Fire and Fury – Michael Wolff

Regardless of what you think of Trump’s politics, it’s undeniable that No. 45 has proven to be one of the most controversial and talked about presidents of all time. Both critics and defenders have been arguing to the hilt since it became clear he was the serious candidate for the Republican party, and that conversation has only become more heated during his presidency.

A number of books have been published since Trump took office, but no book released so far this year has enjoyed as much publicity as Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. It would be fair to say that there’s certainly a large portion of Americans who want nothing more than to see Trump impeached ASAP, but it’s also true that Trump has gained a hardcore following who truly believe he’s the best thing to happen to America since George Washington. Look, this review isn’t mean’t to sway you either way, you almost certainly know your own mind when it comes to Trump, and I’m not about to try and get you to either hate or love him. The fact is that I find the current political climate in the US very interesting, certainly more interesting than the endless tedium that is Brexit, so I was quick to order a copy of Wolff’s book.

Fire and Fury Review

Trump himself has called Wolff’s book “a complete work of fiction” and “a disgrace,” while others argue it gives a behind-the-scenes look at the seemingly endless series of negative press, scandals, and bickering that occurred in Trumps first 100 days as commander-in-chief. Wolf begins the book by explaining that he contacted Trump in 2016, just as his presidential bid was beginning to look serious, and asked if he could write a book about Trump’s first few months in office should he make it to the Oval Office. Wolff claims Trump was impressed with an article he’d written about Trump for The Hollywood Reporter and agreed, but Trump has since stated that he never authorized the book and that he’s never spoken to Wolff. This is just beginning of the numerous discrepancies that crop up. Trying to discern what is and isn’t ‘fake news’ in the world of Trumpism is almost an impossible task, and Fire and Fury‘s no different. As Wolff himself states in the book, he often found that his sources openly contradicted one another. He writes that he has tried his best to give an accurate picture of Trump’s first days, but has also left in some contradiction in order to let the reader decide the true version of events.

Regardless of whether or not he agreed to the book, Wolff joined the Trump campaign team in mid-2016 and began documenting everything, as well as conducting interviews with members of Trump’s team. After Trump’s victory, Wolff spent the first 100 days of Trump’s term as POTUS conducting over 200 interviews with members of the Trump administration and claims to have been present at many key moments, including the firing of James Comey. Despite apparently having access to almost every part of the Trump administration, Wolff explains that it was far from a welcoming experience. He states that, while he was never asked to leave, he was never given any official welcoming and spent his time their feeling like a literal fly-on-the-wall.

The book begins on election night and Wolff makes it clear that Trump and his team were just as surprised and upset by the results as hardcore Hilary fans. The Trump campaign gained an enormous amount of publicity during 2016, and many of Trump’s underlings were eager to launch their careers off the back of Trump’s loss. Even Trump himself was counting on losing, Wolff recalls that he was eager to go out and tell his supporters how sorry he was that a biased media and rigged election had given the presidency to Clinton, and how, had he been given a fair chance, he would’ve ‘made America great again’. The Trump brand had also never been more well-known than it was by election night and Donald was eager to capitalize on it.

The night apparently started off light, but soon things began to turn sour as Trump started to win. All the polls had expected Hilary to win by a landslide, the most experienced political commentators had underestimated him and, following the infamous “grab her by the pussy” line, most of America seemed convinced Hilary would pick up where Obama left off. As the results came in, Wolff reports that Melania was in tears and Trump looked as though he’d seen a ghost. It seems no one was more surprised by the results than Team Trump. Say what you will about Trump, but he’s not a man who lacks faith in himself and, after recovering from the initial shock, Trump was soon of the opinion that was capable and deserving of being the 45th president of the United States.

President Trump

We then get to read Wolff’s chronicle of the Trump team’s move into the White House, and it soon becomes clear who the key players are during the early days of Trump’s time in office. The position of White House chief strategist is given to Steve Bannon, who served as the chief executive during Trump’s campaign. Ivanka Trump, one of the few people apparently able to change Trump’s mind, is given the role of an unpaid advisor, along with her husband, Jared Kushner. Jared and Ivanka political leanings would be described as moderate, and the two soon earned the nickname ‘Jarvanka’ as they find themselves routinely butting heads with Steve Bannon and the alt-right politics he hopes Trump will embrace.

