It takes a thief to catch a thief, and Michael Wolff, with his new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” is the ideal hustler to capture President Trump, whom Wolff describes as having a “twinkle in his eye, larceny in his soul.” Wolff, if memory serves, is similar, minus the twinkle. Gimlet eyes don’t twinkle.
Say what you will about Wolff: Unless the book is wholesale invention, something in his I’m-with-the-band swagger in the West Wing attracted awesomely sordid material from Trump’s scurvy syndicate. In John Sterling at Macmillan, the book has a masterful editor, and three fact-checkers reviewed it. So I’m betting “Fire and Fury” will withstand whatever charges of journalistic impropriety come at it.
And you’re a better woman than I am if you can look away.
Take Stephen K. Bannon’s unpulled punch in calling Donald Trump Jr. “treasonous” for meeting with Russians in June 2016. Centrist and liberal media spent a year walking a prudent, scholarly line pontificating about the crimes Trump and his clan may or may not have committed. And suddenly everyone’s favorite warlock of the far-right comes right out with it: treason.
Wolff’s bomb cyclone of a book officially hit stores on Friday. It stormed up Amazon’s bestseller list pre-publication, however, after various passages leaked to the Guardian and New York magazine rushed out an exclusive excerpt. Copies of the book then circulated, sub rosa, as the Steele dossier once did, which heightened my excitement when I scored one Thursday morning. To each his own, but I flipped first to the section explaining Trump’s belief that President Obama “wiretapped” him.
This delusion was, Wolff argues, an offshoot of Trump’s martyr complex. Wolff makes the point that Trump’s plan all along was to lose the election. Defeat would let Trump build a long-running reality franchise with a protagonist who was not a king but a living saint, shot through with arrows for the nation’s sins of — what? Political correctness? The Satans in the tale would be, of course, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Among journalists, “Fire and Fury” has hydrated a handful of freeze-dried complaints about Wolff, a tireless panelist, devotee of the rich and snide opiner on media who is never not described as a “gadfly.” In a more serious key, Wolff has been faulted for making stuff up. Writing in the New Republic, Michelle Cottle argued in 2004 that “the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created — springing from Wolff’s imagination.” He has also been accused of flacking for Murdoch, although the Murdoch connection seems to have served him well in reporting “Fire and Fury.” A lion in winter, Murdoch is evidently bored by Trump’s idolatry of him, and now hardly conceals his contempt for his acolyte. My favorite line in the New York magazine excerpt is his. Here’s hoping it works without the obscenity: “‘What an idiot,’ said Murdoch, shrugging, as he got off the phone.”
It’s clear that Wolff uses all manner of sleight of hand — tricks common to a more reckless period in 20th century magazine journalism — to generate operatic effects in “Fire and Fury.” The dialogue, for example, is suspiciously Netflix-ready, although Wolff claims to have reported all from what he told New York was his “semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing.” He conducted about 200 interviews with capricious flakes, and Wolff also has some skeletons in his sourcing closet that someone’s bound to drag out.
But who cares, really? Wolff’s dislikable. He plays by his own rules. Big surprise. No one likable or rule-bound would have been able to abide this unsavory crew — Murdoch, Bannon, Roger Ailes, or, for God’s sake, Trump — long enough to squeeze this much big, fat, soapy story out of them.
Wolff’s ace has always been his excitement about cartoonish power dynamics among insufferable old men. In the past, this excitement has been decidedly uninfectious. But this time Wolff’s subjects are not boresville “moguls” with interchangeable faces and net worths but the president of the United States and his psycho crew. And, because the world finds itself at their mercy, we’d do well to hear their fetid locker room talk interpreted by a writer who can stomach it.