Michael Wolff: I don't contact people for comment when I know what their answers will be

Part of me grimly admires this guy’s willingness to say out loud things that the least ethical members of his profession believe but publicly disclaim. He’s surely not the only “journalist” in America who thinks, “If it rings true, it is true.” But he may be the only one willing to cop to it.

In that sense, he’s the perfect foil for Trump. He really tells it like it is. In a way.

Another part of me, though, thinks maybe we’ve given Trump’s idea about tightening libel laws short shrift. Maybe people who believe “If it rings true, it is true” shouldn’t get quite the same benefit of the doubt on actual malice as everyone else does.

Here’s the NYT pressing Wolff on whether his new Trump book, “Siege,” was fact-checked. It was, says Wolff — although in some cases he didn’t bother trying to contact people who’d have firsthand knowledge about an embarrassing incident, including Trump himself. They’d only deny it, he notes, so what would be the point?

It’s a distinction between journalists who are institutionally wedded and those who are not. I’m not. You make those pro forma calls to protect yourself, to protect the institution. It’s what the institution demands. I’m talking about those calls where you absolutely know what the response is going to be. They put you in the position in which you’re potentially having to negotiate what you know. In some curious way, that’s what much journalism is about. It’s about a negotiated truth.

For someone else, a book writer, I don’t have to do that. When I know something is true, I don’t have to go back and establish some kind of middle ground with whoever I’m writing about, which will allow me at some point to go back to them…

As a journalist — or as a writer — my obligation is to come as close to the truth as I possibly can. And that’s not as close to someone else’s truth, but the truth as I see it. Remember, it’s a difference between a book and something else — you don’t have to read my book, you don’t have to agree with my book. But at the end of the day, what you are going to know is that it is my book. It is my vision. It is my report on my experience. It’s not put together by a committee. What you do is a committee project at some point. What I do is not. And I’m not saying one is better than the other, they’re just different functions.

He’s not so much giving you “the” truth as “his” truth, take it or leave it. The Times asked him about one specific claim in “Siege” in which he quotes a former sound engineer on “The Apprentice” who allegedly saw Trump engage in sexual misconduct with several women. Wolff didn’t ask Trump for comment — and didn’t speak to the women either, apparently, a policy that would get you fired from a high-school newspaper, tweeted one reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Suddenly it becomes clear how that dubious insinuation about Trump and Nikki Haley having a fling on his plane ended up in “Fire and Fury.” Per the logic articulated by Wolff in this passage, why would he strain to debunk a juicy, book-selling anecdote by reaching out to the parties involved for comment?

In a way, the more outlandish the allegation is, the less need there is to contact the subject of the allegation. After all, an outlandish allegation is more likely to be denied. And if you know it’ll be denied, why bother placing the call?

He’s right that sources accused of misbehavior will naturally deny it when asked — in that sense their comments really are predictable — but of course it’s not true that every denial will be pro forma. What if he’d contacted the White House about the sound engineer’s accusation and Trump knew that the sound engineer had an axe to grind for whatever reason? He might have had personal knowledge of the source’s credibility that Wolff couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Likewise, what if Wolff had arranged a meeting with Mueller’s spokesman before the book came out to discuss that mysterious “draft indictment” of Trump that the special counsel had supposedly prepared? Team Mueller might have recognized the document and been able to explain what it actually was. Or perhaps they’d have recognized it as a forgery and been able to show Wolff why.

Wolff seems to dismiss that sort of scenario in the excerpt as a “negotiated truth” when what it really is is an informed source debunking a claim that’s too good to check. Which is what he’s really afraid of, of course: If you’re selling a book and you have a document in hand that looks to you like an explosive “draft indictment” of the president, wouldn’t you rather not know if the truth about that document is much less sensational than it appears? Yes, if you’re trying to get rich off of book sales. No, if you’re trying to tell the truth. Rather than “your” truth.

Speaking of Wolff, there’s one source of his who continues to provide juicy content, although the evidence in his case looks to be as thin as it is everywhere else:

Assessing the president’s exposure to various investigations, many seeded by the special counsel Robert Mueller during his investigation of Russian election interference, Wolff writes: “Trump was vulnerable because for 40 years he had run what increasingly seemed to resemble a semi-criminal enterprise.”

He then quotes [Steve] Bannon as saying: “I think we can drop the ‘semi’ part.”

In Siege, Wolff quotes Bannon saying investigations into Trump’s finances will cut adrift even his most ardent supporters: “This is where it isn’t a witch hunt – even for the hard core, this is where he turns into just a crooked business guy, and one worth $50m instead of $10bn.

“Not the billionaire he said he was, just another scumbag.”

I thought there had been a thaw between Trump and Bannon after POTUS turned on him over “Fire and Fury” and excommunicated him from MAGA Nation. Apparently not! No wonder Bannon’s spending so much time abroad nowadays. What he says about Trump’s mysterious finances explains some of the Democratic hesitancy in moving forward with impeachment, though. Pelosi gets only one shot at this and no one thinks an impeachment push over Russiagate will do much damage to Trump given Mueller’s findings on collusion. To impeach him for obstruction stemming from that would be a fool’s errand. If they’re going to squeeze a political victory out of impeachment, they’ll need to wait for some new revelation about Trump to semi-scandalize the public. If Bannon’s right that there’s evidence that he’s a “crooked business guy,” that’ll be it.

In lieu of an exit question, read this brutal review of “Siege” in WaPo by Ryan Lizza, another reporter left unimpressed by “sourcing that is so opaque it renders the extremely fun and juicy quotes sprinkled across every chapter as — sadly — difficult to trust.”