Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is that accident you just have to rubberneck. Wolff begins the book by saying he strove to be a “fly on the wall” in the White House during nearly the entire first year of Trump’s presidency.
While I have to wonder how much has been embellished for publication, if even half of the stories are true, it’s a nightmare of the highest order. As I finished the book, my first words were, “now how do I review that?” I’ll give it a shot, and hope I can capture the incredulity I feel.
That dropped jaw isn’t because Wolff told me anything I hadn’t heard by paying attention to headlines in print and on TV for the last year and a half. However, Wolff pulls it all together chronologically. It has what an old boss of mine called the “thud factor.” The story is so convoluted, and is utterly ridiculous. The number of pages it takes to tell all the details, creates a “thud” as the book hits the table. Or maybe the thud is our hearts beating just a little harder at the willful ignorance operating in a position to change our lives forever.
We already know Trump is thin-skinned. You need only follow him on Twitter to know that. But Wolff paints a picture of a childish man seeking approval from everyone, most especially the media. Trump is a man glued to the television and his phone. According to Fire and Fury, he spends his evenings on the phone looking for approval from the “billionaire cabinet.” And constantly looks to Fox News and other media outlets for reassurance that he’s smart enough to be President. While Wolff is far from complimentary, he spends many paragraphs with the other White House players. Trump is key, but not the whole story by any means.
I read The Gatekeepers a few months ago, which is about White House Chiefs of Staff from the Nixon era forward. In it, Chris Whipple clarifies the importance of the Chief as the Chief Operations Officer of the White House. One President who served as his own Chief was Jimmy Carter, and Whipple explains why that was a dangerous and failing game. (It’s a fascinating book, BTW.)
But with that as my background, Wolff’s book took on extra meaning. According to him, Trump’s White House is a house deeply divided. There’s nepotism on one side, with his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner acting as advisors. Wolff continually refers to them as Jarvanka, which grated on my nerves. Alternatively, it did seem to illustrate the way they operate as one opinion and one force. But ultimately, the two “geniuses” as Bannon calls them, just seem politically incompetent and intensely self-serving.
In the middle is Trump, regularly overruling every player including his Chief, former RNC director Reince Priebus. Trump also has everyone reporting directly to him, which even a college business administration student knows is a bad thing. The infighting simply seems to confuse and irritate Trump. Wolff describes him as the little white line in the old-fashioned video game of Pong.
Also in the middle is Hope Hicks, Trump’s young communications director. At just 28, Hicks is caught on the bouncing white line too. Her only loyalty is to Trump, and she doesn’t seem to have a game for her own gain like the other players. She’s probably well intentioned. But Wolff just makes her look naïve and stupid.
On the opposite side from Jarvanka, are Steve Bannon and his group. He connives, intentionally creates distrust, and generally wrecks havoc. Wolff seems to have had his ear more than any other “character” in the book. And I think the author is more sympathetic to Bannon’s “plight” of dealing with all the amateurs in the White House. Bannon is always pitting one group against the other. Often it’s Jarvanka against Priebus against Bannon. And Wolff shows more than a little glee at the retelling of the infighting leading to wrong decisions and negligence.
In terms of events, I’d guess most readers want insight into the Russian collusion investigation. I know I wondered what I’d learn. Again, nothing is included that you couldn’t get by following the news for the last year. But Wolff hammers home the various interests at stake for each of the players. Jarvanka, along with Kushner’s father, stands to loose their businesses, possibly to bankruptcy. Trump of course, stands to loose the world’s respect (oh, wait …) and the presidency. Trump’s sons could lose their cushy lifestyle and “jobs.” The only one who might stand to gain anything at all is Melania Trump, although Wolff doesn’t include her in the book often. She’s just not a force to be reckoned with in the White House.
The only true political animals in Wolff’s book are Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. In fact, Bannon plays such a large part in the book that it inordinately favors him as a key player. And by key player, I mean in American politics, not just in this White House. Bannon’s long game (or con, depending on your perspective) is much more than Trump’s time in office. It’s pitting both Republicans and Democrats so strongly against each other that the whole system implodes. And into the remaining vacuum steps, you guessed it, Steve Bannon. Wolff’s epilogue leaves us with the possibility of a Bannon run for President in 2020. He also points to the desire of Bannon’s team of backers to disrupt the 2018 mid-term elections. Personally, I find all of these ideas at least as chilling as the current White House playground, if not more so.
In terms of writing style, Fire and Fury reads like an extended political gossip column. Wolff is snarky, and couldn’t care less about burning bridges. I think he’s convinced the bridge is already on fire anyway. He has writing tics that you’ll have to overcome, including the Jarvanka thing. But fundamentally his narration is riveting, and illustrates why I like nonfiction. As he credits Sean Spicer with saying, “You can’t make this shit up.”
I listened on audio, and spent nearly 11 hours in two days trying to absorb the craziness. The audiobook is actually 12 hours long, but I had to speed it up to 1.2x speed partway through. I did this not because the story was so gripping, but because I just needed for it to be over. Holter Graham’s narration is terrific, just the right pace and urgency for a batshit crazy nonfiction book.
Normally my longest reviews are for the books I loved the most. In this case, it’s long because I know you want to know. And I have to get it off my chest. In terms of relevance, this is probably a five star book until the details become dated. But in terms of actual literary excellence, it’s about a three.