“You’ve got the LeBron James of money laundering investigations on you, Jarvanka,” Steve Bannon yells at the apex of Fire And Fury, Michael Wolff’s gossipy book about the first year of the Trump White House. “My asshole just got so tight!” Thus starts nearly 2,000 words of rapid-fire soliloquy outlining how Bannon thinks the Trump administration will come apart. It’s delivered with what he thinks is swagger, but comes across more like desperation. This same rant was his undoing: When it leaked last week, he lost his position as executive chairman of the “alt-right” Brietbart News and his funding from the ultra-right-wing Mercer family was pulled. In a book full of self-owns, the triumphant monologue that ended Bannon’s career was the self-owningnest.
Self-owns are a recurring theme of the Trump administration, according to Wolff’s telling. Everyone is trying to do each other in and, in the process, dropping anvils on their own heads instead. The book presents a West Wing staffed entirely by Wile E. Coyotes without a single Road Runner to be found. Each one of these very stable geniuses gets a moment not unlike Bannon’s: an aria for them to explain their motivations and how they are the only ones who can save the first year of the administration from itself.
You know how well that went.
That’s the thing about Fire And Fury: You know how it all goes. This book Groundhog Days the worst year of your life. There’s not a single moment where you’re not asking yourself why you’re subjecting yourself to reliving all this again. Beyond being offered a front seat to watch incompetents behave incompetently, there are no new bombshells lurking here. For a book that has commanded so much controversy (including being published five days early as a fuck-you to a cease and desist letter from the president’s lawyers), there’s surprisingly little that feels truly new in it. Beyond some very weird asides that are never fleshed out the way they should be (Trump likes to fuck his friends’ wives for fun? Trump won’t let the White House cleaning staff change his sheets?), a lot of this reads like a middle school book report of better reporters’ daily briefs.
It’s probably good that Wolff leaned so hard on other journalists’ work because details aren’t his strong suit: Minor characters appear in the wrong place; he mixes up dates a few different times; and there’s an open question of whether Rupert Murdoch called Trump a “fucking idiot” or a “fucking moron,” because Wolff has said it both ways. More iffy is that, because of the heavily narrative style Wolff adopts, plenty of events unfold—complete with dialogue—in places that Wolff wasn’t present, including full monologues inside people’s heads.
Wolff’s introduction explains that he interviewed 200 people for the book, which is certainly a large number, but most of them go uncredited, and it’s unclear what their contributions were. The folks that do get named are clearly using Wolff’s transcription to swing the narrative in their favor. It’s as if each of the main characters—Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, and Bannon Bannon Bannon—attempted to calculate their proximity to the White House at the point of the book’s publication to ensure that their defense of their actions lined up with their expected future employment. Spicer “can’t make this shit up,” Conway plays the role of dedicated soldier while eyeing cable news jobs, Priebus positions himself as a voice of reason (his deputy who only lasted two months, Katie Walsh, even more so), and Bannon casts himself as the angel of death laying waste to everyone else. It doesn’t make for the most coherent read. The points of view are so calculated and shift so many times that the book reads like Rashomon if everyone in that movie were idiots.
This parade of frontstabbing idiots takes center stage in Wolff’s narrative. For a book about Trump’s first year, Trump isn’t a main character. He’s the object everyone is jockeying for position around, present but disengaged, occasionally lumbering into focus to lob insults at whichever protagonist we’re focused on right now (on Bannon: “Guy looks homeless. Take a shower, Steve”) and then wandering back to the East Wing for a cheeseburger in bed while hate-watching three TVs. The people around him mock him when he’s gone (writes Wolff, “This—insulting Donald Trump’s intelligence—was both the thing you could not do and the thing—drawing there-but-for-the-grace-of-God guffaws across the senior staff—that everybody was guilty of”), and everyone treats him like I treat my 2-year-old when he’s missed his nap.
It’s the portrayal of Trump and all the clowns, crooks, and creeps around him as completely unfit for office that has caught the attention of cable news. That the competency of Trump and his staff is a debate that fills days of cable news programming is far more of an assault on truth than any liberties Wolff may have taken to tell a better story. We didn’t need a book to tell us Trump is incapable of performing even the most basic of duties of president: We have lived through the last year together. Wolff may have punched up some dialogue, but he didn’t change what we all saw unfold every single day. The cable news debates around the book hinge on the old Richard Pryor line: “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”
If there are revelations in Wolff’s book, they are simply in being reminded that one day followed the next. In letting the chronology unspool, Wolff reminds you of just how much you forgot—or didn’t want to remember. Every day of this administration has brought a new set of horrors, a new low, a new breach of norms. And every day, talking heads on cable news, both-sides journalists looking for an in, and politicians wanting to curry favor stand up to explain it all away.
Wolff’s book, with its central characters all gaslighting each other, is a stark reminder of just how badly gaslit we all have become this last year. For all Wolff’s faults as a journalist and the book’s slippery narrative and shifting allegiances, he did something nobody else has: He said it happened just like we saw. In a year in which the truth was stretched to a breaking point a thousand times over by people with far more dangerous agendas than selling an assload of books, simply being believed is as good as we’re going to get.