02 June 2021

American Carnage

American Carnage
Tim Alberta’s American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump reveals how Republican Party factions battled each other and Donald Trump for the soul of the party. (Edward-Isaac Dovere’s new book Battle for the Soul offers a similar account of the Democrat Party’s internal divisions in the Trump era.)

American Carnage covers a decade of intramural conflict, from the rise and fall of the Tea Party to the Republican Party’s gradual embrace of Trump’s disruptive populism. Sources include former House Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, and an Oval Office interview with President Trump. (The book was published in 2019.) Its title is taken from the key soundbite of Trump’s inauguration speech: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now” (a speech that George W. Bush described as “some weird shit”).

Alberta sets out his stall on the very first page, writing that Trump “spent his first two years as president conducting himself in a manner so self-evidently unbecoming of the office—trafficking in schoolyard taunts, peddling brazen untruths, cozying up to murderous tyrants, tearing down our national institutions, weaponizing the gears of government for the purpose of self-preservation, preying on racial division and cultural resentment”. And all of that was before the double impeachment and attempted insurrection.

In his most evocative and alarming passage, Alberta describes Trump revelling almost maniacally in the adulation he received from (in Hillary Clinton’s words) the deplorables at his rallies: “Preparing to take the stage, the president seemed to feel it all—the crowd, the music, the energy, the media glare—coursing through his veins. “I fucking love this job!” he howled into the November night.”

27 March 2021

“Fox recklessly disregarded the truth...”

Dominion Voting Systems yesterday filed defamation charges against Fox News, seeking $1.6 billion in damages. Their lawsuit accuses the network of broadcasting “a series of verifiably false yet devastating lies” and “outlandish, defamatory, and far-fetched fictions” in the aftermath of last year’s US presidential election.

Fox News hosts Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Sean Hannity, and Jeanine Pirro spread outlandish conspiracy theories in the weeks after the election, seeking to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victory by falsely alleging that Dominion rigged the election. Dominion’s lawsuit states: “Fox recklessly disregarded the truth. Indeed, Fox knew these statements about Dominion were lies.”

The allegations of election fraud were also repeated on a daily basis by Donald Trump himself, who refused to concede the election. The ultimate impact of such dangerous misinformation, and the culmination of Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in American institutions, came on 6th January when he incited a riot at the US Capitol.

Fox News defended another of its hosts, Tucker Carlson, against defamation charges last year, arguing that his show should be viewed with “an appropriate amount of skepticism”, and last month Fox Business cancelled Lou Dobbs Tonight, its highest-rated show. Smartmatic, another voting technology company, is currently suing Fox for $2.7 billion.

05 February 2021

“Smartmatic seeks to recover
in excess of $2.7 billion...”

Smartmatic, the voting technology company whose systems were used in Los Angeles County to process votes in last year’s US presidential election, is suing Fox News and three of its hosts for $2.7 billion. The company’s lawsuit, filed in New York yesterday, states: “Smartmatic seeks to recover in excess of $2.7 billion for the economic and non-economic damage caused by Defendants’ disinformation campaign as well as punitive damages.”

The lawsuit, which is almost 300 pages long, argues that Fox News presenters Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, and Jeanine Pirro spread outlandish conspiracy theories in the weeks after the election, seeking to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victory by falsely alleging fraudulent voting in Democratic states. This fake news campaign began in earnest on 12th November 2020, when former President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was interviewed on on Lou Dobbs Tonight and falsely claimed that “this was a stolen election.”

Of course, these allegations were also repeated on a daily basis by Trump himself, who refused to concede the election. The ultimate impact of such dangerous misinformation, and the culmination of Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in American institutions, came on 6th January with the unprecedented storming of the US Capitol.

Fox News defended another of its most popular hosts—Tucker Carlson—against defamation charges last year, arguing that his show should be viewed with “an appropriate amount of skepticism”, though Fox Business has decided to cancel Lou Dobbs Tonight, its highest-rated show. Giuliani is also named as a defendant in the Smartmatic case, and in a separate defamation lawsuit by another voting technology company, Dominion.

