More controversy than usual has been swirling around the White House since the beginning of 2018, with Donald Trump losing his temper over a book accusing him of being an ignorant, TV-addicted narcissist. The bad news, though, is that he’s not going away anytime soon.
Stephen Miller is one of the people charged with convincing the world that everything is just fine, and nothing is out of the ordinary. The White House speechwriter went on CNN a week ago Sunday for a live interview to comment on “Fire and Fury,” the new book about U.S. President Donald Trump by the journalist Michael Wolff. The tome presents the president as psychologically unstable, as dumb, senile and dangerously erratic. “The book is best understood as a work of very poorly written fiction,” Miller said. “The author is a garbage author of a garbage book.”
Miller is 32 years old, but with his thinning hair and polished visage, he looks like he could be in his early 50s. During the election campaign, he flew back and forth across the country with Trump. “The reality is that the president is a political genius,” Miller said. The accusations leveled in the book, he went on, are grotesque, particularly the quotes attributed to Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, who Miller denounced as being “vindictive.” During the course of the interview, he got so worked up that the anchor, Jake Tapper, finally put an end to it, with security guards ultimately leading Miller out of the studio.
Miller’s appearance shows the absurd depths to which the debate over the Trump presidency has sunk. There was, though, at least one viewer who enjoyed the speechwriter’s fit of rage. “Jake Tapper of Fake News CNN just got destroyed in his interview with Stephen Miller,” Trump tweeted. Just a few hours earlier, he had sent out a series of tweets seeking to assure the world of his excellent mental health. He accused the Democrats and their media “lapdogs” of only questioning his mental stability because, as he claimed in a tweet, suppositions of collusion with Russia have “proven to be a total hoax.”
“Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” he tweeted on Sunday morning. He wrote that he went from being a “VERY successful” businessman to TV stardom and then to the presidency. “I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!”
Of course, that’s not how a healthy person talks — it is the voice of mania. And the patient, unfortunately, is the most powerful man in the world, a man who is resented even by his closest aids. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin called Triump an “idiot.” Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, said the president is “dumb as shit,” and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster described Trump as a “dope.” All of these quotes are from “Fire and Fury,” and there could hardly be better corroboration of their veracity than Trump’s outbursts on Twitter and elsewhere. Trump’s behavior is childish, and he has now become obsessed with a book that he hasn’t even read, nor is he likely to.
Incidence of Lunacy
Yet the real-life satire that Trump and his team are currently staging isn’t just another incidence of lunacy. It is a deeply problematic political headache that raises fundamental questions.
How powerful can a superpower be when its leader is beset by increasing calls for his dismissal? Such a thing is possible, in theory at least, either through impeachment or the application of the 25th amendment, which allows for the replacement of a president who is no longer in a position to fulfill his duties for reasons of physical or mental health.
More important, however, is the question as to how Trump — if he gets this upset because of a book — might react in a real crisis. What might he do if North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un lays down the gauntlet? Can Trump really be trusted with control of America’s nuclear arsenal?
The West, it is clear, finds itself in an extremely dangerous situation with this president at the helm in the United States. With his erratic style, Trump has destabilized the alliance with Europe and put wind in the sails of the West’s enemies, including autocrats in China, Russia and the Middle East.
His trips abroad have shown that he feels more comfortable in Riyadh than in Brussels, that he has more fun doing the sword dance with princes than having dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump has transformed the U.S. into a country without a leader. There is hardly a diplomat or head of government anymore who takes what the president says seriously. America can no longer be relied upon.
In just 12 months in office, Trump has made a nuclear war with North Korea conceivable and undermined the principle of international cooperation by terminating trade deals, weakening climate protection, cutting funding for UN organizations and questioning the nuclear deal with Iran. In doing so, he has not only endangered the Western model, but also liberal democracy itself.
And as Wolff’s book shows, it all comes out of a combination of ignorance, narcissism, hunger for power and a lack of compassion. The book’s publication marks a new low point in U.S. history — even for those who thought the country had already hit rock bottom.