It’s quickly made clear that the White House has become a battle ground where Jarvanka and Bannon battle endlessly in an effort to get Trump’s ear. Meanwhile, notable figures such as vice president Michael Pence, attorney general Jeff Sessions, education secretary Betsy DeVos, counsellor to the president Kellyanne Conway, and White House communications officer Hope Hicks, try dodge incoming fire and collateral damage these fights cause.

Michael Wolff and Trump

Some claims Wolff makes in Fire and Fury could certainly be called into question, indeed Wolff himself seems unclear of how credible some of his writing is given the numerous contradictions from sources, but one thing that seems undeniably true is the utter chaos the administration finds itself in. The majority of Trump’s staff, like the president himself, had no prior experience in the world of politics, and yet they found themselves working at the very highest level. The book details the extreme lack of communication and coordination between Trump’s staff. There appears to be no definable chain of command and Wolff notes that visitors often found themselves wandering through the White House, searching for someone official to check in with and to tell them where to go. It’s passages like this that make Trump’s first 100 days feel more like a sitcom than a political drama. Trump’s administration appears to be much more akin to comedies like Veep or even Fawlty Towers, than it is to a drama like House of Cards. One of Trump’s aides, who decided to stay anonymous, was quoted with saying “You couldn’t make this shit up,” so regularly that it became a catchphrase. Were it not for the fact a person in Trump’s position has the ability to have disastrous consequences for million, even billion, of people, it would be funnier than most sitcoms could dream of being.

Steve Bannon

Trump may be the figure head and focal point of Fire and Fury, but it’s undeniably Steve Bannon who serves as the most ambitious and dynamic player. Outside of his involvement with Trump, Bannon is best known for co-founding Breitbart News, a far-right news and opinion based site which has become an important platform for the alt-right movement. Deeply dissatisfied with the current political landscape as it was prior to Trump, Bannon perceived Trump as a candidate who truly could drain the swamp, and joined his campaign team in August 2016. However, once Trump settles into the Oval Office, it becomes clear to Bannon that Trump isn’t nearly forceful enough, much to his disappointment. In fact, when compared to Bannon, Trump is positively liberal. The picture Wolff paints of Bannon is that of a man who makes no secrets of his abhorrence for moderates, the media, and worse still, liberals, and it’s clear he’s eager for Trump to wage war rather than find common ground.

Regardless of what you think of Bannon’s ideals, it’s clear in Fire and Fury that he’s no fool. Despite his extremely heavy handed approach to politics, Bannon is well read when it comes to history and politics and he has an deep pool of ambition from which he draws. It was in fact Bannon that convinced Trump to pass the deeply controversial Muslim travel ban, a move that reportedly shocked Jarvanka and the the rest of Trump’s underlings. What’s more disturbing is the fact that Bannon seemed to push it for no other reason than to cause chaos, an environment he claims to thrive in. However, as Trump settles into office, it’s clear that Bannon is disappointed to find he’s not the alt-right force of nature he presented himself as. Despite being fired from his position at the White House, Bannon’s ambition has remained intact and Wolff reports there are even stirrings which suggest Bannon intends to run in the 2020 election. It may seem like a long shot, but after Trump anything’s possible. To my mind, it was Bannon who was easily the most Machiavellian of all those in the Trump administration and I doubt we’ve seen the last of him.

As for the president himself, I was surprised to find that the book presents him as a rather less definable character than most media. Some might regard Trump as the man who’s going to finally drain the swamp of all its lies and corruption, while others see him as little more than a tanned Hitler with silly hair, but I was surprised to find he doesn’t appear to sit in either camp. The impression Fire and Fury gives is that Trump simply finds the entire position tedious and he’s more interested in doing or agreeing to whatever makes the problem go away the quickest. At no point did I get the impression that Trump has any sort of grand plan about reshaping America. Wolff writes that, when faced with an issue, if he has any experience on the matter, Trump will insist he’s right, while on matters he has no experience with, he’ll disregard the experts and go with his instinct.

