BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
FEMA CORRESPONDENT: It is finally here, Michael Wolff’s much anticipated new book, Fire and Fury.
BOB GARFIELD: The anticipation for Michael Wolff’s White House tell-all was validated by the juiciest, scariest, vicious-ist behind-the-scenes tidbits ev-er!
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The author of that book says that people all around Trump think that he is unfit and acts like a child.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: According to Michael Wolff’s reporting, the president of the United States takes his cheeseburgers to bed with him.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The book also suggests the president was so paranoid he might be poisoned, he wouldn’t let White House housekeepers touch his toothbrush.
BOB GARFIELD: The depictions of chaos, instability and even criminality were so vivid the White House attempted to suppress publication, which, of course, just generated still more attention for the book, which is on back order while the publisher prints a million more copies.
Fire and Fury has raised many issues about the competence and stability of the president and his administration, putting Donald Trump's mental state under heightened scrutiny, but it has also raised questions about journalistic access and methods and put the author under some scrutiny, as well. Michael Wolff joins me now. Michael, welcome to OTM.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: In the introduction, you write that shortly after the inauguration, quote, “I took up something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing.” How in the world did you get on that couch?
MICHAEL WOLFF: The West Wing is very small and the front room in the West Wing, which is the reception area, is also one of the main conduits. Anybody and everybody passes this couch. There are actually two couches in this area. Sometimes I would think, oh, I’m gonna try that couch.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you have an actual day pass? I mean, how did you get through the gates?
MICHAEL WOLFF: No, no, no, no, no, no, you got through because you made appointments and then whoever your first appointment was, you know, it would put you in the system. You would get to the front gate of the White House and they would look you up on a list and then they would pass you through. And then, literally from the gates of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, [LAUGHS] you’re free. You’re, you can go almost anywhere.
So say it was a 10 o'clock appointment, and they were never on time, so you would sit on the couch and the hours would pass. And then they would see you on the couch, they would say, who are you waiting for? And, you know, often it was Bannon and I would say, Bannon, they would go, oh God because he never kept his appointments. So then they would say, well, why don’t you come back. And, like in any office, you know, they clear off the papers off the seat beside their desk and, and you sit down and you chat.
BOB GARFIELD: So for months you are a ficus in a dark suit, so people get used to just seeing you there and simply assume that you are okay to talk to?
MICHAEL WOLFF: Exactly. Hey, they would say, hey, hey. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] That was it. Now, what about Bannon, I mean, how instrumental was he? Did, did you have some sort of letters of transit from him, or from the president himself, that signaled to the rest of the White House staff that you were, you know, okay to engage with?
MICHAEL WOLFF: Yes. I mean, the president was a supporter, in his way. Bannon was a supporter. Kellyanne Conway was a supporter. I, I went into this certainly with an, with an amount of goodwill among key people. I mean, it wasn't, it wasn't on their of top of mind. I mean, actually, that was sort of, I would say, probably important. I was never on anyone's top of mind. I, I was just a, a sort of a, an afterthought.
BOB GARFIELD: And the very fact that Steve Bannon was talking to you, offering his point of view, encouraged other factions of the White House to whisper in your ear to get their narrative in and, in the end, you had all three factions competing for your attention.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Yeah and actually there’s, there’s even another layer there because the other factions would see me to try to get an idea of what Steve Bannon was saying about them.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Now, early last year, speaking to Brian Stelter on CNN, you said that the media was at war with Trump, that the press was being hysterical and making fools of themselves in their anti-Trump zeal.
MICHAEL WOLFF: He in every situation seems to be provoking an overreaction, so we go into a fit of apoplexy and as we try to go after his credibility, our credibility becomes equally a problem.
BOB GARFIELD: So what did you propose to your publisher, Henry Holt? Was it a counter narrative to the kind of hysterical coverage you complained about? And is that what you told the Trump transition team, to Bannon and to the president himself?
MICHAEL WOLFF: No, I told the, the publisher just that I had an opportunity to go into the White House to hang around. I thought I could get access at a very high level. That's what they bought. As for what everybody else expected, you know, I had written, actually, three pieces before this. I’d written a piece about Trump in June, 2016. I wouldn’t have necessarily said that the piece was a, a laudatory piece. I think it's, it had a lot of negative stuff in it. Nevertheless, he professed to have liked the cover of the magazine --
-- with his picture on it.
