Authors: Michael Wolff
But the day before the scheduled press conference, CNN broke details of the Steele dossier. Almost immediately thereafter, Buzzfeed published the entire report—an itemized bacchanal of beyond-the-pale behavior.
On the verge of Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, the media, with its singular voice on Trump matters, was propounding a conspiracy of vast proportions. The theory, suddenly presented as just this side of a likelihood, was that the Russians had suborned Donald Trump during a trip to Moscow with a crude blackmail scheme involving prostitutes and
videotaped sexual acts pushing new boundaries of deviance (including “golden showers”) with prostitutes and videotaped sex acts. The implicit conclusion: a compromised Trump had conspired with the Russians to steal the election and to install him in the White House as Putin’s dupe.
If this was true, then the nation stood at one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of democracy, international relations, and journalism.
If it was not true—and it was hard to fathom a middle ground—then it would seem to support the Trump view (and the Bannon view) that the media, in also quite a dramatic development in the history of democracy, was so blinded by an abhorrence and revulsion, both ideological and personal, for the democratically elected leader that it would pursue any avenue to take him down. Mark Hemingway, in the conservative, but anti-Trump,
, argued the novel paradox of two unreliable narrators dominating American public life: the president-elect spoke with little information and frequently no factual basis, while “the frame the media has chosen to embrace is that everything the man does is, by default, unconstitutional or an abuse of power.”
On the afternoon of January 11, these two opposing perceptions faced off in the lobby of Trump Tower: the political antichrist, a figure of dark but buffoonish scandal, in the pocket of America’s epochal adversary, versus the would-be revolutionary-mob media, drunk on virtue, certainty, and conspiracy theories. Each represented, for the other side, a wholly discredited “fake” version of reality.
If these character notes seemed comic-book in style, that was exactly how the press conference unfolded.
First Trump’s encomiums to himself:
“I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created. . . .”
A smattering of the issues before him:
“Veterans with a little cancer can’t see a doctor until they are terminal. . . .”
Then the incredulity:
“I was in Russia years ago with the Ms. Universe contest—did very very well—I tell everyone be careful, because you don’t want to see yourself on television—cameras all over the place. And again, not just Russia,
all over. So would anyone really believe that story? I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way. Believe me.”
Then the denial:
“I have no deals in Russia, I have no deal that could happen in Russia because we’ve stayed away, and I have no loans with Russia. I have to say one thing . . . Over the weekend I was offered two billion dollars to do a deal in Dubai and I turned it down. I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know I have a no-conflict situation as president. I didn’t know about that until three months ago but it’s a nice thing to have. But I didn’t want to take advantage of something. I have a no-conflict-of-interest provision as president. I could actually run my business, run my business and run government at the same time. I don’t like the way that looks but I would be able to do that if I wanted to. I could run the Trump organization, a great, great company, and I could run the country, but I don’t want to do that.”
Then the direct attack on CNN, his nemesis:
“Your organization is terrible. Your organization is terrible. . . . Quiet . . . quiet . . . don’t be rude . . . Don’t be. . . . No, I’m not going to give you a question . . . I’m not going to give you a question. . . . You are fake news. . . .”
And in summation:
“That report first of all should never have been printed because it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. I will tell you that should never ever happen. Twenty-two million accounts were hacked by China. That’s because we have no defense, because we’re run by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Russia will have far greater respect for our country when I’m leading it. And not just Russia, China, which has taken total advantage of us. Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, all countries will respect us far more, far more than they do under past administrations. . . .”
Not only did the president-elect wear his deep and bitter grievances on his sleeve, but it was now clear that the fact of having been elected president would not change his unfiltered, apparently uncontrollable, utterly shoot-from-the-hip display of wounds, resentments, and ire.
“I think he did a fantastic job,” said Kellyanne Conway after the news conference. “But the media won’t say that. They never will.”
ared Kushner at thirty-six prided himself on his ability to get along with older men. By the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration he had become the designated intermediary between his father-in-law and the establishment, such as it was—more moderate Republicans, corporate interests, the New York rich. Having a line to Kushner seemed to offer an alarmed elite a handle on a volatile situation.
