Michael Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury – Inside The Trump White House,’ perhaps not as read-worthy as classics like Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations or the Federalist Papers, is certainly a handy manual that provides insights into Trump and the White House operations.
While some of it seems difficult to corroborate (the author has soft pedaled on some details in news interviews), there are useful nuggets that fill out the missing gaps in some otherwise inexplicable stories or occurrences in the Trump White House.
While Trump and his aides have dismissed the author’s account as total hogwash and a bunch of baloney, some reverse engineering on part of the readers might salvage the credibility of the book and fill out those missing gaps in Trump’s actions that bewildered some of his ardent supporters, including myself.
The book trended the The New York Times Bestseller’s list at the numerouno position, with the Economist, in all its wisdom, revering the book as a ‘significant achievement.’ The book is retailing on Amazon between $4.42 and $18.65, depending on the format.
Despite being an accomplished and felicitated writer and columnist, at least judging by the list of his previous work, the book is fraught with elementary errors of the grammatical, syntactical, and typographical kinds. It is as if the editorial team rushed through the book, merely skimming over than giving it a thorough read.
Then, there are tenuous transitions that make comprehension difficult. A notable example of this is the several instances where an attempt to transition from a narrative around one of the characters’ thoughts or feelings to the author’s personal opinions is hazy at best, leaving the readers scratching their heads.
Critique aside, here is an overview of the book.
The story opens on a solemn note, depicting a dinner meeting between Trump confidants – Stephen K. Bannon and Roger Ailes. The author’s depiction is vivid and breathes life into the text.
Ailes is a Trump admirer and supporter, and the founder of Fox News – America’s right-wing news outlet. Bannon, on the other hand, is more of a borderline radical, piggybacking on some right wing values to beam his populist, economic nationalist (read ethno-nationalist) message out of the White House.
The book is arranged in chapters as if it were a handbook or a user manual to better understand the workings and the idiosyncrasies of Trump presidency.
The first chapter paints a detailed picture of Trump’s campaign. The revelation, if true, about the lack of optimism around winning and the pallid vibe in his campaign is confounding,given Trump’s show of bravado post his victory. What’s more perplexing is that even the business mogul himself has been reported to be gloomy about the outcome of the election.
The chapter also provides a primer on the ill effects of not carefully vetting the men and women who will be running the campaign.
The following chapter describes in detail, and with verifiable accuracy borne out of empirical observation, Trump’s psyche. The soon-to-be-established trend of flip-flopping on policy positions can be traced to Trump’s mental conditioning, driven primarily by shock value and showbiz.
Trump’s inauguration speech debacle and behind-the-scenes scoops are really a prelude to the dysfunction that was about to ensue.
The author wisely spent an entire chapter character-sketching Stephen K. Bannon. Despite my personal dislike for many of Bannon’s viewpoints, I found his life journey relatable. This chapter has the potential to make this much disliked character a tad bit likeable, although, only for the length of the chapter.
In the following two chapters, the author describes extensively two of the most incompetent and unqualified people in the White House and the insecure and fragile ego of the braggart commander-in-chief.
Jarvanka – a clever amalgam of the names Jared and Ivanka – the two out-of-place, liberal democrats in an otherwise right wing administration seem to not only be causing the administration to send our mixed messages, but they are also responsible for diluting out the right-wing-ness of Trump’s administration. Not to mention, their unrestricted access to the president and the familial bond raises a range of ethical issues.
The administration has split up into three verticals – the liberal democrat camp (Jarvanka et al.), the loathed establishment lackeys (Walsh, Conway, Priebus et al.), and the populist lone ranger (Bannon). Each vertical has its own agenda and motives and wants to exert maximum influence on the president, who is ideologically rudderless, to have it their way.
In the one of the subsequent chapters, the author narratesJarvanka’s growing clout over Trump and Bannon’s isolation. The climax of this transition is marked by Trump’s ‘tempered’ speech to the joint session of Congress, drafted by Ivanka, which set off the political pugilist within Bannon.
The Trump administration is marred by mismanagement – both of structured and unstructured matters. This is well portrayed in the author’s description of the inept handling of the revelations of the Steele Dossier and the careless shepherding of the Republican healthcare bill. Frustration with entrenched mismanagement causes Katie Walsh – one of the few aides with political experience and deft – to resign.
One of the juiciest scoops in the book is the author’s characterization of Trump’s relationship with media, which can best be described as an old-fashioned arranged marriage – ‘can’t live with them; can’t live without them.’ Trump is an optics-focused individual, for whom face value matters more than substance. Thus, despite disliking and pilloring the media, he makes sure that he has the best staff that would airbrush his perception in the media.
Trump’s gravest error in judgment is his dismal of James Comey. The recklessness can be imputed to the president’s lack of situational awareness. For him, standing up to the bureaucracy, at any cost, is paramount, and he expects lavish praise in return. Only Bannon has the foresight of what was coming. This not only shows Trump’s shortcomings, but it once again highlights the lack of protocol screening that was rife in the administration. Small wonder then that the author dedicated an entire chapter – named after the then fired director of the FBI – to depict the above.
The Russia investigation also presents an opportunity for Steve Bannon to get off the sidelines and jump into the fray in an attempt to gain visibility.
The chapter on foreign policy – “ Abroad and At Home” – although informative, is a cumbersome read, where the author seems to ramble on.
The last few chapters are dedicated to depicting the dynamics between H. R. McMaster and Anthony Scaramucci – the firebrand successor to Sean Spicer, and the ushering in of John Kelly as Chief of Staff and the consequent, long overdue imposition of discipline and protocol in the Trump White House. Scaramucci is unceremoniously fired and Bannon is hustled out.
The Epilogue describes the state of affairs in a White House with some semblance of discipline, thanks to the entry of John Kelly. But with Bannon cast away and most establishment aides out, the White House was playing the tempered Jarvanka drumbeat – a tune different from the shrill cry of the campaign trail.
Bannon, on the other hand, not disheartened by his exit, at least visibly, is hatching a plan to purge the Republican Party and cast his net on orchestrating local politics in the US.
The book is a juicy read varying in tone and effect from an exposé to an analysis to a gossip column. While some accounts bear questionable veracity, some other parts, no matter how unbelievable, can be corroborated, in hindsight, using empirical evidence.
It is clear that the author is no Trump fan (this doesn’t reflexively imply that he is a ‘never-Trumper’). Two things are clear in the author’s chronicling – the Trump White House is one of the most media transparent White Houses in living memory and that the Russia collusion theory might just be all smoke and no fire.
This book is a must read for political junkies, analysts, budding commentators, and just about anyone who has been piqued by the Trump movement.