Fire and Fury is a book written by “journalist” Michael Wolff and is a partially fictional account of the events that occurred in the first few months of the Donald Trump administration. This is the ninth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.
With his military background, Steve Bannon saw the White House as a military camp that happened to be run by civilians.
Beyond that there was no discipline. Trump wanted everyone to cater to him, so everything was a reaction to what he was feeling at a particular time. Meetings in the Oval Office were a complete mess with people constantly trying to get his attention for something or have the pivotal last word. Trump wanted their constant attention and then would deride them for sucking up to him.
Trump didn’t care about anything not in front of him. If it didn’t happen in his presence, it didn’t happen and he didn’t care or want to think about it. This is part of the reason why so many positions never got filled. It also affected visitors, who would wander around until they found the right room instead of being directed by someone. This chaos was also Trump’s way of creating control for himself.
Everyone expected Reince Priebus to be gone “any time now”. Priebus himself only wanted to make it past the first 6 months. Trump actually liked Priebus, largely because he could bully him endlessly. Priebus, Bannon and Kushner were all fighting a war against each other to be the “real” Chief of Staff for Donald Trump and therefore the power of the White House. Of course, Trump was keeping them in a state of attack on each other so that he could have all the power for himself.
Katie Walsh was an old school politician. Have structure, get-it-done, etc. She had a rich resume. She did her job well and played the Washington game well. When the Trump campaign finally decided to work with the RNC, it was Walsh who added the necessary structure and discipline to marshal the national political resources necessary for the Mercer family to drive Trump to victory.
Unfortunately, Walsh realized how vacuous Trump and his team were as soon as Trump became President. He had no plans or ideas outside of his broad campaign speeches. He didn’t know how to turn those broad strokes into policy and operation details. He had no team to back him up even if he did.
Mostly, policy-making was a matter of throwing ideas at Trump and seeing which ones he liked. Especially any idea that he could be convinced he thought of himself. He didn’t read and didn’t seem process information in any conventional way. He didn’t listen, either. His attention span was incredibly short. He wanted to talk and operated as if everything he said was the correct thing to say. He operated completely on instinct as well. On top of that, he changed his mind frequently. Walsh found herself trying to guess what Trump’s intuitive feelings were and trying to figure out how to turn them into policy. She mentioned it was like trying to divine the wants and needs of a child.
The Trump White House operated on the idea that expertise was overrated and that gut instinct was the way to go. Only Trump believed that, but everyone else was going along with it. The hope was that Trump had such instinct and savvy that he actually would be able to operate as President. This in spite of having no real knowledge or conventional ability to learn. Unfortunately, he could freeze just as much as he could project confidence and was prone to lashing out.
Real worry developed as he began to take intelligence briefings. He didn’t like being forced to absorb new information. He found excuses not to read his briefs. He didn’t like being told what to pay attention to. He didn’t like having things explained to him. Everyone around him was hoping that by learning how he operates they might be able to move him in a preferred direction. In other words, they were working with what they had, not what they wanted.
People in the White House began compensating. Walsh referred to Trump as “Inspirational, not Operational”. Bannon made a list of every single promise Trump had made. Kushner tried the same thing but couldn’t handle the workload. Mick Mulvaney, newly minted head of the Office of Management and Budget also combed through Trump’s spoken words for ideas on where to go. Trump himself was no help for all the reasons already stated.
Katie Walsh was in the middle of this and more. From her perspective, Bannon, Kushner and Priebus all wanted to both read Trump and shape his view as well. There were basically three separate factions trying to gain control of the President.
Priebus’ ace-in-the-hole was Paul Ryan, who as a mainstream Republican was opposed to Steve Bannon’s ideology. Bannon himself thought Ryan slow-witted. That said, Ryan enabled the policy arm of Washington to work on Trump’s behalf. Bannon’s strength was convincing Trump that Bannon’s ideas were coming from Trump himself. Kushner had family ties to Trump and knew people Trump wanted the respect of. All three represented something Trump wanted, but all three were also busy sabotaging each other. Walsh was caught in a tug-of-war between all four of them.
Bannon, Priebus and Kushner knew Trump was influenced by whomever spoke to him last. Not only that, this last word overrode any previous ideas. With this in mind, the three men tried to get important allies to talk to Trump on their behalf. The Mercers for Bannon, Ryan for Priebus and the New York elite for Kushner. If they ended up cancelling each other out, they would go to the media (read: leaking to friendly outlets). The leaking got so bad, and so many underlings were blamed, that Sean Spicer famously ordered staffers to relinquish their phones. The biggest leaker was Trump himself. Basically he wanted to be liked and didn’t understand why no one did and why it was so hard to get people to like him. Based on this he vented frequently to whomever he could get on the phone.
In all of this Mike Pence seem to be untouched. He either put on his “good old boy” smile or openly acknowledged his general uselessness. He kept his staff calm and happy and in return they made sure the drama touched him as little as possible. He protected himself by being as bland and uninteresting as possible. His crew tried never to say too much and they were loyal so there almost no leaks on his side of the fence. That said, everyone else besides Walsh thought he was dumb. He also ended coming across as one of the weakest VPs in history. Many saw him as just another staffer instead of a Vice President.
After March, Walsh had enough of the chaos and quit.
Wolff’s rendition of the White House in its early days seems to bear out what was being reported in the media, even now, to a degree. All the infighting and disorganization was being commented on. While Michael Wolff has shown himself to be an unethical journalist, this chapter aligns too much with the reporting of the time to be easily dismissed.