by John Hawkins | January 9, 2018 1:59 am
The hottest book in America right now is Michael Wolff’s, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Wolf had an astonishing level of access to major players in the Trump White House,
The events I’ve described in these pages are based on conversations that took place over a period of eighteen months with the president, with most members of his senior staff—some of whom talked to me dozens of times—and with many people who they in turn spoke to. The first interview occurred well before I could have imagined a Trump White House, much less a book about it, in late May 2016 at Trump’s home in Beverly Hills—the then candidate polishing off a pint of Häagen-Dazs vanilla as he happily and idly opined about a range of topics while his aides, Hope Hicks, Corey Lewandowski, and Jared Kushner, went in and out of the room. Shortly after January 20, I took up something like a semipermanent seat on a couch in the West Wing. Since then I have conducted more than two hundred interviews. For whatever reason, almost everyone I contacted—senior members of the White House staff as well as dedicated observers of it—shared large amounts of time with me and went to great effort to help shed light on the unique nature of life inside the Trump White House. In the end, what I witnessed, and what this book is about, is a group of people who have struggled, each in their own way, to come to terms with the meaning of working for Donald Trump.
Many people have questioned how accurate the book may be. Although I don’t think Wolff just made things up, there are two concerns on that front from my perspective.
#1) Wolff is pretty clearly a liberal who dislikes conservatives in general and Trump in particular. For that reason, I think he tends to take a rather dim and uncharitable view of everything that happens. For example, imagine the sort of take Ann Coulter would have if she were being given full access to the Obama White House for months.
#2) In the first half of 2017, there was a nasty, all out battle going on between Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon & Ivanka Trump/Jared Kushner. They were all competing for Trump’s ear, leaking about each other to the press and attempting to make their rivals look bad. So can you 100% trust what Bannon says about Ivanka? Is an ally of Ivanka going to be a 100% reliable source about a conversation that might make Reince look bad? So, that’s another issue.
Still, it was intriguing book that does have some extremely intriguing details about what went on in Trump’s first year in the White House. Enjoy!
* “Conway now was in a remarkably buoyant mood considering she was about to experience a resounding if not cataclysmic defeat. Donald Trump would lose the election—of this she was sure—but he would quite possibly hold the defeat to under 6 points. That was a substantial victory. As for the looming defeat itself, she shrugged it off: it was Reince Priebus’s fault, not hers. … But neither Conway nor Trump himself nor his son-in-law Jared Kushner—the effective head of the campaign, or the designated family monitor of it—wavered in their certainty: their unexpected adventure would soon be over….Only Steve Bannon, in his odd-man view, insisted the numbers would break in their favor. But this being Bannon’s view—crazy Steve—it was quite the opposite of being a reassuring one. Almost everybody in the campaign, still an extremely small outfit, thought of themselves as a clear-eyed team, as realistic about their prospects as perhaps any in politics….He would come out of this campaign, Trump assured Ailes, with a far more powerful brand and untold opportunities. “This is bigger than I ever dreamed of,” he told Ailes in a conversation a week before the election. “I don’t think about losing because it isn’t losing. We’ve totally won.” What’s more, he was already laying down his public response to losing the election: It was stolen! Donald Trump and his tiny band of campaign warriors were ready to lose with fire and fury. They were not ready to win.”
* “Donald Trump’s marriage was perplexing to almost everybody around him—or it was, anyway, for those without private jets and many homes. He and Melania spent relatively little time together. They could go days at a time without contact, even when they were both in Trump Tower. Often she did not know where he was, or take much notice of that fact. Her husband moved between residences as he would move between rooms. Along with knowing little about his whereabouts, she knew little about his business, and took at best modest interest in it. An absentee father for his first four children, Trump was even more absent for his fifth, Barron, his son with Melania. Now on his third marriage, he told friends he thought he had finally perfected the art: live and let live—’Do your own thing.'”
* “In 2014, when he first seriously began to consider running for president, Melania was one of the few who thought it was possible he could win. It was a punch line for his daughter, Ivanka, who had carefully distanced herself from the campaign. With a never-too-hidden distaste for her stepmother, Ivanka would say to friends: All you have to know about Melania is that she thinks if he runs he’ll certainly win.”
* “Trump would be the most famous man in the world—a martyr to crooked Hillary Clinton. His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would have transformed themselves from relatively obscure rich kids into international celebrities and brand ambassadors. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement. Kellyanne Conway would be a cable news star. Reince Priebus and Katie Walsh would get their Republican Party back. Melania Trump could return to inconspicuously lunching. That was the trouble-free outcome they awaited on November 8, 2016. Losing would work out for everybody. Shortly after eight o’clock that evening, when the unexpected trend—Trump might actually win—seemed confirmed, Don Jr. told a friend that his father, or DJT, as he called him, looked as if he had seen a ghost. Melania, to whom Donald Trump had made his solemn guarantee, was in tears—and not of joy.”
