Happy New Year as J. BROOKS SPECTOR is already wide-eyed at the events in the Trump universe and as he searches for suitable literary guidance to interpret these mystifying events.
In common with many people, the Christmas/New Year’s holiday vacation period became a period of reflection and relaxation. This year, rather than a frantic race for crowded beaches, let alone travel a destination further afield, I elected to stay home in Johannesburg. Together with my wife, I puttered around with the garden and the bookshelves in the study and the television room, and even made an ultimately abortive effort to sort all the photographs, documents and papers that had accumulated for many years.
Of course, from force of long-running habit, I still kept one eye on the news from the US and Pyongyang, along with whatever was brewing in the aftermath of the ANC’s Nasrec elective conference, in between watching some new flicks in the cinemas, reruns of classic films on the television, and taking the occasional mid-afternoon nap after reading a few chapters of a book. But virtually nothing prepared us for the news of what had happened in and around the US president’s mid-winter vacation in Mar-a-Lago in Florida, and then his Republican strategy meeting in Camp David, Maryland.
Central to this, of course, has been the release of Michael Wolff’s saucy and salacious, inside-the-White-House expose, “Fire and Fury.”
White House insider books are nothing special. Save for journalists who report on a winning presidential campaign as soon as they can, political “tell all” books usually come to press just as an administration is about to become history, rather than the subject of future events. Alternatively, one of those books is published when a long-suffering senior aide, after years of unremitting labour on behalf of a president, decides to cash in with their take on events, while the interest of readers remains high – and the publishers’ advances are enticing. This is especially important for political appointees as they need to find another income stream quickly.
Often, too, a president, vice president or senior cabinet official will do their own book in order to get his or her side of the story firmly planted in the public mind right after an administration concludes its time, but before the ravening horde of critics and nay-sayers really gets going on taking swipes at the administration’s legacy with their own books. But Hollywood Reporter journalist Michael Wolff’s book is an extraordinary one, precisely because there are few if any examples of a “tell all” book that has come out less than a year into a presidential administration.
While no one has seen fit to publish the White House visitor logs yet, to explain Wolff’s amazing access to the working spaces in the White House’s West Wing, is that senior aides repeatedly signed in Wolff and that he then used this access to buttonhole multiple other staffers for conversations and interviews, largely while perched on a sofa in a waiting area of the West Wing office space.
Presumably someone or many someones thought Wolff would be writing an admiring puff piece of a book. Wrong.
In the first year of the Trump administration, in all the roiling chaos of those early months, aides walked past him all day, and that ad hoc working style seems in keeping with the way the Trump administration was “managed”, if such a word can actually be used to describe things. Wolff has already said he had some two hundred separate conversations with staffers to research his book – and that, just by the way, he has much of those conversations recorded, just in case. Just in case – of what – is not entirely clear. But what really is clear is that some of the highlights – dribbled out in choice tidbits, pre-publication, and with those juicy nibbles immediately seized upon by politicians, journalists and commentators like a hungry trout to a perfectly tied fishing fly. Not surprisingly, this commentariat storm has provoked rage and fury among the Trumpenproletariat, most notably with the big kahuna himself.
Among such morsels were numerous comments attributed to former chief strategist Steve Bannon (whose presence seems to run through the book like a kind of “told by” co-author for Wolff) that Donald Jr’s now infamous meeting in Trump Tower with Russian representatives in the midst of the campaign was both treasonous and unpatriotic, and that the special prosecutor would – soon enough – crack the son like an egg on national TV, once he got around to it. In addition, there were choice bits that indicated the entire White House staff complement believed the president was intellectually, mentally and emotionally not up to the job he had just won, and that he was already starting show signs of actual mental and cognitive decay.
It should be noted that virtually every derogatory statement is not new with Wolff’s reporting of it – similar comments have been regularly written about over the past year and even earlier in book-length treatments of Donald Trump’s life prior to winning office. But it is the fact this skinner and all the “wink wink, nudge nudge” juicy wickedness of Wolff’s book appears to have emanated from deep within the bowels of the White House that has triggered the anger and rejoinders from the president right on down through the organisational chart.
