How should reporters cover the White House? Case study number one could be reporter Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, whose work has, during the Trump years, been particularly fraught. Her sympathetic profile of former-Trump-flak-turned-former-White-House-Communications-Director Hope Hicks, torn between obeying a congressional subpoena and obeying her former boss, illustrated the problem quite neatly. Haberman’s critics accused the reporter of trading favorable coverage for access—one of the oldest weapons in a Beltway reporter’s (or any reporter’s, for that matter) arsenal. Her defenders shouted that it didn’t matter because her reporting has sometimes also made the president angry.
There are philosophical questions at play here: How newsworthy is relaying “the administration’s thinking” about its immoral or illegal acts? Is positive—or even neutral—coverage of anyone connected to the Trump administration really ever an acceptable trade for access? How important is that sort of access in telling the story? But it’s a debate that also gets to the heart of journalism itself: How do you select and provide necessary information to the public? In a space increasingly driven by palace intrigue stories—who’s up and who’s down in the White House this week—a “beat sweetener” penned about a former White House communications official seems of paramount importance. Surely there is a better way.
Michael Wolff, the author of last year’s blockbuster White House exposé Fire and Fury, and now its just-published sequel, Siege: Trump Under Fire, thinks there is. He has suggested that the issue is best thought of as a dichotomy. “It’s a distinction between journalists who are institutionally wedded and those who are not. I’m not,” said Wolff when pressed by Times media critic Michael Grynbaum on the author’s refusal to ask Trump for comment. “You make those pro forma calls to protect yourself, to protect the institution. It’s what the institution demands.” (Institutional journalists, for the purposes of Wolff’s argument, would undoubtedly include Haberman, with whose reporting he has expressed annoyance over in the past.)
A year ago, Wolff suggested that journalism works best when these two forces are both powerful—and that this is unfortunately a historical moment dominated by institutionally wedded journalists. But here, it is a convenient endorsement of his own approach. Fire and Fury sold over five million copies on the back of its sensational claims about the inner workings of the Trump administration—and what administration officials really thought of the president. Siege, published on Tuesday, is, if anything, even more sensational.
Though he has been long derided by some in the media for his approach, which can blend gossip with more readily verifiable facts, Fire and Fury became a sensation in part because Wolff vouched for its veracity. Having written a series of slavish articles attacking the media’s coverage of Trump, Wolff was given unfettered access to the White House. He would sit all day, becoming almost a piece of furniture, and simply record what he saw. He used the access reporters arsenal of tricks to open the doors of the White House—and then burned nearly all of his sources.
That narrative that Wolff was an impartial observer of the White House’s daily tumult, of course, wasn’t quite true. Though it had the ring of truth—most stories about Trump’s petulance and incompetence do—Fire and Fury was also littered with gossip, rumor, and errors. But the access he was given provided crucial armor to criticisms of Wolff’s reporting methods. Siege has no such shield. Wolff’s access was severely limited after the fallout from Fire and Fury. He hasn’t spent any time in the White House since 2017; he did not even bother to request an interview with Trump, despite the fact that Siege contains a number of bombshell accusations. Instead, Wolff relies on the same approach that he did in Fire and Fury, just at considerable distance. His sources largely are, like him, White House exiles. Through their words, we get the latest portrait of an increasingly erratic president, increasingly hemmed in on all sides.
Wolff, aided by conversations with Steve Bannon, is sometimes a skilled analyst of Trump’s behavior. Here he is, for instance, writing about how the president’s complete disregard for the truth acted as a perverse source of strength:
Politicians and businesspeople dissemble and misrepresent and spin and prevaricate and mask the truth, but they prefer to avoid out-and-out lying. They have some shame, or at least a fear of getting caught. But lying willfully, adamantly, without distress or regret, and with absolute disregard of consequences can be a bulwark if not a fail-safe defense. It turns out that somebody always believes you. Fooling some of the people all of the time defined Trump’s hardcore base.
But Wolff, despite his honeybadger-don’t-care swagger, also has a penchant for laziness. For instance, he credulously accepts Bannon’s self portrait as a puppetmaster of the global right and, most absurdly, a plausible presidential candidate. In other areas, Siege parrots dumb political narratives. On the migrant caravan, he writes “You could believe the Trump version of the story: an invasion was headed this way, gaining strength and violent passion as it progressed, and it was supported by insidious forces such as George Soros. Or you could see Trump as a desperate propagandizer with, even for him, a shamelessly flimsy story, one that was transparent in its efforts to manipulate the dangerous and toxic emotions of people inclined to regard it as true.”
What is regarded as truth—as opposed to what is true—is what Wolff is really interested in. Siege is notable less for its analysis of Trump than for the sheer number of gossipy anecdotes it contains, ranging from the plausible to the dubious. We watch as Trump brags about sexual encounters, demeans women around him, uses anti-semitic slurs, and mocks his children’s intelligence. We’re told that George and Kellyanne Conway are engaged in a choreographed duet aimed at preserving their post-Trump reputations; that the president is telling confidantes that he is “banging” a “young White House aide” and that he received a “blowjob” from former UN Secretary Nikki Haley. That Mohammed bin Salman is believed to be a cocaine addict; that Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell is trying to block Trump from running for a second-term, and that McConnell wants Haley to take his place. Some of it is more newsworthy, but of questionable veracity: Wolff claims that Mueller drafted an indictment of Trump but chickened out. (The office of the special counsel denies there is a draft indictment; Wolff has, in recent interviews, revised his assessment of the documents he saw.)
Which brings us back to Wolff’s binary. His claim that institutional journalists are inherently compromised is a typically self-righteous, if intriguing, response. In Wolff’s mind, journalists who cover the administration on a daily basis for newspapers and magazines are constantly forced to compromise with their subjects. (Wolff calls it “negotiated truth.”) Their publications have an existential need for access that must be preserved. As a result, there is a perverse incentive to hold back in the reporting, to dole out praise, and to work with the powerful to craft narratives that are mutually advantageous.
Wolff’s argument is that he is doing something better. He doesn’t care about institutions. He can burn any bridge he wants. He doesn’t need multiple sources to confirm information, and he doesn’t have to ask those implicated for comment; all that matters to him is if the information he hears from a source sounds credible. (There is an old journalistic adage that some stories are “too good to check.”) This allows him to report details that Haberman won’t. Wolff is arguing that this is a superior approach in part because he doesn’t give a damn about anyone’s feelings, not his sources nor his subjects. “When I know something is true, I don’t have to go back and establish some kind of middle ground with whoever I’m writing about, which will allow me at some point to go back to them,” he told Grynbaum.
But, as Siege proves, it also leads to a general sloppiness. For one thing, while Wolff may believe that Bannon is Virgil in a hunting jacket, the former White House chief strategist has his own agenda. Forced into the political wilderness, much of Siege feels like a relevance play—Bannon using Wolff to cast himself as Trump’s pied piper. For another, rumors in Washington—like rumors everywhere else—are often spread with ulterior motives. Wolff reports them all without much care for where they came from or whether they’re even true.
This, too, is a kind of binary. In Washington, there are scribes and there are gossip mongers—those who care too much about continued access to their bold-faced sources, and those who don’t seem to give a hoot. But the Trump era has, to some extent, erased many of these distinctions. Two-and-a-half years into the administration, journalists, scrupulous and un, are driven by palace intrigue. The White House is an imperial court, with Trump as fickle monarch and everyone else befuddled nobles trying to respond to his whims.
There is, of course, a place for this. Trump’s mental state is of paramount importance. But there has been little value in attempting to decode his actions. There is a race to break news, but much of the “new” information we get is a variance on the story that plays in front of our eyes on a daily basis: The president is emotionally unstable; he lacks a basic command of any policy issue; he doesn’t know how government works and does not care to find out. Wolff suggests that other journalists are holding back, but much of the “new” news in Siege is just a PG-13 version of anecdotes that have already appeared in the Times—or on Trump’s own Twitter feed.
To an extent, it’s all a reflection of what Trump has won. He has spent five decades in public life trying to make everything about him. Now journalism amplifies the Trump clangor and too often drowns out the reporting on what Trump and his cronies have actually done—and what they’re doing to the country. There is no context. There’s only Trump.