BY: TANNER KENNEY
The anticipation of the release of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House could not have been greater following the book’s announcement due to the continued downward-spiral of President Donald Trump’s Administration – so great, in fact, that its publishers rushed its production and released it 4 days ahead of its originally scheduled printing on January 5th, 2018. Unfortunately, the hurried nature of the production shows itself, at times, throughout the book; however, it remains a wildly compelling, fascinating, and just as bewildering read into Michael Wolff’s interactions with and observations of a bevy of the nation’s most powerful individuals.
Fire and Fury begins perfectly with a note from the author – “The reason to write this book could not be more obvious.” Wolff then explains his original assignment and how he came to access the Trump Campaign, Transition, and Administration officials, aides, staffers, volunteers, friends, and more. He also details his rationale for abandoning some of the journalistic ethics and standards that got him into the position in the first place. He states that the Campaign and Transition Teams, along with the current Administration, had and have no “official procedures” and cited the “lack of experience of its principals” as his reasoning for these “conundrums,” a position which I happen to accept.
Bearing no actual thesis, Fire and Fury follows the chronology of the Trump Presidency from its formation in the minds of strategists to his departure from the White House in 2017. At first, Wolff was contracted to cover the first 100 days of the Trump Presidency, but several factors came together that both allowed him to stay and expand the purview of his assignment. Once these are enumerated, it quickly becomes evident that Wolff’s access to Trump’s universe was genuinely unprecedented – consisting of an amalgamation of friendly dialogues and fly-on-the-wall observations as well as nearly-accidental admission to important conferences, meetings, and discussions – the author was witness to the innermost workings of the highest levels of government, and what he saw was not good.
Wolff begins by detailing the appearance and subsequent rise of the Trump Campaign in the American political landscape by providing a window into the relationship between Breitbart Editor Steve Bannon and Fox News powerhouse Roger Ailes. Following the latter’s departure from the Rupert Murdoch-owned outlet, the two men saw a gap in the conservative news-media marketplace and hoped to capitalize on their deep history with right-leaning audiences in order to field a candidate of their choosing. While the three remained in contact, Murdoch was no longer a fan of their political proclivities and he had little in common Donald Trump and his family.
Throughout Fire and Fury, Wolff paints vivid pictures of the most important individuals in the saga – the red-faced, disheveled drunkard Steve Bannon – as well as those tangentially connected to major events, but all of whom also have magnetic personalities – the Trump-loving, self-promoting financier Anthony Scaramucci. Although referenced later, in the context of the Russia Investigation, Wolff immediately shifts from campaign-related observations to his first-person experiences in the White House beginning with Election Day. He paints a picture wherein not one person in the Trump White House has a moment of genuine political experience, leading to a headless-chicken scenario on countless occasions
From here, in Trump Tower, he examines the role of Trump as the be-all, end-all President that demands your time and loyalty at a moment’s notice. Wolff then takes the reader into the White House on Day One and shares the human side of Donald Trump, albeit tacky and tasteless. At the same time, President Trump’s innermost advisors and confidants were already going to war with one another, the prime example being Bannon. Wolff paints him as both a scholar of history and a buffoon and at the same time a truly unlikeable person.
Bannon immediately begins working with the President and Stephen Miller on immigration reform and, just as quickly, the Administration is dealt its first major loss in the form of the ‘Travel Ban’ aimed at predominantly Muslim nations – an issue that persists, as of this writing. Jarvanka delves into the presence of Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka and Jared Kushner. While Wolff most likely didn’t coin the phrase, Jarvanka is how he references the couple in nearly every instance throughout Fire and Fury, both a slight annoyance to the reader as well as an insult to the individuals he constantly critiques as clueless, conniving, and the biggest leakers in the Administration.
Wolff also portrays Kushner as quiet but hyper-aware of how people perceive him as he maintains his eyes on the presidency – but not before Ivanka gets her shot, first. Russia is perhaps the most anticipated chapter of any book released in recent memory as it covers the relationship between the Trump Campaign, Transition, and Administration and the Russian government and its representatives. Wolff claims that, initially, the Trump Team had more of a problem with Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and her lack of support for the ‘Travel Ban’ than they did with the National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, who was under intense scrutiny for his ties to Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, ‘dark money,’ amongst others.
