Photo: Jen Harris
Michael Wolff was known as a veteran journalist and media gadfly before he dove headfirst into presidential politics with 2018’s Fire and Fury. The book, which documented Trump’s chaotic first few months in office, was a publishing sensation that spent weeks atop best-seller lists, drew harsh condemnation from the White House, and inspired widespread criticism — and a memorable Saturday Night Live impression — for its gossipy style and explosive claims of questionable provenance.
Now Wolff is back with Siege: Trump Under Fire, which documents a White House boxed in by the Mueller investigation and still riven by vicious infighting and a man-child president who has hardly grown into his role. Like its predecessor, Siege includes some eye-opening — and vigorously disputed — scoops. Among them: Robert Mueller’s investigators drew up an obstruction-of-justice charge against the president before discarding it (the Mueller team issued a rare denial), Jared Kushner called the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi a terrorist, and Fox News fed Brett Kavanaugh questions in advance of an interview in the midst of his confirmation hearing (an anchor at the network says it did no such thing).
Intelligencer spoke with Wolff about the veracity of his book, the relevance of primary source Steve Bannon, and why he feels just a little bit of sympathy for the president.
How have you found the reaction to Siege so far?
Very similar to the reactions to the last book. It feels like a sequel in every respect.
Do you expect President Trump to weigh in on this one the way he did last time?
I guess the question is whether he can resist or not.
He usually can’t.
Yes, I am assuming that it will get to him sooner or later.
What do you want readers to take away from this book, which you characterize as an emotional portrait of the White House?
This is really about trying to create the experience of Trumpworld and of letting readers participate in that experience. So much of the Trump coverage is sound bites, tweets, bullet points, the scandal of the moment. This book is filled with scandals and outrage, but it’s not a tweet, and it’s not a sound bite. It’s 300 pages. It’s a full immersive experience of what it means to be close to Donald Trump. I think that’s the advantage of a book — you have enough room to create that story and that setting, and readers can step into it. I think it’s a book that’s designed to be read in a couple of sittings, something that, if I have done my job right, you can’t really put down.
You write that Trump is an extreme, almost hallucinatory, character and that not only have we never seen a politician like him but that most people haven’t even met a person like him. Do you find that the mainstream press has not caught up with this reality, even though he’s been dominating the political landscape for so long?
He bears no resemblance to anything else that people who write about politics and think about politics are familiar with. We’re still at this point where nobody knows really how to write about this guy.
And that’s why you take this approach?
Exactly. I’m off the news cycle — that’s not what I’m trying to feed, and that’s not where I particularly want to be. It’s just telling a story. And let’s remember, this is the greatest story of our time. Put politics aside, put the future of the country aside, put all of that aside, this is just a riveting story. Trump is a character as large as any that we have seen in maybe my lifetime.
What did you make of Bob Woodward’s book? He also wrote a book that was outside the day-to-day news in the way yours is.
I think Bob Woodward’s books are important books. He confirmed most of what I said in Fire and Fury. Everybody was saying, “No, couldn’t be, we deny that …,” and then Woodward comes along and it’s essentially the same story.
You told the New York Times that several of those scoops that were so disputed last year eventually proved to be true. Did you have anything in particular in mind when you said that?
I think I was pretty much the first person that said, “This is crazy town.”
Well, I don’t know about that.
No, I would disagree. Up until that point, it was “Trump is a bad guy because he’s a despot and he’s a right-winger,” and he’s all those things that we could see in a perfectly political context. Then I came along and said he couldn’t read, he doesn’t listen. That established a new threshold of psychopathology.
The mental instability part become more part of the national conversation, but I do think it’s been evident from day one that he is not intellectual in the least, is not interested in facts the way that any of his predecessors are.
The thing is how to fully appreciate that. I mean, because remember, the man is president of the United States. The mere fact of being in the White House legitimizes him in some way. It’s about telling a story or presenting him in a way in which you understand that there’s no relationship here to what we have previously understood as legitimacy.
One of the central subjects of the book is the Mueller investigation, which has now wrapped up. You’re not the only person to point out the fact that Mueller is this Establishment guy who plays by old rules. You write that, from the beginning, Trump thought he could dominate Mueller because he was familiar with his type, and that he could just assemble a barricade of lies and win the day. It seems like he kind of did that.
Although, to be fair, I think there’s a structural problem here, which is that Republicans in Congress would have his back no matter what.
You see, I don’t think that’s true either.
Anyone who has worked with him, anyone who has been near him in any way thinks that he’s vile and ludicrous. I think they would take any opportunity to put the shiv in.
They haven’t so far. It’s been two and a half years. His congressional allies are worried about voters. They might not like him personally …
No, absolutely. I think the Republicans have a structural problem. It’s the party of Donald Trump. I think they look at this and they literally don’t know what to do, but they are certainly not blind to the fact that this is Donald Trump.
A lot of the book is about, and from the perspective of, Steve Bannon. You’ve gotten some flak for presenting him as a very relevant figure right in the Trump White House. You say that even though he’s gone, he still maintains a power center, and that Trump is hanging on his every word — and that Bannon’s still influencing policy in the White House.
Totally. And I absolutely believe that this is entirely true.
The government shutdown would be a notable example of him driving Trump?
Absolutely. On China, on the caravan …
But isn’t that Donald Trump? He has very few beliefs, very few core philosophical underpinnings, but he’s been talking about getting screwed on trade for 35 years.
Yes, Trump understands “China bad.” but if somebody goes in and says, “China is very complicated,” he leaves the room. That coterie of anti-China people is constantly worried that he’ll fold on this.
I just think that Trump has always worried about getting screwed by other countries. I think he’d be anti-trade in this aggressive way even without Bannon.
These are all Trump instincts, and people are always trying to push those Trump buttons, but remember: He can’t do anything, because he has no attention span, no ability to absorb details, no interest in details. So you have this thing which you’re trying to push, you’re trying to move, and Steve has been better than most at moving it. Well actually, it goes back and forth, I think, between Jared and Steve.
I sense you have a certain affection for Bannon. Not necessarily his political outlook but the way he conducts himself.
I think he’s incredibly insightful. I think he’s the one person of all of the people I’ve spoken to about this who really gets Donald Trump. And he can’t keep his mouth shut. From a journalist’s standpoint, what’s not to like?
But don’t you ever feel that he veers into bullshit territory? Or just less than most people do?
Quite less than most people. And even his hyperbole comes closer to the truth than most other people’s effort to restrain themselves in how they describe Donald Trump.
When you say the truth, you mean the truth about Donald Trump or the truth at large?
About Donald Trump. Yeah. On the other things — what is Steve doing in Europe? What is that? I have no idea. I mean, not for want of asking. I don’t get it.
You mean, what is he doing, like the nitty-gritty of what he’s doing?
No, where does that come from in Steve Bannon? The Steve Bannon I know — I locate Steve’s politics as a Democrat circa 1962.
But what about tax cuts for the rich and taking away health care from people? That would seem to conflict with the old-school populism.
Well, he’s a tax-the-rich guy.
But he flipped once they came into power. He was all for the 2017 tax bill, which was certainly not taxing the rich. It was very much the opposite.
I’m the last person to be able to explain Steve’s consistencies or inconsistencies. That’s one of the interesting things about him. I mean, the ultimate inconsistency is his relationship to Donald Trump. This is a man who he clearly hates, but a man who he is fascinated by. He’s drawn to Donald Trump — why? Again, I can’t exactly say.
He’s a vessel for his ideas.
That’s what he says, but it’s a very difficult vessel.
That could be the title of your next book — “A Very Difficult Vessel.”
I also think that Trump understands that Steve made him president. I mean, can Donald Trump get elected again in 2020 without Steve Bannon? I would say no.
You never get into whether you share Bannon’s actual views about the world, about politics.
I don’t share Bannon’s views, no.
You’re more like a Democrat from after 1962.
I’m a New York guy, yes.
As with Fire and Fury, there’s been a lot of anecdotes you report that have been flatly denied by people. Just to get into one of them: You write that the Mueller team drew up an obstruction-of-justice charge and then didn’t use it, which is a pretty explosive claim. We have all these reporters like Mike Schmidt, Maggie Haberman, and others at the New York Times and Washington Post who are very well sourced, as well sourced as you can possibly be with this tight-lipped investigation, and they did not come up with this information. Can you see why it might strain people’s credulity that only you did?
