In Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff weaves a compelling story about the inner workings of the Trump White House in its first days and months. Wolff, a longtime New York journalist and columnist, based his tell-all book on over two hundred interviews he conducted with the president and members of his senior staff, over a period of eighteen months, beginning during the campaign and ending in the late fall of 2017. While Wolff’s narrative rings true, based on media coverage of the Trump presidency that has flooded the nightly news and daily editorials since his inauguration, the author provides little documentation of his sources. Still, his detailed story offers a kind of fly-on-the-wall perspective of the daily goings-on in the White House, where Wolff claims to have taken notes, from his seat on a couch outside the Oval Office.
In the first chapter, Wolff asserts unequivocally that the confusion and disarray characterizing the White House in the first months of Trump’s presidency, stemmed from the fact that nobody on the staff thought he had the remotest chance of becoming president. In fact, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, was so certain of defeat that she was exploring opportunities with cable producers for an on-air job, as a leading conservative voice, after the election. Mike Flynn, who would become Trump’s National Security Advisor, had been told it was not wise to take $45,000 from the Russians for a speech. His reply: “Well, it would only be a problem if we won.”
There were even rumors floating that the candidate himself would use the influence he’d gained from running a presidential campaign to begin a Trump network.
The candidate and his top lieutenants believed they could get all of the benefits of almost becoming president without having to change their behavior or their fundamental worldview one wit: ‘We don’t have to be anything but who and what we are, because of course we won’t win.’
During the campaign, Chris Christie, director of the transition office, had to forcefully tell Trump that he could not redirect funds established by the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010 for presidential nominees to begin vetting potential candidates to fill bureaucratic positions in the new administration–not even if Trump did not expect to need those funds. The day after the election, Trump’s advisers blamed Christie for lack of transition preparations.
Wolff compares the Trump campaign strategy of seeking to profit from losing the presidency, to the scheme in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, where the main characters sell more than 100 percent of the ownership stakes in the production, based on the premise that the show will be a flop. The characters are doomed when the plot turns out to be so outlandish that the play becomes a hit.
Only Steve Bannon was convinced that Trump could win by taking “an economic and cultural message to the white working class in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.”
When they got to the White House, the president, whose campaign had promised radical change in governance, had few ideas about how to translate his promises into policy. Thus, instead of policy and action flowing down, with staff trying to implement the president’s plan, policy making flowed up, as evidenced by Bannon’s Executive Order on immigration, which he persuaded the president to issue as his first executive act.
Trump believed liberal virtue was overrated. After all, so often people who had worked hard to know what they knew made the wrong decisions. So, maybe the gut was good, or maybe better, at getting to the heart of the matter than the wonkish and data-driven inability to see the forest from the trees that often plagued US policymaking.
Although Wolff says nobody believed that, he contends there was still a basic faith among Trump’s staff that “nobody became the president of the United States …without unique astuteness and cunning. Right?” Thus, they operated as if Trump were a blank page, attempting to fill that page with policy, based on the promises he made in speeches and at rallies during the campaign. Each of the three men essentially functioning as chief of staff–Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, and Jared Kushner– had radically different ideas of how to fill the page.
It was a process of suggesting, in a throw-it-against-the-wall style, what the president might want, and hoping he might then think that he had thought of it himself (a result that was often helped along with the suggestion that he had in fact already had the thought).
Deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh observed that Trump had a set of desires and impulses, which the staff was attempting to translate into a program. It was a process that required guess work not unlike “trying to figure out what a child wants.” And to make it more difficult, “Trump did not read, or even skim information brought to him. Nor did he listen, preferring to be the one talking. He knew little, but was confident in his gut instincts, even though those instincts frequently changed.”
As deputy chief of staff, Walsh organized Trump’s schedule, as well as the flow of information to the president, based on the priorities the White House had set. She was in the best position to observe the interactions of the “three gentlemen running things,” each with his own plan and set of loyalties.
Wolff characterizes Reince Priebus, official Chief of Staff, as rumored to be losing his job from the beginning. Thus, no one paid much attention to him. Trump mostly acted as his own chief of staff and press secretary, reviewing press releases, dictating quotes, and getting reporters on the phone, leaving the actual press secretary as “a mere flunky and whipping boy.” However, in time, Priebus allied himself with Paul Ryan and the Republican agenda in Congress. He became the “Establishment Republican.”
Jared Kushner, with his family’s billionaire status, had ties with New York and international money people. He was the representative in the White House for the liberal status quo whom Wolff compares to a “Rockefeller Republican” or a “Goldman Sachs Democrat.” He had the ear of Rupert Murdoch, who Trump idolized, and sought the counsel of Henry Kissinger when Trump gave Jared the Middle East portfolio. Kushner became the “New York Democrat.”
