From ‘Fire and Fury’ to Political Firestorm

Wolff turns to the same device, only from the voice of the opposing camp, in recounting Trump’s fateful decision to fire the F.B.I. director James Comey. “It was Jared, in the version told by those outside the Jarvanka circle, that pushed for action,” he writes. (“Jarvanka” is Wolff’s shorthand, borrowed from Bannon, for Jared and Ivanka.) Wolff’s caution may be explained in his acknowledgments, where he gives a glowing tribute to his trusted libel lawyer. It is that sort of book.

Wolff is unsparing in his portrayal of Trump as an aberrant chief executive, not only detached from governance but barely literate. He summons withering on-the-record assessments from ostensible allies of a seemingly infantile president. “If they tell him the whales need to be saved, he’s basically for it,” says Katie Walsh, a former White House deputy chief of staff, recalling how easily the Kushners could sway Trump. Yet much of Wolff’s sourcing is opaque. “I’ve made stuff up forever, and they always print it,” Trump boasts about his long-running media con. But Wolff, with seemingly unintended irony, does not make clear where he harvested such an explosive line.

Wolff is also slippery about whether he was present for some of the conversations he relays or is merely offering a version of events from those who were. He opens the book, for example, with an engrossing dinner conversation that included Bannon and Roger Ailes, the former Fox News president, shortly before the inauguration, offering sentence after sentence of verbatim quotations. Wolff writes that the dinner was held “in a Greenwich Village townhouse,” but leaves out that it was his home and he was the evening’s host.


Wolff is a media writer by trade and, like his protagonist, he repeatedly scorns the mainline press for what he suggests is its liberal bias. He singles out this paper for treating the Trump presidency as anomalous. Yet putting aside the irony that his own depiction sketches out a shockingly aberrant White House, Wolff shows that his media-bashing is not on the level when he switches from the Ailes hymnal to a more conventional liberal perspective. In a jab at the media, he calls Richard Spencer, the racist alt-right activist, “catnip for the liberal press,” but then effectively makes the liberals’ case by giving Spencer an open mic to proclaim “we are the Trump vanguard.” And Wolff casually refers to a “virulent, if not anti-Semitic (at least toward liberal Jews), right-wing West Wing.”

Wolff is strongest when he’s writing on what he knows best: the insecurities and ambitions of Trump and other media fixtures. Yet while much of this presidency does revolve around news coverage, it is still a presidency. And Wolff is far weaker when it comes to politics.

The collapse of the Affordable Care Act repeal in the Senate is dealt with in less than a single sentence, with no mention of Senator John McCain’s opposition or Trump’s 11th-hour telephone call to him that preceded it. Vice President Mike Pence is largely airbrushed out of the book, which is puzzling given how influential he was in tapping cabinet officials and staff. Similarly, few would see Andrew Card or Erskine Bowles as “larger-than-life” presidential chiefs of staff; the conservative United Nations ambassador Nikki R. Haley is hardly a “Jarvanka Republican”; and at a September campaign rally in Alabama for Senator Luther Strange, Trump did not abandon Strange “for the rest of the speech” after criticizing N.F.L. players for kneeling at the national anthem.

Then there is the sloppiness: The former representative Dick Armey was never House speaker, the Washington lobbyist Hilary Rosen spells her first name with only one “l” and it is Mike Berman, Walter F. Mondale’s former counsel, who breakfasts at the Four Seasons, not the Washington Post reporter Mark Berman.

The writing is often vivid but Wolff, who tries to hold to a chronological narrative, can be as repetitive as Trump, returning again and again to preferred words or phrases (joie de guerre is a favorite). What ultimately salvages the book are those moments when he all but makes Bannon his co-author, letting Bannon describe West Wing showdowns with his moderate nemesis, Jarvanka, in ways that render this the de facto first insider account of the Trump White House. Of course, the recollections are just those of a single aide, and may include what Trump himself once called examples of “truthful hyperbole.”

In the newspaper business, such stories would be deemed “too good to check.” But given the popularity of “Fire and Fury,” Wolff might call them something else: liberal catnip.

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