Book notes: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff book summary.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff

Synopsis: “With extraordinary access to the West Wing, Michael Wolff reveals what happened behind-the-scenes in the first nine months of the most controversial presidency of our time in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

Since Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, the country—and the world—has witnessed a stormy, outrageous, and absolutely mesmerizing presidential term that reflects the volatility and fierceness of the man elected Commander-in-Chief.

Never before in history has a presidency so divided the American people. Brilliantly reported and astoundingly fresh, Fire and Fury shows us how and why Donald Trump has become the king of discord and disunion.” -Audible

Opening thoughts:

I got this book recommendation from a friend and fellow book lover. I usually take personal recommendations seriously so I put this selection on the list for this month. The reviews looked really good and seems pretty relevant given current events here in the United States. I’ve only ever read one Trump book, which was co-authored by another person. I thought it was pretty insightful, though I know this book is more of a 3rd party perspective on the Trump white house.

Key notes:

  • A small circle in his campaign didn’t think Trump would win the presidency, and they also sort of thought he probably shouldn’t
    • Trump himself wanted to become president to become the most famous man in the world, but was ambiguous whether not he wanted to be president
    • In their eyes, the publicity and media attention meant they’ve already won
      • A win or loss would strengthen his brand even more
      • At that point, they already crafted his losing message of how the campaign was stolen
  • Near the end of the campaign, Trump said everything was a shit show and everyone on his team was terrible. He thought it was a losing battle
  • Even after the Billy Bush interview incident, almost everyone believed there was no way he would become president
  • Trump and his top lieutenants believed they could get all the benefits of almost become president without having to change their behavior or their fundamental worldview one bit
  • Usually, outsider candidates like governors may stand on the virtue of being an outsider, but they still relied on those within to counsel them
    • The Trump campaign and his advisers had zero experience in politics whatsoever

Readers note: This is very interesting. It seems like the principle that they followed was to be completely authentic because they knew they would lose. But this served as their advantage because they didn’t hold back

Second, they didn’t follow the traditional norms of politics as none of the advisers even had any experience. Naturally, they would take a deviant course rather than the typical or expected. It makes sense that this cocktail with either burst in flames or be a hit.

