(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.
Trump, despite his disappointment at Washington’s failure to properly greet and celebrate him, was, like a good salesman, an optimist. Salesmen, whose primary characteristic and main asset is their ability to keep selling, constantly recast the world in positive terms. Discouragement for everyone else is merely the need to improve reality for them.
By the next morning, Trump was soliciting affirmation of his view that the inauguration had been a great success. “That crowd went all the way back. That was more than a million people at least, right?” He made a series of phone calls to friends who largely yes’d him on this. Kushner confirmed a big crowd. Conway did nothing to dissuade him. Priebus agreed. Bannon made a joke. Among Trump’s first moves as president was to have a series of inspirational photographs in the West Wing replaced with images of big crowd scenes at his inaugural ceremony.
Bannon had come to rationalize Trump’s reality distortions. Trump’s hyperbole, exaggerations, flights of fancy, improvisations, and general freedom toward and mangling of the facts, were products of the basic lack of guile, pretense, and impulse control that helped create the immediacy and spontaneity that was so successful with so many on the stump—while so horrifying to so many others. For Bannon, Obama was the north star of aloofness. “Politics,” said Bannon with an authority that belayed the fact that until the previous August he had never worked in politics, “is a more immediate game than he ever played it.” Trump was, for Bannon, a modern-day William Jennings Bryan. (Bannon had long talked about the need for a new Williams Jennings Bryan in right-wing politics, with friends assuming Bannon meant himself.) At the turn of the twentieth century, Bryan had enthralled rural audiences with his ability to speak passionately and extemporaneously for apparently unlimited periods of time. Trump compensated—in the theory of some intimates, including Bannon—for his difficulties with reading, writing, and close focus with an improvisational style that produced, if not exactly a William Jennings Bryan effect, certainly close to the exact opposite of the Obama effect. It was part hortatory, part personal testimony, part barstool blow-hard, a rambling, disjointed, digressive, what-me-worry approach that combined aspects of cable television rage, big-tent religious revivalism, Borscht Belt tummler, motivational speaking, and YouTube vlogging. Charisma in American politics had come to define an order of charm, wit, and style—a coolness. But another sort of American charisma was more in the Christian evangelical vein, an emotional, experiential spectacle.
The Trump campaign had built its central strategy around great rallies regularly attracting tens of thousands, a political phenomenon that the
Democrats both failed to heed and saw as a sign of Trump’s limited appeal. For the Trump team, this style, this unmediated connection—his speeches, his tweets, his spontaneous phone calls to radio and television shows, and, often, to anyone who would listen—was revelatory, a new, personal, and inspirational politics. For the other side, it was clownishness that, at best, aspired to the kind of raw, authoritarian demagoguery that had long been discredited by and assigned to history and that, when it appeared in American politics, reliably failed.
While the advantages of this style for the Trump team were now very clear, the problem was that it often—in fact regularly—produced assertions that were not remotely true.
This had led increasingly to the two-different-realities theory of Trump politics. In the one reality, which encompassed most of Trump’s supporters, his nature was understood and appreciated. He was the anti-wonk. He was the counter expert. His was the gut call. He was the everyman. He was jazz (some, in the telling, made it rap), everybody else an earnest folk music. In the other reality, in which resided most of his antagonists, his virtues were grievous if not mental and criminal flaws. In this reality lived the media, which, with its conclusion of a misbegotten and bastard presidency, believed it could diminish him and wound him (and wind him up) and rob him of all credibility by relentlessly pointing out how literally wrong he was.
The media, adopting a “shocked, shocked” morality, could not fathom how being factually wrong was not an absolute ending in itself. How could this not utterly shame him? How could his staff defend him? The facts were the facts!
Defying them, or ignoring them, or subverting them, made you a liar—intending to deceive, bearing false witness. (A minor journalism controversy broke out about whether these untruths should be called inaccuracies or lies.)
In Bannon’s view: (1) Trump was never going to change; (2) trying to get him to change would surely cramp his style; (3) it didn’t matter to Trump supporters; (4) the media wasn’t going to like him anyway; (5) it was better to play against the media than to the media; (6) the media’s claim to be the protector of factual probity and accuracy was itself a sham; (7) the Trump revolution was an attack on conventional assumptions and expertise, so better to embrace Trump’s behavior than try to curb it or cure it.
The problem was that, for all he was never going to stick to a script (“his mind just doesn’t work that way” was one of the internal rationalizations),
Trump craved media approval. But, as Bannon emphasized, he was never going to get the facts right, nor was he ever going to acknowledge that he got them wrong, so therefore he was not going to get that approval. This meant, next best thing that he had to be aggressively defended against the media’s disapproval.
The problem here was that the more vociferous the defense—mostly of assertions that could easily be proved wrong—the more the media redoubled its attacks and censure. What’s more, Trump was receiving the censure of his friends, too. And it was not only calls from friends worried about him, but staffers calling people to call him and say Simmer down. “Who do you have in there?” said Joe Scarborough in a frantic call. “Who’s the person you trust?
Jared? Who can talk you through this stuff before you decided to act on it?”
“Well,” said the president, “you won’t like the answer, but the answer is me.
Me. I talk to myself.” Hence, within twenty-four hours of the inauguration, the president had invented a million or so people who did not exist. He sent his new press secretary, Sean Spicer—whose personal mantra would shortly become “You can’t make this shit up”—to argue his case in a media moment that turned Spicer, quite a buttoned-down political professional, into a national joke, which he seemed, destined to never recover from. To boot, the president blamed Spicer for not making the million phantom souls seem real.
It was the first presidential instance of what the campaign regulars had learned over many months: on the most basic level, Trump just did not, as Spicer later put it, give a fuck. You could tell him whatever you wanted, but he knew what he knew, and if what you said contradicted what he knew, he simply didn’t believe you.
The next day Kellyanne Conway, her aggressive posture during the campaign turning more and more to petulance and self-pity, asserted the new president’s right to claim “alternative facts.” As it happened, Conway meant to say “alternative information,” which at least would imply there might be additional data. But as uttered, it certainly sounded like the new administration was claiming the right to recast reality. Which, in a sense, it was. Although, in Conway’s view, it was the media doing the recasting, making a mountain (hence “fake news”) out of a molehill (an honest minor exaggeration, albeit of vast proportions).
Anyway, the frequently asked question about whether Trump would continue his unsupervised and often inexplicable tweets now that he was officially in the White House and the president of the United States—a question as hotly asked inside the White House as out—was answered: he would. This was his fundamental innovation in governing: regular, uncontrolled bursts of anger and spleen.
The president’s immediate official business, however, was to make nice with the CIA. On Saturday, January 21, in an event organized by Kushner, the president, in his first presidential act, paid a call on Langley to, in Bannon’s hopeful description, “play some politics.” In carefully prepared remarks in his first act as president, he would lay some of the famous Trump flattery on the CIA and the rest of the sprawling, and leaking, U.S. intelligence world.
Not taking off his dark overcoat, lending him quite a hulking gangster look, pacing in front of the CIA’s wall of stars for its fallen agents, in front of a crowd of about three hundred agency personnel and a group of White House staffers, and, suddenly, in a mood of sleepless cockiness and pleasure at having a captive crowd, the new president, disregarding his text, launched into what we could confidently call some of the most peculiar remarks ever delivered by an American president.
“I know a lot about West Point, I’m a person who very strongly believes in academics. Every time I say I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT for 35 years, who did a fantastic job in so many ways academically—he was an academic genius—and then they say, Is Donald Trump an intellectual? Trust me, I’m like a smart person.” Which was all somehow by way of praise for the new, soon-to-be-confirmed CIA director, Mike Pompeo, who had attended West Point and who Trump had brought with him to stand in the crowd—and who now found himself as bewildered as everyone else.
“You know when I was young. Of course I feel young—I feel like I was 30 ..
