Several news outlets published excerpts of Michael Wolff's new book about the Trump campaign and the White House. And almost every word of it is unbelievable.
Some of it, literally so.
In one passage from “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” Wolff recounts how Roger Ailes recommended former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to serve as Trump's chief of staff. Trump's response, according to Wolff: “Who’s that?”
Never mind that Trump had golfed with Boehner in 2013 and mentioned him several times on the 2016 campaign trail. Using the Donald Trump Factbase, I found Trump mentioning Boehner on the campaign trail at least four times: April 10, 2016; Nov. 30, 2015; Oct. 14, 2015; and Sept. 25, 2015. He also tweeted about him on Oct. 8, 2015, and Sept. 25, 2015 — that last date being when Boehner resigned as speaker during the 2016 campaign.
Is it possible Trump misheard the name or momentarily forgot who Boehner was? Sure. He may have even meant the “Who's that?” as a slight to Boehner. But the impression Wolff seeks to leave is that Trump is a novice completely out of his element in the Oval Office. This was an anecdote meant to serve that narrative.
Other bold claims made in the book (New York magazine published a whole chapter) include a deal hatched by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump for Ivanka to one day run for president, Ivanka making fun of her father's “comb-over” in private, Rupert Murdoch calling Trump a “f---ing idiot,” and Trump and his wife, Melania, not actually wanting to win the presidency and basically being disappointed that they had.
In another anecdote, billionaire Robert Mercer — a former Ted Cruz backer and Breitbart investor — offers Trump's campaign $5 million, and Trump is clueless as to why Mercer would invest in him. “This thing,” Trump reportedly told Mercer of his campaign, “is so f---ed up.”
But Mercer couldn't give $5 million to Trump's campaign — not legally, anyway. He spent his money on Trump through a super PAC, which is independent of the Trump campaign and is subject to plenty of rules preventing coordination between the two.
Is it possible this was shorthand — or even that Mercer represented the money as a campaign contribution rather than super PAC spending? Again, sure. But it seems a weird thing not to address in the text.
Then there is the apparent re-created conversation between Stephen K. Bannon and Ailes, the New York Times's Nick Confessore points out, which raises questions about accuracy.
As for the other claims, many are of the kind that has been whispered about but never reported on with any authority or certainty. Wolff has taken some of the most gossiped-about aspects of the Trump White House and put them forward as fact — often plainly stated fact without even anonymous sources cited.
In his introduction, Wolff acknowledges this is an imperfect exercise and often a daunting challenge. Here's a key excerpt pulled by Benjy Sarlin:
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. Those 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 accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true.
In some ways, this is the tell-all that Trump's post-truth presidency deserves. Trump's own version of the truth is often subject to his own fantastic impulses and changes at a moment's notice. The leaks from his administration have followed that pattern, often painting credulity-straining images of an American president. As the New York Times's Maggie Haberman notes, that makes claims in Wolff's book that would ordinarily seem implausible suddenly plausible.
But just because the administration doesn't seem to have much regard for the truth and because there are all kinds of insane things happening behind closed doors doesn't mean the truth isn't a goal worth attaining. And in an environment in which the press is widely distrusted by a large swath of the American people — and overwhelmingly by Trump's base — the onus is even more on accounts of his presidency to try to filter out the tabloid stuff.
Part of Trump's mission statement is fomenting distrust of the press. Oftentimes the wild leaks that come from the White House seem to further that goal by giving the media juicy stories that will ring false to people who doubt reporters' anonymous sources. Wolff even writes that it's often Trump himself doing the gossiping about White House staff — which seems about right.
For whatever reason, Wolff seems to have arrived at a stunning amount of incredible conclusions that hundreds of dogged reporters from major newspapers haven't. Whether that's because he had unprecedented access — Wolff says he had “something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing” — or because his filter was just more relaxed than others, it's worth evaluating each claim individually and not just taking every scandalous thing said about the White House as gospel.