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The story so far...

JONATHAN MARTIN Jan 28 2018, 0:52 IST

He is a New Yorker in Washington, far more consumed with the news media and personalities than policy issues. He elides facts, fudges the specifics and dispenses with professional norms in the service of success and status. And while affecting a contempt for the mainstream press, he cannot help dropping the mask to reveal the double game he is playing. I am talking, of course, of the writer Michael Wolff, who with Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House has delivered an altogether fitting, if ultimately unsatisfying, book on the chaotic first nine months of President Trump, another media-obsessed Manhattanite.

Wolff is, to borrow a recent phrase in the news, a sort of perfectly grotesque Boswell to Trump's Johnson. The duo are a match made in heaven, or perhaps due south. Fire and Fury has detonated as few contemporaneous political books ever have, gripping an angry president's attention for days, reigniting questions about his mental stability and prompting the excommunication of Stephen K Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist. Yet what makes Wolff's account at once undeniably entertaining and lamentably unrewarding is precisely what makes covering this administration so frustrating. Politics and elections are my beat, so I can easily get pulled into stories about the Trump White House. But while the accounts can be sublime, at least to a scoop-hungry reporter, they can also leave one unsatisfied.

To put it mildly, it can be hard to attain the unalloyed truth from a president who has long boasted of gaming the press, or from competing courtiers who often wield insider anecdotes as sword and shield in their efforts to protect themselves and bloody their rivals. Then there is the sheer outlandishness of the Trump era: when most anything is plausible it is also printable, but that does not necessarily mean you are getting it right.

Wolff addresses the inherent challenge of reporting on this White House in an introductory author's note, explaining that the recollections of sources can collide with one another and in some cases be untrue entirely. "Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book," he says. To confront his problem, Wolff notes that there are times he lets "the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them." Unfortunately for the reader, he throws up his hands when dealing with three of the most pivotal moments of the Trump campaign and presidency.

In recounting the 2016 gathering at Trump Tower among Donald Trump Jr., the campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and close adviser, and a group of Russians promising damaging information on Hillary Clinton, Wolff offers several "why-and-how theories of this imbecilic meeting." But he does not settle on any one of them.

Second, in recalling the moment on Air Force One a year later when now-President Trump worked to produce a statement for his son minimising the meeting, Wolff does not attempt to assess the veracity of the declarations of Kushner and his wife, Ivanka, that they were not part of any cover-up. "Ivanka, according to the later recollection of her team, would shortly leave the meeting, take a pill and go to sleep," Wolff writes. "Jared, in the telling of his team, might have been there, but he was 'not taking a pencil to anything'."

Wolff turns to the same device, only from the voice of the opposing camp, in recounting Trump's fateful decision to fire the FBI director James Comey. "It was Jared, in the version told by those outside the Jarvanka circle, that pushed for action," he writes.

Wolff is unsparing in his portrayal of Trump as an aberrant chief executive, not only detached from governance but barely literate. He summons withering on-the-record assessments from ostensible allies of a seemingly infantile president. "If they tell him the whales need to be saved, he's basically for it," says Katie Walsh, a former White House deputy chief of staff, recalling how easily the Kushners could sway Trump. Yet much of Wolff's sourcing is opaque. "I've made stuff up forever, and they always print it," Trump boasts about his long-running media con. But Wolff, with seemingly unintended irony, does not make clear where he harvested such an explosive line.

Wolff is a media writer by trade and, like his protagonist, he repeatedly scorns the mainline press for what he suggests is its liberal bias. He singles out this paper for treating the Trump presidency as anomalous. Yet putting aside the irony that his own depiction sketches out a shockingly aberrant White House, Wolff shows that his media-bashing is not on the level when he switches from the Ailes hymnal to a more conventional liberal perspective.

In a jab at the media, he calls Richard Spencer, the racist alt-right activist, "catnip for the liberal press," but then effectively makes the liberals' case by giving Spencer an open mic to proclaim "we are the Trump vanguard." And Wolff casually refers to a "virulent, if not anti-Semitic (at least toward liberal Jews), right-wing West Wing."

Wolff is strongest when he's writing on what he knows best: the insecurities and ambitions of Trump and other media fixtures. Yet while much of this presidency does revolve around news coverage, it is still a presidency. And Wolff is far weaker when it comes to politics.

The collapse of the Affordable Care Act repeal in the Senate is dealt with in less than a single sentence, with no mention of Senator John McCain's opposition or Trump's 11th-hour telephone call to him that preceded it.

Vice President Mike Pence is largely airbrushed out of the book, which is puzzling given how influential he was in tapping cabinet officials and staff. Similarly, few would see Andrew Card or Erskine Bowles as "larger-than-life" presidential chiefs of staff; the conservative United Nations ambassador Nikki R Haley is hardly a 'Jarvanka Republican'; and at a September campaign rally in Alabama for Senator Luther Strange, Trump did not abandon Strange "for the rest of the speech" after criticising NFL players for kneeling at the national anthem.

Then there is the sloppiness: the former representative Dick Armey was never House speaker, the Washington lobbyist Hilary Rosen spells her first name with only one 'l' and it is Mike Berman, Walter F Mondale's former counsel, who breakfasts at the Four Seasons, not the Washington Post reporter Mark Berman.

The writing is often vivid but Wolff, who tries to hold to a chronological narrative, can be as repetitive as Trump, returning again and again to preferred words or phrases (joie de guerre is a favourite).

What ultimately salvages the book are those moments when he all but makes Bannon his co-author, letting Bannon describe West Wing showdowns with his moderate nemesis, Jarvanka, in ways that render this the de facto first insider account of the Trump White House. Of course, the recollections are just those of a single aide, and may include what Trump himself once called examples of "truthful hyperbole."

In the newspaper business, such stories would be deemed 'too good to check'. But given the popularity of Fire and Fury, Wolff might call them something else: liberal catnip.

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