The book setting Trump’s presidency ablaze

Page turner: Wolff’s White House access came from there being “no one to say ‘Go Away’”. © Getty

Can we believe what is written in the “explosive” book about President Trump’s first year? Fire and Fury shot up the bestseller lists this weekend, but some have questioned its accuracy.

It easily reached the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. For one LA librarian, the demand was similar to “first day sales of the Harry Potter books.” A bookshop in Washington, DC sold out in just 20 minutes.

All weekend, the political world has been buzzing with talk of Fire and Fury, an account of Donald Trump’s first year as president by journalist Michael Wolff. Although it was originally due to be published tomorrow, a cease-and-desist letter from Trump’s lawyers led the publisher to release it on Friday instead.

The book paints a picture of a chaotic White House, where few people believed that Trump would win the 2016 election, or even that he should. It relies heavily on interviews with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist.

There are many gossipy details: including Trump’s penchant for cheeseburgers in bed, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch calling him an idiot.

More seriously, the book casts doubt on Trump’s mental capacity. Wolff told NBC that he interviewed over 200 people, and “They all say, ‘He is like a child’... he has a need for immediate gratification.” The book claims that he refuses to read anything, cannot “link cause and effect”, or hold a “balanced back-and-forth conversation”.

In response, Trump tweeted that he was “a very stable genius” and called the book “boring and untruthful”. His press secretary called it “trashy tabloid fiction”.

Many of Wolff’s fellow journalists have also questioned his work. For one thing, several mistakes have been found in the details of the story. Wolff says he had a “semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing”. But the book is written with a third-person omniscient narrator, a style that makes it difficult to know which scenes he observed himself, which were told to him second or third-hand, and who his sources were for each event.

Much of it, according to Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio, falls “into the ‘who knows if it could be true?’ category”.

So can we trust it?

Liar and fury?

No, say some. If a writer avoids basic fact checking, we cannot take their conclusions seriously. Wolff seems more interested in a dramatic story than in historical accuracy. After many contradictory interviews, he says he “settled on a version of events I believe to be true” — but that is not the same as truth. Pretending otherwise does a disservice to journalism.

It is impossible to ever know the whole truth, others argue; everyone sees things differently. But the book‘s central message — that Trump cannot focus on his job, and has had a chaotic first year — is right. It easily fits with what other reporters have been saying for months. In comparison, quibbles over burgers and bathrobes are not important.

You Decide

  1. Do you trust Michael Wolff’s account of the Trump presidency so far?
  2. Is Trump fit to be president?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have five minutes to talk to the book’s author, Michael Wolff. List the three most important questions you would ask him about his work.
  2. Write your own news article summarising Donald Trump’s first year as president.

Some People Say...

“Media is personal. It is a series of blood scores.”

Michael Wolff in Fire and Fury

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Michael Wolff did have access to the White House. Officially, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says he spent most of his time there with former chief strategist Steve Bannon. In the book, Bannon is quoted throughout, and his interview with Wolff is on-the-record (meaning he knew he would be quoted and named later). However, yesterday he called the book’s reporting “inaccurate”.
What do we not know?
Who the majority of Wolff’s sources were. He says he talked to most if not all of Trump’s closest aides and advisers, as well as many more people whom they had talked to in turn. However, the book does not clarify which sources provided which stories. Instead, it weaves them all together in a fly-on-the-wall style, making it difficult to assess the accuracy of the account.

Word Watch

Cease-and-desist
A legal document warning a company or individual to stop a certain action, or risk being sued. In this case, publisher Henry Holt released a statement saying that it was going ahead with the publication.
Steve Bannon
Head of the right-wing website Breitbart News, and chief strategist at the White House from the beginning of Trump’s presidency until he was fired in August 2017. Yesterday, he said that he “regrets” not responding to the “inaccurate reporting” in Wolff’s book, particularly about Trump’s son, Donald junior.
Rupert Murdoch
The owner of News Corp (which publishes several newspapers). He recently sold 21st Century Fox to Disney.
Mistakes
For example, Wolff says that in January 2016, a “dossier” by ex-spy Christopher Steele claimed that Russia was blackmailing Trump. In reality, it claimed that Russia was gathering information to potentially blackmail Trump.
West Wing
The area of the White House containing the offices of the president and their staff.
Omniscient narrator
A narrative voice which seems to know everything, and states it with absolute authority.

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