Review: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff (Henry Holt and Co, 2018)
It’s Sunday evening, and as I sit down to write this review, Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff sits at number one on Amazon UK’s book ranking, after being hurriedly pushed out for publication on Friday in the face of legal threats from the White House. A few hours ago, the president himself tweeted, “Now I have to put up with a Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author.” Wolff claims the book will hurry along the end of Trump’s presidency, on the basis it underlines the emperor has no clothes.
As the publisher rushes to get books distributed and printed to meet demand, they could not have hoped for a greater bang with which to launch. It’s the book that everyone is talking about, even the President himself providing some choice quotes for a re-print to bolster its thorn-in-the-side, hitting the sore point of the White House credentials. And as readers (and journalists) rush to get their hands on this book which was almost-banned and as the first available stock sold out quickly at midnight openings, buying a copy carries the frisson of excitement that will likely make it into an iconic book, quality regardless. A national book club, jokes twitter.
So what’s the book really like, beyond the excerpts which have already appeared in the press? I’ve read it, and here’s what I think.
Firstly, there’s a concern of accuracy. It’s the first bastion of attack against the book’s existence, and a prominent one in partisan right-wing media which dominates half the search results for coverage. Some media figures, themselves named in the book, have commented on mistakes or misattributions. Wolff pre-emptively tackles this head on in the introduction, describing the (at times contradictory) mish-mash of interviews and first hand White House observation which provide the basis for his knowledge, and the version inside the book, he claims, is what he believes to be true. Some readers are prefacing their views with “well, if even 70/50/30% of the claims are true…”.
The book is remarkably detailed, with blow by blow accounts of warring factions within the White House, individual personalities and their motivations, and at times, lengthy dialogue. It’s both impressive that Wolff has managed to gain access to so much information, and difficult to imagine all of it can be entirely, precisely recorded, particularly in moments of hyperbole within an already incredulous situation that is the Trump White House. It feels slightly rushed in its telling, with repetition bogging down the narrative. We learn Trump takes long, rambling phone calls twice, in consecutive pages. A section describing the power play between the trio of Steve Bannon, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Reince Preibus feels like a merry-go-round, describing their alternating qualities in a loop. We hear ‘Jarvanka,’ that is, Jared and Ivanka, make a move to focus more on their personal PR at multiple times throughout the book. And with the book’s narrative timeline pegged to each unfolding moment inside the White House inner circle, it’s confusing to read two seemingly contradictory sentences both describing the trio of Reince, Bannon, and Kushner within the first fortnight of the presidency: “…only a shared contempt kept them from ganging up on each other” and “Early on, before getting on to attacking each other, Bannon and Kushner were united in their separate offensives against Priebus.” A lot can happen in a small space of time in politics, but in a way, this micro, tight focus encapsulates the bigger weakness of the book. It’s filled with detail and very entertaining gossip, but avoids applying its gritty precision of he said, she said to a wider contextual analysis.
So, beyond the style, which is slightly unpolished, what is to be gleaned from the book?
On the whole the gossip of this book is centred around the court intrigue of allegiances and leaks, which crackle with danger when they get close to Russia, and detail some crisis meetings around the ramping up of Mueller investigations circling Trump Tower shenanigans concerning Russian intel on Hillary Clinton’s emails. Later, if senior staff are prosecuted, this book will stand as a record – of sorts – of what was going on at the time. We learn which decisions were carefully plotted, which were aimed to wound an inner circle competitor, and which are down to an off the cuff Trump. Nobody, it seems, has a firm handle on everything, but are constantly fighting the battle of standing still on slipping sands, or hustling for a better position. There are also some salacious and entertaining details, although probably not as many as some would hope. Trump’s inability to focus when presented with options are exemplified. In a meeting with generals pressing for a decision on moderate action on Afghanistan, we learn “This is just like the 21 Club, he said, suddenly confusing everyone with his reference to a New York restaurant, one of his favourites. In the 1980s, 21 closed for years and hired a large number of consultants to analyse how to make the restaurant more profitable. In the end, their advice was: get a bigger kitchen. Exactly what any waiter would have said, Trump shouted.” We hear the circumstances surrounding short-lived communications director Scaramucci left even insiders incredulous as to what they considered an idiotic decision. “He was not merely a shameless self-promotor; he was a proud self-promotor… he had paid as much as half a million dollars to have his firm’s logo appear in the movie Wall Street 2 and to buy himself a cameo part in the film… he was once a famous partier each year at Davos, once exuberantly dancing besides the son of Muammar Gadaffi.”