Wolff reports that the ever-present Steve Bannon sat in the corner taking notes at every meeting, dined almost nightly with the president, and was the “keeper of the Trump promises, meticulously logged onto the white board in his office.” Wolff credits Bannon with winning the White House for Trump. His goal was to capture the soul of the Trump White House. He bonded with billionaires Bob and Rebekah Mercer who “devote vast sums to building a radical free market, small government, home-schooling, anti liberal, gold standard, pro-death-penalty, anti-Muslim, pro-Christian, monetarist, anti-civil rights political movement in the US.” Bannon viewed the Trump revolution as an attack on conventional assumptions and expertise, and he encouraged the candidate to embrace it and go to war with the media.
According to Wolff, it was Bannon who conceived the idea of issuing over two hundred executive orders (EO’s), beginning with a travel ban on immigration to establish his politics of nativism. Since Bannon did not know how to change rules and laws, his principle of getting things done was to “Just do it.” Bannon became the “Alt-right militant.”
Throughout much of the book, Wolff chronicles the inner conflict and struggle for power among the factions led by the “three gentlemen running things.” By the second week of his presidency, Wolff contends that everybody seemed to be keeping their own list of possible leakers and trying to “leak before being leaked about.” The author describes Bannon as the “Deep Throat” of leaks that continued to spring from the White House. However, he also identifies the president himself as a major leaker.
Wolff tells about a call Trump placed to a media acquaintance that went on for twenty-six minutes, in which the president complained about a story the New York Times had published about his rambling around the White House in the wee hours, dressed in his bathrobe, trying to work the light switches. Wolff quoted the president as saying that every day, he had saved $700 million a year in jobs that were going to Mexico, but the media was talking about him in his bathrobe which “I don’t have because I’ve never worn a bathrobe. And would never wear one, because I’m not that kind of guy.”
Wolff interprets the call as an example of Trump’s fixation on preserving his personal dignity, which he equates with his brand that stands for “power, wealth, and arrival.”
“Dignity is so important,” Wolff quotes trump as saying. “But (Rupert) Murdoch, who had never called me, never once,” was now calling all the time–according to Wolff, almost every day. In an early chapter in the book, Wolff had told of Trump’s admiration for Murdoch, who had written Trump off as a “charlatan and a fool” until Trump won the election.
He was a river of grievances, making calls throughout the day and from his bedside to his various acquaintances, to complain about what a dump the White House was, how unfairly he was being treated by the media, and the disloyalty of his staff.
The recipients of the calls, many of whom had no reason to keep his confidence, would then call one another to report his rantings, fueling the gossip mill.
Each faction attempted in its own way to run interference and defend the president when he went off message, which was a daily occurrence. However, in March when the president tweeted from Mar-a-Lago that the Obama administration had “my wires tapped in Trump Toweer right before the election victory, they began to enter a state of incredulity.” Wolff quotes Sean Spicer’s daily mantra: “You can’t make this shit up.”
Wolff provides numerous glimpses into the confusion and lack of communication that existed over the issue of hiring and firing in the Trump White House. In July, Anthony Scaramucci was hired as communications director, promoted not only over Sean Spicer, White House Press Secretary, but also over Reince Priebus. Spicer turned in his resignation. Priebus came under attack from Scaramucci, who blamed Priebus for leaking one of his financial disclosure forms, which was a public document available to all. Priebus went to the president to discuss resigning, and that very evening Scaramucci had a meltdown, calling a reporter at the New Yorker and unloading his complaints about Priebus, as well as providing his infamous quote about Bannon sucking his own ____.
On the following Friday, the health care repeal failed in the Senate and Priebus joined the president on Air Force One for a trip to New York for a speech. The president assured Priebus that he wanted to handle his departure the right way and take his time. “Let’s make it good,” Wolff quotes, and adds that as Priebus stepped onto the tarmac, an alert on his phone said that the president just tweeted that there was a new chief of staff, Department of Homeland Security chief John Kelly, and that Priebus was out. Kelly, who also learned of the president’s decision second hand, was left to fire Scaramucci six days later, hours after he was sworn in.
Wolff traces the stages of “adventure, challenge, frustration, battle, self-justification, and doubt” that every senior staff and cabinet member had confronted in the first eight months of the Trump presidency. Each, according to Wolff, had finally had to confront “the very real likelihood that the president they worked for–whose presidency they bore some official responsibility for–didn’t have the wherewithal to adequately function in his job.”
For General John Kelly, that moment eclipsed on August 15, with the president’s response to the Charlottesville protests: “I think there’s blame on both sides.”
Wolff also marks Charlottesville as the point at which the civilized world–“outside of the portion of the electorate that, as Trump once claimed, would let him shoot someone on Fifth Avenue–was pretty much aghast.”
