The president of the United States reacted with his own fire and fury and with legal threats (Washington Post) over a new tell-all book that describes chaos, feuds and allegations of incompetence in the Trump 2016 presidential campaign and the White House.
Author Michael Wolff, a well-known New York journalist with a reputation for gaining the confidence of the famous and wealthy only to skewer them with their own words, had access to President Donald Trump’s senior campaign staff, White House personnel, Trump family members and associates to write Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. He’s vigorously defended himself (NBC News) and his methods and says he has tapes.
We’ve done a separate Q&A session with Wolff where he defends his “writerly” book and says he really believes it’ll be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.
The book’s publication was brought forward by four days following attempts by Trump’s lawyers to block it. Wolff tweeted on Thursday: “Here we go. You can buy it (and read it) tomorrow. Thank you, Mr. President.”
Since publication key source Steve Bannon has “stepped down” from Breitbart — apparently pushed out by right-wing donors in response to pressure from the White House and Trump has again threatened to try to “take a strong look” at toughening U.S. libel laws (The New York Times).
Many have attacked Wolff using words like “tabloid” as a slur on his brand of journalism. None, however, did so with the flourish of Canadian convicted fraudster and former newspaper magnate Conrad Black — himself the biographer of presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon, using the National Review to declare Wolff: “an utterly odious man. He can’t write properly, has no professional integrity, and is a sociophobic mud-slinger and myth-maker.”
Here’s our take on some of the most telling claims in the book related more to issues of foreign policy, the Russia investigation than some of the more lurid charges.
Wolff on Trump foreign policy:
In the chapter on foreign policy “Abroad and at home” Wolff paints a picture of a White House ignorant of world affairs and determined to just do the opposite of whatever the Obama administration would have done. It depicts Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner leading a focus on Saudi Arabia, Israel, Canada, and Mexico, and having a strangely symbiotic relationship with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad (CORRECTED from Mohammed) bin Salman, known as MBS.
- MBS and Trump could work together on the basis that: ‘Knowing little made them oddly comfortable with each other.’
- Trump on a planned visit to Saudi Arabia: “Jared’s gotten the Arabs totally on our side. Done deal,” he assured one of his after-dinner callers before leaving on the trip. “It’s going to be beautiful.”
- Trump allegedly claimed responsibility for the power grab by the young Saudi Crown Prince: ‘Trump would tell friends that he and Jared had engineered this: “We’ve put our man on top!”’
- On Xi Jinping: ‘This required some tutoring for Trump, who referred to the Chinese leader as “Mr. X-i”; the president was told to think of him as a woman and call him “she.”’
- Bannon on the threat from China: “China’s everything. Nothing else matters. We don’t get China right, we don’t get anything right. This whole thing is very simple. China is where Nazi Germany was in 1929 to 1930. The Chinese, like the Germans, are the most rational people in the world, until they’re not. And they’re gonna flip like Germany in the thirties.”
- On Secretary of State Rex Tillerson apparently describing Trump as a “moron”: “Tillerson’s fate was sealed—if his obvious ambivalence toward the president had not already sealed it—by the revelation that he had called the president “a fucking moron.”
- Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is “as ambitious as Lucifer” but…’The danger here, offered one senior Trumper, “is that she is so much smarter than him’.”
- Trump on the chances of negotiating peace in the Middle East: “the biggest breakthrough in Israel-Palestine negotiations ever.” It would be “the game changer, major like has never been seen.”
- “Henry Kissinger says Jared is going to be the new Henry Kissinger,” Trump quoted on Kushner.
- “In the Trump White House”, observed Henry Kissinger, “it is a war between the Jews and the non-Jews.”
Wolff on the Russia affair:
- Bannon on the idea of collusion between Russia and the Trump team: “It’s just a conspiracy theory.” And, he added, the Trump team wasn’t capable of conspiring about anything.”
- Trump on the media: “They take everything I’ve ever said and exaggerate it,” said the president in his first week in the White House during a late-night call. “It’s all exaggerated. My exaggerations are exaggerated.”
- “Jared has this,” said a happy Trump. “It’s all worked out.”’ reporting a conversation with former Fox News chief, the late Roger Ailes, who warned Trump the Russia crisis threatened him.
- ‘The news of the attorney general’s [Jeff Session’s decision to not play a role in any Russia investigation] recusal exploded like an IED in the White House. Sessions was Trump’s protection against an overly aggressive Russian investigation. The president just could not grasp the logic here. He railed to friends: Why would Sessions not want to protect him? What would Sessions gain? Did he think this stuff was real? Sessions needed to do his job!’Wolff, Michael. Fire and Fury (Kindle Locations 2663-2665). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
Wolff on Trump on women:
- On former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates: “who was, [Trump] steamed, “such a cunt.”’
- “You’re the best piece of tail he’ll ever have”, Trump quoted as telling White House Director of Communications Hope Hicks in reference to former aide Corey Lewandowski.