18 December 2020

The Cost

The Cost: Trump, China, and American Revival, by Maria Bartiromo and James Freeman, was published a week before the US election. After reading a dozen books on the Trump presidency (the others being Rage, Fear, Fire and Fury, Inside Trump’s White House, The United States of Trump, A Very Stable Genius, Trump’s Enemies, The Trump White House, Too Much and Never Enough, The Room Where It Happened, and Team of Five), I sincerely hope that this is the last Trump book I’ll ever read.

Bartiromo, like most of her fellow Fox News anchors, asks the softest of softball questions whenever she interviews Trump on television. In the most egregious instance, on 29th November she conducted the first post-election TV interview with Trump, encouraging him to rehash a stream of conspiracy theories and lies about election fraud. Bartiromo and Freeman also interviewed Trump for their book; he refers to former House speaker Paul Ryan as “a f______ disaster”, and says that he was on the verge of telling China: “Go f___ yourself”. [The authors censored the f-words.]

Unsurprisingly, Bartiromo and Freeman stick closely to the discredited Trumpian narrative, arguing that Trump was the victim of a deep-state conspiracy: “the abuse of federal investigative power against him is the greatest scandal of his era.” They also claim that the mainstream media is “unable or unwilling to report on Donald Trump objectively,” which is ironic given the biased, hagiographic nature of their own book.

20 October 2020

Rage

Rage
Bob Woodward’s Rage was released last month, making headlines with Donald Trump’s admission that he deliberately minimised the threat of coronavirus (“I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic”). Already, that seems like ancient history, given the variety of jaw-dropping Trump revelations over the past two months: The Atlantic’s story that he called America’s war dead “suckers and losers”, the report in The New York Times that he paid only $750 in income tax and has debts of $400 million; and, of course, his COVID-19 diagnosis.

Trump’s “playing it down” comment came in one of the seventeen interviews he gave to Woodward, an unprecedented level of cooperation. After an initial Oval Office interview with aides present, most of the subsequent conversations took place via a private telephone line, and Trump seemingly forgot that he was speaking on-the-record. He called George W. Bush “a stupid moron,” and dismissed his concessions to Kim Jong-un: “I met. Big fucking deal.”

Trump criticised Woodward’s previous book, Fear, as “a con on the public” in a 2018 tweet. Senator Lindsey Graham apparently convinced him to cooperate with Woodward for Rage, and Graham was one of many current and former Trump associates who spoke to Woodward. The book’s other major sources appear to be Rex Tillerson (former Secretary of State), James Mattis (former Secretary of Defense), Dan Coats (former Director of National Intelligence), and Jared Kushner (Trump’s son-in-law).

In Fear, Woodward revealed that Trump had mocked his military top brass at a 2017 Pentagon meeting. Another Trump book, A Very Stable Genius, later confirmed that Trump had called his generals “a bunch of dopes and babies.” Now, in Rage, Woodward goes one further, reporting that Trump told one of his senior staff: “my fucking generals are a bunch of pussies.”

Fear reproduced a draft letter withdrawing from a trade agreement with South Korea. For Rage, Woodward obtained not just one document but twenty-five: the “almost romantic” letters exchanged between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Kim’s letters are absurdly sycophantic, in a calculated appeal to Trump’s love of flattery and sense of grandiosity: he tells Trump that “every minute that we shared... remains a precious memory.”

Woodward ends the book with his own opinion of the Trump presidency: “Trump is the wrong man for the job.” Given Trump’s 20,000 lies (as documented by The Washington Post) and his many deplorable statements (“President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be”; “very fine people, on both sides”; “I would like you to do us a favour, though”), this is a vast understatement.

29 September 2020

Tucker Carlson Tonight

A Manhattan court has dismissed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil of the Southern District Court in New York ruled on 24th September that comments made by Carlson on his Tucker Carlson Tonight show were “merely rhetorical hyperbole” and thus did not meet the standard of ‘actual malice’ required in defamation cases involving public figures.

