During the reporting of his latest book on the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, “Fire and Fury” author Michael Wolff says he got an invitation to meet the former president at Mar-a-Lago. In an interview, he tells DER SPIEGEL what ensued.
Interview Conducted By Marc Pitzke
“Let’s sit in the garden,” says Michael Wolff. The 67-year-old journalist and author usually lives in New York City’s Greenwich Village, in an old, book-filled townhouse. But today, he has invited DER SPIEGEL to the Hamptons, the wealthy enclave at the eastern tip of Long Island. Wolff owns a modest (by comparison) white colonial summer home here, hidden behind tall hedges.
Birds sing in the jasmine-scented air as Wolff serves fresh coffee and sits down at a wooden picnic table.
His books “Fire and Fury” (2018) and “Siege: Trump under Fire” (2019) were full of sensational insider gossip about Donald Trump, whom Wolff describes as more or less imbecilic, and the chaos in his White House. They set off a furor and were translated into dozens of languages. One of Wolff’s most important sources was Steve Bannon, who was let go as Trump’s chief advisor.
Wollf insists that he really wanted to write about something completely different next. Then Jan. 6 happened.
His third book about the 45th U.S. president is being published in the U.S. on July 13: “Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency.”
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Wolff, you have already written two books about Donald Trump and he’s threatened to sue you for libel. Nevertheless, he spoke to you, for a long time, for your new book. How on earth did that happen?
Michael Wolff: The last thing I wanted to write is another Trump book. But the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the whole post-election lie – that’s such an outrageous story, how can you not tell it? So, I began to make a few calls to some people around the former president, and one of those people told him. Then they called and asked if I wanted to meet him.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you explain that?
Wolff: Trump told his people that guy – me – gets big ratings, so let’s see him. For Trump the goal is almost entirely the media attention. Good, bad, indifferent, doesn’t matter. I’m not the only author he has seen, but I would assume that I’m the most disliked author that he’s seen. But that doesn’t play into his conception of the world. It’s not like or dislike. It’s not right or wrong. It’s what can you do for me? It’s just about answering his needs, desires and inclinations in the moment. So, here’s a guy, he sells a lot of books, why not? And it’s not as if you’re going there and actually having an exchange.
DER SPIEGEL: Then what are you having?
Wolff: It’s all about hearing the sound of his own voice. The people he talks to are ultimately interchangeable.
DER SPIEGEL: Where did you meet him? At Mar-a-Lago, his club?
DER SPIEGEL: What was that like?
Wolff: Mar-a-Lago is a weird place. You enter this room with so many different design features that you think, what is this? Hunting lodge, Baroque, Renaissance palace. It’s all in one, in a big room. And it’s effectively the lobby, which is where Trump conducts all his business. He doesn’t go to an office. He does it right in the middle of the lobby, so everybody can see him and everybody can hear him. He was sitting with a group, there was a senator from Kansas who was clearly just sucking up. Trump was largely uninterested in what he was saying. For him it was just blah, blah, blah. As I was waiting, one of Trump’s guys said to me, this is just like when you were sitting on the couch in the West Wing. Oh, my God, we’re not going to do that again, are we?
DER SPIEGEL: When you were researching “Fire and Fury,” you positioned yourself on a little couch in the lobby of the West Wing to catch all the latest gossip.
Wolff: Yeah. And when Trump finished with the senator and saw me, it was like he was seeing his best and oldest friend. He said, those books you wrote were very mean and very wrong. But I don’t blame you. I blame my people who talked to you. And then he invited me to dinner with him and Melania.
DER SPIEGEL: What’s that like, a dinner with the Trumps?
Wolff: Mar-a-Lago opens up to this patio with probably 40 tables. He’s there every night, right in the middle, and there’s a little red rope that goes around where he and Melania sit. It’s not really “dinner.” They are more like the bride and groom at a wedding party. The whole night people come up to them to kiss the ring while he has a monologue going. It doesn’t really matter who he’s talking to, it’s just kind of a spray, and whoever is in front of him gets sprayed with the conversation. I, too, became a prop. Michael Wolff, the world’s greatest writer, blah, blah, blah.