Right about here it should also be noted that Wolff’s book contains a number of factual misstatements and errors and Trump defenders are eagerly pointing them out, even as reviewers have argued that the larger “meta-truth” of Wolff’s report from the front lines generally rings true of what is already known about Trump’s White House, even if the author bobbled the names of attendees at some meetings, such as confusing a Washington lobbyist lawyer with a well-known reporter who had very similar first names.
Almost immediately, the White House insisted Bannon (given his prominence in the comments) recant his views and that the publisher and author cease and desist talking about the book or releasing it. These demands seem to have forgotten that the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and that in the Pentagon Papers case, nearly fifty years ago, the Supreme Court had declared that the press had the right to publish even classified material in support of a compelling public interest.
While this furore has clearly not endeared Wolff to the president who has insisted the book was just a pack of lies, it also didn’t do much for Bannon’s relationship with the president either. Trump quickly gave his former strategic Svengali the sobriquet, “Sloppy Steve”, saying that Bannon was a man who had lost his mind when he had lost his White House job. Presidential hatchet-persons like Steve Miller took to the Sunday news talks shows in full high dudgeon, denouncing the book, its author and publisher, the evil fake mainstream media that want to destroy his administration, Democratic politicians, the pernicious deep state, and even Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and Rip van Winkle. (Okay, not the latter three, but perhaps only because Miller hadn’t thought of them.)
Not surprisingly, now, for Steve Bannon, this whole exercise has been less than fulfilling. Presumably, in his comments to Wolff, he had either acted from a supreme plateau of astonishing hubris, or from hopes of igniting excitement in the recruitment of new candidates supportive of his alt-right buddies and ideas in the upcoming mid-term election this year. However, he seems to have discovered it is cold out there without a position and secure financing if you are going to lead the Neanderthal wing of the Republican Party. Backers of his Breitbart News Service have already evinced serious annoyance with Bannon’s words, as reported by Wolff. That, plus those public Trumpian lashes, seems to have provoked some deep (and perhaps even sincere) remorse. And remember, this book has still only been available to purchase for a couple of days.
In Bannon’s statement released to Axios, presumably while muttering “mea culpa, mea culpa” under his breath, he said on Sunday:
“Donald Trump, Jr. is both a patriot and a good man. He has been relentless in his advocacy for his father and the agenda that has helped turn our country around.
“My support is also unwavering for the president and his agenda — as I have shown daily in my national radio broadcasts, on the pages of Breitbart News and in speeches and appearances from Tokyo and Hong Kong to Arizona and Alabama. President Trump was the only candidate that could have taken on and defeated the Clinton apparatus.
“I am the only person to date to conduct a global effort to preach the message of Trump and Trumpism; and remain ready to stand in the breach for this president’s efforts to make America great again.
“My comments about the meeting with Russian nationals came from my life experiences as a Naval officer stationed aboard a destroyer whose main mission was to hunt Soviet submarines to my time at the Pentagon during the Reagan years when our focus was the defeat of ‘the evil empire’ and to making films about Reagan’s war against the Soviets and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in selling uranium to them.
“My comments were aimed at Paul Manafort, a seasoned campaign professional with experience and knowledge of how the Russians operate. He should have known they are duplicitous, cunning and not our friends.
“To reiterate, those comments were not aimed at Don Jr. Everything I have to say about the ridiculous nature of the Russian ‘collusion’ investigation I said on my 60 Minutes interview. There was no collusion and the investigation is a witch hunt.
“I regret that my delay in responding to the inaccurate reporting regarding Don Jr has diverted attention from the president’s historical accomplishments in the first year of his presidency.” In the crow eating contest with various contestants from the depths of the Trump White House, Steve Bannon already seems to be an early leader, although it still seems unlikely he will be welcomed back any time soon into the Trumpian bosom and once again given the free run of the White House.
Trump’s reactions to the book have coalesced into a tweet storm of extraordinary proportions. In fact, in the days just before the book’s contents were released, he had arrogated responsibility for the lack of any fatal air crashes in 2017 in the US to his leadership; and then took personal credit for the very modest, very tentative reaching out between North Korea and South Korea (largely over participation in the upcoming Winter Olympic Games) via their dormant hot line and the planned talks at the “Peace Village” of Panmunjom on the Demilitarized Zone.
