Full of Fire and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Michael Wolff is back with another juicy account of the presidency—but the latest White House tell-all simply highlights the emptiness of the genre.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Here we go again: another juicy book about the White House, early leaks, a round of flat denials, shortly to be followed—in all likelihood—by a set of fevered interpretations and recriminations.

The book is Siege, by Michael Wolff. The Guardian obtained an early copy of the book, which is due out next week, and the first details suggest that it will provide fodder for days of news coverage and debate—following in the path of Wolff’s previous book, 2018’s Fire and Fury.

Yet it’s hard to imagine Siege achieving the same impact as its predecessor. In part that’s because Wolff didn’t have the same unfettered access to the White House this time, and in part that’s because of questions that were raised about his methods and results in Fire and Fury. But the bigger problem is the format. Tell-alls about Donald Trump’s administration feel increasingly obsolete. What more can we learn about a president who is already so heavily exposed?

Once upon a time, the tell-all would actually tell something new about a president. My colleague James Fallows’s 1979 Atlantic article on Jimmy Carter revealed the president’s strengths and shortcomings, including a tendency toward micromanagement that led him to personally approve requests to use the White House tennis courts. The former George W. Bush press secretary Scott McClellan’s 2008 What Happened offered just what its title promised—a full, inside account of the administration’s workings, especially in the run-up to the Iraq War. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed the extent to which domestic political considerations weighed on Barack Obama’s foreign-policy decisions. Articles and books like these offered both new detail and new interpretation that could help the public understand leaders and perhaps change public opinion about them.

At its outset, the Trump administration looked like a perfect setting for new tell-alls. It featured a president who disregarded all norms, a public that couldn’t look away, and lots of current and former staffers with axes to grind, making them the perfect sources for, or authors of, exposés. And indeed, the first year or so of the presidency was fertile. Early on, every Friday afternoon brought a contest between The New York Times and The Washington Post for the splashiest report. After that came the books, climaxing with Wolff’s entry in January 2018.

Fire and Fury sold, well, furiously, which encouraged the market for such books. In February, the Times wondered, “Is everyone in Washington writing a tell-all? It sure seems like it.” The books came from White House aides (Omarosa Manigault-Newman, Cliff Sims, Sean Spicer); career G-men settling scores (James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Preet Bharara); others in the general Trump vicinity (Chris Christie); and reporters, including the éminence grise of the White House potboiler, Bob Woodward. There are plenty more coming.

Many of these books sold well, but they shed more heat than light. At best, they offered new detail about Trump and some of the more important or interesting moments in his tenure. But they struggled to teach any larger lessons about the president, and as a result, they haven’t made much of an impact on politics.

“Beyond a considerable boost to the profit margins of Simon & Schuster,” Jeff Greenfield wrote of Woodward’s Fear in the fall, “the response in Washington from President Donald Trump’s allies, and even from his longtime critics, has been a virtual shrug.”

Don’t blame the authors—or rather, don’t blame them for this. Plenty of these tell-alls are sloppy, or self-serving, or sycophantic, and their authors can answer for that. But it’s not the writers’ fault that they aren’t reconfiguring the image of the president or his administration. Not only has Trump been exhaustively covered by the press, but he often goes through his business, including his petty feuds, his tantrums, and his changes of view on policy questions, in plain sight. That was, in fact, a core element of his preemptive defense against accusations of obstruction of justice: So many of his actions were out in the open. How could they constitute a conspiracy when they happened on Twitter? (This cuts both ways: Transparency should not confer absolution.)

Fire and Fury came under intense scrutiny even before it hit shelves, as journalists and political insiders questioned many of the specifics of Wolff’s account and critiqued his methods. These critics picked apart specific anecdotes or moments, but there was general agreement that the book’s broad-strokes portrait of Trump felt right. Axios’s Mike Allen perfectly summed up this conventional wisdom:

There are definitely parts of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” that are wrong, sloppy, or betray off-the-record confidence. But there are two things he gets absolutely right, even in the eyes of White House officials who think some of the book’s scenes are fiction: his spot-on portrait of Trump as an emotionally erratic president, and the low opinion of him among some of those serving him.

