As John Podhoretz points out, you can’t always believe what Michael Wolff says. As he also points out:
Even if 20 percent is true, however, what times we live in. And certainly, Trump believes the Bannon quotes are accurate. Within 90 minutes of the release of the excerpt, he issued a statement declaring that Bannon had “lost his mind” after Trump fired him in August.
By that standard, what are we to make of this?
NEW this am: Trump attorneys send cease-and-desist letter this morning to Wolff and book publisher @HenryHolt demanding they stop publication and issue an apology to @realDonaldTrump for defamatory statements made thus far.
— Carol Leonnig (@CarolLeonnig) January 4, 2018
Let’s stipulate that Michael Wolff is not a 100 percent reliable reporter. The problem (for Trump and his supporters) is that most of what he says is plausible. And he was certainly there inside the White House for much of Trump’s first year. As Wolff writes in today’s juicy installment of his book rollout plan:
I interviewed Donald Trump for The Hollywood Reporter in June 2016, and he seemed to have liked — or not disliked — the piece I wrote. “Great cover!” his press assistant, Hope Hicks, emailed me after it came out (it was a picture of a belligerent Trump in mirrored sunglasses). After the election, I proposed to him that I come to the White House and report an inside story for later publication — journalistically, as a fly on the wall — which he seemed to misconstrue as a request for a job. No, I said. I’d like to just watch and write a book. “A book?” he responded, losing interest. “I hear a lot of people want to write books,” he added, clearly not understanding why anybody would. “Do you know Ed Klein?”— author of several virulently anti-Hillary books. “Great guy. I think he should write a book about me.” But sure, Trump seemed to say, knock yourself out.
Since the new White House was often uncertain about what the president meant or did not mean in any given utterance, his non-disapproval became a kind of passport for me to hang around — checking in each week at the Hay-Adams hotel, making appointments with various senior staffers who put my name in the “system,” and then wandering across the street to the White House and plunking myself down, day after day, on a West Wing couch.
The West Wing is configured in such a way that the anteroom is quite a thoroughfare — everybody passes by. Assistants — young women in the Trump uniform of short skirts, high boots, long and loose hair — as well as, in situation-comedy proximity, all the new stars of the show: Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Jared Kushner, Mike Pence, Gary Cohn, Michael Flynn (and after Flynn’s abrupt departure less than a month into the job for his involvement in the Russia affair, his replacement, H.R. McMaster), all neatly accessible.
What Wolff reports in the new installment (and oh boy, you’re gonna want to read the whole thing) is jaw-dropping, certainly, but also weirdly familiar, the kind of things that make you shake your head as if to say, “I knew it!” Excerpts:
Reigning over all of this was Trump, enigma, cipher and disruptor. How to get along with Trump — who veered between a kind of blissed-out pleasure of being in the Oval Office and a deep, childish frustration that he couldn’t have what he wanted? Here was a man singularly focused on his own needs for instant gratification, be that a hamburger, a segment on Fox & Friends or an Oval Office photo opp. “I want a win. I want a win. Where’s my win?” he would regularly declaim. He was, in words used by almost every member of the senior staff on repeated occasions, “like a child.” A chronic naysayer, Trump himself stoked constant discord with his daily after-dinner phone calls to his billionaire friends about the disloyalty and incompetence around him. His billionaire friends then shared this with their billionaire friends, creating the endless leaks which the president so furiously railed against.
As the first year wound down, Trump finally got a bill to sign. The tax bill, his singular accomplishment, was, arguably, quite a reversal of his populist promises, and confirmation of what Mitch McConnell had seen early on as the silver Trump lining: “He’ll sign anything we put in front of him.” With new bravado, he was encouraging partisans like Fox News to pursue an anti-Mueller campaign on his behalf. Insiders believed that the only thing saving Mueller from being fired, and the government of the United States from unfathomable implosion, is Trump’s inability to grasp how much Mueller had on him and his family.
Steve Bannon was openly handicapping a 33.3 percent chance of impeachment, a 33.3 percent chance of resignation in the shadow of the 25th amendment and a 33.3 percent chance that he might limp to the finish line on the strength of liberal arrogance and weakness.
Donald Trump’s small staff of factotums, advisors and family began, on Jan. 20, 2017, an experience that none of them, by any right or logic, thought they would — or, in many cases, should — have, being part of a Trump presidency. Hoping for the best, with their personal futures as well as the country’s future depending on it, my indelible impression of talking to them and observing them through much of the first year of his presidency, is that they all — 100 percent — came to believe he was incapable of functioning in his job.
At Mar-a-Lago, just before the new year, a heavily made-up Trump failed to recognize a succession of old friends.
That gossipy last detail will have set off alarms in intelligence agencies around the world.
Here’s the thing: even if you deny that everything Wolff writes in this adaptation from his book is true, all of it has the ring of truth. The inside-the-White-House stuff sounds exactly like what I was hearing second-hand from an unnerved insider last spring, though with more detail in Wolff’s telling. Would you bet money that Wolff’s tale is entirely a lie?
A “cease and desist” letter on Wolff and his publisher from the president’s lawyer is the best possible thing a writer and a publisher can hope for. It’s pointless, but it makes it look like Wolff inserted his proton torpedo into the Trump White House’s exhaust chute.
UPDATE: Wolff says he has many hours of recorded conversations with his White House sources. Sources would cross Lafayette Park and meet Wolff at his hotel, the Hay-Adams, and spill. He says.