But then it was on to a series of tweets and public statements about his brilliance as president, in response to the broader claim – courtesy of Wolff’s book – that Trump was just, well, too stupid to occupy the job he had miraculously snagged. He tweeted and then reiterated live that he was a genuine, certified, grade A genius, and a stable one at that. He had attended great universities and had been the best student (presumably ever); he had made zillions in real estate building and speculation; had become famous on television saying, “you’re fired”; and then, won the presidency on his very first try, after besting a whole clutch of GOP losers. And then we were off to the races about the Democrats and the media and Hillary Clinton and the rest of the usual trash talk that comes so quickly to Donald Trump when he is on a tear like that.
Taken as a whole, this effort to demonstrate his superiority over other mortals has had an appalling effect on public discourse, catapulting to the foreground the charge that he simply was not capable of this job right from the get-go. In response to this, former White House ethics chief Walter Shaub attacked Trump for those tweets in which he called himself “really smart” and a “stable genius,” by saying that such words, even without the Wolff book as evidence, “might be enough to lead the board of any corporation to call an emergency meeting on its CEO’s mental status.”
Now these charges about the president’s mental capabilities and stability go onto the front burner, with the flame set to the highest setting for many. Everything will now get to be judged by whether or not a Trumpian decision, statement, or action will pass tests of stability and sanity, let alone the measure of a genius level IQ. As a presidential public relations effort to prove his stability, sanity, brilliance, and probity, for the modern presidency it probably has been second only to Richard Nixon’s comments that he was not a crook and that the nation needs to know its president is not such a man.
The challenge for Donald Trump, of course, is that a debate over his mental stability was not meant to be the primary issue of his actions in 2018. There is a full-to-bursting, highly contentious legislative calendar; there are those pesky mid-term elections where Democrats will try to pin the slender (and malign) legislative results on Trump’s inability to focus and lead, and on his GOP hoplites’ inability to find acceptable compromises with their opponents. And all those foreign challenges – from Korea to Iran to China and beyond – remain unsettled and with little in the way of a coherent strategic plan to address them. Beyond those, the Russia probe by special prosecutor Mueller and various congressional investigations on the same matter are ongoing as well.
To comprehend this presidency, perhaps best if we fall back on literary analogies to explain what we see in the White House and in the person and mental and emotional circumstances of its chief inhabitant, Don Trump. Circling back to our half-sorted bookshelf, I found my copy of Miguel Cervantes’ four-hundred-year-old novel, “Don Quixote”, describing the life of another Don to inform me.
As Cervantes had written of that deluded old Spanish gentleman, “In short, his wits being quite gone, he hit upon the strangest notion that ever madman in this world hit upon, and that was that he fancied it was right and requisite, as well for the support of his own honour as for the service of his country, that he should make a knight-errant of himself, roaming the world over in full armour and on horseback in quest of adventures, and putting in practice himself all that he had read of as being the usual practices of knights-errant; righting every kind of wrong, and exposing himself to peril and danger from which, in the issue, he was to reap eternal renown and fame. Already the poor man saw himself crowned by the might of his arm Emperor of Trebizond at least; and so, led away by the intense enjoyment he found in these pleasant fancies, he set himself forthwith to put his scheme into execution.”
Now, just switch “all that he had read” with “all that he had watched on Fox News” and you have it.
One last thing, perhaps putting the lock on this whole set of events, I am reliably informed that this past weekend, during that Republicans’ strategy session at Camp David, amid the snow and freezing weather in the Catoctin Mountains, what film did Donald Trump and his family watch but the new musical flick, “The Greatest Showman”, inspired by the life of PT Barnum. Barnum was the man credited with having created the “Greatest Show on Earth” and, at least apocryphally, given to saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Amen. DM
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump gestures as he returns to the White House in Washington, D.C., USA, 07 January 2018. President Trump was on a weekend trip with Republican leadership and members of his cabinet at Camp David. EPA-EFE/KEVIN DIETSCH / POOL
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