A new book on the Trump Administration argues that it’s dysfunctional, full of infighting and incompetence.
But a better case for that argument is not the juicy quotes and salacious details in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (some of which are contested by the people involved). It’s the White House’s reaction to the book so far.
Written by longtime New York media columnist Michael Wolff, the book is definitely a scorcher.
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One chapter contends that a casual suggestion from former British prime minister Tony Blair to Jared Kushner was the prompt for Trump’s tweets about being wiretapped, which led to a series of unfortunate PR events. Another chapter claims that was bored by his first meeting with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, saying he looked “like a beer salesman.”
After a British newspaper published quotes from the book Wednesday and New York magazine put an excerpt online, the reaction from the Trump White House was swift and characteristically excessive against both the book and former adviser Steve Bannon.
In a four-paragraph statement — key parts of which the Daily Beast reported was dictated by the president himself — the president said that his former campaign strategist had “nothing to do” with his win, argued a one-time White House adviser had no influence on him and claimed a book involving multiple interviews with White House staffers was “phony.”
In another official statement, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders slammed the book as “trashy tabloid fiction,” and an aide for First Lady Melania Trump denied an account in the book that she cried on Election Night, saying the book will be sold in the “bargain fiction section.” Lawyers for Trump then reportedly sent Bannon a “cease and desist” letter arguing that he was violating a nondisclosure agreement, and sought to block publication of the book. Then Trump personally weighed in, arguing that he doesn’t talk to Bannon any more, while Sanders weighed in again Thursday, saying the book is full of “ridiculous lies.”
All of that squares with Trump’s method of hitting back “10 times harder,” but it’s hard to see how it helped the White House.
For one thing, it only added to the attention the book was getting, helping rocket it to No. 1 on Amazon in a single day. Trump’s over-the-top response also reportedly convinced Bannon to cancel a positive statement he’d been planning on making. But, most seriously, it seemed wholly improvised in the moment, only adding evidence to the contention that the White House is incompetent.
The thing about books is that they take a long time to write. Publishers announce when they’ve signed an author and decided on a publication date. Media rollout plans aren’t exactly public, but they aren’t hard to figure out. And the White House has visitor logs — not available to the public — which clearly could have tipped them off ahead of time to the fact that, as they now say, Wolff came to meet Bannon 95% of the time.
It’s hardly a secret that Bannon has been estranged from Trump lately and people inside the White House would be best positioned to know what he might say about his time there.
In the past, a president’s handlers would have anticipated all this, starting with what Wolff claims was a pretty loose permission to hang around the White House in the first year of the Administration. He’s been known in the past to cozy up to sources, as he did with Trump staffers, only to burn them harshly in his book. And as a prominent writer in New York City, he should hardly be an unknown to this White House especially.
Even then, presidential aides might have laid the groundwork to fight the book by quietly raising doubts about Wolff’s past work, some of which has been criticized as recreating scenes inaccurately. They might have had Trump publicly break with Bannon before the book came out so that his comments would be seen as sour grapes or selectively leaked old internal memos that made him look bad.
Alternately, they might have taken the high road and simply declined to comment, letting the media and the public hash out the trustworthiness of the book’s version of events. Or they could have made key players available for extensive interviews with rival publications to set the record straight on some of the key moments described in the book .
Instead, the White House lashed out at a former top campaign official and White House aide seemingly on the fly, giving a vivid example of the very infighting, incompetence and dysfunction the book claims exists.