The lawsuit was filed by Karen McDougal, who received payment of $150,000 from the National Enquirer to prevent her from publicising her alleged affair with Donald Trump. (This and other so-called ‘catch-and-kill’ payments were made by the supermarket tabloid as part of a business arrangement with Trump.) McDougal sued Carlson after he accused her of extortion in an episode of his show broadcast on 10th December 2018.

Carlson did not refer to McDougal by name, though he stated that two women were paid by Trump. (McDougal and Stormy Daniels are the women in question.) Carlson began his discussion of the case by saying: “Remember the facts of the story. These are undisputed. Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money. Now, that sounds like a classic case of extortion. Yet, for whatever reason, Trump caves to it, and he directs Michael Cohen to pay the ransom.”

In its defence of Carlson, Fox News argued that his comments “cannot reasonably be interpreted as facts”, and that his show should be viewed with “an appropriate amount of skepticism”. This apparent admission that Carlson should not be taken seriously is all the more surprising given that Carlson characterised his remarks as “the facts of the story.”

01 July 2020

Too Much and Never Enough

For the second time in a fortnight, an injunction has been sought to prevent publication of a book criticising Donald Trump. After failing to stop the release of John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, Trump tweeted on 23rd June that Bolton “is a lowlife who should be in jail”. Last week, Trump’s brother, Robert, began legal proceedings against their niece, Mary, over her forthcoming book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. (Both books are published by Simon & Schuster.)

The lawsuit against Mary Trump was filed by Charles Harder, who has previously represented President Trump and the First Lady. Harder won libel cases against The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail on behalf of Melania Trump (winning “substantial damages” in the former case, and $3 million in the latter), and famously bankrupted the Gawker website. After his initial filing, on 23rd June, was rejected by the Queens County Surrogate’s Court of New York, he sought a restraining order from New York’s Dutchess County Supreme Court on 26th June.

That order was granted yesterday, preventing Mary Trump from making any public comment about the contents of her own book. However, the restraining order on the book’s publishers was lifted on appeal today, meaning that the book can be sold. (Mary Trump is prohibited from discussing Trump family matters, as she signed a non-disclosure agreement in 2001 as part of a settlement surrounding her father’s will. The publishers, not being signatories to the NDA, are therefore not bound by it.)

The book is a lengthy psychoanalysis of the President by his niece, who writes in one passage: “Donald’s monstrosity is the manifestation of the very weakness within him that he’s been running from his entire life.” (Mary Trump has a doctorate in psychology, but she has had little contact with her uncle over the past twenty years, so this is still essentially armchair psychology.) It was due to be published on 28th July, though (like Fire and Fury) its publication has been brought forward due to the publicity surrounding the lawsuit. It will now be released on 14th July.

19 June 2020

The Room Where It Happened

The Room Where It Happened
The Trump administration has made three attempts to prevent the publication of former national security advisor John Bolton’s forthcoming book The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir. In a letter dated 23rd January, the National Security Council claimed that the book contained classified information: “The manuscript may not be published or otherwise disclosed without the deletion of this classified information.” The book’s original publication date—17th March—was postponed to 12th May, as the NSC’s vetting process continued.

The NSC signed off on the manuscript at the end of April, though Bolton’s successor as national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, argued that “the manuscript described sensitive information about ongoing foreign policy issues”, according to a lawsuit filed on 16th June. The following day, the Justice Department sought an emergency injunction, arguing that the manuscript “still contains classified information”.

The publisher plans to contest the Trump administration’s lawsuits, and publication is scheduled for 23rd June. The Room Where It Happened is currently Amazon’s highest-selling book, based on pre-orders, and Trump’s attempts to suppress it seem highly counter-productive. This is a repeat of the controversy surrounding Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, which also became a bestseller following Trump’s legal threats against it.

Like Fire and Fury, Fear, and A Very Stable Genius, The Room Where It Happened includes highly damaging allegations. Bolton writes that, at a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump “turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election... pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win”. Trump’s exact words were redacted by the NSC—Bolton originally quoted Trump, “but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise”—though Vanity Fair revealed that Trump told Xi: “Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win.”

