I’m not a political journalist, my weekly Huffington Post column is about guns. But since Trump has been so upfront about guns and his concern for 2nd-Amendment ‘rights,’ I have been following the contretemps of his daily reality show in the Oval Office with interest, and since I am a yellow-dog Democrat, with delight.
Which brings me to what I learned after reading Michael Wolff’s book. And what I really learned is that the serious reviews of the book in the mainstream media are simply wrong. The attacks against Wolff for not being honest about his sources is unfair; the narrative that this is simply a hatchet-job on Trump and a paean of praise for Steve Bannon is incorrect, the idea that there’s nothing ‘new’ in the book is irrelevant; the whole point and power of this work is entirely missed.
What Wolff has constructed is not a gossip-sheet of what happened in the White House until Bannon quit on August 18 of last year; it is a profoundly detailed explanation of what Washington D.C. has become and what national politics are all about. And the portrait created by Wolff goes far beyond anything directly connected to Trump. If anything, the book contains much more trenchant views about how the so-called ‘fake media’ operates, a point mentioned by Wolff in interviews (largely ignored) since the book first appeared.
I’m not interested in how the book has been received either by the media noisemakers on the alt-right or the alt-left, they are both following embedded scripts which they use to lead into whatever is going to be said each day about Trump. On the other hand, The New York Times has published lengthy, serious review by someone who obviously read the whole book.
The reviewer, Jonathan Martin, who goes out of his way to tell you that he is a seasoned political reporter, calls the book ‘ultimately unsatisfying’ and ‘lamentably unrewarding’ precisely because it does exactly what makes the book so important and powerful, namely, that when confronted with conflicting accounts of a particular incident, such as the June, 2016 meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower, Wolff makes no attempt to inject his own opinion as to whose story is true and whose story is false. He describes this pivotal event, along with other critical moments, such as the firing of James Comey, by letting the participants speak for themselves. And if this approach makes the book a failure because Wolff doesn’t elect to believe one testimony over the other, then what Martin is giving us is exactly what makes the mainstream media outlets so suspect and easily reviled; namely, that absent any real proof of what happened or who did what, reporters like Martin have no trouble telling us what they think happened, which happens to be a pretty good definition of ‘fake news.’
The book leads off with a dinner held in a New York City apartment early on at which time Steve Bannon and Roger Aisles traded comments about Trump’s apparent inability to be the Chief Executive, along with other dinner-table conversation about the possibility of putting together a new media operation that would challenge Fox from the right. Martin uses this example to his disdain for Wolff’s reluctance to fortify his text with more facts, calling Wolff ‘slippery’ because he didn’t mention that the dinner took place at his house.
What difference does that make? In fact, the idea of using the Trump experience to develop a new media venture that would obviously take the Breitbart model and expand it to a much larger audience crops up again and again in the book, including being mentioned by Trump himself. The point is that none of the people surrounding Trump — Bannon, the sons, the daughter and son-in-law — had the slightest bit of political experience themselves. They didn’t join the Administration as the next step in a long-time, political career; those types like Preibus and Spicer were dead meat from Day One. Jared Kushner knew that working for his father-in-law would get him into contact with all sorts of high-flyers who would be able to enlarge his business empire and fortunes down the road. Wolff’s narrative, if nothing else, makes clear how self-serving and self-aggrandizing were the motives of virtually everyone who surrounded Trump.
Here’s the best moment of all. On the way back from Europe when Trump learned that the issue of the June 2016 meeting with the Russians was about to explode, Wolff narrates what then happened on Air Force 1 as Trump himself ended up writing and releasing an explanation about the meeting that turned out to be totally false. As the Trump family members plus Hope Hicks go wandering in and out of the office where Trump is rewriting the press release and turning a fairly innocuous text into a complete lie, the professionals — McMaster, Cohn, Powell — hunker down in another part of the plane because they understand the mess which is about to be unleashed. And what were they doing? They were watching the Coen Brothers movie Fargo, which is about a bumbling idiot who thinks he has figured out a scheme to cover up his embezzlement from his father-in-law’s company; a scheme so stupid and that it immediately unravels after resulting in 7 deaths.
If this brief anecdote doesn’t capture the White House situation at the beginning of a Presidential administration in which not a single member of Trump’s inner circle (including Bannon) knew anything about governing at all, I don’t know what does. And to Wolff’s credit, he has written a book which lays all of this out, notwithstanding the fact that reporters like Jonathan Martin have not yet said or written anything like this at all.
Wollf has to have known that the publication of this book would mean that access to the White would come to a screeching end. Would the New York Times be willing to short-circuit its own White House access in order to inform us about what is really going on? That’s why you need to read this book.