Michael Wolff (‘75) discusses ‘Fire and Fury'
The Vassar alum told Editors-in-Chief Andrew Solender and Alexander Barzacanos that he's "barely a journalist"
Over the break, Editors-in-Chief Alexander Barzacanos and Andrew Solender got the opportunity to sit down with writer and Vassar alumnus Michael Wolff at his Greenwich Village apartment to discuss his approach to writing, as well as his views on the administration and the state of politics today. Wolff is best known as the author of Fire and Fury, a New York Times bestselling book that exposed the inner workings of the Trump White House in its first year. The book vividly depicts the power struggles between Trump advisors, virulent leaking from staffers, and the President’s apparent mental instability. Though it has been criticized by some in the media who claim Wolff played fast and loose with facts and passed off speculation and hearsay as truth, Wolff has steadfastly defended the book’s accuracy as well as his methods. We gained some unique insights from our discussion with him and we hope you will too. Below is the edited transcript of our interview.
Solender: In a way–and I don’t know if you feel this is an accurate observation–our politics have become our culture and our culture has become our politics.
Wolff: Well I would disagree with that: I think Trump has become our culture, but not our politics. And I think with any luck that’ll be an aberration and then we’ll go back to being relatively uninterested in politics. There’s a way in which you can mistake [watching] cable news and social media as [having] an interest in politics. Fox does a million people a night, and CNN does 600,000 a night [right now]. This is not the culture.
Solender: So you believe it’s going to end with Trump? There are definitely some commentators out there who say Trump is just the beginning of this sort of reality television style of politics.
Wolff: I mean, they are possibly right. We’ve had two generations of increasing disillusionment with politics and politicians, and suddenly everyone had the opportunity to vote for exactly the opposite. In Trump we have someone who is temperamentally, verbally, intellectually, professionally, sexually the opposite of a politician. And people took the opportunity to try that. I think of it as like a grand experiment, and we are coming to the conclusion that this is a grievously failed experiment.
Barzacanos: Do you think it could set a sinister precedent moving on that this populist narrative can be exploited by someone who is perhaps more ideologically untethered, like Trump?
Wolff: Well I mean anything is possible. Yes, it could. But it’s just as likely–or more likely–the opposite happens.
Solender: So I was rereading Fire and Fury last night, and one thing that was really of interest to me was the sheer level of access [you had]. I’ve heard some analyses that you’d written more favorable stories [about Trump], compared to the rest of the media, to get Trump and his administration on your side. So then they brought you in with the expectation that what you were going to write would be favorable. Would you say that is a fair characterization of how you got that level of access?
Wolff: No, I think that’s complete bullshit. How did I get it? Well, it doesn’t really matter. The point is, I got access. People get access in a lot of different ways–people know people. How you get access is totally irrelevant. I think all of those things are perhaps aspects of this, although with a lot less design than that. The truth is, I succeeded where other people did not. So the real question is not ‘how did I get access’ it’s ‘why did other people not get access?’
Solender: So why did other people not get access?
Wolff: I think because they went in with an immediately preconceived notion of what was going on [in the White House]. Having to do what you have to do to gain access seems somehow immoral. This is Trump. The truth is, to get access you do have to talk to people. You have to regard them as not inherently monstrous. I think that’s part of it, but there’s probably an even greater part of this which is that journalism now consists of a few institutions. There’s the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, Fox on the other side, and there are a couple of digital outlets and that’s it–local papers hardly exist and they certainly don’t have any resources. I come out of a magazine tradition. I’ve been a freelance writer my entire career, and, in some sense, I’m the last freelance writer. And I go into this situation and–I know everyone on this beat–I’m the only person without a job. So I can go into these things. That’s how I get access: because I’m me. I make relationships and find my way in. I mean, that’s what we’re supposed to do as journalists and writers. But there aren’t that many people like me anymore.
Barzacanos: So you think that’s how you got most of the access, this lack of association [with an institution]?
Wolff: Yeah, totally. Lack of association. Lack of [rules]. I don’t have rules. The New York Times has to do this the way the New York Times would do this. [Same with] the Washington Post, CNN. These are very specific and narrow-cast institutions. Their room to maneuver is very limited. All these organizations are looking to protect [themselves]. They can’t take risks. I’m just beholden to nobody.
Solender: So would you call yourself a political journalist?
Wolff: No, never. I’m not a political journalist. I’m not, frankly, all that much interested in politics. I’m a writer. I’m barely a journalist, actually. I am a writer.
Solender: And you’ve covered other topics, right? You wrote for the Hollywood Reporter?
Wolff: Yes, I’m probably the most prolific journalist in the country. You know, millions upon millions upon millions of words.
Solender: So it’s not really about the subject as much as sort of telling the story and getting the truth out there?
Wolff: Well, even truth–I have no monopoly on the truth. Somebody at the [Columbia School of Journalism] called me the other day and asked if I could speak to their investigative journalism class. I said, ‘I would be delighted to but I know nothing about investigative journalism.’ I wouldn’t even know what that is. I am an observer: I investigate nothing. All I do is look and write what I see and what I hear, and my job–which has nothing to do with truth– is to take what I see and what I hear and write that in a way that readers can come as possible–as close as I came–to the experience of doing this. I want to be able to turn what I see into something that a reader says ‘oh, I see that too.’
Barzacanos: One of the main criticisms of your book is that it affirms people’s predetermined conceptions of what the administration would be like. When you were writing this, did you have any expectation that this was going to change many people’s minds about the Trump administration?
Wolff: I don’t go into this to change people’s minds. I’m not proselytizing this for anyone. I’m not a political person. I’m not campaigning. I don’t really care. All I want [people] to do is see this. But, I would disagree that it hasn’t changed people’s minds. I think it’s clarified things for people. I think that they were all kind of like ‘what is going on here, this does not make any sense,’ and I’ve made sense out of this. You read this and you think ‘ok, I didn’t believe this before, and suddenly this is a coherent picture of what’s going on.’ So, in terms of changing people’s minds—if people suddenly understand something that they didn’t understand before, I don’t know if you would call that changing someone’s mind but it’s probably a more substantial contribution. You have to look and this and say, ‘okay, why have millions of people bought this book?’ I’ve written a lot of books, millions of people don’t [usually] buy books. So here’s a book that somehow supplied something to people that they were missing beforehand.
Barzacanos: At what point did you realize this project you were working on was going to make waves, and then at what point did you realize it was going to be a phenomenon?
Wolff: Not until it happened. I mean, I thought it would make a few waves. But a tsunami I didn’t expect.
Solender: The way that I read the book was as a textbook on the nature of power. Who, in your observation, held the most power during your time at the White House and who do you think holds power now?
Wolff: I think there’s only one person who holds power in this situation and it’s Donald Trump. That’s one of the unique things about this presidency: it’s a one-man observation. Everyone is sort of fluttering nearby, trying to exert some influence and more [often] than not, failing. That’s partly because Donald Trump has an inability to give anyone credit. He doesn’t really operate in those traditional ways in which other people would acquire influence and power. He doesn’t listen to anyone, for one thing. He doesn’t read memos that are submitted to him. It’s very hard to communicate with this guy. So, it’s exclusively a Donald Trump White House.
Solender: So, going off of that, another thing the book showed is that Donald Trump really has no policy motivation. He seems to have no truly held beliefs on things like health care or tax reform. One [revealing] passage was Ivanka Trump’s observation that he just wanted to be liked. That was one of his only real goals in everything he did. Would you say that having all that power, to Donald Trump, means anything? Because power in the White House is usually harnessed to get at some policy goal or some political goal.
Wolff: Yeah, I think it’s totally different. During the campaign, when it still seemed absurd that he would become the President of the United States, I asked him, ‘Okay, okay, really what’s your goal here?’ He said, very straightforwardly, ‘to be the most famous man in the world.’ So, clearly he has accomplished that, and I think that’s what the office means for him. That’s what all of his power adds up to. He’s really uninterested in anything else.
Solender: So why doesn’t he just resign now?
Wolff: I think that he probably will. What I see happening now is an ever tighter triangulation. There are mortal arrows pointed at this guy, and I think he doesn’t escape this. But, one talent that he has, throughout his whole career, is that in the worst possible circumstances [he] just declares victory and insist that he’s the winner.
Solender: The book showed a White House with a severe culture of leaking, almost primarily because that’s how you channel the President with his short attention span and love for cable news.
