Michael Wolff Reflects on a Wild Week and Trump's Anger: "I Have No Side Here" (Q&A)
The Hollywood Reporter columnist and author of the sensational White House tell-all 'Fire and Fury' opens up about his new notoriety, that infamous Ailes-Bannon dinner party and the process of gaining unprecedented access to an administration in chaos.
There is only one story on everyone's lips: that of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the devastating insider account of Donald Trump's first year in office by author and Hollywood Reporter columnist Michael Wolff. The book — which the president sought to block and has dismissed on Twitter as "full of lies" — is currently No. 1 on Amazon, having completely sold out of its first printing in a matter of hours. Now Wolff, who first interviewed Trump for a June 2016 THR cover story and then chronicled his outrageous year of unprecedented access to a West Wing run amok, opens up about his newfound fame, his infamous Ailes-Bannon dinner party (clams and Arctic char were on the menu) and the Trump circle's seeming allergy to reading anything longer than a tweet: "These guys don't just not read books — they don't know what books are."
How are you adjusting to the past 48 hours?
It's a little surreal. It's a weird combination of totally normal — I just sit at the desk behind the computer like always — and all you do is hear your own name in the background.
You've been known in media circles for years but this is certainly a new level of notoriety for you.
As I say, I'm just sitting here. But there was a paparazzi outside this morning. That was a weird feeling. You turn around and look and think, "They must be taking pictures of something else." And then it comes to you in a very slow way: "Oh. Yeah."
Have you thought about needing security?
(Laughs.) Not yet. But I'll let you know.
You say you still have sources inside the White House. Have you heard anything?
I hear that the president is very angry, or, let me be precise: I hear that he is truly bouncing off the walls.
I assume he feels very betrayed by you?
I don't know if I would use that word. I don't think he thought about this in any way. I literally think you go in there and say, "I'm writing a book," and they go, "Oh. A book." It's like a cloak of invisibility. And then also they would do this thing that would be like, "Oh, this is off the record." And I would say, "I would like to use it for the book." And they would say, "Well, when does that come out?" And I would say, "Next year." "Oh, oh, yeah, OK, fine."
But in your initial meetings with the president, there had to be a certain level of cordiality because he trusted you.
Totally. Well, you don't get the feeling that he has thought of anything other than himself at any given time. Certainly he was very open with me, accessible with me, and then he started to talk. Did he ever listen to me for one second? I never got that feeling. He just talks at you. "Blah blah blah blah blah blah. I'm great. I'm great. I'm great. I'm great." And then he sort of says, "And you're great, too. And I'm really great." It's like that. Any conversation with him is, not to overuse the word surreal, but it's surreal.
Have you heard from Steve Bannon?
I don't want to go into whom I've heard from from this circle at the moment.
Emily Bell, the Columbia University Journalism School professor, called it "the most audacious act of access journalism of all time." Do you agree? What would you call it?
Listen, that sounds great and nice, but in truth it wasn't that audacious. I asked, people sort of said "OK" or didn't object, and I kept coming. It's a weird thing, this thing referred to as "access journalism." We've elevated it to this thing like it's some kind of magic. In truth, it's just showing up. When I did the Murdoch book [2008's The Man Who Owns The News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch], the first time I interviewed him for about an hour and a half. Then he got up and said, "Have you gotten what you need?" And I said, "Well, I actually have a few more questions." Then he semi-reluctantly got up, opened his book and gave me an appointment the next week. This basically went on every week for nine months. So you just keep going. Eventually someone says, "Who are you and what are you doing here? Go away," or you get lucky and they don't. That's certainly what happened over the last year in the White House.
Speaking of that Rupert Murdoch biography, it seems Trump was not aware of the content of that book, which was quite critical. Yet he was talking to Murdoch during your reporting.
It's mystifying to me. I don't know if I came up. The distinct feeling that you have when you say that you're writing a book is that these guys don't care about you. You're a kind of non-entity. "A book." Trump is not getting excited about somebody writing a book.
Because he places no importance on books.
