The explosive book has sent Trump into a rage spiral and taken down Steve Bannon. But does it reveal anything powerful enough to change who sits in the White House?
Everyone, it seems, wanted something different from Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the gossipy and questionably substantive result of writer Michael Wolff’s sorta-unauthorized year skulking around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue behind Steve Bannon. Should we take it sort of seriously, since some of what Wolff reports to report throws Donald Trump’s intellectual competency into question? Should we take it with a grain of salt, as the dubiously reported account that a dubious president deserves? Has Wolff besmirched the good name of journalism with his limited reportorial scruples, or did he boldly attempt what the White House press corps is simply too cowed to try? Is it a big nothingburger topped with snooze sauce? Or is it full of “awesomely sordid” tales and “revelations”?
The truth, as ever, is somewhere in the middle. Reading the book was a profoundly dispiriting experience. Mostly, Wolff tells us what we already know: The Trump White House is a sad, distrustful place full of sad, distrustful people who are as likely to lie as to breathe, and who are profoundly incompetent and in no way situated to ever realize that particular truth. I was hoping to spend my weekend enjoying a schadenfreude-filled giggle or two over the bad behavior of bad people being bad to one another, but what I came away with was the sorry feeling that everyone, from Trump to “Jarvanka” to Bannon to the crony cast of opportunists both aged and youthful (e.g., Roger Ailes, the adult Trump sons, Rupert Murdoch) are just as awful as the establishment media has already long shown them to be, but with better evidence and clearer prose. And these fools are in charge!
Wolff’s author’s note makes no bones about his decision to play fast and loose with sourcing, but the payoff is limp. Sure, Steve Bannon called Donald Junior’s meet-up with Russia “treasonous,” but the book is otherwise so poorly attributed and obliquely written that it’s impossible for even a thoughtful, politically plugged-in reader to make much of a judgment call on any of the scenes that play out therein. Wolff seems to be saying: Take my word, or don’t take anything from this at all. When it all shakes out, I think the latter will be more likely. Wolff hasn’t told White House–watchers anything truly new, and he didn’t back up the potentially revelatory stuff about Trump’s competency, or behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, with the rigor necessary to give it teeth.
So that’s that: The book itself is a wildly successful, über-pirated flop; in terms of content, it’s a flop. But a few things might save it in the eyes of history.
First, Wolff could release what he claims are tapes of some of the saucy conversations he had while meandering around the West Wing while everyone was too busy staring at their own navels to notice the writer in their midst. Until Wolff produces definitive proof that he heard what he says he heard, and that the White House’s sniping and sniveling is as bad as he says it is, this is mostly going to be a story for media and political wonks to argue over at the bar, and it’ll soon disappear into the merciless churn of the Trump news cycle.
Second, Trump could trip over his own tongue in his attempts to muzzle Wolff and his publisher and end up embroiled in a legitimately damaging constitutional kerfuffle over the First Amendment. The more Trump cries “Cease!” and “Desist!” at Wolff and his publisher, and the farther he tries to take whatever kind of lawsuit he thinks he’s entitled to, the more damning the dirt that’s likely to be kicked up in the course of a court battle. If anything is going to topple the Trump administration, it will be overconfidence.
Third, Trump’s not cultivating a lot of long-term love among sympathetic media with his attacks on Bannon, and even the friendliest outfits are eventually going to chafe at being told how to do business. Look, I think Breitbart News should be stuffed into a space cannon and shot into the nearest black hole, never to be read again by anyone in this galaxy or any other. But the Trump administration’s pissy meddling with the press’s private enterprise and personnel matters whenever he finds himself on the receiving end of anything besides abject idol worship is beyond the pale. (I mean, of course it is. Nothing Trump does is within the parameters of the pale.) I mean, this—“Even if you thought that [Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russia] was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the F.B.I. immediately”—is what gets Bannon, a racist and a xenophobe, kicked to the curb by Breitbart and SiriusXM radio? Really? Obviously the Breitbart-backing Mercer family was happy to stay on team Trump for the Bannon boot, but I wonder how deep that goodwill goes.
Ultimately, I don’t see Fire and Fury having anything like a long-term impact on journalism, or how journalists are perceived or treated, though thoughtful folks will disagree with me on that. I think that gives Michael Wolff more power, and a bigger reputation, than he deserves. Folks who are already disposed to dislike the media will use Fire and Fury—or whatever they hear Sean Hannity say about it on the tee-vee—to shore up their beliefs, and people capable of critical thinking will, well, think critically about it. At Slate, Isaac Chotiner worries that Fire and Fury’s loose approach will encourage Trump sympathizers and media skeptics to kick good old-fashioned honest reporting when it’s already down. It’s a fair concern for anyone who believes in a robust and free fourth estate, but I wonder: Was good old-fashioned honest reporting going to be the nail in the Trump administration’s coffin, anyway? I want it to be; I want Maggie Haberman and Dave Fahrenthold and April Ryan and the gang to whittle away at Trump until there’s nothing left to see besides bald incompetence and corruption laid bare. I believe Trump is an unfit president, and I’m thirsty for my own generation’s Watergate to give him a thump out into the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue.
But that’s a rosy, revisionist kind of ahistorical pining, wishful thinking that connects dots cinematically, not realistically. The dogged reporting of establishment journalists has already shown us in black and white what Fire and Fury simply put to a laser light show. At this point I struggle to imagine what it will take for people in power to take the threat that Trump poses to Americans, and the health of our democracy itself, seriously. I’m just about entertaining the possibility that Trump is going to have to get an awful lot of white folks killed in one fell swoop following an awful, ill-considered decision that can be somehow be directly traced back to Trump himself before his colleagues in Washington will begin to consider anything other than a natural end to his presidency. (And soldiers won’t count.)
The fact that reporting methodologies both respectable and devious produced the same basic truths about the Trump administration shows that it will take something more significant than the bare reality of a dangerous and incompetent presidency to bring Trump down. That’s terrifying—but we already knew that, too.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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