“Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff’s book about the Trump White House, elicited from its subject exactly what its title promises.
The scorched-earth attack on Wolff was probably a strategic error. Trump’s initial statement on the book did not treat it as a collection of lies. Instead, the president took the book seriously, lashing out at former adviser Steve Bannon’s remarks in it.
His attack on Bannon as an incompetent lunatic raised the question of why Trump had appointed him to high positions in his campaign and administration in the first place — just as his later attacks on Wolff as a malicious fabulist raised the question of why he had allowed him nearly free rein in the White House. Trump’s reaction has tended to confirm Wolff’s overall portrait of a petty, ill-tempered and self-pitying president.
But even if Trump gave the book credibility, the harm it can do to him is limited. We didn’t need the book to spot these character traits in Trump, which have been as visible in the last two years’ news as his name is on his buildings. And the long-running debate over Trump’s fitness for office would probably be a little more productive without the book, which cuts enough corners to leave unclear which stories to believe.
Both sides are thus confirmed in their prior assumptions: It reinforces Trump’s opponents in their negative opinion of the president, and Trump’s supporters in their negative opinions of the media.
Because the main effect of the book is to freeze existing divisions, you could argue that on balance it is good for him. In an ordinary presidency, of course, saturation coverage of a book describing a White House mired in “chaos and dysfunction” would be a P.R. disaster. In this presidency, there’s a silver lining: It is binding the president closer to the Republican Party.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is delighted to see Trump sever his ties with Bannon. Bannon had sought to oust McConnell and to run primary campaigns against as many Senate Republican incumbents as he could, since the destruction of the existing party has been his goal. Republican establishment types would oppose Bannon bitterly, even if they agreed with his version of populist nationalism, which they don’t. If Trump is training his fire on Bannon, they will salute Trump as a fount of wisdom.
One problem remains: The Republican establishment’s agenda is unpopular, which is part of the reason Trump was able to defeat it during the 2016 presidential primaries. Bannon’s agenda of an infrastructure boom, protectionism and an immigration crackdown may be ill-considered in many respects, but it’s more popular than the ideas of the congressional GOP and more coherent than anything Trump himself has to offer.
Bannon may have wanted to steer the White House in the wrong direction. He does, at least, have a sense that a direction is needed. Without it, all the administration has to give its supporters is more fire and fury.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist.