Wolff’s book confirms what we already knew: that Trump is unfit for office

Michael Wolff. Photo (cc) 2008 by Eirik Solheim.

Previously published at WGBH News.

The idea that Donald Trump is too mentally unstable to serve as president is not new. Just a few weeks after the 2016 election, the liberal commentator Keith Olbermann thundered that Trump should be removed from office under the 25th Amendment — and never mind that Trump wouldn’t actually be sworn in for two more months.

“For my money, he’s nuts — couldn’t pass a sanity test, open book,” Olbermann said in a GQ video viewed more than 840,000 times.

Olbermann was hardly alone. During the past year President Trump’s psychological fitness has been regular fodder for the media. Stat, the Boston Globe-owned health and life-sciences news service, tracked the deterioration of the president’s verbal abilities and gave a platform to a physician who speculated that Trump has an “organic brain disorder.” CNN media reporter Brian Stelter has asked repeatedly if Trump is “fit for office.” Last Wednesday, Politico revealed that a Yale psychiatrist, Bandy X. Lee, the editor of a book titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” had met with members of Congress and told them, “He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.”

All of which is to say that when Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” was released late last week, the ground was already plowed and well-fertilized. So it’s no surprise that it became an immediate sensation. If Wolff were providing us with new information, we would need time to process it, to assess the truthfulness of his reporting (something that’s happening anyway), to weigh it against other accounts of the president’s behavior. Instead, it confirms and adds detail to the story of the childish, impetuous, cruel, and supremely self-centered bully who has dominated our public discourse from the moment that he rode down that escalator some two and a half years ago.

Note, by the way, that I did not write that Trump has “narcissistic personality disorder” or “organic brain disease” or any of the other psychological and medical conditions that have been ascribed to him. I’m not qualified, of course. But neither is a highly credentialed psychiatrist unless he or she has actually peered inside the presidential skull. Whether Trump is suffering from a diagnosable psychological disorder is beside the point — we can observe his horrendous and frightening behavior on a daily basis. This is, after all, a man who took to Twitter just last week to assert that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong Un’s. (Sometimes a cigar really isn’t just a cigar.) Is the why really that important? As Josh Marshall put it at Talking Points Memo:

All the diagnosis of a mental illness could tell us is that Trump might be prone to act in ways that we literally see him acting in every day: impulsive, erratic, driven by petty aggressions and paranoia, showing poor impulsive control, an inability to moderate self-destructive behavior. He is frequently either frighteningly out of touch with reality or sufficiently pathological in his lying that it is impossible to tell. Both are very bad.

You may have heard that there are errors in “Fire and Fury.” That Wolff must have been wrong when he claimed that Trump didn’t know who John Boehner was. That a few names and facts are mixed up and that some Trump officials claim they were misquoted. At such a fraught moment, it’s too bad that Wolff wasn’t more careful given that Trump and his supporters (and, sadly, New York Times reporter Ken Vogel) will seize upon anything to discredit him. But having read the book over the weekend, I was struck by how much of it was already publicly known, and how much of what wasn’t known came from the exceedingly careless lips of Trump’s thuggish former mastermind, Stephen Bannon, who hasn’t denied anything — including his description of a meeting between a Russian contact and Trump campaign officials Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner as “treasonous.”

Moreover, the president’s attempts to discredit the book have only bolstered Wolff’s standing — especially Trump’s threat to sue Bannon for violating a nondisclosure agreement, a tacit acknowledgment that what Bannon told Wolff was true. Nor did it help that the president bizarrely tweeted that he is a “very stable genius” in response to Wolff’s evidence that he is, well, unstable and is thought by some of his associates to be borderline illiterate.

Last Friday, on NBC’s “Today” show, Wolff said that “100 percent of the people around” Trump, “senior advisers, family members, every single one of them, questions his intelligence and fitness for office.” Do you doubt that? Recall that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president a “fucking moron.” Consider that former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg concedes he probably told Wolff that Trump is an “idiot.” Remember how mortified the president’s staff was when Trump defendedthe “many good people” in the white nationalist movement.

The media need not offer a clinical diagnosis of the president in order to tell us about his state of mind. What news organizations have been doing, and should be doing more of, is reporting on whether Trump is fit for office. Michael Wolff has done all of us a service by moving that subject from chatter on the periphery to the center of the public conversation.

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Christopher Caldwell ignores disturbing evidence of Bannon’s bigoted views

Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
Stephen Bannon at CPAC on Friday. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Christopher Caldwell, a conservative writer whom I admire, weighs in with a sympathetic profile of Stephen Bannon in today’s New York Times in which he ignores available evidence that Bannon may personally hold racist and anti-Semitic views. (This would be aside from the garbage published by Breitbart News, the alt-right website Bannon headed before joining President Trump’s campaign last summer.) Caldwell writes:

Many accounts of Mr. Bannon paint him as a cartoon villain or internet troll come to life, as a bigot, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a crypto-fascist. The former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, have even called him a “white nationalist.” While he is certainly a hard-line conservative of some kind, the evidence that he is an extremist of a more troubling sort has generally been either massaged, misread or hyped up.

The trouble with Caldwell’s attempt to blow past the alleged caricature and tell us about the real Steve Bannon is that there is, in fact, well-known, on-the-record evidence that contradicts Caldwell’s sanguine views.

Perhaps Caldwell’s most disingenuous ploy is to enlist Julia Jones, a liberal screenwriter and former collaborator of Bannon’s. Caldwell writes: “She regrets that Mr. Bannon ‘has found a home in nationalism.’ But she does not believe he is any kind of anarchist, let alone a racist.”

Now, this is not the first time that Jones has been quoted in the Times to the effect that Bannon is not a racist. The last time, though, we got the full context, and it turns out that Jones’ view of what constitutes not being a racist is rather different from the standard definition. This is from a profile of Bannon by Scott Shane that the Times published on Nov. 27:

Ms. Jones, the film colleague, said that in their years working together, Mr. Bannon occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.

“I said, ‘That would exclude a lot of African-Americans,’” Ms. Jones recalled. “He said, ‘Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.’ I said, ‘But what about Wendy?’” referring to Mr. Bannon’s executive assistant. “He said, ‘She’s different. She’s family.’”

I realize that this is hearsay. But it comes from a friendly source, and there hasn’t been a single suggestion since Shane’s story was published that either Jones or Bannon disputes the accuracy of that particular anecdote.

As for whether Bannon is an anti-Semite, well, it’s complicated. His chief ally within the White House is said to be Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is Jewish. As Caldwell and others have noted, Bannon reserves his real animus for Muslims. Nevertheless, there is the matter of a sworn deposition by Bannon’s ex-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, in which she claims that Bannon assaulted her because he was upset that she was sending their daughters to a private school with too many Jews.

Jesse Singal, writing last Nov. 15 in New York magazine, did a good job of gathering together what we know about Bannon and the Jews. As Singal noted, Piccard’s statement did come in the midst of a nasty custody battle, and Bannon has denied ever saying such a thing. But it’s been confirmed that there was a domestic incident around that time. And it’s also been confirmed that Bannon once asked the director of a school “why there were so many Chanukah book in the library,” as Piccard put it. (What’s unclear is whether the question was friendly or hostile.)

A friendly source saying on the record that Bannon talked about the genetic superiority of some people and said it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if many African-Americans were banned from voting. Disturbing suggestions that Bannon has expressed anti-Semitic views. I would say these are more than “hyped up” charges, as Caldwell puts it. The fact that we are talking about President Trump’s right-hand man makes them pretty damn alarming.

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