The accidental president: how Donald Trump stumbled into power
A scintillating exposé of life in the West Wing under Donald Trump by American journalist Michael Wolff has become an overnight bestseller. Behind the familiar bombast, the president comes across as a lonely, isolated and often rather fearful figure
The desire not to win Almost everybody in the campaign, still an extremely small outfit, thought of themselves as a clear-eyed team, as realistic about their prospects as perhaps any in politics. The unspoken agreement among them: not only would Donald Trump not be president, he should probably not be.
“I can be the most famous man in the world,” Trump told his on-again, off-again aide Sam Nunberg at the outset of the campaign. “But do you want to be president” Nunberg asked. He did not get an answer. The point was there didn’t need to be an answer because Trump wasn’t going to be president.
What Trump wanted Trump’s long-time friend Roger Ailes liked to say that if you wanted a career in television, first run for president. Now Trump, encouraged by Ailes, was floating rumours about a Trump network. It was a great future. He would come out of this campaign, Trump assured Ailes, with a far more powerful brand and untold opportunities. “This is bigger than I ever dreamed of,” he told Ailes in a conversation a week before the election. “I don’t think about losing because it isn’t losing. We’ve totally won.” Trump would be the most famous man in the world – a martyr to crooked Hillary Clinton. His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would have transformed themselves from relatively obscure rich kids into international celebrities and brand ambassadors. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement. His wife, Melania, could return to inconspicuously lunching. That was the trouble-free outcome they awaited on 8 November 2016. Losing would work out for everybody.
Melania’s distress at the thought of victory The silver lining of the ignominy Melania Trump had to endure after the Billy Bush tape (in which Trump was recorded saying that he liked to grab women “by the pussy”) was that now there was no way her husband could become president.
Donald Trump’s marriage was perplexing to almost everybody around him. He and Melania spent relatively little time together. They could go for days at a time without contact, even when they were both in Trump Tower. Often she did not know where he was. Her husband moved between residences as he would move between rooms. An absentee father to his first four children, Trump was even more absent for his fifth, Barron, his son with Melania. Now on his third marriage, he told friends he thought
he had finally perfected the art: live and let live – “Do your own thing.” Still, the notion that this was a marriage in name only was far from true. He spoke of Melania frequently when she wasn’t there. He admired her looks – often, awkwardly for her, in the presence of others. She was, he told people proudly and without irony, a “trophy wife”. And while he may not have quite shared his life with her, he gladly shared the spoils of it. “A happy wife is a happy life,” he said, echoing a popular rich-man truism.
But the prospect of her husband actually becoming president was, for Melania, a horrifying one. She believed it would destroy her carefully sheltered life – one sheltered from the extended Trump family – which was almost entirely focused on her young son. “Don’t put the cart before the horse,” her amused husband said, even as he spent every day on the campaign trail, dominating the news. He offered his wife a solemn guarantee: there was simply no way he would win. But her terror and torment mounted.
The candidate’s “crappy campaign” The leitmotif for Trump of his own campaign was how crappy it was and how everybody involved in it was a loser. He was equally convinced that the Clinton people were brilliant winners – “They’ve got the best and we’ve got the worst,” he frequently said. Time spent with Trump on the campaign plane was often an epic dissing experience: everybody around him was an idiot. His campaign was doomed. “We’re all losers,” he’d say. “All our guys are terrible, nobody knows what they’re doing.” By every meaningful indicator, something greater than even a sense of doom shadowed what Bannon called “the broke-dick campaign” – a sense of structural impossibility. Trump, who said he was a billionaire ten times over, initially refused even to invest his own money in it.
Election night Shortly after eight o’clock that evening, when the unexpected trend – Trump might actually win – seemed confirmed, Don Jr. told a friend that his father, or DJT, as he called him, looked as if he had seen a ghost. Melania, to whom Trump had made his solemn guarantee, was in tears – and not of joy. There was, in the space of little more than an hour, in Bannon’s not unamused observation, a befuddled Trump morphing into a disbelieving Trump and then into a quite horrified Trump. But still to come was the final transformation: suddenly, Donald Trump became a man who believed that he deserved to be, and was wholly capable of being, the president of the United States.
Trump proclaimed his campaign doomed. “We’re all losers. All our guys are terrible, nobody knows what they’re doing”
The inauguration At the meeting of the soon-to-be-new president and the soon-to-be-old president, which took place just before they set off for the inauguration, Trump believed the Obamas acted disdainfully – “very arrogant” – towards him and Melania. Instead of wearing a game face going into the inaugural events, the president-elect wore what some had taken to calling his golf face: angry and pissed off, shoulders hunched, arms swinging, brow furled, lips pursed. This had become the public Trump – truculent Trump.