  • It was a well-known fact that Trump knew nothing about politics or the basic intellectual foundations of the job. It was almost a comic understatement
  • No presidents before Trump and few politicians ever have come out of the real estate business, a lightly regulated market based on substantial debt with exposure to frequent market fluctuations
    • It often depends on government favor and is a preferred exchange currency floor problem cash, money laundering
  • Trump’s psychic makeup made it impossible for him to take such a close look at himself
    • Nor could he tolerate knowing somebody else would know a lot about him and therefore have something over him
    • And also, why take a close look when there was no chance of winning?
  • Within an hour of winning, he became confused, bewildered, then horrified
    • And then he transformed into someone who believed he deserved to win and was capable of becoming a president 
  • People who knew Trump had to reevaluate how they saw him because he, for lack of a better word or phrase, pulled the sword from the stone
    • He was elected and he did it, so there has to be something validated
    • Even though before, most within those higher circles dismissed him as a “Clown Prince”
  • Trump looked for a license not to conform, not to be respectable
    • It was something of an outlaw prescription for winning, and winning, however you won, was what it was all about
  • Trump actually craved media approval
    • But since he could never get the facts right and would never admit it, he would never get media approval
  • In the words of Sean Spicer, “Trump didn’t give a fuck at all
    • He knew what he knew, and if you said otherwise, he wouldn’t believe you
  • Trumps uncensored and spontaneous tweets would be his fundamental innovation in governing
    • Regular, uncontrolled bursts of anger
  • The less likely a presidential candidate is, usually the less experienced and unlikely their aids are
    • The likely aids are usually attracted to the more likely candidates
  • One of Bannon’s former competitor,s while acknowledging his intelligence and ambition, also noted that he’s mean, dishonest, and incapable of caring about other people
    • Conservative media was a great fit for him not only his angry, contrarian, Roman Catholic side, but it also had low barriers to entry
    • Liberal media by contrast with its corporate hierarchies was much harder to break into
    • Conservative media is also a highly lucrative target market category, with books dominating best sellers list, and videos and other products through direct sales avenues
  • For Bannon and media, you defined yourself by your enemy’s reaction
    • Conflict was the media bait, hence the political charm
    • The new politics was not the art of the compromise but the art of conflict
      • The real goal was to expose the liberal view
  • Trump had acquired almost no formal sort of social discipline
    • He could not even attempt to imitate decorum. He could not even converse in the sense of sharing information or a balanced back and forth conversation
    • He never particularly listened to what was said to him, nor particularly considered what he said in response
      • This is one reason why he was so repetitive
      • Nor did he treat anyone with any sort of basic or reliable courtesy
  • One theory of Trump’s peculiar behavior within the first few weeks of the White House was that he was used to that standard of living
    • Another theory was that it was the opposite, he was not used to everything and his entire world flipped upside down
      • Trump, an old man, and creature of habit, had his entire routine and daily life flipped over when he had to move into the White House and adapt to his new environment
    • Donald was very peculiar about his security and the way he left things in his living area
    • He also prefers eating at McDonald’s because of his fear poisoning. He trusted it would be safe and premade since no one would know he was coming
  • For his nominations, he wanted to choose people he knew and particularly who was loyal and he owed
  • His staff tried to keep him in an ideal environment bubble where he was surrounded by people who were receptive to him
    • This would help him perform at his best
  • In his early days in the White House, he would make unsolicited phone calls to people complaining about his staff and the media and all of his grievances without any pretense of confidence
    • Hence, many of these contacts had no obligation to not leak this information
    • Trump would go on and on about how he’s the victim of all of this bad media and fake news and mean comedy
  • There were several theories about Trump’s collusion with Russia and possible connections, as well as the reasons why he held Putin and such high regard
  • What scared the White House staff the most was not the possibility of this collusion story, but what an investigation would uncover in regards to all of the other dealings that would be possible and damaging
    • There were a lot of good reasons to fire Flynn even though the president trusted him and Flynn had Donald Trump’s full confidence
  • The organizational chart in the White House was the same as in the Trump organization:
    • There was no real up or down structure, but merely a figure at the top and everyone else scrambling for his attention
    • It wasn’t task-based so much as it was response-oriented
    • Whatever captured the boss’s attention focused everyone’s attention
