As the enmeshed complications around President Donald Trump and his administration continue to proliferate, author and columnist Michael Wolff — whose book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” sits atop the New York Times bestseller list — has been making headlines again. In a characteristically oblique and furor-inducing move two weeks ago, on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Wolff said that Trump was currently having an affair — adding that the clues were in his book, if you could read between the lines. The resulting speculation has turned into its own mini-news cycle, which Thursday morning resulted in Wolff being dismissed from “Morning Joe,” on-air, by host Mika Brzezinski.
If it sounds like an episode of “Scandal,” maybe that’s the point.
Wolff’s runaway bestseller — which presents an intimate if highly suspect view of the inner workings of the Trump White House — was released on Jan. 9. Just a week later, Endeavor Content bought the TV rights for the book.. It is hard to fathom what that show will be like. Wolff’s view of White House power plays is so insular, so cut off from the world outside the beltway, that it reads like a white man’s “Gossip Girl.” Maybe the show will be more like “Pretty Little Liars,” where four naïve characters who don’t know anything are trapped in a closed loop of lies. Or perhaps it will be like a reverse “House of Cards,” where the mood and set pieces are the same, but instead of ruthless efficiency, the audience is treated to bumbling fools unable to carry off even the smallest of Frank Underwood’s schemes. It seems that a comedy is out of the question, which is too bad, because a comedy is what this material needs: A full-scale reality television parody, a la “The Hotwives of Orlando,” where all the major characters wear bathrobes and tiaras in the Oval Office and tell each other they’re not there to make friends.
But — and bear with me — the show that “Fire and Fury” is most like is HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” The fantasy-drama series is about the dysfunctional inner dynamics of the most powerful families in the world, and how those relationships intersect with the power and policy governing an entire nation. Wolff creates a narrative footnoted by stints in Ivy League institutions and tours in multinational corporations, which may as well be their own ultra-privileged fantasy world. Even the title evokes “A Song of Ice and Fire,” with its florid elementals; Wolff’s own name seems cribbed from the fan site westeros.net.
With some details, it’s an eerily perfect match: Donald Trump is an overweight windbag obsessed with golf, just like King Robert Baratheon is an overweight windbag obsessed with hunting. Both excelled at getting to the throne, and then fall to pieces as soon as actual governing is required. (Trump’s not the drunkard that Robert was, but to be fair, Robert didn’t have the option of being addicted to Twitter.) The motley crew around the monarch is quickly, cruelly caricatured by Wolff — the grasping females, headed by a steely blonde with her own ambitions Ivanka Trump (Cersei Lannister), and the advisers, from neutered, whispering Steve Bannon (Varys) to the petulant, swaggering, in-over-his-head Jared Kushner (Renly). (In a painful description of Bannon, he describes the aide’s “liver spots, jowls, edema.” Later he notes, with derision, that Kushner had attained the reputation of the best-dressed man in Washington — not, he remarks portentously, a compliment.) In flourishes that depart from the license of journalism, Wolff creates characters out of the people who populate the West Wing — whether that is to drop in reference to their penchant for champagne (Alexandra Preate) or how they regularly manicure their nails (Kellyanne Conway). It’s like he’s giving us the shorthand of not just what they’ve done, which is the typical province of the fourth estate, but instead who they are — who they think they are, trappings and all.
It’s juicy, in the way that any rule-breaking coverage of the elite and powerful tends to be. And maybe with an eye towards what type of material captivates an audience — Wolff knows how to set his course by the way the winds blow — “Fire and Fury” reads like Westerosi lore. “His eyes dart around like he’s always looking for a weapon with which to bludgeon or gouge you,” Wolff writes of Bannon, with bloodthirsty flair. A similarly medieval line about Trump: “He demanded you pay him attention, then decided you were weak for groveling.” He brings that same approach to all of his targets, with asides like this: “Media is personal. It is a series of blood scores.” “Game of Thrones” pegs its drama to the epic familial clash of the Wars of the Roses. Wolff quotes Bannon — who began to increasingly see himself as the Thomas Cromwell to Trump’s Henry VIII — as saying, “I now understand what it is like to be in the court of the Tudors.” In a very George R.R. Martin-esque detail, Wolff also relates what is being eaten at these stuffy Washington power-broking lunches. It shouldn’t matter, but it pulls the reader in; one can imagine the scene so vividly, just by considering the catered Dover sole — “fish, which [Mika] Brzezinski doesn’t eat.”