* “A close Trump friend who was also a good Bill Clinton friend found them eerily similar—except that Clinton had a respectable front and Trump did not.”
* “Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant sexual banter. Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fuck than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise … And all the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.”
* “Bannon described Trump as a simple machine. The On switch was full of flattery, the Off switch full of calumny. The flattery was dripping, slavish, cast in ultimate superlatives, and entirely disconnected from reality: so-and-so was the best, the most incredible, the ne plus ultra, the eternal. The calumny was angry, bitter, resentful, ever a casting out and closing of the iron door.”
* “This was one of the key elements of Bannon’s understanding of Trump: the last person Trump spoke to ended up with enormous influence.”
* “For Jared and Ivanka, as really for everybody else in the new administration, quite including the president, this was a random and crazy turn of history such that how could you not seize it? It was a joint decision by the couple, and, in some sense, a joint job. Jared and Ivanka had made an earnest deal between themselves: if sometime in the future the time came, she’d be the one to run for president (or the first one of them to take the shot). The first woman president, Ivanka entertained, would not be Hillary Clinton, it would be Ivanka Trump.”
* “The subtleties here were immense, because while (Trump) was often most influenced by the last person he spoke to, he did not actually listen to anyone. So it was not so much the force of an individual argument or petition that moved him, but rather more just someone’s presence, the connection of what was going through his mind—and although he was a person of many obsessions, much of what was on his mind had no fixed view—to whomever he was with and their views.”
* “Ultimately Trump may not be that different in his fundamental solipsism from anyone of great wealth who has lived most of his life in a highly controlled environment. But one clear difference was that he had acquired almost no formal sort of social discipline—he could not even attempt to imitate decorum. He could not really converse, for instance, not in the sense of sharing information, or of a balanced back-and-forth and-forth conversation. He neither particularly listened to what was said to him, nor particularly considered what he said in response (one reason he was so repetitive). Nor did he treat anyone with any sort of basic or reliable courtesy. If he wanted something, his focus might be sharp and attention lavish, but if someone wanted something from him, he tended to become irritable and quickly lost interest. He demanded you pay him attention, then decided you were weak for groveling. In a sense, he was like an instinctive, pampered, and hugely successful actor. Everybody was either a lackey who did his bidding or a high-ranking film functionary trying to coax out his attention and performance—and to do this without making him angry or petulant.”
* “At the White House, (Trump) retreated to his own bedroom—the first time since the Kennedy White House that a presidential couple had maintained separate rooms (although Melania was spending scant time so far in the White House).”
* “It was during Trump’s early intelligence briefings, held soon after he captured the nomination, that alarm signals first went off among his new campaign staff: he seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention. He stonewalled every written page and balked at every explanation. ‘He’s a guy who really hated school,’ said Bannon. ‘And he’s not going to start liking it now.’
* “When the president got on the phone after dinner, it was often a rambling affair. In paranoid or sadistic fashion, he’d speculate on the flaws and weaknesses of each member of his staff. Bannon was disloyal (not to mention he always looks like sh*t). Priebus was weak (not to mention he was short—a midget). Kushner was a suck-up. Spicer was stupid (and looks terrible too). Conway was a crybaby. Jared and Ivanka should never have come to Washington. His callers, largely because they found his conversation peculiar, alarming, or completely contrary to reason and common sense, often overrode what they might otherwise have assumed to be the confidential nature of the calls and shared the content with someone else. Hence news about the inner workings of the White House went into free circulation. Except it was not so much the inner workings of the White House—although it would often be reported as such—but the perambulations of the president’s mind, which changed direction almost as fast as he could express himself.”
* “Like Yiannopoulos, and in many ways like Trump and Bannon, (Richard) Spencer helped frame the ironies of the modern conservative movement. He was a racist but hardly a conservative—he doggedly supported single-payer health care, for instance. And the attention he received was somehow less a credit to conservatism than another effort by the liberal media to smear conservatism.”
