeffrey Epstein, Donald Trump and a Putin friendly Russian oligarch: “In November 2004, for instance, Jeffrey Epstein, the financier later caught in a scandal involving underage prostitutes, agreed to purchase from bankruptcy a house in Palm Beach, Florida, for $36 million … Epstein and Trump had been close friends—playboys in arms, as it were—for more than a decade, with Trump often seeking Epstein’s help with his chaotic financial affairs. Soon after negotiating the deal for the house in Palm Beach, Epstein took Trump to see it, looking for advice on construction issues involved with moving the swimming pool. But as he prepared to finalize his purchase for the house, Epstein discovered that Trump, who was severely cash-constrained at the time, had bid $41 million for the property and bought it out from under Epstein through an entity called Trump Properties LLC, entirely financed by Deutsche Bank …

Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump. Photo courtesy Davidoff Studios/Getty

“A furious Epstein, certain that Trump was merely fronting for the real owners, threatened to expose the deal, which was getting extensive coverage in Florida papers. The fight became all the more bitter when, not long after the purchase, Trump put the house on the market for $125 million. 

“But if Epstein knew some of Trump’s secrets, Trump knew some of Epstein’s. Trump often saw the financier at Epstein’s current Palm Beach house, and Trump knew that Epstein was visited almost every day, and had been for many years, by girls he’d hired to give him massages that often had happy endings—girls recruited from local restaurants, strip clubs, and, also, Trump’s own Mar-a-Lago. Just as the enmity between the two friends increased over the house purchase, Epstein found himself under investigation by the Palm Beach police. And as Epstein’s legal problems escalated, the house, with only minor improvements, was acquired for $96 million by Dmitry Rybolovlev, an oligarch who was part of the close Putin circle of government-aligned industrialists in Russia, and who, in fact, never moved into the house. Trump had, miraculously, earned $55 million without putting up a dime … (Emphasis added).

Here’s a story that illustrates the chaos of the Trump administration: “[John] Kelly had joined the White House, replacing Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, in August 2017, charged with bringing management discipline to a chaotic West Wing. But by mid-fall, Trump was circumventing Kelly’s new procedures … By the end of the year, Trump was casually mocking his chief of staff and his penchant for efficiency and strict procedures. Indeed, both men were openly trashing each other, quite unmindful of the large audience for their slurs. For Trump, Kelly was a ‘twitcher’ and ‘feeble’ and ready to ‘stroke out.’ For Kelly, Trump was ‘deranged’ and ‘mad’ and ‘stupid.’”

In Trumpovia, everyone just adjusted to the madness. And if they couldn’t, they left. For example: “In February 2018, Rachel Brand, the associate attorney general, a former Bush lawyer who had been nominated for the number three DOJ job by Obama, resigned to take a job as a Walmart lawyer … She told colleagues she wanted to get out before Trump fired Rosenstein and then demanded that she fire Mueller. She would take Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart had its headquarters, over Washington, D.C. … Trump was constantly being lectured about the importance of ‘custom and tradition’ at the Justice Department. As reliably, he would respond, ‘I don’t want to hear this bullshit!’” …

According to Wolff, Steve Bannon more than anyone realized who he was dealing with: “‘When Trump calls his New York friends after dinner and whines that he doesn’t have a friend in the world, he’s kind of right …”

What about family? Son-in-law Jared Kushner tried to advise the president “to move cautiously when it came to Rosenstein. ‘Jared is spooked,’ said a scornful Trump later that day while on the phone to a confidant. ‘What a girl!’” (Emphasis added).

You’d think that drain-the-swamp voters might be concerned about the continuing chaos. Wolff tells us: “There was a running sweepstakes or office pool for the unhappiest person in the White House. Many had held the title, but one of the most frequent winners was White House counsel Don McGahn. He was a constant target for his boss’s belittling, mocking, falsetto-voice mimicry, and, as well, sweeping disparagements of his purpose and usefulness …

“Nobody could quite be certain of the number of times McGahn had had to threaten, with greater or lesser intention, to quit if Trump made good on his threat to fire the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, or the special counsel.”

Trump to a New York friend: “Comey thinks I am stupid. I will show him how stupid I am if he thinks I’m stupid. I am so stupid I will screw all of them, that’s how stupid I am.”

If the revelations of never-ending madness get you down, Wolff offers some great gossip: “And then there was Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, the White House doctor. Jackson would be nothing short of delirious when heaping flattery on the president. In his review of the president’s health in January 2018, he professionally opined, ‘Some people have just great genes. I told the president that if he had a healthier diet over the last twenty years, he might live to be two hundred years old.’

“In late March, Trump had fired David Shulkin, the head of Veterans Affairs, and then nominated Jackson as his replacement. It was an odd choice—Jackson had no administrative experience, nor any professional engagement with veteran-related matters—but it was wholly in keeping with Trump’s desire to reward friends and supporters …

“Early in the administration, an article in Rolling Stone had quoted Pence referring to his wife as ‘Mother’ … She was seen as the power behind the vice presidential throne—the canny, indefatigable, iron-willed strategist who propped up her hapless husband.

Mike and Karen Pence. Photo: Alex Brandon/Associated Press

“‘She really gives me the creeps,’ said Trump, who avoided Mrs. Pence … While Pence performed daily acts of obeisance to Trump and demonstrated an abject and almost excruciating loyalty, Ayers [Pence’s chief of staff] and Mother were anticipating the worst for the Trump presidency and positioning Pence as the soft landing if impeachment and expulsion or resignation came …

“Trump, however … had no inkling that the nomination of Admiral Jackson was about to become a test of the Mother–Ayers (and thus Pence) strength, and of the president’s weakness … Jackson was a popular get-along figure, not least because he was casual about prescribing medication. He kept the president stocked with Provigil, an upper, which Trump’s New York doctor had long prescribed for him. For others, Jackson was regarded as a particularly easy Ambien touch. He got along especially well with the men—an ‘old-fashioned sort of drinker,’ in one description. He got along much less well with the women, accruing several complaints.

“One woman he crossed was Mother. During the first year of the Trump presidency, she had consulted Jackson about a gynecological problem. Jackson, participating in the general ridicule of the vice president’s wife, was indiscreet about her issue. Mother soon learned about this breach, and her mortification and anger quickly turned into a determination for revenge.

“Many of the leaks about Jackson’s drinking, free hand with pills, and the harassment claims against him … came from Mother and Ayers. Before long, the nomination was strangled. Jackson withdrew his name from consideration on April 26.

“This was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen the West Wing do, lay the hit on the admiral,” said Bannon. “They whacked that son of a bitch.” (Emphasis added).

Again and again, Wolff details the toll paid by those closest to the West Wing: “Trump’s constant lies forced the people around him to become complicit in those lies, or, at the very least, sheepish bystanders to them. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, had developed a particular pained and immovable expression when called on to repeat and defend the president’s lies.

“Kellyanne Conway, for her part, took a literal, almost moralistic position. If the president said something, the mere fact that he had said it meant that the statement deserved to be defended. In this, like a lawyer (and she was a lawyer), she could defend the statement because her client had not told her it was untrue. “Conway, in fact, had perfected the art of satisfying Trump while running from him. She had come into the White House professing her desire ‘to be in the room,’ but she survived by never being in the room, understanding that the room is where Stalin kills you.” (Emphasis added).

