Regardless of what you think about Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” the book has made a whole lot of news. Despite the president’s best legal efforts, the book has shot to No. 1 on Amazon’s sales ranking. It triggered a pretty severe rupture between Trump and former White House strategic adviser/current Breitbart head Stephen K. Bannon. And it has led the president to tweet about what a very stable genius he is.
Why is Trump so desperate to say he’s smart? Why did his surrogates fan out on Sunday to say the president is sane and rational? Wolff’s book can be distilled down to what he said on NBC late last week: “The one description that everyone gave, everyone has in common: They all say he is like a child. And what they mean by that is he has a need for immediate gratification. It’s all about him. … He just has to be satisfied in the moment.” Even Trump knows that this is not a presidential look.
This renewed focus on Trump’s ability to be the president has led some to bemoan why the rest of the mainstream media can’t be more like Wolff. GQ’s Drew Magary made this exact argument over the weekend:
I’m not a journalist, but as a professor and a hard-working staff member of Spoiler Alerts, I have had to read a lot of journalism about Trump over the past year. And I can only conclude that Magary is correct when he says that the mainstream media hasn’t covered Trump the way Wolff did. And thank God for that. Because the more you think about it, the more insane Magary’s argument seems.
The problems with Wolff’s book are manifest. I mean, this is how Wolff describes his methods at the start:
Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. These conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book.
Sometimes I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. In other instances I have, through a consistency in the accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true.
You know what journalists tend to do? They tend to only publish things that they believe to be true because they also have, you know, corroborating facts to back them up. When there are conflicting accounts of an event, journalists tend to be explicit about that in their reportage. I am not saying journalists have gotten everything right or distributed their coverage of this administration efficiently. They haven’t. But they do tend to cop to their mistakes and care about rectifying them.
Wolff is a talented writer and has undeniable observational gifts; but this “too good to check” reporting is a disgrace. Most of us work hard to make sure we can verify facts before printing them. Yes we screw up sometimes but it’s devastating for us when we do. https://t.co/RfLakGDf5R
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) January 6, 2018
As nearly every journalist has noted, Wolff’s book is factually sloppy. There are anecdotes Wolff writes as if they happened that other reporters more accurately characterize as unconfirmed rumors. There are other minor assertions that Wolff gets wrong. If this book was about Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, their defenders would use this sloppiness to eviscerate the rest of the book’s claims.
Still, let’s say, as many White House reporters do, that Wolff’s book should be taken seriously but not literally. The larger thesis that Trump is unfit to be the commander in chief is a point well taken. Surely, the mainstream media should have questioned Trump’s fitness for office in the past year, right?
To which I must ask Magary and like-minded critics: What the hell have you people been reading for the last year?!
— Daniel W. Drezner (@dandrezner) April 25, 2017
As the curator of the #ToddlerinChief thread on Twitter, I have managed to find at least 200 instances in which a mainstream media journalist has reported on a White House staffer, Cabinet official, friend of Trump, GOP lawmaker or close geopolitical ally told a reporter that the president was acting like a toddler. Maggie Haberman’s reportage, by the way, is all over that thread, as are reporters from Politico, Axios, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Last month, the New York Times and The Post ran many-thousand-word reports on Trump’s first year that stressed the sheer abnormality of his presidency.
You cannot read that thread and walk away convinced that the media has been burying Trump’s flaws. That has most certainly not been the case. The primary differences between the mainstream media’s coverage of the Trump administration and Wolff’s book are that the MSM has been at it for longer and has been more accurate.
The most insufferable part of Magary’s jeremiad, however, is his implication that “the White House press is perhaps the worst offender” in being soft on Trump. Access journalism may lead to some small compromises, but the compromises that the GOP has made to live with the president have been so much worse. As the Atlantic’s David Frum noted over the weekend:
Michael Wolff has drawn the most indelible picture yet of Donald Trump, the man. But the important thing about Trump is not the man; it’s the system of power surrounding the man. …
What sustains Trump now is the support of people who know what he is, but back him anyway. Republican political elites who know him for what he is, but who back him because they believe they can control and use him; conservative media elites who sense what he is, but who delight in the cultural wars he provokes; rank-and-file conservatives who care more about their grievances and hatreds than the governance of the country.
The virtue of Wolff’s book is not that he broke new ground. He didn’t, not really. The virtue is that the large catalogue of this administration’s insanity focuses everyone’s mind on the problem at the same time.
Still, if you were paying any attention to the coverage of Trump in 2017, Wolff’s book will be the least shocking bestseller of 2018.