What you need to know about controversial Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff
Wolff's brand of access journalism is divisive and sometimes unreliable, but most agree that he was able to successfully infiltrate Trump's inner-circle
As the White House (and others) continue to question the credibility of Michael Wolff, author of the bombshell Trump book Fire and Fury, some readers might be asking some questions about the provocative writer.
A Hollywood Reporter and USA Today columnist, Wolff has certainly skyrocketed in popularity in recent days; ever since The Guardian leaked a juicy excerpt from his book on Wednesday morning, in which Steve Bannon was quoted as claiming Donald Trump, Jr. was “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” for agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, the book has been a hot commodity — as well as a source of intense controversy. The president himself ordered publisher Henry Holt and Co. to stop publication, a move which only prompted the company to move Fire and Fury‘s release date up four days to Friday. (It is available for purchase here.)
Wolff, who says the book is a product of a year of remarkable access into the day-to-day operations of the White House, makes several salacious and outrageous claims. Among them: that Trump was “befuddled” by (and that his wife, Melania, cried at the news of) his 2016 election victory, that political ally Rupert Murdoch once called Trump a “f—ing idiot,” and that the president’s staff believes Trump is “incapable of functioning in his job.” (Melania Trump, as well as staff including press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, have strongly denied the claims.)
President Trump has flat-out denied the book’s contents. “I authorized Zero access to White House (actually turned him down many times) for author of phony book!” he tweeted, referring to Wolff and Fire and Fury, on Thursday night. “I never spoke to him for book. Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist. Look at this guy’s past and watch what happens to him and Sloppy Steve!” (“Sloppy Steve” refers to Steve Bannon, who helped lead Trump’s campaign and briefly worked as his administration’s chief strategist.) Wolff disputed Trump’s claim, saying he “absolutely” spoke to the president.
Yet while Trump and his staff have an interest in damaging Wolff’s credibility, they are not the only ones raising eyebrows. “A provocateur and media polemicist, Wolff has a penchant for stirring up an argument and pushing the facts as far as they’ll go, and sometimes further than they can tolerate, according to his critics,” The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi wrote on Wednesday. “He has been accused of not just re-creating scenes in his books and columns, but of creating them wholesale.”
Over his decades-long career as a journalist, during which he’s also written a biography of Rupert Murdoch and briefly helmed Adweek, Wolff’s quotes, descriptions, and even in some cases presentations of facts have been challenged as unreliable or false. (David Carr actually called the Murdoch biography partially inaccurate.) An infamous 2004 New Republic story dubbed his brand of access journalism a vapid fixation on money and power, adding, “The scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created — springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events.” An Atlantic editorial on Wolff was equally unkind.
For its part, members of the Trump administration reportedly didn’t have the book on their radar because they presumed it would depict them favorably, based on their conversations with Wolff. Janice Min, who edited THR and Wolff until early last year, recently said she witnessed first-hand how Wolff was welcomed into Trump’s orbit. “Trump gave Michael Wolff unfettered West Wing access after Wolff’s 2016 THR cover profile called him ‘the most frightening, dangerous presidential candidate’ ever, and revealed he didn’t know what Brexit was,” she tweeted. In another post, she said she remembered checking in on Wolff as he made “near-weekly” visits to the White House, stunned by the fact that “no one ask[ed]” what he was doing there.
Several credible journalists who cover the White House have disputed portions of Fire and Fury while also arguing that Trump’s spin that he gave no access to Wolff is ludicrous. “There’s stuff that’s inaccurate in [Fire and Fury],” The New York Times‘ Maggie Haberman wrote. “But most of that original iron ring around Trump at beginning of 2017 spoke to Wolff. And if they didn’t research him prior to that and now feel burned, that’s the way it goes.” (Others have confirmed that Trump has known Wolff well for years.) Politico‘s Eliana Johnson, meanwhile, said that Wolff’s description of adviser Stephen Miller was “patently false.”
It’s worth noting that Henry Holt has stood firmly behind Wolff even as Trump’s legal team has threatened action for claims of libel. The decision to move up the publication date after being asked to cease and desist appeared to be an act of defiance, as well as faith in the validity of Wolff’s material. “Henry Holt confirms that we received a cease and desist letter from an attorney for President Trump,” the publisher said in a statement Thursday. “We see Fire and Fury as an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse, and are proceeding with the publication of the book.”
Wolff, too, has defended himself. “I work like every journalist works, so I have recordings, I have notes,” he told NBC’s Today co-host Savannah Guthrie on Friday. “I am certainly, in absolutely every way, comfortable with everything I’ve reported in this book.”
Fire and Fury also includes this note from the author: “Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. These conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book. Sometimes I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. In other instances, I have, through a consistency in the accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true.”
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House