Dishy political books such as Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” are typically assailed for centering on palace machinations at the expense of policy substance. In keeping with that tradition, the pages of Wolff’s book are littered with insults and intrigue, backstabbing and dysfunction.
In this case, however, such focus seems sadly appropriate. If there is one thing we’ve learned during the first year of the Trump presidency, it is that in this White House, the intrigue is the thing; substance is almost incidental, while policy is often just a weapon wielded in the service of careerism, vanity, personal advantage and brand management. The president appears driven by insecurity, ego and a constant fear of ridicule and failure more than by any ideological conviction.
The central players in Wolff’s account are former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, former chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Jared Kushner. “Bannon was the alt-right militant. Kushner was the New York Democrat. And Priebus was the establishment Republican,” Wolff writes, and these contrasting viewpoints clashed in Trump’s frenetic, distracted, uninterested mind. “It was quite clear that deciding between contradictory policy approaches was not his style of leadership,” Wolff writes of the president. “He simply hoped that difficult decisions would make themselves.”
Trump’s disdain for policy details was evident during the transition period. When House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Tom Price came to discuss the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, the president-elect kept “trying to turn the conversation to golf,” Wolff reports. “The details of the contested legislation were, to him, particularly boring; his attention would begin wandering from the first words of a policy discussion. He would have been able to enumerate few of the particulars of Obamacare.” In one meeting, he blurted out conservative heresy — “Why can’t Medicare simply cover everybody?” — less out of any policy conviction than in an effort to just move on.
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A brutal moment, Wolff reports, came in March, when Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh confronted Kushner about Trump’s objectives. “Just give me the three things the president wants to focus on,” she pleaded. “What are the three priorities of this White House?” Kushner’s response: “Yes, we should probably have that conversation.”
Establishing policy priorities has not been, well, a priority for this White House. “The president, while proposing the most radical departure from governing and policy norms in several generations,” Wolff writes, “had few specific ideas about how to turn his themes and vitriol into policy, nor a team that could reasonably unite behind him.” Senior staffers proposed conflicting ideas that might enhance their own power bases; rather than flowing down from the president, policy bubbled up somewhat randomly. “It was a process of suggesting, in throw-it-against-the-wall style, what the president might want, and hoping he might then think that he had thought of this himself.”
Instead, the president has been preoccupied with his negative portrayals in the news media, a nearly lifelong obsession. He does not view criticism as a response to his positions and statements, but as a personal attack.
Trump complained that journalists’ attacks against him were without precedent. “He had reviewed the treatment of all other presidents in the media and there was nothing like this ever, even of Nixon who was treated very unfairly.” It’s vintage Trump: He must claim he’s the best at being treated the worst.
Some of the juiciest tidbits in “Fire and Fury” are also among the pettiest, with Wolff listing pejoratives that various associates and staffers have supposedly leveled toward the president (not to his face, of course). National security adviser H.R. McMaster called him a “dope.” Priebus, an “idiot.” Rupert Murdoch upgraded that to “f---ing idiot,” while economic adviser Gary Cohn went with “dumb as s---.”
Campaign hands branded Don Jr. and Eric Trump “Uday and Qusay,” after Saddam Hussein’s sons, while former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski dismissed Kushner as “the butler.” Bannon sarcastically called Ivanka Trump and Kushner “the geniuses,” and suggested that Don Jr.’s infamous June 2016 meeting with a bunch of shady Russians at Trump Tower was “treasonous.”
But more than the insults and trolling, the most damning thing this book reveals is the extent to which the Trump team, and the president himself, were unprepared to govern. They did not expect to win the election, so they didn’t bother to get ready. Despite promising voters that he would start winning so much that they’d get tired of it, Trump apparently made a different pledge to Melania, who feared the disruption of her easy, sheltered existence. “He offered his wife a solemn guarantee: there was simply no way he would win.”
With the presidency suddenly in hand, they didn’t have a plan, they didn’t have a purpose, and they barely had a team. “Nobody had a political background,” Wolff writes of the transition staff. “Nobody had a policy background. Nobody had a legislative background.” Least of all the increasingly angry and erratic new president.
The president’s mental capacity has become a subject of public debate, and in this book Wolff suggests Trump’s faculties are deteriorating. He describes the president as “semi-literate,” unable to conduct a meaningful one-on-one exchange and prone to awkward repetitions in speech. Wolff is not a mental health professional, and his concerns seem to mix temperamental and cognitive fitness.
But if it is true, as he reports, that people close to Trump are seriously questioning whether the president has “the wherewithal to adequately function in his job,” that becomes a matter of national concern, especially when the self-proclaimed “very stable genius” in the White House is bragging about his big, powerful nuclear button.
Yes, we should probably have that conversation.
‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’ by Michael Wolff, Henry Holt. 321 pages, $30.