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Authors: Michael Wolff

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Still, Ailes had been observing politicians for decades, and in his long career he had witnessed just about every type and style and oddity and confection and cravenness and mania. Operatives like himself—and now, like Bannon—worked with all kinds. It was the ultimate symbiotic and codependent relationship. Politicians were front men in a complex organizational effort. Operatives knew the game, and so did most candidates and officeholders. But Ailes was pretty sure Trump did not. Trump 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.

In early August, less than a month after Ailes had been ousted from Fox News, Trump asked his old friend to take over the management of his calamitous campaign. Ailes, knowing Trump’s disinclination to take advice, or even listen to it, turned him down. This was the job Bannon took a week later.

After Trump’s victory, Ailes seemed to balance regret that he had not seized the chance to run his friend’s campaign with incredulity that Trump’s offer had turned out to be the ultimate opportunity. Trump’s rise to power, Ailes understood, was the improbable triumph of many things that Ailes and Fox News represented. After all, Ailes was perhaps the person most responsible for unleashing the angry-man currents of Trump’s victory: he had invented the right-wing media that delighted in the Trump character.

Ailes, who was a member of the close circle of friends and advisers Trump frequently called, found himself hoping he would get more time
with the new president once he and Beth moved to Palm Beach; he knew Trump planned to make regular trips to Mar-a-Lago, down the road from Ailes’s new home. Still, though Ailes was well aware that in politics, winning changes everything—the winner is the winner—he couldn’t quite get his head around the improbable and bizarre fact that his friend Donald Trump was now president of the United States.

* * *

At nine-thirty, three hours late, a good part of the dinner already eaten, Bannon finally arrived. Wearing a disheveled blazer, his signature pairing of two shirts, and military fatigues, the unshaven, overweight sixty-three-year-old joined the other guests at the table and immediately took control of the conversation. Pushing a proffered glass of wine away—“I don’t drink”—he dived into a live commentary, an urgent download of information about the world he was about to take over.

“We’re going to flood the zone so we have every cabinet member for the next seven days through their confirmation hearings,” he said of the business-and-military 1950s-type cabinet choices. “Tillerson is two days, Session is two days, Mattis is two days. . . .”

Bannon veered from “Mad Dog” Mattis—the retired four-star general whom Trump had nominated as secretary of defense—to a long riff on torture, the surprising liberalism of generals, and the stupidity of the civilian-military bureaucracy. Then it was on to the looming appointment of Michael Flynn—a favorite Trump general who’d been the opening act at many Trump rallies—as the National Security Advisor.

“He’s fine. He’s not Jim Mattis and he’s not John Kelly . . . but he’s fine. He just needs the right staff around him.” Still, Bannon averred: “When you take out all the never-Trump guys who signed all those letters and all the neocons who got us in all these wars . . . it’s not a deep bench.”

Bannon said he’d tried to push John Bolton, the famously hawkish diplomat, for the job as National Security Advisor. Bolton was an Ailes favorite, too.

“He’s a bomb thrower,” said Ailes. “And a strange little fucker. But you need him. Who else is good on Israel? Flynn is a little nutty on Iran. Tillerson”—the secretary of state designate—“just knows oil.”

“Bolton’s mustache is a problem,” snorted Bannon. “Trump doesn’t think he looks the part. You know Bolton is an acquired taste.”

“Well, rumors were that he got in trouble because he got in a fight in a hotel one night and chased some woman.”

“If I told Trump that, he might have the job.”

* * *

Bannon was curiously able to embrace Trump while at the same time suggesting he did not take him entirely seriously. He had first met Trump, the on-again off-again presidential candidate, in 2010; at a meeting in Trump Tower, Bannon had proposed to Trump that he spend half a million dollars backing Tea Party-style candidates as a way to further his presidential ambitions. Bannon left the meeting figuring that Trump would never cough up that kind of dough. He just wasn’t a serious player. Between that first encounter and mid-August 2016, when he took over the Trump campaign, Bannon, beyond a few interviews he had done with Trump for his Breitbart radio show, was pretty sure he hadn’t spent more than ten minutes in one-on-one conversation with Trump.

