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Take the Latest Explosive Trump/Bannon Stories in the Context of Their Source, a Notoriously Unreliable Narrator

Michael Wolff in New York City on Oct. 24.
Michael Wolff in New York City on Oct. 24.
Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for New York magazine

Wednesday morning’s hottest political story was a report that former White House aide Steve Bannon referred to the June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and several sketchy Russian characters as “treasonous.” It would indeed be significant if Bannon said such a thing, given that Team Trump’s line on that meeting has always been that it was an innocuous and insignificant act of opposition research. Trump Sr. has already counterattacked by issuing a hilariously rude statement about Bannon’s lack of credibility and shortcomings as a political strategist. But let’s back up a little here and look at where the quote comes from in the first place:

Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon has described the Trump Tower meeting between the president’s son and a group of Russians during the 2016 election campaign as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic”, according to an explosive new book seen by the Guardian.
Bannon, speaking to author Michael Wolff, warned that the investigation into alleged collusion with the Kremlin will focus on money laundering and predicted: “They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”

For those unfamiliar, Wolff is a longtime business/media writer fond of writing about Michael Wolff’s social status among the “moguls” and “tycoons” who have “power lunches” at New York restaurants. (Wrote Wolff, once, about an ostensibly important restaurant where he apparently often ate lunch: “I have a table. It’s table No. 5, which is a very good table.” Nice!) He has tried on several occasions to become a mogul/tycoon himself by launching media businesses but has not been successful.

A 2004 New Republic profile of Wolff meanwhile noted that “the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created—springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events.” The same piece quoted an editor who worked with Wolff as saying “his great gift is the appearance of intimate access. He is adroit at making the reader think that he has spent hours and days with his subject, when in fact he may have spent no time at all.” A 1998 article about Wolff’s book Burn Rate surfaced Wednesday by writer Brad Plumer notes that several of the subjects of the book say Wolff “invented or changed quotes” that were attributed to them.

Here’s another buzzy Wolff tidbit, printed Wednesday in a New York magazine excerpt of his book: that Trump told Roger Ailes in 2016 that he didn’t know who John Boehner was.

“You need a son of a bitch as your chief of staff,” [Ailes] told Trump. “And you need a son of a bitch who knows Washington. You’ll want to be your own son of a bitch, but you don’t know Washington.” Ailes had a suggestion: John Boehner, who had stepped down as Speaker of the House only a year earlier.
“Who’s that?” asked Trump.

But as my colleague Isaac Chotiner pointed out on Twitter, it’s been previously reported that Trump played golf with John Boehner in 2013, the same year that he discussed Boehner’s relationship with the Republican caucus in an interview with the National Review.

And then there’s former Trump aide Sam Nunberg. Here’s more from the New York excerpt:

Early in the campaign, Sam Nunberg was sent to explain the Constitution to [Trump]. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment,” Nunberg recalled, “before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.”

Funny! But Nunberg has previously confessed to having made up another tidy and widely circulated campaign story, about Chris Christie and McDonald’s—a confession that may itself be bogus according to the writer who originally reported the anecdote. Nunberg also almost certainly helped fabricate allegations about Atlantic reporter McKay Coppins that were printed in a Breitbart hit piece after Coppins published a piece critical of Trump.

For the record, New York says in an editor’s note that Wolff’s work is based on hundreds of “conversations and interviews” that were conducted with Trump and “most members of his senior staff.” And to be clear, I don’t know for sure that Steve Bannon didn’t call the Trump Jr. Russia meeting “treasonous” or that Sam Nunberg didn’t really only get through 40 percent of the Bill of Rights before the president got bored. But I do know Michael Wolff is notorious for making provocative claims without backing them up—and that he was once described by one of his own editors as having no skill greater than creating the “appearance” of knowing things he does not in fact know. So you might want to take Wednesday’s reports with a mogul-size grain of salt.

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