Michael Wolff's third strike at Trump White House has hits and misses
No matter how many tell-all books are published trashing former President Donald Trump and his gang, the market will make room for one more by Michael Wolff, the magazine writer whose bestselling “Fire and Fury” established the subgenre back in 2018.
Wolff penned a sequel, “Siege,” a year later that again depicted shambolic and often shameless goings-on within the White House. Both books depended largely on unnamed sources and generated considerable controversy.
Wolff's latest salvo is “Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency,” and while it may not be the most important or valuable work in the summer library of Trump lit, it should stand as the worthiest among Wolff's own Trump trilogy, borrowing much of its seriousness from the harrowing events it describes.
Just this month, Wolff is competing with the release of two other major works by front-line reporters: Michael Bender of The Wall Street Journal (“Frankly, We Did Win This Election”) and Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker of The Washington Post (“I Alone Can Fix It”). The titles of all three volumes riff on famous Trump lines that got attention when first uttered — and that echo as highly ironic in the here and now.
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This is heady and highly competitive company, and Wolff has not been in the daily trenches as others have. His account lacks the degree of systematic reporting and the breadth and depth of sourcing that inform rival works, ultimately coming across as more of a beach read.
But Wolff has his gifts as a writer: a novelistic eye for scene and detail, an ear for dramatic dialogue. His story keeps moving, free of constraints common to courtroom lawyers or newspaper reporters.
He also keeps his focus tight on Trump and the shifting cast in the Oval Office from the fall of the 2020 campaign (covered briefly in the first chapter) to the end of the second impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate in February of this year. Though clearly anticlimactic, that awkward Senate ritual gets a full chapter of its own, with Trump playing Greek chorus by cellphone and at one point trying to switch lawyers because one's suit looks terrible on television.
‘Landslide’ includes head-spinning anecdotes
All this summer's big Trump books thus far have had head-spinning anecdotes about Trump's performance in office and his madcap machinations in the weeks after his electoral defeat in November 2020. Wolff has his share, including a vivid re-creation of the White House meltdown when the vote count begins to turn against the incumbent in the late hours of election night.
The president, his close family and top aides are seen celebrating prematurely when early tallies show him ahead. But everything goes wobbly at 11:20 p.m. when Fox News suddenly calls Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden.
"What the f***?" says Trump, using the word that seems to stud his every conversation in these tell-alls. "How can they call this? We're winning. And everybody can see we are going to win. Everybody's calling to say that we're winning. And then they pull this."
Readers know, of course, that losing Arizona (solid Republican in all but one of the previous 17 presidential elections) would not just dent Trump's expectations but cast doubt on other states where much of the vote was uncounted at that hour. That list included Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Nevada. Until Fox's call on Arizona, Trump could plausibly argue he was leading in all of them. In the end, he lost all but one.
The Arizona call brought this possibility front and center, making it impossible for Trump to go on national TV at midnight and declare himself reelected. And that declaration had been very much part of the strategy by which the White House had urged same-day, in-person voting and had insisted on a clear election night verdict.
Wolff describes the midnight scene in the hallway outside the presidential bedrooms: "Trump, fulminating, crossing over into fury, directed everybody to call somebody. ... Call. Do Something. Call everybody. Fight this. They have to undo this. They have to!"
Trump's immediate family and inner circle dial up the Fox anchors, reporters and news managers, all the way up to members of the Murdoch family, which owns Fox News. Their entreaties are relayed all the way to Rupert Murdoch, the patriarch who, Wolff writes, rejects them with a grunt and adds: "F*** him."
Wolff tells us that Murdoch was "open in his contempt for the president, whom he deemed stupid, venal, ludicrous, dangerous" — even as his Fox network frequently functioned as a Trump cheering section.
There have been denials of all this from Fox and the Murdoch spokespersons. But Wolff is fine with that, saying he trusts his unnamed sources and telling The New Abnormal podcast that as "Rupert Murdoch's biographer," he is "deeply sourced" in that organization. One of Wolff's eight previous books is a biography of Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News.
Of course, "according to Wolff" has become a familiar and problematic phrase for those who have followed his career. Some of the salient assertions in his first two books were denied or at least disputed by officials with some authority. Wolff is scarcely alone in relying on unnamed or partially identified sources, although he does seem to attract more objections.
That may be because he does not represent a major media institution. Or perhaps it is because his tone is so much more personal. His tales are conveyed as shared confidences rather than offers of evidence.
And we should add that his narrative tends to be more entertaining, sailing swiftly ahead where others tend to grind. Much of this is about the novelistic sorts of judgments he offers freely about anything and everything. And that often means keeping story sources obscure, if not totally secret.
