Wednesday January 10, 2018

Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff defends book, but feels 'guilty' about Steve Bannon backlash

'I consider it a work of fiction and I think it's a disgrace,' says U.S. President Donald Trump on journalist Michael Wolff's new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

'I consider it a work of fiction and I think it's a disgrace,' says U.S. President Donald Trump on journalist Michael Wolff's new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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Donald Trump has called it a work of fiction and a disgrace.

Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, says if his book is a work of fiction, the president is "taking it very seriously."

The war of words has driven Wolff's book to the top of the bestsellers list, as readers gobble up the gossipy revelations about goings-on in the Oval Office.

Sales have perhaps also been helped by a cease-and-desist letter Wolff received from the president's lawyers. While Wolff says the book is based on more than 200 interviews with the president and senior staff, Trump insists Wolff never even interviewed him for the book. How much access did he really have?

"I wish I could say there was some magic or some talent," he tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, "but basically, I knocked on the door, arrived, and didn't leave. Perhaps my talent is looking like the furniture, everyone was very accepting of the fact that I was there."

Michael Wolff

U.S. bookstores have been struggling to keep up with demand for Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury book - thanks in large part to U.S. President Donald Trump's angry tweets about it. (David Bailey/Henry Holt & Co.)

"I was just the sounding board, the guy who listens, the black hole."

Wolff says he was the guy "who hung out in the West Wing" from just after the inauguration on Jan. 20 2017, until the banishment of Steve Bannon in late August 2017, when Wolff began writing the book.

'I think that [Steve Bannon] had come to regard Donald Trump as an idiot' - Michael Wolff

The pushback against the book has been ferocious, not just from the White House, but from within the media as well. Journalists have chided Wolff for not pinning down details when describing key events, as well as sloppiness and inaccuracy when he describes others. In one passage, Wolff says that Washington Post reporter Mark Berman was having breakfast at the Four Seasons at the same time as Ivanka Trump; it was actually Mike Berman, a lobbyist.

"I have not written a new kind of book, I've written a different kind of book than daily coverage," Wolff says.

"My model here, for better or worse, is a Bob Woodward kind of model. In order to get this picture of inside the White House, you make a set of trade-offs, exactly the way Woodward has done in a succession of books."

He says the difference here, partly because of the president's reaction, is that his book has become more than a book, and is now "this huge event and phenomenon."

"I can't tell you what the truth is. Don't look to me to do that. I have just written a book about what I saw, what I heard, to the best of my ability, to get what I believe to be the true story."

"It's, in the end, just a book."

Some critics have said that much of the book's revelations come solely from Steve Bannon, but Wolff insists he was "one of the important sources, hardly the only source."

"I came to like Steve and admire his insights, and also his language," he tells Tremonti.

"When Steve opens his mouth you think 'oh my goodness, this is a level of vivid political conversation the likes of which we have seldom heard'."

Bannon also came in for heavy criticism from the president, and has since apologized to Donald Trump. On Tuesday, he stepped down as executive chairman of Breitbart News Network.

"I feel bad, I feel guilty that Steve appears to be in a difficult situation," Wolff says.

"I believe that Steve was absolutely sure that Roy Moore, the Senate candidate in Alabama, would win. And that would be a big win for Steve and a big loss for the president, and it would have given Steve the leverage to go into the 2018 race."

Michael Wolff in studio in New York Fire and Fury

Michael Wolff in our CBC studio in New York. (CBC)

"Of course, when Steve was making this grand strategy, Roy Moore had not yet been accused of egregious sexual harassment," he tells Tremonti.

"I think that if Roy Moore had won… it would have helped Steve break with the president and I think he wanted to break with the president.

"I think that he had come to regard Donald Trump as an idiot."

Wolff says he believes Bannon still has a "vast" ability to hurt the president, but doubts it would be through the Russian investigation.

Reaction to the book has raised questions about Donald Trump's intellect and mental health — which prompted both the president's tweet that he was "a very stable genius", and an avalanche of memes in reply — but Wolff insists he has not made any direct comment.

"That's an issue that has been raised outside the book, and I certainly don't make the case in the book — I'm not a doctor, I wouldn't have the basis to make that case."

"I do present the issued as outlined by the staff, which is that everyone is aware of, and disconcerted by his constant repetitions," he says.

"Within the White House there is a measure for this: it used to be that he repeated the same three stories — the same words, the same facial expressions, the same tone — you got those same three stories within thirty minutes. And as the months went on, that began to shrink, and you would get the same three stories within 10 to 15 minutes."

He says staff in the White house are worried about "two main issues," the first being "the personal issues of dealing with Donald Trump."

"And what happens at a moment in history when you have a president — and I think every member of the senior staff came to this conclusion — what do you do when you have a president who cannot adequately function in the job."

Canadian book, Fire and Fury, becomes accidental bestseller 

The quarrel between the U.S. president and Michael Wolff has had a surprising side-effect: it's made a Toronto author an accidental bestseller.

randall hansen

Randall Hansen wrote Fire and Fury in 2008, chronicling a period of intense bombing by Allied forces on Germany during World War II. (Supplied by Randall Hansen)

 Randall Hansen, interim director at the Munk School of Global Affairs, sold about 15,000 copies of Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945 when he wrote it 10 years ago. But the similarity in title with Wolff's book has pushed it back into the spotlight.

"I saw that my book, which came out 10 years ago and had been languishing for quite a while in terms of sales numbers, was suddenly in three Amazon bestseller lists," he said. "I had a chuckle to myself."

Hansen says he won't know how many copies have sold until figures are released next month, but as a "devout Trump critic", he has joked about the irony of his newfound fame on Twitter.

Listen to the full interview near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.