I was interested to see how Michael Wolff's book, Fire and Fury, would handle the factional struggles within the American state, particularly around the Russia investigation.
It's unmistakably a deeply damaging book about Trump, in no way written from a position of sympathy. Trump has threatened legal action, and the explosive Bannon material has blown the alt-right coalition wide apart. As a result of Trump's legal threats, the publisher's office has clarified that it is based on hundreds of interviews with leading administration officials. Whatever Wolff's personal sympathies, which I suspect lie on the centre-right, this is useful source material for understanding the internal composition of the Trump administration and its relationship to the state apparatuses.
What's particularly fascinating is the way the Trump family power structure, having been transposed into a corporation -- the Trump Organisation -- was imported into the White House. And that, more than anything, has been responsible for the absolute chaos of the administration.
Trump was deeply attached to the idea of an association with Putin. Trump's passion for Putin was never a secret. He admired him, as he tends to admire powerful, autocratic men, and said so. He bragged about his connections thereto, much as he bragged about pussy-grabbing. There was also no secret about his associations with Russian oligarchs, or those of his allies like Manafort or Flynn. Jared Kushner is not as cheerful about it these days, but there was a time when his links to Russian capital was a source of pride. Trump was distinctly blase about all of it. So, early on, before the investigations, these were quite overt 'Russian links'.
Trump, Wolff suggests, seems to have been unworried by talk of investigations. Supporters like Roger Ailes and son-in-law Jared Kushner warned Trump over and over to take the Russia accusations seriously. He had to sort out his Russian affairs. He professed to have dealt with it, no sweat. Manafort had been driven out early, more because he was running a lousy campaign than anything else. But then, Trump continued his public bromance with Putin, and contemptuously swatted away any questions on the issue.
However, for these 'links' to become the basis of a major intelligence operation and investigation, they had to be worked into a theory of Russian infiltration. Wolff says that this theory began to sprout legs in July 2016, thanks to a Slate article written by former New Republic editor Frank Foer. Wolff notes that Foer, "without anything resembling smoking guns or even real evidence", had already pulled together all the circumstantial threads that would subsequently play out over eighteen months of turmoil. The key figures in the conspiracy -- Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, among others -- were identified early on. The lines of investigation, of dirty money and influence, were drawn.
At this point, Wolff notes, Fusion GPS had paid Christopher Steele, a former British spy, to investigate claims of an alliance with Putin. And one gets the impression that Wolff thinks this material might have been leaked to Foer. Either way, he points out that Steele's 'dossier' was so unsupported that almost no media touched it at first and that it, and the subsequent joint intelligence report, tended to rely on people being willing to assume that spies were telling the truth.
However, there were lots of reasons for various influential groups to go along with it: for the Democrats, it would be their Benghazi multiplied by a million. For Republicans, it would give them leverage and help them restrain Trump's more unpredictable tendencies. A largely hostile media had a source of ready-made news for years to come, in which these largely conservative news corporations could style themselves as a resistance. Wolff doesn't say it, but it's above all a useful way to deflect any serious consideration of 'what went wrong' by externalising the problem, and thus incorporating anti-Trump sentiment into a renewed nationalism.
Wolff is very interesting on the status of General Flynn, a member of one of the old spooks networks, in Trump's circle at this time. Flynn had been floating around the consultancy circuit since being drummed out of the government, cheerfully milking fees out of whomever, mostly notably Turkey but also Russia. Trump, fond of generals, appointed him to the transition team and talked him up relentlessly. Yet, everyone else in the incoming White House team seemed to think Flynn was crackers.
Bannon's appointment to the National Security Council, Wolff explains as in part an attempt to keep Flynn under control. At that stage, Bannon and Kushner were in alliance to contain Flynn, who was expected to go on the offensive against the national security apparatus, and grind some old axes. This changes the picture considerably. It is highly likely that Bannon also wanted to use his position to shake things up, but it suggests that he was far less gung-ho, and there was even less coherence, than one might have thought.
As the investigations began, allies tried to persuade Trump that he would not be able to stop them from happening. He seems to have thought it would be possible to flex his muscle. When Flynn cracked over the Washington Post interview, where he lied about not having communicated with Russian officials, it was followed by a series of itemised revelations about the exact amounts he had been paid at various points by Russian entities.
Trump was the one person in the White House who wanted to defend him. So what if individuals had communicated with Russian officials? There was nothing wrong with this, he insisted. Let Flynn be fired, and you concede ground to the Russian plot narrative. Already one senses that Trump didn't really believe there could be consequences, or that there was anyone he couldn't face down.
Besides, Trump had just been implicated in a story about how he was being blackmailed by the Russians over a 'golden shower' video, so he was closer to Flynn than ever. Eventually, White House staff persuaded him to fire Flynn on other grounds, namely that he had lied about his contacts to the Vice President. As long as it could be framed as, tacitly, an offence to Trump's authority, he was okay with firing his National Security Advisor.
But, as the logic of this -- where everything is about ratifying and confirming Trump's power -- would suggest, should he not also fire Jack Comey? Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani told him to expect that the Department of Justice had it in for him, and that his allies would roll on him: Flynn, Manafort, everyone. It wasn't just Comey. Roger Ailes said he had to anticipate the worst, and couldn't just fire Comey and hope for it to go away. White House counsel Don McGahn tried to persuade him that it wouldn't matter if he fired Comey, because the investigation would continue. Trump assumed that this was insubordination, and that McGahn was out to get him.