The beat goes on. Here’s an example, post-“Siege,” about the endemic deceit that is required in Trumpovia: Brad Parscale’s attempt to inflate attendance at the latest Send Her Back rally in Greenville, North Carolina:

Caitlin Byrd/Brad Parscale tweet, July 17, 2019

Wolff tells the tale of Erik Whitestone: “Whitestone worked for Mark Burnett, the TV producer who in 2004 launched The Apprentice … Whitestone was assigned the job of putting the microphone up Trump’s shirt … you had to reach under the jacket and shirt—everyone else on the production team had resisted it. Trump, with his size, height, and glowering demeanor, was not only off-putting; for no clear reason, he would unzip his pants and pull them down partway, exposing tighty-whities. ‘It was like sticking your head in the lion’s mouth,’ said Whitestone …

“Whitestone, now on permanent Trump-mic duty, took a day off and someone else, an African American sound technician, was given the assignment. Trump flipped out. A frantic Burnett found Whitestone at home. Trump had barricaded himself in the bathroom. ‘Donald won’t go on until you get here,’ … An hour later, Whitestone came rushing in to find Trump screaming from behind the bathroom door. ‘Erik, what the fuck, they tried to fuck me up … They put dirty fingerprints on my collars, they tried to fuck up my tie’ … After that, every single morning of the shooting season, for the next fourteen years, Whitestone would show up at Trump’s …

“Trump was a simple machine. Whitestone understood his singular interests—sports and girls … ‘If he was in a bad mood and we were going from office to boardroom—we had to go through the Trump Tower lobby … I would scan for an attractive woman. ‘Hey,’ I’d say, ‘at six o’clock.’” 

“Girls were the constant. ‘Erik, go get her, and bring her up.’ And so, me: ‘Mr. Trump wants to know if you want to come up and see the boardroom.’ He’d hug them and grope them and send them on their way.” … 

“Once, coming back from Chicago, a young woman, an attractive interior designer who was pitching Trump on a project, hitched a ride on Trump’s plane. “He led her into the bedroom with a mirrored ceiling … She comes out, half an hour later, dress ripped off, staggering out, she sits in the seat … and then he comes out with his tie off, shirt untucked, and says, ‘Fellas … just got laid.’ … (Emphasis added).

And his marriage? “To the extent that the Trumps had lived a don’t-ask-don’t-tell life—helped by the considerable distance between them allowed by their ample real estate, including at least one house near his golf club in the New York suburbs that Trump kept carefully hidden from his wife—this now became impossible. Whatever polite arrangement they had had prior to the campaign had certainly come crashing down in October with the grab-them-by-the-pussy tape. There was not only this terrible public coarseness, but the ensuing public testimony of multiple women claiming abuse at Trump’s hands. But now, with her husband’s election, Melania was exposed beyond anything she could have possibly imagined.”

Nobody knew the number of women who might have cause to come forward and accuse Trump of harassment or abuse. Bannon sometimes used the figure of a hundred girls, but sometimes, too, a thousand … nobody knew what was out there.

Steve Bannon, 2016. Photo: Stephen Crowley/New York Times

“But I remember—I kept track of them all. They’re in my dreams. Remember the girl at the China Club? I do. Kristin Anderson. She says he put two digits in her vagina at the bar. She’s forty-three, forty-four now, and one of these days she’s gonna look right in the camera on Good Morning America and she’s going to say, ‘He came in the back of the bar when I was eighteen years old and put two fingers in my vagina … my vagina … my vagina.’ And you’re going to hear that at 8:03 in the morning and she’s going to start crying. And then two days later there is going to be the next girl … and the next girl. It will be siege warfare. This one today, then let it cook, then take out another and put it on. We got twenty-five or thirty or a hundred. Or a thousand. We’ll take them one at a time, and every woman in the country is going to say, ‘Wait, what did he do, why is she crying?’”

“I never saw any evidence of a marriage,” said Bannon of his time in the White House. Most mentions of Melania drew a puzzled look from Trump, as if to say, “How is she relevant?” (Emphasis added). 

A non-existent marriage, Wolff tells us, that extended to his son: “Early in the administration, one aide, new to the Trump circle, suggested to Trump that he be photographed playing golf with his son. The aide went on giddily talking about the special bond golfing dads have with their sons until it was clear that he was getting the Trump freeze—an ability to pretend you didn’t exist while at the same time intimating that he might kill you if you did.

“By contrast, Melania’s singular focus was her son. Together, mother and son occupied a bubble inside the Trump bubble. She assiduously protected Barron from his father’s remoteness … Melania sometimes spoke Slovenian with Barron, particularly when her parents were around—and they were frequently around—infuriating Trump and causing him to bolt from any room they were in … ‘We don’t belong here,’ she widely repeated to friends …

“Even beyond their separate bedrooms in the White House—they were the first presidential couple since JFK and Jackie to room apart—much of Melania’s time was spent in a house in Maryland where she had installed her parents and established what was effectively a separate life for herself …

“Nobody discounted the possibility, as a whole genre of stories and theories had it, that the rumored elevator video of Trump striking Melania might in fact exist. Inside the White House, the view was that if the video did exist, the incident had happened in Los Angeles, probably in 2014 after a meeting with lawyers that had been arranged precisely to negotiate a revision in their marital agreement.

Melania, Donald, and Barron Trump, 2015. Photo: Joe Pugliese/People Magazine

“The deal was always about letting Donald Trump be Donald Trump. “I only fuck beautiful girls—you can attest to that,” he said to a Hollywood friend who visited the White House. (He had once left a voice-mail message for Tucker Carlson, who had criticized Trump’s hair: “It’s true you have better hair than I do, but I get more pussy than you do.”) Being Donald Trump—the Donald Trump, unfettered Donald Trump—was the most important thing to him. And he would compensate Melania handsomely for that.” (Emphasis added).

But back to Trump Derangement Syndrome, Wolff, using Trump’s own rambling mostly incoherent words, makes quite clear who’s the chief sufferer: “Meanwhile, in Michigan, Trump spoke for over an hour to a raucous rally at the Total Sports Park arena in Washington Township. His specific intent was to support Bill Schuette, Michigan’s attorney general, a candidate running against Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, who had committed the unpardonable sin of withdrawing his endorsement of Trump just before the 2016 election. The president offered a bare mention of Schuette near the beginning of his speech, then digressed into a long account, as vivid as it was demented, of all that he alone was up against …

“Well, they’re doing it with us, they’re trying their damnedest, but that, but a little—I want to thank, by the way, the House Intelligence Committee, okay? They do it with us, too. Russian collusion. You know, I guarantee you, I’m tougher on Russia, nobody ever thought. In fact, do you, have you heard about the lawyer for a year, a woman lawyer, she was like, ‘Oh, I know nothing.’ Now, all of a sudden, she supposedly is involved with government. You know why? If she did that, because Putin and the group said, ‘You know, this Trump is killing us. Why don’t you say that you’re involved with government so that we can go and make their life in the United States even more chaotic?’ Look at what’s happened! Look at how these politicians have fallen for this junk. Russian collusion—give me a break! …

“I’ll tell you, the only collusion is the Democrats colluded with the Russians, and the Democrats colluded with lots of other people. Take a look at the intelligence agencies, and what about, hey, and what about Comey? You watch him on the interviews? ‘Ah, ah, ah…’ What about Comey? What about Comey? How about that? So Comey, how about this guy Comey? He said the other night—the fake, dirty dossier—he said the other night on Fox, he said, very strongly, ‘No, I didn’t know that it was paid for by the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.’ He didn’t know, he didn’t know—how about that? They start something based on a document that was paid for by the DNC and Hillary Clinton. Honestly, folks, let me tell you, let me tell you, it’s a disgrace. We got to get back down to business. It’s a disgrace what’s going on in our country, and they did that, they did that to Admiral Jackson. They are doing it to a lot of people …”

Trump, unbound and in his element, went on in this way for 80 minutes.