* “In fact, Trump already had good reason to worry about the DOJ. The president had a private source, one of his frequent callers, who, he believed, was keeping him abreast of what was going on in the Justice Department—and, the president noted, doing a much better job of it than Sessions himself. The Trump administration, as a consequence of the Russia story, was involved in a high-stakes bureaucratic push-pull, with the president going outside government to find out what was happening in his own government. The source, a longtime friend with his own DOJ sources—many of the president’s rich and powerful friends had their own reasons to keep close tabs on what was happening at the Justice Department—fed the president a bleak picture of a Justice Department and an FBI run amok in its efforts to get him. “Treason” was a word that was being used, the president was told. “The DOJ,” the president’s source told him, “was filled with women who hated him.” It was an army of lawyers and investigators taking instructions from the former administration. “They want to make Watergate look like Pissgate.”
* “Here was a perfect example of an essential Trump paradigm: he acceded to anyone who seemed to know more about any issue he didn’t care about, or simply one whose details he couldn’t bring himself to focus on closely.”
* “Kushner, largely staying silent during the health care debate, publicly seemed to accept the fact that a Republican administration had to address Obamacare, but he privately suggested that he was personally against both repeal alone and repeal and replace. He and his wife took a conventional Democratic view on Obamacare (it was better than the alternatives; its problems could be fixed in the future) and strategically believed it was best for the new administration to get some easier victories under its belt before entering a hard-to-win or no-win fight. (What’s more, Kushner’s brother Josh ran a health insurance company that depended on Obamacare.)”
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* “(Paul) Ryan certainly wasn’t a vote counter. He was a benighted figure who had no ability to see around corners. His heart was in tax reform, but as far as he could tell the only path to tax reform was through health care. But he cared so little about the issue that—just as the White House had outsourced health care to him—he outsourced the writing of the bill to insurance companies and K Street lobbyists.”
* “‘The paradox of the Trump presidency was that it was both the most ideologically driven and the least. It represented a deeply structural assault on liberal values—Bannon’s deconstruction of the administrative state meant to take with it media, academic, and not-for-profit institutions. But from the start it also was apparent that the Trump administration could just as easily turn into a country club Republican or a Wall Street Democrat regime. Or just a constant effort to keep Donald Trump happy right now.’ Jared and Ivanka were gleeful at the prospect of Bannon’s ouster. His departure would return the Trump organization to pure family control—the family and its functionaries, without an internal rival for brand meaning and leadership.”
* “If the Trump White House was as unsettling as any in American history, the president’s views of foreign policy and the world at large were among its most random, uninformed, and seemingly capricious aspects. His advisers didn’t know whether he was an isolationist or a militarist, or whether he could distinguish between the two. He was enamored with generals and determined that people with military command experience take the lead in foreign policy, but he hated to be told what to do. He was against nation building, but he believed there were few situations that he couldn’t personally make better. He had little to no experience in foreign policy, but he had no respect for the experts, either.”
* “In April, an email originally copied to more than a dozen people went into far wider circulation when it was forwarded and reforwarded. Purporting to represent the views of Gary Cohn (Chief Economic Adviser to Donald Trump) and quite succinctly summarizing the appalled sense in much of the White House, the email read: It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything—not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored. And his staff is no better. Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant pr*ck who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits. No one will survive the first year but his family. I hate the work, but feel I need to stay because I’m the only person there with a clue what he’s doing. The reason so few jobs have been filled is that they only accept people who pass ridiculous purity tests, even for midlevel policy-making jobs where the people will never see the light of day. I am in a constant state of shock and horror.
* “A few hours after the O’Reilly announcement, Ailes, from his new oceanfront home in Palm Beach—precluded by his separation agreement with Fox from any efforts to compete with it for eighteen months—sent an emissary into the West Wing with a question for Steve Bannon: O’Reilly and Hannity are in, what about you? Ailes, in secret, had been plotting his comeback with a new conservative network.”
* “On Trump’s part this was, arguably, something of a large misunderstanding about the nature of conservative media. He clearly did not understand that what conservative media elevated, liberal media would necessarily take down. Trump, goaded by Bannon, would continue to do the things that would delight conservative media and incur the wrath of liberal media. That was the program. The more your supporters loved you, the more your antagonists hated you. That’s how it was supposed to work. And that’s how it was working…The burden here for Conway and Hicks was their understanding that the president did not see the media’s lack of regard for him as part of a political divide on which he stood on a particular side. Instead, he perceived it as a deep personal attack on him: for entirely unfair reasons, ad hominem reasons, the media just did not like him. Ridiculed him. Cruelly. Why?”
* “Shortly after Lewandowski, with whom Hicks had an on-and-off romantic relationship, was fired in June 2016 for clashing with Trump family members, Hicks sat in Trump Tower with Trump and his sons, worrying about Lewandowski’s treatment in the press and wondering aloud how she might help him. Trump, who otherwise seemed to treat Hicks in a protective and even paternal way, looked up and said, ‘Why? You’ve already done enough for him. You’re the best piece of tail he’ll ever have,’ sending Hicks running from the room.”