At this point in time, Flynn was warned by his advisers to limit his exposure to foreign governments, but he insisted upon maintaining his friendship with the President and even hoped to be the Vice President, one day, should Trump choose to replace the near-silent Mike Pence. Wolff then transitions back to a White House attempting to create, at the very least, some semblance of a structure in Org Chart, but failing miserably as the White House staff begins to thin amid reports of Fusion GPS’ involvement in the Campaign. And while there was “so much corruption it was confusing[,]” Wolff doesn’t see the wheels coming off the once-strong Trump-Bannon-Priebus alliance until CPAC 2017.
Fire and Fury then shifts its tone from political to social commentary in Goldman as Wolff digs into the anti-Semitic overtones of the Trump-created Make America Great Again movement –
“The Trump campaign and the White House were constantly supplying off-note messages about Jews, from their equivocal regard for David Duke to their apparent desire to tinker with Holocaust history – or at least tendency to stumble over it.” Fire and Fury, page 141
In Wiretap, Wolff paints a White House stricken with paranoia, willing to lash-out at anyone and everyone that would listen – he cites Trump’s tweets regarding the Obama Administration’s alleged surveillance of Trump Tower as merely the public-facing side of the accusations that would form the basis for the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Wolff transitions into Repeal and Replace as Hope Hicks’ control of Trump’s messaging begins to mirror that of the Republican National Committee in demanding a total overhaul of the American healthcare system, beginning with “Obamacare.” Wolff is among the many public figures that have decried the laborious process of merely attempting to repeal key aspects of the program via budgeting measures, failing in both the House and Senate, on several occasions. Wolff then takes a deep-dive into the author of ‘The Memo,’ Rep. Devin Nunes (R – CA) – a missive targeted at the career officers and administrators of the FBI and DOJ, which Wolff gleefully points out are helmed by Republicans, through-and-through.
At this time, Executive Order 13783 is issued – Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth. The title merely applies lipstick to the pig that is the Trump Administration’s war on the environment and climate through false claims of economic empowerment through the deregulation of energy exploration and generation coupled with the weakening of oversight capacities. Situation Room changes gears and focuses on the Syrian Civil War. In the past, I have criticized President Barack Obama for his lack of a meaningful response to chemical attacks in the nation carried out by the Assad Regime, but the Trump Administration’s weak counters to the very same in its first year have been just as detrimental to the Syrian people, the region, and, as such, the world, at large.
With Syria in his rearview mirror, Trump is now focused on the “steam” rising from National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s “bald head.” Many Trump appointees and supporters disagree with his antagonization of his advisors and begin to turn on him, albeit in private – Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Mick Mulvaney worked diligently to caricature their frustrations in pantomime conversationally. And with pressure mounting from all sides, Trump removes Steve Bannon from the National Security Council and meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago where the pair agree to strike Syrian military assets.
Media then moves into the President’s favorite punching bag – the “lying liberal media” that had long sought to undermine his marriage, career, and political ambitions. What is most interesting about Wolff’s observations, in this chapter, is the introduction of his claims of Trump being the foremost leaker in the White House and, quite possibly, the Administration, as he is frequently an “anonymous source” for reporters at major outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post. Exit: James Comey.
Comey is Fire and Fury’s most fascinating and scandalous chapter wherein Wolff lays-out the arguments against Donald Trump, his family, business partners, and more for money laundering via the newly-constructed Trump Soho tower and the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, amongst other claims. Enter: Robert Mueller III. Following AG Sessions’ recusal from all-things Russia, the Deputy Attorney General appointed former FBI Director Mueller as a Special Counsel to oversee the DOJ’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.
In Fire and Fury, Wolff pulls few punches and often goes after those tangentially connected to or supportive of President Trump. He states that both Trump and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, know “little” about anything at all, but are eager to develop and strengthen a relationship between each other and the nations they lead. At this point in time, “blue chip” legal firms have already begun declining representation for the President, his staff, and the Administration as public scrutiny begins to grow. Furthermore, Wolff asserts that the firms fear Donald Trump simply would not pay his bills, as he had done in the past.
