Trump Exposé Has Plenty Of 'Fire And Fury,' Maybe A Little Less Substance
This review contains language that some may find offensive.
I'll get all the good stuff out of the way first: President Trump likes to eat cheeseburgers in bed; his hair is the result of scalp reduction surgery and deft, even architectural, styling; he has three TVs in his bedroom; his advisers speculate about whether or not he can read; Steve Bannon called Ivanka "dumb as a brick"; Trump called Sally Yates a "c***"; Hope Hicks and Corey Lewandowski had an affair that ended in a street fight; and Trump's inner circle walks around in a state of "queasy sheepishness, if not constant incredulity" at the president's behavior. You're welcome.
That is all according to Michael Wolff's seamy, gossipy, vindictive new book, Fire and Fury: Inside The Trump White House, an account of Trump's first year in office. And if Wolff misidentifies some facts here and there — titles, years, peripheral people — that is the boring stuff. Cheeseburgers in bed!
Marrying the slimy and carnivalesque, Fire and Fury occasionally reads like a parody of New Journalism with its elaborate scene-setting; omniscient narrator (who at one point appears to refer to himself in the third person as "the journalist"); some grand, misquoted Shakespeare; and a colorful vocabulary that swings from SAT words (apogee, persiflage) to bro slang (man crush, douchebag).
Wolff, a longtime magazine journalist, is of the school of reporting that believes you can find out more through schmoozing than through FOIA requests. For this book, he says he stationed himself on a couch in the West Wing ("there was no one to say 'Go Away' ") for much of the president's first year in office. He says he interviewed the president, the president's senior staff and "many people who they in turn spoke to."
"[M]any people who they in turn spoke to" is pretty vague. Most information in Fire and Fury is delivered through omniscient third-person narration, as if Wolff were an all-seeing eye. That means that any given fact could have been delivered directly from the president or trickled thirdhand through a rumor mill.
Information is like a river: It picks up all kinds of dirt and trash the further it is from the source. Attribution — even anonymous but detailed attribution — lets readers judge how good information is. Wolff prevents anyone from evaluating his reporting (as well as the motives of those giving him information), forcing us to trust him completely. But why should we be confident in Wolff's unsourced assertions when he makes so many small factual errors with information that is publicly available (even in spite of the fact-checkers he thanks in the acknowledgments)?
When it comes to facts, Wolff is interested in the spirit, not the letter, and maybe not even the sentence. For instance, on the Russia dossier published last year by BuzzFeed News, he writes, "[Former British spy Christopher] Steele assembled a damaging report ... suggesting that Donald Trump was being blackmailed by the Putin government." The report actually suggested the Russians were gathering information that could potentially be used to blackmail Trump, not that the Russians were actively blackmailing Trump at that very minute. (Wolff's mistakes often err on the side of the dramatic.)
Information is like a river — it picks up all kinds of dirt and trash the further it is from the source.
One passage that seems to particularly sum up Wolff's approach to reporting details Trump's anger at a New York Times story describing him "stalking around in the late hours of the night in his bathrobe, unable to work the light switches" (actually, the article says his aides couldn't work the light switches). The White House pushed back, claiming that the president didn't own a bathrobe. Then, according to Wolff, "The New York Times Washington bureau, itself quite literal and worried about the possible lack of an actual bathrobe, reverse-leaked that Bannon was the source of the story."
Two things are of interest in this passage: First, he notes with apparent amusement the Times' literalism — as if to be literal is a tiresome, plodding, and unimaginative trait, rather than a central tenet of reporting. Secondly, he makes the stunning claim that the Times outed its own source but without any suggestion of what that means exactly or how Wolff came to that information. An indifference to factual details and an unwillingness to attribute information are a bad combination.
Much of the narrative is not substantively different from information found in other reporting on the president. But many other reporters have been restrained and careful where Wolff is shameless.
It's easy to understand the appeal of Fire and Fury, which has topped Amazon's best-seller list and provoked the threat of a lawsuit from the president (as well as his claim that he is a "very stable genius"). For a year, liberals and conservatives alike have watched Trump's inner circle present faces of practiced neutrality to his bluster, nodding along to speeches of garbled superlatives loosed of grammar and meaning as if they were subtle meditations on international politics. They've stared at Trump daughter Ivanka's polished inanity, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' plodding optimism, the staid efficiency of chief of staff John Kelly — and wondered, how can they be acting like this is normal? Wolff shows the chaos we want to see backstage.
In response to Trump's claim that Fire and Fury is a "phony" book, Wolff said, "My credibility is being questioned by a man who has less credibility than perhaps anyone who has ever walked on Earth at this point." It's a classic Trumpian move — not addressing the actual criticism, while maintaining that your enemy is way worse. "Media is personal. It is a series of blood scores," Wolff notes at one point. Apparently.
So read it, sure — but as the commercials say, only "as part of a balanced diet." Much of the narrative is not substantively different from information found in other reporting on the president. But many other reporters have been restrained and careful where Wolff is shameless. Facts, Wolff appears to think, have done nothing to hurt Trump — so he is fighting spectacle with spectacle.
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