DER SPIEGEL: How did he look to you? I saw him at his first post-presidential rally in Ohio, and he seemed healthier, fitter than before.
Wolff: He looked terrific. When most presidents come out of the presidency, they really look older, like they’ve been through a very tough period. He looked fantastic.
DER SPIEGEL: Has he blossomed being back in his private life?
Wolff: Totally. But it’s not significantly different from life in the White House for him, as life in the White House was not significantly different than life in Trump Tower. His days are just filled with people flattering him. And sometimes he flatters somebody, but it’s all basically about the sound of his own voice. Blah, blah, blah.
DER SPIEGEL: With dangerous consequences, if you look at the events since the elections – he still doesn’t acknowledge his loss.
Wolff: Completely. It’s dangerous because he’s in some other reality and manages to bring a good part of the country along with him. Even though there was not one single person in the White House, in his campaign, in his family, who took any of this seriously or who believed in any of this, you know? No one believed that he won the election. No one believed he could do anything to meaningfully disrupt the results of the election. No one believed it. No one, 100 percent no one believed that Joe Biden was not going to be the president on Jan. 20.
DER SPIEGEL: So, Jan. 6 was not an attempted cop?
Wolff: That’s just political reporters trying to apply some logic to this. There is no logic to this. There was no plan. He is deranged. The guy can’t get from the beginning of the sentence to the end of a sentence. Everybody knows there was no election fraud, except Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani. It’s like they’re on some other planet.
DER SPIEGEL: Was Trump really that clueless on Jan. 6? He told the mob to march to the Capitol and that he’d march with them.
Wolff: He didn’t mean it. He told his horrified chief-of staff, Mark Meadows, that he didn’t mean it seriously. And everybody around him said, what do you mean, march to the Capitol? He’s going to walk? He doesn’t walk anywhere.
DER SPIEGEL: Does he understand at this point that the attack by the right-wing mob happened in his name? What was your takeaway?
Wolff: Jan. 6 is still confusing to him. He asks, who were these people? He calls them “the great unwashed” He doesn’t really acknowledge Jan. 6 as it related to him. He only wanted Vice President Mike Pence to reject the election results in Congress, so he could continue to be president.
DER SPIEGEL: Even though most of his people told him that was not going to happen.
Wolff: It literally did not penetrate.
DER SPIEGEL: Sounds like the nation was in the clutches of a madman.
Wolff: Completely. He just believed that his power of persuasion was so great that he would just convince the vice- president to do that. He can’t perceive any outside reality, and he can’t take in any information that contradicts his reality.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you try to contradict his reality?
Wolff: I went in and said, so you think the election has been stolen? OK, I’ll accept that. Tell me how. Who stole it? Who were the bad guys here?
DER SPIEGEL: And what did he say?
Wolff: That question was never answered. It was just, I’ll get you those names, but not now.
DER SPIEGEL: What was Giuliani’s role in all this?
Wolff: Rudy is Trumpian figure, except he was a Trumpian figure before Trump. And Rudy’s dysfunction is different than Trump’s. It’s about desperation.
DER SPIEGEL: You’ve known the former mayor of New York City for a long time, what’s going on there?
Wolff: There’s obviously something self-destructive about Rudy. He’s drinking heavily, all the time. He’s unusually fat. Even Trump knows this. Trump says to many people, Rudy is crazy, Rudy is drunk, Rudy is this and that. But Trump looks for someone who will say what he wants them to say. And if nobody else is saying it except Rudy, then Rudy is great. He calls him “The Mayor.”
DER SPIEGEL: Did Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and Ivanka Trump, his daughter, talk to you?
Wolff: Let me not say who I spoke to.
DER SPIEGEL: Not even who spoke to you on the record?
Wolff: They did not speak to me on the record (smirks).
DER SPIEGEL: So, what did you find out about them off the record?
Wolff: Jared Kushner’s story is actually a pretty interesting one. He’s really the only survivor of the last four years. Jared was the second-most powerful person in the White House from day one until the end. And he was the only one who figured out how to deal with Trump, when you could move him and when to get out of the room. Jared’s survival is an interesting subplot of the Trump era.
