Michael Wolff, a journalist and author of the bestselling book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, spoke at U of T’s Convocation Hall on March 7 about the state of American politics and journalism.
The event was hosted by the School of Public Policy and Governance (SPPG), and it featured a talk with SPPG Director Peter Loewen, followed by a panel discussion with Althia Raj, Ottawa Bureau Chief of HuffingtonPost Canada, and Joseph Heath, professor of philosophy, public policy, and ethics at U of T.
Wolff said that he pitched the idea of writing a story on the first 100 days of the presidency to Steve Bannon, the President’s former Chief Strategist. “I said to Trump, ‘I’d like to come into the White House as an observer,’ and Trump thought I was asking for a job — deputy assistant observer,” said Wolff. “Almost from the beginning, I was looking forward to the ending.”
With the departures of many senior staff members, such as Bannon, Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Wolff decided to write on the “first act” of the Trump White House.
Wolff said that his philosophy going into the White House was not to ask questions and to keep a low profile. Eventually, he said, he gained the trust of political staffers and became a “black hole where people just began to narrate their experience.”
Wolff claimed that Sam Nunberg, a former aide on Trump’s presidential campaign, said Trump was “an idiot.” Wolff added that “he’s a different kind of idiot because he’s the President of the United States.”
Wolff compared many of Trump’s actions to his time on reality television. “The nature of reality television is conflict. You have to manufacture and produce and sustain conflict in every show… Essentially, that’s the way he’s run this presidency. Every tweet is designed to produce conflict.”
In the end, Wolff believes that Trump’s presidency will not survive. “I think it’s a failed presidency,” said Wolff, adding that his book was designed to open the discussion about the nature of Trump’s failure in the White House. “I asked [Trump], ‘What’s your goal here?’ He said, in a very straightforward way, ‘To be the most famous man on Earth.’”
Following Wolff’s talk, the event moved into a short panel discussion that focused on modern political journalism. Raj made the case that reporters need to be increasingly focused on fact-checking in an era when readers consume news very quickly on digital platforms and increasingly demand well-researched stories.
Wolff refocused the discussion on Trump, asking, “How do you report on this guy? He runs contrary — if you’re a political journalist — to everything you believe about being a political journalist.”
When Raj asked Wolff about scenes in his book that were allegedly recreated, he said that many parts were either something he witnessed or something a trusted source observed. The problem, Wolff said, was that his sources have remained anonymous.