  • Good management reduces ego. But in the Trump White House, it would seem like nothing happened and really didn’t exist if it did not happen in Trump’s presence
    • This made an upside-down kind of sense. If something was out of his view, he could care less
  • Usually, in organizations, things flow from the top down
    • In Trump’s White House, things flowed up giving him ideas and suggesting they were his own
      • But many cases, the president didn’t know what he wanted and had very contradicting ideas
      • It was his staff trying to interpret his wants and required a lot of guesswork
        • It was like trying to figure out what a child wants
  • The central issue of the Trump presidency was that he didn’t process any information given to him at all
    • He didn’t really read or even skim. If it was in print, it might as well not exist.
    • Some believed that for all practical purposes, he was no more than semi-literate
    • Some concluded he was dyslexic, with limited comprehension
    • Others thought he didn’t read because he just didn’t have to. He was “post-literate”, total television
  • Not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen
    • He preferred to be the person talking
    • And he trusted his own expertise no matter how more irrelevant than anyone else’s
    • And what’s more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention
  • The central hypothesis of the senior staff was that Trump MUST know what he’s doing, and his intuition must be profound because he managed to become the president
  • It was transparent and obvious that the president just wanted everyone to like him, and couldn’t comprehend why they couldn’t get people to like him
  • News spread about the inner workings of the White House, but it was actually the discord within the president’s mind himself
    • It was Trump usually talking down on and complaining about his staff and how most of it made no sense or logic
  • It was a constant battle and war between the three “Chief of Staff” figures: Kushner, Bannon, and Priebus
    • This was mightily exacerbated by a running disinformation campaign about them that was being prosecuted by the president himself
    • A chronic naysayer, he viewed each member of his inner circle as a problem child whose fate he held his hand
  • Mike Pence was seen as an “empty suit”, not threatening to the president and mostly passive
    • Some say he was the worst and most passive VP in a long time
      • Useless in the daily effort to stabilize the president and bring order to the West Wing
  • With the Jeff Sessions and Russia scandal, Trump told people he was getting outside sources to feed him information about his own government and people
  • Politics had seemed to become, even before the age of Trump, a zero-sum game
  • Trump kept insisting that the media and everyone else was lined up to get him
    • That he was the martyr and was being treated more unfairly than any other president
  • Trump would have moments of irrationality. When that happened, he was alone in his anger and not approachable by anyone
    • His senior staff largely dealt with these dark hours by agreeing with him, no matter what he said
    • If some of them occasionally try to hedge, Hope Hicks did not and agreed with all of it
  • Trump made his famous tweets accusing Obama of wiretapping him during the election. It left him dangling in ignorance and embarrassment
    • In the end, this was another and ultimate example of how difficult it was for the president to function in a literal, definitional, lawyerly, cause and effect, political world
    • It was a turning point. For the most part, Trump’s inner circle was game to defend him. After this, everyone except maybe Hope Hicks moved into a state of queasy sheepishness, if not constant incredulity
  • Trump had little to no interest in the central Republican goal of repealing Obamacare
  • While conservative media saw Trump as a creature they created, Trump’s saw himself as a star that transcended liberal or conservative media
    • He didn’t understand that what conservative media held up is what liberal media would try and take down
  • If his staff was attacked with indignities by the media, he didn’t blame loyalty to him or the nature of liberal media, he blamed his staff and their inability to get good press
  • Trump thought emotionally, not strategically
    • The self-righteousness and contempt for Trump on the left produced a tsunami clicks in attention from the right
    • But the president did not get this memo or rather fail to comprehend it
    • He was looking for media love everywhere
    • Trump seemed quite profoundly unable to distinguish between political advantage and his personal need
  • He thought that being president made you famous, and fame was always venerated and adored by the media
    • Confusingly, Trump was president in large part because of his particular talents, conscious or reflexive, to alienate the media, which then turned him into a figure reviled by the media
    • This was not a dialectical space that was comfortable for an insecure man
  • To Trump, the media represented power, much more than politics. And he wanted the attention and respect of its most powerful men
  • Conway and Hicks stood on the idea that the media treated and portrayed Trump unfairly
    • They don’t give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s just not treated the way other presidents are treated
  • The burden for these two women is their understanding that the president did not see the media’s lack of regard for him as part of a political divide on which he stood on a particular side
