On Wednesday, The Guardian unveiled excerpts from a controversial new book about President Trump by journalist Michael Wolff. Now Tom Barrack, one of Trump’s closest friends and confidants in the business world, tells Fortune that the book attributes a disparaging quote to him that he never said—and that the author never asked him whether the quote was real.
The book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, quoted sundry current and former Trump White House and campaign officials leveling explosive criticism at the president and his family. The Guardian excerpt also related a seemingly astounding broadside from Barrack—Trump’s leading champion in the business world, and the supporter whom Trump handpicked to lead his inaugural festivities. According to the Guardian excerpt, Wolff’s book states that in describing Trump, Barrack “allegedly told a friend: ‘He’s not only crazy, he’s stupid.’”
It’s not clear whether Wolff used the word “allegedly,” or if the Guardian added the term. The Guardian may have included it because Wolff had gotten the quote not directly from Barrack, but second-hand. It’s also possible that the quote comes not directly from Barrack’s friend, but from a third person who told Wolff he or she heard about it from that friend. Of course, we won’t know until we see the actual wording in Fire and Fury. Fortune reached out to Fire and Fury’s publisher, Henry Holt and Co., but did not receive an immediate response.
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I spoke to Barrack—the billionaire chairman of real estate firm ColonyNorthStar—on Thursday morning, and he was outraged. “I never gave Wolff an interview, or any quote,” Barrack told me. “I don’t talk like that. Wolff texted me repeatedly, eight or nine times asking for an interview, and I always said I was busy, or can’t do it.” Barrack further states that he never said anything, to anybody that could have filtered back to Wolff as “he’s not just crazy, he’s stupid.”
What bothers Barrack most is that, he says, Wolff never called him to check his facts. “What’s amazing is that…he had my phone number, but didn’t call to run the quote by me,” Barrack said. “How can you report that some person allegedly heard this and not call to ask, ‘Did you really say it?’”
In conversation with Fortune, Barrack went on to stress his view that because of his outrageous outbursts, Trump is both misunderstood and greatly underrated. “He’s so much brighter and smarter than what people give him credit for,” says Barrack. “He’s a warrior. People get put off by the abruptness of his reactions. He’s intuitively and instinctively brilliant. Most of the things that appear to be off the cuff are part of a strategy.”
Indeed, in this reporter’s many conversations with Barrack since the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, he has at times expressed dismay at Trump’s attacks on the press, but has always heaped praise on Trump’s skills as a leader.
Barrack’s persona is that of a courtly, old-fashioned gentleman. I’ve never heard him be harshly critical of anyone, let alone Trump. Barrack first bonded with the developer when Barrack negotiated the sale of New York City’s Plaza Hotel to Trump in 1988, and has been probably his closest confidante, and defender in the business community, ever since.
Barrack gets plenty of flak for lauding Trump as a kind of improbable, improvisational genius, a view Trump’s critics find ridiculous. But this writer doesn’t doubt that Barrack is a true believer. To be frank, I don’t believe Barrack ever called Trump “stupid” and “crazy.”
Wolff’s willingness to use a second hand quote that rings so false, and according to Barrack, to neglect to call the supposed source for confirmation, is troubling. No doubt, the book is a phenomenon. Given the reported bashing from Trump’s closest associates, Americans will be extremely interested in knowing whether Wolff has the tapes, multiple confirmations, and other evidence to back his reporting. But Wolff has been criticized about his fact-gathering before. Based on the Barrack anecdote, folks should be skeptical.