The ac­ci­den­tal pres­i­dent: how Don­ald Trump stum­bled into power

The Week - - The Last Word -

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”

Me­la­nia and Don­ald Trump: a per­plex­ing re­la­tion­ship to those who know them

Ivanka and Jared: fu­ture pres­i­dents?

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