It is not an easy task to discern the truth when confronting a president and his allies who have created their own reality, one in which truth and lies have no absolute meaning and are, for them, ultimately interchangeable.
Donald Trump does this on a personal level: he has lied at least 10,000 times while president.
During his recent interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Donald Trump continued to lie in public, asserting that he did not try to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. As multiple sources and witnesses agree, this is not true. Trump also asserted that he can do anything that he wants, according to the Constitution: He apparently believes he is a king or emperor. This too is a lie. The Constitution grants the president no such powers, and was drafted by the framers to stop demagogues and would-be tyrants such as Donald Trump.
Trump has told his followers not to believe their eyes and ears or the news media, but only to trust him. In Trump’s political cult he is the ultimate arbiter of reality and facts. This represents Orwell’s warnings about totalitarianism in 1984 made real in the age of Trump. In all, Trumpism is both a form of collective narcissism and mass delusion for its leader and followers.
How does one craft a biography or other factual narrative about a person like Donald Trump, his presidency and the people embedded in it? Despite his obvious criminal and dangerous behavior, how is Trump always able to escape? Why did Robert Mueller decline to indict Donald Trump for obstruction of justice, or even to state his conclusions clearly? If Trump is forced from the White House, either by defeat at the polls in 2020 or impeachment and conviction, will he leave peacefully?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Michael Wolff, the controversial reporter, author and biographer who has written for Newsweek, USA Today and Vanity Fair. Wolff is the author of numerous books including the bestseller Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. He continues that story in his new book, Siege: Trump Under Fire.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. My conversation with Michael Wolff can also be listened to through the player above.
Chauncey DeVega: If someone wrote this story of Trump’s presidency as fiction, would you believe it? It seems so fantastical and impossible.
Michael Wolff: I would come at it a different way. This really is an incredibly good story. All good stories are in a sense unbelievable until you make them believable. Trump is a classic example of that in a way. Donald Trump, who is the president of the United States, is a madman. Donald Trump is a psychopath. This is something to be afraid of. What the American people and the world did not realize about Donald Trump is the nature of this kind of madness. It is so egocentric, attention deficit-like and self-centered.
Is Donald Trump making everyone around him sick and pathological, giving them permission for horrible behavior? Or is Donald Trump just a reflection of deeper problems in America?
There is a third possibility. Donald Trump is wholly aberrant. He is a person the likes of which we have never seen before in America. Just imagine a man who for 45 years has lived a totally external life. No private life, no family, no intimacy for many years. And he doesn’t care about it. I used to see Trump in New York, every night, he would be out somewhere like a shark, moving through these gatherings. He was looking for acknowledgement and attention. In the Woody Allen movie “Celebrity,” Trump plays himself. In the movie he is a soulless celebrity. There’s no mystery here about who and what Donald Trump is.
Does Donald Trump really exist? He seems to be a type of human cartoon character that is somehow now president.
Donald Trump is an actor. His greatest success in life is not in the real estate business but rather as a reality TV show performer. Trump is also, in my opinion, a bit crazy. This may be from an organic disturbance in his brain or he literally made himself crazy in the pursuit of attention. That happens to actors on occasion. But Donald Trump is a more extreme example because he had to do more to command all this attention. He has spent more time at it. This is all a fluke circumstance. Trump was not supposed to become president of the United States, so he has been catapulted into essentially a fictional role. So in that way, I think you can argue that he does not really exist — most certainly as the president of the United States.
By all indications Donald Trump is rarely alone. If a person is never alone, there is no time for critical self-reflection.
The idea of critical self-reflection and Donald Trump does not exist. If Trump’s time is not filled with other people or him talking to someone else and doing a monologue, motor-mouthing, he is watching television. There is no moment of silence. There is no moment in which Trump is alone.
The other surreal aspect of Donald Trump is that he listens to the television, literally. It is as though Fox News is telling him what to do and he slavishly obeys. The president should be driving the agenda, not having it set by TV personalities and a right-wing entertainment machine.
There may be a silver lining there. If someone is telling Trump what to do, he’s actually incapable of hearing them. It’s not as if Trump is truly capable of doing anything. No. 1, he has no real goal other than just attention for himself. He has no real ability to follow things from one moment to the next. When I toured Europe to talk about my book “Fire and Fury,” I would get all these questions about Trump staring a war: Is he going to take America and the world into some catastrophic military action that more rational people would avoid?
My response was, that is not impossible except that modern war is a very complicated thing, it is very data-driven. Complexity is beyond Donald Trump. It would be a nightmare for him to be in a room and have to make decisions. For Trump it is a nightmare to have to consider what the implications of a large set of data might be.
He would actually rather do the opposite — and in fact he did the opposite with the North Korea situation. This is not a situation of a politician creating war to distract from other things. North Korea is an example of a politician who created peace to distract from other things. Now, in fact, it was not peace; it just wasn’t a war. The North Korea situation is exactly the same now as it was when Trump was threatening them with all kinds of bellicose language. Now he embraces North Korea with all kinds of soothing language. But the situation on the ground has not changed whatsoever. It’s just the spin that Trump has weaved around it.
We should not deny Trump agency and responsibility for his behavior. But in writing your two books on the Trump White House you’ve had access to many people. Is Donald Trump being manipulated by the likes of Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, the plutocrats who just want more tax cuts, Christian nationalists and other opportunists?
Yes, they are trying to manipulate Trump. But again, the peculiar inverted silver lining here is that you cannot really manipulate Donald Trump. He doesn’t listen. He can’t absorb information. He’s completely uninterested in the desires and views of other people. Therefore, what gets through his filter is very little. Sometimes what does get through does influence him. But this is not very much information, and it does not last for very long.
