One of the biggest questions surrounding Michael Wolff's provocative-yet-sloppy book about the Trump administration is: How did he get so much access? Wolff, by his own account, seemed to inhabit the West Wing for an extended period of time while collecting blockbuster quotes and assembling juicy anecdotes that made the White House look inept, confused and amateurish. And somehow, they just let him do it.
Now we know more. And it's as bad as you might have imagined.
Bloomberg News's Jennifer Jacobs reports that Wolff worked his way into the White House by pitching the book with a laughably misleading working title — “The Great Transition: The First 100 Days of the Trump Administration” — and basically stayed there because nobody with any authority thought to question his motives or presence. It's a spectacular comedy of errors by the White House that would be a lot funnier if this weren't describing the seat of the federal government of the United States.
I mean, we knew Trump was susceptible to flattery — to an extent — but Jacobs's story confirms just about every preconception about both that and what a hot mess the White House's day-to-day operations are. The means by which Wolff gained access are, in a lot of ways, the greatest confirmation that could exist for the central premise of his book.
Among the anecdotes:
- “Wolff’s entree began with Trump himself, who phoned the author in early February to compliment him on a CNN appearance in which Wolff criticized media coverage of the new president.” (Of course.)
- “Nearly everyone who spoke with Wolff thought someone else in the White House had approved their participation.”
- “Wolff conducted himself with assurance on his visits to the West Wing, playing up his relationship with Trump. Officials recall Wolff telling them he’d known Trump a long time and that the president called him 'the best.'”
- “It wasn’t until late August that alarm bells were raised in the White House — when [White House communications director Hope] Hicks, Jared Kushner and their allies realized that fellow aides who had spoken with Wolff, especially Bannon, may have provided damaging anecdotes about them.”
- “After [John] Kelly replaced Priebus as chief of staff at the end of July, Wolff was no longer allowed to linger in the West Wing lobby, a doctor’s waiting room-like area where visitors come and go and staff occasionally cut through.”
The downside of this sloppiness in this case is now abundantly apparent. Wolff's book included devastating quotes from then-top White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon about the president's children and about the Robert S. Mueller III investigation. Its thrust is decidedly opposed to “The Great Transition,” and it is replete with somewhat dubious stories about what's happening behind the scenes. And looking at Wolff's history — including an unkind biography of Rupert Murdoch that was picked apart for inaccuracies nearly a decade ago and plenty of media columns about his tendency to play fast and loose — it shouldn't have been too difficult to see this one coming. Yet flattery was all Wolff needed to turn himself into a sheep, and he stayed a sheep because nobody cared to question whether he was merely donning the clothing of one.
But what happens when it's not just an author with a smile on his face, a well-rehearsed pitch and a bag full of ulterior motives? What happens when it's a foreign diplomat visiting the Oval Office and trying to pry classified information from the president? What happens when it's Vladimir Putin talking to Trump privately at an international summit? What happens when it's China asking him to back off on that whole currency-manipulator thing. Are there really no safeguards against Trump being seduced by the siren song of flattery?
The best possible interpretation of Jacobs's story is that Kelly did instill some discipline into the West Wing and cut off Wolff's easy access. But the fact that so many other people who are still in that building were complicit in allowing Wolff to roam their hallways speaks volumes about just how aimless 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can be.