The Journalist And The Blunderer

How Trump irritant Michael Wolff gets what he wants, according to Kurt Andersen.

WASHINGTON ― It was just a few days after Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House had sent Washington into an uproar. Novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen was thinking about his friend, the late New York Times media writer David Carr.

Andersen was trying to figure out how Wolff had pulled off the biggest journalistic caper of the Trump era thus far. Here was a journalist with a complicated reputation, a writer who had previously published a critical book on Rupert Murdoch (with the conservative media baron’s approval). So how did Wolff gain an all-access pass to Donald Trump’s inner circle and the White House? What were Stephen Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer thinking?

On the subject of being a pain in Trump’s ass, Andersen is an expert of some renown. He was one of the founding editors of Spy magazine, which baited Trump constantly during the tycoon’s vulgarian heyday. In our phone interview on Sunday morning, Andersen kept coming back to a 2004 New Republic profile of Wolff by Michelle Cottle. In the piece, Carr offered his own theory of Wolff’s abilities, and of why everyone around him always seems so on edge.

“Michael will say anything about anybody,” Carr said. “He’s fearless in a way that people attribute to sociopathology but that I always thought was a business strategy.”

“Everything’s a transaction with him,” Carr went on to say. “There’s no unalloyed moment with Michael. You’re always on the record and performing. I think people don’t like him because they have to be careful around him.”

So this is where we start, too. With caution. A disclaimer.

Andersen: I’ve had a long, perfectly friendly relationship with Michael Wolff in which he has written nicely about me, written not nicely about me ― and you know, that’s the nature of life in journalism. And I have never felt so betrayed or ill-used or anything that I wouldn’t say hi to him and talk to him if I ran into him tonight.

But David [Carr] said in that [TNR] piece, he said something like, “I think people don’t like him because they have to be careful around him because everything is always on the record.” And I think there’s something to that: this assumed cone of silence among journalists — we’re just talking here, right? Because, conversely, whenever anybody says to me — and I have barely been a journalist for many years – “Well, you know this is off the record,” I go, “Come on, fucking of course this is off the record, we’re just talking, we’re friends, whatever.” So I think that’s kind of [what’s going on] with Michael, that people just feel like he’s watching too carefully.

But of course [that’s] one of the reasons he’s such a good writer — and he is a New Journalist in that way that people talked about 50 years ago, of bringing to bear the fiction writer-novelist observation. I haven’t had any personal experience of him making up stuff. His critics this week have been throwing that around, and it’s funny that it’s being thrown around sloppily about his sloppiness, rather than saying, “Look, here’s this list of things that he did that he got wrong.”

HuffPost: Is that just well-known, that everything is potentially on the record with him?

I don’t know about that. After a certain point, probably, I guess it was. But it’s more of a visceral sense that, like, “Maybe I’m not sure I can relax totally here.”

It’s not so much like, well, “He has put things I’ve said off the record and used them.” I don’t know if it’s that literally he violated rules in some way. If [off the record] is never discussed and you’re talking to a journalist and he or she uses it — stupid you. Right?

There’s this implication that he hoodwinked the owner of Breitbart, a media company, Roger Ailes, and Donald Trump? These are people who know the rules.

It’s crazy. The bottom line is exactly what you just said. Stephen Bannon and Roger Ailes and Donald Trump — what? Innocence? And in the case of all of them? People, come fucking on! That’s the great takeaway. It’s King Kong vs. Godzilla vs. Mothra. The extraordinary story about Michael is that they let him in.

How do you think he was able to pull it off, knowing Wolff and Trump?

Of course, as even the Trump supporters are admitting, “Oh, it was a chaotic time.” But still, somebody there — anybody — Trump himself, Sean Spicer, anybody who’s dealt with the media ― could spend one minute [vetting Wolff]. I mean, people talked about “Why didn’t he call his friend Rupert Murdoch and ask him,” for instance.  

One imagines that this long game of flattery that Michael obviously has practiced before, practiced obviously with Murdoch, and now with Bannon and Trump, during 2016, writing nice pieces about ’em and taking the shit that people gave him for writing nice pieces and normalizing Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon —  well, that’s how he did it, I guess.

I don’t know about Bannon. But Trump is as insanely, self-destructively prone to being flattered as we have already thought and [as he] has been made out to be — and interestingly, of course, as he thinks in his experience other people are.

The way that Trump flatters you and hates you the next second and then flatters you — he has that idea. And of course, like so much with Donald Trump, he is prone to it himself. And so I guess that’s it. And I guess Sean Spicer, this Washington apparatchik, what did he know? The president likes this guy or Bannon likes this guy. I guess it was that.

But also, just as a New York media figure, Wolff’s status played to Trump’s ego.

Who knows? He’d done a piece about him in The Hollywood Reporter during the campaign that [Trump] liked. And who knows how familiar Trump was over the last 40 years with Michael Wolff?

It’s like Annie Leibovitz wants to take my picture. It’s maybe Trump’s version of, “Oh, Bob Woodward wants to come in here and write a book about my administration, sure.”

I don’t think someone like New Yorker editor David Remnick or Woodward would get through the door. They are too intellectual.

Correct. And again, I’ve never seen their tradecraft up close, although I know David. I presume they don’t do the flattery action and by-any-means-necessary-let’s-get-in-there that Michael surely did, and I saw him last night on television saying he did.

Do you have a problem with that?

I don’t know. Well, it depends on what you mean by “that.” If it’s a matter of saying, “The media has been so terrible to you and saying they are just out to get you,” no ― there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Come on. And it’s Donald Trump, who brags [using] lies and hyperbole and all the rest to get over and make the sale.

