Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

Image of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House
Release Date: 
January 9, 2018
Henry Holt and Co.
Reviewed by: 

“The only thing worse than reading this chilling book is not reading it and thereby failing to fully grasp the depth and degree of America’s descent into madness as it lurches chaotically toward the third decade of the 21st century.”  

Donald Trump’s dysfunctional, dangerous, and deeply unpopular presidency is one of the most bizarre chapters in United States history. Imagine that a seasoned and clever journalist was given access to the inner workings of this wacky White House and permitted to observe its activities like “a fly on the wall,” with “something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing.” Imagine further that this journalist was permitted to be “a constant interloper” who “accepted no rules nor . . . made any promises about what [he] might or might not write.”

As we found out when Michael Wolff’s instant bestseller Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House came out six weeks ago, all that happened last year. Wolff held down that spot for at least the first eight months of Trump’s insane presidency. Along the way, he interviewed hundreds of individuals familiar with Trump within and beyond the White House, including many senior administration staffers.

The result was a book that quickly became an historical event in and of itself—a volume that will certainly make its way into future American history textbooks.

Packed with soul-numbing revelations on nearly every page, Fire and Fury is something of a Rorschach Test indicating what presidential (and not-so presidential) facts matter most (and least) to readers of different persuasions. Liberals and others hoping to find evidence on behalf of impeachment—on grounds of collusion with Russia and/or obstruction of justice and/or the emoluments clause of the Constitution—can find much to their liking in the book.

Impeachment aside, there’s actually more material in Fire and Fury to please those who dream of seeing Trump removed via the Constitution’s 25th Amendment, on grounds of incompetence and unfitness. The book is laden with evidence that Trump is too stupid, ignorant, boorish, narcissistic, and absurdly prideful for the position he incredibly holds.  Here are just two among many remarkable passages on that score:

From October of 2017:

“In early October, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s fate was sealed—if his obvious ambivalence toward the president had not already sealed it—by the revelation that he had called the president ‘a fucking moron’ . . . Everyone, in his or her own way, struggled to express the baldly obvious fact that the president did not know enough, did not know what he didn’t know, did not particularly care, and, to boot, was confident if not serene in his unquestioned certitudes. There was now a fair amount of back-of-the classroom giggling about whom had called Trump what. For Steve Mnuchin and Reince Priebus, he was an ‘idiot.’ For Gary Cohn, he was ‘dumb as shit.’ For H. R. McMaster he was a ‘dope.’ The list went on.”

From after the Inauguration:

“. . . the president, while proposing the most radical departure from governing and policy norms in several generations, had few specific ideas about how to turn his themes and vitriol into policy. . . . It was, said [Deputy Chief of Staff Karen] Walsh, ‘like trying to figure out what a child wants . . .’ . . . And making suggestions to him was deeply complicated. Here, arguably, was the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: He didn’t process information in any conventional sense. He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semi-­literate . . . He was post-literate—total television . . . But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen . . . he trusted his own expertise —no matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. What’s more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention.”

He was often confident, but he was just as often paralyzed, less a savant than a figure of sputtering and dangerous insecurities, whose instinctive response was to lash out and behave as if his gut, however confused, was in fact in some clear and forceful way telling him what to do.

In three pages of Fire and Fury, Wolff pastes in the mind-bogglingly moronic, delusional, and disjointed “speech” Trump gave at the CIA’s headquarters on the first day of his presidency—the one where one where the new president blustered that “we should have kept [Iraq’s] oil” and that “maybe you’ll have another chance” (to get “the oil”).  

Reading this weird rant in its entirety is a disturbing experience. It’s enough to make you cringe (as did most of the CIA agents and managers who heard it) again at the “holy shit!” realization that a man stupid enough to say such things sits in the world’s most powerful position. “In the seconds after [Trump’s CIA monologue] finished,” Wolff notes, “you could hear a pin drop.”

It isn’t just Trump himself that Fire and Fury portrays as hopelessly vile and incompetent. The whole Trump White House is exposed as miserably dysfunctional, internally vicious, and absurdly leak-prone.

Jared Kushner and his wife, the presidential daughter Ivanka Trump, are shown pushing Trump to foolishly fire Comey and to just-as-stupidly hire the malicious whack-job Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director—an appointment that lasted 10 days when “the Mooch” predictably imploded in late July.

Along the way, Kushner and Ivanka run their own media and public relations network to influence the president and counter the media machinations of their arch-enemy Steve Bannon, Trump’s first chief political strategist.

Trump gets regular flattering media updates from his obsequiously deferential staffer Hope Hicks, his de facto daughter (Ivanka being de facto First Lady in the curious absence of Melania Trump). The laughably loyal lapdog Hicks succeeds “the Mooch” in the communications job at the age of 28.

Here it is worth nothing that the Trump White House’s epic incompetence and disorganization is no small part why Wolff got to hide in plain sight in the West Wing in the first place.

