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Fire and Fury #3 - The president's odd behavior

Note: Please also see the 2020 Books Are Our Superpower article about this book.

Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury documents some unusual behavior from the president.

Questions about relevant knowledge and mental fitness

Wolff marvels that Trump was elected president while "wholly lacking what in some obvious sense must be the main requirement of the job, what neuroscientists would call executive function....He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus; he had never been able to tailor his behavior to what the goals at hand reasonably required. On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect." Moreover, "while he was often most influenced by the last person he spoke to, he did not actually listen to anyone. So it was not so much the force of an individual argument or petition that moved him, but rather more just someone’s presence..." As a result, he had accumulated little relevant knowledge. "Almost all the professionals who were now set to join him were coming face to face with the fact that it appeared he knew nothing....Whatever he knew he seemed to have learned an hour before....Trump, the businessman, could not even read a balance sheet, and Trump, who had campaigned on his deal-making skills, was, with his inattention to details, a terrible negotiator..."

Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. (There was some argument about this, because he could read headlines and articles about himself, or at least headlines on articles about himself, and the gossip squibs on the New York Post’s Page Six.) Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he just didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate — total television. But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking.

Additionally:

For anything that smacked of a classroom or of being lectured to — ‘professor’ was one of his bad words, and he was proud of never going to class, never buying a textbook, never taking a note — he got up and left the room.

The young people working on his campaign said that Trump had bragged about never having listened to a single speech given by Obama.

In an interview while campaigning, Trump could not say how important health insurance was on his agenda. "Maybe it is in the top ten...Definitely top twenty for sure." Roger Ailes said, "No one in the country, or on earth, has given less thought to health insurance than Donald."

Trump favored gut instinct over "expertise, that liberal virtue...Of course, nobody really believed that, except the president himself." Furthermore, for him, "as for many showmen or press release entrepreneurs, the enemy of everything is complexity and red tape, and the solution for everything is cutting corners."

In one instance, when Roger Ailes recommended John Boehner — the Republican who had departed as Speaker of the House only five years earlier — Trump did not recognize the name. Rupert Murdoch "thought he was a moron — at least until he became president," when he had to cozy up to the president. All the key players in the White House, Wolff writes,

had traveled through the stages of adventure, challenge, frustration, battle, self-justification, and doubt, before finally having to confront the very real likelihood that the president they worked for — whose presidency they bore some official responsibility for — didn’t have the wherewithal to adequately function in his job....The debate, as Bannon put it, was not about whether the president’s situation was bad, but whether it was Twenty-Fifth-Amendment bad.

Wolff recounts that, "in his first weeks in the White House, an inattentive Trump was already trying to curtail his schedule of meetings, limit his hours in the office, and keep his normal golf habits." Over the first year of the presidency, concerns about the president's mental fitness grew. "The worry among staffers — all of them concerned that Trump’s rambling and his alarming repetitions (the same sentences delivered with the same expressions minutes apart) had significantly increased, and that his ability to stay focused, never great, had notably declined — was that he was likely to suffer by such a comparison."

Hiring his children

Before the inauguration, Ann Coulter tried to explain to him: "Nobody is apparently telling you this. But you can’t. You just can’t hire your children." Later, Wolff wrote, everyone had to face

the essential and obvious point: although the junior first couple were mere staffers and not part of the institutional standing of the White House, they thought and acted as if they were part of the presidential entity. Their ire and increasing bitterness came from some of the staff’s reluctance — really, a deep and intensifying resistance — to treat them as part and parcel of the presidency. (Once Priebus had to take Ivanka aside to make sure she understood that in her official role, she was just a staffer. Ivanka had insisted on the distinction that she was a staffer-slash-First Daughter.)

To his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump assigned the project of Israeli-Palestinian relations. This "was not only a test, it was a Jewish test: the president was singling him out for being Jewish, rewarding him for being Jewish, saddling him with an impossible hurdle for being Jewish — and, too, defaulting to the stereotyping belief in the negotiating powers of Jews."

Perception that he generally approves of impulsive, chauvinistic, aggressive behavior

Trump wanted to dismiss the idea of giving the diplomat John Bolton an appointment because he didn't like Bolton's mustache. Bannon quipped that a rumor that Bolton "got in a fight in a hotel one night and chased some woman" might actually improve his standing in Trump's eyes.

Of his third marriage, Trump told friends that "the more years between an older man and a younger woman, the less the younger woman took an older man’s cheating personally."

Paranoia

Trump is "a man whose many neuroses included a horror of forgetfulness or senility," and he eats at McDonald's because he is afraid of being poisoned.

Refusal to clearly condemn neo-Nazis

The Charlottesville protests in August organized by Richard Spencer had the theme "Unite the Right," intended "to link Trump’s politics with white nationalism." After a racist killed an anti-racist protester, Trump said that "both sides" had credibility. Wolff writes: "As Richard Spencer had correctly understood, the president’s sympathies were muddled. However easy and obvious it was to condemn white racists — even self-styled neo-Nazis — he instinctively resisted." (Of his own ethnicity, he once defined "white trash" as "people just like me, only they’re poor.") When he gave a second speech to clarify, Wolff describes him this way: “Resentful and petulant, he was clearly reading forced lines.” He reveals that, on Trump’s trip back to Manhattan’s Trump Tower, “his mood was dark and I-told-you-so. Privately, he kept trying to rationalize why someone would be a member of the KKK — that is, they might not actually believe what the KKK believed, and the KKK probably does not believe what it used to believe, and, anyway, who really knows what the KKK believes now? In fact, he said, his own father was accused of being involved with the KKK — not true. (In fact, yes, true.)” After that, one of Trump's business councils "was hemorrhaging its CEO members" and someone advised him "to at least make it look as if shutting it down was his decision," so Trump tweeted "that he was disbanding it."

[Update: In August 2020, the white nationalist organizer, Richard Spencer said he supported the Biden/Harris ticket over Trump/Pence. The fact that Harris is Black didn't seem to bother Spencer as much as Trump's incompetence.]

Lack of organization in the White House

Roger Ailes believed that Trump, unlike seasoned politicians accustomed to playing complex organizational games, "was undisciplined — he had no capacity for any game plan. He could not be a part of any organization, nor was he likely to subscribe to any program or principle. In Ailes’s view, he was 'a rebel without a cause.' He was simply 'Donald' — as though nothing more need be said."

Making it unclear who was running the show led to "both chaos and Trump’s own undisputed independence." Wolff explains that

not really having an organization was the most efficient way to sidestep the people in your organization and to dominate them. It was just one irony of his courtship of admired military figures like James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and John Kelly: they found themselves working in an administration that was in every way inimical to basic command principles....Then there was Bannon, conducting something of an alternate-universe operation, often launching far-reaching undertakings that no one else knew about. And thus Priebus, at the center of an operation that had no center, found it easy to think there was no reason for him to be there at all.

Is it effective? Sort of. "It was the chaos of just doing things that actually got things done. Except, even if you assumed that not knowing how to do things didn’t much matter if you just did them, it was still not clear who was going to do what you wanted to do. Or, a corollary, because nobody in the Trump administration really knew how to do anything, it was therefore not clear what anyone did."

Indeed, the reason Wolff was able to write Fire and Fury is that, while Trump "encouraged this idea" of getting "formal access to the White House," Wolff was unable to find a person who had the authority to grant or deny it. "Hence I became more a constant interloper than an invited guest — something quite close to an actual fly on the wall — having accepted no rules nor having made any promises about what I might or might not write." Beginning soon after the inauguration, he "conducted more than two hundred interviews" in the West Wing.

People had to figure out how to make him happy

"...the common purpose of the campaign and the urgency of the transition were lost as soon as the Trump team stepped into the White House. They had gone from managing Donald Trump to the expectation of being managed by him... [there were] few specific ideas about how to turn his themes and vitriol into policy, nor a team that could reasonably unite behind him. ... In the Trump White House, policy making, from the very first instance of Bannon’s immigration EO, flowed up. It was a process of suggesting, in throw-it-against-the-wall style, what the president might want, and hoping he might then think that he had thought of this himself (a result that was often helped along with the suggestion that he had in fact already had the thought). ... Hence, she and everyone else was translating a set of desires and urges into a program, a process that required a lot of guess work. It was, said Walsh, 'like trying to figure out what a child wants.'"

"This became a staff goal — to create situations in which he was comfortable, to construct something of a bubble, to wall him off from a mean-spirited world."

After nine months of Trump's presidency, "it was very hard to hire anyone of stature to replace the senior people who had departed. And the stature of those who remained seemed to be more diminutive by the week."

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