Book review: Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff
First, I have to apologize for what I wrote in one of my books to anticipate in 2018 posts. I can’t believe I even considered NOT reading this book, in light of everything that’s happened around it since. To be fair, I think the day I published that post was the same day this started making headlines and quickly becoming CNN’s favorite book of the year, if not of all time.
I was in D.C. when it was released early, and unless you were in one of the Harry Potter-reminiscent midnight lines at the bookstore, you weren’t getting a copy. Every store I stopped in was out but similarly bombarded with requests. Not to mention the nearly monthlong backlog on Amazon.
I read on an ereader all the time, and obviously digital copies weren’t affected by the sudden mass demand/short supply, so I downloaded it as I do most books these days (sad sigh at living partially abroad and moving transatlantically) but something about this one made me want to have it in hard copy. CNN really sold this thing! As did of course Trump’s promise to litigate against it and insisting it’s all lies.
Also, when I wrote that I wasn’t sure if I’d read it or if it was trashy, I didn’t understand exactly where journalist Michael Wolff was coming from. I thought, with little research of my own beyond a brief description of the book, that he’d probably hung around in D.C. bars, had connection to insider gossip (this part is partly true, he acknowledges), maybe from fellow journalists off the record, stuff like that. I didn’t realize he’d actually asked Trump and been allowed to sit in the White House and observe.
The most hilarious part of this is that Trump seemed to have screwed himself over by losing interest at mention of a book. That’s why this all went down. He hears that a lot of people want to write books but doubts anyone wants to read them, so he either lost complete interest in what Wolff was pitching or figured no one would ever crack the spine on this thing, assuming it gets published, because who the hell reads? But Fire and Fury, thanks to Donald Trump, is now MARA!, Making America Read Again, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about it!
Anyway, as life always happens, I was so beyond busy this past week that I barely had time to read it, even though I normally can always find time to read, especially something as page-turning as this. Cruel fate. And by the time I finished yesterday, I wondered what more there was to be said at this point. So apologies that you’re probably already all Fire and Fury-ied out, but here’s my take.
I say that if you haven’t read it already and have been deluged with all the juiciest excerpts and anecdotes making the media rounds and are wondering whether it’s worth reading, it really is. That’s not to say there’s anything explosive left that hasn’t already been extracted and widely shared, but as a narrative it’s quite good, and it does well in creating an overall sense of the frantic chaos and insane infighting that despite hearing so much about are still worth getting the full picture of.
Some of my favorite moments:
Trump likening himself to “white trash” except for the fact that he’s not poor, he clarifies
George W. Bush after Trump’s doom and gloom inauguration speech: “That’s some weird shit.” I think I heard this before, but it’s so perfect in the story Wolff tells.
“The president himself, absent any organizational rigor, often acted as his own chief of staff, or, in a sense, elevated the press secretary job to the primary staff job, and then functioned as his own press secretary—reviewing press releases, dictating quotes, getting reporters on the phone—which left the actual press secretary as a mere flunky and whipping boy. Moreover, his relatives acted as ad hoc general managers of whatever areas they might choose to be general managers in. Then there was Bannon, conducting something of an alternate-universe operation, often launching far-reaching undertakings that no one else knew about. And thus Priebus, at the center of an operation that had no center, found it easy to think there was no reason for him to be there at all.”
This stuff about his relatives is perhaps the most eye-opening for me. His sons are painted as what they always appear to be – two dumb and dopey do-littles sadly, desperately hungry for his attention and approval, and Ivanka and Jared (“Jarvanka” in the book’s and apparently White House lingo) as two opportunistic idiots (Ivanka) or suck-ups (Jared) who don’t understand their roles or the administration’s admittedly shaky agenda and seem to spend the majority of their time leaking about their enemies and scheming how to hold on to their own power against whoever they perceive as opposition (it was Bannon, but with him gone I’m not sure who the current bee in their bonnet is).
Trump also seems to love-hate them, questioning why he allowed them to come to Washington while simultaneously indulging them.
“Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. (There was some argument about this, because he could read headlines and articles about himself, or at least headlines on articles about himself, and the gossip squibs on the New York Post’s Page Six.) Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he just didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total television.”