An inauguration is supposed to be a love-in. The media gets a new and upbeat story. For the party faithful, happy times are here again. But Trump’s aggrieved mood became a perfect match for the Bannon-written aggrieved inaugural address. Much of the 16-minute speech was part of Bannon’s daily joie de guerre patter – his take-back-the-country, America-first, carnage-everywhere vision for the country. But it actually became darker and more forceful when filtered through Trump’s disappointment, and delivered with his golf face. His wounded feelings – his sense of being shunned and unloved on the very day he became president – helped send that message. When he came off the podium he kept repeating: “Nobody will forget this speech.” George W. Bush, on the dais, supplied what seemed likely to become the historic footnote to the Trump address: “That’s some weird shit.”
Entering the White House Most presidents arrived in the White House from ordinary political life, and could not help but be awed by their sudden elevation to a mansion with palace-like servants and security, a plane at constant readiness, and downstairs a retinue of courtiers and advisers. But this wouldn’t have been that different from Trump’s life in Trump Tower, with servants, security, courtiers and advisers always on the premises, and a plane at the ready. The big deal of being president was not so apparent to him. Trump found the White House, an old building with only sporadic upkeep and piecemeal renovations – as well as a famous roach and rodent problem – to be vexing, even a little scary. Friends who admired his skills as a hotelier wondered why he just didn’t remake the place, but he seemed cowed by the weight of the watchful eyes on him.
The first days in his new home So Trump retreated to his own bedroom – the first time since the Kennedy White House that a presidential couple had maintained separate rooms. In the first days he ordered two TVS, in addition to the one already there, and a lock on the door, precipitating a brief stand-off with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.” Then he imposed a set of new rules: nobody touch anything, especially not his toothbrush. (He had a long-time fear of being poisoned, one reason why he liked to eat at Mcdonald’s – nobody knew he was coming and the food was safely premade.) Also, he would let housekeeping know when he wanted his sheets done, and he would strip his own bed. If he was not having his 6.30pm dinner with Bannon then, more to his liking, he was in bed by that time with a cheeseburger, watching his three screens and making phone calls – the phone was his true contact point with the world – to a small group of friends, who charted his rising and falling levels of agitation through the evening and then compared notes with one another.
“Jarvanka” in the White House For his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter Ivanka, as for everybody else in the new administration, this was a random and crazy turn of history – how could you not seize it? It was a joint decision by the couple to take jobs in the White House. They had made an earnest deal between themselves: if in the future the time came, she’d be the one to run for president. The first woman president wouldn’t be Hillary Clinton, it would be Ivanka Trump.
Bannon, who’d coined the widely used term “Jarvanka”, was horrified when the couple’s deal was reported to him. “Oh come on. They didn’t actually say that? Please don’t tell me that. Oh my God.” The truth was that, by then, Ivanka and Jared were in effect the real chief of staff – certainly as much a chief of staff as the official one, Reince Priebus, or as Bannon. Even more to the point, Jared and Ivanka had a wholly independent standing inside the West Wing. A super status. Even as Priebus and Bannon tried to remind the couple of staff procedures and propriety, they would in turn remind the West Wing leadership of their overriding First Family prerogatives.
Catching the president’s ear Part of Jared and Ivanka’s calculation about the relative power and influence of a formal job in the West Wing versus an outside advisory role was the knowledge that influencing Trump required you to be all in. From phone call to phone call – and Trump’s day, beyond organised meetings, was almost entirely phone calls – you could lose him. The subtleties here were immense, because while he was often most influenced by the last person he spoke to, he did not actually listen to anyone. So it was not so much the force of an individual argument or petition that moved him, but more someone’s presence, the connection of what was going through his mind to whomever he was with. Trump neither particularly listened to what was said to him, nor particularly considered what he said in response (one reason he was so repetitive). Nor did he treat anyone with any sort of basic or reliable courtesy. He demanded you pay him attention, then decided you were weak for grovelling. Everybody was either a lackey who did his bidding or a high-ranking functionary trying to coax his attention and performance – and to do so without making him angry or petulant.
Ivanka’s relationship with her father Ivanka treated her father with some lightness, even irony, and in at least one TV interview made fun of his comb-over. She often described the mechanics behind it to friends: an absolutely clean pate – a contained island after scalp-reduction surgery – surrounded by a furry circle of hair around the sides and front, from which all ends are drawn up to meet in the centre and then swept back and secured by a stiffening spray. The colour, she would point out to comical effect, was from a product called Just for Men – the longer it was left on, the darker it got. Impatience resulted in Trump’s orange-blonde hair colour.
Ivanka’s relationship with her father was in no way a conventional family relationship. If it wasn’t pure opportunism, it was certainly transactional. Building the brand, the presidential campaign and now the White House – it was all business. Father and daughter got along almost peculiarly well. She was the real mini-trump. She accepted him. She was a helper not just in his business dealings, but also in his marital realignments. She facilitated entrances and exits. If you have a douchebag dad, and if everyone is open about it, then maybe it becomes fun, and life a romantic comedy – sort of.
© 2018 by Michael Wolff, extracted from Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, published by Little, Brown at £20.
“He had a long-time fear of being poisoned – one reason why he liked to eat at Mcdonald’s. Nobody knew he was coming”