As the old saying goes, every cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and ends as a racket. Donald Trump’s political career has proceeded in reverse. It began as a racket, became a business, sparked a movement, and ended in a presidency. It is that bizarre, benighted progression, argues Michael Wolff in his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, that explains much of the Trump administration’s irresolvable dysfunction.
Wolff’s tell-all has launched to enviable press, publicity, and controversy. President Trump dismissed it as “a Fake Book, written by a totally discredited author,” while also directing his lawyers to try to stop its publication. (They failed, though the effort shot the book up the best-seller lists).
At the same time, Trump has treated its revelations as gospel truth, launching a blood feud against Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, based on Wolff’s recounting of Bannon’s comments. The media has delighted over the backbiting, sniping, leaking, and despair that Wolff got on the record — or, depending on whom you believe, did not get on the record but published anyway.
Fire and Fury has its limits. It’s heavily based on a few sources — Ben Domenech, in an allusion to Hillary Clinton’s post-election tome, calls it “Steve Bannon’s What Happened” — and riddled with typos and small but glaring factual errors (like that John Boehner left the House in 2011, rather than 2015).
At the same time, the book, read as a whole, contains real insight into the inner workings of the Trump administration. Though it presents itself as an insider account of Trump’s first months in office, it is too narrow in scope to serve that purpose: Wolff is clearly bored by questions of governance and policy, so there’s relatively little about what the Trump administration actually did, and why it did it.
Instead, Wolff has written an insider’s account of what it’s like to work for Donald Trump. This is a book about the collection of cronies, opportunists, misfits, functionaries, family members, and public servants who have tried to construct something that acts and operates like a presidency around a man who neither acts nor operates like a president, a man they all know shouldn’t be the president.
More importantly, it is a book about why they’re failing.
Trump wasn’t supposed to win
What you need to understand about Trump’s presidency, Wolff says, it that it was never meant to happen. And if it had never happened, perhaps it would have all worked out fine.
The beginning of Fire and Fury is about what Trump’s team, including the candidate, expected to do after he lost. Steve Bannon “would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement,” Kellyanne Conway “would now be one of the leading conservative voices on cable news,” Reince Priebus and Katie Walsh “would get their Republican Party back,” Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump “would have transformed themselves from relatively obscure rich kids into international celebrities,” and Melania Trump “could return to inconspicuously lunching.”
As for Donald Trump? His plans were, well, yuge. He “would be the most famous man in the world.” Alongside Roger Ailes, he was thinking of launching his own television network — Trump TV, a network by him, about him, and for the millions and millions of people he had proven he understood better than the Republican Party, Fox News, or Paul Ryan.
“I don’t think about losing because it isn’t losing,” Trump reportedly told Ailes a week before the election, when he and everyone else thought he was going to lose. “We’ve totally won.”
The Trump campaign began as a nice racket. Get some money from the rich guy with the big ego and the checkbook to match. It took off, and it became a nice business — if you’d jumped aboard early, you rocketed to the forefront of conservative politics, bypassing the careerists and operatives who got the blue-chip political jobs you couldn’t, the bootlickers and Ivy Leaguers who had looked down on you for so long. To get a candidate that flawed to the nomination, to a respectable loss, that was miracle work, and you would be seen as a miracle worker.
Trump’s staff, Wolff says, knew that it wasn’t meant to go beyond that. “Almost everybody in the campaign, still an extremely small outfit, thought of themselves as a clear-eyed team, as realistic about their prospects as perhaps any in politics. The unspoken agreement among them: not only would Donald Trump not be president, he should probably not be. Conveniently, the former conviction meant nobody had to deal with the latter issue.”
Then they had to. Wolff frames the reckoning nicely:
The Trump campaign had, perhaps less than inadvertently, replicated the scheme from Mel Brooks’s The Producers. In that classic, Brooks’s larcenous and dopey heroes, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, set out to sell more than 100 percent of the ownership stakes in the Broadway show they are producing. Since they will be found out only if the show is a hit, everything about the show is premised on its being a flop. Accordingly, they create a show so outlandish that it actually succeeds, thus dooming our heroes.
To Wolff, many of the Trump administration’s current problems lie in this cracked foundation. Why release your tax returns if you’re never going to win? What’s the harm in sucking up to Russia’s government if you’re likelier to build a hotel in Moscow than to occupy the White House? Who needs to build a real policy operation, or work through a process of educating the candidate on major policy issues, if he’s never going to govern? Why concern yourself with conflicts of interest or business entanglements if they’re never going to matter?