Bannon allied with Priebus to try to calm Trump down: “This Russian story is a third-tier story," Bannon said, "but you fire Comey and it’ll be the biggest story in the world.” But against this caution was Trump's family circle: Kushner and Ivanka, concerned about young Jared's business interests being dragged through the mud, backed up by Stephen Miller. Trump's appalling judgment, his propensity to personalise every political attack, and his inability to recognise his debts to allies (he did not acknowledge Ailes' death, despite the latter's role in building him up), was a gift to that Cold War faction in the American state, #theresistance.
“They take everything I’ve ever said and exaggerate it,” Trump complained on the phone one night. “It’s all exaggerated. My exaggerations are exaggerated.” As if to say, they're outbullshitting my bullshit.
And so, of course, Comey was fired, and of course it was a publicity disaster. Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein, without batting an eyelid, appointed Comey's old ally, Robert Mueller, to conduct the investigation. Soon, Comey was telling the investigation how Trump essentially tried to bribe him to lay off Flynn.
At this point, Bannon decided he was in charge, and that he had to recreate the Clintons' strategy in dealing with Ken Starr. With Priebus, he agreed that they would set up an external office for dealing with it, through which all legal and communications business linked to the scandal would be dealt with. They would get loyal pugilists, fighters to go on the media and talk about it. Trump, meanwhile, would inhabit a parallel reality, and conduct himself in a 'presidential' manner.
But, if this was more subtle than anything Trump himself might come up with, it was nonetheless up against tall odds. The legal firms they would need wanted nothing to do with Trump or this toxic issue. Trump was elected precisely not to behave in a 'presidential' manner, which he wasn't really capable of doing anyway. Besides, Bannon was wildly overconfident, overestimating his clout with Trump, presuming that family would not prevail. Kushner was only good for his Israeli connections, Ivanka was "dumb as a brick". Besides, Bannon was in league with Priebus against the Jarvanka axis, and was building a private staff. And when Trump announced the end of the Paris Accords, against Ivanka's lobbying, Bannon assumed his power was for real. Yet, he was overestimating Trump's ability to learn from bad experience.
Again and again, Trump would react to crisis as a personal affront. He wanted, after firing Comey, to fire Mueller. Then he went to war on the ultra-loyal Jeff Sessions, then on Bannon when he tried to head off the schisms. His private rages fused with his direct-to-tweet publicity routine, as when he raged against Mika Brzezinski. What his entire staff increasingly knew, and he could not know by definition, was that he had absolutely no chance against the slow, efficient, grinding wheels of the DOJ. His perception of personal rivalries, of man-on-man power struggles, meant he was perpetually steering himself up shit creek.
The strongest impression in Wolff's account is that Trump has tried to move the family business into the White House, with all of its corrupt, "grey money" associations, all of its habitually amoral dealings, all of its loose practices. And above all, he has imported its crazy patriarchal power structure, predicated on the Donald overestimating his own power and control, and routinely clashing with an enemy. And this has been the major source of the dysfunction: an Oedipalised White House. The firing of Comey, the hiring of Scaramucci, many of the internal splits and mis-steps were all about keeping it in the family.
A more professional administration could probably have managed the investigations. They haven't yielded much evidence of Russian interference in the US elections, much less evidence that they exerted a decisive influence on the outcome. Two of the biggest early hits were Manafort and his deputy, but the charges against them relate to their corrupt relationship with the Ukrainian government, before the 2016 campaign. No surprise there, Manafort is up to his neck in dirty money from blood-caked murderers. What caught out Flynn, George Papadopoulos and lately Jeff Sessions, is that they lied about contact with Russian officials: but there is no suggestion this contact was illegal, and in most cases it was an amateurish attempt to establish a relationship over foreign policy matters. The money connections with Russian capital might generate something, but thus far there is little to suggest that a plot by the Russian state subverted the US election result.
But then there's the infamous meeting, at Trump tower, with Donald junior, Manafort, and Jared. A meeting which happened up on the top floor, without lawyers present, or any other safeguards. This enrages everyone, when it comes out. Not just Bannon, who is frothing against the Jarvanka tendency, but every Trump ally in the White House. Because he had to know that meeting took place, and every detail of what happened. They might not believe he is the Manchurian Candidate, they may not even care about the legality, or the morality -- as Bannon claims to -- but to behave in such a cavalier way really shows a complete lack of respect for one's administrative base, for the people who make things work. Again, one gets a sense that Trump doesn't really believe in consequences to his own actions. Bad things only happen because he has been victimised.
This was, again, bringing the habits of a bloated, pathologised family business into government. Wolff gives one reason to think that nothing was as organised as the Cold War faction suggests. The campaign was far too all-over-the-place to be the servant of a foreign state, and it never even expected to win. But then, as the historian Jackson Lears put it in the last LRB, that theory is a bizarre echo of McCarthyite paranoia. And this paranoia, which deflects critical scrutiny from the American representative system, has been linked, as Adam Shatz has written, to "the dangerous fantasy that the deep state might save us". So that story, without foreclosing the possibility of far more serious connections than have been discovered to date, should be held in some disrespect.
Nonetheless, the cavalier conduct of the Trump family, their belated defences, their belligerence and bluster, bespeaks an illusion of omnipotence. Yeah, we met Russians, we met whoever, we do what we want, as long as daddy says it's okay: and our father will smite our enemies.