Everybody came to a dumbfounded moral attention. Anybody in any position of responsibility remotely tied to one idea of establishment respectability had to disavow him. Every CEO of a public company who had associated him-or herself with the Trump White House now needed to cut the ties.
Wolff traces Steve Bannon’s relationship with Trump through a series of convoluted stages.
In March, Bannon, who was against the health care bill, insisted on forcing a vote, even though he knew it would not pass. He used this tactic to ensure its defeat and the defeat of Ryan and the Republican leadership, who he saw as “the bad guys, setting up the administration to lose the House in 2018, thereby assuring the president’s impeachment.” When the president backed down and pulled the bill, Paul Ryan leaked that it was the president who asked him to cancel the vote. At that point, the enraged Bannon is said to have called a group of reporters and told them he didn’t see Ryan hanging around a long time. Katie Walsh had become fed up and disgusted with the maneuvering and left to work part time for the RNC and part time for Trump outside the White House.
At this point, Trump blamed Bannon for the failure of the health care bill, and began heaping scorn on him. However, his major backers, the billionaire Mercers, defended Bannon, as did Roger Ailes, the ousted CEO of Fox News. Trump agreed not to fire Bannon, but in exchange, enhanced the roles of Jared Kushner and his daughter, creating the Office of American Innovation and putting Kushner in charge of it. Ivanka was given a White House job as adviser to the president, meaning that the couple would gain an expanded power base, with an office and a formal staff.
When Jared Kushner came under scrutiny in the Russian probe, Bannon used it to gain traction, attempting to build a legal firewall between the White House and the investigation. Later, when Jeff Sessions, Bannon’s protégé, came under fire from Trump, Bannon again began to lose favor by association.
Wolff contends that the overwhelming view of the Trump presidency was “you can be saved by those around you or brought down by them.” Bannon thought the Trump presidency would be brought down by Kushner and his wife; the Kushner side blamed Bannon for pushing the president into “a harshness that undermined his natural salesman’s abilities to charm and reach out.” Everybody blamed Reince Priebus “who had failed to create a White House that could protect the president from himself–or from Bannon or from his own children.”
In a little over three-hundred pages of narrative, Michael Wolff weaves a story of a White House staff for which the lasting conundrum was the “‘why” of Trump’s often baffling behavior. Some told Wolff, “He just fundamentally needs to be liked…everything is a struggle for him.” Others attributed Trump’s behavior to his essential need to “look like a winner,” which Wolff considers ironic in that Trump had no clear plan or clear goals, resulting in nothing but losses in his early presidency.
At the same time, the lack of planning and the impulsivity of the president had helped “to create the disruptiveness that seemed to so joyously shatter the status quo for so many.” But signs that the cult personality of the president was wearing off came during the Alabama senate race in September, when Trump’s endorsement failed to bring the 10-15 point bump for the candidate he supported.
Wolff notes that whereas “the premise of everybody who joined the Trump White House was, ‘This can work. We can help make this work.’ Now, only three-quarters of the way through just the first year of Trump’s term, there was literally not one member of the senior staff who could be confident of that premise.”
Most members of the senior staff (now) believed that the sole upside of being a part of the Trump White House was to help prevent worse from happening.
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 was confident if not serene in his certitudes.
After Rex Tillerson referred to the president as a “fucking moron,” Wolff says there was “a fair amount of back-of-the class giggling,” about who had called Trump what. Steve Mnuchin and Reince Priebus had called him an “idiot.” Gary Cohn, one of Trump’s chief advisors, said he was “dumb as shit.” H.R. McMaster, the National Security Advisor, had called him a “dope.”
Nine months in to the first year, the president’s inability to straighten out the confusion in the White House had created a power vacuum. Wolff notes that Bannon was working outside, trying to take over the Trump movement; the Republican leadership was trying to stymie Trumpism; John McCain was doing his best to embarrass it; and the special counsel’s office was pursuing the president and many of those around him. John Kelly was trying to stem the chaos in the West Wing, but faced the additional problem of finding capable senior staff to replace the ones who had departed or been fired. And, both Hope Hicks and Stephen Miller, the two most senior staff members, as well as Jared Kushner, were connected to actions involved in the Russian investigation.
The book ends with everyone “waiting for the dominoes to fall, and to see how the president, in his fury, might react and change the game again.”
Michael Wolff has written an engaging and revealing account of the Trump White House in its first year. Throughout the book, he describes scenarios that present deeply disturbing evidence, raising questions about the president’s fitness to lead. However, the author’s choice not to identify his sources will require every reader to distinguish for him/herself what is fact and what is opinion. That being said, I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys reading about US politics from the perspective of one who was afforded an extensive inside view.