But all of this raises the question: What was so awful about Trump that even his own staff, his own family, believed he shouldn’t be president?
“The central issue of the Trump presidency”: Trump is not fit to be president
Wolff’s book is full of, um, candid assessments of Donald Trump’s intellectual capacity — although many of them, it should be said, appear to be second- or thirdhand, so believe the specific wording at your own risk.
“An idiot,” according to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and, separately, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Wolff wrote.
“A fucking idiot,” according to Rupert Murdoch.
“A fucking moron,” according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
“A child,” according to former Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh.
“A dope,” according to National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
“Dumb as shit,” according to National Economics Council Director Gary Cohn.
The value of Wolff’s book, though, isn’t in the judgments themselves, but in the more nuanced portrait of Trump’s deficiencies. For instance:
Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: he didn’t process information in any conventional sense — or, in a way, he didn’t process it at all. Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate.
For anything that smacked of a classroom or of being lectured to — “professor” was one of his bad words, and he was proud of never going to class, never buying a textbook, never taking a note — he got up and left the room. This was a problem in multiple respects — indeed, in almost all the prescribed functions of the presidency.
What was, to many of the people who knew Trump well, much more confounding was that he had managed to win this election, and arrive at this ultimate accomplishment, wholly lacking what in some obvious sense must be the main requirement of the job, what neuroscientists would call executive function. He had somehow won the race for president, but his brain seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job. He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus; he had never been able to tailor his behavior to what the goals at hand reasonably required. On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect.
Here was another peculiar Trump attribute: an inability to see his actions the way most others saw them. Or to fully appreciate how people expected him to behave. The notion of the presidency as an institutional and political concept, with an emphasis on ritual and propriety and semiotic messaging — statesmanship — was quite beyond him.
Wolff also quotes an internal White House email, apparently representing Gary Cohn’s views:
It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything — not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.
The picture painted of Trump in Wolff’s book is the same picture painted of Trump by Trump’s own tweets, speeches, comments, and actions, as well as the constant on- and off-the-record statements of his staff. It is similar to what I, and many other reporters who have covered this White House, have heard from top staff. Trump is not cognitively up to the job of the presidency. He’s not just someone who doesn’t know much about policy or foreign affairs, he’s someone who doesn’t want to know much about policy or foreign affairs, who dislikes the methods by which you actually could learn about policy or foreign affairs.
In this telling, Trump’s ignorance isn’t an absence of knowledge; it’s closer to a personality trait, perhaps even an ideology.
And while there’s been some pushback to individual stories and quotes in Wolff’s account, there’s really not been pushback to these assessments. Axios’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, who are deeply sourced in the Trump administration, write that while they believe parts of Wolff’s book “are wrong, sloppy, or betray off-the-record confidence,” the sections relating to “how Trump processes (and resists) information,” his preference for “instinct over expertise,” his “ill-preparedness,” and the “low regard” in which he’s held by key aides “ring unambiguously true.”
How do you build a functional presidency without a functional president?
So what happens when a man who isn’t fit to be president and a campaign that never expected to staff and manage a presidency unexpectedly wins the White House? Chaos.
Most of Wolff’s book recounts the dual-front challenge of the Trump administration’s first few months in office.
Challenge 1: How do you please, placate, manage, constrain, and inform a raging child-king? The answer, embarrassing but at this point known to Trump’s staff and to any foreign government that might want to curry America’s favor, is flattery and sycophancy.
Challenge 2: How do you harness the remarkable opportunity you’ve been given to actually build something of value?
The central struggle of Trump’s early months was between chief strategist Steve Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and chief son-in-law Jared Kushner. All of them, in their proximity to power, saw the potential to build a presidency they could be proud of, or at least less disgraced by:
Each man saw the president as something of a blank page — or a scrambled one. And each, Walsh came to appreciate with increasing incredulity, had a radically different idea of how to fill or remake that page. Bannon was the alt-right militant. Kushner was the New York Democrat. And Priebus was the establishment Republican. “Steve wants to force a million people out of the country and repeal the nation’s health law and lay on a bunch of tariffs that will completely decimate how we trade, and Jared wants to deal with human trafficking and protecting Planned Parenthood.” And Priebus wanted Donald Trump to be another kind of Republican altogether ...
As Walsh saw it, Steve Bannon was running the Steve Bannon White House, Jared Kushner was running the Michael Bloomberg White House, and Reince Priebus was running the Paul Ryan White House.
This struggle was hardly a genteel conflict of ideas. Wolff delightedly chronicles the three factions’ endless ratfucking — the leaks, the schemes, the backbiting, the outside heavies brought in to change Trump’s mind at the last minute.
The conflict was so immense precisely because the president was incapable of, and uninterested in, resolving it. Trump never gave a damn about Trumpism. He’s not interested enough in policy or ideology or ideas to direct the course of his own presidency. Absent that interest, the course will be directed by the most firmly established interests around the president — in this case, the congressional GOP and his family.
Wolff’s primary source for the book was clearly Bannon — many of the chapters proceed from his perspective, and the book ends when he leaves the White House — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Bannon was the only senior staffer trying to craft a unique ideology out of Trump’s campaign, even if that ideology was more properly understood as Bannonism. I found this passage borderline poignant:
Bannon, suffering in his internal exile, remained convinced that he represented what Donald Trump actually believed, or, more accurately, what the president felt. He knew Trump to be a fundamentally emotional man, and he was certain that the deepest part of him was angry and dark. However much the president wanted to support his daughter and her husband’s aspirations, their worldview was not his. As Walsh saw it, “Steve believes he is Darth Vader and that Trump is called to the dark side.”
Whether Bannon was right about Trump’s deepest impulses is immaterial. What Bannon didn’t understand was that for all his talk of “the swamp” and the power of entrenched interests and the pull of the “deep state,” if he was really going to pull off an ideological revolution in American politics, he would need a president committed to that project and the difficult work it entailed.
Donald Trump was not, and is not, that president. And that’s why his presidency has, for the most part, taken the path of least resistance: outsourcing domestic policy to the congressional GOP, foreign policy to the military, and the remainder to corrupt payoffs to himself, his friends, and his family.
The mystery of Trump
Wolff’s book contains a mystery that it never resolves.
“It was obvious to everyone that if [Trump] had a north star, it was just to be liked,” says Wolff. “He was ever uncomprehending about why everyone did not like him, or why it should be so difficult to get everyone to like him.”
Trump’s staffers confirm the characterization. “The president fundamentally wants to be liked,” Walsh says in the book. “He just fundamentally needs to be liked so badly.”
Yet it would be easy enough for Trump to run a presidency that left him better-liked. He could work with “Chuck and Nancy,” ease up on the culture war, give some gentler speeches. He’s had moments where he seemed near pivoting, where he appeared to bask in the media coverage that followed a few days of relative normalcy. There has never been a president for whom the bar is lower than Donald Trump. It would be so easy for him to clear it, and there are people around him, like Jared and Ivanka and Cohn and Powell and Mnuchin, who would happily act as guides and cheerleaders.
But he doesn’t do any of it, at least not for long. Why?
Wolff’s book doesn’t provide a satisfying answer. What it provides, instead, is a portrait of a man coming undone by the very forces he has unleashed.
Trump doesn’t care about policy or politics or ideology or coalitions. He cares about Trump. His dream was to put his name on buildings and in tabloids, and now he has put his name on the most important building on the planet and on the front page of most every newspaper in the world. Yet the coverage he gets, outside of a few conservative outlets, is horrible, the worst of any president in memory. He cannot perform his job well enough to be liked or respected, but he only wanted the job in the first place because it would force the whole world to like and respect him — and he is being driven to rage and paranoia by the resulting dissonance, disappointment, and hurt.
Imagine being Donald Trump. Imagine reading about yourself every day and knowing these awful things are being said by your friends, your aides, your allies, perhaps even your family. Imagine knowing you can’t trust anyone around you, suspecting they’re badmouthing you constantly, raising their social status by diminishing yours.
Imagine seeing your stability questioned, your patriotism impugned, your intellect dismissed. Imagine doing the impossible — winning the presidency! — only to be treated as a national embarrassment.
This isn’t what Trump wanted. And it’s not clear it’s something he can bear. A more capable, competent, and stable person would, by now, have either changed their behavior to receive more of the response they crave or given up on getting the response they crave. But Trump appears to exist in an unhappy middle ground, rage-tweeting through his mornings, retreating to his golf club on weekends, searching for the validation he craves in his Twitter feed and on Fox & Friends but never getting it from the elite tastemakers he’s always sought to impress.
The pressures of the presidency would be enough to break almost anyone, but Trump is less suited to the work, and to the backlash, than most. The strain is already showing — Trump’s workday, reportedly, has shrunk to a gentle 11 am to 6 pm. But the bulk of his first term remains, and it could include his financial secrets being revealed to the world, his family being indicted, a crisis he mishandles exploding into a catastrophe.
The question now — the question of Wolff’s book and of our future — is whether Trump’s staff can keep governing around him, whether a dysfunctional president can nevertheless have a semi-functional White House.