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August 14, 2018 at 10:06 AM EDT
We gave it a D+

Omarosa Manigault Newman has a story to tell. It’s certainly not a wholly truthful one, nor — for those who’ve been paying attention — is it a particularly surprising one. But it’s the one we get: the one to take hold of a weekend news cycle, to force a reexamination of the president’s racist and dishonest tendencies, to have the nation on the edge of their seat as they ponder, What does she know?

We’ve been here before. There was Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, a lurid foray into the White House’s day-to-day. There was James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty, an earnest, bitter, rather disingenuous image rehabilitation project disguised as a leadership manifesto. Both topped best-seller lists, dominated headlines, and inspired many an infuriated @realDonaldTrump tweet before fading into the ether of Trump takedowns, come and gone.

Now there’s Omarosa’s tell-all: the logical next step in our collective, steep, seemingly endless descent toward disgrace.

Above all else, Unhinged is a meta-commentary on the bleakness of our political culture. Trump’s former Director of Communications for the Office of Public Liaison has, admittedly, executed an impressive rollout — of a style and, yes, substance more newsworthy than the book’s contents. The memoir’s very existence was leaked just weeks before publication to The Daily Mail; its juiciest material made its way online early, and came with receipts. Indeed, the prologue, in which Manigault Newman describes how Chief of Staff John Kelly met with her in the Situation Room last December and effectively fired her, is (ta-da!) backed up by a tape recording. So too, it turns out, is the conversation which appears near the book’s end, between President Trump and his former Apprentice villain after she’d been let go, as he bafflingly expresses confusion over her departure — as if he knew nothing about it.

On Meet the Press and Today, respectively, Manigault Newman quietly reveled in the implications of what she was revealing — that she could record a sensitive conversation in the uber-sensitive Situation Room. That she could record a sensitive conversation with the president of the United States. That she could prove, as The Washington Post authenticated, that she’d been offered a healthy sum of money by the Trump machine in exchange for her silence. Here was what would hurl her memoir toward legitimacy.

It’s useless to review Unhinged as a standalone written product. It’s engineered as a media tool, structured in a fashion that complements what its author says on TV and reveals in a steady stream of recorded semi-bombshells. The book itself reads mostly like the Fire and Fury sequel you never wanted: a swift account of the major events to surround Trump since he began his campaign for president, filled out with one adviser’s observations, opinions, and insider “knowledge.” Like her old boss, she “hears” many things. She throws out, for instance, that she “heard” Trump was having a sexual relationship with evangelical leader Paula White. “I could not stop myself from contemplating whether her position as his spiritual advisor had ever been missionary,” she writes. (Really.)

Gallery Books

She has tea to spill on many Trump family members and associates — the president angrily calls his son, Don Jr., a “f— up” to her multiple times, directly; he’s got cruel nicknames for the Attorney General (“Benjamin Button”) and the Secretary of Education (“Ditzy DeVos”), among others — but saves the big stuff for the opener and the closer. In the book’s beginning, she confirms that someone else confirmed to her that Trump repeatedly used the n-word on the set of The Apprentice. (She then confirmed to NPR, days before Unhinged’s publication, she herself heard him say it on tape, but only after the book was completed — bad timing, I guess.) Building to her climax, she makes a forceful case that Trump is experiencing severe mental decline, speaking “gibberish” and losing his memory and even, at one point, suffering a “small episode.” She paints a White House portrait that’s disturbing, dysfunctional, even dire — though hardly original.

That this is an effort in rebranding is hardly subtle, but Unhinged is not an outrageous retaliation, a disgruntled former staffer’s hyperbolic rantings. It’s the first account by a departed, disgraced Trump White House official — of which there have been many — to actually admit complicity, the abetting of a duplicitous, bigoted administration. Manigault Newman’s railing against Trump as a “racist,” “misogynist,” and liar is entirely self-serving, no doubt — but that doesn’t make it dishonest. And there are a few, frankly remarkable moments in Unhinged when Manigault Newman deeply considers how she was manipulated by Trump, used as a black woman eager for a role model, to the extent that she publicly humiliated herself.

The ultimate tragedy of Unhinged is, accordingly, what a strange beast it is: a brew of genuine attempted atonement, cynical media plays, and gratuitous gossipping. Manigault Newman spends a great deal of time discussing the “cult of Trump” — its (theoretical) impact on a person. Since she’d been in the thick of it for more than a decade — back to The Apprentice’s first season — it’d be reasonable to conclude she’s been profoundly affected. But she can’t go there. She can’t truly grapple with the power Trump held over her for so long because it’d disrupt her narrative of empowerment, of burning the Trump House down.

Omarosa Manigault Newman ends Unhinged by writing, simply, “I’m free.” The book’s grand failure is that she so clearly isn’t, steeped as she is in a political-media climate where a story is only as good as its soundbites, only as significant as those implicated by them. Unhinged is an illuminating, pathetic response to that climate — the 2018 tell-all in its purest, saddest form. Whether Manigault Newman is a savvy con artist developing her next act in entertainment or a lost soul helplessly seeking retribution is irrelevant. Because even if it’s a worthy one, the Omarosa story isn’t in demand. Only what she has on the man who defined it. D+

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