Wolff offers a short succinct contrast between the president and the prosecutor: “Mueller’s keen suspicion of personality became his personality. He was a prosecutor in the old sense of representing the bureaucracy; he operated by the book and never promoted his own independence, a kind of anti-Giuliani. He had no press aptitude or interest and found it nearly incomprehensible and morally troubling that anyone did. He was, in the old nomenclature, a decent family man, married to his high school sweetheart, the father of two children. In short, he was a hopeless square, and he remained that way even as American culture sent squares to the dustbin of history—which, curiously, now made him a hero to left-wing, culturally hip, anti-Trump America.

“‘He’s got no game,’ Trump characterized Mueller to a friend.”

Now here’s where Wolff tells us stuff no one else has claimed, without, unfortunately, any proof: “By March 2018, Mueller’s team was contemplating an audacious move. In an initiative led by Weissmann, the special counsel’s office laid out an indictment of the president …

“There were three counts in ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – against – DONALD J. TRUMP, Defendant.’ The first count, under Title 18, United States code, Section 1505, charged the president with corruptly—or by threats of force or threatening communication—influencing, obstructing, or impeding a pending proceeding before a department or agency of the United States. The second count, under section 1512, charged the president with tampering with a witness, victim or informant. The third count, under section 1513, charged the president with retaliating against a witness, victim or informant …

“It traced the line of obstruction from National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s lies to the FBI about his contacts with Russian representative, to the president’s efforts to have James Comey protect Flynn, to Comey’s firing, to the president’s efforts to interfere with the special counsel’s investigation, to his attempt to cover up his son and son-in-law’s meeting with Russian governmental agents, to his moves to interfere with Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe’s testimony and, as well, to retaliate against him …”

Of course, there was the now famous opinion of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that argued a sitting president could not be indicted. Wolff tells us that the Mueller team believed they could counter that: “By the end of March, the Mueller team had not only the particulars of the proposed indictment but a draft of a memorandum of law opposing the “defendant’s”—that is Donald Trump’s—anticipated motion to dismiss his indictment …

“Nowhere, it argued, does the law say the president cannot be indicted; nowhere is the president accorded a different status under the law than other federal officials, all of whom can be indicted and convicted as well as impeached. The Constitution is precise in the immunity it grants—and there is none provided for the president …

“The argument was clear and basic. There was no statutory exception from the law for the president; quite the opposite, in fact, since the entire Constitutional framework made clear that the president was not above the law in any respect. Impeachment was a remedy that could be used against all civil officers of the United States, but it did not protect them from indictment; hence, the impeachment clause should not protect the president from indictment. The so-called balancing argument—that the burden of a criminal process on the president would interfere with his ability to carry out his elective duties—was specious because the weight would be no greater than the significant burden involved with an impeachment proceeding.

“But Bob Mueller had not risen to the highest levels of the federal government by misconstruing the limits of bureaucratic power. Indeed, he was among the government’s most accomplished players.

“On an almost daily basis, Mueller and his staff continually weighed the odds that the president would fire them. The very existence of the special counsel’s investigation had in a sense become the paramount issue of the investigation itself. Shutting it down, or delaying it, or damaging it was, in an underappreciated irony, the natural next step by the president or his chosen surrogate, given the obstruction case that the Mueller team was building against him.

“Throughout the winter and spring of 2018, while piecing together an obstruction case against the president, the special counsel’s office was trying to get up to speed on this potential ultimate act of obstruction. What it learned was not reassuring. ‘Can President Trump order Sessions to withdraw the special counsel regulations (and fire him if he doesn’t)?’ asked one of the memos circulated internally.

“‘The short answer is yes,’ concluded the team’s research. Even though he had recused himself from the investigation, Attorney General Sessions could repeal the special counsel regulations and open the way for Trump to fire Mueller directly …

“It was in fact possible, the Mueller research concluded: ‘The president could fire the special counsel directly and justify that action by arguing that the special counsel regulations are unconstitutional insofar as they limit his ability to fire the special counsel.’ That, the research argued, would likely be found to exceed presidential authority. But ‘there is at least some chance the president’s actions could be upheld if reviewed in court—especially because the relevant regulations [governing the office of the special counsel] were never enacted by Congress into the U.S. code.’ … (Emphasis added).

