Michelle Hurley talks to American author Michael Wolff about not pulling his punches, with his book Siege: Trump Under Fire.
Donald Trump reckons Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh was probably abused by a priest. All that blubbering when defending himself! He thought his son-in-law, Jared Kushner would most likely be indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump boasted on multiple occasions that former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley gave him a blow job. When learning that his former lawyer Michael Cohen, among others, had made a deal with the special counsel, Trump said: "The Jews always flip." He regards Mike Pence, his Vice-President, as stupid and "a religious nut," while of Pence's wife, Karen, he said merely: "She gives me the creeps".
Welcome to Trump's world, as chronicled by controversial American author Michael Wolff in his latest book, Siege: Trump Under Fire . It's the sequel to last year's best-selling Fire and Fury , a Trump takedown that has sold more than four million copies and was one of the first books to lift the lid on the dysfunction and vapidity of a White House led by Trump. Siege sees Wolff continuing the story, but whereas Fire and Fury was about the chaos and dysfunction of the Trump White House, Wolff sees Siege as detailing the coming meltdown. Talking to Canvas he says, "Despite the dominant narrative as Trump as a strongman, with nobody able to lay a hand on him, it seems to me that the screws are coming out of the airplane and it seems that there's the inevitability that the train hits the wall."
Wolff, who also wrote a scathing biography of media mogul Rupert Murdoch a decade ago, is a journalist other journalists love to hate; partly because of his perceived lack of fidelity at times to the facts. Both Fire and Fury and Siege have been criticised for their extensive use of unnamed sources; Siege for claiming that Mueller's office had prepared a draft of an indictment of Trump, a claim flatly denied by Mueller's office. Wolff defends his sources, saying "I know what I have, I know who gave it to me, and if there's anything that I've learned in the three years that I've been doing this, is that just because somebody said something, does not make it true."
But Wolff also attracts ire for his fearlessness – oh let's be straight, outright joy – in excoriating his subjects. But, in a post-truth world, who better to dissect Trump than Wolff, who, like Trump, isn't one to let a denial get in the way of a good story, and who, as The New York Times has pointed out, is, like Trump, unafraid to punch back?
Wolff has spent the past three years in Trumpworld. For most of the first year of the presidency he was allowed seemingly unfettered access inside the West Wing, before publishing Fire and Fury, to Trump's seething astonishment. In Siege , there's no inside pass, but a clearly still-close relationship with Steve Bannon, the strategist credited with Trump's electoral success, who was banished after Wolff's first book, in which he was openly critical of Trump and who informs much of Siege's narrative.
Siege is a book that paints Trump as a man at war with everyone, something Wolff says Trump fully realised the value of when he became host of The Apprentice. "Coming out of the reality television business, he realises the importance of conflict. Conflict equals attention, and ultimately, all he wants is attention," he says.
This hunger for conflict, for chaos, is, Wolff says, enmeshed with Trump's self-destructive nature and is what allows him to operate outside the normal rules of decorum, morality, even legality. "He's managed to lower the threshold. His threshold is 'Can I get away with it?', and it's been his M.O. throughout his whole career . . . he puts himself in these situations of peril and then it becomes, how does he avoid sudden death? And that becomes the victory."
The Mueller investigation is a case in point, says Wolff. "The Mueller report, while incredibly damning in every way, does not indict him, therefore he wins," leaving, Wolff says, the perception that he's suddenly untouchable. Was Mueller the wrong person to lead that investigation? "There's a line in the book from Steve Bannon, which is 'Never send a marine to do a hitman's job', and in a way, yeah, I think so. It's interesting to think, if Rudy Giuliani had been the prosecutor, he would have indicted the sonofabitch."
In some ways, as much as Siege is Wolff's book, it is also Bannon's. The relationship between Trump and Bannon is, according to Wolff, still central to the Trump presidency, despite the fact that they no longer directly communicate. There are gleeful descriptions of Bannon needling Trump through the right-wing media. In December last year, when news leaked that Trump was about to sign off on a budget bill that had no funding for his much-vaunted Wall, Bannon went to work, calling Fox News commentator Ann Coulter, whom Trump has long admired for her caustic tongue. (Coulter, Wolff writes, was invited to Trump Tower during the transition period, and "lectured the president-elect mercilessly, using frequent f-bombs; she was particularly scathing about his 'f***ing moron idea' to hire his family".) At Bannon's instigation, Coulter published a column on the far-right website Breitbart; its headline was 'GUTLESS PRESIDENT IN WALL-LESS COUNTRY'. She later tweeted: The chant wasn't "SIGN A BILL WITH B.S. PROMISES ABOUT 'BORDER SECURITY' AT SOME POINT IN THE FUTURE, GUARANTEED TO FAIL!" It was "BUILD A WALL!" Two days later, Trump changed course, refusing to fund the bill. At midnight, the government shut down.
In Wolff's view, Bannon and Trump are alternately drawn to and repelled by each other. "They probably don't exist without each other. Steve Bannon has become a voice in the world because of Donald Trump. Donald Trump became President because of Steve Bannon." It's Bannon, Wolff says, who, despite his exile, is using his proxies in the White House to get Trump to drive his far-right vision on immigration and it's Bannon who is behind the anti-China sentiment. Those tariffs imposed on China? Driven by Bannon, says Wolff.
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Trump is demented, says Wolff. "He is a kind of sui generis figure. You don't know anyone like him, he's a monster. I think if you've spent 45 years looking for the attention of public and doing whatever you can to get it, it turns you into something very strange."
