Siege is a compulsively readable account of the inner workings of the Trump White House. The book is at once hilarious and frightening, and often reads like a Hollywood gossip column. Any temptation to hurl it aside and turn to something more serious is, however, undermined by the knowledge that this is a book about the most powerful man in the world.
The White House has already denied some of this volume’s most sensational assertions. But that does not detract from the book’s immense readability, and I don’t doubt Wolff’s claim that some of those with ties to Trump have continued to confide in Bannon, and thus the reader is getting a form of inside account — however self-serving.
Wolff, who admits to a “train-wreck fascination with Trump”, was hoping for a catastrophe to coincide with his book’s publication, and reserved his final chapter to deal with the indictments he expected Mueller to issue. Disaster-movie tropes accordingly menace the last pages: the runaway train is about to derail, the aeroplane’s wings are coming off. However, thanks to Mueller’s legalistic caution, Trump didn’t crash and burn, so a flustered Wolff has to apologise for one more anticlimax.
He concludes with the kind of teaser that entices television viewers to stay tuned, assuring us that Trump’s “escape, such as it was, would be brief”. There is no reason for the verb’s subjunctive mood, which implies that Wolff already knows what will happen next: his self-destructive subject has so far proved indestructible, which is clearly frustrating.
[T]his portrait of a president “under fire” turns — almost despite itself — into a depiction of nailed down, armour-plated resilience. As with Fire and Fury, Siege is filled with delicious gossip that is no less entertaining because it is of uncertain origin... Just when all seems lost — as in the stand-off with Congress over the funding of the wall with Mexico — he bounces back. That makes the tone and pace of the book difficult for Wolff to get right. [Wolff] also doesn’t deal with the obvious source of Trump’s endurance: the roaring success (to date) of the US economy... Wolff has staked a lot of this book on one eye-catching scoop: the leak of legal advice commissioned by Mueller’s team on how to pursue a successful indictment against Trump for obstruction of justice. Despite the carefully parsed rebuttal from the office of the special counsel that the documents do not exist “as described”, I don’t doubt their authenticity — in fact, this newspaper has seen them. The problem is that they no longer matter. Like a lot of journalists who have got their hands on something hot, Wolff is reluctant to admit this... If it’s any consolation, and I strongly suspect it is, Trump’s durability is likely to provide Wolff with the material for yet another sequel. True, the rarity value of this kind of inside account is going down — Fire and Fury set a high bar — but Wolff has found the perfect foil for his style of journalism. With Trump, accuracy doesn’t matter. Character is destiny.
Wolff, a 65-year-old journalist specialising in rip-roaring high society exposés, admits to having a “train-wreck fascination” with the president – a man he describes as veering between “raging and vengeful” and “lazy, disengaged and even self-satisfied”. He gleefully recounts the scandals in salacious detail: the cat fights in the White House, deteriorating to physical violence; speculation about the sex lives of staffers. The ambitions of Kushner and his wife Ivanka are mocked mercilessly, while Cabinet members’ astonishment at Trump’s actions are reported in riveting detail.... Siege is a fun and highly-readable survey of a surreal time in the United States, but lacking significant substance. Nonetheless, Wolff ends with a none too subtle teaser for his next book, surely already in progress. Mueller’s report, published in March, cleared the president of collusion and lifted a cloud of suspicion. For Wolff, it’s not yet over. Trump’s “escape,” he writes, “such as it was, would be brief.”
Wolff is the perfect biographer for the Trump era. He tells you it’s nearly impossible to try to sort out what is and isn’t true in Trumpworld, and that when covering an environment in which rule-following is in short supply, there’s no point in following rules. So you’re on your own in figuring out how much of what he writes is trustworthy... Wolff can be a funny writer, and there are stretches of Siege where he reaches for high comedy, describing Trump-Mueller as an epic struggle between corruption and inadequacy, with both sides — along with all of us — losing. But Siege ends up mostly being a cheap catalogue of half-believable rumors about who backstabbed whom, and who slept with whom, interspersed with a lot of pretend-outrage, so the author can market his book on MSNBC, even as he makes Steve Bannon out to be a genius.
He is no friend of Trump, but nor is he a fusspot denigrator of this fabulously unhinged White House. “My strategy is to show and not tell.” What he shows is a circus act where every player, every trapeze artist, every lion-tamer, every clown, screws up every piece of their act. And the circus master is beyond realising, beyond reaching, perhaps beyond caring. “Not only is Trump not like other presidents,” Wolff tells us, “he is not like anyone most of us have ever known... The book is strongest — and laugh-out-loud funniest — when it gives a first-hand account of Trump unbound. For instance, as his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh begins to hit heavy weather, The Donald turns against him. But not for political reasons. This is not a story of a powerful man thinking of ditching inconvenient baggage. No: Donald is horrified by Kavanaugh’s revelation, as he tries to defend himself against sexual assault allegations from his past, that he was a virgin when he left college. “Trump could barely believe it,” Wolff writes. “ ‘Stop! Who would say that? My Virgin Justice! This man has no pride. Did I say pride? Man? Did I say man? I don’t think so!’ ”
This time Wolff seems to have surrendered interpretative duties to Bannon almost entirely. After every Trump calamity, he respectfully tells us what Bannon thinks about it. In the Acknowledgements, he thanks him “as the most clear-eyed interpreter of the Trump phenomenon I know, as the Virgil anyone might be lucky to have as a guide for a descent into Trumpworld”. Which makes Wolff himself our Dante. That’s pushing it. Though pungently written, Siege lacks the shock factor of the first disclosures of Trump’s idiocy. Trump’s daft quotes just aren’t such eye-openers any more, when he adds to them himself daily, on Twitter or in interviews. We know now what he is like.
However ridiculous you think Donald Trump’s Presidency, and whatever depravity you imagine unfolding in his White House, the reality is worse. That’s the takeaway from Siege: Trump Under Fire, the American journalist Michael Wolff’s sequel to Fire and Fury (2018)... Siege succeeds as a real-time first draft of history. You don’t get analysis here or meditations on the roots of the new populism. Instead, you get eye-popping accounts that should renew your fury... This book confirms that Trump should never have been allowed to hold power in the first place.
Michael Wolff is back and not with a whimper. The latest installment of his Trump chronicles picks up where Fire and Fury ended. Once again, it leaves the president bruised and readers shaking their heads... Wolff’s tale is credible enough to be taken seriously and salacious enough to entertain.
So the second batch of Trump books has an intrinsic problem: not only Trump fatigue, but actually the lack of Trump horror. Let’s call it the Jaws 2 problem: when we’re already so familiar with the monster, what is there to show us that will shock?
Well, in news depressing for the planet but no doubt happy for Mr Wolff’s bank balance, I can report there’s plenty left... If there’s one bright note in this utterly gripping but fundamentally dispiriting read it’s this: they’re surely too disorganised and dumb to win another term.
“Siege” is ostensibly about Trump — portrayed here as a very unstable non-genius cracking under the pressure of being thrust into the highest office — but its guiding worldview looks remarkably like Bannon’s. It’s a mordant, readable tell-all designed to show how Trump, simply by being Trump, has made himself the perfect wrecking ball, blasting holes through an array of institutions.
There are salacious details in this book — many of which Trump’s critics will want to eat up — though with so many unnamed sources, Trump’s compulsion for hyperbole and Wolff’s own journalistic record, it’s hard to know which tidbits to trust. It makes more sense to read “Siege” less as a news report and more as a rhetorical gambit — a twisted bid to burnish Bannon’s anti-establishment legacy.