- Trump on his wife Melania: ‘”a trophy wife”‘
- There was something “about a certain kind of woman who would immediately rub Trump the wrong way—Obama women being a good tip-off, Hillary women another. Later this would be extended to “DOJ women.”’
- ‘Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed.’
- ‘“The DOJ,” the president’s source told him, “was filled with women who hated him.”’
In an interview with the NBC Today show, annotated by the Washington Post, Wolff defended his work and said he had spent at least three hours with Trump over the course of the campaign and in the White House.
“I absolutely spoke to the president,” Wolff said. “Whether he realized it was an interview or not, I don’t know, but it certainly was not off the record.”
Wolff explained the purpose of Fire & Fury, and its predicted effect on the Trump Administration, during an on-air interview with BBC Radio. The overarching theme of the book is that “emperor-has-no-clothes,” a reference to Trump being unfit for the presidency.
Wolff ultimately believes that the book “will finally end…this presidency.” When asked if Steve Bannon is interested in bringing down the Trump presidency, Wolff replied, “Yes.”
President tweets defense, attacks Wolff
Trump maintains that Wolff’s account of the beginning of his presidency is fabricated. In a series of tweets on January 6, the president attacked Wolff for using unsubstantiated quotes from former aide Steve Bannon, who he sees as embittered after being fired from the White House.
In the tweet, the president includes a link to a list of critical remarks about Wolff’s journalistic ethics. The image was originally posted by the national Republican party’s Twitter account.
Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book. He used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad! https://t.co/mEeUhk5ZV9
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2018
Trump defended his intelligence and “mental stability” as two of his greatest assets in a series of tweets on January 6.
Trump compared his treatment in the media to that of former President Ronald Reagan who showed signs of Alzheimer’s disease at the end of his second term. MSNBC anchor and Washington Post columnist Joe Scarborough also penned a piece saying how concerned he was with Trump’s apparent disinterest in the written word that he asked him in 2015 if he could read.
Now that Russian collusion, after one year of intense study, has proven to be a total hoax on the American public, the Democrats and their lapdogs, the Fake News Mainstream Media, are taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2018
Senior White House aide Stephen Miller appeared on CNN to be interviewed by Jake Tapper on Sunday. He called Trump “a political genius” and launched an attack on news coverage Tapper urged him to calm down and cut off their interview.
Bannon dishes on Trump
Among the identified sources in the book is Stephen Bannon, a former Trump campaign strategist and adviser, who was attributed as calling a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian operatives “treasonous” – among many other colorful views and slurs on Trump, his family and the people around him (Guardian).
‘Backstabbing, leaking, lying’
In response to Bannon’s comments, Trump Jr. accused Bannon, via Twitter, of “undermining the President” and said that Bannon squandered his tenure at the White House. “Steve is not a strategist, he is an opportunist,” tweeted Trump Jr.
Steve had the honor of working in the White House & serving the country. Unfortunately, he squandered that privilege & turned that opportunity into a nightmare of backstabbing, harassing, leaking, lying & undermining the President. Steve is not a strategist, he is an opportunist
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) January 3, 2018
The Bannon revelations quoted in the book prompted a fiery and highly personal statement from the Trump White House suggesting Bannon had “lost his mind” (CNN) when he was fired from his post in the administration. Lawyers for the Trump organization later wrote to Bannon (Washington Post) alleging he had breached non-disclosure agreements and threatening “imminent” legal action. The same lawyers followed that with a demand to Wolff and his publisher that the book be withheld (Washington Post).
Wolff, whose biography of media baron Rupert Murdoch The Man Who Owns the News, also caused a rift with its subject after many hours of interviews and cooperation, returned to familiar territory in the Trump book quoting Murdoch as calling the president “a fucking idiot” after a phone call from Trump.
‘Fire and fury…never seen before’
Fire and Fury, a title apparently taken from the president’s August 8 comments last year about North Korea’s nuclear threat promising “fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before” (Fox News), is on sale from January 9 but is already the number one bestseller on Amazon in the United States. Wolff this week published a lengthy excerpt from the book – containing most of the key claims – in New York magazine. A statement purporting to be from the Republican Party on the press release distribution platform Public carried a list of alleged misdeeds and errors through Wolff’s career.
Wolff has been criticized by others in the past for allegedly inventing or changing quotes in his stories and making up scenes he describes “springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events,” according to Michelle Cottle, who wrote a 2004 profile of Wolff for The New Republic.
Dinner party conversation
It is not clear how all the direct quotes and scenes in the book were created. Axios reports that Wolff taped interviews with Bannon and White House deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh. A note at the bottom of his excerpt in New York magazine says that Wolff said he was able to take up “something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing” — an idea encouraged by the president himself.
The magazine says: “Because no one was in a position to either officially approve or formally deny such access, Wolff became ‘more a constant interloper than an invited guest.’ There were no ground rules placed on his access, and he was required to make no promises about how he would report on what he witnessed.”
Janice Min, a part-owner of The Hollywood Reporter said that one scene, where Wolff recounts a dinner between Bannon and former president of Fox New Roger Ailes, was entirely accurate. She knew because she was there and the dinner was at Wolff’s own home.