But now Bannon’s Zeitgeist moment had arrived. Everywhere there was a sudden sense of global self-doubt. Brexit in the UK, waves of immigrants arriving on Europe’s angry shores, the disenfranchisement of the workingman, the specter of more financial meltdown, Bernie Sanders and his liberal revanchism—everywhere was backlash. Even the most dedicated exponents of globalism were hesitating. Bannon believed that great numbers of people were suddenly receptive to a new message: the world needs borders—or the world should return to a time when it had borders. When America was great. Trump had become the platform for that message.

By that January evening, Bannon had been immersed in Donald Trump’s world for almost five months. And though he had accumulated a sizable catalogue of Trump’s peculiarities, and cause enough for possible alarm about the unpredictability of his boss and his views, that did not detract from Trump’s extraordinary, charismatic appeal to the right-wing, Tea Party, Internet meme base, and now, in victory, from the opportunity he was giving Steve Bannon.

* * *

“Does
he
get it?” asked Ailes suddenly, pausing and looking intently at Bannon.

He meant did Trump get it. This seemed to be a question about the right-wing agenda: Did the playboy billionaire really get the workingman populist cause? But it was possibly a point-blank question about the nature of power itself. Did Trump get where history had put him?

Bannon took a sip of water. “He gets it,” said Bannon, after hesitating for perhaps a beat too long. “Or he gets what he gets.”

With a sideways look, Ailes continued to stare him down, as though waiting for Bannon to show more of his cards.

“Really,” Bannon said. “He’s on the program. It’s his program.” Pivoting from Trump himself, Bannon plunged on with the Trump agenda. “Day one we’re moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s all in. Sheldon”—Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire, far-right Israel defender, and Trump supporter—“is all in. We know where we’re heading on this.”

“Does Donald know?” asked a skeptical Ailes.

Bannon smiled—as though almost with a wink—and continued:

“Let Jordan take the West Bank, let Egypt take Gaza. Let them deal with it. Or sink trying. The Saudis are on the brink, Egyptians are on the brink, all scared to death of Persia . . . Yemen, Sinai, Libya . . . this thing is bad. . . . That’s why Russia is so key. . . . Is Russia that bad? They’re bad guys. But the world is full of bad guys.”

Bannon offered all this with something like ebullience—a man remaking the world.

“But it’s good to know the bad guys are the bad guys,” said Ailes, pushing Bannon. “Donald may not know.”

The real enemy, said an on-point Bannon, careful not to defend Trump too much or to dis him at all, was China. China was the first front in a new cold war. And it had all been misunderstood in the Obama years—what we thought we understood we didn’t understand at all. That was the failure of American intelligence. “I think Comey is a third-rate guy. I think Brennan is a second-rate guy,” Bannon said, dismissing the FBI director and the CIA director.

“The White House right now is like Johnson’s White House in 1968. Susan Rice”—Obama’s National Security Advisor—“is running the campaign against ISIS as a National Security Advisor. They’re picking the targets, she’s picking the drone strikes. I mean, they’re running the war with just as much effectiveness as Johnson in sixty-eight. The Pentagon is totally disengaged from the whole thing. Intel services are disengaged from the whole thing. The media has let Obama off the hook. Take the ideology away from it, this is complete amateur hour. I don’t know what Obama does. Nobody on Capitol Hill knows him, no business guys know him—what has he accomplished, what does he do?”

“Where’s Donald on this?” asked Ailes, now with the clear implication that Bannon was far out ahead of his benefactor.

“He’s totally on board.”

“Focused?”

“He buys it.”

“I wouldn’t give Donald too much to think about,” said an amused Ailes.

Bannon snorted. “Too much, too little—doesn’t necessarily change things.”

* * *

“What has he gotten himself into with the Russians?” pressed Ailes.

“Mostly,” said Bannon, “he went to Russia and he thought he was going to meet Putin. But Putin couldn’t give a shit about him. So he’s kept trying.”

“He’s Donald,” said Ailes.

“It’s a magnificent thing,” said Bannon, who had taken to regarding Trump as something like a natural wonder, beyond explanation.

