Analysis: Bestselling book on chaos of Trump’s first year is itself the product of that dysfunction

Copies of "Fire and Fury" are stacked Friday at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington.
(Shawn Thew / EPA/Shutterstock)

Donald Trump has this much in common with Barack Obama: Both presidents’ first years spawned books that chronicled crises. Obama’s crisis, however, was inherited. Trump’s has been largely self-made.

Trump even provided the alliterative title — “Fire and Fury” — for the book that has roiled Washington and the nation. Michael Wolff lifted the phrase from a particularly memorable statement in which Trump seemed to threaten North Korea with nuclear annihilation.

Metaphorically, it fits the warring and chaos within the White House which Wolff recounts.

After two days of appetite-whetting excerpts and nonstop cable TV coverage, the book was released Friday morning — rushed into stores by publisher Henry Holt & Co., in defiance of a “cease and desist” letter from Trump’s lawyers that only stoked book-buyers’ interest. In Washington, it promptly sold out.


The 322 pages don’t provide a lot of “new” news — the picture of mayhem is mostly familiar to readers who have followed the daily reporting of White House correspondents. Some of what is new strains credulity.

Yet Wolff’s work carries a punch, the result of the power that comes from tying together in one place the dizzying events of Trump’s initial year plus his ability to write — as his subtitle proclaims — that his account comes from “Inside the Trump White House.”

Wolff offers anecdote upon anecdote, quote upon quote, to buttress his theme, but one of the strongest pieces of evidence of political incompetence in the West Wing is the simple fact that he was there. No other White House in memory would have allowed an author of Wolff’s high-flying reputation to have such extensive and unrestrained access.

The Trump White House, and Trump, have been quick to counterattack, impugning Wolff’s credibility (much as Bill and Hillary Clinton sicced lieutenants on unflattering authors).

In tweets, Trump derided the book as “phony” and “full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist.” He falsely claimed he’d not spoken to Wolff. The Republican National Committee circulated past criticisms of Wolff by other journalists, in an email with the headline “Liar and Phony” (in a font mimicking “Fire and Fury” on the book cover).

Yet for all the perceived flaws in Wolff’s reporting — notably a much-disputed anecdote in which Trump asks “Who’s that?” about former House Speaker John A. Boehner — significant parts of the book have been corroborated.

Worse for Trump, his own record of repeated false statements on matters large and small has robbed his denials of much strength.

“My credibility is being questioned by a man who has less credibility than, perhaps, anyone who has ever walked on Earth at this point,” Wolff said Friday on NBC’s “Today.”

Little in the book has been refuted; the White House, asked for specific errors, cited only the Boehner passage. Wolff’s main source, Stephen K. Bannon, headed Trump’s campaign in its final months, was chief strategist in the White House until his firing in August and, even after, remained an architect of Trump’s nationalist agenda.

Bannon’s role as source and enabler for Wolff has outraged Trump, who said in a statement that Bannon had “lost his mind.” If Bannon is not dead to the president, the disheveled insurgent at a minimum has been reduced to the kind of sophomoric Twitter nickname the president likes to bestow on foes: “Sloppy Steve.”

Other advisors are quoted as well, however. Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, tells of Trump’s eyes glazing over as Nunberg attempted to give him a tutorial on the Constitution.

Former deputy White House chief of staff Katie Walsh, who ultimately quit, grouses of her exasperation at fielding competing directives from a trio of West Wing rivals: Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (also now gone) and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.

The pre-publication excerpts caught many of the book’s highlights. Trump didn’t expect to be elected, Wolff wrote; he thought he’d parlay his greater fame into something else, perhaps a “Trump Network,” as former Fox News chief Roger Ailes, now dead, suggested. On election night, as it became clear Trump might win, Melania Trump was near tears — “and not of joy,” he wrote. (Her office issued a statement insisting she had been happy with the result.)

Perhaps most troublesome for Trump is Bannon’s condemnation of the meeting that Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had at Trump Tower, in June 2016, with Russians said to have incriminating information about Hillary Clinton.

“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad sh-t, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately,” Bannon said, a line that severely undermines Trump’s longtime contention that talk of a Russia-Trump connection is a Democratic “hoax.”

Bannon is also quoted contradicting Trump and his lawyers’ predictions that the probe led by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, will wrap up quickly and satisfactorily.

“This is all about money laundering,” Bannon says, adding that the path to Trump “goes right through” Manafort — who has been indicted — as well as through Trump’s son and son-in-law.

Perhaps most damaging — both to Trump’s ego and his reputation with the public — are the vivid and repeated accounts of contempt for Trump from those around him.

Some of those remarks unspooled in front of the author. Wolff hosted a small post-election dinner at his apartment in Manhattan spiced with banter from Bannon and Ailes belittling Trump. At one point, he recounts Ailes advising Bannon: “I wouldn’t give Donald too much to think about.”

For other remarks, Wolff leaves his sourcing ambiguous. It’s unclear, for example, how he claims to know that after a nighttime telephone call with Trump, publishing baron Rupert Murdoch, exasperated by Trump’s ignorance, exclaimed upon hanging up, “What a f---ing idiot.”

He similarly leaves a reader to guess who told him that Priebus and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin called Trump an “idiot,” that economic advisor Gary Cohn said Trump was “dumb as sh-t,” or that national security advisor H.R. McMaster called him a “dope.”

Whatever the flaws, however, the White House is right to fear that this book will do damage.

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, referring to Trump, recently told The Times, “the sense of chaos, the constant fight, fight, fight and alarm bells going off all the time” has so vexed voters that it helped elect Democrat Doug Jones, Trippi’s client, to a Senate seat in Alabama long held by Republicans.

“There’s this sense of being on edge,” Trippi said, that most voters “don’t want anymore.”

Wolff’s book is a reminder of what made them edgy to date, and why more likely lies ahead.