The White House got some help last night in fending off Michael Wolff’s dishy, gossipy book on Donald Trump — Tony Blair. The former prime minister blasted Wolff’s reporting as “a complete fabrication” on a claim made that Blair warned about British intelligence surveilling the Trump campaign. Blair expressed consternation that the uncorroborated allegations in Fire and Fury have been embraced so unquestioningly:
Wolff wrote that Blair suggested there was a possibility “that the British had had the Trump campaign staff under surveillance, monitoring its telephone calls and other communications and possibly even Trump himself”.
Wolff’s book also repeated speculation that Blair had been angling to be Trump’s Middle East envoy. …
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he said: “This story is a complete fabrication, literally from beginning to end. I’ve never had such conversation in the White House, outside of the White House, with Jared Kushner, with anybody else.”
Blair, a former Middle East peace envoy for the quartet of United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia, admitted that he had met Kushner, but not to discuss surveillance on Trump or to lobby for a role.
He said: “Of course I’ve met him and we discussed the Middle East peace process. I wasn’t angling for some job. I did the quartet role. I’m still very active on the Middle East peace process, but I’ve got absolutely no desire for an official position. I never sought one, it was never offered, don’t want one.”
Needless to say, this claim is surpassingly strange — and that strangeness has nothing to do with Trump. Why would Blair have even conceived an idea of being an American envoy to a process in which he has long participated on behalf of his own country? And why would a former PM blow any intel activities by his own country on behalf of an American candidate for whom he would have no particularly obvious affinity? Did Wolff just make this up out of whole cloth, or did he buy into some gossip around the campfire and just toss it into the book?
Either way, it opens up a wide hole in Wolff’s credibility for several reasons. One, Blair has a large amount of credibility in international media, including here in the US. Two, Blair is hardly a Trump acolyte or someone inclined to jump to Trump’s defense. Third, the “so weird it must be true” of Wolff’s reporting on Trump relies on the well-known mercurial nature of the president. No one looks at Blair and thinks he’s anything but a statesman who knows his business, and especially not a loose cannon inclined to whimsical action. If Wolff has applied the “so weird” standard this recklessly, it certainly raises questions about his reporting on all of the other weirdness Wolff wants people to buy, both literally and figuratively.
Speaking of unexpected sources, the best White House response to Wolff comes from the spokesperson who got run out of the West Wing months ago. Sean Spicer calmly dissects the credibility issues in this appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, although one has to go to the bottom of the ABC report to find it in the print version. George Stephanopoulos pushes Spicer to admit the quotes involving him are accurate, which Spicer does — but explains that the context for them has been twisted around. The book, from what Spicer has seen so far, is filled with out-of-context quotes and imagined reporting.
“If it’s 10% or 20% or 50% or 70% that isn’t true,” Spicer argues, “the reader’s not left to know which is true and which is not.” Blair would certainly agree:
“One of the problems that we’re seeing with this book — and it’s not just Trump staffers and White House officials pushing back — but you’re seeing a lot of mainstream media members as well calling into question the sourcing, the sloppiness of how he attributes stuff, even the author’s origin note at the beginning of the book notes that in many cases he took anecdotes and rephrased them,” Spicer said.
When Stephanopoulos asks whether White House attempts to block the sale of the book run afoul of the First Amendment, Spicer side-steps that by saying that Trump has the right to defend himself from defamation. That’s true, but suing to keep the book from being published is a silly way to go about it. Trump and his team would do a lot better to find as many ridiculously untrue and highly spun allegations in the book and find ways to debunk them publicly, amplifying credible voices in that effort. Spicer may not qualify for that status after his rocky relationship with the press in 2017, but Blair’s rebuke is golden. Why hasn’t the White House highlighted that testimony more strongly?