Alternative headline: LBJ was right. Michael Wolff conducted over 200 interviews for his new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House and enjoyed unprecedented West Wing access, but this excerpt published by New York Magazine has a certain sour-grapes aftertaste as well as an inner-circle perspective that narrows down the sources for this particular anecdote to just a few suspects. Johnson’s famous observation about keeping people inside the tent and the direction of urination arises immediately upon reading this, and might just be the subtext of the whole book.
In this chapter, Wolff explains that no one appeared more surprised to actually win the election than Donald Trump and that inner circle. The chaos of the first months of the Trump transition and presidency directly spring from a total lack of preparation for victory, Wolff claims:
Most presidential candidates spend their entire careers, if not their lives from adolescence, preparing for the role. They rise up the ladder of elected offices, perfect a public face, and prepare themselves to win and to govern. The Trump calculation, quite a conscious one, was different. The candidate and his top lieutenants believed they could get all the benefits of almost becoming president without having to change their behavior or their worldview one whit. Almost everybody on the Trump team, in fact, came with the kind of messy conflicts bound to bite a president once he was in office. Michael Flynn, the retired general who served as Trump’s opening act at campaign rallies, had been told by his friends that it had not been a good idea to take $45,000 from the Russians for a speech. “Well, it would only be a problem if we won,” Flynn assured them.
Not only did Trump disregard the potential conflicts of his own business deals and real-estate holdings, he audaciously refused to release his tax returns. Why should he? Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and a martyr to Crooked Hillary. His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would be international celebrities. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the tea-party movement. Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star. Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching. Losing would work out for everybody. Losing was winning.
Shortly after 8 p.m. on Election Night, when the unexpected trend—Trump might actually win—seemed confirmed, Don Jr. told a friend that his father, or DJT, as he calls him, looked as if he had seen a ghost. Melania was in tears—and not of joy.
There was, in the space of little more than an hour, in Steve Bannon’s not unamused observation, a befuddled Trump morphing into a disbelieving Trump and then into a horrified Trump. But still to come was the final transformation: Suddenly, Donald Trump became a man who believed that he deserved to be, and was wholly capable of being, the president of the United States.
Er … perhaps. This analysis lacks solid evidence to back up its theory of ego-driven lark. As Nate Silver pointed out on Twitter, it’s just as easy to conclude that Trump and his team had absorbed the conventional wisdom coming into Election Night, which is that Hillary Clinton had campaigned competently enough to beat Trump’s inexperienced and less-than-competent campaign. They certainly wouldn’t have been alone in assuming that they didn’t need to prepare a transition, and Trump certainly could have seen the 2016 campaign as a win-win regardless of the outcome without actively wishing for defeat. This take seems like a stretch, especially considering the time and resources expended by Trump.
It’s also not quite an accurate picture of the race:
The excerpt also misleadingly claims that Trump was down by 12 points in August. That's only true if you cherry-pick outlier polls; Clinton's lead peaked at more like 6-7 points in the polling average.
Might seem like a small thing but a sign the book plays a bit fast and loose. pic.twitter.com/XVr44JpCTf
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) January 3, 2018
It plays fast and loose in other ways, too. Wolff reports uncritically that Trump didn’t know who John Boehner was:
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) January 3, 2018
Joe Concha calls shenanigans on that claim and excoriates reporters for repeating it:
For every media member giddy over the story around Trump, an avid Fox News watcher, not knowing who John Boehner was, here's a pro tip: They have search engines for Twitter and stuff to at least attempt to scrutinize the claim. Here's 7 examples alone: https://t.co/NGc3ZQdREA
— Joe Concha (@JoeConchaTV) January 3, 2018
By the afternoon, the White House offered an official response that castigated the author for recklessness:
White House: “This book is filled with false and misleading accounts from individuals who have no access or influence … Participating in a book that can only be described as trashy tabloid fiction exposes their sad desperate attempts at relevancy.” https://t.co/PGCu6ymNBw
— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 3, 2018
By the way, it’s not the first time that a “really intended to lose” electoral scenario has been suggested. Rumors in Minnesota had Jesse Ventura throwing up on the night he won the 1998 governor’s race out of fright. Ventura explained later that he’d used up a bottle of Dom Perignon in the celebration and felt hung over the next morning, but that he was surprised by the outcome. And there were plenty of people who pointed out the parallels between the Ventura and Trump campaigns even before the general election, including me. But Ventura was playing to win in the same no-lose scenario in 1998, just as Trump almost certainly did in 2016.
That’s hardly the only unflattering portrayal in this excerpt. For instance, Wolff includes this portrayal of Trump that suggests he spends most of his day listening to his own voice and the reactions to it, with barely any curiosity at all about his job and responsibilities. This portrait comes not from Steve Bannon, as was the case with the earlier report from Wolff’s book, but mainly from former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh — on the record:
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 trusted his own expertise—no matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. 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. It was, said Walsh, “like trying to figure out what a child wants.”
That certainly fits with the media’s post-primary portrait of Trump, and it’s tough to dispute that it feels like an accurate description in that context. One has to wonder, however, how this jibes with someone who has managed to build a massive personal fortune in both real estate and entertainment, especially given the intensely personal structure of his businesses. Either Trump would have to be the luckiest man in the world or this would be an incomplete picture at best.
Walsh, however, came over from the RNC after the election, which makes her an unlikely source for the election-night anecdotes. Much of the other content in this excerpt features Bannon, and more noticeably, features Bannon as the real driver in the administration — competent, knowledgeable, and central to the prospects for success, while Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were either incompetent or mainly focused on self-promotion. Perhaps all that is true, but how many inside sources would be inclined to tell the story to Wolff from that perspective?
Where this excerpt holds credibility is in its overall depiction of dysfunction — because that was undeniable in the transition and the first months of the Trump presidency. The details and the conclusions may not necessarily all be credible, but it’s tough to dispute that these dynamics existed. At the very least, readers can conclude that hiring John Kelly as chief of staff may have saved the Trump administration’s first year by clearing out the poisonous infighting.
Wolff’s book comes out next week. It will be interesting to see what other nuggets emerge, and just how much corroboration it gets — or doesn’t get — from forthcoming books by Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Omarosa Manigault, and others. Thanks to a chaotic couple of years, Trump has a lot of people outside the tent with the opportunity to urinate into it, and Wolff’s book is just the first micturation to reach the market.