Here, arguably, was the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: He didn’t process information in any conventional sense. He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semi-literate. He trusted his own expertise — no matter how paltry or irrelevant — more than anyone else’s. He was often confident, but he was just as often paralyzed, less a savant than a figure of sputtering and dangerous insecurities, whose instinctive response was to lash out and behave as if his gut, however confused, was in fact in some clear and forceful way telling him what to do. It was, said [former deputy chief of staff Katie] Walsh, “like trying to figure out what a child wants.”
This is as troubling as it is unsurprising. For a couple of years, it has been apparent to anyone who cared to look hard that Trump was never mentally, emotionally or temperamentally fit to be president. Those who argued that character didn’t matter were both wrong and missing the point. Sanity matters. The book — at least from the excerpts — confirms what dogged opponents of his presidency have always said: He’s an unhinged man-child utterly lacking in the skill needed to be president. (“From phone call to phone call — and his day, beyond organized meetings, was almost entirely phone calls — you could lose him. He could not really converse, not in the sense of sharing information, or of a balanced back-and-forth conversation,” Wolff writes. “He neither particularly listened to what was said to him nor particularly considered what he said in response. He demanded you pay him attention, then decided you were weak for groveling. In a sense, he was like an instinctive, pampered, and hugely successful actor. Everybody was either a lackey who did his bidding or a high-ranking film functionary trying to coax out his performance — without making him angry or petulant.”)
Some of what we learn is weird and disturbing but not consequential:
He retreated to his own bedroom — the first time since the Kennedy White House that a presidential couple had maintained separate rooms. In the first days, he ordered two television screens in addition to the one already there, and a lock on the door, precipitating a brief standoff with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.” Then he imposed a set of new rules: Nobody touch anything, especially not his toothbrush. (He had a longtime fear of being poisoned, one reason why he liked to eat at McDonald’s — nobody knew he was coming and the food was safely premade.) Also, he would let housekeeping know when he wanted his sheets done, and he would strip his own bed.
Some is amusing. (Ivanka reportedly mocks Trump’s hairdo — an elaborate, gravity-defying comb-over.) Some is hardly new. (Ivanka and Jared are both incompetent and unable to control him in any meaningful sense.) And some is potentially incriminating, if true (no evidence so far suggests Trump met directly with Russians peddling dirt on Hillary Clinton):
“The chance that Don Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero,” said an astonished and derisive [Stephen K.] Bannon, not long after the [Trump Tower] meeting was revealed. “The three senior guys in the campaign,” an incredulous Bannon went on, “thought it was a good idea to meet with a foreign government inside Trump Tower in the conference room on the twenty-fifth floor — with no lawyers. They didn’t have any lawyers. Even if you thought that this was not treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad s–t, and I happen to think it’s all of that, you should have called the FBI immediately.”
Mostly, however, the book is utterly humiliating for the enablers, the deniers, the Trump-whisperers, the right-wing media and ultimately the voters who put this character in the Oval Office. Willful denial explains part of it. But what’s the excuse, now that they know who he is, for allowing him to stay? The book should also inform how the press interviews him. We know he’s unhinged, so acting as his stenographer is not elucidating. Seeing what he knows, how much of a grasp of details he commands, how he reacts when challenged and the degree to which his short-term memory may be off is, it seems, where we should direct our attention.