Michael Wolff and the smearing of Nikki Haley

As pure rhetoric, it’s remarkable what Wolff attempted to do in that exchange. With one comment—one string of only semi-sensical self-exonerations—the reporter simultaneously denied that he himself was the source of the rumors … and, at the same time, blamed Nikki Haley for addressing the stories being spread at her expense. Fire and Fury has been called a “perfectly postmodern White House book”—336 pages of questionably true explosiveness, packaged in ink and pulp—and, here, via Wolff’s cheeky interview with the “Sip ‘n Skimm” series, was the perfectly postmodern coda to the whole thing: an insinuation in the guise of an accusation. Plausible deniability, denied to such an extent that the denial became the fact of the matter. A rumor so nice Wolff spread it twice.

And: a rumor that manages to be both “incendiary” and yet, in its contours, blandly familiar. In one way, certainly, the gossip that has followed Haley this week—despite her denial of an affair, and indeed because of it—suggests quintessentially contemporary anxieties: the impunity of fake news, the tyranny of the spectacle, the nihilism that triumphs when truth is treated as an impediment rather than the point. In another way, though, Wolff’s coy allegations against Haley (and ostensibly against Trump, as well—but the cost of such rumors, of course, is rarely distributed equally) are evocative of one of the stalest stereotypes there is: the strain of gossip that is used to advance the reputation of the spreader even as it attempts to reduce the reputation of the subject. The kind of rumor-mongering that has so often been weaponized, in particular, against women.