To the extent there’s shock value in the excerpts released thus far from Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the scathing book about the Trump administration by Michael Wolff, it’s that Wolff got on tape (apparently) a number of people close to Trump documenting what’s been widely understood in this town all along: that Donald Trump wasn’t prepared to be president and that, having taken office at the age of 70, was unlikely to ever be. And that he still isn’t.
We can’t know where Wolff got some peculiar details, for example that Trump insisted in stripping the sheets from his White House bed himself, or that, given his paranoid fear of being poisoned, he liked going to McDonald’s because they couldn’t know he was coming and so couldn’t prepare food to kill him. Or that he chastised a White House maid for picking up a shirt that he’d dropped on the floor, insisting that he wanted the shirt to remain there. I’m prepared to believe a similarly undocumented, unattributed story that Jared Kushner and wife Ivanka Trump had agreed that, following their presumably successful White House tour, it would be Ivanka who ran for president—so that she, not Hillary Clinton, would be the first woman president. It wasn’t a great leap, after all, for two people who had taken White House jobs though they knew nothing about government—and thus far have little to show for their time there—to decide that after her father’s presidency Ivanka would be equipped to run for president herself. (No one knows how long the Kushners, who are said to be unhappy in Washington, will remain here. Kushner is widely believed to be in legal trouble with the special counsel Robert Mueller.)
Taking a job for which they weren’t prepared, of course, wasn’t the province of only the Kushners. There was the president as the prime example, and he was surrounded by people who had never served in government. This was partly because of far-reaching litmus tests: No one who’d uttered a word of criticism of Trump in the past could get a White House job or a major role in the cabinet and regulatory agencies. The Trump White House was an aggregation of people profoundly in over their head.
Wolff describes an election night scene in which a stunned Trump realizes he’s winning and Melania is in tears, having been promised by her husband, we’re told, not to worry, that he wouldn’t win. According to Wolff’s account, Trump saw running and losing as the greatest P.R. stunt possible; he’d be world famous, so he’d win by losing. This seems highly plausible, though we can’t know if it’s true. (The regular press has been doing a job on Wolff, based on his record of inventing things and making up scenes, but they may be going overboard, looking envious and petty.) Wolff’s depiction of a stunned president-elect and a miserable about-to-be first lady fits the famous pictures of the Trumps at the inauguration, on one occasion briefly smiling at each other and then turning away, looking glum or, in her case, angry. It explains their sitting at the inaugural lunch, each staring off into space, talking to no one. Wolff posits that Trump was unhappy at his inauguration: angry that A-list entertainers declined to come. He was in a competition now with Barack Obama, whose inaugurals were flooded with stars. On that very first day we witnessed a cowed-looking press secretary insist to reporters summoned to the White House that Trump’s inauguration crowd was larger than Obama’s. This was the beginning of Trump’s fantasy presidency: pretending to know things he didn’t; making claims that wouldn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. Just think, it was only the day before excerpts from Wolff’s book claimed our attention that we were reeling from the president’s insistence that his nuclear button is larger than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear button. (That there is no such thing as “a button” that the president pushes to set off unthinkable destruction went largely unremarked upon. Trump’s fantasies and lies are hard to keep up with.) But in fact, as Fire and Fury reminds us, it’s all been a straight line from the beginning until now, from that famous ride that Trump and his wife took down the escalator at Trump Tower, where the gadfly businessman announced his improbable race for the presidency.
The press has inevitably focused on the sensational quotes that Wolff attributes to Steve Bannon, the disruptive figure who was for a time the chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign. (The only experienced Republican hand that Trump could get to manage his campaign was Bannon’s predecessor Paul Manafort.) Bannon had no more business leading a presidential campaign or being a top White House aide than Trump did in running for or being president. But for a while they had a marriage of convenience: Trump needed someone to manage his campaign and Bannon needed an instrument for his political philosophy, though the two thought remarkably alike. Bannon’s campaign philosophy, as it were, patched together some things that Trump had been arguing: that he was anti-immigration, an issue meant to appeal to the working class voters Trump was pursuing. According to the book, Bannon pushed for the anti-Muslim immigration ban because he thought that it would agitate Democrats and push them to the left on the issue. According to Wolff, Bannon liked the idea of issuing the ban on a Friday (at the end of Trump’s first week in office) because that would cause considerable turmoil at airports. It’s not known whether Bannon also foresaw that such action would motivate Democrats and immigrant groups to mobilize against Trump. Bannon’s philosophy of white nationalism (with its subtext of racism and even a touch of anti-Semitism) wasn’t far off from how Trump sees the world—at least as far as racism goes. (The Kushners, as is well known, are Jewish.) Bannon was still advising Trump when he denounced the violence “on both sides” in Charlottesville last August, a development that enraged many of the other people around Trump.
Wolff gets across an accurate picture of the top aides in the Trump White House— Bannon, Kushner, and then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus—at constant war with one another and cancelling each other out in arguments to the befuddled president. It’s odd that someone as canny as Trump—and I would argue that he’s quite canny at times and his canniness is a big reason he’s president—fell for Bannon, who burbled heavy-sounding philosophies (such as the need to “deconstruct the administrative state,” which to Trump meant rolling back regulations and spending on domestic programs, both of which were fine with him). But Trump has a history of falling in and falling out with people—he especially doesn’t like it when aides start thinking that they’re terribly important—and eventually the Kushners, as well as some other advisers and Trump’s allies from the business world, convinced Trump that Bannon had to go—an execution that was administered by the new Chief of Staff John Kelly, who was furious at Bannon’s encouragement of Trump’s response to Charlottesville. Also, Bannon had an inflated view of his role in the White House and his influence on the president in foreign as well as domestic matters, making pronouncements that understandably annoyed Trump.
Trump’s response to the information about the book that became known this week was typically overstated and riddled with legal threats, including one against Bannon. (Trump has a longtime habit of threatening suits that don’t come to pass.) The two men had kept in touch even after Bannon was fired, but as a result of the disclosures from the Wolff book, Trump declared, “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency.” There are other, better books coming soon about Trump and his governing methods (in particular David Frum’s important Trumpocracy). While the two temperamental men fight it out—Bannon is reportedly assuming that Trump will be brought down over the Russia inquiry, and therefore he, Bannon, will challenge Mike Pence for the Republican nomination in 2020—I recommend waiting for a more thoughtful approach to Trump’s presidency.