A Wolff in the West Wing – How ‘Fire and Fury’ Was Reported

No chance somebody buttonholed the guy with the notebook and the vaguely familiar face and asked, “So, dude, what exactly are you doing here?”

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this image: Michael Wolff, middle-aged, bald-headed guy with screaming “I’m a New York media elite” glasses sitting on a crumb-strewn couch in the West Wing hallway, taking notes.

Not one day, not two days, but according to his account, week after week over the first eight months of the Trump administration. Sitting, watching, more than occasionally getting briefed on the soap opera going on around President Chaos. And (did I mention) taking notes?

“Shortly after January 20, I took up a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing,” he writes in the introduction to his book. “Since then I have conducted more than 200 interviews.”

Hmm. No chance somebody — say Kellyanne Conway, or Hope Hicks, or Sean Spicer — buttonholed the guy with the notebook and the vaguely familiar face who was not in the White House press corps and asked, “So, dude, what exactly are you doing here?”

There are a lot of layers to unpeel in the saga of how Wolff’s new — and now notorious — book came to be. The most significant single takeaway of the book is the terrifying conclusion that Trump’s own advisors believe that he is not fit for the presidency. “Semi-literate,” in Wolff’s words, someone who doesn’t read, who makes policy off of Fox television talking points, who blindly believes in his own untested instincts on matters of global importance.

It’s not an utter surprise to learn this, but to hear so many of those on Trump’s team — along with the likes of Rupert Murdoch — confirm this impression while privately calling him a “moron” and “idiot” is certainly sobering. The book opens with Roger Ailes pressing Steve Bannon on whether Trump gets it, and Bannon saying Trump “gets what he gets.” 

We should not lose sight of the importance of this insight and what it brings to the national conversation. It should light a fire under efforts to bring stability and sanity to our highest office, and by the way, it’s an incredibly saddening reality.

But the book is also a microcosmic look at the vicious New York media game displaced to Washington DC and, of all places, The White House. In that world, friends and enemies are all the same thing. Murdoch and Trump are buddies and supplicants, and Trump — even once elected — is still the supplicant, in Wolff’s telling. In this ecosystem, Hillary goes to Trump’s wedding, Trump gives her money for every campaign until he decides to run against her, then calls to lock her up when it’s convenient. That’s the game.

And Michael Wolff — the man who invites Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon to dinner and takes notes for his hit job book after the baba au rhum is finished — is just the man to do it. (Calling Tom Wolfe. Different wolf. Same bonfire of the vanities.)

That is the very Murdoch-Ailes-Trump-Kushner feedback loop that runs through Wolff’s book, in which the players as often dump on one another as vacation on each others’ yachts – an insight that is frightening and nauseating at the same time. (This just in passing caught my eye: Ivanka and Jared were on uber-Democrat David Geffen’s yacht in Croatia when they were called back to serve in the campaign in summer of 2016, the book tells us.)

It’s a world where media careers live on a par with the national interest. From the book: “Trump’s longtime friend Roger Ailes liked to say that if you want a career in television, first run for president. Now Trump, encouraged by Ailes, was floating rumors about a Trump network. It was a great future.” That was during the campaign, when Trump was intending to lose.

Except the New York games that risked careers and fortunes now risk national security and millions of citizens. They now have a nuclear button.

The fact that Michael Wolff — not Bob Woodward, not Doris Kearns Goodwin – gets to be the stenographer, er, chronicler of it all tells you everything you need to know about that through-the-looking-glass cultural shift.

With all that, I am riveted by the idea that someone could, on the basis of a loose friendship/acquaintance with the president, get the kind of access and cooperation that Wolff did.

In the book’s introduction and interviews, Wolff assures us that he did not do anything particularly noteworthy to achieve that. He just showed up to the White House.

In an interview on Saturday he said: “I literally think you go in there and say, ‘I’m writing a book,’ and they go, “‘Oh. A book.’ It’s like a cloak of invisibility. And then also they would do this thing that would be like, ‘Oh, this is off the record.’ And I would say, ‘I would like to use it for the book.’ And they would say, ‘Well, when does that come out?’ And I would say, ‘Next year.’ ‘Oh, oh, yeah, OK, fine.'”

Wolff and Trump deserve each other in every way. They are both symptoms and products of the toxic sick ward where the values are money and fame, and hubris and backstabbing are the norm. The crown jewel is a winning headline in Page Six.

In one of his savviest passages in “Fire and Fury,” Wolff points this out:

“Media is personal. It is a series of blood scores. The media in its often collective mind decides who is going to rise and who is going to fall, who lives and dies. If you stay around long enough in the media eye, your fate, like that of a banana republic despot, is often an unkind one — a law Hillary Clinton was not able to circumvent. The media has the last word.”