He has, according to Wolff, almost no relationship with his 13-year-old son Barron, and his relationship with his wife, Melania, is now strictly transactional. Wolff says the Trumps had long lived largely parallel lives until Trump's election but Melania's role as First Lady meant that she and Barron were forced to spend more time with Trump, in the White House, and Trump's treatment of Barron – sometimes verging into open hostility at worst, but most often ignoring him – caused Melania to focus even more singularly on her son. Trump, who Wolff says has a fetish about being the tallest person in the room, started cracking mean jokes about how he could stump his son's height, after Barron had a sudden growth spurt and looked like overtaking Trump in height. Trump's friend, Keith Schiller, told Melania to get used to it: that this was the way Trump had always treated his sons.
Everyone who has worked for Trump, says Wolff, "comes away thinking that there is something wrong with this guy. He treats them all poorly. He yells at them, he demeans them, he spreads rumours about them." All but one, as it turns out.
Sean Hannity, the Fox News talk show host whose immigration views are in lockstep with Trump, was, for part of Trump's presidency, talking to Trump for up to three hours a day, according to then chief-of-staff John Kelly. And as Trump's circle of cronies, on call to shoot the breeze with him on the phone at night, atrophied – worried that they may be called by Mueller – Hannity was the last man standing as one of Trump's reliable confidants. Wolff paints a picture of Trump, left alone at night, in bed, eating his favourite chocolate bars, reassured by "a slavish and devoted Hannity".
But then, as is almost always the case, Trump began to turn on Hannity. Sooner or later, Wolff writes, Trump felt contempt for anyone who showed him too much devotion. Bannon offers this psychological assessment: "Hating himself, he of course comes to hate anyone who seems to love him. If you seem to respect him, he thinks he's put something over on you – therefore you're a fool."
Then there's Nikki Haley, Trump's former ambassador to the United Nations. Haley - like any woman he couldn't simply dismiss as arm candy - was confounding to Trump. Wolff: "She has managed to play him in a way that a lot of other people haven't." Haley wrong-footed Trump and the administration when - in the final weeks of the midterm elections, which was, Wolff notes, "a bitter contest likely to come down to how many Republican women the party could hold" - she abruptly announced her resignation to Trump, to be effective at the end of the year (a not-so-subtle message that she was well and truly over working for Trump). The White House, scrambling to control the message, decided to make the formal announcement in the Oval Office. Trump, sandwiched between his anger at her betrayal and his need to keep her onside to appease potential female voters, found himself – after being dumped! – having to lay on the compliments about Haley in public. In Wolff's assessment, Haley's departure may have been revenge for Trump telling multiple confidants earlier that Haley had given Trump a blow job. Wolff says that "he doesn't know how to deal with any women, to him their reach is very limited", hence his reaction is to demean them, as he says Trump did with Haley.
Haley, however, with the support of the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, may have the jump on Trump. After her resignation, and with the support of the Republican Party leadership behind her, she's now seen as firmly positioned as the best replacement for Trump. Wolff says that McConnell is very much behind her. "They're in meltdown mode basically, as college-educated women have departed the Republican Party – in some ways most women have departed the Republican Party – which has created a situation where there is such a limited future for them unless they bring in someone; Nikki Haley would be a potential solution to that."
For all of Trump's need to be the centre of attention, to belittle and to diminish all those in his presence, there is one person who has somehow managed to escape it. His daughter Ivanka. "Ivanka is the only one who is spared all this. He is absolutely respectful towards her, and I think actually, probably really cares about her," says Wolff. "One would not think that it's exceptional to say a father cares about his daughter, but for Trump it is."
What is it about Ivanka that marks her for such special treatment? "The most interesting analysis I've heard, from someone who know them both well, is that they are very, very much alike and that sentence is finished by saying that he's a grifter and she's a grifter."
In Wolff's assessment, what's incredible – even more than Trump's peculiarities and psychopathologies – is that Ivanka and Jared are playing the long game, "using their jobs and this White House essentially to secure future financing". It would be utterly naive, he says, to see this as "anything else but a long-term business development".
Where will it end? Is there a possibility of Trump being re-elected? "I try very hard not to be a pundit. Having said that, the one thing I would be quite sure of is that Donald Trump is not going to lose an election, he will not let that happen. If it seems like he is going to lose, and I believe that's what it will seem like, he will figure some way out of this. He will declare victory and get out."
How this might pan out is anyone's guess. In Siege, Bannon speculates with a friend of Trump's that if the pressure on Trump ratchets up to a degree that he can see no escape, he would kill himself. Nah, reckoned his friend, "he'll fake a heart attack".
And for Wolff, will there be another book? How does deal with the Trump base's acrimony towards anyone who isn't a supporter? "I'm just going to see what happens. The idea of going on with this . . . well let's just say that you want roll up into a ball. The Trump base can kind of terrifying but I have this interesting anomaly in my case that because of my lack of a good relationship with Murdoch, because of my biography, I am banned from Fox News. Not only will they not have me on, they're not allowed to talk about me. When Fire and Fury came out it was never mentioned, so I've always felt that none of the hard core Trumpers even know that I've written these books."
And as Wolff knows well, our fascination with Trump is a long way from burning out. "There is something about this story, it's not only compelling in its details but it's confounding and people really want to try to understand what is going on. In the end, it is the story, there really is no other story."
Siege: Trump Under Fire , by Michael Wolff, is published by Hachette, $38.