* “For each of his enemies—and, actually, for each of his friends—the issue for him came down, in many ways, to their personal press plan. The media was the battlefield. Trump assumed everybody wanted his or her fifteen minutes and that everybody had a press strategy for when they got them. If you couldn’t get press directly for yourself, you became a leaker. There was no happenstance news, in Trump’s view. All news was manipulated and designed, planned and planted. All news was to some extent fake—he understood that very well, because he himself had faked it so many times in his career. This was why he had so naturally cottoned to the ‘fake news’ label. ‘I’ve made stuff up forever, and they always print it,’ he bragged.”
* “Shortly thereafter, most of the West Wing staff, courtesy of an erroneous report from Fox News, was for a brief moment under the impression that Comey had resigned. Then, in a series of information synapses throughout the offices of the West Wing, it became clear what had actually happened. “So next it’s a special prosecutor!” said Priebus in disbelief, to no one in particular, when he learned shortly before five o’clock what was happening. Spicer, who would later be blamed for not figuring out how to positively spin the Comey firing, had only minutes to process it. Not only had the decision been made by the president with almost no consultation except that of his inner family circle, but the response, and explanation, and even legal justifications, were also almost exclusively managed by him and his family. Rosenstein and Sessions’s parallel rationale for the firing was shoehorned in at the last minute, at which point, at Kushner’s direction, the initial explanation of Comey’s firing became that the president had acted solely on their recommendation. Spicer was forced to deliver this unlikely rationale, as was the vice president. But this pretense unraveled almost immediately, not least because most everyone in the West Wing, wanting nothing to do with the decision to fire Comey, was helping to unravel it.”
* “On May 12, Roger Ailes was scheduled to return to New York from Palm Beach to meet with Peter Thiel, an early and lonely Trump supporter in Silicon Valley who had become increasingly astonished by Trump’s unpredictability. Ailes and Thiel, both worried that Trump could bring Trumpism down, were set to discuss the funding and launch of a new cable news network. Thiel would pay for it and Ailes would bring O’Reilly, Hannity, himself, and maybe Bannon to it. But two days before the meeting, Ailes fell in his bathroom and hit his head. Before slipping into a coma, he told his wife not to reschedule the meeting with Thiel. A week later, Ailes, that singular figure in the march from Nixon’s silent majority to Reagan’s Democrats to Trump’s passionate base, was dead.”
* “As for Hannity himself, his view of the right-wing world was shifting from Foxcentric to Trumpcentric. He did not think much more than a year would pass before he, too, would be pushed from the network, or find it too inhospitable to stay on. And yet he was pained by Trump’s slavish attentions to Murdoch, who had not only ousted Ailes but whose conservatism was at best utilitarian. ‘He was for Hillary!’ said Hannity. Ruminating out loud, Hannity said he would leave the network and go work full time for Trump, because nothing was more important than that Trump succeed—’in spite of himself,’ Hannity added, laughing.”
* “’One of the worst things is when (Trump) believes you’ve succeeded at his expense,’ explained Sam Nunberg, once on the inside of the Trump circle, then cast to the outside. ‘If your win is in any way perceived as his loss, phew.’”
* “The idea of formal collusion and artful conspiracy—as media and Democrats more or less breathlessly believed or hoped had happened between Trump and the Russians—seemed unlikely to everybody in the White House. (Bannon’s comment that the Trump campaign was not organized enough to collude with its own state organizations became everybody’s favorite talking point—not least because it was true.) But nobody was vouching for the side deals and freelance operations and otherwise nothing-burger stuff that was a prosecutor’s daily bread and the likely detritus of the Trump hangers-on. And everybody believed that if the investigation moved into the long chain of Trump financial transactions, it would almost certainly reach the Trump family and the Trump White House.”
* “As always, Trump’s regard or scorn was infectious. If you were in favor, then whatever and whomever he associated with you was also in favor. If you weren’t, then everything associated with you was poisonous.”
* “Many of his tweets were not, as they might seem, spontaneous utterances, but constant ones. Trump’s rifts often began as insult comedy and solidified as bitter accusations and then, in an uncontainable moment, became an official proclamation.”
* “In truth, he was often neither fully aware of the nature of what he had said nor fully cognizant of why there should be such a passionate reaction to it. As often as not, he surprised himself. “What did I say?” he would ask after getting severe blowback.”
* “’The three senior guys in the campaign,’ an incredulous Bannon went on, ‘thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the twenty-fifth floor—with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers. Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad sh*it, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately. Even if you didn’t think to do that, and you’re totally amoral, and you wanted that information, you do it in a Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire, with your lawyers who meet with these people and go through everything and then they verbally come and tell another lawyer in a cut-out, and if you’ve got something, then you figure out how to dump it down to Breitbart or something like that, or maybe some other more legitimate publication. You never see it, you never know it, because you don’t need to.… But that’s the brain trust that they had.’”
* “Bannon got off the phone and said, ‘Jesus. Scaramucci. I can’t even respond to this. It’s Kafkaesque. Jared and Ivanka needed somebody to represent their sh*t. It’s madness. He’ll be on that podium for two days and he’ll be so chopped he’ll bleed out everywhere. He’ll literally blow up in a week. This is why I don’t take this stuff seriously. Hiring Scaramucci? He’s not qualified to do anything…..Bannon and Priebus remained not just disbelieving but barely able not to crack up. For both men, Scaramucci was either a hallucinatory episode—they wondered whether they ought to just shut their eyes while it passed—or some further march into madness.”
* “The quick trip did not seem to improve Trump’s mood: the next morning, seething, the president again publicly attacked his attorney general and—for good measure and no evident reason—tweeted his ban of transgender people in the military. (The president had been presented with four different options related to the military’s transgender policy. The presentation was meant to frame an ongoing discussion, but ten minutes after receiving the discussion points, and without further consultation, Trump tweeted his transgender ban.)”
* “On the way back from the trip, Priebus and the president talked on the plane and discussed the timing of his departure, with the president urging him to do it the right way and to take his time. ‘You tell me what works for you,’ said Trump. ‘Let’s make it good.’ Minutes later, Priebus stepped onto the tarmac and an alert on his phone said the president had just tweeted that there was a new chief of staff, Department of Homeland Security chief John Kelly, and that Priebus was out….In fact, Kelly—who would soon abjectly apologize to Priebus for the basic lack of courtesy in the way his dismissal was handled—had not been consulted about his appointment. The president’s tweet was the first he knew of it.”
* “For Bannon, this episode was not only about the president’s continuing and curious confusion about what he represented, but about his mercurial, intemperate, and often cockamamie motivations. Against all political logic, Trump had supported Luther Strange, he told Bannon, because ‘Luther’s my friend.’ ‘He said it like a nine-year-old,’ said Bannon, recoiling, and noting that there was no universe in which Trump and Strange were actually friends. For every member of the White House senior staff this would be the lasting conundrum of dealing with President Trump: the “why” of his often baffling behavior. ‘The president fundamentally wants to be liked’ was Katie Walsh’s analysis. ‘He just fundamentally needs to be liked so badly that it’s always … everything is a struggle for him.’ This translated into a constant need to win something—anything. Equally important, it was essential that he look like a winner.”
* “Aligned with Tillerson were the three generals, Mattis, McMasters, and Kelly, each seeing themselves as representing maturity, stability, and restraint. And each, of course, was resented by Trump for it. The suggestion that any or all of these men might be more focused and even tempered than Trump himself was cause for sulking and tantrums on the president’s part.”
* “Most problematic of all, Hicks and Miller, along with everyone on the Jarvanka side, were now directly connected to actions involved in the Russian investigation or efforts to spin it, deflect it, or, indeed, cover it up. Miller and Hicks had drafted—or at least typed—Kushner’s version of the first letter written at Bedminster to fire Comey. Hicks had joined with Kushner and his wife to draft on Air Force One the Trump-directed press release about Don Jr. and Kushner’s meeting with the Russians in Trump Tower.”
* “Steve Bannon was telling people he thought there was a 33.3 percent chance that the Mueller investigation would lead to the impeachment of the president, a 33.3 percent chance that Trump would resign, perhaps in the wake of a threat by the cabinet to act on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment (by which the cabinet can remove the president in the event of his incapacitation), and a 33.3 percent chance that he would limp to the end of his term. In any event, there would certainly not be a second term, or even an attempt at one. ‘He’s not going to make it,’ said Bannon at the Breitbart Embassy. ‘He’s lost his stuff.’
* “Less volubly, Bannon was telling people something else: he, Steve Bannon, was going to run for president in 2020. The locution, ‘If I were president…’ was turning into, ‘When I am president…’”
* “The worry among staffers—all of them concerned that Trump’s rambling and his alarming repetitions (the same sentences delivered with the same expressions minutes apart) had significantly increased, and that his ability to stay focused, never great, had notably declined—was that he was likely to suffer by such a comparison. Instead, the interview with Trump was offered to Sean Hannity—with a preview of the questions….”
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