The Wolff Book and Its Fallout

First, some background. Michael Wolff wrote a puff piece on Trump for the Hollywood Reporter that was published in June 2016. So when he talked to Trump about writing a book about him, Trump assumed he would write a flattering book about him and gave him all kinds of access. As Wolff described it,

I interviewed Donald Trump for The Hollywood Reporter in June 2016, and he seemed to have liked — or not disliked — the piece I wrote. “Great cover!” his press assistant, Hope Hicks, emailed me after it came out (it was a picture of a belligerent Trump in mirrored sunglasses). After the election, I proposed to him that I come to the White House and report an inside story for later publication — journalistically, as a fly on the wall — which he seemed to misconstrue as a request for a job. No, I said. I’d like to just watch and write a book. “A book?” he responded, losing interest. “I hear a lot of people want to write books,” he added, clearly not understanding why anybody would. “Do you know Ed Klein?”— author of several virulently anti-Hillary books. “Great guy. I think he should write a book about me.” But sure, Trump seemed to say, knock yourself out.

So Wolff was allowed to hang out with the Trump campaign and transition team and in the White House itself. The staff was encouraged to cooperate with him.

Can we trust that what Wolff wrote was accurate? Josh Marshall wrote,

One of the many oddities and comedies of this moment is that Michael Wolff is anything but a reliable narrator of the Trumpian moment. A year ago he was effusively and conspicuously praising himself as a practitioner of sycophancy-based access journalism, the only journo who would or could cover Trump on the merits rather than be swept up with the preening opposition and grandiose efforts to destroy the real estate hawker turned politician. Now this. It makes perfect sense. Never trust an ingratiating reporter. But to keep ourselves on our own toes, again, I don’t think we should see him as an entirely reliable narrator of the story. The key points though, the quotes? They probably bear out. In any case, according to Mike Allen at Axios, Wolff has tapes. I’m sure he does.

Wolff doesn’t strike me as someone with a political agenda. He is a clever writer, and as a clever writer he must have realized from the get-go that the real story, the money story, was not a puff story. There already are a bunch of puff books out about Trump, most of which you have probably never heard of.  Wolff realized that the big ticket story was a freak show story, a Holy Bleep These People Are Crazier Than Bleep story.  And I’m sure he’s clever enough to know that he was dealing with very powerful and even ruthless people, so he’d damn well better have tapes.

Say what you will about Wolff: Unless the book is wholesale invention, something in his I’m-with-the-band swagger in the West Wing attracted awesomely sordid material from Trump’s scurvy syndicate. In John Sterling at Macmillan, the book has a masterful editor, and three fact-checkers reviewed it. So I’m betting “Fire and Fury” will withstand whatever charges of journalistic impropriety come at it.

I will add that publishers crank out exposés about politicians all the time. The trash-talking books about Hillary Clinton alone are so common they make up their own genre. They sell enough copies to make a profit, because people who hate Politician X will buy them and maybe read a few pages and leave them on the coffee table for awhile. This book is already a best-seller and appears to be turning into a sure-enough phenomenon.  Lots of people want to read it.

It’s also the case that, in a meta sense, Wolff is not telling us anything we don’t already know. James Fallows writes at The Atlantic:

The details in Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury make it unforgettable, and potentially historic. We’ll see how many of them fully stand up, and in what particulars, but even at a heavy discount, it’s a remarkable tale.

But what Wolff is describing is an open secret.

Based on the excerpts now available, Fire and Fury presents a man in the White House who is profoundly ignorant of politics, policy, and anything resembling the substance of perhaps the world’s most demanding job. He is temperamentally unstable. Most of what he says in public is at odds with provable fact, from “biggest inaugural crowd in history” onward. Whether he is aware of it or not, much of what he asserts is a lie. His functional vocabulary is markedly smaller than it was 20 years ago; the oldest person ever to begin service in the White House, he is increasingly prone to repeat anecdotes and phrases. He is aswirl in foreign and financial complications. He has ignored countless norms of modern governance, from the expectation of financial disclosure to the importance of remaining separate from law-enforcement activities. He relies on immediate family members to an unusual degree; he has an exceptionally thin roster of experienced advisers and assistants; his White House staff operations have more in common with an episode of The Apprentice than with any real-world counterpart. He has a shallower reserve of historical or functional information than previous presidents, and a more restricted supply of ongoing information than many citizens. He views all events through the prism of whether they make him look strong and famous, and thus he is laughably susceptible to flattering treatment from the likes of Putin and Xi Jinping abroad or courtiers at home.

Wolff provides us with more specific examples and details, but, seriously — we knew all this. Didn’t we? Of course, the book won’t be released publicly until tomorrow, so we don’t yet know about everything in it.

As far as the fallout is concerned, I’m sure that even as we speak right-wing interests are working overtime to find whatever dirt they can find on Michael Wolff to discredit him, so we’ll see what comes out. Once the online herd of Trump supporters get their hands on the book, they will be combing through it for any detail they can refute, and I’m sure there will be something. And the bobbleheads on Fox News will discuss those details to death over the next several days. But if the copyeditors at Macmillan did their jobs, those details will be mostly inconsequential things.

We’re already seeing much of the Right taking sides with Trump against Bannon. How the Alt Right feels about that, I do not know. I don’t expect Bannon to disappear entirely, but especially after the debacle (for him) of the Roy Moore loss, I expect that from now on most Republicans and what’s left of movement conservatism will keep him at arm’s length. Maybe he and Karl Rove can form a Loser’s Club.

I expect the book may accelerate some ongoing trends. Editorialists already have been less hesitant to question Trump’s basic mental competence, and those voices will grow louder.  It also will likely accelerate Trump’s mental deterioration. I don’t see him getting through this year without a complete meltdown requiring, at least, confinement from public view or hospitalization.

We may learn there are breadcrumbs in the book for Bob Mueller to follow.

If the book is as big a money-maker for the publisher as it appears so far, expect more publishers to come out with books and magazine features talking trash about Trump.

Can you think of anything else?