Surrounded by Sycophants
Trump, of course, isn’t the first occupant of the White House who has been sick, complicated or difficult to tolerate. Richard Nixon was widely seen as short-tempered, as a liar and an alcoholic. Many questioned Ronald Reagan’s health even before he took the oath of office. And Bill Clinton used his power for sexual escapades.
It also isn’t a new phenomenon for presidents to surround themselves with sycophants who then speak poorly of their boss behind his back. What is new, though, is the cynicism with which Trump’s advisers serve a man who they see as incompetent, crazy and sick. Wolff writes that White House staff members discuss on a daily basis which statements uttered or actions taken by Trump might trigger the invocation of the 25th Amendment. Trump, he writes, isn’t mentally fit enough to carry out his duties, nor did he really want to win the election in the first place. He was, the author asserts, only interested in increasing the value of the Trump brand.
Wolff describes a dysfunctional White House that oscillates between hysteria and chaos. He speaks of bitter infighting between Bannon and “Jarvanka,” a reference to Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. He writes of feuds, leaks and an uninterested president who retreats to his bedroom at 6:30 p.m., eats cheeseburgers, watches Fox News, talks to friends on the telephone and vents on Twitter.
Wolff’s main character and likely his most important source is Stephen Bannon, who was Trump’s chief strategist until last August and who was widely considered to be the most powerful man in the White House after the president himself. Trump’s Mephisto. Indeed, it is Bannon’s quotes in the book that have angered Trump the most. In an official White House statement, he wrote: “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
Joshua Green says that Bannon simply wasn’t cautious enough in his conversations with Wolff. Green is a journalist with Bloomberg Businessweek and knows Bannon better than almost anyone else. Last July, he published “Devil’s Bargain,” a bestseller about the Trump-Bannon alliance. Bannon’s ego, says Green, is just as large as that of Trump — and he ultimately fell victim to his own narcissism.
Even former Bannon supporters have begun casting doubt upon the role he played as a Trump adviser. Trump’s agenda had long been established before Bannon came on board, Roger Stone, a long-time Trump adviser said in an interview with Fox News. From Fox News to the conspiracy-theory worlds of websites like InfoWars and Gateway Pundit, Bannon is now being portrayed as unstable and self-absorbed.
A Self-Proclaimed Revolutionary
Green, though, doesn’t believe that Bannon’s influence on Trump was overstated. The president, he says, has always been plagued by a fear of losing his connection to his base and Bannon, via Breitbart, provided an important link to his voters. “But Wolff’s book enraged Trump to the point where it didn’t matter to him anymore who Bannon was,” he says.
Bannon’s fall began last April, when Kushner and McMaster pushed him out of the National Security Council. In August, he was then forced to leave the White House. Even after that, though, Trump continued to maintain contact with Bannon. But now, the one-time presidential adviser has been excommunicated by the right wing, his half-hearted apology notwithstanding. The family of the arch-conservative hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, who holds a stake in Breitbart and who donated millions to the Trump campaign, withdrew his support for Bannon. Not only was Bannon forced to leave Breitbart (his “killing machine,” as he called it), he also lost his radio show.
The self-proclaimed revolutionary and destroyer of the establishment now finds himself without a platform for his ideas about withdrawing America from the international community and the greatness that allegedly grows out of isolation. But it doesn’t appear as though he is going to disappear entirely.
After being thrown out of the White House, Bannon went on a world tour, to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Abu Dhabi. Green says he can imagine Bannon taking a closer look at Europe with the intention of providing his services to populist parties there. “He closely followed the careers of Frauke Petry and the AfD,” he says, referring to the German right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany and its one-time leader. Green says Bannon has also kept an eye on Marine Le Pen in France and Beppe Grillo in Italy. Bannon, Green is certain, will land on his feet.
“Plus, there are always rich people looking for influence and for a way to get in,” he says.
