Editor’s note: Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, has been an unhappy revelation to us all about life in the Trump administration. This week, Martha Trudeau Tucker gives us a review and a personal response to the book. She says it confirms our worst fears, and more.
by Martha Trudeau Tucker
Dread…that is what I was filled with prior to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Anxiety…that succeeded dread, or perhaps enhanced it, when Trump became president. Now Trump has been President for over a year, and I have just finished reading Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. I had to read it in short spurts, because I became so demoralized and afraid when I read it. All of my fears and expectations of the type of president Trump would become were confirmed on almost every page, giving me a severe case of despair. Our presidency is a carnival show, entertainment television, National Enquirer material, a travesty, resembling to no degree the essence and conduct of prior administration. Wolff focuses primarily on life in the West Wing, key players, and Ivanka Trump & Jared Kushner. He observes Trump, notes his blow-ups and rants, and the fear that staffers feel about him. Let me share with you the things that the book confirmed for me, and those that came as a revelation.
Wolff’s account confirms my observations that Trump is an egomaniac, a bully, liar, an anti-intellectual, a non-reader, someone who likes to grandstand, make outrageous comments about either policy or individuals, often rescinding them in a day or two; he is someone who lacks a moral compass for either himself or the nation, and, bottom line, is driven by his ego, his narcissism, and what is desirable for him and his billionaire friends. Ethics? Surely you jest. Moral imperative? Now there’s a laugh.
Now in a scenario where we might have this type of president, our bacon might be saved by a solid Cabinet, a board of experienced, knowledgeable individuals who have a solid grounding in the area they represent: the environment, education, health, justice, finance, energy, economics, U.S. & international history & politics, etc., who could shepherd a less well-educated president in each of these areas to shape policy. But no, instead we have an assembly of individuals, largely billionaires, many of whom are as uninformed as Trump and who have biases toward undoing the very Cabinet roles they hold. [Significantly, the Cabinet is hardly mentioned in Wolff’s book, an absence he doesn’t address. It could be he didn’t have the access to members of the Cabinet that he had to members of the staff]—Priebus, Bannon, Kelly, and Jared & Ivanka Trump, whom he conflates as “Jarvanka.” My guess is that the omission is due to the lack of power residing in the Cabinet, a power that exists among the staff and the Trump relatives, who, according to Wolff, fight over it with great relish.
When I was growing up, I held presidents in considerable esteem. They were accomplished individuals, had experience in politics and/or the military, were knowledgeable in many areas, and sought the expertise of people who could supplement their knowledge and provide considered debate and assist in making crucial decisions. One of the characteristics of them I admired was that they could speak in complete sentences, they used a sophisticated vocabulary, and they did not insult their colleagues, other world leaders, or ordinary citizens. However, if they did, they did it behind closed doors, in privacy to work out difficulties, and not on national television or on Twitter. (Of course, twitter and the web did not exist for a good part of that time, which may have been a blessing!). Now we have “winners” and “losers,” most often losers, and we have discussions with international figures that are filled with name-calling, personal disparagement, and threats. How did we get here?
According to Wolff, a large part of our problem was that neither Trump nor his campaign staff expected he would win, even up until the very end on election night. But why do it? He could gain notoriety, position, contacts, etc., and become a national influence without having to do the hard stuff. To him, it was a lark. By all reports, Trump was stunned, blind-sided by his victory, after having promised his wife he would not win and being unprepared for both the transition and the office of President. People hoped that he would probably become “presidential,” would assume the office with a different attitude than he demonstrated during the campaign, but that was not the case.
Perplexing as it is, Trump allowed Wolff to visit the White House regularly for several months, giving him access to the staff and the activities outside, but impacting the Oval Office. Wolff depicts a White House that is fraught with intrigue, disorganization, and lack of essential knowledge for conducting the presidency.
