Trump ex­posed

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‘Fire and Fury’ re­viewed

FIRE AND FURY: IN­SIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE MICHAEL WOLFF Lit­tle, Brown, £20

N o other coun­try feasts on the po­lit­i­cal memoir as much as the United States.

Al­most ev­ery Amer­i­can pres­i­dent has been faced with the scourge of the po­lit­i­cal tell-all, as for­mer po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives, hang­ers-on and se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion fig­ures, from sec­re­tary of state to CIA di­rec­tor, rush to spill the beans on their time near the cen­tre of power.

Un­for­tu­nately for Don­ald Trump, that mo­ment has come sooner rather than later. Less than a year into his pres­i­dency, Michael Wolff has pub­lished a new book, Fire and Fury:

In­side the Trump White House, one of the first at­tempts to lift the lid on the Trump pres­i­dency.

To para­phrase Trump’s fa­mous warn­ing to North Korea which pro­vides the ti­tle of Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury has un­leashed a pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non that the world has never seen – at least since the latest Harry Pot­ter. Queues of im­pa­tient read­ers lined up for hours out­side book­stores on pub­li­ca­tion night, pub­lish­ers Henry Holt are rac­ing to print new copies, and an in­ter­net meme has been born showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un chuck­ling hys­ter­i­cally as he leafs through the book.

More sig­nif­i­cantly, per­haps, Fire and Fury has prompted an ac­ri­mo­nious split be­tween Don­ald Trump and his for­mer chief strate­gist Steve Bannon and a very pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion about the 45th pres­i­dent’s men­tal fit­ness, more specif­i­cally whether there are grounds to in­voke the 25th Amend­ment to the con­sti­tu­tion al­low­ing the re­moval of a pres­i­dent.

All the time the au­thor is glee­fully look­ing on as the sales roll in. “Where do I send the box of choco­lates?” he asked on NBC’s To­day show.

Wolff him­self is a prob­lem­atic fig­ure. Con­tro­versy ac­com­pa­nied his 2008 book on Ru­pert Mur­doch, when he was ac­cused of stretch­ing the truth. Within hours of pub­li­ca­tion, early read­ers were quick to spot ap­par­ent in­ac­cu­ra­cies in Fire and Fury. For ex­am­ple, he re­lays an anec­dote which claims that Don­ald Trump did not know who John Boehner was. In fact, Trump pre­vi­ously played golf with the for­mer speaker of the house and has tweeted nu­mer­ous times about him.

In the au­thor’s note to the book, Wolff sets out his stated aim and method­ol­ogy: “to try to see life in the Trump White House through the eyes of the peo­ple clos­est to it.” He claims to have con­ducted 200 in­ter­views, in­clud­ing with the pres­i­dent, and to have taken up “some­thing like a semi-per­ma­nent seat on a couch in the West Wing”, a claim that has been dis­puted by the White House.

From the out­set, though, his method­ol­ogy proves prob­lem­atic. Wolff de­ploys the age-old literary trope of the un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor. As he plots the story of the Trump pres­i­dency, weav­ing his way through the con­scious­ness of “un­named” sources, it be­comes im­pos­si­ble to see where the per­spec­tive of the nar­ra­tor be­gins and the ob­jec­tive facts end.

Open­ingscene

Take this sen­tence from the open­ing scene of the book, when his at­ten­tion turns to Kellyanne Con­way: “Don­ald Trump would lose the elec­tion – of this she was sure – but he would quite pos­si­bly hold the de­feat to un­der six points.” Who is speak­ing here? Con­way? Wolff? One of the book’s un­named sources? It’s im­pos­si­ble to tell.

While the re­jec­tion of the om­ni­scient nar­ra­tor may have worked a treat for Mod­ernist greats such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, when a book is sup­pos­edly a work of fact, not of fic­tion, things be­comes more prob­lem­atic.