The ideologue remaining from Bannon’s “nationalist revolution” is Stephen Miller, a man who, Wolff asserts, is unable to write in complete sentences, communicating instead in bullet points. According to an account in the book, Bannon used to refer to Miller as “my typist.” He is the opposite of an intellectual, as unlikely to read a book as the president.
The President’s Thin Skin
Many of the problems Trump has can be traced back to his inability to recruit able advisers. And even those who do work hard on his behalf are treated as serfs.
His treatment of Reince Priebus, his former chief of staff, is symptomatic. Priebus knew that he was going to be fired, but he wanted to ensure a smooth succession rather than a sudden break. On the return flight from an appearance in New York on board Air Force One, the president urged Priebus to take his time. “You tell me what works for you,” Trump said, according to Wolff. “Let’s make it good.” But just a few minutes later, after they had landed, Priebus checked his mobile phone and found a tweet from Trump, saying that John Kelly had been named the new chief of staff.
The degree of carelessness Trump has displayed when choosing his closest advisers can best be seen in the recruitment of his national security adviser. It’s one of the most important jobs in the White House; the adviser is charged with presenting options to the commander-in-chief, many of them having to do with military strikes or secret operations.
Trump’s first candidate, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign after just 24 days because he had lied to the vice president about a meeting he had held with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. After Flynn’s departure, Trump invited the former diplomat John Bolton to an interview. Bolten is a hardliner with experience in both foreign and security policy; he was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for a time under George W. Bush. But there was something about Bolton that Trump didn’t like, Wolff writes: his moustache. “Trump doesn’t think he looks the part,” Bannon said, according to the author.
Kushner then proposed McMaster, a short, heavyset, bald veteran of the Gulf War, a man who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the Vietnam War. McMaster’s weakness, though, is his fondness for lecturing and he held forth about global strategies during his interview with Trump. “That guy bores the shit out of me,” Trump allegedly said afterwards.
When the general showed up the next day wearing a rather loosely cut suit instead of his uniform, Trump noted that he looked “like a beer salesman,” according to Wolff. He was only convinced that McMaster had been the right choice after he cut a good figure on morning television a short time later.
The ‘Billionaire Chorus’
Cable television is Trump’s window to the world and he installed a trio of TVs next to each other in his bedroom. Wolff describes how the president mutes the sound in the evening to talk on the phone with what the author calls the “billionaire chorus,” Trump’s superrich friends to whom he feels the closest link. Trump and his wife Melania sleep in separate bedrooms, which makes good sense given the amount of time Trump allegedly spends on the phone.
In fact, Wolff dedicates considerable space in his book to the bedroom. Trump, he writes, is fond of saying that one of the things that makes life worth living is getting your friends’ wives into bed. During his time as a businessman, he allegedly found immense pleasure in the sport. He would sound out friends about their sex lives in his office while their wives listened in on the speakerphone. It’s a pasttime that likely ruined more than one relationship, and Trump was then able to jump in to provide consolation.
Wolff writes that Trump’s brain seems “incapable” of performing some of the simplest of tasks. “He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus.” On a basic level, he writes, “he simply could not link cause and effect.” He also lacks all matter of empathy, which can at times lead to some comical scenes.
Once, Wolff writes, Bannon and Ivanka Trump were standing in the Oval Office when Bannon yelled at her, calling Ivanka a “fucking liar.” Instead of defending his daughter, the president quipped, “I told you this is a tough town, baby.” That was the end of the matter in his mind.
It’s scenes like that which make the book so juicy. “Fire and Fury” doesn’t deliver much in terms of surprises or new information, and politics is not the focus. Wolff seems to be most interested in intrigues, scandals and the question of who hates whom and why? The author himself is an odd beast in the New York media world, bald-headed, diminutive and with alert eyes. A journalist who abhors other journalists, particularly if they work for the New York Times.
Wolff despises what he sees as a moderate, leftist-liberal consensus among the political and journalism elite in New York and Washington. He has carved out a niche for himself with his columns, which range between polemical and toxic and are sometimes even directed at other journalists. He’s not known for balanced viewpoints or for maintaining confidentiality, thus violating the rules of the trade. Journalists in Washington detest him as a result.
