Sunday, January 7, 2018

Crying Wolff

Let's get something straight. I am no fan of Steve Bannon or his rag of a publication, Breitbart. As far as I'm concerned he and the entire alt-right movement can jump in a lake. But after reading excerpts from Michael Wolff's book "Fire and Fury," in which the former senior advisor, along with a number of other West Wing staffers, were quoted saying some rather disparaging things about Donald Trump, we finally have confirmation on the record of what many have been saying off the record for over a year - that this president is completely unfit for the office he holds.

Now to be fair, Wolff's book hasn't been completely verified, and it's highly likely that, given his history, some of the accounts in it are false. But the way in which Trump and his supporters have overreacted to the excerpts that have been released, particularly those attributed to Bannon, suggests to me that it struck a nerve. I'm guessing having his son called "treasonous" for meeting with a Russian official to get dirt on Hillary Clinton didn't go over well with his royal highness.

But as amusing as it might seem to learn the Padawan screwed his master, the real story here isn't that meeting Junior had at Trump Tower - seriously, I really don't need Bannon to tell me how treasonous that was, and neither does Robert Mueller - it's the revelation that many have suspected but couldn't prove that the Trump campaign, despite all its bluster, didn't expect to win the 2016 election, and was as shocked as anyone - with the possible exception of Clinton herself - at the results.

A piece in New York magazine by Wolff titled "Donald Trump Didn't Want To Be President," finally explains not only the erratic nature of the campaign, but also what Trump's real objective was: to start his own cable network.
As the campaign came to an end, Trump himself was sanguine. His ultimate goal, after all, had never been to win. “I can be the most famous man in the world,” he had told his aide Sam Nunberg at the outset of the race. His longtime friend Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News, liked to say that if you want a career in television, first run for president. Now Trump, encouraged by Ailes, was floating rumors about a Trump network. It was a great future. He would come out of this campaign, Trump assured Ailes, with a far more powerful brand and untold opportunities.
Most presidential candidates spend their entire careers, if not their lives from adolescence, preparing for the role. They rise up the ladder of elected offices, perfect a public face, and prepare themselves to win and to govern. The Trump calculation, quite a conscious one, was different. The candidate and his top lieutenants believed they could get all the benefits of almost becoming president without having to change their behavior or their worldview one whit. Almost everybody on the Trump team, in fact, came with the kind of messy conflicts bound to bite a president once he was in office. Michael Flynn, the retired general who served as Trump’s opening act at campaign rallies, had been told by his friends that it had not been a good idea to take $45,000 from the Russians for a speech. “Well, it would only be a problem if we won,” ­Flynn assured them. 
Not only did Trump disregard the potential conflicts of his own business deals and real-estate holdings, he audaciously refused to release his tax returns. Why should he? Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and a martyr to Crooked Hillary. His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would be international celebrities. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the tea-party movement. Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star. Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching. Losing would work out for everybody. Losing was winning.
The only hiccup in the plan was that Trump had underestimated the unrest in the electorate - especially in the Midwest - not to mention the anger and resentment he had helped gin up throughout the campaign.  Those voters didn't think his campaign was a vehicle to better and more profitable ventures; far from it. They thought he was their deliverer, and they did the unimaginable: they delivered him the presidency. And that's where America's nightmare truly began. Wolff writes,
From the moment of victory, the Trump administration became a looking-glass presidency: Every inverse assumption about how to assemble and run a White House was enacted and compounded, many times over. The decisions that Trump and his top advisers made in those first few months — from the slapdash transition to the disarray in the West Wing — set the stage for the chaos and dysfunction that have persisted throughout his first year in office. This was a real-life version of Mel Brooks’s The Producers, where the mistaken outcome trusted by everyone in Trump’s inner circle — that they would lose the election — wound up exposing them for who they really were.
The day after the election, the bare-bones transition team that had been set up during the campaign hurriedly shifted from Washington to Trump Tower. The building — now the headquarters of a populist revolution —­ suddenly seemed like an alien spaceship on Fifth Avenue. But its otherworldly air helped obscure the fact that few in Trump’s inner circle, with their overnight responsibility for assembling a government, had any relevant experience.