DER SPIEGEL: Which leaves the question: Who was running the country for the last four years?
Wolff: There were a series of figures in the White House who have held things together to the extent that they were held together. Jared is one of those people. But it’s a low level of holding things together, you know? This was a very highly dysfunctional White House. They couldn’t hire people. When they did hire people, they were often immediately fired. The accomplishments of this White House were really only the accomplishments of the Republican Congressional majority. So, in some way, it was Mitch McConnell running the White House. The executive branch was mostly trying to distract the president from his worst impulses.
DER SPIEGEL: Could he have been a successful president, under different circumstances?
Wolff: Yeah – if he had been a different person. Could he have had a meaningful impact? I suppose so. But he didn’t really care about that. He doesn’t even care about the folks at his rallies. The only thing he cares about is the attention on himself. Trump is a performer, he’s not a politician. And the White House became his stage and the base was his audience, and he delivered exactly what they wanted.
DER SPIEGEL: In “Fire and Fury,” you wrote that Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News, doesn’t like Trump. You have good contacts to the Murdoch empire – did he welcome Trump’s election loss?
Wolff: Murdoch’s role is a tragedy. Rupert Murdoch cannot stand Donald Trump, indeed. Even when I wrote my Murdoch biography (“The Man Who Owns the News,” 2008), he would talk about Trump with enormous contempt. Trump just made his skin crawl. But then, partly because of Fox News, Trump became the president of the United States, and Murdoch was forced to essentially suck up to him. That was incredibly painful to Murdoch. Two of his kids are Democrats and can’t abide this in any way, shape or form. That tears the family apart.
DER SPIEGEL: It already tore Murdoch’s empire apart. Do you think that Murdoch needs to fear for his legacy because of Trump?
Wolff: Yes, because he was a man wholly focused on his legacy, on the family. And that’s not there anymore. I think it’s very sad for him. But you know, what does he feel? I don’t know. He doesn’t speak to me anymore.
DER SPIEGEL: There’s talk that after the election, Trump was under the impression that German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron supported his election lie.
Wolff: The people in the White House tried to bring him only good news. So, everybody started to say, they’ve gotten messages through back channels that Merkel, Macron and Boris Johnson supported his denial of the election loss.
DER SPIEGEL: That was made up?
Wolff: Totally made up. But he still believes it. I brought Merkel up with him at Mar-a-Lago because I was expecting him to say terrible things about her. I thought, oh, that’ll play good in the German market. But then suddenly he’s saying, no, no, no: Angela, she’s really a big fan.
DER SPIEGEL: His opinion about Steve Bannon obviously vacillated, too. He fired him as chief advisor, and then he was back suddenly. How did that happen?
Wolff: It was as basic as it appears to be. Steve (who had been convicted of fraud and money laundering) needed a pardon. So, he just said what Trump wanted to hear. That’s the price of a pardon.
DER SPIEGEL: Those last-minute pardons caused quite a story. What else did you find out about them?
Wolff: He offered Giuliani a pardon, too. But Giuliani didn’t want a pardon because it had made him look guilty. The interesting about the pardons is that Trump wasn’t very interested in them. He didn’t want to spend time thinking about other people. But then there was the Ghislaine moment. (Ghislaine Maxwell, the former girlfriend of Jeffrey Epstein, who is in jail awaiting trial for sex crimes.) He asked everybody, is she going to flip on somebody? What’s she going to say? Will she roll? Trump always talks in this kind of mobster talk.
DER SPIEGEL: In the end, he didn’t pardon her. What did Trump think about Jeffrey Epstein? They were friends once – before it was revealed that Epstein ran a ring sexually exploiting minors and he committed suicide in jail.
Wolff: I just heard that he thought Jeffrey Epstein was murdered and had not killed himself in jail. I thought, that’ll be interesting to get out of him. But his advisor Jason Miller said, I wouldn’t go there. The way I interpreted it was that you have to avoid those kinds of things that are going to end the conversation.
DER SPIEGEL: Was this your last Trump book?
Wolff: I promise.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Wolff, we thank you for this interview.