. 35 . . . 39 . . . . Somebody said, Are you young? I said, I think I’m young. I was stopping in the final months of the campaign, four stops, five stops, seven stops
—speeches, speeches in front of twenty-five, thirty thousand people . . . fifteen, nineteen thousand. I feel young—I think we’re all so young. When I was young we were always winning things in this country. We’d win with trade, we’d win with wars—at a certain age I remembering hearing from one of my instructors, the United States has never lost a war. And then, after that, it’s like we haven’t won anything. You know the old expression, to the victor belongs the spoils? You remember I always say, keep the oil.”
“Who should keep the oil?” asked a bewildered CIA employee, leaning over
to a colleague in the back of the room.
“I wasn’t a fan of Iraq, I didn’t want to go into Iraq. But I will tell you when we were in we got out wrong and I always said in addition to that keep the oil. Now I said it for economic reasons, but if you think about it, Mike”—he called out across the room, addressing the soon-to-be director—“if we kept the oil we wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place, so that’s why we should have kept the oil. But okay—maybe you’ll have another chance—but the fact is we should have kept the oil.” The president paused and smiled with evident satisfaction.
“The reason you are my first stop, as you know I have a running war with the media, they are among the most dishonest human beings on earth, and they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community and I just want to let you know the reason you’re the number one stop is exactly the opposite, exactly, and they understand that. I was explaining about the numbers. We did, we did a thing yesterday at the speech. Did everybody like the speech?
You had to like it. But we had a massive field of people. You saw them. Packed. I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field and I say, Wait a minute, I made a speech. I looked out—the field was—it looked like a million, million and half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there. And they said Donald Trump did not draw well and I said it was almost raining, the rain should have scared them away, but God looked down and said we’re not going to let it rain on your speech and in fact when I first started I said, Oooh no, first line I got hit by a couple of drops, and I said, Oh this is too bad, but we’ll go right through it, the truth is it stopped immediately. . . .”
“No, it didn’t,” one of the staffers traveling with him said reflexively, then catching herself and, with a worried look, glancing around to see if she had been overheard.
“. . . and then it became really sunny and I walked off and it poured right after
I left. It poured but we have something amazing because—honestly it looked
like a million, million and a half people, whatever it was it was, but it went all the way back to the Washington Monument and by mistake I get this network and it showed an empty field and it said we drew two hundred fifty thousand people. Now that’s not bad, but it’s a lie. . . . And we had another one yesterday which was interesting. In the Oval Office there’s a beautiful statue of Dr. Martin
Luther King and I also happen to like Churchill—Winston Churchill—I think most of us like Churchill, doesn’t come from our country but had a lot to do with it, helped us, real ally, and as you know the Churchill statue was taken out. . . . So a reporter for Time magazine and I have been on the cover like fourteen or fifteen times. I think I have the all-time record in the history of Time magazine. Like if Tom Brady is on the cover it’s one time because he won the Super Bowl or something. I’ve been on fifteen times this year. I don’t think, Mike, that’s a record that can ever be broken, do you agree with that . . . . What do you think?”
“No,” said Pompeo in a stricken voice.
“But I will say that they said it was very interesting that ‘Donald Trump took down the bust, the statue, of Dr. Martin Luther King,’ and it was right there, there was a cameraman that was in front of it. So Zeke . . . Zeke . . . from Time magazine . . . writes a story that I took it down. I would never do that. I have great respect for Dr. Martin Luther King. But this is how dishonest the media is. Now big story, but the retraction was like this”—he indicated ever-so-small with his fingers. “Is it a line or do they even bother putting it in? I only like to say I love honesty, I like honest reporting. I will tell you, final time, although I will say it when you let in your thousands of other people who have been trying to come in, because I am coming back, we may have to get you a larger room, we may have to get you a larger room and maybe, maybe, it will be built by somebody that knows how to build and we won’t have columns. You understand that? We get rid of the columns, but you know I just wanted to say that I love you, I respect you, there’s nobody I respect more. You do a fantastic job and we’re going to start winning again, and you’re going to be leading the charge, so thank you all very much.”
In a continuing sign of Trump’s Rashomon effect—his speeches inspiring joy or horror—witnesses would describe his reception at the CIA as either a Beatleslike emotional outpouring or a response so confounded and appalled that, in the seconds after he finished, you could hear a pin drop.
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