Indeed, it didn’t take long before other journalists began sifting through his book on the hunt for mistakes, and they found quite a few. Still, the broad consensus among White House correspondents is that Wolff’s depiction of the inner workings of the Trump administration is accurate for the most part.
Wolff loves gossip, salacious stories about winners and losers. That’s what drew him to Rupert Murdoch, the media-shy media mogul, about whom he wrote a critical book in 2008. Murdoch opened up every door to Wolff, even granting him an interview with his mother, apparently believing he would be able to control the reporter. But when the book came out, Murdoch was outraged and he still harbors deep animosity toward Wolff to this day.
Fly on the Wall
That episode is particularly revealing because it shares a lot of parallels to the current controversy surrounding the Trump book. In this case, too, a billionaire thought the reporter would identify with him and he granted Wolff with access to the White House, where Wolff spent weeks as a fly on the wall, plopped down on a visitor’s sofa and soaking up all the gossip. No one asked him what he was doing there — assuming that the president was alright with his presence. For his part, Trump had probably already forgotten completely about Wolff.
Exposé books about the inner workings of power are a well-established genre. Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, who uncovered the Watergate scandal, has filled many a book with West Wing indiscretions. Every president has suffered under the urge their confidantes and staffers have to spill the beans. Paul O’Neill, who served as treasury secretary under George W. Bush, described his former boss in a book as a “blind man in a room full of deaf people.” Former Bill Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos painted an unflattering picture of a president caught up in a maelstrom of extramarital affairs. And former CIA director Leon Panetta described Obama as “vacillating and overly cautious.”
No president likes it when advisers talk. But no other president has been as thin-skinned and overwrought in their reaction to those revelations as Trump. After publication of Wolff’s book, Trump announced he would take a “strong” look at U.S. libel laws. What he would probably prefer to do, though, would be to put his critics on trial and ban the publication of their work, just as his friends in Ankara and Moscow do.
Thinking Like an Autocrat
Trump thinks like an autocrat — he neither knows much nor cares much about the Constitution. Astoundingly, though, the Republican Party continues to stand behind him. Indeed, a bizarre wave of solidarity followed the publication of Wolff’s book.
As recently as this summer, Senator Lindsey Graham could still be heard describing Trump as a “xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot.” He has since become a full-fledged fan of the president. And his Senate colleague Bob Corker, who unleashed on Trump only a few months ago, decrying the president as “mentally unfit” for the job, smiled together with Trump last Monday as they boarded Air Force One.
The two flew to visit farmers in Tennessee — an attempt by Trump to generate headlines and get ahead of the news cycle. As is often the case, he wasn’t particularly adroit in his delivery. “Oh, are you happy you voted for me?” he asked. “You are so lucky that I gave you that privilege.”
In recent days, Trump has been sending out contradictory messages. On the one hand, he’s pleading for the wall to be built along the border to Mexico and he wants to deport 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador. On the other, however, he says he is open for compromises on issues like the “Dreamers,” who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
Last Tuesday, he then invited Democrats and Republicans to the White House to negotiate the issue. Normally, those types of talks take place behind closed doors, but Trump invited the press to attend. A bizarre situation ensued in which the senators discussed the issue with the cameras running as Trump sat there with his arms crossed attempting to come across as a bipartisan leader.
That same day, he announced he would travel to the World Economic Forum in Davos, the meeting point for the global financial and political elite — a gathering that represents the root of all evil for people like Steve Bannon. And on Wednesday, it appeared suddenly as if Trump might actually reconsider his plan to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Then, in a Thursday tweet, he appeared to want to limit the power of the intelligence services, only to reverse that a half-day later. Shortly after, he asked why the U.S. had to take in so many immigrants from “shithole” countries.
It’s hard to tell these days what Trump wants and who he wants to be. A hardliner? A dealmaker who transcends the bickering among the parties? Or a softy who is liked by everyone?
