Access journalism comes at a price. If a subject seeks palace privileges, (s)he must act in a manner befitting to the King or risk expulsion from his court. Dissent in any capacity, at least in Tudor times, would be met with a rolling head (arrivederci, Cromwell).
If only the President had it so easy.
Michael Wolff’s scathing account of Donald Trump’s chaotic nine months in office has sent White House PR into a tailspin. Granted a de facto fly-on-the-wall status by Trump functionaries, Wolff promised a counter-narrative to the plethora of negative stories directed towards the President. After all, it was Wolff’s contrarian reputation and his brandished disdain for mainstream media outlets like The New York Times that made him a ripe pick for the Administration. But instead, Wolff opted for the reverse, vehemently castigating the Trump Administration in almost every conceivable area.
Do the ends justify the Machiavellian means? While journalists remain deeply divided over this question, there is no denying Wolff’s ability as a storyteller. Playing with what Stephen Colbert once called ‘truthiness’, Fire and Fury portrays a deeply dysfunctional and chaotic White House, run by its ‘child-cum-emperor’ Donald Trump. Questioning his mental capabilities, Wolff deems Trump a semi-literate; his apparent propensity to half-read short policy briefs is second only to his flagrant disinterest in domestic issues such as the opioid crisis, which Trump finds tedious.
Trump’s cabinet do not escape Wolff’s pen either. Riven by factionalism and political in-fighting, Wolff describes a whipsawing power struggle between the Bannonites and ‘Jarvanka’ (Bannon’s crude amalgamation of the names of the President’s daughter and son-in-law). Ultimately, Jarvanka and the ‘Goldman Sachs Democrats’ (Cohn, Mnuchin & Co.) succeed in ousting Bannon, where the narrative ends. Amid this vitriolic power-struggle, there is one figure that remains largely out of shot: Vice President Pence. Less than half a page of the two-hundred-page book is dedicated to the potential President, who is made out to be little more than a vapid non-entity in White House affairs.
It is Bannon, the Administration’s hard-line ideologue and arguably the book’s central character, who provides Wolff with his juiciest soundbites. Labelling Don Jr.’s surreptitious meeting with Russian ‘Jumos’ in Trump Tower as “treasonous” and warning that the Mueller probe was “all about money laundering”, Bannon faced a tidal wave of backlash for these comments. After a begrudging apology to the President, Bannon has since been dismissed as Head of ‘Breitbart News’ by its wealthy conservative backer, Rebekah Mercer.
Wolff lists the support of three fact-checkers in the Acknowledgements, but there are many examples of sloppiness. For one, Wolff confuses Washington Post reporter Mark Berman with Washington lobbyist Mike Berman. Wolff also claims that Trump had ‘never heard’ of former House Speaker John Boehner before he took office. The pair have golfed together on at least one occasion.
Beyond rudimentary fact-checking, a more insidious consequence of Fire and Fury is the fraying of an already-fraught relationship between the executive and media. Entertaining as it may be, Wolff’s bestseller is basically a confirmation of pre-existing public suspicions concerning the chaos in the Trump White House. But now, the level of trust and importantly, access, between the White House and the mainstream media is now at an all-time low. That, as President Trump would tweet, is SAD!