Fire and Fury, the controversial book by American journalist Michael Wolff, should’ve been titled, “Farce and Fantasy: The White House Shenanigans”. It reads like a trashy novel, as one friend remarked, part unverifiable, part plausible. And like all other books from this genre, it lacks context, history and depth, but otherwise, it is a delightful read.
If you’re thinking House of Cards, well, this is reality-imitating fiction.
Its faults aside, Wolff’s summary of 18 months of notes and more than 200 interviews, is a testament to a foolish president and his farcical administration. And it would have been hilarious, if it weren’t scary. Bigly.
There’s a lot to say about and cite from Wolff’s report regarding the Russia probe, the media, the Koreas etc, but I will restrict my observations to three.
Wolff provides a vivid portrayal of power politics and dynamics at the White House, driven by three characters; Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and Stephen Bannon.
Trump, according to his closest aides and ministers, is an “idiot”, “dumb as shit”, “fucking moron” and essentially, an attention-seeking child who’s obsessed with cable news. Or worse – a senile old man, incapable of reading intelligence reports or focusing on policy papers, who repeats himself non-stop.
But he also comes through as a shark – in politics as in business – who feeds on people and on conflict. Today he is dangerous and powerful.
This utter craziness and incompetence of the Trump presidency is not an internal US matter only. It's a global disaster.
He has always approached personal relations and indeed international relations as a zero-sum game – you either win or you lose; if they win, you lose. In his personal life, Donald Trump comes first, his family business second; in politics, America must come first, its business second, and everything else a distant third.
To that end, Trump spoke in slogans and cliches throughout his presidential campaign and smeared everyone and everything else without proposing anything significant. His campaign depended on a few cut-and-paste policy papers and pointers from the likes of right-wing Hudson Institute, Fox News and Breitbart News.
So, according to Wolff, Trump had no clue how to go about translating his slogans into policy when he became president, because he never actually believed he would become president.
Enter “sloppy Steve”, the former-editor-of-Breitbart-cum-strategic-adviser. He was the ultra-nationalist, hyper-ideological, anti-liberal, self-declared intellectual of the Trump administration. But throughout his career and during his short stay at the White House, he demonstrated he is a charlatan with no more than big pretentions and a talent for marketing himself.
He is the populist nativist ideologue that claims to care for the average Joe but is totally dependent on the ultra rich like Trump and other billionaires. His partial retractions after the publication of the book could only be explained by his acquiescence to Trump’s rich supporters on the right who finance him.
Wolff blames Bannon for part of the mess during the first few weeks of the Trump administration, but he also relies heavily on him to expose and criticise the other mess makers, or what he calls Jarvanka – Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump and by extension, the Trump family.
Kushner is the shrimpy, skinny, squeaky boy with big responsibilities and bigger ambitions. Only his wife has a greater ambition: She wants to be the first woman president.
In order to strengthen his powerbase vis-a-vis Bannon’s and the far right at the White House, he nominated a number of liberal Jewish businessmen to high places, and relied on the likes of Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch to influence his father-in-law.
With zero experience in foreign policy, Kushner took it upon himself to manage and re-establish US foreign relations, especially with China, Mexico and Saudi Arabia on a new footing. Considering that Trump had slandered heavily all three during the campaign, it was an uphill battle. Kushner was also entrusted with fixing the US bureaucracy and bringing peace to the Middle East. A piece of cake!
The formula Kushner proposed was simple: Ask not what America can do for you, ask what you can do for Trump. That didn’t go down well with Mexico. And while it seemed to go well with China, as it pampered Trump during his visit to the country, it doesn’t seem it would last long, since Beijing hadn’t ceded much on policy or trade
In short, Bannon rushed to impose a Muslim ban and repeal Obama care, etc, but ended up creating a huge mess in the process; Kushner rushed to give the president quick international wins, but with little to nothing to show for it.
The same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia.
Our men on top
King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammad, have been willing to do anything and everything to gain Trump’s support. Wolff reports that the president had gotten along pretty well with the “inveterate player of video-games” crown prince. After MBS carried out a coup against his cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, to become crown prince, Trump told friends that he and Jared had engineered this: “We’ve put our man on top!”
It helped that bought $110bn-worth of American arms, and a total of $350bn over 10 years.
“Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs,” as the president declared.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is also a Trump enthusiast. Both the Saudi and Egyptian regimes were happy to see the more critical Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton leave the scene. It didn’t matter that Trump incited against Islam and Muslims. In fact, both Sisi and Salman vowed to build a new Islamic coalition at the service of the US and its “war on terrorism”.
Trump had no experience or knowledge of international relations or experience in policy matters. Zero. Zilch. Nada. He also dislikes the experts and hates to be lectured about geopolitics, according to Wolff. He only understands and hence relies on personal relations and boasts of being a great communicator.
In one of Wolff’s funny anecdote, Sisi tells Trump, “You are a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible”, and Trump replies, “Love your shoes. Boy, those shoes. Man…”
And Trump clearly hit it off with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and embraced his views on the Middle East and Palestine, but not so much with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
In the Trump White House, Henry Kissinger observed, “it is a war between the Jews and the non-Jews”, quite a remarkable statement if you think of it, presumably referring to the conflict between the Bannons and the Kushners and their minions over the administration’s agenda.
But when it came to Israel and Palestine, war was replaced with an alliance in favour of Israel. In fact, it was a competition over who supported Israel more, which explains Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
On top of the top
Judging from reports by Wolff and countless other journalists, Trump has, for all intents and purposes, undermined the office of the presidency. Whether it’s the president’s continued public outbursts, his vulgar and misleading tweets, and more importantly his incompetence, he’s increasingly harmful to the dignity and honour of the office.
Indeed, Trump’s presidency offers a great argument against a strong presidential systems and in favour of parliamentary democracy where leaders are better kept in check.
Trump continues to sink to new lows. His response to the publication of “Fire and Fury” is a case in point – attacking both the author and the sources in the most vile and despicable terms and getting away with it.
This utter craziness and incompetence of the Trump presidency is not an internal US matter only. It’s a global disaster. After all, the US is the world’s foremost superpower and the office of the president has more leeway with and influence over issues of international war and peace than it does over the economy and healthcare.
As long as Trump approves new deregulations, guarantees tax breaks for the rich, and appeases the Israeli lobby, he will continue to enjoy a certain congressional support and shield himself from the fury of the public opinion. And as long as he incites against Muslims and immigrants, he will maintain the support of the “basket of deplorables” within his base.
I remember during the elections reports that the Chinese leadership was hoping for a Trump win, despite his anti-China rhetoric, because they thought his presidency would lead to the decline of the US. Trump is proving them right.
Let’s just hope in the process he does not drag down the rest of the world as well. Indeed, all of us democrats must make sure he doesn’t.