Ryan Lizza is a senior political analyst for CNN and chief political correspondent for Esquire.
The author’s note that opens “Siege,” Michael Wolff’s sequel to “Fire and Fury” — which documented President Trump’s first year in office, much of it through the anonymous musings of Steve Bannon — reads like the scene-setting crawl at the start of a Star Wars movie. The reader learns that Wolff’s new account begins in February 2018, when the “president’s capricious furies have been met by an increasingly organized and methodical institutional response” and Trump’s “own government, even his own White House, has begun to turn on him.” Instead of cutting to Hoth, the distant ice planet in “The Empire Strikes Back” that’s home to the struggling rebellion, we soon cut to Bannon’s kitchen table.
Bannon has been driven out of the White House by Trump and dumped by his financial patrons, the Mercers. He has set up shop in a shabby Capitol Hill townhouse, theatrically known as the Embassy, which, it slowly becomes clear, might as well be Hoth. It takes 193 pages, but we eventually learn that Bannon hasn’t talked to Trump since he was fired.
That doesn’t prevent Wolff from centering the entire narrative on the president’s former aide. So the new Wolff book is much like the last one: a sail through the Trump diaspora and inside the president’s head with Bannon as the cruise director. But also like the last book, “Siege” is ultimately crippled by three flaws: Wolff’s overreliance on a single character, and one who is now more distant from the action; factual errors that mar the author’s credibility; and sourcing that is so opaque it renders the scoops highly suspicious and unreliable.
For long stretches of “Siege,” Trump and the White House staff disappear and the reader is subjected to a tedious ticktock of Bannon’s travels and his plotting from the Embassy, where he pontificates throughout 2018 about how the Republicans will win the midterms (they didn’t), how his nationalist project is still ascendant in the GOP (it isn’t), how Robert Mueller will destroy the Trump presidency (he didn’t), and how Bannon himself may have to replace Trump and run for president in 2020, with Sean Hannity as his running mate (we’ll have to wait for Episode III).
In the acknowledgments, Bannon is the only named source whom Wolff thanks, praising him effusively and, in an allusion to Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” calling him “the Virgil anyone might be lucky enough to have as a guide for a descent into Trumpworld.” In reality Bannon is more like Wolff’s Farinata, the former Florentine political leader whom Dante portrays as banished to the circle of hell for heretics, where, alone in his tomb, he still obsesses about his own era in politics but has no access to current events unless one of the dead brings him a snippet of news from the center of power.
In “Siege,” the dead arrive at Bannon’s doorstep in the form of former Trump aides such as Corey Lewandowski, David Bossie, Sam Nunberg and Jason Miller, and Wolff, like many other Washington reporters, absorbs a mix of gossip, misinformation and occasional insight that the outer rings of Trump advisers are famous for circulating.
This rogues’ gallery of Trump hangers-on that Wolff seems to depend on is sometimes presented as a group of devoted ideological rebels trying to keep the flame of true MAGA alive. According to Wolff, several of them, usually working through Hannity, who has better access to the president, press Trump on issues like building the border wall or declaring a national emergency over immigration. Bossie and Lewandowski “weren’t operatives, they were believers,” Wolff credulously reports, a statement that will generate guffaws among Republicans. But mostly, Bannon’s knitting circle is involved in low-level score-settling — often against then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner — and making money off their association with Trump. Lewandowski and Bossie hawk a conspiracy book about the “deep state” even though, according to Wolff, Bannon tells their ghostwriter that “none of this is true.”
Wolff’s rebels and Trump are co-dependent but clear-eyed about each other. Trump, Wolff writes, likes Lewandowski more than his own sons, even though he derides him as an “ass kisser.” Trump says Bossie, who unsuccessfully maneuvers to become chief of staff, is “shifty.” Nunberg is mocked by the president for living with his parents, and Wolff quotes Trump remarking of Miller, “I get the people who no one else wants.”
Likewise, they have no illusions about Trump. Wolff summarizes the view of the president from the ragtag Embassy team: Trump is a “clown,” an “idiot” and a “nutter.”
Bannon’s core political project of attaining power by stoking racial resentment is left uncriticized by Wolff. (In case there is any doubt about this, Bannon tells Wolff: “If you voted for Trump, every picture of a Mexican immigrant, a parent or a child, together or apart, reconfirms that vote.”) Wolff’s obsession with documenting Bannon’s every thought, while remaining uninterested in the reality of the racial politics unleashed by him and Trump, reaches peak hilarity when he earnestly quotes Bannon’s dissection of whether the president is an anti-Semite (probably not) or a racist (probably). While many who have studied Trump — for a fraction of the time that Wolff has — have easily made up their minds on the issue, Wolff, who quotes Trump making racist and anti-Semitic remarks and calling Mexicans “wetbacks,” writes that whether he is a racist or not is “a rosebud riddle.”
