Trump, Wolff and The Secret of the Russia Story

A year ago, as most of the media struggled to make sense of the reality of the Trump presidency and the Russia probe moved from the fringes of political discussion to the center, Michael Wolff’s was a conspicuous discordant voice – and quite intentionally so. Among his media colleagues, Wolff is quite well-known and not terribly well-liked. This appears to be as he likes it. He’s a canny journalist and a masterful self-promoter. He’s written a number of successful books and never seems to have a shortage of outlets ready to run his columns. About this time a year ago, Wolff was sidling up to Trump’s inner circle and crapping on basically every other journalist covering Trump. They wanted opposition, resistance, to say ‘this isn’t normal’ till they were blue in the face, he claimed. He wanted the story. He was a real journalist, not an activist.

What was ‘the story’? That Trump had achieved the impossible, bent the political nation to his will. That was the story and Michael Wolff was going to get it.

A couple weeks after the 2016 election he and I actually briefly tangled on this topic on Twitter.

Wolff was practicing sycophancy journalism under the guise of access journalism. Only we didn’t quite have the entire story, though in retrospect it was altogether predictable. Wolff spent months buttering up the highest level Trump insiders. While he was publicly lambasting reporters actually writing history’s first draft of the Trump presidency, he was leveraging their work to advance his own. The onslaught of negative press allowed Wolff to pose as the only reporter who got the true nature of Trump’s greatness – not just publicly, but far more importantly in his private presentation and pitch. If the Trumpers were aggrieved with the ‘fake news’ ‘lying’ press, here was a prestige journalist who got it and could help. It was like offering crack to broke junkies.

In a Today Show interview, Wolff essentially conceded that he lied as often as he needed to get the access he needed. “I certainly said what was ever necessary to get the story.” To ensnare Trump’s coterie of gullible toadies he actually made the working title of his book “The Great Transition: The First 100 Days of the Trump Administration.”

It was always hilarious and maddening to see Wolff, the ultimate creature of deracinated, coastal media elitism to pose as the chronicler and connoisseur of Trumpite real America. But then critiquing his own world has always been Wolff’s racket. And in this case, it fit perfectly with the plan.

In so many ways, to the degree Fire and Fury is a snapshot biography, Trump got the biographer he deserved. Wolff is shamelessly manipulative and hasn’t the slightest hesitation about deceiving his sources to “get the story”, as he puts it. Indeed, this is a long, even darkly august journalistic tradition. Not my cup of tea, personally. But if real facts are unearthed and they’re important ones to know, who can say it’s a bad thing? Such a reporter sacrifices their honor and honesty – perhaps often their dignity – in the service of the public good – if they’ve got a real story.

What is so fascinating and comical about this is that just as Wolff was oozing his way into the Trump inner circle, Trump was deepening his relationship with press kingpin Rupert Murdoch, the ultimate owner of Fox News. Murdoch had always seen Trump as basically a clown. But that changed when he got power – at least how he treated Trump changed and dramatically. Wolff had done virtually the same thing to Murdoch a decade ago as he was doing to Trump in the first days of 2018. Largely on the strength of a glowing write up in Vanity Fair, Wolff managed to get a phenomenal level of access to Murdoch. The product was The Man Who Owns The News, a brutal hatchet job.

Let’s review the model: 1) secure access through sycophancy, 2) gain unparalleled and almost unimaginable access, 3) royally screw the subject in a blockbuster book.

This wasn’t a secret.

Listen to this 2008 review of the book by the late David Carr in the Times

Much was made of Wolff’s alliance with Murdoch, that it would lead to complicity and sycophancy, but Wolff remains true to his nature, which is joyously nasty. It is a baked-in reflex of a kind that Trollope described: “His satire springs rather from his own caustic nature than from the sins of the world in which he lives.”

Wolff takes no specific offense at Murdoch’s willingness to use his media properties to cold business ends, but depicts him as a cranky, monomaniacal newspaper hack, a con man with bad hearing, no interest in new media paradigms and no real friends to speak of. It is also pointed out that he is “a good family man — even if he has three of them.” Like the man he writes about, Wolff is a gossip who is very skilled at extracting information and sensing weakness.

Wolff is, in a word, vicious. He played Murdoch and then knifed him, all out in the open. And then he did more or less exactly the same thing to Trump a decade later, with the added bonus that Trump was talking to Murdoch regularly while Wolff had the run of the White House and was laying the ground work to shiv him as he had his new friend Rupert. None of this is terribly surprising given the Trump we know. But it wasn’t only his narcissism and neediness. The lack of any experienced staff and the organizational disarray that was particularly marked before John Kelly took over as Chief of Staff allowed Wolff to always be saying that he had the run of the place because someone else said it was okay. Because he was Trump’s best friend. Because Trump thought it was great. Because … well, didn’t you know that other person …

As I said, Trump got just the kind of vicious, shameless and canny biographer he deserved. “Joyously nasty” seems to capture it – precisely the person you want to write the book about someone you already despise.

But we don’t have to stop there. It is impossible not to look at the Wolff story and see many of the patterns we are now reading about which occurred over the course of 2015 and 2016 as various Russian nationals, cut-outs and intelligence officers inveigled their way into the Trump orbit. A key lure was the same: flattery. Another more amorphous draw was greed – whether for money or for damaging campaign material or positive press for a White House drowning in the worst press imaginable and abysmal public support. In both cases, the Trumpers were dealing with people who knew how to read a mark. And the Trumpers were easy marks.

Disorganization also clearly played a key role.

Earlier this month I wrote about what I see as the biggest question we face in trying to understand the Trump/Russia story. We know President Trump had longstanding ties to Russian capital, oligarchs and organized crime. These might be binds of greed or compromise or maybe both. But they run deep. This seems obviously tied to his and his minions’ machinations during the 2016 campaign. And yet the clearest threads we’ve found out about which point to collusion don’t suggest a organized conspiracy or a tight relationship so much as cold approaches, often to secondary members of the Trump entourage. As I noted in that January 8th post, there are various potential explanations for this seeming lack of fit. I’m still not sure what the explanation is. For our present purposes though what is key is that same role of inexperience, disorganization and greed.

Key Trump insiders like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. have often claimed the campaign was too disorganized to collude with Russia. We were new at this! We barely had a proper campaign at all. That’s not how it works. It’s chaotic settings with corrupt individuals who always attract spies and grifters looking for an angle and a mark: the desperate and the greedy, the corrupt and the stupid. Similarly, they look for chaos and disorganization. Any reasonably competent press organization would have been aware of the fact that Wolff had managed almost unprecedented and unimaginable access to the West Wing of the White House, essentially unfettered. They also would have seen that he has a long track record of gaining access with flattery and then telling stories which are nasty, catty and vicious, if perhaps also accurate. No one put any of that together. Despite all the later denials, Trump himself personally appears to be the one who first rose to Wolff’s bait, public insistence on Trump’s greatness.

It is simply impossible not to see some version of the same story with Russian efforts to penetrate the Trump campaign and the Trump White House – dangling money, help against enemies, praise and all without any supervision by anyone with the experience or ethics or worldliness to see what was happening. This is, in many ways, the most important lesson and message and story of Wolff’s book.

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