Trump has made plenty of headlines for his misogynist, racist, and generally bigoted comments, but, while I’m in no way trying to excuse what he’s said, the impression I got was more that Trump speaks from a general ignorance and lack of filter than any real sense of hatred. I never got the feeling Trump specifically has it out for any particular groups of people, instead he only really seems to care about himself, and he’ll say or do just about anything in order to get what he wants. Hardly the kind of person one would want as a world leader, but also a far cry from the Hitlers and Stalins of this world.

One part of Fire and Fury which took me by surprise was Trump’s reaction to the Syrian chemical attacks which occurred in April 2017. Trump was show pictures of children who had been killed by the attack, and it’s clear that he was appalled and disgusted by the images. Despite Bannon’s urging that the US should stay out of foreign conflicts, Trump insisted on publicly condemning the attack, and reportedly kept bringing it up days after the issue was put to bed. It’s quite evident that Trump is hardly a humanist, but it seems even he was shaken by the aftermath of the attack.

‘Fake News’

A large aspect of the Trump administration revolves around his relationship with the media, and how thin-skinned he seems to be despite having been a public figure for decades. Trump has, on many occasions, claimed that mainstream media outlets are dishonest and biased against him, and often dismisses any story about him, no matter how well researched, as ‘fake news’. Trump may like to give the impression that he sees through the media’s liberal lies, and takes little heed of them, but according to Wolff that’s far from true. Stories and articles that paint No. 45 in a negative light can apparently have the man ranting and complaining for days. He appears to genuinely be hurt by critical articles and, perhaps more bafflingly, seems totally confused as to why the media dislikes him. Starting Fire and Fury, I felt concerned that Trump’s war with the free press felt like something out of 1984 but, having finished the book, it seems he’s often more like a puppy that can’t understand why he’s being scolded, at least when the cameras aren’t on him. Despite his bulling attitude, it seems Trump is really just desperate to be loved.

At the time of Fire and Fury‘s publication, the task of handing the latest news on the Trump administration fell to Hope Hicks, who has since resigned. Like a mother hen, Hicks appears to have worked diligently to protect Trump from the brunt of the media’s criticism would cherry pick pieces that would help boost his ego. After a day’s work, Trump would apparently spend his evenings watching cable news channels before taking to his bed where he would begin phoning ‘friends’ (including Robert Murdoch) to complain about his unfair treatment by the media.

It’s clear that  Fire and Fury aims to be a respectable and worthwhile chronicling of the early days of the Trump administration, and for the most part it seems to be, but it isn’t without its issues. In my first edition print of the book, I encountered a number of typos that should never have failed to be spotted by an editor, one in particular described Bannon’s first “pubic” appearance, I can only hope that was supposed to read “public”. The book also, on a handful of occasions, gets a few basic facts wrong. For example, Wolff states that then-Speaker of the House John Boehner resigned in 2011, when he actually resigned in 2015. Given the thoroughly disorganized nature of the Trump administration, a few errors may be forgivable, but any journalist knows that one should try and make one’s work as watertight as possible. This book has and continues to face plenty of scrutiny, and obvious errors like these don’t help its cause. In defense of Wolff, it’s worth noting that prior to the book’s publication, one of Trump’s lawyers, Charles Harder, issued a cease-and-desist warning in an effort to stop the book’s publication. It’s possible that the book had to rush through the editing process in order to stay ahead, but this is unconfirmed. Fire and Fury was actually released a few days before it’s announced release date, though the publisher stated this was due to unprecedented demand, rather than the hounding of Trump’s lawyers.

I personally found Fire and Fury to be an extremely interesting read, and certainly a must read for anyone interested in the Trump administration but, due to the aforementioned errors, I have a difficult time accepting every line as fact. The books is both extremely interesting, and extremely scary, and also unintentionally hilarious. There are moments in the book where you’d say the writer had gone too far were it a work of comedic fiction. Unfortunately for us, it’s not. No doubt we’ll get a clearer picture of life inside the Trump administration once his tenure as POTUS is over, but for now your best bet in making sense of the madness may just be this book.

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