The other thing I thought of that is so relevant to this is Janet Malcolm’s book about Dr. [Jeffrey] MacDonald – every journalist knows that he’s a confidence man and playing up people’s vanity and all that. This is totally that.

And, of course, when that book came out 30 years ago, that was controversial and people said, “Janet, what are you saying?” But then I think it became uncontroversial and true. People understood that.

It’s just extraordinary on the nuts-and-bolts level that the White House didn’t say, “OK, but you can’t publish this until we’re out of office.” That would be easy, and who knows if Michael would have said yes or no. I guess nobody said that because that’s not one of their defenses.

What do you attribute Wolff’s success to?

He’s a really good, interesting, vivid, New Journalistic, fiction-like writer who calls a spade a spade. And that’s the other thing, when all these Washington journalists say, “We all knew this and we all reported this, these things.” Sure. But in dribs and drabs, and not with the kind of voice that somebody not on the beat and not writing for The New York Times can bring to bear, which is what he did.

It’s a different M.O., and properly a different M.O., than what Maggie Haberman should use at The New York Times.

Why is he so successful? Because he’s not polite. Rather than softening things and not burning bridges because he’s on the beat, he’ll burn the bridge. And because he’s simply a good writer, says things with piquancy and vividness, going for the jugular in ways that other journalists, because they are nicer, because they write for The New York Times, because whatever, because they have to maintain their relationship in a way they think, wouldn’t do.

What Carr said in that Cottle piece, that people say Michael is sociopathic but it’s just a business strategy ― I think that’s right. It’s not personal. He is telling the truth as he sees it, which of course [is] what all writers and journalists are supposed to do, and doesn’t worry too much about burning bridges here and there. And yes, most of us who have ever been or are in that profession wouldn’t do it the same way, for reasons some of which are noble and some of which are just temperamental. He’s willing to go for it.

Complaining about Michael’s methods is like complaining about any sausage-making of journalism that goes on. But especially 50 years into New Journalism and 30 years into tabloidification, to complain about Michael’s methods — it’s not 1979 anymore. We’re not in journalism school, and things have changed.

Some of the stuff Washington reporters questioned actually came from a party Wolff held at his home.

Having just seen “The Post,” it’s the kind of clubby intimacy that we imagine existed, did exist back with [Ben] Bradlee and Jack Kennedy. And here it is happening again, and unlike that, where until the Pentagon Papers come along you cover for them and it’s clubby and incestuous — here [it’s] like, “Come to my house for dinner and in a few months I’m going to explode things by writing a book about it.” It’s nutty.

The difference is that his book didn’t come out after the administration, it came out after the first year. That’s unprecedented.

That’s it. That is exactly right. And along with, well, all of the unprecedented mess about Donald Trump, including tweeting this morning that he’s a very stable genius. The rules are different.

If anything, people like Woodward repeatedly [were] criticized for holding things. Wait, you are an editor of The Washington Post and you’re not reporting this in The Washington Post? Well, Michael can’t be accused of that.

Wolff maybe had a sense of moral outrage.

I believe Michael is as horrified as any sane person should be about the idea of Donald Trump being president ― sure. But I don’t think there’s much earnest-like, “Well, I was going to be nice to him, and I was going to wait, but my God, this is a crisis” ― eh, ah, no, I don’t think so.

You’d think the Trump administration would have had a dossier on Wolff.

That they let him in is a measure of their unfathomable incompetence. Then the reporting in The Washington Post that the day it was all happening, they thought they had more time — what? What? You have a whole White House communications staff that knows this book is coming. And they didn’t have a copy of the book, they were scrambling to get a book. I mean, what?

How does this fit in with your book Fantasyland, about the country’s belief in fake news? With Trump’s hatred of the mainstream press, how do you think Wolff is able to gain access?

He played to the empirical sloppiness and wishfulness that I talk about in Fantasyland ― and how everything is politicized. He wrote a nice piece about Trump, he wrote a nice piece about Bannon, he’s on our side, and he’s going to be on our side. It’s just that. It’s believing what you want to believe and what is convenient to believe without bringing any reasonable sense of rigor to the game.

What it really reminded me of, to tell you the truth, was this other book I published this fall with Alec Baldwin — this parody memoir of Trump. Holy cow, talk about life imitating fiction. It has been extraordinary.

How did it remind you of that book?

Because what that book is ― it’s called You Can’t Spell America Without Me. It’s as if Trump is writing a memoir of his first year in office. That was an exaggerated version of what I imagine is going on in Trump’s head if he sat down and spoke his memoir into his iPhone. That’s what it is. Today’s thing of him actually writing in a tweet, “I’m, like, really smart” – he actually did the “comma like”...

I thought he was channeling Alec Baldwin with that.

Exactly. I had fictionally written about him firing [former FBI Director James] Comey weeks before he did. And Alec goes, “Well, you’re a prophet, you saw it coming!” But it’s this stuff. It’s the stuff in Michael’s book and then these tweets today. It’s like the distance between the fictional depiction of him as a loon and literally going mad, which is how the book ends, is getting narrower and narrower and narrower. He hasn’t yet built a fort for himself in Trump Tower and won’t come out and threatened to shoot people with his Secret Serviceman’s gun ― a thing that happens in our fictional version ― but it’s not that much beyond.

[Wolff’s] book has brought up these questions, in a still more general way, of his mental fitness. And then the guy comes out and says, “Oh, I’m a totally stable genius.”

For the last six months or so, or maybe year, every time he did something like that, as I was working on this fictional account, I just retweeted his tweet and said, “The greatest self-parodist of all time.”

There’s a scene in Wolff’s book where he wants to lock his door and gets in a thing with the Secret Service.

Precisely... So there you go. All he now has to do is steal a guy’s gun and start shooting up the place.

This interview been condensed and edited for clarity.