The urgent need for clarity in Trump era has generally been met instead with euphemism and hyperbole, but in this case a little bit of both is instructive.
On Wednesday, New York magazine published explosive excerpts from a new Trump-administration tell-all by one-time contributor Michael Wolff, sourced largely to the president’s erstwhile adviser and propagandist Steve Bannon.
The ongoing fallout has seen President Trump issue a deranged statement to the press corps accusing Bannon of having lost his mind, and Trump’s Press Secretary Sarah Sanders field questions about whether Trump’s campaign (including his son and son-in-law) behaved in “treasonous” fashion, as Bannon now alleges. The White House has sought to dismiss much of this new reporting as malicious gossip, and some of Wolff’s competitors and critics have played along, not unreasonably, by dredging up unflattering magazine profiles that reveal him to have been an unreliable narrator.
Yet neither Trump, nor Wolff’s critics, have anything to say about the fact—apparent to all—that Wolff’s forthcoming book is sourced to the very same cast of Trump-world liars and moral reprobates whose claims have appeared in the political press every day for over a year. In that time, Trump has raged against unflattering news, true and false, including stories his own confidantes leaked for their own ends to hungry reporters in a kind of mutually destructive parasitism that has left all parties horribly damaged. Wolff’s book brings things to a salacious new peak, but the basic dynamic is the same. The main difference now is that the people getting hurt are the ones who normally run to the press trying to hurt other people.
One of Bannon’s former subordinates, Ben Shapiro, likes to say that Bannon’s “priority” has always been “narrative truth…rather than factual truth.” This is a delicate way of saying Bannon is a propagandist, always tugging at his audience’s sense of what is emotionally correct in their hearts, rather than what is empirically accurate. But it is a useful euphemism for the purposes of discussing Wolff’s book because it captures the karmic nature of this new reporting so perfectly: An unreliable reporter and a propagandist have sent Trump world into a state of upheaval by harnessing the power of “narrative truth” and turning it inward.
Let’s begin with some of Wolff’s farthest-fetched, most plausibly erroneous reporting in the excerpt.
- Wolff quotes Trump’s former deputy chief of staff, Katie Walsh, describing her efforts to serve the president as “like trying to figure out what a child wants.” In response, she texted multiple reporters to disclaim the quote.
- Wolff recreates dialogue between Trump and Rupert Murdoch that ends with Murdoch hanging up the phone and calling Trump a “fucking idiot.”
- Wolff asserts that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump privately agreed that between the two of them, should the opportunity to rise, she, not he, would be the one to run for president.
- In a portion of the book not excerpted by New York, Wolff quotes Bannon speculating that Trump’s son inculpated his father in collusion with Russians. “The chance that Don Jr did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero.”
Is Wolff right? Did these things happen? Can they be proven? Maybe! They certainly weren’t reported in a way that surprised his main source.
In case anyone thought this was some sort of mishap. pic.twitter.com/zyzsjSwx4d
— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) January 3, 2018
For Bannon’s purposes, though, what matters is that they feel right to his intended readers. Whether or not Katie Walsh said what Wolff quotes her saying, or Murdoch called Trump a “fucking idiot,” it’s almost certainly true that Walsh and Murdoch think Trump is a fucking idiot, because everyone who knows Trump thinks he is a fucking idiot. Trump’s secretary of state has repeatedly refused to deny calling the president a “fucking moron” in front of multiple administration principals, after they leaked his comments to the press. Republicans all over Washington say similar things about Trump whenever they feel like unburdening themselves to or currying favor with reporters off the record.
Jared and Ivanka may or may not harbor their own delusions of presidential grandeur, but they are precisely the kind of arrogant, entitled brats, oblivious to their own collective mediocrity, who would think out loud this way, in the midst of her father’s disastrous presidency. The White House rejects Bannon’s assertion that Donald Trump, Jr. introduced his father to Russian spies in Trump tower in June 2016, and it may not be true, but the imputation—that Trump was well apprised of the campaign’s relationship with Russian election saboteurs—is at this point impossible for honest people to deny.
The White House can’t plausibly dispel the plot points in Wolff’s book, because the White House knows that, wherever the truth lies, his stories are more believable than their denials. Bannon laundered a confessional through a New York-media reporter for the same reason he laundered Clinton Cash reporting through the New York Times, while using his own website, Breitbart, for the distinct purpose of whipping up racial panic among people interested in completely different narrative truths. Wolff spins a yarn, but has more credibility in elite circles than Breitbart or than Bannon himself. And whether Wolff did his due diligence or not, the political reporters who spent the past year writing comparably salacious palace-intrigue stories have little standing to say his anonymous sources aren’t to be believed. Better reporters wouldn’t have published this stuff, nobody would’ve believed it if it appeared in red-meat form on Breitbart.
Wolff’s reporting tantalizes. Like so much other reporting on these shameless liars, though, it convinces us to believe things that aren’t true, without teaching us anything we don’t, at some level, already know. In that sense it’s a testament to the success Bannon and the Trumpers have had degrading not just conservative politics, but the entire political culture. It’s only small solace that the liars are now in open warfare with each other.