However, Bannon’s frequently shrewd observations make it clear why Wolff finds him irresistible. The author is mostly interested in Trump’s psychology. He is adept at documenting the president’s lunacy, and Bannon is frequently an able fellow shrink. For example, he credibly theorizes that Trump’s inevitable disgust with anyone who works for him is a natural outgrowth of his alleged self-hatred. “Hating himself, he of course comes to hate anyone who seems to love him,” Bannon tells Wolff. “If you seem to respect him, he thinks he’s put something over on you — therefore you’re a fool.”
But the idea that Wolff is documenting some larger ideological struggle in the Trump GOP is mostly familiar Bannon spin. According to Wolff, Lewandowski reports that “he had almost wet himself” during a White House confrontation with Kelly, a former Marine, who grabbed Lewandowski by the collar outside the Oval Office. What Wolff leaves out about this well-known episode, first reported by the New York Times, is that Kelly was yelling at Lewandowski for trying to profit off Trump’s presidency. Wolff also ignores, perhaps because of his publishing deadline, that Bossie was officially excommunicated from Trumpworld in May when the Trump campaign suggested he was running a “scam group” that was “interested in filling their own pockets with money from innocent Americans’ paychecks.” Believers indeed.
Wolff’s broad conceptual error — that the real heart of Trumpism is heroically being kept alive by Bannon’s band of true-believing outsiders — would be forgivable if the book wasn’t marred by two more strikes: some cringeworthy errors, and sourcing that renders the extremely fun and juicy quotes sprinkled across every chapter as, sadly, difficult to trust.
Wolff reports that he had two fact-checkers assigned to the book, but they apparently weren’t enough. He writes that after Ty Cobb left the White House, Trump’s only lawyers were Jay Sekulow and Rudy Giuliani (whom he describes as “drunk on a bid for further attention, or just drunk”). Wolff seems not to know that Trump hired Jane and Martin Raskin, whose names do not appear in the book, to deal with the Mueller probe. He writes that Russians hacked the email account of John Podesta and servers at the Democratic National Committee after July 27, 2016, the day Trump famously called on Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. That’s wrong. The Podesta hack happened in March, the DNC hack happened in April, and the fruits of those hacks had already been released, which is why Trump made the comment.
Wolff observes that reporting on Trump is difficult because the president and many of the people who work for him or advise him lie indiscriminately. Other reporters have faced this dilemma by maximizing the number of sources needed to confirm the many rumors that swirl around Trump and by generally increasing transparency to retain reader trust in an environment where the president regularly attacks truthful reporting as fake.
Wolff takes a different approach. Dramatic scoops are plopped down on the page with no sourcing whatsoever. Would-be newsmaking quotes are often attributed to Trump and senior officials without any context about when or to whom they were made.
Wolff clearly relies on the work of dozens of other reporters on the Trump beat, but because he rarely uses any attributions, the reader never knows whether a fact he’s relaying comes from him or elsewhere. For example, he writes that Kushner was briefed by intelligence officials that his friend Wendi Deng might be a Chinese spy. The reader would be forgiven for thinking this was another Wolff scoop, rather than a major exclusive reported by the Wall Street Journal in early 2018.
The cutting comments Wolff attributes to Trump certainly sound like the president: “the stupidest man in Congress” and a “religious nut” (Mike Pence); “gives me the creeps” (Karen Pence); “feeble” (John Kelly); “a girl” (Kushner); “looks like a mental patient” (Giuliani); “a pretty stupid boy” who “has too many f---ing kids” (Donald Trump Jr.); “men’s shop salesmen” (Republican House candidates); “ignoramuses” (Trump’s communications team); “the only stupid Jew” (Michael Cohen); “a dirty rat” (former White House counsel Donald McGahn); a “virgin crybaby” who was “probably molested by a priest” (Brett Kavanaugh); “the poor man’s Ann Coulter” (Kellyanne Conway); “sweaty” (Stephen Miller). But the lack of sourcing transparency and footnotes does not inspire confidence.
By far the biggest scoop in the book is a document that Wolff alleges is a draft indictment, eventually ignored, of the president from inside the special counsel’s office. In addition to the alleged indictment, Wolff reports on several interesting and newsworthy memos outlining Mueller’s legal strategy for what to do if Trump pardoned Michael Flynn or tried to shut down the investigation. These documents, if verified, would rescue the book, because they offer the first real glimpse inside the nearly airtight Mueller operation.
On Tuesday, the special counsel’s office issued a rare on-the-record statement insisting that the “documents described do not exist.”
By Michael Wolff
Henry Holt. 335 pp. $30