If Michael Wolff wants to see real ‘fire and fury,’ he picked on the right woman for the task. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley furiously responded to rumors of an alleged affair between her and Donald Trump, rumors that began when the author — already beleaguered by a reputation for inaccuracies and fabulism — told readers to look for a hint to the identity of the woman he believed was sleeping with Trump. It didn’t take long for social media to find the most likely line:
The online speculation was instigated by “Fire and Fury” author Michael Wolff, who dropped hints on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” last week when he said he was “absolutely sure” Trump is having an affair — just not sure enough to write about it in his book. Wolff went on to say that discriminating readers would be able to determine the president’s paramour by giving his book a close reading: “Now that I’ve told you, when you hit that paragraph, you’re gonna say, ‘Bingo.’”
Readers quickly homed in on a single sentence in the runaway bestseller, which has been criticized for everything from sloppy copy editing to gross factual inaccuracies. Wolff writes, “The president had been spending a notable amount of private time with Haley on Air Force One and was seen to be grooming her for a national political future.”
Haley came out, rhetorical guns blazing, accusing Wolff of not only being a liar but also of being a sexist bigot. It’s typical of men to believe that a woman only gets ahead by exploiting their genitalia to do so, Haley alleged. Wolff’s thin basis for making the claim isn’t even true in the first place, Haley says:
“It is absolutely not true,” Haley said, arguing that Wolff not only has his facts wrong, but that his insinuation is similar to other attacks that she and other successful women have faced when they’ve been forced to swat down suggestions they’ve slept their way to the top.
“I have literally been on Air Force One once and there were several people in the room when I was there,” she said in an interview Thursday for POLITICO’s Women Rule podcast, referring to a flight from Washington to Long Island in late July. “He says that I’ve been talking a lot with the president in the Oval about my political future. I’ve never talked once to the president about my future and I am never alone with him.”
“So the idea that these things come out, that’s a problem,” she said. “But it goes to a bigger issue that we need to always be conscious of: At every point in my life, I’ve noticed that if you speak your mind and you’re strong about it and you say what you believe, there is a small percentage of people that resent that and the way they deal with it is to try and throw arrows, lies or not.” Wolff did not respond to a request for comment.
That’s not a surprise, given Wolff’s approach to objective truth, and to substantiation too. The Fire and Fury author told MSNBC that his standard is that “if it rings true, it is true,” a statement that prompted journalists to rightly note that Wolff essentially admits he has no journalistic standard at all. In the same interview, Wolff also declined to make his recordings of interviews public, which might make sense for a well-researched and factually tight exposé, but seems an awfully lot like clamming up in the context of repeated debunkings of Wolff’s work.
This claim seems especially suspect. Yes, Wolff had access to the White House, but how many times did he get to fly on Air Force One? If Haley’s correct, the number had to be zero, and this clearly didn’t come from Wolff’s own observation. Wolff probably didn’t make it up entirely out of whole cloth, but repeated as fact something that came to him as gossip without bothering to conduct any basic research to see if it was true — like, say, attempting to find out how many flights on Air Force One Haley has actually taken. And it wouldn’t be the first time Wolff has faced that accusation about sourcing in this book either.
Besides, why would Haley need Trump’s help in getting “groomed” for a political career on the national stage? She already has a career on the national stage, which is one reason why Trump appointed her to the UN despite her earlier criticism of his campaign. Haley became a national figure as soon as she got elected governor, but her adroit de-escalation of the Confederate flag issue put her on the presidential map long before Trump offered her a job. Trump needed her credibility and her heft within the national party to put together a serious administration.
That characterization makes no sense at all, and that’s explicitly in the book. The linkage to that and a rumor of an affair with Haley isn’t, though, and Wolff left himself enough wiggle room to claim that readers have seized on the wrong sentence. The whole exercise is very reflective of Wolff’s credibility and oeuvre — offer gossip and then claim that he’s just passing along what he’s heard. Let that act as a caveat emptor for anything else Wolff peddles in the future.