It’s very possible he never read the piece and that was, that was fine. I did a piece about Bannon. Probably the, the first interview that Bannon gave was to me.
BOB GARFIELD: You have confessed to sucking up to sources, to some degree, that, I think the term you used was “brownnosing,” where it was necessary to get access, and I, I assume particularly with Bannon. Did this rise to the level of actually misrepresenting your intentions, like the late Joe McGinniss infamously did to report his book, Fatal Vision? Hs claimed to change his mind about the subject’s guilt or innocence in the midst of his reporting. You know, the book that emerged was scathing. Is that what happened to you? You were there to document a counter narrative but you discovered all the, in your words, “hysteria from the mainstream media” was, was dead on, after all?
MICHAEL WOLFF: Well, yes, I mean, in, in -- I never announced I was there to document a counter narrative ‘cause I didn’t know the narrative. What I said to everyone, two things. I said, this is going to be an account of the first 100 days. Actually, it went to the first 200 days ‘cause the first 100 days didn’t seem to stop.
BOB GARFIELD: And they never moved the couch.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Yes. And then the next thing I said is, I want to write a book from your point of view. You tell me what's going on here.
BOB GARFIELD: Which can be interpreted as, I’m on your side.
MICHAEL WOLFF: In this instance, I was reporting their disillusionment, so it wasn't my disillusionment with this enterprise, it was theirs.
BOB GARFIELD: In other interviews, you have intimated that this exercise was the opposite of access journalism, which you’ve been accused of practicing, that the mainstream can’t afford to lay it all bare because they all have to go back the next day, and you [LAUGHS] don’t. You can scorch the White House earth and move on. Do you have any evidence that news organizations are actually pulling punches to preserve daily access?
MICHAEL WOLFF: Obviously, at some level, they will be shut out of the White House. And let me say that I think daily reporters are doing a, a pretty good job of covering this administration, at this point. The book is a different kind of thing. You know, the truth is that the stuff that the White House staffers said to me they’ve said to many, many, many, many other people. The difference is that I marshaled it all, put it into context and went with it. A daily reporter has to write to a, a particular form and they basically are dribbling out the story of the chaos of this administration. And I am not dribbling it out. I am giving it to you all and giving it to you all at once, which is, it would seem to me, part of what people have found compelling about this.
BOB GARFIELD: I mentioned Fatal Vision and Joe McGinniss. I've also been thinking a lot about Answered Prayers, Truman Capote’s novel that skewered the very New York high society that had adopted him as their literary kind of pet for decades. And the betrayal was too much for them. They disowned him. They shunned him. Will you ever lunch in this town again?
MICHAEL WOLFF: If that town is Washington, I, I may never lunch in that town again. And, thankfully, I’m from New York, so my lunches will be uninterrupted.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, what about Bannon, have you heard from him?
MICHAEL WOLFF: Let me not s -- say. I would prefer not to say. I do not feel good about what’s happened to Steve. I don’t feel proud of myself for taking him down. I feel -- I feel sad about that. I like Steve. I like Steve a lot and I, you know, came to, as, as you can see in this book, deeply appreciate his insights. BOB GARFIELD: Your sources in this book were Trump and Bannon and Kellyanne Conway and Reince Priebus and Jared Kushner. This is a pretty, pretty good collection of documented liars. How the hell do you judge whether you’re getting the straight dope?
MICHAEL WOLFF: I, I think, in the end, that probably is, is the question. And you go through, you’re trying to, trying to match stories and speak to other people who have had access to the same events. You know, there seems to be a, a controversial point I made in the introduction by saying, I’m delivering, in some instances, the version that I believe is true. And it’s like, what, what do you -- what, what is it you believe? What it’s about, it’s s not, not truth, truth?
In the end, I can’t solve that problem for people. I’ve given the version that I believe -- is true or as close to the truth as anyone’s gonna get. People are looking for answers here and, you know, I mean, I've actually tried to supply them but the absolute answer of what has gone on here and what will happen here, I can't supply that.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Thank you.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Wolff is the author of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, and it is a publishing sen-sation.