Donald Trump’s presidency warrants extraordinary recounting and US journalist Michael Wolff’s account of the first seven months of the administration, Fire and Fury, delivered that in spades.
With no repeat of the access Wolff enjoyed in 2017 he must rely on the accounts of those around Trump and, crucially, on the president’s one-time chief strategist Steve Bannon who continues to try to channel Trump’s racist appeal from outside the White House. Bannon is a fellow traveller of the far right and his commentary runs through the book, providing a disturbing but no less extraordinary window on Trump, the Bannon project, the failures of the US political establishment and the crisis this presents for the world’s most-powerful ruling class.
Wolff notes those around Trump are “confronted with the most extreme behaviour [and] head-smacking peculiarities”, meaning they “cannot stop talking about their experience”. They talk to Wolff and it makes for compelling reportage.
Trump’s “inability to take criticism” reduces administration officials such as secretary of state Mike Pompeo to “constant grovelling”. Others ignore or actively frustrate the president.
Bannon assesses those around Trump as “the sloppiest, most unsophisticated, stupidest people on earth”. He confides that the president “can’t be briefed because he can’t understand any of it.” Thus, on a trip to Europe, Trump tells anyone who will listen: Nato “bores the shit out of me”.
Heading for an “historic” meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, Wolff writes of Trump: “There was almost no particular — not geographic, not economic, not military, not historical — he seemed to grasp.”
Trump and Bannon “revile and ridicule each other”. Bannon recognises Trump “doesn’t give a fuck about the agenda” i.e. Bannon’s agenda, but he remains convinced Trump is “a Cold War president and China his enemy”. Seeing himself as the power broker of the presidency, Bannon manoeuvres to maintain Trump in office — plotting to turn the 2020 presidential election into a vote “to impeach Trump or to save him from impeachment”.
The president’s foreign policy initiatives, such as they are, are the work of son-in-law Jared Kushner and his “incessant meddling”. Kushner cultivates the ageing Henry Kissinger, secretary of state to Richard Nixon — the last president to be turfed out of office.
Kissinger is flattered until, exasperated and appalled, he tells a Washington audience that US foreign policy has been reduced to an “unstable individual’s reaction to perceptions of slights or flattery”. Rupert Murdoch is similarly unimpressed, dismissing the president as “mentally out of it” after his trip to London in July 2018.
Wolff recounts the growing panic gripping the White House through 2018 as Mueller proceeds with his investigation.
Disappointingly, the book ends with the failure of Mueller — “a cautious and indecisive bureaucrat” — to bring Trump down. Yet Wolff notes “as many as a dozen other federal and state inquiries” proceedings, into money laundering, campaign finance fraud, abuse of the president’s power, corruption, bank fraud and lying on financial disclosures.
Trump’s business empire — a “B-level real estate business, relentlessly marketed as triple A, designed to appeal to money launderers” and “modelled on a criminal enterprise” — remains a core vulnerability, as do “Trump’s constant lies”.
In Bannon’s view: “He won’t go out classy. This is going to be unseemly.” I can’t wait for the third and, let’s hope, final instalment.