Of course,“Game of Thrones” isn’t real, while “Fire and Fury” — if largely unverifiable — is about real leaders, real stakes, real America. The relish with which Wolff immerses himself in the world of the wealthy and indifferent oligarchs who run our country ought to instead be disgust. Instead, Wolff has made a spectacle out of an inter-office drama that just happens to have vast, mortal consequences for swaths of the global population. As soothing as it is, the soothing razzle-dazzle of Trump’s incompetence (“liberal catnip,” says the New York Times) distracts from the fact that what this administration is doing has lasting consequences. That Wolff’s tactic of distancing the reader from the Trump administration has been unexpectedly successful seems to validate the argument: It’s a relief to watch the mess, but it’s a distraction from the much harder work of battling the Trump agenda.
Consider, specifically, how Wolff handles portraying the polemicist Bannon — his primary vehicle for infiltrating the White House, and the closest thing to a protagonist “Fire and Fury” has. Wolff is wonkily enamored by Bannon’s hatchet-like governance, with amoral admiration that suggests, yes, the way Martin styles his most ruthless villains. Within the claustrophobic view of political oneupmanship, Bannon becomes Wolff’s beset-upon hero — a warrior who battles the wimp Jared Kushner and the princess Ivanka Trump; a mastermind who is overlooked and ignored by the president he created. At times Wolff surveys the rest of Trump’s hanger-ons with barely veiled irritation, wondering why they won’t just let Bannon’s (in)competence carry the administration. It’s like depicting Ramsay Bolton as a skilled administrator: True, if you’re willing to sacrifice a pound of flesh. Luckily — and obviously — the pound of flesh is not Wolff’s own.
This is going to make for a weird, uncomfortable television show. In the book, bias is mitigated by the fact that Wolff steadily avoids saying anything at all. Wolff takes full advantage of his omniscient perspective to drift in and out of points-of-view with a sideways combination of anonymous quotes, imagined internal monologues, and occasional easy-to-verify facts. The prose insinuates more than says, or implies more than concludes; it sketches words and facts into a probable, vague summation, and then lets the reader imagine from there. But that which can be taken with a grain of salt in the book will not be as palatable onscreen; a script will demand an actor playing a character to say or not say something concrete. A camera trained on an actor carefully portraying a shabby Steve Bannon will not have Wolff’s liberty to suggest a reality; it will have to put a reality into the world.
The problem with “Fire and Fury” becoming a TV show is that the book is not a story, it is a salvo; it is a piece in the horrible and banal game of offices Wolff is playing, and one with intentions that are still rather murky. In “Fire and Fury,” Wolff drops a line that is somewhat attributed to Trump’s inner monologue and somewhat an assertion of this White House’s reality and somewhat just a thing he believes: “The media was the battlefield.” After Wolff hung onto him like a barnacle for his White House access, “Fire and Fury” ruined Bannon’s post-White House career by poisoning his relationship with Breitbart News. As this current news cycle about Trump’s infidelity suggests, with its prurient discussion simultaneously encouraged and snuffed out by Wolff: Whatever game this is, it is still playing out.
In my vision of “Fire and Fury” as “Game of Thrones,” Wolff has a clear analogue: the semi-well-intentioned but mostly selfish Littlefinger, deriving secret joys at being the unassuming figure plotting a perfect and unassailable revenge. And that points to a larger issue. The primary problem for any TV adaptation of “Fire and Fury” is going to be Wolff himself — not as an executive producer, but as the invisible character in every scene.
Sure, there’s a way to read “Fire and Fury” where the author is a gonzo hero, playing along in the den of thieves until he could flee, slam the door behind him, and then toss a match over his shoulder. That is Wolff’s own reading, for sure — and honestly, at times, he earns his self-satisfaction. There are times that “Fire and Fury” feels like an illegal playbook for opponents of Trump, with the weaknesses of every major player spelled out in pitiless black and white.
But with even a cursory reading between the lines, Wolff’s involvement in the drama he relates is hard to overlook. At numerous points in the text he discusses himself in third person, as “the journalist” in a meeting or on the phone with the president, noting the length of his rambling phone call. And in the most egregious example of deliberate abbreviation, Wolff hosted a dinner party with Roger Ailes, invited Bannon, and then wrote it up in “Fire and Fury” as if he were a fly on the wall of a chanced-upon meeting. This is a trap laid by a hunter waiting for prey: How do you recreate this scene in a drama, except to cast Wolff as the hero — or the villain? Is he willing to be either, just to get attention?
Either way, the focus is on him — not Trump, not Bannon, and not the reader. His warlike media campaign makes him a worthy opponent for Trump, who also sees the world in terms of how much coverage you get, and for how long, in their own peculiar game of thrones. That the citizens of the kingdom are at the mercy of the game is just a footnote.