So I was one of the 6 guests at the Bannon-Ailes dinner party in January 2017 and every word I've seen from the book about it is absolutely accurate. It was an astonishing night… pic.twitter.com/I4vgOrHOYb
— Janice Min (@janicemin) January 4, 2018
Wolff published another commentary on the book with one of his regular outlets The Hollywood Reporter, detailing the weirdness of his year in the White House. He says that the project came about after he wrote a piece in that magazine on Trump, which the president apparently liked. Wolff then asked Trump if he could come and be a “fly on the wall” in the White House and write a book about it. The idea was greeted by seeming ambivalence, writes Wolff, but the confusion in reading Trump’s intentions meant the administration was left to guess if the journalist really was allowed to be there. Without a clear line, Wolff set up shop. Trump went on Twitter overnight to dispute Wolff’s account.
New York magazine says Wolff conducted more than 200 interviews for the book.
Following Trump’s initial rebuke of Bannon and threats of legal repercussions, Trump tweeted late Thursday evening that he had never given access to the White House “for author of phony book!” An apparent denial of claims made by Wolff that he was a “fly on the wall.” Trump then tweeted 11 minutes later about his apparent frustration that the media has not covered the Dow closing over 25,000 on Thursday and proclaimed that if former President Barack Obama was still president the stock market “would be the biggest story on earth!”
I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book! I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist. Look at this guy’s past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2018
Trump may try to sue and suppress
Charles Harder, Trump’s personal attorney, announced that “legal action was imminent” in regards to Bannon’s comments against the president. Harder implied Bannon would be sued for defamation, the act of damaging one’s reputation with falsehoods. Defamation is a difficult standard to win in U.S. courts when it comes to “public figures,” such as a sitting president.
Harder also said in the same statement that Bannon had breached “a written confidentiality and non disparagement agreement” (ABC News). If true, Bannon could be subject to a separate lawsuit besides defamation.
This New York Times investigation explains the increasing use of non-disparagement agreements, especially in the tech sector.
Harder is a renowned defamation lawyer who successfully sued Gawker Media for publishing racist and lewd comments made by reality television star Hulk Hogan (Newsweek). The lawsuit resulted in the closing of Gawker as a business (CBSNews).
Reuters also reported that lawyers of the president also threatened Wolff and his publishers with a libel lawsuit for publishing the damaging comments. Trump’s legal team would have to prove that the publishers knowingly published false information and with “actual malice,” meaning that they intentionally damaged one’s reputation by spreading lies.
This is not the first time Trump has threatened a media outlet with libel. Media Law Resource Center compiled a long list of times where Trump sued for libel, he has yet to win a case. Three months into his presidency, he even tweeted the idea of reforming libel law in the U.S.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
As of now, there is no federal law on libel. The 1964 Supreme Court decision, New York Times vs. Sullivan, established the strict “actual malice” standard and informs the country’s general rules on the matter. The Trump Administration would need to overturn this decision before implementing a new law.
The book is a portrait of an ignorant, impulsive, self-obsessed president who skulks around a chaotic White House eating fast food as aides, family members and sycophants cower – Financial Times
Reporting elsewhere on this story:
- The Financial Times, in an editorial comment (FT.com-may be behind a paywall), says the book — whatever its faults — has done real damage to the Trump White House: Fire and Fury, Mr Wolff’s book, has real power even if, as the White House alleges, some of its anecdotes turn out to be untrue.
The book is a portrait of an ignorant, impulsive, self-obsessed president who skulks around a chaotic White House eating fast food as aides, family members and sycophants cower. He cares less about principles or the work of the executive branch than “wins” and media praise. The White House staff, including members of his family, hold him in contempt.
- NBC emphasizes the purported views of former Goldman Sachs executive and White House economic council member Gary Cohn that: “It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns.”
- Axios, a Washington politics site founded by the creators of Politico, reported on Friday that while Wolff might have less respect for the idea of “off the record” than some other reporters, many of his claims rang true.
- New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz mocked the picture of Trump as a non-reading egotist with a satire depicting White House staff acting out the Wolff book for the president.
- Also in the New Yorker, columnist John Cassidy, focused on more nuggets from the book including Trump’s alleged description of former FBI Director James Comey as a “rat”.
- On the right-wing of American political writing, Breitbart, where Bannon is himself chairman, reported relatively cautiously on the uproar over the book, noting reports by others that Wolff had many hours of tapes of his interviews. It also carried, without elaboration, a statement from Breitbart financial supporter and former Bannon backer Rebekah Mercer breaking with Bannon over the disclosures.
- With a headline describing Bannon as “unkempt”, Fox News, reported on Trump’s denial he had talked with Wolff about a book he said was “full of lies”.
- The Guardian, which kicked off some of the furore this week with an early read of the book which had Bannon calling Donald Trump Jr’s meeting with Russian operatives “treasonous” published a first review of the book, comparing it to the ‘burn book’ in the movie Mean Girls “a toxic tale that singes all.”