Nonethe­less Fire and Fury is a page-turner. From the get-go, Wolff plunges us into the drama of the Trump pres­i­dency. Open­ing with a din­ner be­tween Fox News ex­ec­u­tive Roger Ailes and Steve Bannon in New York two weeks be­fore the in­au­gu­ra­tion, Wolff charts the story of the Trump pres­i­dency from the early days of the tran­si­tion pe­riod in Trump Tower right into the heart of the West Wing. The book is writ­ten in the style of a pacy thriller – “op­er­a­tives knew the game, and so did most can­di­dates and of­fice­hold­ers,” he writes breath­lessly.

This is not a book that dis­sects ma­jor pol­icy de­ci­sions or analy­ses the premises of Trump­ism – it is a book more in­ter­ested in per­son­al­i­ties and in­trigues. Wolff’s fo­cus is the cast of char­ac­ters that in­habit the White House. Al­le­ga­tions in the book about the be­hav­iour of Don­ald Trump may have stolen all the head­lines since pub­li­ca­tion, but Steve Bannon is the real pro­tag­o­nist of Fire and Fury. From the open­ing chap­ter Bannon dom­i­nates – he “im­me­di­ately took con­trol of the con­ver­sa­tion,” Wolff writes, de­scrib­ing the Jan­uary din­ner with Roger Ailes. Bannon him­self has ad­mit­ted that he co-op­er­ated with Wolff for the book.

In­deed, one of the book’s strengths is its de­pic­tion of the looming break be­tween Trump and Bannon. He evokes Bannon’s sink­ing feel­ing when Trump de­cides to launch air strikes in Syria – a sign for Bannon that the pres­i­dent is mov­ing away from the na­tion­al­ist iso­la­tion­ism that un­der­pinned his elec­tion cam­paign.

Sim­i­larly, much of the book is de­voted to the bit­ter bat­tle within the West Wing be­tween the Bannon wing and “Jar­vanka”, ev­i­dently a Bannon de­scrip­tion of the pres­i­dent’s daugh­ter Ivanka and her hus­band Jared Kush­ner. The with­er­ing de­pic­tions of Ivanka (“dumb as a brick”) and Jared (“the but­ler”) are among the most damn­ing in the book, as Wolff pre­sents the Trump White House as a Shake­spearean drama where fam­ily loy­alty rules.

Friends’wives

The con­tro­versy over the ve­rac­ity of the book’s most se­ri­ous claims is likely to con­tinue – the book con­tains some ex­plo­sive al­le­ga­tions, in­clud­ing Trump’s de­sire to sleep with his friends’ wives and a de­tailed de­scrip­tion of Trump dic­tat­ing a state­ment on Air Force One re­fut­ing re­ports of his son’s fate­ful June 2016 meet­ing in Trump Tower. But, quite apart from the de­tails and gos­sipy anec­dotes con­tained in the book, Wolff’s real strength is in his anal­y­sis of Trump’s per­son­al­ity.

Be­neath the out­landish, of­ten funny, de­scrip­tions of the pres­i­dent, Wolff pre­sents some in­sight­ful as­sess­ments: that Trump is sim­ply an emo­tional, in­stinc­tive per­son who wants to be loved; that he feels des­per­ately wounded by his treat­ment by the main­stream me­dia; and how Trump has an as­ton­ish­ing ca­pac­ity for op­ti­mism, even when it seems the pres­i­dency can’t get any worse.

As the de­bate about the ve­rac­ity of Wolff’s book looks set to con­tinue, ul­ti­mately Fire and

Fury is the kind of book that the 45th pres­i­dent of the United States de­serves.

By dis­rupt­ing the bound­aries be­tween fact and fic­tion, ob­jec­tive re­port­ing and sup­po­si­tion, au­thor and sub­ject, Michael Wolff has writ­ten the per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to Trump­ism. Hav­ing railed against the “fake news” me­dia while showing an ut­ter dis­re­gard for truth, Trump can hardly com­plain that a book on his pres­i­dency plays with the facts.

In the post-truth world of al­ter­na­tive facts that Trump has spawned, Fire and Fury is truly a book of its time.

PHOTOGRAPH: MAN­DEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Don­ald Trump and Steve Bannon in hap­pier times, post-in­au­gu­ra­tion.

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