20 May 2020

Team of Five

Team of Five
Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump, published yesterday, reveals how the most recent ex-Presidents and their spouses have adapted to life out of office. Author Kate Anderson Brower interviewed Jimmy Carter and three former First Ladies, though most of the ‘team of five’ didn’t participate.

Brower also spoke to the incumbent, Donald Trump, and the book begins with her Oval Office interview. Trump showed Brower a letter he had received from Kim Jong Un, presumably the same one that he showed to another interviewer, Doug Wead. In both cases, Trump used the document to give the illusion of bringing the interviewers into his confidence: he told Wead that his advisors “don’t want me to give these to you”, and he told Brower that she “was not meant to see this,” though he had already Tweeted the letter months earlier.

01 March 2020

"...a blatant false attack
against the Campaign."

The New York Times
Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has filed a defamation lawsuit against The New York Times, accusing it of “a blatant false attack against the Campaign.” The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages “in the millions”, after the newspaper published an op-ed by one of its former editors, Max Frankel.

The article, published on page 27 on 28th March 2019, argued that, before the election, Trump had an implicit quid pro quo agreement with Vladimir Putin: “There was no need for detailed electoral collusion between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s oligarchy because they had an overarching deal: the quid of help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for the quo of a new pro-Russian foreign policy, starting with relief from the Obama administration’s burdensome economic sanctions.”

The suit was filed by Trump’s lawyer Charles Harder, who became famous for bankrupting the gossip website Gawker. Harder also obtained substantial damages from the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, in relation to allegations about Melania Trump. Trump previously threatened the publisher of Fire and Fury with a lawsuit, making the book an instant bestseller.

PDF

28 January 2020

A Very Stable Genius

A Very Stable Genius
Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America (its title taken from a typically braggadocious Trump quote) provides “a chronological account of Trump’s vainglorious pursuit of power in his first term,” based on more than 200 interviews with current and former senior administration officials. Sources are quoted ‘on background’, though they can frequently be identified from phrases such as “[Steve] Bannon thought to himself” and “Putin confided to [Rex] Tillerson”.

As is often the case, sources’ recollections tend to be self-serving. Chris Christie, for example, warns Trump with remarkable foresight that Michael Flynn is “going to get you in trouble... Take my word for it.” Then, after Trump fires Flynn and declares that “the whole Russia thing is over,” Christie’s crystal ball reappears: he apparently told Trump, “we’re going to be sitting here a year from now talking about Russia”.

This is the third major account of Trump’s presidency, after Michael Wolff’s gossipy Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s authoritative Fear. All three books feature reconstructed quotes from private meetings and conversations, though only A Very Stable Genius acknowledges that such quotations are not verbatim: “Dialogue cannot always be exact but is based here on multiple people’s memories of events,” a clarification missing from Wolff and Woodward.

Trump initially agreed to be interviewed for the book, as the authors explain: “In a phone call, Trump told Rucker he would like to sit for an interview.” In the same call, the president said: “I’ll do it. I’d like to have a proper book done. You’re a serious person.” But he subsequently changed his mind, and dismissed the book on Twitter as a “Fake Book from two third rate Washington Post reporters”. (In contrast, Trump has cooperated with various hagiographic books on his presidency, such as Trump’s Enemies, The Trump White House, Inside Trump’s White House, and The United States of Trump.)

Fear recounted an especially acrimonious 2017 meeting between Trump and his military leaders, an event also covered in A Very Stable Genius. In Fear, Woodward writes: “Just before 10 a.m. on July 20, a stifling, cloudless summer Thursday six months into his presidency, Donald Trump crossed the Potomac River to the Pentagon.” A Very Stable Genius has a very similar description—“On July 20, just before 10:00 a.m. on a scorching summer Thursday, Trump arrived at the Pentagon”—though it also includes additional material, notably Trump mocking the assembled top brass as “a bunch of dopes and babies.”

