Michael Wolff’s controversial Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House
(2018) details the behavior of many people within the inner circle of President Donald Trump, often without corroboration or supporting materials.
Wolff begins with a prologue describing a dinner party thrown by Roger Ailes, the former head of FOX News, which was attended by Steve Bannon. The party took place a few weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration. Ailes expressed surprise at Trump’s victory, marveling that Trump had no political ideology to speak of. Bannon, arriving three hours late, pontificated on the Trump cabinet picks and other subjects, making it clear he viewed Trump’s ascendancy through the lens of his own success. Ailes expressed doubt about Trump’s commitment to any sort of political program; Bannon assured him that Trump was committed.
Wolff recounts Election Day for the Trump team, implying that Donald Trump, never actually wanting to be president of the United States, assumed his campaign would fail. Trump intended, in fact, to use his campaign to raise his profile and reinvigorate his television ratings in a bid for a TV Network. Wolff points out that most of the people involved with Trump’s campaign were clearly setting up their next jobs, not expecting to win. Trump’s team also did very little to prepare his business and personal life for the scrutiny that comes with the most powerful position in the country. In fact, Wolff reports that Trump himself thought his campaign and staff were “crappy,” and that the Clinton campaign had the best people.
Wolff examines the marriage between Trump and Melania, arguing that while it is far from a traditional love story it is incorrect to assume it is an arrangement, as they do seem to have a very real personal relationship.
Wolff delves into Steve Bannon’s time within the White House, noting that Bannon was fired from his position as chief strategist during the campaign and adviser to the president afterward. Bannon supplied most of the quotes that became famous, describing many of the other people in the Trump White House in very unflattering terms—e.g., calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” Before being let go, Bannon was widely considered the man pulling Trump’s strings. After his dismissal, he was happy to speak with Wolff.
Wolff discloses how Bannon saw the inexperience of the Trump staffers as an asset in his quest for a “shock and awe” strategy for implementing policies. Bannon seized on the executive order as a strategic tool, as they were reasonably easy to prepare and required just Trump’s signature—no tiresome and slow-moving deliberation and deal making. He initially planned to have Trump sign two hundred executive orders in his first one hundred months. He knew many would be blocked or struck down, but thought there was value in creating a sensation and disrupting business as usual.
Wolff argues that Donald Trump is a vain and easily manipulated man who loves flattery and hates work. As a result, Wolff claims that many in the White House—especially Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner—used those traits to get what they wanted. Referred to as “Jarvanka,” the duo quickly found themselves opposing many of Bannon’s initiatives in an effort to make the administration more democratic as well as to serve their own interests. This quickly split the staff into two warring tribes.
Wolff recounts many of the specific crises that consumed the Trump White House. He points out Trump’s flirtation with anti-Semitism (a subject confused by Trump’s obvious friendships with high-profile Jews and willingness to include them in his administration). Wolff recalls the speech Trump gave at a joint session of Congress early in his administration. Well received, the speech seemed to mark Trump’s transition to a “normal” president, but Wolff reveals it was the work of a coalition of people behind the scenes, mainly pushed by Ivanka and Jared, who sought common ground and at least the semblance of a traditional administration.
Wolff discusses the friendship between Ivanka, Jared, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who implied that the British spied on Trump both during and after the campaign. Wolff has no proof of this. He opines that this suggestion by Blair led to Trump’s suspicions of his own intelligence community, sparking a fraught relationship between the president and his spies.
The battle over replacing the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is detailed. Trump found the subject boring and distasteful; the real work of figuring out what to do fell to Steve Bannon and the Republican Party. Bannon saw the dismantling of Obama’s signature healthcare law as an absolute must, while Trump, portrayed as having no interest in it, is swayed by whomever he spoke to last.
Wolff remarks on the decision to fire former Director of the FBI James Comey, implying that Trump’s resentment that he had made an effort to befriend and “seduce” Comey, and yet, Comey still chose to come out against him, was the motivating factor for the mean-spirited termination.
Wolff ends with a recitation of anonymous quotes from staffers describing their concern for Trump’s emotional stability and even his sanity, with many worrying over his repetitive speeches and his obsessions. Wolff ends where he began, with Steve Bannon, who, now predicting Trump won’t have a second term, is exploring his own presidential campaign in 2020.