How do you write a book about the Trump White House and his cabal when the people who are closest to Trump are so fundamentally dishonest? Donald Trump himself has publicly lied at least 10,000 times during his time as president. How do we sort out truth from fiction when dealing with these people? How does one go about crafting an authentic narrative?
There are two issues here. How do you select sources that you want to trust? I think that just comes from getting to know these people. Getting to see what their track record is of telling you information that later on is proved to be true, Like any relationship, how do you trust it? But then the other part of the narrative is about the distance you’re always moving away from reality. And whether you’re moving from reality because somebody is lying to you or you move away from reality because the subject you are writing about can’t recognize reality. Another possibility: Is the principal involved with remaking reality themselves, either because they’re unglued in time and space, or because the truth doesn’t matter to them? What if this person just lies about everything?
How does Trump always seem to survive? The Mueller report is damning, even with William Barr’s redactions. Yet Trump soldiers on.
Primarily because the bar is now set at a different level for Trump’s behavior. It is now about what he can get away with. Trump’s whole career has been about what he can get away with. All presidents set the bar in a different way. The bar is about getting parts of their agenda accomplished; it’s about their place in history; it’s about getting re-elected. On that level, Trump’s bar is about getting away with his bad behavior. The Mueller report is incredibly damning, but Trump, at least for the moment, seems to have gotten away with it all.
Trump is a survivor who is all about living to fight another day. It is not about his reputation or what he has accomplished. It’s certainly not about Trump’s place in history. What ultimately matters for Donald Trump is not going to jail. If you make yourself into a kind of person who no one understands, then no outsider can game out what you will do, what your reactions and behavior will be. No one can count on your response. Such a person is very scary.
Mueller was thinking that Donald Trump wears a suicide vest of sorts. If Mueller had pushed Donald Trump into a corner he would blow up everything. Donald Trump would take the country’s political institutions down with him. Trump would take down the Department of Justice. Trump would not care. For somebody like Robert Mueller, this was a reality he had to confront. Mueller was likely thinking to himself, “I have to deal with the fact that somebody who has as much power as I do, or more, can use this power in a way that could harm everybody in a much greater way.” Robert Mueller decided it was much better to let Donald Trump just run out the clock than to give Trump the opportunity and the cause to destroy everything, the country’s political institutions.
In my several years of writing and doing interviews about Donald Trump I have been trying to warn the public that Robert Mueller believes in America’s political institutions. Consequently, Mueller would only take his investigation and his findings so far.
You were absolutely correct. After the Mueller report came out, Steve Bannon said to me, “Never send a Marine to do a hitman’s job.” Robert Mueller is an institutionalist. He plays by the book. He plays by the rules. Robert Mueller sees a larger picture than just his assignment to go and get Donald Trump.
In your new book Siege: Trump Under Fire, you claim that Robert Mueller had actually written a draft document indicting Donald Trump for obstruction of justice. Obviously, Mueller then decided to not go down that path. Why not?
I don’t know what was on Robert Mueller’s mind. The Mueller investigation was two years behind closed doors — which is in itself a little odd. Mueller came out and said, “The report speaks for itself.” In fact, the report is not very clear. I may not know what was on Robert Mueller’s mind, but I do know that among the documents that I have are a set of research papers on the nature of the special counsel’s office itself. These papers conclude that the Office of the Special Counsel is a pretty fragile construct.
Can the president of the United States directly fire the special counsel? These researchers concluded the answer is “yes.” If the special counsel’s office is closed down, what happens to the work product? The answer is not clear. But is it possible that in this case, Mueller’s findings could have been destroyed? Just run through the shredder? Yes. So I think Mueller came to focus on his own vulnerability. I think that Mueller came to see his goal here as not just holding Donald Trump accountable but as not being fired. Because if Mueller is fired then he is not able to hold Trump and his inner circle accountable in any way.
Remember, there are people within the special counsel’s office such as Andrew Weissman, who are among the most aggressive pursuers of white-collar criminals. It would have been perfectly logical for the special counsel’s team to formulate the kind of indictment that they thought might have been possible and then to make the argument that the special counsel — despite standing Justice Department policy — could in fact indict a sitting president.
So where does Bob Mueller come out on that? I think in the end Mueller decided, “Let’s stay in business.” Mueller’s decision was to be Delphic, really, rather than prosecutorial.
How do you think Trump’s presidency ends? Will Trump even leave if forced out of office?
Trump is not going to let himself lose. Therefore, if it looks like he’s going to lose, Trump will declare victory and get out.
As some have speculated, will Donald Trump then cause general mayhem?
Donald Trump’s mission is to attract attention to himself. So yes, Trump will be a voice which people will find either impressive or incredulous. Trump is not going to disappear until he dies or goes to jail. As we have always been, we, the American people and the world, are stuck with Donald Trump.
Should the Democrats impeach Donald Trump? What advice would you give Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders?
The important thing is pulling back the layers of Donald Trump. I would like someone to do this in a very methodical way. There is Donald Trump’s financial history. What Donald Trump has done since Jan. 20, 2017, to get in the way of people trying to investigate him. What is happening in the Middle East, as the Trump family and the Kushner family try to arrange future financing for themselves. Nancy Pelosi and Congress should be laying this all out for the public. They have an opportunity to tell the story of Donald Trump in another way, and I think probably in a more forceful way. We need to see the smoking guns.