Fire and Fury
Inside The Trump White House
By Michael Wolff
2018 Little, Brown
336 pages, $30
In a matter of months, the White House, the government, our nation itself has moved from a modicum of reasonableness to an almost constant state of derangement. Republican, Democrat, Independent, we could and would often argue and dispute, even vehemently disagree about politics and policy: Johnson, then Nixon’s Vietnam; Reagan’s crazy scheme to send guns to Iran and money to the Nicaraguan Contras; Bill Clinton’s punitive welfare reform; Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan; and Obama’s inability to extract us from those wars we can’t win, but there was always a presumption that while those in charge of our government might be mistaken, they were, at least, sane.
Sadly, you can’t read Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” without wanting to immediately quarantine the President and everyone who has come in contact with him. Declare an immediate mental health advisory. Because all of them, they’re mad as hatters.
The President’s flip-flops on immigration, his pathological lying about Obama Care and his tax cuts, the most recent revelation that he was only stopped from firing Robert Mueller when White House Counsel McGahn refused the order and threatened to resign are all made more understandable if you’ve spent some quality time with “Fire and Fury.”
I suspect, like me, you’ll learn some things you didn’t know: for example, Ivanka and Jared’s mind-boggling, unlimited ambition. You’ll learn more about things you’ve probably read about. Wolff adds a whole new explanation for Michael Flynn’s continuing greed and willingness to act as a paid agent of foreign governments, about the pay-offs he somehow hallucinated he could slip past the intelligence community. Flynn “had been told by his friends that it had not been a good idea to take $45,000 from the Russians for a speech.” But Flynn explains it away: ‘Well, it would only be a problem if we won,’ he assured them, knowing that it would therefore not be a problem. Trump would never win and they would hardly care.”
We learn that when it came to his own campaign, Trump wasn’t willing to put his money where his mouth was: “The candidate who billed himself as a billionaire — ten times over — refused even to invest his own money in it. Bannon told Jared Kushner … that, after the first debate in September, they would need an additional $50 million to cover them until election day. ‘No way we’ll get fifty million unless we can guarantee him victory,’ said a clear-eyed Kushner. ‘Twenty-five million?’ prodded Bannon. ‘If we can say victory is more than likely.’
“In the end, the best Trump would do is loan the campaign $10 million, provided he got it back as soon as they could raise other money. (Steve Mnuchin, then the campaign’s finance chairman, came to collect the loan with the wire instructions ready to go, so Trump couldn’t conveniently forget to send the money.)”
Wolff tells us that most of these Trumpeters never expected to win. And the family hoped most of all to incentivize the opportunity. Wolff explains: “Losing was winning. Trump would be the most famous man in the world — a martyr to crooked Hillary Clinton.” They would all benefit:
His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would have transformed themselves from relatively obscure rich kids into international celebrities and brand ambassadors.
Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement.
Kellyanne Conway would be a cable news star.
Reince Priebus and Katie Walsh would get their Republican Party back.
Melania Trump could return to inconspicuously lunching.
That was the trouble-free outcome they awaited on November 8, 2016. Losing would work out for everybody.”
Wolff continues: “Almost everybody in the campaign, still an extremely small outfit, thought of themselves as a clear-eyed team, as realistic about their prospects as perhaps any in politics. The unspoken agreement among them: not only would Donald Trump not be president, he should probably not be. Conveniently, the former conviction meant nobody had to deal with the latter issue.”
There’s more: “ ‘I can be the most famous man in the world,’ ” Trump told his on-again, off-again aide Sam Nunberg at the outset of the campaign. ‘But do you want to be president?’ Nunberg asked (a qualitatively different question than the usual existential candidate test: ‘Why do you want to be president?’). Nunberg did not get an answer. The point was, there didn’t need to be an answer because he wasn’t going to be president.”
It is only because the Trumpeters were so bloody incompetent and so supremely disorganized that they allowed Michael Wolff to camp out in the hallways of their White House in the first place. It was only because they thought they were so much smarter than Wolff that they actually spoke to him, then continually complained to him, whined to him, betrayed their compatriots, and not only constantly sought to undermine everyone else but incessantly bragged about their sabotage.
I, for one, am extremely grateful that Wolff managed to survive the mental torture that is apparently the way of the current White House. A lesser man or woman would have thrown his notebook to the floor and run to the hills after the first day. Thankfully, Wolff could embrace and exploit the chaos, take notes, then provide us with a chilling look at what’s happening to our country:
“In the beginning, I sought a level of formal access to this White House, something of a fly-on-the-wall status. The president himself encouraged this idea. But, given the many fiefdoms in the Trump White House that came into open conflict from the first days of the administration, there seemed no one person able to make this happen. Equally, there was no one to say ‘Go away.’ Hence I became more a constant interloper than an invited guest — something quite close to an actual fly on the wall — having accepted no rules nor having made any promises about what I might or might not write.”
Wolff recounts a conversation between Roger Ailes, the fired sexual harasser architect of Fox News and Steve Bannon which reveals not only Bannon’s boundless arrogance, and the President’s vast incompetence, but how these Keystone Cop-like political pretenders, in only one of many examples, took their madcap ideas, made them real, and in the process, broke hopes for Mideast peace for years to come:
“‘Does he get it?’ asked Ailes suddenly, pausing and looking intently at Bannon. He meant did Trump get it. This seemed to be a question about the right-wing agenda: Did the playboy billionaire really get the workingman populist cause? But it was possibly a point-blank question about the nature of power itself. Did Trump get where history had put him?
Bannon took a sip of water. ‘He gets it,’ said Bannon, after hesitating for perhaps a beat too long. ‘Or he gets what he gets.’
With a sideways look, Ailes continued to stare him down, as though waiting for Bannon to show more of his cards. ‘Really,’ Bannon said. ‘He’s on the program. It’s his program.’ Pivoting from Trump himself, Bannon plunged on with the Trump agenda. ‘Day one we’re moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s all in. Sheldon’– Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire, far-right Israel defender, and Trump supporter — ‘is all in. We know where we’re heading on this.’
‘Does Donald know?’ asked a skeptical Ailes.
Bannon smiled — as though almost with a wink — and continued:
‘Let Jordan take the West Bank, let Egypt take Gaza. Let them deal with it. Or sink trying. The Saudis are on the brink, Egyptians are on the brink, all scared to death of Persia . . Yemen, Sinai, Libya … this thing is bad … That’s why Russia is so key … Is Russia that bad? They’re bad guys. But the world is full of bad guys.’ Bannon offered all this with something like ebullience — a man remaking the world. ‘But it’s good to know the bad guys are the bad guys,’ said Ailes, pushing Bannon. ‘Donald may not know.’ ”
As for what Donald may or may not know, here’s another tidbit from Wolff: “Early in the campaign, in a ‘Producers’-worthy scene, Sam Nunberg was sent to explain the Constitution to the candidate: ‘I got as far as the Fourth Amendment before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.’ ” Three out of ten for the Bill of Rights. The more you read the more you realize that understanding 30 percent of any important issue is often asking too much of the man.
This isn’t easy reading. While Wolff keeps it conversational and moves us quickly through the maze, “Fire and Fury” hurts the head. I kept shaking mine. We’re talking a kind of never-ending Eugene O’Neill “Long Day’s Journey into Night” dark and dreadful dysfunction here. None of these power-hungry people, who uniformly lack any sense of historical perspective or possess the smallest speck of modesty, pause for a moment before they deny healthcare to millions, undo decades of environmental protection, and deny hope to the Palestinian people.
And all the while these White Housers hate each other. They envy each other. Each one scurries to be the very closest to a President who trusts or seems to like none of them anywhere near as much as he trusts or likes himself. If not the closest to him, then the last to see him. But always the President’s instincts rule. Unfortunately, his instincts have no heft. He is the thinnest of reeds swaying in torrential winds that shift with the moment. And those around him despise his ignorance.
Wolff writes: “In early October, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s fate was sealed – if his obvious ambivalence toward the president had not already sealed it – by the revelation that he had called the president ‘a fucking moron.’
“Everyone, in his or her own way, struggled to express the baldly obvious fact that the president did not know enough, did not know what he didn’t know, did not particularly care, and, to boot, was confident if not serene in his unquestioned certitudes. There was now a fair amount of back-of-the classroom giggling about whom had called Trump what. For Steve Mnuchin and Reince Priebus, he was an “idiot.” For Gary Cohn, he was “dumb as shit.” For H. R. McMaster he was a “dope.” The list went on.
“Kelly’s long-suffering antipathy toward the president was rivaled only by his scorn for the president’s family – ‘Kushner,’ he pronounced, was ‘insubordinate.’ Cohn’s derisive contempt for Kushner as well as the president was even greater. In return, the president heaped more abuse on Cohn – the former president of Goldman Sachs was now a ‘complete idiot, dumber than dumb.’ In fact, the president had also stopped defending his own family, wondering when they would ‘take the hint and go home.’
No one is safe from abuse; fleeting adoration turns to contempt in a heartbeat. Yet instead of forming a united front, they fling one another into the fire. You can almost smell the burning flesh.
This would be pathetic if we were talking about an alcohol-soaked fraternity of eighteen-year-olds or a dysfunctional street gang or the infighting at a third-rate university but this is a portrait of those at the helm of the most powerful nation on earth. A portrait of the man who controls the world’s most massive nuclear arsenal.
It is one thing to imagine a sensible president standing tough against the dictator of North Korea – that most tightly controlled and closeted country – using tough rhetoric to challenge Kim’s development of a nuclear deterrent with overheated threats of fire and fury. But, after reading Wolff, it is hard to sleep watching our mad king driving us Thelma and Louise-like toward the nuclear cliff.
And in that sense, “Fire and Fury” changes everything. Granted, Wolff is no Shakespeare, but in the same way that once we see how bat-shit crazy Lady Macbeth is, it’s hard to pretend we’re in a comedy, difficult to imagine things will end up well.
That’s not to say Wolff doesn’t try his best to keep us from flinging the book aside and jumping off the nearest cliff. There’s enough gossip here to entertain and divert us. Here’s some: “Lewandowski and Hope Hicks, the PR aide put on the campaign by Ivanka Trump, had an affair that ended in a public fight on the street – an incident cited by Nunberg in his response to Trump’s suit …”
Who knew? Not me. Then we learn more about the lovers: “Shortly after Lewandowski … was fired in June 2016 for clashing with Trump family members, Hicks sat in Trump Tower with Trump and his sons, worrying about Lewandowski’s treatment in the press and wondering aloud how she might help him. Trump, who otherwise seemed to treat Hicks in a protective and even paternal way, looked up and said, ‘Why? You’ve already done enough for him. You’re the best piece of tail he’ll ever have,’ sending Hicks running from the room.”
So much for sensitive concern from the President for his beloved Girl Friday: “As new layers began to form around Trump, first as nominee and then as president-elect, Hicks continued playing the role of his personal PR woman. She would remain his constant shadow and the person with the best access to him. ‘Have you spoken to Hope?’ were among the words most frequently uttered in the West Wing. Hicks, sponsored by Ivanka and ever loyal to her, was in fact thought of as Trump’s real daughter, while Ivanka was thought of as his real wife.”
And then there was this about The Firsts’ separate bedrooms and separate lives: “Donald Trump’s marriage was perplexing to almost everybody around him — or it was, anyway, for those without private jets and many homes. He and Melania spent relatively little time together. They could go days at a time without contact, even when they were both in Trump Tower. Often she did not know where he was, or take much notice of that fact. Her husband moved between residences as he would move between rooms. Along with knowing little about his whereabouts, she knew little about his business, and took at best modest interest in it. An absentee father for his first four children, Trump was even more absent for his fifth, Barron, his son with Melania … She was, he told people proudly and without irony, a ‘trophy wife.’ And while he may not have quite shared his life with her, he gladly shared the spoils of it.”
Clearly Donald looked elsewhere: “He was a notorious womanizer, and during the campaign became possibly the world’s most famous masher. While nobody would ever say Trump was sensitive when it came to women, he had many views about how to get along with them, including a theory he discussed with friends about how the more years between an older man and a younger woman, the less the younger woman took an older man’s cheating personally.”
Then there’s this sickening revelation about our President: “Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant sexual banter. Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fuck than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise . . . And all the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.”
I mentioned ambition. How this? If, with the help of a miracle or two, we somehow survive these coming years, the Trumpettes intend to extend this nightmare another decade: “The First Children couple were having to navigate Trump’s volatile nature just like everyone else in the White House. And they were willing to do it for the same reason as everyone else — in the hope that Trump’s unexpected victory would catapult them into a heretofore unimagined big time. Balancing risk against reward, both Jared and Ivanka decided to accept roles in the West Wing over the advice of almost everyone they knew. It was a joint decision by the couple, and, in some sense, a joint job. Between themselves, the two had made an earnest deal: If sometime in the future the opportunity arose, she’d be the one to run for president. The first woman president, Ivanka entertained, would not be Hillary Clinton; it would be Ivanka Trump.”
And why not? Just eight more years of the unbearable madness.