    • Instead, he perceived it as a deep, personal attack on him
    • For entirely unfair reasons, the media just did not like him
  • He was a classical misogynist in a way that he saw women as confidants who understood him
    • Men, although more competent, we’re people to hold an arm’s length
    • He felt that women were more loyal and understood his needs better. They also had to look good
    • He understood that he needed extra special handling.
      • Women, he saw, generally got this more precisely than men. Especially those who could deal with or saw themselves as tolerant of his casual misogyny and constant sexual subtext
  • Hope seemed to play the role of Trump’s real daughter, and Ivanka his real wife
    • Hope was also the president’s chief media handler
  • There was a general agreement in the west wing that Donald Trump had one of the most dysfunctional communication operations in modern White House history
  • Though the president could dish it out very harshly, nobody thought he could take it (in regards to the White House correspondents dinner)
  • Trump felt like everyone had a press strategy for when they got their 15 minutes in the spotlight
    • And if you couldn’t get press directly for yourself, you were a leaker
    • There was no happenstance news for Trump. To him, all news was manipulated and designed, planned and planted
    • All news, was to some extent, fake. He understood that very well because he himself faked it so many times in his career
      • This is why he gravitated toward the fake news label, for even bragged about making stuff up for forever and they always print it
  • In presidential annals, the firing of FBI director James Comey may be the most consequential move ever made by a modern president acting entirely on his own
    • The president went rogue outside of the knowledge of any of his staff
  •  Another attribute of Trump was his inability to see his actions the way most others saw them or to fully appreciate how people expected him to behave
  • Their foreign policy was to question the methods and people who came before them and just do it differently or opposite from how it’s been done
  • One of trumps deficiencies was his uncertain grasp of cause and effect
    • Whatever problems he might have caused in the past have been reliably supplanted by new events, giving him the confidence that one bad story can always be replaced by a better, more dramatic one
    • He can always change the conversation. His Saudi trip should have done that with the Comey story but it didn’t
    • Nobody within the staff saw firing Comey as a good idea
  • Trump had the tendency to make everything personal
    • The president believed he had more power and control than he really had
    • He believed his talent for manipulating people, and bending and dominating them, was vastly greater than it was
    • Senior staff believed the president had a problem with reality. And reality was now overwhelming him
  • There was now an argument to the view that he was hopelessly prone to self-sabotaging his ability to function in the job
  • Trump and Comey were contrasts. This was revealed in Comey’s testimony
    • He came across as precise, compartmentalized, scrupulous in his presentation of the details. He was as by the book as it gets
    • Trump in the way Comey described was shady, shoot from the hip, heedless or even unaware of the rules, deceptive, and in it for himself
  • In Brannon’s view, this was a town of institutions, and Trump had attacked and reveled against the institutions from day 1
    • And now this was a clashing of Trump and the institutions, who are neither quick nor seemingly willing to change and adapt as quickly as the private sector to the markets, which is what Trump is used to
  • Many of his tweets were not spontaneous utterances, but constant ones
  • Trump had a lifelong sense that people were constantly taking unfair advantage of him
    • Probably came from his father’s lack of generosity or his own awareness of being a rich kid, and no doubt his insecurities about this
    • Or from his negotiator’s understanding that it is never win-win
    • Trump could not abide the knowledge that someone was getting a leg up at his expense
  • The trump tweet dynamic follows as it unified liberal opinion against him, then unified the opposite for him
    • He was often never fully aware of the nature of what he had said nor fully cognizant of why there should be such a passionate reaction to it
      • He would often question and ask people “what he said” when he got severe blowback
  • This very lack of calculation and inability to be political was part of his political charm
    • That is why the segment of diehard supporters would let him get away with something as extreme as shooting someone, and was largely unfazed and maybe inspired by every new expression of Trump
  • Trump had provided a new, novel, narrative, very fast and emotional, and dramatic story to news, media, government, the public sector
    • And this wasn’t because he was changing or upsetting the fundamentals of American Life
    • In six months as president, failing to master almost any aspect of the bureaucratic process, he had accomplished practically speaking nothing
    • There almost was no other story in America and in much of the world
      • That was the radical and transformational nature of the Trump presidency. It held everybody’s attention
    • On the other hand, constant hysteria did have one unintended political virtue. If every new event canceled out every other event, then you always survived another day