But mostly, Fire and Fury re-examines how Trump’s presidential bid was used as a blunt battering ram for those close to him to advance own ideology or interests. The hot air balloon carrying schemers in the basket, expecting it to go back down, not to actually win, but trapped inside when he did. And for the most part, it is these people who the book is truly about – most notably Bannon. Fire and Fury underlines how Trump is an ineffectual strategist at best, and incompetent at worst. It provides examples of his inability to process complex information (Ivanka once manages to get through to him by showing him photographs of injured children, to help him grasp a war strike), and the petulant character which operates on a whim, most prone to the influence of whoever he spoke to last. It’s these accusations to his ability to govern which have wound Trump up most and driven him to tweet what a stable genius he is, to overall mockery. But it’s also this portrait of the shambling president which relays him to somewhat of a background character to the true machinations of those around him. Trump’s reign is a series of outrages, with shock following shock, each day a new low to be found in how the president circumvents decency or expected presidential behaviour. Fire and Fury is very of the moment, which doesn’t necessarily prepare it for the longevity it will likely see as a feather rustling political text spearing Trump’s first year. The book’s dominant line on Trump, that he is inept, comes at a moment Trump’s fitness to serve is a hot topic of debate. But because of this, it glosses over the right wing populism that Trump himself stoked. In passing it mentions the events which caused media outrages (Charlottesville, Boy Scouts of America, and the Transgender military ban (which, it is revealed, was another snap decision by Trump while in the midst of ongoing discussions with advisors)) but fails to draw a line between these, preferring, instead, to shrug off Trump’s views as individual moments which are evidence first and foremost of his instability, and old news at that. There’s a strain of thinking around Trump that for all the problems of his office, and pending investigations, he’s still the lynchpin of a grand conspiracy for evil, a strategy which is yet unfolding. I come to the conclusion after reading this book that he not only is he probably unable to think in such long-term strategy terms himself, but to go along with someone else’s coherent strategy, either.
That’s not to stop others trying. In many ways, this is a book about Steve Bannon, his ideology, and attempts to monopolise far right isolationism to carry on Trumpism beyond Trump. The conclusion of the book is essentially a nod to keep an eye on what he does next, as though Trump has already gone, despite his face and name on the cover of the book. But with regards to accuracy, some of the conclusions drawn of Bannon’s role at points throughout the narrative felt rather neat; a way to retroactively attribute what might have been fire-fighting among a chaotic organisation to a knowing strategy instead of the crisis opportunism he’d been known for in former working lives. Similarly, Mike Pence barely appears but is characterised as a nodding dog happy to do Trump’s bidding (again, contrary to some opinion he’s biding time cynically), and Ivanka is largely shrugged off as inept (despite her own presidential ambitions.) Melania may as well not exist. It’s likely having (albeit impressive) access to some of these characters, and not others, has led to a convenient underplaying of some Trump era roles and a skewed perspective on others.
If you want a granular account of maladjusted personalities brushing up against each other within the White House inner circle, Fire and Fury is your book. For the average reader, it is entertaining in the way any backstabbing, acrimonious, power player political intrigue is entertaining, until you remind yourself it isn’t on the big screen but real life with real consequences. Wolff has the inside line – or a perspective on it – from notable Air Force One meetings and moments of crisis. He appears to know who put out which leaks, and why. Although at times it feels long, and much of the linear reporting could give way to greater analysis, I feel more informed for it, especially watching from across the ocean. The hasty, unprepared manner with which major decisions are taken reminds me of May’s shambolic Brexit operations. Fire and Fury almost takes for granted Trump is a finished man. It has the handle on (white) house style, and so is truly a book from inside the White House. What I think is missing is wider context and interests outside the inner circle. The voters are missing too. Fire and Fury successfully demonstrates there is no one grand strategy or coherent ideology underpinning actions from the fracturing White House, and, despite the various players intent on getting in on the action, that makes it difficult to predict what will happen next too. The success of the Trump win confused even the team themselves, and reading it will indeed help some come to see Trump as the emperor with no clothes (helped along by Trump’s rash twitter denials). It is a blow by blow account of infighting and leak-prone media relations first and foremost, with Trump shuffling around in background, all skirting the edge of the gaping hole of integrity and intent. In its eye witness detail for day by day sparring it does not situate the administration’s ramifications in wider cultural, economic, diplomatic America, or the world looking in. The story will continue to unfold, with chaos at the helm.
Postscript: The title of Fire and Fury is taken from a rashly threatening Trump tweet. It’s reminiscent of ‘sound and fury,’ in these lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Weirdly, they serve as an apt summary of the book detailing Trump’s reign:
“— To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury