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It started with a piece in The Guardian, after the paper obtained a copy of columnist Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which purports to be full of juicy scoops, much of it coming from Steve Bannon. Soon thereafter, New York magazine published its own excerpt of the book. By the afternoon, stories about the book had consumed D.C., and all hell broke loose.
Wolff says he was given lots of access to the White House, and he says President Trump himself encouraged staffers to grant interviews. (He’s also said he has tapes to support his quotes.) The picture he paints is that of a president who is, for lack of a better word, a joke, in way over his head, consumed by petty grievances and a need to be loved, ignorant of policy, and laughed at by his own advisers. In other words, exactly how most liberals already imagine Donald Trump.
According to the book:
- Trump didn’t think he’d win. Instead, he viewed the campaign as an opportunity to build his brand.
- Roger Ailes called Trump “a fucking idiot.”
- Also Roger Ailes: “Trump would jump through hoops for Rupert. Like for Putin. Sucks up and shits down. I just worry about who’s jerking whose chain.”
- Ivanka Trump wants to be the first woman president.
- Trump has trouble paying attention in meetings and doesn’t read, or even skim, the materials he’s given.
- Trump aide Sam Nunberg once tried to explain the Constitution to candidate Trump. “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.”
- “If [Trump] was not having his 6:30 dinner with Steve Bannon, then, more to his liking, he was in bed by that time with a cheeseburger, watching his three screens and making phone calls—the phone was his true contact point with the world—to a small group of friends, who charted his rising and falling levels of agitation through the evening and then compared notes with one another.”
- Bannon described Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russians “treasonous,” “unpatriotic,” and “bad shit,” and predicted that Robert Mueller is “going to crack him like an egg on national TV.”
- Bannon thinks Mueller is going after the Trump team for money laundering: “It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the [Jared] Kushner shit. The Kushner shit is greasy. They’re going to go right through that. They’re going to roll those two guys up and say play me or trade me. … They’re sitting on a beach trying to stop a Category Five.”
- Trump referred to Duke grad/senior adviser Stephen Miller “my typist.”
- When Ailes suggested John Boehner, the former House Speaker, for chief of staff, Trump responded, “Who’s that?” (This claim seems
dubious,since Trump and Boehner played golf on several occasions beforehand.)
- Thomas Barrack Jr., one of the president’s oldest associates, reportedly told a friend: “He’s not only crazy, he’s stupid.” (Barrack has denied saying this and says Wolff never ran the quote by him for accuracy.)
- Former British prime minister Tony Blair warned Trump aides that British spy services were surveilling him. (Blair immediately called this a “complete fabrication, literally from beginning to end.) [Politico]
TRUMP HITS BACK: There are lots of reasons to take the more salacious claims in the book with a grain of salt. For starters, Bannon and the rest of the White House crew have proven themselves to be unreliable and self-serving narrators who probably lied to Wolff to bolster their reputations or elevate their own importance. Second, Wolff has been known to publish provocative material that turns out not be less than faithful to the truth. [Slate] A New Republic profile in 2004 asserted that “the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created—springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events.” In that piece, an editor who worked with Wolff said “his great gift is the appearance of intimate access. He is adroit at making the reader think that he has spent hours and days with his subject, when in fact he may have spent no time at all.”
However: Bannon isn’t disputing Wolff’s quotes, and if Wolff’s quotes are accurate, that’s news in and of itself—the president’s former campaign manager and senior adviser thinks the president’s son committed treason and portrays the president as essentially a useful dope.
Given all of this, it was no surprise that the White House pushed back hard against both Wolff and Bannon.
- In a statement, Trump threw Bannon under the bus (and, as is his
wont, patted himself on the back) [CNN]: Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind. Steve was a staffer who worked for me after I had already won the nomination by defeating seventeen candidates, often described as the most talented field ever assembled in the Republican Party. Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look.” (Trump’s effort to minimize Bannon’s role is pretty laughable.)
- More from Trump: “Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It is the only thing he does well. Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had
influenceto fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books.”
- From NBC: “Trump’s harsh comments Wednesday are a 180-degree turn from his prior praise of Bannon, whom he described as a ‘friend of mine for a long time” during a media availability in the Rose Garden last October. “I have a very good relationship, as you know, with Steve Bannon,” Trump said. “I like Steve a lot.”
- Also NBC: “Bannon broke his day-long silence after Trump’s rebuke while hosting Breitbart News Tonight on SiriusXM. ‘The president of the United States is a great man. You know I support him day in and day out,’ Bannon said in response to a caller seeking to defend Bannon from Trump’s attack.”
- Melania Trump—who was reported in the book to have cried (not tears of joy) when she learned her husband won—had her spokeswoman
releasea statement disputing Wolff’s reporting: “This book is clearly going to be sold in the bargain fiction section.” White House spokeswoman called it “‘trashy tabloid fiction expose’ and asserted that the accounts inside it came from ‘individuals who have no access or influence with the White House.’”
- However, according to NBC: “Reporters were quick to point out on Twitter that they saw Wolff coming and going into the White House for meetings on multiple occasions.”
- On Wednesday afternoon, Trump’s attorney sent Bannon a “cease and desist” letter saying “that [Bannon’s] actions of communicating with author Michael Wolff regarding an upcoming book give rise to numerous legal claims including defamation by libel and slander, and breach of his written confidentiality and non-disparagement agreement with our clients. Legal action is imminent.” [ABC]
- Of course, if Trump follows through on his threat (he won’t), that would open the president up to a deposition under oath, and the discovery process would be the stuff of reporters’ dreams.
WHAT IT MEANS: The problem for Trump is twofold: One, even if Wolff fudged some facts or was misled by his sources, Trump is generally seen as dishonest and his White House lacks to credibility to challenge the book’s assertions. Two, the theme of what he’s reporting only underlines what is being reported almost daily in The Washington Post and The New York Times. The picture is of a president who is simply not up to the job, a dullard with a short attention span who would rather golf than read briefing books. And it also underlines concerns that have been floating around Washington about Trump’s mental health.
- As Politico reports: “Lawmakers concerned about President Donald Trump’s mental state summoned Yale University psychiatry professor Dr. Bandy X. Lee to Capitol Hill last month for two days of briefings about his recent behavior. In private meetings with more than a dozen members of Congress held on Dec. 5 and 6, Lee briefed lawmakers—all Democrats except for one Republican senator, whom Lee declined to identify. Her professional warning to Capitol Hill: ‘He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.’ In an interview, she pointed to Trump ‘going back to conspiracy theories, denying things he has admitted before, his being drawn to violent videos.’ Lee also warned, ‘We feel that the rush of tweeting is an indication of his falling apart under stress. Trump is going to get worse and will become uncontainable with the pressures of the presidency.’”
- Brian Stelter [MailChimp]: “By now you’ve heard all about Wolff’s shocking quotes and claims about the chaos and incompetence of the Trump White House. The book affirms so much of what’s been reported about
Trumpworld. It adds disturbing new details and damning allegations by Steve Bannon. But the Bannon gossip isn’t the takeaway. It’s ‘his stability’—Trump’s stability—“that’s really what this book is about.” Carl Bernstein said that on AC360, and he’s right.”
- Still, as Jake Tapper pointed out: “In any other White House, a book like this, we would be like, ‘Wow, the Obama administration is over.’ ‘The Bush White House is done.’ ‘I can’t believe this.’ ‘They’re never going to survive.’ But today, it’s like, ‘it’s Wednesday.’ It’s just Wednesday. I don’t even know if we’re going to be talking about this tomorrow.”
Related: Another of Trump’s former campaign managers, the under-indictment Paul Manafort, has sued Robert Mueller and the Department of Justice, claiming Mueller exceeded the bounds of his authority in charging him with conduct unrelated to Russian interference in the election. [AP] The Justice Department—and all of the legal minds I follow on Twitter—dismissed Manafort’s lawsuit as frivolous. Why this was filed as a civil suit and not a motion to dismiss is beyond me.