“But the truth of the matter was straightforward: as long as the president had the continued support of the majority party in Congress, he held a very strong, and likely winning, hand.”

So far there’s been no independent verification of these internal documents. But even if this is just theory, it does explain what many consider Mueller’s reticence to challenge the president and force his public testimony, even allowing the president to avoid answering in writing questions about obstruction of justice.

And given Rosenstein’s support of Attorney General Barr’s mischaracterization of Mueller’s report, it’s not a stretch to believe he might have thwarted any attempt by Mueller to indict the president. And, of course, once Barr came on board, it was crystal clear he would do anything to protect the president.

Wolff is quite critical: “Robert Mueller, the stoic marine, had revealed himself over the course of the nearly two-year investigation to his colleagues and staff to be quite a Hamlet figure. Or, less dramatically, a cautious and indecisive bureaucrat. He had repeatedly traveled between a desire to use his full authority against Donald Trump and the nagging belief that he had no such authority. He could be, he knew, the corrective to the louche and corrupt president; at the same time, he asked himself, what right did he have to correct the country’s duly elected leader? On the one hand, you could indict the president for acting as if he were above the law; the secret draft indictment outlining the president’s casual abuses had been on Mueller’s desk for almost a year. On the other hand, a reasonable man might, in certain nuanced ways, see aspects of the presidency as indeed above the law.”

We are pretty much where Wolff ends “Siege”: “On Sunday, late on a spring-like afternoon, sixty-four degrees in Washington, the attorney general sent his summary of the report to Congress. In a four-page letter, Barr said that the special counsel had failed to find evidence of a conspiracy to influence the 2016 election between Trump or his aides and representatives from the Russian government. Further, while the special counsel had found evidence of possible obstruction of justice, he had left it to the attorney general’s discretion whether to pursue the issue. In his letter, Barr said he had made the determination that the evidence did not warrant prosecution …

“But for now, Donald Trump seemed to have slipped his pursuers. As an amused Steve Bannon commented, ‘Never send a marine to do a hit man’s job.’ … Almost immediately, Trump was publicly proclaiming his “complete and total exoneration.” Soon he was on the phone seeking congratulations, taking congratulations, and congratulating himself. 

“‘Who’s the man? I’m the man. I am the man,’ he said to a well-wisher. He went on about his toughness, ferocity, and strategic acumen. He restated his constant point: ‘Never, never, never give in. Weakness is what they wait for. Fear. I am fearless. They know that. I scared the shit out of them.’ … And then he delivered a scornful critique of Robert Mueller: ‘What an asshole.’ (Emphasis added).

“‘Am I safe?’ Trump persisted in asking the caller. ‘Am I safe?’” He answered his own question: ‘They are going to keep coming after me.’

Wolff continues: “Once again, he had dodged a potential death blow. But his ‘exoneration’ changed little because he was still guilty of being Donald Trump. It was not only that his very nature would continue to repulse a majority of the nation, as well as almost everybody who came into working contact with him, but it would lead him again and again to the brink of personal destruction.

“His escape, such as it was, would be brief.”

Many have opined on the toll the Trump presidency has taken on the used-to-be norms of our politics. from the Day One journey down the stairs railing against Mexicans, the criticism of war hero John McCain, the attacks on Muslim Gold Star parents, the Access Hollywood brags about sexual assault and his love affair with Russian and North Korean tyrants to his most recent racist tweets, we have learned there is never a too-much moment.

Michael Wolff shows us in excruciating—and I mean excruciating—detail that this descent into darkness is not about this moment or that moment but life with Donald Trump all day, every day—a never-ending derangement.


More by »
»