Again, as though setting the issue of Trump aside—merely a large and peculiar presence to both be thankful for and to have to abide—Bannon, in the role he had conceived for himself, the auteur of the Trump presidency, charged forward:

“China’s everything. Nothing else matters. We don’t get China right, we don’t get anything right. This whole thing is very simple. China is where Nazi Germany was in 1929 to 1930. The Chinese, like the Germans, are the
most rational people in the world, until they’re not. And they’re gonna flip like Germany in the thirties. You’re going to have a hypernationalist state, and once that happens you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

“Donald might not be Nixon in China,” said Ailes, deadpan, suggesting that for Trump to seize the mantle of global transformation might strain credulity.

Bannon smiled. “Bannon in China,” he said, with both remarkable grandiosity and wry self-deprecation.

“How’s the kid?” asked Ailes, referring to Trump’s son-in-law and paramount political adviser, thirty-six-year-old Jared Kushner.

“He’s my partner,” said Bannon, his tone suggesting that if he felt otherwise, he was nevertheless determined to stay on message.

“Really?” said a dubious Ailes.

“He’s on the team.”

“He’s had lot of lunches with Rupert.”

“In fact,” said Bannon, “I could use your help here.” Bannon then spent several minutes trying to recruit Ailes to help kneecap Murdoch. Ailes, since his ouster from Fox, had become only more bitter towards Murdoch. Now Murdoch was frequently jawboning the president-elect and encouraging him toward establishment moderation—all a strange inversion in the ever-stranger currents of American conservatism. Bannon wanted Ailes to suggest to Trump, a man whose many neuroses included a horror of forgetfulness or senility, that Murdoch might be losing it.

“I’ll call him,” said Ailes. “But Trump would jump through hoops for Rupert. Like for Putin. Sucks up and shits down. I just worry about who’s jerking whose chain.”

The older right-wing media wizard and the younger (though not by all that much) continued on to the other guests’ satisfaction until twelve-thirty, the older trying to see through to the new national enigma that was Trump—although Ailes would say that in fact Trump’s behavior was ever predictable—and the younger seemingly determined not to spoil his own moment of destiny.

“Donald Trump has got it. He’s Trump, but he’s got it. Trump is Trump,” affirmed Bannon.

“Yeah, he’s Trump,” said Ailes, with something like incredulity.

1

ELECTION DAY

O
n the afternoon of November 8, 2016, Kellyanne Conway—Donald Trump’s campaign manager and a central, indeed starring, personality of Trumpworld—settled into her glass office at Trump Tower. Right up until the last weeks of the race, the Trump campaign headquarters had remained a listless place. All that seemed to distinguish it from a corporate back office were a few posters with right-wing slogans.

Conway now was in a remarkably buoyant mood considering she was about to experience a resounding if not cataclysmic defeat. Donald Trump would lose the election—of this she was sure—but he would quite possibly hold the defeat to under 6 points. That was a substantial victory. As for the looming defeat itself, she shrugged it off: it was Reince Priebus’s fault, not hers.

She had spent a good part of the day calling friends and allies in the political world and blaming Priebus. Now she briefed some of the television producers and anchors with whom she’d built strong relationships—and with whom, actively interviewing in the last few weeks, she was hoping to land a permanent on-air job after the election. She’d carefully courted many of them since joining the Trump campaign in mid-August and becoming the campaign’s reliably combative voice and, with her spasmodic smiles and strange combination of woundedness and imperturbability, peculiarly telegenic face.

Beyond all of the other horrible blunders of the campaign, the real problem, she said, was the devil they couldn’t control: the Republican National Committee, which was run by Priebus, his sidekick, thirty-two-year-old Katie Walsh, and their flack, Sean Spicer. Instead of being all in, the RNC, ultimately the tool of the Republican establishment, had been hedging its bets ever since Trump won the nomination in early summer. When Trump needed the push, the push just wasn’t there.

That was the first part of Conway’s spin. The other part was that despite everything, the campaign had really clawed its way back from the abyss. A severely underresourced team with, practically speaking, the worst candidate in modern political history—Conway offered either an eye-rolling pantomime whenever Trump’s name was mentioned, or a dead stare—had actually done extraordinarily well. Conway, who had never been involved in a national campaign, and who, before Trump, ran a small-time, down-ballot polling firm, understood full well that, post-campaign, she would now be one of the leading conservative voices on cable news.