Well, two things. Well, I think it is probably surprising to people who have not been able to get anything out of the special counsel that something has come out of the special counsel, and this is something of quite some significance. The fact that they didn’t get is — I mean, the political journalism world is a small world and a competitive one. I think that if you look at the material in the book, it speaks for itself. It’s very clear what it is. I think, by its very nature, its authenticity really can’t be questioned. The story yet to be told is what went on for two years in the special counsel’s office. Two years in which they produced, at best, an equivocal report. The documents that I have, which I talk about in the book, begin to give some background to what went on under that incredible cone of silence.
You said that you don’t always need to ask people or institutions you make claims about for comment, like with Fox News, when you said that they had supplied questions to Brett Kavanaugh in advance. You didn’t have to ask them for comment because you knew what they were going to say, which is, “We didn’t.” I do see the point there.
Let me make that point further. Should I call Fox New and say, “Are you biased for Donald Trump?” Because I know what they would say. They would say, “Oh, no, we’re not.” Should I call up Donald Trump or the White House spokesperson and say, “Did Donald Trump discuss with his friends after Marla Maples told him she was pregnant whether or not he should push her down the stairs so that she might have a miscarriage?” I think I’ll pass on that question.
Your book was fact-checked. What do you actually view as the role of fact-checking in a process like this?
You want to find out what’s true. If you know something is true, then I guess truth is the defense.
In the Washington Post review of Siege, there’s this passage: “Wolff observes that reporting on Trump is difficult because the President and many of the people who work for him or advise him lie indiscriminately. Other reporters have faced this dilemma by maximizing the number of sources needed to confirm the many rumors that swirl around Trump and by generally increasing transparency to retain reader trust in an environment where the President regularly attacks truthful reporting as fake. Wolff takes a different approach, dramatic scoops are plopped down on the page with no sourcing whatsoever, would-be news-making quotes are often attributed to Trump and senior officials without any context about when or to whom they were made.”
Two things. First, I’ve done this before. As I said, I think Fire and Fury not only resonated with readers, so there’s clearly not a problem with credibility there, but I think it helped established the narrative that we now operate under. The No. 2 point is that I’m doing a different thing than daily reporters. I think the New York Times and the Washington Post should do what they do, but I’m a book writer. I am presenting what I know, what I’ve heard, and I’m putting it in service to a larger story, as I said — the experience of Trumpworld. A reader has two choices, to reject or to come into that story and say, “I understand this. I can see this. It makes sense to me.”
A book doesn’t necessarily have to make sense for it to be an entertaining read.
Well, I would disagree with that. One of the things … Again, this is partly a forum question. I’m not a daily reporter. I’m not a newspaper reporter, I’m not a political reporter. All of those people do what they do, but that is different than what I do. It’s a book, it’s 300 pages. It’s not a bullet point in a story. After 300 pages, you know you’re buying it or you’re not buying it.
Do these reviews and all this commentary bother you at all? I know you’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m sure you have a thick skin.
I have an incredibly thick skin. It doesn’t particularly bother me. I find it interesting that this becomes a contest between other people who are trying to get information on Trump or trying to write Trump books or people who have written Trump books. I think you just have to shrug it off.
Going back to Trump’s character, do you think that there’s evidence that his mental decline that you have described in two books now is actually really accelerating, or is he really the same as he’s always been?
To me, he seems the same as he’s always been. When I was at New York Magazine, he used to call me up fairly often. It was amusing, and you thought, Gee, this Donald Trump is really a piece of work. You just thought he was an act.
That’s what everyone thought. We had him on the cover many times in the ’80s and ’90s — so did everyone else, he was such a fixture. Do you think that New York City really created this monster unbeknown to the people who did it at the time? We had a piece by Mark Harris about how he was a New York creation.
Yes, of course. Trump’s totally homegrown.
Do you ever feel any kind of regret for the way that happened — not that you were personally responsible necessarily, but just the fact that he was able to be a successful huckster without anyone really questioning him?
It’s clearly true. Now I’m just thinking how guilty should we feel and, since I was around at this time, how guilty I should feel. I guess you’d just say, “Who could have known?”
Of all the people I’ve covered, of all of the people in New York, of all of the people who have risen and fallen in the Trump years, there is something unique about Donald Trump, that he can just keep going. One of the things about this book is that life is tough for him in this White House. He’s basically all alone. There is basically nobody around him. The senior aides are the heretofore junior aides. In essence, every power center in the country, left of Fox News, is actively trying to destroy him. It’s hard not to feel a little pang now and again.
I don’t feel a little pang.
You’re colder than I am.
Don’t say that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.