Yeah. They almost can't imagine what it is. I remember when the Murdoch book came out and Murdoch's guy [former News Corp. marketing and corporate affairs exec] Gary Ginsberg, called me, furious, and said, "What is this? The book is all about him!" I said, "It's a biography." And Ginsberg says, "But it's so personal." That's when I realized, these guys don't just not read books — they don't know what books are.
Fire and Fury all began with a cover story on Trump in this publication. Do you think he ever read that story? Because it wasn't very flattering.
No, I don't think he read it. And one of the threads that runs through this book is that he doesn't read anything. People tell him what's in an article — that's what Hope Hicks does — and she probably told him it was great. It's easier if he thinks it's great.
Tell me more about this dinner party with Roger Ailes, Steve Bannon and Janice Min, THR's former top editor. For starters, what did you eat that night?
That's a good question. I remember we had clams. And then I can't remember what we had.
Did you cook or was it brought in?
No, no, no — I cooked. I think Janice said on a show this morning that my wife cooked, which [my wife] was very pleased about, but it was me.
Was there drinking going on?
Very little. (Pauses.) My wife is now saying that she made baba au rhum for dessert. (To wife:) What was the main course? Oh, I know what it was! It was Arctic char. And so it was fantastic. It was like, "Oh my God. Are we really here?" And I was so grateful that Janice came because I thought no one would believe this otherwise.
Were the two of you sharing a lot of side eye?
Oh totally. Totally. Janice and I were drinking and my wife was drinking but Bannon didn't. I offered him a glass of wine and he almost pushed it away: "I don't drink." And Roger drank very little. [Roger's wife] Beth maybe had a couple of glasses of wine.
How did Ailes' health seem that night?
Roger had trouble with his legs for a very long time, so his lower body seemed very fragile. His wife and I had spoken before because we live in a townhouse with stairs, which was clearly an issue. Otherwise he was in good spirits.
Would you call them "buoyant" spirits?
Yeah. They were moving to Palm Beach the next day, and his departure from Fox News had been a weight off his shoulders. He couldn't have been more amused, perplexed, semi-horrified by the Trump victory. I had spoken to him on and off since him getting booted out of Fox and I thought he was much better [at the dinner]. And Bannon was here, talking about the things that these guys talk about — "remaking the world."
Had you ever been privy to a conversation like that, with people at that level of power?
I would have to think about that. Arguably. But this seemed intense in a different kind of way. First thing, Bannon was just about to move to Washington and take over the world. And Trump sort of existed, in a way, because of Roger. Up until [his death in May 2017], Roger had been the most powerful person in Republican politics. So it was pretty crazy.
Was there any moment when your heart truly sank or you almost choked?
Because of what they said? No. I wasn't feeling like "I'm a Democrat and you're a Republican" kind of thing at that point. It was just a feeling of, "Oh my God — this is how it really is." It was so interesting to have access to that. But there was no sense of "You're a bad guy and I'm a good guy." In a way that was one of the advantages that helped me during this whole last year. Where most reporters seemed to think, "You're the opposition — you're the Trump people," that never once crossed my mind. The only thing I felt was, "God, this is so interesting to see up close."
But that was something you were criticized for in left-leaning media, and now with the book it seems you whiplashed the other way.
Again, I just wrote what I thought and what I heard. That's one thing about the book: There really aren't any politics in the book. I have no side here. I'm just interested in how people relate to one another, their ability to do their jobs and a much less abstract picture of this world than whatever the political thesis may or may not be.
So there was no long con here. You were just a neutral observer?
Completely. I would have been perfectly happy to have written a contrarian book about how interesting and potentially hopeful and novel Trump-as-president was. I would have written a positive Trump book. And I thought it would be a fun thing to do — an audacious way to look at the world. But then I got in there and I thought, "Oh my God." Day after day it just seemed that this guy was more dysfunctional. It wasn't even me seeing that. It was listening to the people around him.
What to you was the single most surprising thing about the president?
