Fire and Fury cover and Steve Bannon — Photo: Gage Skidmore
Michael Wolff contends that the reason for his book, the explosive tell-all Fire and Fury, which documents the election campaign and first ten months of the Trump presidency, “could not be more obvious.” For Wolff, the book’s sources and interviews, observations and information-gathering, all told in contemporaneous fashion, are intended to be something world-changing. In both his author’s note and in subsequent press interviews, he has spoken of the importance of the revelations contained within, of its glimpse into the Trump White House, and of its rigorous journalism. But in practice, across 336 pages, it’s less convincing.
However, while Fire and Fury (★★★½) may not bring down the presidency, it is still damning, horrifying even, in its portrayal of a President and his staff knowingly — even willfully — ill-equipped to lead the most powerful nation on earth. It raises numerous questions about Trump, his fitness for office, and the staff and advisers he has surrounded himself with. And it constantly reiterates the same points to remind us that this is the president we’re talking about, and yes, things are this bad.
Take Donald Trump himself, who is dealt most of the scathing blows in Fire and Fury. The title itself is an excerpt from a speech he gave threatening a response of “fire and fury” should North Korea continue provocations in the region. Trump is, in Wolff’s telling, a complete buffoon, a man utterly unprepared for the power of the office he holds, who runs the White House with the same unstructured style of his ramshackle business organization. Those around him — family, friends, employees — think he is a “moron,” “dumb as shit,” a “fucking idiot,” and “stupid.” The opening days of the presidency — and the opening moments of the book — feature Trump’s bewildered staff, shocked that he actually won the election, assuring themselves that, “We can make this work.” Or, as Wolf writes, “at the very least this could possibly work.” Some three hundred pages later, it’s doubtful anyone would believe that mantra now.
Under particular scrutiny is Trump’s mental health. He is, by most accounts, deficient in his understanding of complex issues, his ability to retain information, and the way he processes relationships with people. Katie Walsh, who served as Trump’s Deputy Chief of Staff for just two months until she couldn’t take the disarray any longer, described trying to work out Trump’s policy agenda as “like trying to figure out what a child wants.” Further questioning his mental state, Trump’s “rambling and alarming repetitions” had, by September 2017, “significantly increased,” Wolff writes, such that “his ability to stay focused, never great, had notably declined.”
And the blows keep coming. Trump doesn’t read, doesn’t even skim — he’s only “semiliterate,” according to some — and gains all of his knowledge from television. He retreats to his bedroom, which he doesn’t share with First Lady Melania Trump, to watch three televisions all streaming cable news, while eating a cheeseburger. He desperately craves respect and attention, despite being the most powerful man in the world. He instructed the White House’s cleaning staff to not touch anything, his paranoia leading him to strip his own bed.
One thing LGBTQ readers will note is a lack of mention of the Trump administration’s attitudes towards LGBTQ rights. Trump’s transgender military ban, one of his most controversial actions in his first twelve months, is used merely to highlight a point about Trump’s impulsive nature. Trump was presented with four different options related to the military’s trans policy. “The presentation was meant to frame an ongoing discussion,” Wolff writes, “but ten minutes after receiving the discussion points, and without further consultation, Trump tweeted his transgender ban.”
Behind the scenes, the White House is described as a chaotic place, where staffers vie for attention, Bannon drove most of the initial policy decisions, Kushner tried to learn statesmanship, and everyone else waited for the next political shitstorm to hit. Wolff could easily be called tabloid for the way his book is written, but its fly-on-the-wall nature also lends it a compulsive quality. Contemporaneous style means that we’re in the conversations, the discussions, the meetings. Aides bitch about Trump, trusted advisers question him, Trump himself goes on lengthy diatribes about his employees, often negative. Questions remain about just how accurate all of this is — the White House has, of course, denied everything — and Wolff knowingly includes contradictory statements, “allowing the reader to judge them.” Rigorous and principled journalism this isn’t.
But it is utterly fascinating, and what makes it all the more compelling is that, amid all of the questions, the suppositions, the conversations that Wolff tells as if he was there, the reader can easily believe all — or even most — of it. That’s the making of Trump’s presidency: When we’re told that his daughter laughs about his comb-over, we believe it. When we’re told that his mental health is deteriorating, to the point that his staff won’t let him do an unscripted interview, we believe it. When Wolff suggests Trump serially cheats on Melania, we believe it.
Indeed, of everyone in the book, Melania Trump is perhaps its most sympathetic character. Depicted as the big loser in all of this, she was a woman happy with her life in New York, shielded in a golden tower from Trump’s extended family, from her communist Slovenian upbringing, and from the less desirable moments of her past. Donald Trump, an absentee father, was allegedly constantly unfaithful to her, but also bragged about her looks — often while she stood next to him. She worried that his presidential ambitions would “destroy her carefully sheltered life.” When images of a nude Melania Trump leaked during the campaign, she was “inconsolable,” Wolff says. The kicker? It was “a leak that everybody other than Melania assumed could be traced back to Trump himself.” On election night, as Trump’s ill-prepared campaign realized he’d won, Melania “was in tears — and not of joy.”
Fire and Fury, essentially, is a book about palace intrigue. Wolff, by inserting himself into the campaign, the White House, and conducting extensive interviews, has painted a narrative that not only corroborates much of the negative reporting that surrounds the Trump presidency, but expands upon it. It is 330 pages of constant, never-ending criticism and scandal. Whether it’s the inadequacies of the people running our country, the decreasing mental state of the man at the top, or the sheer “How the fuck did this even happen?” nature of Trump’s election win, Fire and Fury is as damning as a book of this nature can be. It won’t win prizes, and it’s highly unlikely it’ll change the minds of Trump’s supporters, but for anyone seeking to confirm their suspicions — however accurate — of life inside the Trump White House, it’s a gripping read.
Fire and Fury, published by Henry Holt and Company, retails for $30 and is available now in hardback, e-book and audiobook from Amazon.com and other retailers.