Throughout the text, Wolff is often inside someone else's head, describing the person's innermost thoughts and even feelings. At one point, he writes: "sourness about [House Republican leader Kevin] McCarthy continues to move through [Trump's] body like an uncomfortable meal."
Perhaps all of Wolff's subjects have shared these thoughts with him in interviews, but we simply don't know. “Landslide” has only the briefest note of acknowledgments beyond the names that are included in the text.
Wolff provides a gallery of colorful characters
All good stories are rich in colorful characters, whether seen as good guys or bad, and Wolff gives us a gallery that does not disappoint.
The one personality who competes with Trump for sheer outlandish behavior in Landslide is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who emerged on election night insisting that Trump declare victory in all the swing states, regardless of the numbers.
"We won, and they are trying to steal it from us," the onetime prosecutor and later failed presidential candidate tells Trump (and anyone else who will listen), Wolff writes. Serving as Trump's personal attorney, Giuliani had already done enough backroom maneuvering in Ukraine and elsewhere to bring on the first impeachment in 2019. Now, with the chance of a second term slipping away, he seems willing to do or say anything to bring it back.
Giuliani becomes the point man for a team of unproven lawyers promoting increasingly fantastic theories about what might have happened to Trump's vote. Truth be told, Trump himself is often divided between trumpeting his 74 million votes ("more than any incumbent in history") and complaining that many of his votes were not counted (or counted somehow for Biden).
Where are the heroes?
If Giuliani is the villain of the piece, here as in other Trump tell-alls, Wolff assigns a mildly heroic role to Trump's much-derided Number Two, Vice President Mike Pence. A former congressman and one-term governor of Indiana, Pence came to the ticket in 2016 as a link to and a lock on the votes of white evangelicals (a major and still-rising force within the Republican Party). Known for his pious pronouncements and orthodox conservatism, Pence represented an unctuous redemption for Trump's personal transgressions, not only in 2016 but before and after as well.
Pence comes off as dull and subservient, but in the endgame he plays a counterpoint role to Giuliani & Crew's febrile accusations of fraud. Trump pressures Pence endlessly to interrupt the certification of the Electoral College vote count on Jan. 6, in Wolff's account. But when the moment comes, Pence plays it straight and follows the precedents set by two centuries of constitutional law and practice. Trump, it seems, cannot and will not forgive him for it.
If Pence comes off as having "done the right thing," that impression may come at least in part from Marc Short, an expert legislative and political operative who was Pence's chief of staff in 2020. Short had previously served as Trump's legislative director, driving home the 2017 tax cuts and helping shepherd judicial and executive appointments through the Senate. After a brief academic interlude, Short returned to the White House as Pence's man and performs as a consummate professional in the presence of all too many amateurs.
Short is seen and heard often in “Landslide” as the post-election plot thickens and Trump pressures Pence to "stop the steal." Short is among the adults explaining to Pence and others that the vice president has no power whatsoever to reject state-certified results, contradicting the flights of fantasy emanating from Giuliani.
If Short seems a likely source of much of the material (whether directly or via another confidant), so does one Trump aide whom most readers may find hard to recall. Jason Miller, a fixture in the 2016 campaign communications operation, did not get a role in the White House until late in Trump's term. Restored to the inner circle, in this retelling, Miller pops up in more chapters than not in “Landslide,” including in the epilogue, set at Mar-a-Lago, where Wolff actually has a sit-down with the fallen king in exile.
There are also brief flashes of Steve Bannon, the erstwhile campaign manager from 2016 who also survived seven months as "chief strategist" in the 2017 Trump White House. Bannon bulked large in “Fire and Fury,” speaking perhaps too candidly and contributing to his early exit. Wolff's sequel, “Siege,” seemed at times to be as much about Bannon as Trump. One direct quotation from Bannon runs almost uninterrupted for five pages.
‘Landslide’ tracks Trump's ignominious exit
One notably missing person here is Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is being hailed these days for resisting Trump's impulses toward domestic deployment of troops. Rucker and Leonnig's account has Milley pushing back hard when Trump wants to use the regular Army, rather than the National Guard, against Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020. Even more dramatic is his rejection, as cited in Rucker and Leonnig's book, of the notion that the military might buttress Trump's attempt to stay in power after the election. Wolff does not take on these events.
Wolff does spend a whole chapter, however, on the second impeachment, a curious sequence of events in which Democrats in Congress tried to punish Trump for the Jan. 6 riot by removing him early and perhaps also banning him from federal office for life. Wolff ridicules this as an obvious mistake, giving Trump oxygen and allowing him to play the victim.
Successful in the House, the effort fell short of the required supermajority in the Senate, much as the first effort to impeach Trump had a year earlier. This episode provides a kind of coda on the six-year saga of Trump's rise and fall, but Wolff sees it as theater of the absurd, highlighting how far the nation's 45th president had fallen in his final days.
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