Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” is much ado about nothing new (column)
January 7, 2018
There are plenty of shocking bombshells in Michael Wolff's new book, "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House," but is there anything actually new?
I haven't read it yet, but I have been following the crowdsourced effort by other journalists to recount every salacious tidbit. The quotes from staffers and Cabinet secretaries are indeed shocking by the standards of your typical "inside account" of an administration's first year. I don't recall so many White House luminaries competing to out-insult the commander in chief before.
"For (Treasury Secretary) Steve Mnuchin and (then-Chief of Staff) Reince Priebus, he was an 'idiot,'" Wolff writes. "For Gary Cohn, he was 'dumb as s–t.' For H.R. McMaster he was a 'dope.'"
Wolff's sourcing methods leave much to be desired, and it seems likely that some of the quotes and incidents were fed to him at best secondhand. Some flatly deny saying what Wolff ascribes to them. Others do not dispute their damning statements. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon doesn't dispute the myriad statements he made about Trump, his family and — his word — the campaign's "treasonous" meeting with a Russian emissary.
As for Trump himself, Wolff describes the president as an easily bored narcissist with a hair-trigger attention span and a thin-skinned ego.
But this has been reported countless times already. Last month, The New York Times described a president who spends, daily, somewhere between four and eight hours "in front of a television," albeit sometimes with it muted.
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You can call such things "fake news" — as the president himself often does. But even a normal citizen can follow Trump's Twitter feed or listen to him speak and see that he is, by any conventional standard, obsessed with TV coverage. We've known for years — and the White House has never denied — that the only print news clips the president regularly reads are the curated stories about himself.
Similarly, if you've watched or read virtually any interview with the president — never mind listened to him at a rally — then you've observed how the president struggles to complete a line of thought without being distracted. Diagramming his sentences often requires a grammatical Rube Goldberg machine to connect verbs and nouns, subjects and predicates.
In short, even discounting for hearsay and exaggeration, the Trump in "Fire and Fury" seems utterly plausible save for those who have chosen not to believe their own lying eyes.
Trump has benefited from a tendency among both his biggest fans and his biggest foes to see more than meets the eye. For the true believers, there must be a method behind the madness. The Trump we see on Twitter and TV conceals a strategic thinker who keeps his enemies off balance by "controlling the narrative" or some such treacle.
When Trump says he understands tax policy "better than anybody. Better than the greatest CPA," his fans want to believe that's true, or at least that there's some truth to it. Likewise all of his other bizarre boasts ("I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth"; "Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump"; "Because nobody knows the (immigration) system better than me. I know the H1B. I know the H2B. Nobody knows it better than me").
And yet, not once in hundreds of speeches and interviews has the president ever slipped and actually talked expertly for more than a minute on any public policy without the benefit of a teleprompter. For a president not known to avoid showing off, it's a remarkable accomplishment to keep his policy chops so well hidden.
Trump's biggest enemies have something of a mirror-image delusion. In order to justify perpetual "resistance," they must believe that the president has some long-term evil scheme in mind for overthrowing the democratic order. It's a cartoonish exaggeration of the hysteria some on the left once had with regard to George W. Bush. They simultaneously believed he was a criminal mastermind and a dunce. When you want to dedicate your life to opposing some villain, it's only human to want to believe the villain is worth the effort.
The truth may not be as horrifying as Wolff and others describe, nor as terrifying as "the resistance" fears. All it takes is a willingness to see the obvious: The president is a man out of his depth, propped up by a staff and a party that needs to believe more than what the facts will support.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.