Almost every new thing you heard was astounding, from his John Dean obsession to the way he screamed at people to locking himself in his bedroom. Again and again and again and again it was something you thought, "This is not how it is supposed to be."
Who in his inner circle did you find to be most sympathetic?
Nobody knows who I've spoken to. I think it's obvious I spoke to Bannon because he's on the record a lot of the time. But it's not just Bannon. If not everyone, it's pretty close to everyone with minute-by-minute contact with [Trump] has contributed to this book.
It seems many are saying Trump's hopeless behind his back.
One-hundred percent of them are saying that.
What about Steven Mnuchin and Sarah Huckabee Sanders?
I was there really up until Bannon left the White House at the end of August and a little pick-up after that, so Sanders was a non-presence when I was there.
What would you guess is going through her mind, really? Is it Sean Spicer 2 or does she believe the things she's saying?
I don't think she believes any of it. As Spicer said, "You can't make this shit up." I mean, listen: These people are all normal, average, ambitious, competent people who are trying to do well and do their jobs and all that. So they're not that different from us. And they have to deal with this guy. That goes from people thinking, "Oh my God, my boss is really a monster!" — and that's the best you're going to think of him — to, "Oh my God, the country is being run by somebody who has no idea what they're doing!"
Who is the next person to resign or get fired?
Dina Powell has already announced that she's going. Gary Cohn is basically out the door. I wouldn't imagine that John Kelly will make it to the spring. This is very, very, very hard duty.
What was the closest you ever got to getting kicked out and the whole thing falling apart?
The problem areas became when whatever crisis was going on in the White House meant there was nobody to talk to. That could run for a week and you'd think, "Oh no, I've lost my access." What was odd is that you've lost your access — but you're sitting there. I would theoretically have an appointment and sit there for the whole day. It would get to be night and somebody would come out and say, "We gotta push this to the end of the week." So then you would become dispirited and think, "Oh God, I'm out." Although you're in. And you're seeing this go by. People are rushing by you. You see everything there. And then you just come back the next day. Again, just showing up.
I guess everyone knew you by your first name?
Did you eat from the same bagel table or whatever they had there?
That was the thing — you never got food there.
They don't feed anyone?
They do but they certainly didn't feed me. I mean, occasionally you would get a little something. It's not at all a commodious place. So they're always having to move a coat off the seat or brush the crumbs off a couch so you can sit down. And then you might get a diet soda. Absent of creature comforts.
Were you ever in Trump's presence for the act of tweeting, or soon after he'd dropped a bomb on social media?
No. The guy who does the Twitter, Dan Scavino, his desk was in Bannon's office, so I used to see that.
So how does the control over his Twitter account work?
I don't know and I could never get a straight story on that. I couldn't figure that out. They were clearly not telling me and probably more likely there wasn't a clear procedure. A lot of people described their days and routines and how they were exploded by whatever Trump had tweeted.
Did you hold anything back from the book?
I think the things I probably held back were things I literally had forgotten. I'm going to wake up now and go, "Oh my God! Why didn't I put that in the book."
But not enough for a sequel.
Well, never say never.
What's the situation with the movie and TV rights to the book?
Let me not answer that at the moment. I can say at this point no deal, but lots of things happening.
How did you come up with the title?
You know, when you write a book, in my experience at some point you have a title and tell it to the publisher and they go, "Eh … maybe there's something better." Then you go through an intense period of scrambling for a title and something comes to you. "Fire and fury," something that he said to the North Koreans in a tweet, struck at the right moment as a pretty good title for a book.
The 11-page legal notice sent to you by Trump attorney Charles Harder — how are you feeling about that?
That's being handled by the publisher and I have absolute confidence that they will handle this and this will not impinge upon me in any way.
Was Hillary Clinton ever in your mind at all during the reporting or writing of Fire and Fury, and have you at all considered what she might think of it?
Never once did that cross my mind.
Finally, when are you going to make your triumphant return to New York media canteen Michael's?
Good question. New York is covered with snow now. You can't get anywhere. So I'm sure I'll be back there next week.