My colleague Paul Farhi provides some needed perspective on the latest tell-all book about President Trump:
A provocateur and media polemicist, [Michael] Wolff has a penchant for stirring up an argument and pushing the facts as far as they’ll go, and sometimes further than they can tolerate, according to his critics. He has been accused of not just re-creating scenes in his books and columns, but of creating them wholesale.
That’s some context for Wolff’s most explosive bit of reporting to date: A scathing new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” describing dysfunction and infighting in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the first year of his presidency, replete with damning criticism of Trump from within his inner circle.
That said, you don’t have to believe all of the book or even most of it to recognize some very familiar themes — Trump’s inability to focus, his refusal to read, his ignorance and his need for constant praise. Even if you believe none of the book, it has serious ramifications for Trump — as one might have gauged from his over-the-top retort and threat to sue Stephen K. Bannon. “When [Stephen K. Bannon] was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind,” the narcissistic, impulsive president declared. “Steve was a staffer who worked for me after I had already won the nomination by defeating seventeen candidates, often described as the most talented field ever assembled in the Republican Party.” Hardly knew the guy, you see. (As an aside, it’s interesting how concerned about sourcing is the crowd that is convinced President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump, that the FBI is part of a deep-state cabal and that millions of votes were cast illegally.) Reportedly “enraged” by Bannon’s attacks, Trump ended the day of verbal warfare by having his lawyers fire off a cease-and-desist letter, something he has done many times over the years — without following through on lawsuits.
Now, even if you have some doubts about the specifics in the book, it has the power to change others’ behavior and perception of the president and the White House. We’ve already noted that it may suggest new avenues for the special prosecutor to explore.
First, Trump is going to be doubly suspicious of even his closest allies. Ivanka Trump mocking his hair? Jared Kushner trying to grab credit? He was paranoid before; now one should expect him to trust virtually no one in the White House. If he was disturbed by rumors that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called him a “moron,” the array of insults that other top officials threw around may be enough to send him into a permanent funk. Wolff writes: “For Steve Mnuchin and Reince Priebus, he was an ‘idiot.’ For Gary Cohn, he was ‘dumb as [s—].’ For H.R. McMaster he was a ‘dope.’ The list went on.” What’s Trump going to do — fire all of them?
Perversely, that means he may spend even more time blabbing to friends and acquaintances over the phone in conversations readily repeated to others, including the media. He has already turned over a third of his staff (bringing in new people and cutting insiders loose is a poor way to keep secrets, by the way), and still more changes may be afoot.
Second, any quality person with experience and talent who might have conceivably entertained the idea of serving in the White House is even less likely to go near the place. If nothing else, the book is a cautionary tale about working in a chaotic White House with a seriously unstable president. There is no “serving the country” when you are working for someone this unwell. If it is metaphysically possible, the quality of the White House staff will decline with each departure and replacement. (Yes, it has been downhill since Priebus, one could say.)
Third, if other world leaders were unhinged before by Trump’s irrationality and vanity, Trump’s nuclear boasting and the portrait of utter chaos may leave them quaking with fear. This is the guy who may decide to end the Iran deal? This is the person who will decide whether military action is needed? It’s no longer possible that Trump will persuade and cajole allies into seeing things his way; it’s all about them seeking to manipulate and manage him, much as the White House staff seems to have learned to do.
Fourth, aside from general accusations about the president’s cognitive shortcomings (his inability to focus, his childish impulsiveness), Wolff writes: “Everybody was painfully aware of the increasing pace of his repetitions. It used to be inside of 30 minutes he’d repeat, word-for-word and expression-for-expression, the same three stories — now it was within 10 minutes. Indeed, many of his tweets were the product of his repetitions — he just couldn’t stop saying something.” That might be a verbal tic, or something more serious — and it is easily verified. Do members of Congress witness this? Former aides can surely be interviewed by members of Congress. This tidbit will become fodder for those pressing for a law that would require presidents to get a full physical and mental exam each year. Behavior such as this is what fuels talk of the 25th Amendment — and gives rise to questions about whether the military would feel compelled to challenge a first-strike order.
Finally, Trump once again stepped on his own message. Instead of crowing about tax cuts, his aides are scrambling to discredit the notion that the president is bonkers. Republicans will have a tougher time justifying their passivity and support for a president who scares their voters. Just about every Republican on the ballot is going to be asked whether he or she thinks Trump is fit to be president, and what to do if he’s not. Simply writing off his outbursts as “just tweets” or a matter of “Trump being Trump” now sounds altogether too cavalier, if not downright reckless. It’s one thing if the crazy uncle can be kept up in the attic away from the guests, but if he can no longer be kept under wraps, his minders are going to face a whole lot more pressure to contain or remove him. Meanwhile, another Trump meltdown leaves Republicans once again depressed, enervated and chastened. Somehow “But Gorsuch!” does not cut it as a justification for voting someone into office whose mental fitness is continually in doubt.
In big ways and small — how courts perceive the representations of government lawyers, how studiously aides document their interactions with him (in the vein of James B. Comey), how much pressure is applied to Vice President Pence to start behaving like the man who may at some point take over for Trump, etc. — Wolff’s book contributes to the general perception of Trump as a dangerous, unschooled lunatic. By itself, the book might be brushed off as the exaggerated tale penned by a literary provocateur. But not all of it. And not in the context of all that we’ve seen and know.