By Patricia H Kushlis
“Sometimes you need a rat to catch a rat” is the concluding shot fired in Drew Magary’s GQ article on January 5, 2017 in which he argues that if Trump refuses to abide by the standard (and now useless) “norms” of the presidency. . . why should anyone in the press adhere to needless norms of their own.” Magary also argues that Michael Wolff was one of very few people to grasp that reality.
Well yes. Wolff was also one of the few people to realize that the Trump and his White House staff failed to recognize a basic rule of journalism that when talking to a journalist be sure the ground rules are set beforehand. Even if the rules are clear, be careful what you say. And for heaven’s sake, vet the journalist’s reputation beforehand.
Wolff got around all that because of Trump’s naivety and narcissism as well his staff’s gross inexperience and infighting. Furthermore, from Trump’s perspective no press is bad press – because it keeps him in the limelight which seems to be his primary goal in life although that may be being supplanted by his desire to avoid jail with the key thrown away. He’s not the only leader to have that happen to him – but he would be the first American president to find himself in the dock.
Nevertheless, look at the quality of Trump’s own media shop such as it is. Even if one of them had warned him about Wolff’s questionable journalistic reputation, Trump would likely have ignored the warning. Instead, they seem to have been focused on which right wing journalists would receive press credentials to attend the White House briefings and how best to denigrate reporters from the mainstream media – especially CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times who just might ask those embarrassing questions and whose publications don't necessarily print or air the most flattering of articles.
Meanwhile, Wolff entered through a backdoor – apparently with the aid of Steve Bannon - set himself up in a corridor of the West Wing for nine months, where he had ready access to the in-house gossip just by being a fly on the sofa as well as obtaining more formal interviews with principals and their staffs. He tells us his book is based on over 200 interviews many captured on audio tapes. His first story is of a dinner party conversation between Steve Bannon and the now deceased Roger Ailes. It’s been reported elsewhere that the party was held in New York and Wolff himself was the host.
Trump and his right wing acolytes argue – among other things - that Fire and Fury had no editor so therefore Wolff could, and did, produce a fantasy volume of lies, fake news and, at best, distortions.
There are multiple problems with those accusations, however. The overall picture the author paints is of a president who was, is and remains unfit for the job – a picture extensively reported elsewhere in most media since at least summer 2016.
Moreover, the publisher, Henry Holt & Co. is a well-established New York based US publishing company – now a subsidiary of McMillan, with a strong and lengthy track record as a book publisher that dates back to 1866 and includes multiple Pulitzer Prize winners and award winning authors - so it has its own reputation to protect.
Henry Holt and Co. and McMillan were obviously concerned that Trump would try to stop publication once he got wind of the book’s explosive contents as soon as they had been printed in various prepublication reviews. The first of these reviews broke in The Guardian on January 3, 2018 a week ahead of the book’s planned publication. This, I presume is why the publishers rushed to distribute the book a few days earlier than planned and made sure it was available for immediate downloading, hardback and paperback editions through Amazon and hardback via Barnes and Noble.
I decided to download the book on Saturday because I wanted to read this firestorm of a work for myself – and not depend on secondary sources.
An aside: it is also interesting to note that as of Sunday, the book does not appear on Henry Holt’s website. So either the rush to publish decision did not catch up with the company’s Internet site postings or the publishers decided to keep it under wraps until the very last minute and therefore did not provide the requisite information to its own Internet editors.
A last minute cease and desist letter demanding that publication be stopped which Trump’s lawyer Charles Harder sent to Henry Holt president Steve Rubin and author Michael Wolff is, I understand, a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment. So the publishers were on strong grounds in ignoring it.
More than anything, it seems to me that this again demonstrates Trump’s litigious character in combination with the weakness of his legal counsel. My question is whether Trump’s lawyers recommended against such action and whether Trump personally overrode their advice – to send anyway. Trump seems to have backed away from trying to stop publication (that the book’s contents are readily available through multiple sources) and instead is resorting to lamenting this country’s “weak libel rules” while circling the wagons with his ever true loyalists in a retreat at Camp David this weekend.
There are other takeaways from Magary’s GQ observations, but another in particular rang an all too familiar bell: the White House press corps is traditionally all too polite and subservient as a way of preserving their access to official briefings not to mention just being there when the next shoe drops. So the reporters too often don’t get the full story, report only a small portion or don’t report it at all. Then their editors may also sit on it. This practice has gone on for years. It’s often too cozy a relationship regardless of administration.
Wolff was not part of the credentialed White House press corps. Furthermore, nobody who talked with him seems to have set any ground rules – if they did, he ignored them - but that in itself doesn’t make his account wrong. This takes me back to my last sentence in paragraph 2 above.
Meanwhile, back to my copy of Fire and Fury while I wait for the next shoe to drop.