Donald Trump thinks Mike Pence, his vice president, is “a religious nut”. He thinks his son, Don Jr, is a “pretty stupid boy” who “has too many f—— kids.” Nato, he said, “bores the s— out of me.” That’s according to Michael Wolff, whose new book, Siege, is a deliciously catty look inside the White House, full of wicked anecdotes and gossipy gold. It’s like sitting in a hairdresser’s listening to a fabulously indiscreet conversation beside you. It’s The Kardashians: White House edition. But the problem is, we already know that the Trump White House is a car crash. The shock value has gone.
Wolff’s first tome about the Trump presidency, last year’s Fire and Fury, captivated America and reportedly sold over four million copies. Wolff literally sat on a couch inside the West Wing and watched as events unfolded – he stayed put, observing, becoming a sounding board for furious White House employees, simply because no one asked him to leave. The result was a head-spinning look at an almost unbelievably chaotic presidency.
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Siege takes up where Fire and Fury ended, leading the reader from February 2018, the beginning of Trump’s second year in office, to the delivery of Robert Mueller’s report into Russian election meddling in March this year. It’s a wild ride through 12 manic months.
“It’s like being in the backseat of a car being driven by a really drunk driver,” says Erik Whitestone, who worked on The Apprentice, becoming close to the Trump inner circle. “He was as incoherent then as he is now.”
Wolff, a 65-year-old journalist specialising in rip-roaring high society exposés, admits to having a “train-wreck fascination” with the president – a man he describes as veering between “raging and vengeful” and “lazy, disengaged and even self-satisfied”.
He gleefully recounts the scandals in salacious detail: the cat fights in the White House, deteriorating to physical violence; speculation about the sex lives of staffers. The ambitions of Kushner and his wife Ivanka are mocked mercilessly, while Cabinet members’ astonishment at Trump’s actions are reported in riveting detail. Jim Mattis, the former defence secretary, is said to be “openly incredulous and deeply alarmed”; Trump, meanwhile, describes a speechwriter as “autistic” and “sweaty”. It’s all pawed over, chewed up and spat out with devilish delight.
Yet the book has two significant flaws, meaning it’s unlikely to match the jaw-dropping Fire and Fury in its impact. The first is that it relies excessively on Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist who was ousted from the White House in August 2017. Bannon, whom Wolff describes as “Dr Frankenstein with his own deep ambivalence about the monster he created”, admitted himself that he hadn’t spoken personally to Trump in the year after he left the White House. Bannon is yesterday’s man, no longer at the heart of the action.
Yet he is the chief narrator of the book, commenting from the sidelines, a far-Right Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets. Scenes from inside the White House are framed cinematically from “the Embassy” – Bannon’s townhouse in Washington, rented after he left the West Wing. You can just imagine the director’s lens panning out from the Oval Office and swirling back to Bannon’s lair – Wolff describes it as “part frat house, part man cave, and part pseudo-military redoubt; conspiracy literature was scattered everywhere.”
The second major flaw is that it leaves so many unanswered questions. Wolff wants us to believe he’s lifting the lid on Trumpland, yet in reality there is little that is new. His one big scoop – that Mueller’s team supposedly drew up a document to indict Trump, before deciding to shelve it – has been emphatically denied by Mueller’s spokesman, Peter Carr, who insists that the documents cited by Wolff “do not exist”. What can we make of that? And there are so many tantalising questions left unresolved. What did Vladimir Putin actually say to Trump during their closed-door summit, which left Trump, in Bannon’s colourful assessment, looking “like a beaten dog”?
Siege is a fun and highly-readable survey of a surreal time in the United States, but lacking significant substance. Nonetheless, Wolff ends with a none-too-subtle teaser for his next book, surely already in progress. Mueller’s report, published in March, cleared the president of collusion and lifted a cloud of suspicion. For Wolff, it’s not yet over. Trump’s “escape”, he writes, “such as it was, would be brief.”
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