Readers note: After getting close to the end of this book, I realized and started changing my opinion of Trump. I no longer see him as this evil person whose mission is to spread bigotry and hate and divisiveness in this country

In reality, he’s just an entitled, insecure, ignorant, immature, and vastly under-qualified person who lacks any sort of skills or abilities to really be the president, nonetheless a role model to anyone. I think my conclusion is that it was clearly his entitlement and fortunate upbringing (luck) that got him to where he is today. In addition, his “political charm” and his inability to be political and tendency to not care about others got him his support. On top of that, his salesmanship and ability to bullshit played a bit role.

And now the media helps to fuel and keep him in the limelight, for better or worse, feeding this beast.

  • Not unusual for a family run company, Trump made everybody compete for his favor
    • The company was about him, it existed because of his name, personality, and charisma
    • So the highest standing in the company was reserved for those who could best serve him
  • The meeting with Commissioner and Don Jr. and the Russians was completely visible and total mess up
    • Bannon called them a “bunch of geniuses” for this poorly executed meeting
  • The president and his team communicated their official story (a cover-up essentially) that there was no collusion with Russia during the campaign
  • The Russian meeting became a bigger deal after more figures came into the mix and Trump and his family were panicking and running their own defense
    • Short term headlines were overwhelming any sort of long-term strategy
    • A member of the legal team said “the worst thing you can do is lie to a prosecutor
  • Just when you felt on the top of the world in the Trump administration, you could probably count on being cut down
    • That was the price of one-man leadership, insecure man leadership. The other “biggest guy in the room” always had to be reduced in size
  • Trump was the one variable that, in management terms, simply could not be controlled
    • He was like a recalcitrant two-year-old, if you try to control him, it would only have the opposite effect
  • Trump was stubborn about condemning Neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists after the Charlottesville terrorist attack
  • The Trump White House tried to find any small reason to make an outing a work event rather than a vacation or trip or time off
  • In the wake of Trump’s defense for the Nazis in Charlottesville, it was clear and apparent to everyone that Trump could not control himself

Readers note: As I’m following the story, I know which cabinet members are ultimately fired or leave the White House. Therefore, it’s interesting to see how it all plays out behind the scenes. I also give major props to the author for compiling and re-creating the entire narrative. He probably had to get multiple sides of the story to piece together and figure out what happened in each location and what each person was thinking the same moment.

  • Trump wanted to be like so badly that everything is a struggle for him
    • This translated into a need to constantly win something, anything
    • Equally important, it was essential that he looked like a winner
      • Of course, trying to win without consideration, plan, or clear goals had in the course of the administration’s first nine months resulted in almost nothing but losses
  • At the same time, confounding all political logic, that lack of a plan and impulsivity had helped create the disruptiveness that seemed to so joyously shatter the status quo for so many
    • But now, that novelty was wearing off
  • By the first 3/4 of the first year, most if not all of the senior staff lost hope in this thing working
    • Now, there central call and aim was to prevent something worse from happening moving forward
  • Everyone on his staff struggled with expressing the extremely obvious fact that the president did not know enough, did not know what he didn’t know, did not particularly care, and to boot what is confident if not serene in his unquestioned certitudes
  • The constant legal danger formed part of the high barrier to getting people to come work in the west wing
  • Bannon claims there is a:
    • 1/3 chance he will get impeached
    • 1/3 chance he will resign in the wake of a threat by the cabinet to act on the 25th amendment
    • 1/3 chance that he will limp to the end of his term
      • In any event, there will not be a second term, or even an attempt at one

Closing thoughts:

Wow. I can’t recommend this book enough, especially if you are a citizen of the U.S. or have followed U.S. politics at all in the past 1.5-2 years. It’s crazy to hear all of the behind-the-scenes actions and thoughts that lead up to these very public events, as well as the motivations and thoughts of all the parties involved.

My biggest takeaway from this book was that it really humanized Donald Trump and his administration. From the outside looking in, its easy to get angry at all of the actions his administration has taken and label them as “evil”. However, I can see now that they aren’t inherently evil. In fact, Donald Trump absolutely sees himself as a good guy. Instead, he is simply self-centered, insecure, wants attention, wants to be liked, lacks empathy, spoiled, entitled, and wholly incompetent at any of the duties and responsibilities for being president of the United States.

Moreover, there is such a huge lack of trust and cohesion within the White House, its no surprise that their turnover rate in staff positions is unprecedented. I can see how there is little to no appeal to climbing aboard a sinking ship with a captain that has now clue what he’s doing and a crew who are constantly at each other’s throats.

Overall, I think its definitely a great book to go through and add more context to your knowledge of what’s going on in American politics. While it doesn’t give me faith in the next few years, its intriguing nonetheless.

Nutshell: Donald Trump and his administration aren’t evil, they’re just completely incompetent, vastly underqualified for their jobs, and lack a shred of trust amongst them.

Rating: 4.5/5

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