PR powerhouse Mark Corallo is brought into the legal fold, but quickly departs as news breaks of Trump’s Air Force One meeting with Hope Hicks, Ivanka, and Jared regarding Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort’s meeting with Russian agents to “get dirt” on Hillary Clinton. As Trump withdraws the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, he also floats the idea of firing Special Counsel Mueller and takes public jabs at Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, while testifying to Congress about the Russian Investigation a day after James Comey did the same.
By the printing of Fire and Fury, Trump’s only tangible accomplishment was the appointment of Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, and even that was tainted by the confirmation process – or lack, thereof – for Merrick Garland, former President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat on the bench. High-powered attorney Mark Kasowitz leaves Trump’s legal team and McMaster and Scaramucci take the spotlight, for the time being. Enter: General Kelley. Following the firing of Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff, Trump hired Gen. John Kelley apparently without the then-Secretary of Homeland Security’s knowledge as he announced the move via Twitter.
He immediately begins a purge of conflicted and unethical staff members, including Rob Porter, and strips Jared Kushner of his valuable Highly Classified clearance. Wolff asserts that, despite his campaign promises, Trump is totally disinterested in solving the opioid crisis and, instead, hopes to focus on North Korea. Following Richard Spencer’s alt-right rally that turned violent in Charlottesville, VA, Gen. Kelly digs-in and attempts to force the president’s hand in responding to the crisis by pushing Bannon out of the White House. Fire and Fury’s epilogue, titled Bannon and Trump, rounds-off the book with Luther Strange’s loss to Roy Moore in Alabama’s primary to replace Jeff Sessions’ seat in the Senate – a portent of things to-come in Trump World.
Fire and Fury final pages reveal that Steve Bannon had reclaimed his previous role at Breitbart and that the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, had become one of Trump’s most trusted allies, but warns that she is as “ambitious as Lucifer.” Wolff alludes to Bannon’s ruminations on the possibility of running for president in 2020 – against any and all candidates, Trump included. Both the extension of Fire and Fury’s length and the above-referenced desire to get it in the hands of the public as quickly as possible were noble gestures, but they ultimately sacrifice some quality to achieve these goals.
Wolff often repeats himself and those he references with several grammatical and spelling errors throughout the book. As such, Fire and Fury can read like an overly-verbose magazine article (which I believe is due to the parameters of his original assignment). Because of this, and in addition to the hyper-detail of the characters involved, the book can be a bit of a slog to finish (see: the last sentence of the continued paragraph on page 79).
Throughout Fire and Fury, Wolff’s focus and tone often shift without warning – from passive to active, observational to critical, and often times no mention is given to his personal relationships with the individual he is writing about. As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi notes, the sources of several anonymous quotations and citations made by Wolff throughout Fire and Fury are occasionally questionable as some appear to be similar in both structure and cadence or could have been made in jest while others may have been provided in confidence, or any combination of circumstance that may mitigate the impact of said statement.
Overall, Fire and Fury is a thoughtful, well-researched, colorful, and informative book, but it attempts to carry far more weight than its shoulders can support. From Wolff’s repetition of his thoughts on the personalities and subjects discussed throughout the book to his phraseology and sentence structure, much could have been eliminated from the final product, thereby making a much stronger piece. However, I must say that I enjoyed the book much more than disliked it – my primary concern would be the lack of background given to Trump’s two sons, Don Jr. and Eric, as they continue to play major roles in the Administration as the de-facto leaders of the Trump Organization.
Fire and Fury is a tremendous effort from a journalistic standpoint in that the work presents the events that took place in a clear, well-researched, chronological order whilst supporting its claims with both factual evidence and citations from high-placed sources. Perhaps this book is a bit of a bore because it is so scandalous, rife with ineptitude, and real – it almost seems like a work of fiction, inducing head-scratching moments with every turn of the page. Regardless of the hype surrounding the release of this book and the charges levied against it by its subjects and readers, alike, Fire and Fury is nothing short of a fascinating read.
Tanner Kenney is an energy and media professional with a background in journalism and received his M.S. in Global Affairs, Environment & Energy Policy from NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. Recently, Tanner has focused on the advocacy of sustainable development through renewable energy technologies, transportation efficiency, and inclusive public policy.
Photo Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images Via Rolling Stone
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