Power elite theorists and chroniclers attuned to the dominance of business and military chieftains in the making of U.S. policy can also find grist for their mills in Fire and Fury.

Somewhat inadvertently, the book portrays a first-year White House torn between establishment globalist Wall Street centrists on one hand and revanchist, hard-right renegade capitalists like the hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson on the other hand. 

The Wall Street masters are represented by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, top economic advisor Gary Cohn, and National Security Council appointee Dina Powell, Goldman Sachs veterans all, along with Kushner (an acolyte of the blood-soaked globalist Henry Kissinger, curiously enough) and Ivanka. 

The renegade capitalists provided backing for the China-hating Bannon and his team of proto-fascistic staffers including Stephen Miller, a 32-year old PR hack who became Trump’s “political strategist” after Bannon engineered his own removal (by leaking to the crusty liberal commentator Bob Kuttner) in August.

Trump is himself a billionaire. By Wolff’s account, he spends hours each day seeking advice from, and complaining to, a small “club” of other right-wing moguls. The president holds the opinions of the super-rich in special high regard, consistent with his belief that the possession of a fortune marks a man as “really smart.”  

Ultimately, though, the main thing portrayed in Fire and Fury is an off-the-rails administration driven by the image-, media,- and attention-addicted narcissism and relentless prideful stupidity of a man-child president whose sole allegiance is to himself and to the defeat of those who fail to understand how great he is.

Wolff sounds concerned about the constant media spectacle that is the Insane Trump Clown Show. Ironically enough, however, Fire and Fury itself quickly became a major chapter in the seemingly interminable Trump freak-show.

Looking back on the period covered in Fire and Fury (mainly November 2016–October 2017) now seven weeks after Trump and the Republican Congress pleased his billionaire friends by passing an arch-regressive Christmas-season tax cut for the wealthy corporate and financial Few in a country where the top tenth of the upper 1 Percent already possessed as much net worth as the bottom 90 percent, it strikes one that Wolff missed the key point about the Trump circus. As the left commentator CHris Hedges recently argues on Truthdig:

“The problem with Donald Trump is not that he is imbecilic and inept—it is that he has surrendered total power to the oligarchic and military elites. They get what they want. They do what they want . . . Trump, who has no inclination or ability to govern, has handed the machinery of government over to the bankers, corporate executives, right-wing think tanks, intelligence chiefs and generals. They are eradicating the few regulations and laws that inhibited a naked kleptocracy. They are dynamiting the institutions, including the State Department, that served interests other than corporate profit and are stacking the courts with right-wing, corporate-controlled ideologues. Trump provides the daily entertainment; the elites handle the business of looting, exploiting and destroying . . . He is useful to those who hold real power in the corporate state, however much they would like to domesticate him.

Trump’s bizarre ramblings and behavior . . . serve a useful purpose. They are a colorful diversion from the razing of democratic institutions. As cable news networks feed us stories of his trysts with a porn actress and outlandish tweets, the real work of the elites is being carried out largely away from public view. The courts are stacked with Federalist Society judges, the fossil fuel industry is plundering public lands and the coastlines and ripping up regulations that protected us from its poisons, and the Pentagon, given carte blanche, is engaged in an orgy of militarism with a trillion-dollar-a-year budget and about 800 military bases in scores of countries around the world.”

Another problem with Fire and Fury is that the book’s shocking depiction of just how truly terrible Trump is tends to fuel the same lazy, Lesser-Evilist “Anyone but Trump” approach that helped “Boss Tweet” defeat the noxious neoliberal Hillary Clinton—and that encourages the dismal, dollar-drenched Democrats to run yet another depressing Wall Street- and Pentagon-captive presidential candidate whose underlying loyalty to the nation’s economic and military rulers yields yet another terrible Republican presidency in, say, 2021 or 2025.  

Reading Wolff’s book, one is left with the strange sense that America and the world may have dodged a bullet of sorts with the oafish and venal Trump. An oafish plutocrat desperate to be liked, Trump lacks the moral and intellectual rigor, self-control, and fierce ideological conviction required to be the charismatic and iron-willed fascist that the sinister Steve Bannon would like to have installed at the head of a New American Reich. Trump is too venal, cloddish, and childishly egoistic to play that role.  

However terrible and right-wing the Trump presidency may have been so far, we can at least be thankful for that. We may not be so lucky the next time the deplorable corporate and imperial Democrats—the nation’s “Inauthentic Opposition Party” (to use a phrase from the late Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin)—hands the White House over yet again to the ever more apocalyptic, eco-cidal, and openly racist white-nationalist Republican Party.

Criticisms aside, Fire and Fury is certain to be consulted and pored over by journalists, investigators, historians, political scientists, and many others for many weeks and years to come. The only thing worse than reading this chilling book is not reading it and thereby failing to fully grasp the depth and degree of America’s descent into madness as it lurches chaotically toward the third decade of the 21st century.