President Donald Trump could have saved himself a lot of grief if he—or one of his people—had read Michael Wolff’s 2008 book, The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch, before permitting the writer seemingly unfettered access to the White House and his underling Steve Bannon.
I’m not the only one to arrive at that observation. On Twitter today, Roger Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman wrote, “One of the baffling things about Trumpworld giving access to Wolff: all they needed to do was call Murdoch and he would have said don’t cooperate b/c Wolff had written nasty book on him. And Jared/Trump speak to Murdoch all the time!”
Six minutes later, Wolff tweeted back at Sherman, “I kept waiting for that call to be made.”
Why wasn’t the call made as Wolff began collecting string for Fire and Fury, his new book about the Trump White House? The simple answer is that Wolff appears to have mastered a journalistic skill that allows him to suck up one moment and then, when seated at the keyboard, to spit out.
This technique was full displayed in his Murdoch book, which both accepts the media tyrant on his own terms and demolishes him (as I noted in my review). That book grew out of Wolff’s sympathetic and sometimes flattering account of Murdoch’s takeover of the Wall Street Journal in the September 2007 Vanity Fair. Perhaps confusing Wolff’s positive take with an offer of eternal supplication, Murdoch gave the writer an all-access pass to his operation. How all-access was it? In the book’s acknowledgments, Wolff wrote, “None of this would have been possible without the singular cooperation of this book’s subject, who not only was (mostly) a patient and convivial interviewee but opened every door I asked him to open.” Wolff also extended thanks to Murdoch business executives and family members for honoring the old man’s request that they cooperate.
Murdoch’s high regard for his Boswell ended as soon as the book was finished. A few weeks before its official release, the mogul lacerated Wolff and his publisher for the book’s alleged inaccuracies. “It contains some extremely damaging misstatements of fact which I will be happy to point out to you if we could meet. Otherwise I will have no option other than to speak to Random House,” Murdoch emailed Wolff.
Why on Earth did Murdoch open the door to his life to Wolff? He had, after all, established a firm reputation as an unmerciful and often cruel journalistic narrator. Murdoch’s family and executives wondered the same when Murdoch instructed them to talk to Wolff. “Everybody said, ‘Why did he do this?’ No one seems to know,” Wolff told the New York Times.
Wolff appears to have juked the Trumpies with a similar move. They foolishly interpreted several of Wolff’s generous-to-Trump pieces (most notably a conversation with candidate Trump and a post-victory interview with Steve Bannon, both for the Hollywood Reporter) as a kind of declaration of solidarity. Yes, the Wolff pieces were generous; they were not fawning. A work of journalism need not incorporate the give and take of an Oxford Union debate. As long as a piece conveys intelligence or insight—and Wolff’s Trump work has—there is no automatic shame in transcribing the words of newsmakers. If Wolff were guilty of anything, it was of extending to victorious Republicans the time-honored opportunity of having their say, something Barack Obama and company enjoyed repeatedly following the 2008 election without any mass freak-out.
After Wolff caught hell from journalistic corners for the stenographic quality of his Trump stories (Glenn Greenwald, Charles P. Piece, Jeff Jarvis, Mathew Ingram and others), he basked in the heat like a sauna. The greater the criticism from the press, he had to know, the greater likelihood the Trumpies would embrace him. In a November Q&A with Digiday, Wolff fed additional bait into the trap by denouncing media coverage of Trump and endorsing his stenographic interview style as a useful journalistic technique. In a post-inauguration Newsweek piece titled “Why the Media Keeps Losing to Donald Trump,” he expanded on his early themes to describe the Trump gang as superior to the press. In a February appearance on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Wolff admitted to “sucking up a bit to get access” to the White House, but found validation in this approach when his material was “retailed through the media chain” by other journalists.
That Murdoch got suckered by Wolff says volumes about Murdoch’s naiveté. But the fact that Trump got suckered by Wolff a decade after his frequent telephone companion Murdoch got suckered says even more. Did Trump never ask Murdoch about Wolff? (If that’s the case, Murdoch would have very good reason to have called Trump a “fucking idiot,” as Wolff reports.) How can it be that Murdoch never volunteered to Trump in one of their phone calls that Wolff would smile in his face but ultimately stab him? Wolff’s penetration of the White House presents two equally damning conclusions about Trump—that’s he’s too much of an egoist to care who might be loitering around the White House, gathering string on him, and that he’s too incurious about the world to spot a potential danger to his presidency.
If ever there were a man who deserved to get Wolffed, it’s Donald Trump.
Wolff lists me in the acknowledgments section of his book. The only thing I did for him was gossip over lunch. Send lunch invitations to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts are gluten free, my Twitter feed craves the paleo diet, and my RSS feed doesn’t order an entrée until it has consumed three martinis.