Facebook Twitter Comments Slate Plus

What Michael Wolff Got Right

The unifying theory that Donald Trump never actually wanted to win.

Donald Trump.
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with Republican members of the Senate about immigration at the White House on Thursday.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s book about chaos in the Trump administration, tells some curious tales. It suggests Trump didn’t know who former House Speaker John Boehner was, even after Trump had golfed with him and had repeatedly tweeted about him. It says Trump used to offer hookers to men while letting their wives listen in on speakerphone. Stories like these sound too juicy to be true, and Wolff has a history of embellishment. But there’s good reason to believe Wolff’s thesis: that Trump and his campaign aides never expected him to be president. That theory explains nearly everything about Trump’s disastrous tenure.

Wolff dangles stories from election night 2016 to convey Trump’s shock at winning: He “looked as if he had seen a ghost,” Wolff writes, and Melania was “in tears.” Some reporters recall seeing just the opposite. But there’s lots of evidence that Trump didn’t think he’d win. He didn’t prep for debates. Aides couldn’t talk him into lending his campaign more than $10 million, even as he languished in polls and faced warnings of a landslide defeat. In the campaign’s final weeks, he spoke pre-emptively of an international conspiracy that had already rigged the election against him.

As president, Trump can’t stop marveling at his victory. “I’m president! Hey, I’m president!” he exclaimed months ago, in one of several such public outbursts. “Can you believe it?”

Since Trump never planned to be president, he never committed to the habits or practices a good president would need. In office, he has minimized his work schedule, spending time on TV and golf instead. This has been well documented, often by Trump’s own tweets. He sits in bed, phoning friends and acquaintances, grousing about his job, his staff, and the media. He doesn’t listen to aides. They can hardly get him to read things.

Why would a man run for the presidency and then run away from it? Because, while he may have coveted the glory, he never wanted the job.

What Trump wanted was celebrity. That’s why, as Wolff notes, he fumed about stars snubbing his inauguration. It’s why Trump made his spokesman, Sean Spicer, spend the administration’s first press briefing arguing about the size of the inaugural crowd. It’s why Trump whines about his press coverage and solicits flattery from White House visitors. It also plays a role in Trump’s infatuation with Vladimir Putin. Wolff reports that at one point last year, former Fox News boss Roger Ailes asked then–White House strategist Steve Bannon: “What has he [Trump] gotten himself into with the Russians?” Bannon replied that Trump “went to Russia and he thought he was going to meet Putin. But Putin couldn’t give a shit about him. So he’s kept trying.”

Trump’s aides knew he was stupid. They knew it all along. Wolff cites comments about this from so many people—Bannon, Ailes, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, economic adviser Gary Cohn, Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch, former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg—that the consensus is inescapable, even if you discount half the quotes. Wolff also mentions Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who couldn’t deny earlier this year that he had called Trump a “moron.” Trump’s aides also knew, well before he was elected, that he was insecure, petulant, and sleazy. When Ailes warned Bannon that a man being discussed for a post in the administration had “got in a fight in a hotel one night and chased some woman,” Bannon shot back: “If I told Trump that, he might have the job.”

Why didn’t these people disclose last year what they knew about Trump? At a minimum, why didn’t they quit the campaign? The standard answer is that they didn’t care. Wolff offers a different answer: They assumed Trump would lose. “Almost everyone in the campaign,” he writes, believed that Trump shouldn’t be president, and that he wouldn’t, so they needn’t speak up.

The miscalculation went both ways. Trump, expecting to lose, never tried to put together a team that could run the government. He brought in people of low character and limited ability. Unversed in public service, he turned to others who were similarly unprepared. He knew little or nothing about them. Those he knew best—his children and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—were completely out of their element.

Good people were available to staff a Republican administration. But Trump repelled them. During the campaign, they denounced his candidacy. They, too, expected him to lose. So when Trump won, he looked for other candidates to fill government jobs: the fools, cynics, and cowards who had backed him or had stayed quiet. “When you take out all the Never Trump guys who signed all those letters,” Bannon told Ailes, “it’s not a deep bench.” Standards had to be lowered. Mike Flynn, the campaign surrogate Trump was considering as his national security adviser, “is a little nutty on Iran,” Ailes warned Bannon, and “Tillerson just knows oil.” But Bannon argued that Flynn would be fine: “He just needs the right staff around him.”

In the past year, we’ve learned of shady transactions involving Flynn, Paul Manafort, and other Trump campaign advisers. Most of it can be chalked up to bad character. But some of it was political misjudgment. Thinking their candidate would lose, these men did things they wouldn’t have done if they had planned on facing the scrutiny that would come with a Trump presidency. Flynn “had been told by his friends that it had not been a good idea to take $45,000 from the Russians for a speech,” Wolff reports. But Flynn had assured his friends: “Well, it would only be a problem if we won.”

Most conspicuously, Trump’s expectation of defeat led to a presidency without a plan. Upon being elected, he “had few specific ideas about how to turn his themes and vitriol into policy,” Wolff writes. Wolff describes a meeting in March, six weeks into the administration, in which Trump’s deputy chief of staff, Katie Walsh, asked Kushner: “What are the three priorities of this White House?” Kushner replied: “Yes, we should probably have that conversation.”

Chaos and factional agendas filled the vacuum. Bannon moved first, ramming through an executive order blocking travel from many Muslim countries, which threw much of the United States into disarray and upheaval. Everything that followed—the careening dramas with foreign leaders, the nail biting from congressional Republicans, the failure of Obamacare repeal, the ousters of Spicer and Priebus, the war of Jared and Ivanka against Bannon, the Anthony Scaramucci fiasco, the fratricidal leaks about who had done what with Russians—stemmed, in part, from the absence of a clear governing agenda.

In tweets and a statement responding to Wolff’s book, Trump dismisses Bannon as an incompetent, self-serving schemer he hardly knew. The president brags, as he routinely has, about “defeating seventeen candidates, often described as the most talented field ever assembled.” He complains of voter fraud, a “rigged” system, and not being treated as kindly as Barack Obama was. These are the words of a man who never took seriously that the people he brought into his campaign might run the government. He’s still clinging to the feuds of 2016 and marveling that he got elected. He’s playing out the role he envisioned all along: the cheated martyr. Wolff got it exactly right: Trump never thought he would be president. And he shouldn’t be.

One more thing

You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus