Michael Wolff’s explosive book on Donald Trump’s White House has sent shock waves through Washington and beyond. PETER BALE met the author
You say in your book, Fire and Fury, that the Trump side was ready to lose with ‘fire and fury’ but I’ve assumed the title comes from his warnings to North Korea, yes?
Wolff: It came from the Korean comments but it seemed to me this was an indication of a nice summing[-up] of Donald Trump’s approach to virtually everything.
Do you regret what has happened to what appears to have been a key source of the book, Steve Bannon?
Wolff: I personally regret that he’s in a place that he pretty clearly did not intend to be and to the extent that I am responsible for that, yeah I regret that. I am not sure there is anything I can do about it… he knew what he was doing.
Bannon hasn’t appeared to criticise any of your reporting or dispute anything you reported.
Wolff: He has not and to be perfectly honest [he] cannot deny that he said what he said.
You have said the book is about Trump rather than Bannon but you clearly spent many hours with Bannon. How much time?
Wolff: I don’t want to get into those kinds of things because that begs the question of how much time I spent with other people who I have other relationships… or other arrangements with… so I mean I spent as much time with as many people who would spend time with me. I interviewed 200 people and I have many hours of tapes.
Do you have tapes of your conversations with either candidate Trump or President Trump?
Wolff: I do [have] some. Whatever was taped in those conversations, I have those tapes, yes.
And the rest of it is reported from recollection?
Is the three hours you have said you had with the president during the campaign and while doing the book in the White House, does that include the Hollywood Reporter interview?
Wolff: That’s part of it, yes. I mean that includes that interview.
So, it would be incorrect to say you hadn’t in fact seen him in the White House and conversed with him in the White House for the book?
Wolff: That would be incorrect, yes.
You’ve not declared your own political position and you’ve said that you went in to the White House with an open mind: how long did it take you to see that it was as dysfunctional and chaotic as you describe?
Wolff: I had an open mind. I did not go into this with a political position. I would be hard pressed to even think what my politics are. I would have been perfectly happy, even excited, to write a book – a contrarian book – about Donald Trump, to find out that he… represented a new sort of political style and ability and that there was a chance at least that he could be a successful president. When I went into this I thought: ‘that’s a winner of a story’. The truth is that I found out that that was not true. Really this book was never meant to be about my opinions. It was a book meant to be about what the people around him thought of him. I always thought that was the frisson here… I thought the frisson was going to be the people working with him… how did they get along with him.
In the beginning that was the straight and narrow: ‘Trump stands for this and he’s going to do that and this is what he is saying’. But within a very short period of time, really essentially, weeks, that started to crumble and people would tell you that and at the same time make a series of sort of physical body and facial gestures to indicate that while they were saying that they personally recognised that something else was going on here – that this was a little weird and getting weirder. That was the kind of transformation that I saw over [these] six or seven months that I was there.
You portray him as somehow worse than an emperor with no clothes. No one can tell this emperor he has no clothes.
Wolff: It became more and more and more and more disconcerting to the people who were there with him, not least of all because all of their careers were on the line here, their reputations. In addition to that I genuinely think that they became worried about what this guy might do at any given point.
What was the role in there of the military men, Gen. Kelly and Gen. Mattis? What’s [Vice President Mike] Pence’s role?
Wolff: Take Pence first: everybody basically dismissed Pence. He is a lightweight and a toady and I know at one point somebody was… saying, ‘Oh my god this is our fallback guy and he’s acting like a staffer’. There was a big issue that Pence took notes in the meetings [for example]… so I think everybody sort of dismissed him as a person of any level of seriousness and perhaps of any level of calculation.
And the military men?
Wolff: I think the military guys are straight-up guys. They are really not political beings in any significant way. In some profound sense they are the exact opposite of Donald Trump, their business is precision, it’s order, it’s organisation, it’s data – all of the things that Donald Trump is not remotely interested in. I think that they have all found themselves in this position and… feeling the weight of great responsibility. These are the guys. Ultimately, at the end of the day what’s the biggest danger here? Going to war and of someone doing something stupid with the might of the United States.
Sounds like you’re describing Kelly and Mattis as de facto VPs or the manager of the president?
Wolff: I think that would be good news but the real situation on the ground is that he cannot be controlled. So, you know, these guys are sort of working on the margins here. There was a number of people [who] have reported to me the belief that there’s a deal between [White House Chief of Staff Gen. John] Kelly, [Defence Secretary James] Mattis, and [National Security Advisor H.R.] McMaster that nothing happens in a military sense without the three of them agreeing and that at any given time one of them would be in Washington.
Did you establish whether that was correct?
Wolff: No, if it were correct it would be a highly irregular, if not unconstitutional – if not an effective coup – so I don’t know.
It’s a highly irregular presidency though isn’t it?
Wolff: It is as irregular a presidency as there has ever been.
You’ve talked about the book being the beginning of the end for Trump. How do you see the Trump presidency playing out? [The book has it that Bannon believes the chances are a third/third/third of resignation (perhaps under threat of the 25th amendment on incapacity), impeachment because of the Russia inquiry, and lastly ‘limp to the end of his term.’]
Wolff: I still think that’s a reasonable way to look at this. No one knows what’s going to happen but those are in essence the variables and the handicapping sounds certainly reasonable… to you.
Has anything happened in the last week to reinforce that for you or change your view of the presidency?
Wolff: Almost everything. One hundred percent of what has happened in the last week has certainly reinforced the character of this president and this administration that I have portrayed in the book. From him trying to stop publication of my book and trying to sue me for invasion of privacy and defamation… an absolute impossibility. He is of course the first president to ever try such a thing… To his proclamation about his own sanity … to his remarks about the ‘s**thole’ countries in the world – which he has now denied as he has denied so many things in my book. He will deny anything.
Do you think you would have done the same tell-all or try to tell all if Hillary [Clinton] had been elected?
Wolff: I don’t know: one of the things what was attractive to me about this is the story itself: forget the politics. You had these characters, they are fantastic… Donald Trump is a fantastic character, Steve Bannon is like a gift from the gods, Jared Kushner, these are each in their own way an ‘oh my god’ character. And from a writerly point of view I found that nothing less than irresistible.
That’s where your history is too: finding characters rather than being a Washington wonk?
Wolff: From the start, I am not interested in the politics of this. I am not on the political beat. My interest is in personalities, in human nature, in how power shapes, transforms, and in addition… how it corrupts.
You’ve taken a lot of heat from the US journalist establishment: it’s said you blur the line between on and off the record. How do you describe your own methods?
Wolff: I would be perfectly willing to not be called a journalist and just to be called a writer. What I do is try to create something that a reader can not only powerfully and emotionally relate to but a reader can feel that they are there… I am trying to convey the experience. I am the eyes and ears for the reader. That’s my job.
That means there won’t be a footnote with the precise time and date you interviewed President Trump?
Wolff: It’s not as if I am out there alone on this. There is a long tradition here… we have been doing journalism like this… certainly since the 1960s… I practice the ‘Old New Journalism’.
Without turning this into an arcane conversation about journalism: maybe you are more of a Tom Wolfe?
Wolff: I am a writer, that’s it. I know how to turn sentences and paragraphs and observations and perceptions into a story that grabs people by the back of the neck: At least I hope I know how to do that.
There was a difference in a quote from the book and a quote in the Hollywood Reporter excerpt: the book had Rupert Murdoch calling Trump a ‘f**king idiot’ and THR had it as ‘f**king moron’. Which was it and was that an error?
Wolff: My fault. The correct [quote] is in the book.
What’s your definition as an operating journalist of ‘off the record’?
Wolff: Somebody tells me something is off the record then it is off the record.
Does that mean you can use that material but as an unattributed quote?
Wolff: Yep, that’s my understanding of ‘off the record’.
Who are your inspirations in journalism?
Wolff: My career began at the tail ends of those kinds of writers – that would include [Norman] Mailer, Michael Herr, Gay Talese – the full canon of people trying to do different things with journalism. All of those guys have faced… all of this criticism is not new. [The critics] what I tend to think of as ‘church of journalism’ people, they tend to work for institutions… they sit in a fairly narrow [caste]. I do not work for anyone – I am a writer, maybe the last of the freelance writers.
Have you talked to any of the sources of this book in the White House since it was published and how are they feeling about it?
Wolff: Let me not go there.
You remark in the book, and have done since then, that you were surprised that no one rang up Rupert Murdoch and said ‘hey, we’re talking to Wolff’?
Wolff: There were many things that I was concerned about – almost on a daily basis there were things I thought might get me kicked out of there, but that was certainly at the top of the list and it was hard to imagine, because I knew that a lot of these people were talking to Murdoch on a fairly steady basis. Trump was talking to Murdoch, Jared Kushner talks to Murdoch, and it seemed curious to me that they wouldn’t have said ‘hey, what about this guy who wrote a book about you?’
Did you talk to Kushner for the book, I’m not sure I’ve seen that?
Wolff: Let me put it this way: I have spoken to almost every member of the president’s senior staff.
Is there more to come in terms of revelations – perhaps things you didn’t think would be revelations when you wrote the book?
Wolff: I would like to think it’s all in the book – except then I wake up in the middle of the night and remember a detail that I forgot to put in the book. There are certainly things that did not go into the book because while I strongly believe that they were true I could not really in the end, absolutely pin them down and they were incendiary enough that I knew that I would have to have absolute DNA sort of proof.
So, the going to bed at 6.30pm with a cheeseburger and three TV screens you were able to verify to your own satisfaction?
Wolff: Indeed I was.
Peter Bale is the launch editor of WikiTribune; the full transcript of the interview is available at www.wikitribune.com