Those elements of the routine aspects of life in the White House did not surprise me, nor do I expect they startled many other people. What did surprise me was the very powerful positioning of Jaren & Ivanka Trump, two unelected individuals without full security clearance, who have constant access to and substantial influence on Trump. Jared was put in charge of handling the Middle East and allowed access to Chinese and Russian officials. His area of expertise was real estate, though it’s become apparent from recent news, that he is involved in trying to influence foreign authorities, borrowing millions of dollars from them, and dealing in illicit activities. Ivanka, whose area of knowledge would appear to be manufacturing clothing and shoes manufactured under suspicious circumstances, has no experience in government, yet she has sat in on Cabinet meetings and those with Chinese officials, and substituted for her father at a conference of world leaders. This behavior is unthinkable, but occurring on a daily basis. One wonders, “Who is minding the store?”
Now, I had some notion of the role of Ivanka and Jared on from news accounts, but had no idea until reading Fire and Fury of the extent of their power. Wolff depicts this couple as pitted in a fierce battle against Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon, another unlikely pair for certain, but with more intelligence and background in government than “Jarvanka,” for sure. Both pairs wanted to “manage” Trump, but with very different goals in mind. Jaren & Ivanka wanted to sit at the adults’ table and be privy to confidential information and further their own interests. Ivanka also exerted some influence in trying to calm her father’s wrath and tantrums. Priebus and Bannon, on the other hand, sought to establish a more regulated process in the White House, hoping to confine access to the president to help him focus more and encourage him to enact some of the promises of his campaign.
Wolff writes, …even to the organizational point, Jared and Ivanka had a wholly independent standing inside the West Wing. A super status. Even as Priebus and Bannon tried to remind the couple of staff procedures and propriety they would in turn remind the West Wing leadership of their overriding First Family prerogatives (p. 70).
That Jared and Ivanka could exert such influence having elbowed their way into the West Wing is truly alarming. Unelected, unscrupulous, they have seen the presidency as a venue for furthering themselves. “The larger truth” Wolff says, “was that Ivanka’s relationship with her father was in no way a conventional family relationship, it was certainly transactional. It was business. Building the brand, the presidential campaign, and now the White House—it was all business (my emphasis).”
This week Jared’s security clearance, which was never completed, was downgraded as a result of his questionable relationships with taking large loans from foreign powers. In fact, Wednesday (Feb. 28), , the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies have learned that officials in at least four foreign countries—the United Arab Emirates, China, Israel, and Mexico—have been discussing ways of exploiting Kushner’s “complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience.” Pursuing personal business in lieu of serving the president and the nation has jeopardized America’s security and Kushner personally.
The revolving door of Trump’s White House has seen Priebus and Bannon ousted and John Kelly brought in as chief of staff. Kelly has certainly brought a sense of some order to the White House, but like Priebus and Bannon, he still battles the status & moves of “Jarvanka.” Wolff writes of the collective understanding among the staff that they are working in a madhouse, but will try to support the President and make it work: “The fundamental premise of nearly everybody who joined the Trump White House was, This can work. We can help make this work. Now only three-quarters of the way through just the first year of Trump’s term, there was literally not one member of the senior staff who could any longer say that (304). Currently on the Web, a Bingo card is circulating which depicts all the staff at the White House & beyond, with red X’s across the faces of those who have already jumped ship or have been ousted. One wonders when the red marks will fill the entire card.
Well, I certainly know more now than when I began reading Wolff’s book, the title of which is drawn from Trump’s remarks about North Korea: “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” My anxiety, however, has not been allayed. I feel somewhat like entering a dentist’s office where an auto mechanic or a waiter is going to drill my teeth. Now I know that just about no one is minding the store, since they are so absorbed by their in-fighting and positioning. I’m reminded of a favorite quote from a poem by William Butler Yeats:, “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Wolff has done us a service by writing this detailed, and I believe, pretty accurate account of today’s White House, unnerving as it is. My hope is that he is preparing a sequel which records the fall of the Trump administration and the justice that will be served when it is over.