Wolff: And the President himself is leaking, yes.
Solender: Do you think that is a modern version of transparent government in a way?
Wolff: Yes, I mean that’s a critical interpretation. I think that this White House is transparent, but you might pick other words. Transparent implies that there’s some moral foundation to be less than secretive and to be open about what you want. There’s no moral foundation here. The foundation is that there is no foundation. There’s no central intelligence here, there’s no central purpose. Therefore, it becomes open. I saw somebody from the Obama White House recently who was marveling at this, and he said, ‘if I had made this proposal to the Obama White House, they would’ve met about it, they would’ve studied it, they would’ve considered it, they would’ve analyzed it, they would’ve gone through everything I had done in the past, they would’ve gamed this out in every possible way and then they would’ve rejected it.’
Solender: I want to talk a little bit about Russia. I think there are two schools of thought on [Trump]/Russia. The ‘Nixon school,’ which is: Trump had a sophisticated operation where he knowingly had his underlings go out and collude with Russia and steal the election. Your book more supports [the other school], the ‘idiot school,’ which is that there’s a just a lot of circumstantial and convenient evidence.
Wolff: The issue with conspiracy is intent. Intent in any situation is hard to prove, but it becomes incredibly hard to prove when the actors in the conspiracy are stupid. Because then you get to this thing where they’re so stupid [that] there is no plan, there is no strategy, there is no goal, there is no intelligence. So, it’s just people stumbling around doing things because ‘it seemed like a good idea in the moment.’ I think that is certainly one of the characteristics of this. Will Mueller be able to find, amidst this gang’s stupidity, a line in which there was actual intent and a clear plot? I don’t know. That’s what certainly what we’re waiting to see.
Solender: So that was going to be my next question: do you think Mueller’s going to uncover anything?
Wolff: I think he will uncover a lot of bad actions and then it will be a question of what do they add up to. I think he will make a case for obstruction of justice, and that would be ‘the cover-up is worse than the crime.’
Solender: Your book had a pretty clear tick-tock on the whole Comey firing. Do you think there is [a case for] obstruction of justice?
Wolff: Yeah, I mean clearly several of the obvious actors tried to portray this in ways that would stymie efforts to understand what happened. Again, obstruction of justice is a very precise legal category, Whether this rises to that, I don’t know. There’s an argument in the book that one of the Mark Corallo, the communications guy for the legal team, makes about the meeting on the plane, they draft a press release about Don Junior’s meeting in Trump Tower and Corallo, who’s working for Trump, makes the case that even if you are consciously misleading the press, that’s an effort to impede how prosecutors think about something: therefore that’s an obstruction.
Solender: So from your insight, what would you say is the reason they fired Andrew McCabe? I can’t get my head around that. It seems like they were trying to be mean, but there must’ve been some strategic motivation.
Wolff: Well as I say, this usually comes from the President because he’s angry or wounded or feeling slighted, and he wants to blame somebody. Maybe there is a more specific reason, but there may not be.
Solender: Do you think that this recent string of resignations and firings [is] indicative of the fact that the White House runs around the mental state of [an unstable President]?
Wolff: Yeah, there’s a thing that they used to say before Trump got into the White House. The phrase was, ‘It’s not your fault it’s just your turn.’
Solender: So do you think there’s going to be more politics as usual after Trump is gone or do you think he is a symptom of a larger trend?
Wolff: I think it would be impossible at this point to start to predict how this disrupts the [political] ecosystem. Does this make it possible for other celebrities to run for the Presidency? Does it make it acceptable for people [without] political experience to think that they can adequately function in this job? Obviously, we don’t know. My personal gut sense is that there will be a kind of ‘never again’ attitude after this.
Solender: The last question I have is; do you stand by everything you wrote in the book?
Wolff: Of course.
Solender: So, 100% true.
Barzacanos: That’s a different question.
Solender: Is everything in the book 100% true?
Wolff: I don’t exactly know what that question means. Do I trust everything in the book? Yes.
Michael Wolff (‘75) is an award-winning writer and reporter. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, Vanity Fair and the Hollywood Reporter. He was the editor of Adweek, and is the founder of his own news aggregator, Newser. He has also published several books including Burn Rate, The Man Who Owns the News and, most recently, Fire and Fury.