Trump White House tell-alls coming faster than in past administrations
Journalist Michael Wolff’s upcoming book on the first year of the Trump White House follows a long tradition of political tell-alls based on the often self-serving accounts of insiders, and presidential historians are unsurprised to see pre-orders skyrocketing even as some of Wolff’s sources dispute his reporting.
“Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” was scheduled to hit bookshelves on January 9, but publication was moved up to Friday after the first excerpts blazed across the internet Wednesday, shooting it to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.
An extended excerpt published by New York magazine detailed the early days after the 2016 election, which, according to Wolff, Donald Trump and his aides had no expectation of winning.
Wolff quoted former Trump campaign chairman and fired White House strategist Steve Bannon at length talking in less-than-glowing terms about the president, his family, and his Cabinet choices. In a separate passage quoted by the Guardian, Bannon blasted Donald Trump Jr. for meeting with Russians who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton at Trump Tower in June 2016.
“Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad s***, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately,” Bannon said, according to Wolff. Bannon also suggested Trump Jr. likely took the Russians to meet his father, something all involved have denied.
Elsewhere, Wolff—who claims to have conducted more than 200 interviews for the book—cited several Trump advisers both by name and anonymously questioning his intelligence, his preparation, and his mental fitness for office.
“My indelible impression of talking to them and observing them through much of the first year of his presidency, is that they all — 100 percent — came to believe he was incapable of functioning in his job,” he wrote.
Wolff’s work has already received harsh media scrutiny and fierce denunciation from the White House. Trump friend Tom Barrack has denied calling the president stupid and former adviser Katie Walsh has disputed the claim that she equated Trump to a child.
Media outlets have noted Wolff’s history of being accused of inventing conversations and quotes in past books and columns. An editor once described him to the New Republic as “adroit at making the reader think that he has spent hours and days with his subject, when in fact he may have spent no time at all.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders derided the book Thursday as “complete fantasy.” In addition to disputing the premise that Trump did not want or expect to win the presidency, she pointed to dubious passages like a conversation in which Trump appeared not to know who former House Speaker John Boehner was as proof the book cannot be trusted.
"Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Trump said in a blistering statement issued Wednesday. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind."
Trump’s lawyers have gone further, writing cease-and-desist letters demanding that Wolff and publisher Henry Holt halt publication of the book and issue an apology and claiming that Bannon violated a non-disclosure agreement by making “disparaging and in some cases outright defamatory” statements to Wolff.
Experts say there are plenty of reasons to doubt Wolff’s reporting, but questions about its accuracy will do little to dampen interest or sales.
“We are already getting a number of accounts that are saying, you know, what’s being said about Donald Trump’s hair isn’t true or what’s being said about whether Trump knew who John Boehner is isn’t true,” said Glenn Altschuler, a professor at Cornell University and co-author of “Ten Great American Trials: Lessons in Advocacy.” “In the larger scheme of things, that’s beside the point.”
Particularly with someone as prominent as Bannon on the record, “Fire and Fury” is harder for Trump to dismiss as fake news than an anonymously-sourced newspaper article.
“The quality of this information suggests people inside the Trump camp are talking, and that, to me if I was in the White House, would set off alarm bells,” said Tom Whalen, a professor of social sciences at Boston University and author of “JFK and His Enemies: A Portrait of Power.”
According to Dan Franklin, a professor at Georgia State University and author of “Politics and Film: Political Culture and Film in the United States,” one book may not carry much weight on its own, but the public will process it alongside everything else swirling through the national political debate and make their own judgments.
“You vector in on the truth,” he said. “It’s like piecing together the pieces of a crime. You get different pieces of information and the information intersects.”
Books purporting to offer a close-up look at the inner workings of the White House are nothing new, but they rarely come along this fast.
In 2012, another book supposedly based on 200 interviews by a controversial journalist with a questionable track record, Ed Klein’s “The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House,” was slammed by critics and journalists for thinly-sourced and publicly-denied accounts of marital strife and internal chaos.
A less explosive tome based on interviews with ancillary figures, “The Obamas” by Jodi Kantor, also drew the ire of the previous administration in 2012, despite painting a mostly positive picture of the president and first lady.
Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton both grappled with tell-alls published by former aides while they were still in office. In 2008 memoirs, former spokesperson Scott McClellan slapped the Bush White House for dishonesty and incompetence in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and speechwriter Matt Latimer quoted Bush bashing prominent Republicans and Democrats.
Longtime Clinton adviser Dick Morris published “Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties” after being ousted from the 1996 reelection campaign over a prostitution scandal. In the decades since, he has become increasingly vocal in his opposition to the Clintons, writing multiple books attacking Hillary Clinton.
"You have a responsibility not to embarrass the president. It hurts the country. It's just stupidity and weakness," Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos told the New Yorker at the time.
Stephanopoulos’ own memoir, “All Too Human: A Political Education,” hit shelves in 1999, reportedly leading his onetime colleagues in the administration to dismiss him as a “commentraitor.”
Three former advisers to President Ronald Reagan wrote books during his second term, including onetime Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman who slammed the administration’s fiscal policies and depicted the president as easily confused.
Though many of these books attracted attention and outrage at the time, none had much lasting impact on public perception of the presidency. Whalen emphasized, however, that this reality does not make political tell-alls unimportant.
“They’re kind of the first draft of history,” he said. “Historians moving forward who write about the Trump period are going to use that as a source. They’ll use other sources as well, but that will be the initial building block.”
“Fire and Fury” will not be the only title promising an unvarnished look at life in the Trump White House in the months ahead.
Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer has his own account of his “turbulent” seven months at the podium, titled “The Briefing,” coming in July. He claims the memoir will “set the record straight” and dispute negative reporting on the Trump transition and the president’s first year in office.
James Comey, the FBI director fired by Trump last year, is publishing a book in May, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” that promises to recount experiences from throughout his career, including his brief service under Trump.
This could merely be the beginning. The Trump administration has seen an unusual amount of turnover in its first year. Erstwhile communications director Anthony Scaramucci unsuccessfully shopped around his own memoir last fall, but the likely success of Wolff’s book could open the floodgates for others who once had access to the West Wing.
“It’ll be interesting to see the kind of domino effect,” Whalen said.
Stating that political memoirs from the likes of Nixon aide Jeb Magruder and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were so self-serving that they offered little insight, Franklin questioned how reliable these accounts will turn out to be.
“I’m not just saying people lie,” he said. “I’m saying people interpret the facts the way they see them and also to their own benefit.”
Franklin warned that the stories of lower level aides are especially suspect because publishers demand gossip and conflict to justify their advances.
“The higher you get up in the hierarchy in these tell-all books, when presidents write books about themselves, they’re dreadfully dull in most cases…. The incentive is not there to dish dirt,” he said.
Some have questioned why the White House has chosen to amplify Wolff’s claims with such an aggressive push against the book—practically ensuring it a long stay in the headlines and on the bestseller list—but Whalen said Trump had little alternative but to strike back after his former strategist strongly suggested he and his son committed treason.
“The bombshell for me that came out of there is basically Bannon is telling the [special counsel Robert] Mueller folks, ‘Interview me, interview me, I have some really good dirt…,’” he said. “Trump’s presidency kind of hangs in the balance here. That’s why they acted so strongly.”
Another concern for Trump may be that Wolff’s anecdotes and observations echo narratives that have developed around his administration over the last year: that he is temperamental, easily distracted, obsessed with television, and treated like a toddler by those around him.
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“The details in his book, even those that are new, support a narrative that many Americans are willing to embrace, whether or not some of the details can be verified,” Altschuler said.
There is also little any White House can do to discourage the public and the media from glomming onto tales of palace intrigue, as evidenced by the overwhelming interest in Wolff’s book Thursday amid several significant policy developments on marijuana, offshore drilling, and health care.
“They’re appealing to people because this culture tends to be much more fixated on how the sausage is made, on the horse race, on interpersonal conflict, much more than the complex and nuanced understanding of the substantive policy issues,” Altschuler said.
They may not be trustworthy academic texts and they may not change the course of history, but tell-alls like “Fire and Fury” will continue to sell for a simple reason: they are entertaining.
“It’s gossip,” Franklin said, “and we love gossip. Why do people slow down and look at a car wreck? Because it’s interesting.”