Throughout the piece, Wolff paints a frightening picture of an administration out of its element and, at times, out of its mind. Bannon seized control of the West Wing and the Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, was unable to reign him in. Trump, becoming more and more insular, encouraged the chaos, fearful of anyone who might check his authority.
Nothing contributed to the chaos and dysfunction of the White House as much as Trump’s own behavior. The big deal of being president was just not apparent to him. Most victorious candidates, arriving in the White House from ordinary political life, could not help but be reminded of their transformed circumstances by their sudden elevation to a mansion with palacelike servants and security, a plane at constant readiness, and downstairs a retinue of courtiers and advisers. But this wasn’t that different from Trump’s former life in Trump Tower, which was actually more commodious and to his taste than the White House. 
Trump, in fact, found the White House to be vexing and even a little scary. He retreated to his own bedroom — the first time since the Kennedy White House that a presidential couple had maintained separate rooms. In the first days, he ordered two television screens in addition to the one already there, and a lock on the door, precipitating a brief standoff with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He ­reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.” Then he imposed a set of new rules: Nobody touch anything, especially not his toothbrush. (He had a longtime fear of being poisoned, one reason why he liked to eat at McDonald’s — nobody knew he was coming and the food was safely premade.) Also, he would let housekeeping know when he wanted his sheets done, and he would strip his own bed.
And then there was this Captain Queeg moment,
As details of Trump’s personal life leaked out, he became obsessed with identifying the leaker. The source of all the gossip, however, may well have been Trump himself. In his calls throughout the day and at night from his bed, he often spoke to people who had no reason to keep his confidences. He was a river of grievances, which recipients of his calls promptly spread to the ever-attentive media. 
On February 6, in one of his seething, self-pitying, and unsolicited phone calls to a casual acquaintance, Trump detailed his bent-out-of-shape feelings about the relentless contempt of the media and the disloyalty of his staff. The initial subject of his ire was the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, whom he called “a nut job.” Gail Collins, who had written a Times column unfavorably comparing Trump to Vice-President Mike Pence, was “a moron.” Then, continuing under the rubric of media he hated, he veered to CNN and the deep disloyalty of its chief, Jeff Zucker.
Trump was obsessed with the the perception that he was not really in charge. He reportedly threw a fit over a Time magazine cover that showed Steve Bannon with the caption, "The Great Manipulator" at the bottom.  To Trump this demeaned his authority by elevating a member of his cabinet. He lashed out by pointing out that Bannon had "zero" influence over him. Without quite realizing it, Trump confirmed what his harshest critics had been saying: that nothing or nobody was capable of reaching him. The leader of the free world was indeed his own island.

This paranoia had other consequences besides mere ranting and raving; it ostensibly paralyzed the administration. Well into its first year, its agenda, apart from appointing conservative judges to the courts and slashing one regulation after another, was all but stalled. Wolff cites the frustration deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh was having getting the administration to actually govern.
During that first month, Walsh’s disbelief and even fear about what was happening in the White House moved her to think about quitting. Every day after that became a countdown toward the moment she knew she wouldn’t be able to take it anymore. To Walsh, the proud political pro, the chaos, the rivalries, and the president’s own lack of focus were simply incomprehensible. In early March, not long before she left, she confronted Kushner with a simple request. “Just give me the three things the president wants to focus on,” she demanded. “What are the three priorities of this White House?”
It was the most basic question imaginable — one that any qualified presidential candidate would have answered long before he took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Six weeks into Trump’s presidency, Kushner was wholly without an answer.
“Yes,” he said to Walsh. “We should probably have that conversation.”
That conversation, like so many others, never took place. That's because this president has surrounded himself with people who cannot or will not speak truth to power. Far from carrying out his agenda, they seem more interested in staying in the good graces of their boss. The Trump White House has been referred to as a "daycare center" by some; it's really more like an insane asylum where the inmates take their marching orders from the head inmate. And thanks to Michael Wolff, we have first-hand accounts of the dysfunction that permeates every element within it.

A paranoid president who never wanted the office, with no intellectual curiosity to speak of, and the temperament of a toddler, is ill-served by a cabinet completely incapable of getting him to focus on the most rudimentary of objectives. Wolff hasn't just written a tell-all account of an administration in disarray, he's written a chilling tale worthy of being included among Alfred Hitchcock's best thrillers. The only thing missing is the shower scene.

As I stated earlier, we still don't know how much of this book is actually true and how much is the product of Wolff's overactive imagination. Some of it has already been disproven, while some of it has been confirmed by prior reporting.

This much is certain: if even half of "Fire and Fury" is borne out by the facts, then we aren't just in unchartered waters; we're in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle with Captain Ahab at the helm.

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