Similarly, Fear included the first account of negotiations between Trump’s legal team and Robert Mueller, though A Very Stable Genius builds on this with quotes from an awkward phone call between Mueller and William Barr. The book also provides more details on the firing of Rex Tillerson, with a meticulous two-page account expanding on Fear’s two-paragraph summary. On the other hand, whereas Fear devoted six pages to Trump’s disgraceful comments on neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, the episode (“one of the lowest points of his presidency”) is covered in less than a page in A Very Stable Genius.

02 January 2020

The United States of Trump

The United States of Trump
“If you despise Donald Trump, this book may frustrate you.” This warning, in the foreword to The United States of Trump: How the President Really Sees America, is pretty accurate. The book, by disgraced former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly—fired after multiple sexual-harassment allegations—is a Trump biography whose only sources are Trump himself (from an interview aboard Air Force One) and his eldest son, Don Jnr.

The first paragraph of chapter one is worth quoting in full: “The president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, is not happy. Sitting behind a large wooden desk in his spacious airborne office, he asks that his wife, Melania, be brought into the room immediately. In less than a minute, she appears, immaculately groomed and flashing her bright smile.” In just a couple of sentences, that’s a pretty revealing portrait of a marriage.

O’Reilly spends most of the book burnishing Trump’s image and defending him against his critics. Thus, the racist ‘birther’ conspiracy theory was, apparently, about “divisive politics, not skin color.” And, although President Trump has lied more than 10,000 times (according to The Washington Post), O’Reilly describes him euphemistically as “not a precise orator”. O’Reilly repeatedly returns to these two accusations, racism and dishonesty, giving the same defence several times. The author doth protest too much, methinks.

The book is also an opportunity for O’Reilly to attempt a rehabilitation of his own reputation. He humblebrags about his glory days in cable news: “Putting together a mega-hit television program is an arduous task. I know; I’ve experienced it—twice.” He also takes credit for Trump’s planned 2020 election campaign slogan, quoting himself telling Trump: “I’d say “keep.” You should move it forward.” Trump replies: ”My new phrase would be “Keep America Great”? You like that better?” That exchange, however, took place two years after Trump began using ‘Keep America Great’.

Amidst the pro-Trump spin, The United States of Trump also includes some surprisingly embarrassing trivia. O’Reilly notes that Trump “has gained a considerable amount of weight. However, he does not diet or exercise much,” and the book even reprints side-by-side photographs of the Obama and Trump inauguration crowds: “it appears that President Obama’s First Inaugural Address had more in-person attendees than President Trump had.”

The account of Trump’s daily routine is also quite revealing. He spends his mornings “turning on the television set and watching news in his private residence on the second floor of the White House. He is usually by himself at this point.” He doesn’t start work until late in the morning: “At eleven, President Trump strolls into the West Wing of the White House to begin his official day,” and there is frequent down time: he likes to “watch the news when he is not otherwise occupied.” In the evenings—surprise, surprise—it’s TV time again: “After dinner, Mr Trump often watches the cable news opinion shows.”

27 December 2019

Inside Trump's White House

Inside Trump's White House
Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House began life as an authorised record of Donald Trump’s presidency. After initially giving the book his tacit approval, Trump later tried to sue the publisher for libel. Now, almost two years later, comes another author with his own offically sanctioned account. “I was being given the nod to write an official history of a presidency,” boasts Doug Wead, writer of Inside Trump’s White House. (The US subtitle is The Real Story of His Presidency, while in the UK it’s The Authorized Story.)

The book is a response to Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s equally critical Fear, both of which depended on well-placed though unidentified sources. Wead disparages this “secondhand testimony, which was usually anonymous” though he later admits that he also relied on “a long list of anonymous sources inside the Trump White House and the government”.

His sources were apparently selected for him by Trump’s team: “White House staffers sent me names and phone numbers of people to contact.” These contacts include Dan Scavino and Keith Schiller—recognisable to anyone familiar with Trump’s background—who Wead admits are “names that I had never heard before”. In another example of Wead’s naivety, he boasts that Trump showed him a top-secret letter from Kim Jong-un—“My people don’t want me to give these to you”—though Trump had tweeted the entire text months earlier.

Two previous (and similarly hagiographic) books have claimed unique access to Trump. Corey R. Lewandowski and David N. Bossie wrote that Trump’s Enemies contained "the only formal book interview President Trump has sat for since being elected to office," and Ronald Kessler maintained that The Trump White House featured “the only interview for a book Trump said he has given or will give as president”. Presumably, Trump co-operated with Inside Trump’s White House because of Wead’s equally dependable loyalty: Trump tells him, “Doug, I think you and I have good chemistry. That’s going to be a good thing for this book.”

The result is a flattering portrait of the Trump administration, not quite as fawning as Trump’s Enemies though devoid of any brickbats. Whereas The Trump White House was surprisingly critical of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Wead lavishes praise on both of them, and refers to Kushner as ”the president’s brilliant son-in-law”. In fact, Wead devotes a chapter to each of Trump’s adult children, making this essentially a Trump vanity project.

25 October 2019

Framed

Revival
A Freedom of Information request by BuzzFeed News has revealed that the Secret Service interviewed Eminem on 16th January 2017. The rapper was questioned about his single Framed, from his album Revival, after a TMZ reporter alerted the Secret Service to the song’s lyrics. (The song is about a man who kills Trump’s eldest daughter: “how the fuck is Ivanka Trump in the trunk of my car?”)

After two days, the investigation was closed and no further action was taken, though Eminem referenced the interview in a later song, The Ringer: “Agent Orange just sent the Secret Service / To meet in person to see if I really think of hurtin’ him”. The case lends credence to another rapper, YG, who previously claimed that his single FDT was censored at the request of the Secret Service due to its violent anti-Trump lyrics.

audio

01 April 2019

"We apologise to Mr Poroshenko
for any distress caused..."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has received a financial settlement from the BBC, after he sued the broadcaster for defamation. In a report by Paul Wood broadcast on 23rd May 2018, BBC News alleged that Poroshenko had paid Michael Cohen $400,000 to secure a meeting with Donald Trump in 2017. (At the time, Cohen was Trump's personal lawyer, though he has since been convicted of election campaign violations and other offences.) In a statement, the BBC said: "We apologise to Mr Poroshenko for any distress caused and have agreed to pay him damages".

02 February 2019

"The secret life of Melania..."

The Telegraph Magazine
The Daily Telegraph
The Daily Telegraph has paid "substantial damages" to Melania Trump in settlement of a defamation lawsuit filed by the First Lady last week. The newspaper printed a correction on 26th January (on page two), apologising for "a number of false statements which we accept should not have been published."

The lawsuit relates to the cover story from The Telegraph Magazine, published on 19th January. The article, by Nina Burleigh, appeared on pages fourteen to twenty, and was based on her book Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump's Women, which was released in the US last year. (The book's publishers avoided a lawsuit, as American libel law requires proof of 'actual malice', a high bar intended to protect freedom of speech.)

The article was reprinted by the Irish Sunday Independent on 20th January, on page twenty. It has since been deleted from the Telegraph and Independent's websites, and is "suppressed for editorial and/or legal reasons" on the PressReader digital archive.

Ironically, following the Telegraph's retraction, Burleigh has also filed a defamation case against the newspaper, claiming that its apology damaged her journalistic reputation. Yesterday, in a letter to the Telegraph Media Group (TMG), her lawyer argued that "fear of Mrs Trump's lawyer Mr Harder, "the Gawker slayer", caused TMG to capitulate abjectly". This is a reference to Charles Harder, who represented Hulk Hogan in a privacy lawsuit that bankrupted the Gawker website. Harder also won $3 million in damages from the Daily Mail in a previous Melania Trump defamation case.

PDF PDF

18 December 2018

Trump's Enemies

Trump's Enemies
Corey R. Lewandowski and David N. Bossie were the manager and deputy manager, respectively, of Donald Trump's election campaign, and their new book, Trump's Enemies: How the Deep State Is Undermining the Presidency, is every bit as biased as expected. They outline what they see as "the war against President Donald J. Trump, which is being waged at various levels of the intelligence community, the halls of Congress, and even from inside the White House itself."

When they're not recycling 'deep state' conspiracy theories from Fox News, they lavish unconditional praise on Trump. Even Ronald Kessler's hagiographic The Trump White House occasionally tempered its flattery with minor criticisms, though in Trump's Enemies, Trump is practically perfect in every way. The book is ultimately a propaganda exercise, itemising Trump's 'achievements' in a four-page "copy of a list that the president sometimes reads from when he speaks at rallies and other events."

Kessler's book was a response to Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury, and Trump's Enemies is a similar attempt to challenge Bob Woodward's superb Fear. Just as Kessler claimed that Wolff's book was "riddled with false claims," Lewandowski and Bossie describe the meticulously-sourced Fear as "filled with inaccuracies and lies from disgruntled former staffers."

Trump's Enemies includes a lengthy though obsequious interview with Trump, in which he dismisses Woodward: "Look, I don't think he's a very good writer, personally." (In August, Trump told Woodward that he had always admired him.) The authors boast that their Oval Office encounter is "the only formal book interview President Trump has sat for since being elected to office," though Kessler also spoke to the President, claiming that his conversation was "the only interview for a book that Trump said he has given or will give as president".

16 September 2018

Fear

Fear
Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House is the latest book on the Trump presidency, after Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury. Whereas Wolff's book was a gossipy account of palace intrigue, Woodward focuses on policymaking (and unmaking), though both writers portray a chaotic White House led by a president unfit for office. Both books were also instant bestsellers; Fear has already sold over a million copies, only a few days after publication.

Fear begins with Trump's former chief economic advisor, Gary Cohn, taking a draft letter from the Oval Office, to stop Trump withdrawing from a bilateral trade agreement with South Korea: "I stole it off his desk... He's never going to see that document. Got to protect the country." In case this seems far-fetched, Woodward reproduces the actual document, and adds that Cohn, and former staff secretary Rob Porter, also removed similar letters that would have pulled the US out of NAFTA and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

These incidents confirm the gist of the anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times on 6th September, which revealed an internal Trump resistance campaign: "many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations." (Although, despite the efforts of Cohn, Porter, and the "senior official" who wrote the op-ed, Trump's nationalist instincts ultimately prevailed, and he withdrew from NAFTA and the climate accord.)

Such attempts to subvert a president's agenda are not completely unprecedented. Ron Suskind's book Confidence Men claims that President Obama's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner ignored Obama's directive to restructure Citibank after the 2008 financial crisis, and that Obama's authority was "systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisers." Suskind's book has been criticised for its errors and exaggerations, though whatever the truth about the Obama administration, the West Wing's challenging of Trump's decision-making is much more blatant.

Unlike Suskind (and Wolff, whose book also contained mistakes), Woodward's journalistic reputation is second to none. He investigated Watergate with Carl Bernstein, and has covered Washington politics for almost fifty years; his previous books include two studies of the Obama administration (Obama's Wars and The Price of Politics).

Woodward also relies on contemporaneous documents, such as the South Korea letter, adding even more credibility to his account. Another document obtained by Woodward, the minutes of a security meeting, is an official summary of the West Wing's concerns about Trump (and it reads like a preview of the op-ed): "many of the president's senior advisers... are extremely concerned with his erratic nature, his relative ignorance, his inability to learn, as well as what they consider his dangerous views."

Fear quotes senior staffers expressing these feelings more directly: former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (as previously reported) calls Trump "a fucking moron," and according to Chief of Staff John Kelly, "He's an idiot... He's gone off the rails. We're in crazytown." The book ends with Trump's former lawyer John Dowd calling him "a fucking liar" though the quote's impact is slightly diluted because it also appears a few pages previously. ("He could not say what he knew was true: "You're a fucking liar." That was the problem.")

Woodward conducted interviews on 'deep background', though his key sources are fairly identifiable. White House meetings and conversations are transcribed at length, in quotation marks, though the dialogue is presumably reconstructed rather than verbatim. (This is problematic, though it's become standard practice in memoirs.) Dowd, for example, provides extensive quotes, most notably from his meetings with Robert Mueller. These are the first insights yet into the leak-proof Mueller investigation, and Dowd quotes Mueller twice asking about any "corrupt intent" on Trump's part.

