(Michael Wolff) - He is a New Yorker in Washington, far more consumed with the news media and personalities than policy issues
. He elides facts, fudges the specifics and dispenses with professional norms in the service of success and status. And while affecting a contempt for the mainstream press, he cannot help dropping the mask to reveal the double game he is playing. I am talking, of course, of the writer Michael Wolff, who with “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” has delivered an altogether fitting, if ultimately unsatisfying, book on the chaotic first nine months of President Trump, another media-obsessed Manhattanite.
Ten days before Donald Trump’s inauguration as the forty-fifth president, a group of young Trump staffers—the men in regulation Trump suits and ties, the women in the Trump-favored look of high boots, short skirts, and shoulderlength hair—were watching President Barack Obama give his farewell speech as it streamed on a laptop in the transition offices.
“Mr. Trump said he’s never once listened to a whole Obama speech,” said one of the young people authoritatively. “They’re so boring,” said another.
While Obama bade his farewell, preparations for Trump’s first press conference since the election, to be held the next day, were under way down the hall. The plan was to make a substantial effort to show that the president-elect’s business conflicts would be addressed in a formal and considered way. Up until now, Trump’s view was that he’d been elected because of those conflicts—his business savvy, connections, experience, and brand—not in spite of them, and that it was ludicrous for anyone to think he could untangle himself even if he wanted to. Indeed, to reporters and anyone else who would listen, Kellyanne Conway offered on Trump’s behalf a self-pitying defense about how great his sacrifice had already been.
After fanning the flames of his intention to disregard rules regarding conflicts of interest, now, in a bit of theater, he would take a generous new tack. Standing in the lobby of Trump Towner next to a table stacked high with document folders and legal papers, he would describe the vast efforts that had been made to do the impossible and how, henceforth, he would be exclusively focused on the nation’s business.
But suddenly this turned out to be quite beside the point.
Fusion GPS, an opposition research company (founded by former journalists, it provided information to private clients), had been retained by Democratic Party interests. Fusion had hired Christopher Steele, a former British spy, in June 2016, to help investigate Trump’s repeated brags about his relationship with Vladimir Putin and the nature of Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin. With reports from Russian sources, many connected to Russian intelligence, Steele assembled a damaging report—now dubbed the “dossier”—suggesting that Donald Trump was being blackmailed by the Putin government. In September,
Steele briefed reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo! News, the New Yorker, and CNN. All declined to use this unverified information, with its unclear provenance, especially given that it was about an unlikely election winner.
But the day before the scheduled press conference, CNN broke details of the Steele dossier. Almost immediately thereafter, Buzzfeed published the entire report—an itemized bacchanal of beyond-the-pale behavior. On the verge of Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, the media, with its singular voice on Trump matters, was propounding a conspiracy of vast proportions. The theory, suddenly presented as just this side of a likelihood, was that the Russians had suborned Donald Trump during a trip to Moscow with a crude blackmail scheme involving prostitutes and videotaped sexual acts pushing new boundaries of deviance (including “golden showers”) with prostitutes and videotaped sex acts. The implicit conclusion: a compromised
Trump had conspired with the Russians to steal the election and to install him in the White House as Putin’s dupe.
If this was true, then the nation stood at one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of democracy, international relations, and journalism. If it was not true—and it was hard to fathom a middle ground—then it would seem to support the Trump view (and the Bannon view) that the media, in also quite a dramatic development in the history of democracy, was so blinded by an abhorrence and revulsion, both ideological and personal, for the democratically elected leader that it would pursue any avenue to take him down. Mark Hemingway, in the conservative, but anti-Trump, Weekly Standard, argued the novel paradox of two unreliable narrators dominating American public life: the president-elect spoke with little information and frequently no factual basis, while “the frame the media has chosen to embrace is that everything the man does is, by default, unconstitutional or an abuse of power.”
On the afternoon of January 11, these two opposing perceptions faced off in the lobby of Trump Tower: the political antichrist, a figure of dark but buffoonish scandal, in the pocket of America’s epochal adversary, versus the would-be revolutionary-mob media, drunk on virtue, certainty, and conspiracy theories. Each represented, for the other side, a wholly discredited “fake” version of reality.
If these character notes seemed comic-book in style, that was exactly how the press conference unfolded.
First Trump’s encomiums to himself: “I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created. . . .” A smattering of the issues before him:
“Veterans with a little cancer can’t see a doctor until they are terminal. . . .” Then the incredulity:
“I was in Russia years ago with the Ms. Universe contest—did very very well
—I tell everyone be careful, because you don’t want to see yourself on television
—cameras all over the place. And again, not just Russia, all over. So would anyone really believe that story? I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way. Believe me.”
Then the denial:
“I have no deals in Russia, I have no deal that could happen in Russia because we’ve stayed away, and I have no loans with Russia. I have to say one thing . . . Over the weekend I was offered two billion dollars to do a deal in Dubai and I turned it down. I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know I have a no-conflict situation as president. I didn’t know about that until three months ago but it’s a nice thing to have. But I didn’t want to take advantage of something. I have a no-conflict-of-interest provision as president. I could actually run my business, run my business and run government at the same time. I don’t like the way that looks but I would be able to do that if I wanted to. I could run the Trump organization, a great, great company, and I could run the country, but I don’t want to do that.”
Then the direct attack on CNN, his nemesis:
“Your organization is terrible. Your organization is terrible. . . . Quiet . . . quiet . . . don’t be rude . . . Don’t be. . . . No, I’m not going to give you a question . . . I’m not going to give you a question. . . . You are fake news. . . .” And in summation:
“That report first of all should never have been printed because it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. I will tell you that should never ever happen. Twenty two million accounts were hacked by China. That’s because we have no defense, because we’re run by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Russia will have far greater respect for our country when I’m leading it. And not just Russia, China, which has taken total advantage of us. Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, all countries will respect us far more, far more than they do under past administrations. . . .”
Not only did the president-elect wear his deep and bitter grievances on his sleeve, but it was now clear that the fact of having been elected president would not change his unfiltered, apparently uncontrollable, utterly shoot-from-the-hip display of wounds, resentments, and ire. “I think he did a fantastic job,” said Kellyanne Conway after the news conference. “But the media won’t say that. They never will.”
Jared Kushner at thirty-six prided himself on his ability to get along with older men. By the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration he had become the designated intermediary between his father-in-law and the establishment, such as it was—more moderate Republicans, corporate interests, the New York rich. Having a line to Kushner seemed to offer an alarmed elite a handle on a volatile situation.
Several of his father-in-law’s circle of confidants also confided in Kushner— often confiding their worries about their friend, the presidentelect.
“I give him good advice about what he needs to do and for three hours the next day he does it, and then goes hopelessly off script,” complained one of them to Trump’s son-in-law. Kushner, whose pose was to take things in and not give much back, said he understood the frustration.
These powerful figures tried to convey a sense of real-world politics, which they all claimed to comprehend at some significantly higher threshold than the soon-to-be president. They were all concerned that Trump did not understand what he was up against. That there was simply not enough method to his madness.
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