Several of his father-in-law’s circle of confidants also confided in Kushner—often confiding their worries about their friend, the presidentelect.
“I give him good advice about what he needs to do and for three hours the next day he does it, and then goes hopelessly off script,” complained one of them to Trump’s son-in-law. Kushner, whose pose was to take things in and not give much back, said he understood the frustration.
These powerful figures tried to convey a sense of real-world politics, which they all claimed to comprehend at some significantly higher threshold than the soon-to-be president. They were all concerned that Trump did not understand what he was up against. That there was simply not enough method to his madness.
Each of these interlocutors provided Kushner with something of a tutorial on the limitations of presidential power—that Washington was
as much designed to frustrate and undermine presidential power as to accommodate it.
“Don’t let him piss off the press, don’t let him piss off the Republican Party, don’t threaten congressmen because they will fuck you if you do, and most of all don’t let him piss off the intel community,” said one national Republican figure to Kushner. “If you fuck with the intel community they will figure out a way to get back at you and you’ll have two or three years of a Russian investigation, and every day something else will leak out.”
A vivid picture was painted for the preternaturally composed Kushner of spies and their power, of how secrets were passed out of the intelligence community to former members of the community or to other allies in Congress or even to persons in the executive branch and then to the press.
One of Kushner’s now-frequent wise-men callers was Henry Kissinger. Kissinger, who had been a front-row witness when the bureaucracy and intelligence community revolted against Richard Nixon, outlined the kinds of mischief, and worse, that the new administration could face.
“Deep state,” the left-wing and right-wing notion of an intelligence-network permanent-government conspiracy, part of the Breitbart lexicon, became the Trump team term of art: he’s poked the deep state bear.
Names were put to this: John Brennan, the CIA director; James Clapper, the director of national intelligence; Susan Rice, the outgoing National Security Advisor; and Ben Rhodes, Rice’s deputy and an Obama favorite.
Movie scenarios were painted: a cabal of intelligence community myrmidons, privy to all sorts of damning evidence of Trump’s recklessness and dubious dealings, would, with a strategic schedule of wounding, embarrassing, and distracting leaks, make it impossible for the Trump White House to govern.
What Kushner was told, again and again, is that the president had to make amends. He had to reach out. He had to mollify.
These were forces not to be trifled with
was said with utmost gravity.
Throughout the campaign and even more forcefully after the election, Trump had targeted the American intelligence community—
the CIA, FBI, NSC, and, altogether, seventeen separate intelligence agencies—as incompetent and mendacious. (His message was “on auto pilot,” said one aide.) Among the various and plentiful Trump mixed messages at odds with conservative orthodoxy, this was a particularly juicy one. His case against American intelligence included its faulty information about weapons of mass destruction that preceded the Iraq war, a litany of Obama Afghanistan-Iraq-Syria-Libya and other war-related intelligence failures, and, more recently, but by no means least of all, intelligence leaks regarding his purported Russian relationships and subterfuges.
Trump’s criticism seemed to align him with the left in its half century of making a bogeyman of American intelligence agencies. But, in quite some reversal, the liberals and the intelligence community were now aligned in their horror of Donald Trump. Much of the left—which had resoundingly and scathingly rejected the intelligence community’s unambiguous assessment of Edward Snowden as a betrayer of national secrets rather than a well-intentioned whistle-blower—now suddenly embraced the intelligence community’s authority in its suggestion of Trump’s nefarious relationships with the Russians.
Trump was dangerously out in the cold.
Hence, Kushner thought it was sensible to make a reach-out to the CIA among the first orders of the new administration’s business.