Yet anyone who was paying even casual attention to Trump’s presidency knew by January 2018 that Trump was emotionally erratic and that many of his aides held him in disdain.

The book, and many like it, largely served to flatter the preconceptions of Trump’s critics. These readers might understand that the details aren’t 100 percent accurate, but they don’t really care. For the slight majority of registered voters who already say they definitely won’t vote for Trump in 2020, it’s close enough. (There’s a different kind of book that flatters the preconceptions of Trump’s fans, but it tends to be more polemic or commentary than memoir or reportage.)

If these books tell a Trump-skeptical audience that Trump is not a conventional president, they offer the same message to a more receptive Trump-supporting audience. The president himself has embraced the idea. Responding to complaints about his tweeting in 2017, he remarked (on Twitter, of course), “My use of social media is not Presidential—it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.”

The notion was ridiculed, rightly, at the time. But voters seem to be coming around. A Gallup poll released Tuesday found that 40 percent of voters believe Trump “has the personality and leadership qualities a president should have,” up from just 33 percent two years ago. That still lags far behind Bush and Obama, but the size of the increase suggests that Trump has convinced some voters that what he’s doing is presidential, simply by virtue of the fact that he is the president and he is doing it.

Yet that uptick comes even as Trump’s approval/disapproval numbers remain essentially stable. Just as there are voters who disapprove of Trump and are willing to believe, or at least accept, “truthy” accounts of him, there’s another set who don’t care whether the accounts are true and continue to support him.

The balance of Siege remains to be revealed, but the first two juicy claims in The Guardian’s report help show why the tell-all genre is becoming a snooze. The paper reports that Wolff claims Trump reacted to witness-cooperation deals taken by his former fixer Michael Cohen, the Trump Organization executive Allen Weisselberg, and the tabloid publisher David Pecker by saying, “The Jews always flip.” Perhaps Trump said this and perhaps he didn’t, but it’s already well established that he has resorted to stereotypes about Jews on various occasions, and has a long history of bigoted views and comments. Whether the quote is real or not, it doesn’t convey anything new about Trump.

The Guardian also reports that Siege says Special Counsel Robert Mueller drew up an indictment against Trump for obstruction of justice but never filed it. Mueller’s spokesman says that no such document exists, and his team has proved almost entirely leak-proof, with the exception of one score-settling leak against the attorney general. Unless and until other reports corroborate this claim, it’s probably best to treat it cautiously.

It’s Mueller who may lay claim to the title of the ultimate tell-all writer of the Trump administration. When his 448-page report was released to the public, critics strained to find literary meaning and significance in it. But the value was not in the composition, but in the content. Aided—unlike any of the other authors—by subpoena power, Mueller was able to draw a more nuanced and revealing portrait of Trump and the first two years of his presidency than any other author.

Mueller’s report offered new detail, such as Trump’s meltdown over Mueller’s appointment (“This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked.”) and his refusal to return a resignation letter to his attorney general, instead carrying it with him overseas. The report also offered a big-picture charge, revealing the extent and length of Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice, though Mueller stopped just short of calling it that.

Yet even the Mueller report has had little immediate effect. Trump’s approval rating has stayed stable (suggesting neither the exoneration he claimed nor the KO his critics dreamed of). Mueller did change Representative Justin Amash’s mind, though, and if House Democrats ultimately move to impeach the president, it will only cement the Mueller report’s status as the pinnacle of Trump tell-alls.

Just because the potency of tell-alls has weakened doesn’t mean the stream of books will diminish. The Associated Press revealed Tuesday that former Defense Secretary James Mattis will publish a memoir this summer. Mattis might actually have something new to say about Trump: Not only did he have significant policy differences with the president—according to Woodward, he simply discarded directives he found foolish—but he managed to last for two years in the administration by saying little to the press. But Mattis warns that he’s writing a different kind of book: “I’m old-fashioned: I don’t write about sitting Presidents, so those looking for a tell-all will be disappointed.”

No wonder Mattis has a reputation for wisdom.