Nobody is more stunned about the stratospheric sales of “Fire and Fury” than the guy who wrote it.
Michael Wolff and I were talking backstage prior to his gig last night at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and he confessed that he never saw it coming. He was convinced that he’d gotten the inside skinny about Trump’s den of dysfunction, but in our info-saturated ecosystem, with Trump under scrutiny 24/7, who could have envisioned 11 printings within 12 days of release? Who could have imagined that the first stop on his book tour would be a news event?
But the best explanation is also the simplest: Trump confirms the book on a daily basis.
After hanging out in the West Wing for nine months — amazingly, Trump and his apparatchiks allowed him to do it (“I was let in without anyone weighing the meaning or consequence of what I was going to do,” he said on stage last night) — Wolff concluded in his book that Trump is dangerous, incompetent, ignorant, and unfit to serve:
“Everyone, in his or her own way, struggled to express the baldly obvious fact that the president did not know enough, did not know what he didn’t know, did not particularly care, and, to boot, was confident if not serene in his unquestioned certitudes.”
He drew that assessment from the people who work for Trump: “I was just the guy listening, occasionally nodding my head as if in agreement, and over time, they poured their hearts out.” And virtually everything that Trump has done and said since the book’s release has demonstrated that he got it right.
Wolff has taken heat for declaring that his book “rings true” despite some material that isn’t true — indeed, there are errors (which he acknowledges), such as getting some names wrong and misstating the year that John Boehner quit the House — and I suggested on stage that it would behoove him and his publisher to correct those errors in subsequent printings. But nobody, aside from the deluded Trumpkins, can dispute his portraiture. It “rings true,” because we know with our own eyes and ears that it is.
It also “rings true,” because prominent reporters who aren’t necessarily fond of Wolff acknowledge that it’s true. Susan Glasser, a veteran of Politico, writes in The New Yorker: “His reporting certainly comports with many of the accounts of the president that I’ve heard and read in the last year.” Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, two of the most well-wired Washington journalists, highlight “two things he gets absolutely right … his spot-on portrait of Trump as an emotionally erratic president, and the low opinion of him among some of those serving him.”
But Trump is the book’s best salesman. Yesterday, his doctor announced that his health is fabulous in every respect, and said that Trump is 6 foot 3. In previous years, Trump has often been described as 6 foot 2, but, by giving him an extra inch, Trump’s reported weight — 239 pounds — no longer qualifies as obese. (I joked on stage that, “contrary to Michael’s book, Trump has indeed grown in office.”) And sure enough, midway through Wolff’s book, he writes that Trump in the past has “lied about his height to keep from having a body mass index that would label him as obese.”
Ezra Klein, the journalist who founded Vox, says: “The picture painted of Trump in Wolff’s book is the same picture painted of Trump by Trump’s own tweets, speeches, comments, and actions.” The last nine days have been a classic illustration, fattening Wolff’s wallet. What follows is only a partial list:
Trump screwed up the delicate immigration negotiations with a vile racist remark that he and his abetters spent four days trying to deny. Trump boasted of his “performance” at an immigration confab, and said that broadcast big shots had sent him “letters” of praise. (Huh? What letters?)
Trump canceled a trip to London, claiming in a tweet that it’s because he’s “not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for ‘peanuts’…” (In truth, he canceled because he feared hostile crowds; by the way, it was George W. Bush who sold the old embassy — for security reasons.)
Trump tweeted that he was a “very stable genius,” and announced that he opposed a key national security bill after “Fox and Friends” criticized the bill; then, within hours, apparently after advisers reminded him that he’s supposed to support the bill, tweeted that he was for it.
Let’s see what else … Trump attacked the press, announcing that he plans to take a strong look at our libel laws, because he thinks it’s wrong that journalists can “knowingly” print false information. (Um, guess what: According to long-established rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, journalists are already in legal jeopardy if they knowingly print false info.) Trump railed against former FBI director James Comey, telling the Wall Street Journal that “everybody” in the agency “hated Comey” (there’s no evidence), that the Comey-led agency was “in turmoil” (again, no evidence), and that two FBI officials who were found to have criticized him in private texts had committed “treason … See, that’s treason right there.” (That may be considered “treason” in Putin’s Russia, but not here.)
There was much more, of course — not including the reports that candidate Trump was blackmailed in 2016 by a porn star with whom he’d canoodled a year into his marriage to Melania. That kind of thing doesn’t even tilt the shock meter anymore.
I asked Wolff whether he believes (based on the aggregate info he got from White House insiders) that Trump is just crazy — or crazy like a fox. He said that Trump is too stupid to be Machiavellian, too impulsive to be calculated. There is no grand master plan. There is only the present moment.
There will be many more books in this vein — conservative commentator David Frum’s “Trumpocracy” is brand new, and deserves not to be buried by the Wolff avalanche — and they could help stoke a massive electoral backlash, a blue tsunami in the November midterms. The tea leaves are propitious. Last night, there was a special state Senate election in a rural Wisconsin district where 59 percent of the ’16 voters supported Trump, and where the most recent Republican state Senate incumbent triumphed with 63 percent. But last night, the female Democratic state Senate candidate stunned the GOP, winning the rural-red district by nine points.
Timing is everything, in journalism as well as politics. Wolff has caught the wave.