It’s likely that he doesn’t have an answer to that question himself.
Impeachment More Unlikely Than Ever
But one thing is certain: At the moment at which it appears the president is most vulnerable, the idea of impeachment seems more unlikely than ever.
Despite the fact that Trump is disastrous for his country and the world, the fact that he is fulfilling many of their most heartfelt wishes has meant that Republicans lack the will to distance themselves from him. Trump supported tax reforms that would supposedly ease the burden on the middle class but are really the equivalent to writing a check worth billions to the wealthiest people in America. The U.S. economy is growing, and the Dow continues to break records. He has appointed officials who are hard at work dismantling environmental and climate protection measures — moves celebrated by Republicans who view such regulations as unnecessary, and rolling them back can help them attract campaign donors. The fact that Trump’s popularity ratings are terrible seems irrelevant.
If the Republicans were to oust Trump now, it’s likely they would lose the mid-term elections this November. They would no longer be able to push through any major policy initiatives and their prospects for re-electing a Republican president in 2020 would be deeply imperiled. So, it’s unlikely the party will move to trigger the 25th amendment. Besides, removing a president from office under that amendment requires the agreement of a majority of his cabinet or a vote in Congress, which also doesn’t appear likely.
The Democrats themselves don’t even appear to harbor such hopes. Even as the media spent days with blanket coverage of Wolff’s book and Trump’s outbursts over it, the Democrats showed odd restraint.
Former Obama foreign policy adviser Dan Restrepo argues this is the best strategy for dealing with populists. “The Democrats are focusing on things that really matter to people in the country,” he says in a phone interview. “They don’t participate in the daily political theater of Washington and that’s the best solution, both strategically and tactically.” In any case, he says the entire country has been aware for a year now that Donald Trump is no normal president.
But it’s still too early to preclude the possibility that Trump will, at some point, be forced to leave office. Special counsel Robert Mueller, a former head of the FBI, wants to interrogate the president soon, but Trump has vehemently fought to keep that from happening. Mueller’s investigation is primarily looking into whether Trump or his staff are guilty of collusion with the Russian government. Even if those allegations aren’t proven, the investigation could still be dangerous for the president.
One suspicion is that Trump actively sought to intervene in the Russia investigation a year ago, with some believing he may be guilty of obstruction of justice. Were charges to be brought, it is unlikely Trump would survive politically. One of the pillars of the obstruction of justice suspicions is a television interview Trump gave last May in which he openly admitted he had fired FBI head James Comey because of the Russia scandal. Initially, he had claimed that he had only fired Comey based on the Justice Department’s advice.
Mueller is also investigating possible money laundering deals by Trump and his family.
Ten years ago, Trump’s son courted investors from Russia to secure project financing. And money did, in fact, pour in, but not always from reputable sources. In 2008, Trump also sold a mansion in Palm Beach for just under $100 million to Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and owned one of the country’s biggest potash businesses at the time. It also happens that Rybolovlev’s name popped up in the “Panama Papers” in the context of offshore bank accounts.
Mueller assembled a team of money laundering experts in order to find out if Trump has made himself vulnerable to blackmail as a result of his ties to Russia. German-owned Deutsche Bank, whose clients include Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, is also the subject of the investigations.
The probes into the family’s business affairs could damage the president’s image and, as such, also the Trump brand given that their company lives largely from the sale of property, perfume and clothing bearing the Trump label. He could quickly lose any interest in the office he holds.
Already, Trump is spending more time in front of the three televisions in his bedroom than he used to. His work day often doesn’t begin until 11 a.m. Before that, his private schedule tends to be filled with “executive time.” The news website Axios has reported that those hours are usually spent watching talk shows, making phone calls and tweeting.
Things probably won’t get any quieter in the coming months, either, given that further books are coming out soon. One of them is Comey’s tell-all, “A Higher Loyalty,” which is due out at the beginning of May. Washington is greedily awaiting the next scandal.