This is where I think it’s hard to question this stuff. It’s so clear he doesn’t read. Just consider his vocabulary. Allegedly he also has three TV screens in his bedroom (which is separate from Melania’s) and he watches them every evening while eating cheeseburgers in bed and calling rich people to ask for their advice and bitch about how badly he’s treated. This is no imaginative leap for me.
“Trump had little or no interest in the central Republican goal of repealing Obamacare. An overweight seventy-year-old man with various physical phobias (for instance, he lied about his height to keep from having a body mass index that would label him as obese), he personally found health care and medical treatments of all kinds a distasteful subject. The details of the contested legislation were, to him, particularly boring; his attention would begin wandering from the first words of a policy discussion.”
Perfect. He has no interest in or understanding of a program whose removal would have serious, potentially fatal repercussions for millions. Just perfect. I would add that in this book’s examples, his attention wanders anytime a policy discussion is brought up – a passage about how and why that bizarre tweet banning transgender people from military service came about is just stunning.
“Some seducers are preternaturally sensitive to the signals of those they try to seduce; others indiscriminately attempt to seduce, and, by the law of averages, often succeed (this latter group of men might now be regarded as harassers). That was Trump’s approach to women—pleased when he scored, unconcerned when he didn’t (and, often, despite the evidence, believing that he had). And so it was with Director Comey.”
Some of the most disgusting but again, believable, passages relate to Trump’s perception of himself in relation to women. Also not hard to believe the fortress of delusion he lives inside, whether regarding his own personal charm or what he chooses to believe despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
“Women, by their nature, or Trump’s version of their nature, were more likely to focus their purpose on a man. A man like Trump.”
Wolff flat out calls him a misogynist, which I appreciated, and the examples here back it up. This is one where I wonder though – it’s not explicitly based on a quote, comment, anything like that, it just seems to be Wolff’s perception. Is it hard to believe? Not at all. Is it correct? Well, I guess there’s not any way to verify it unless he’s so stupid as to say something like this at some point. After reading this book, if even half of it is true, you’ll believe that he’s stupid enough to reach any heights and feats of stupidity.
“Why? You’ve already done enough for him. You’re the best piece of tail he’ll ever have,” sending Hicks running from the room.”
Similar to the above quote, what misogynistic decade did he crawl out of? I know he’s 71 but who says that? Hicks is particularly mysterious among his clinger-ons, what she sees in him or why she’s potentially ruining the rest of her life/career in service to his insane “communications” is baffling. And he seemingly adores her, yet talks to her like a pervy old-timey movie gangster.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville: “Privately, he kept trying to rationalize why someone would be a member of the KKK—that is, they might not actually believe what the KKK believed, and the KKK probably does not believe what it used to believe, and, anyway, who really knows what the KKK believes now? In fact, he said, his own father was accused of being involved with the KKK—not true. (In fact, yes, true.)”
Of course he did. That leads me to the question swirling around this book currently, and a very fair one, of what’s true and what’s not. It’s already proven that some details about journalists’ names and the like aren’t correct, which is certainly a big strike against it. But on the other hand, so much of it is clearly true, verified repeatedly by other people and evidence even if Trump or the involved players continue to spin their own narratives. I’m sure taking it all with a grain of salt is necessary, but there wasn’t anything here that struck me as far beyond belief.
I did wonder how Wolff had access to so much dialogue or events that didn’t happen directly in the White House and the internal observations he picked up on, but my guess is that conversations were recounted within his hearing, or people just expressed their feelings about situations. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
It’s also not as trashy as I expected – it has its gleefully trashy moments, obviously, but overall it’s a good journalistic read, despite having a slight feeling of being quickly written.
There’s so much I haven’t touched on – the cronies, the slimy opportunists, the details of Scaramucci and of Trump’s hair construction, if you haven’t heard these delights already – that make this worth reading. Sometimes it’s kind of like reading a book after you’ve already seen the movie – you know what’s coming, you remember that part, this is a good scene, etc. But it’s still worth it. As for accuracy, time will tell.
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House
by Michael Wolff
published January 5, 2018 by Henry Holt & Co.
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