Trump declined to be interviewed for the book. Woodward released a recording of a phone call with Trump last month, in which Trump initially denied, then admitted, being asked to participate. Wolff did interview Trump, though he overstated his access. Trump also spoke to Ronald Kessler, for his hagiographic The Trump White House, in what Kessler claimed was "the only interview for a book Trump said he has given or will give as president".

03 April 2018

The Trump White House

The Trump White House
The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game, Ronald Kessler's hagiographic response to Michael Wolff's warts-and-all Fire and Fury, was published today. Kessler writes that "Wolff's book is riddled with false claims," and he lavishes such praise on Trump that it feels like advertising copy: "the Trump brand came to stand for quality, prestige, and success."

Kessler needlessly attacks Hillary Clinton, claiming that she "pretends to be a compassionate woman" and that she "is so nasty to her Secret Service agents" (an allegation that he repeats word for word later in the book). He also recycles Fox News talking points, dismissing any evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia: "the entire Russia collusion story is bogus".

The book's only real interest comes from Kessler's repeated criticisms of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. He argues that they "have been responsible for Trump's most disastrous decisions" and that President Trump would prefer them to leave the White House, though this was revealed by The New York Times a month ago.

In the absence of any real scoops, the book is padded out with presidential trivia: Air Force One, for example, "has a range of 7,825 miles and a maximum cruising altitude of 45,100 feet." It also includes a brief interview with Trump ("the only interview for a book Trump said he has given or will give as president") conducted last year at Mar-a-Lago.

04 January 2018

Fire and Fury

Fire and Fury
President Donald Trump has attempted to prevent the publication of Michael Wolff's forthcoming book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. The book was due to be released on 9th January, though it will be published four days early in defiance of Trump's legal threat. The publicity has already made it a bestseller.

According to Wolff's book, Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, predicted that Trump's eldest son would be one of the casualties of the Special Counsel investigation into collusion with Russia: "They're going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV." In response, Trump issued a White House statement attacking Bannon: "When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind."

Wolff also quotes Rupert Murdoch describing Trump as a "fucking idiot," echoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's earlier comment that Trump is a "fucking moron". (Wolff wrote an authorised biography of Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News.) His writing has been the subject of a previous legal dispute: GQ magazine was fined £10,000 after one of his articles was found to be in contempt of court.

A cease-and-desist letter, addressed to Wolff and his publisher, was issued by Trump's lawyers today. It claims: "Your publication of the false/baseless statements about Mr. Trump gives rise to, among other claims, defamation by libel". (Trump lies every day, in his tweets and interviews, making his legal action deeply ironic.) The letter also states: "Mr. Trump hereby demands that you immediately cease and desist from any further publication, release or dissemination of the Book".

Following a 1964 Supreme Court decision, libel against public figures requires proof of 'actual malice', and Trump's lawyer attempts to argue that Wolff's book constitutes this: "Actual malice (reckless disregard for the truth) can be proven by the fact that the Book admits in the Introduction that it contains untrue statements." This is a reference to Wolff's explanation for the book's contradictory accounts of some events: "I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them."

A libel case is inconceivable, though Wolff's characteristically gossipy book does include plenty of uncorroborated claims. At times, it also misleads the reader: Wolff describes a "dinner arranged by mutual friends in a Greenwich Village town house", though the house in question was Wolff's own home. Later, he quotes from one of Trump's "unsolicited phone calls without presumption of confidentiality to a passing New York media acquaintance"; the unnamed acquaintance was Wolff himself, and his definition of "confidentiality" is somewhat malleable. He also overstates and obfuscates the extent of his on-the-record access to Trump, which was mostly confined to before the inauguration.

Trump's lawyer is Charles Harder, who also represented Melania Trump in her libel action against the Daily Mail. (She won $3 million in damages.) Previously, Harder represented Hulk Hogan when he successfully sued Gawker for invasion of privacy, winning $140 million in damages and bankrupting the website.