* * *
Trump did not enjoy his own inauguration. He had hoped for a big blowout. Tom Barrack, the would-be showman—in addition to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, he had bought Miramax Pictures from Disney with the actor Rob Lowe—may have declined the chief of staff job, but, as part of his shadow involvement with his friend’s White House, he stepped up to raise the money for the inaugural and to create an event that—seemingly quite at odds with the new president’s character, and with Steve Bannon’s wish for a no-frills populist inauguration—he promised would have a “soft sensuality” and “poetic cadence.” But Trump, imploring friends to use their influence to nail some of the A-level stars who were snubbing the event, started to get angry and hurt that stars were determined to embarrass him. Bannon, a soothing voice as well as a
professional agitator, tried to argue the dialectical nature of what they had achieved (without using the word “dialectical”). Because Trump’s success was beyond measure, or certainly beyond all expectations, the media and the liberals had to justify their own failure, he explained to the new president.
In the hours before the inauguration, the whole of Washington seemed to be holding its breath. On the evening before Trump was sworn in, Bob Corker, the Republican senator from Tennessee and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opened his remarks as the featured speaker at a gathering at the Jefferson Hotel with the existential question, “Where are things going?” He paused for a moment and then answered, as though from some deep well of bewilderment, “I have no idea.”
Later that evening, a concert at the Lincoln Memorial, part of an always awkward effort to import pop culture to Washington, ended up, absent any star power, with Trump himself taking the stage as the featured act, angrily insisting to aides that he could outdraw any star.
Dissuaded by his staff from staying at the Trump International Hotel in Washington and regretting his decision, the president-elect woke up on inaugural morning complaining about the accommodations at Blair House, the official guest residence across the street from the White House. Too hot, bad water pressure, bad bed.
His temper did not improve. Throughout the morning, he was visibly fighting with his wife, who seemed on the verge of tears and would return to New York the next day; almost every word he addressed to her was sharp and peremptory. Kellyanne Conway had taken up Melania Trump as a personal PR mission, promoting the new First Lady as a vital pillar of support for the president and a helpful voice in her own right, and was trying to convince Trump that she could have an important role in the White House. But, in general, the Trumps’ relationship was one of those things nobody asked too many questions about—another mysterious variable in the presidential mood.
At the ceremonial meeting of the soon-to-be-new president and the soon-to-be-old president at the White House, which took place just before they set off for the swearing-in ceremony, Trump believed the Obamas
acted disdainfully—“very arrogant”—toward him and Melania. Instead of wearing a game face, going into the inaugural events, the president-elect wore what some around him had taken to calling his golf face: angry and pissed off, shoulders hunched, arms swinging, brow furled, lips pursed. This had become the public Trump—truculent Trump.
An inauguration is supposed to be a love-in. The media gets a new and upbeat story. For the party faithful, happy times are here again. For the permanent government—the swamp—it’s a chance to curry favor and seek new advantage. For the country, it’s a coronation. But Bannon had three messages or themes he kept trying to reinforce with his boss: his presidency was going to be different—as different as any since Andrew Jackson’s (he was supplying the less-than-well-read president-elect with Jackson-related books and quotes); they knew who their enemies were and shouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to make them their friends, because they wouldn’t be; and so, from day one, they should consider themselves on a war footing. While this spoke to Trump’s combative “counterpuncher” side, it was hard on his eager-to-be-liked side. Bannon saw himself as managing these two impulses, emphasizing the former and explaining to his boss why having enemies here created friends somewhere else.
In fact, Trump’s aggrieved mood became a perfect match for the Bannon-written aggrieved inaugural address. Much of the sixteen-minute speech was part of Bannon’s daily
joie de guerre
patter—his take-back-the-country America-first, carnage-everywhere vision for the country. But it actually became darker and more forceful when filtered through Trump’s disappointment and delivered with his golf face. The administration purposely began on a tone of menace—a Bannon-driven message to the other side that the country was about to undergo profound change. Trump’s wounded feelings—his sense of being shunned and unloved on the very day he became president—helped send that message. When he came off the podium after delivering his address, he kept repeating, “Nobody will forget this speech.”