When I reviewed Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” I said that “I already knew Trump was a raving moronic imbecile of the highest order, surrounded by a cadre of dangerous kooks, unqualified idiots, hangers-on, right-wing leaders and enablers, apologists and yes-people.” I have not yet read, but have a copy of, Wolff’s follow-up “Siege,” and expect it will be a similar experience. His third Trump book, “Landslide,” certainly does not offer many surprises, but serves as yet another historical record of how unhinged and chaotic those final chapters in Trump’s tenure were.
Many books will be written this year and in the ensuing years about the immediate and long-term impacts of Trump’s ascent to and brief time in the White House, and Wolff’s book will form yet another valuable perspective for us and future generations. And like I said, while there were no massive shockers, the book served as yet another of the many detailed reminders of precisely how ridiculous and nuts some of those events were. There are many horrendous examples to choose from, but let’s take, for starters, Sidney Powell’s irresponsible and ultimately damaging conspiracy fantasies, spewing dangerous speeches where “virtually not a single word had any basis in reality of even possibility”:
What we are dealing with here, and uncovering more by the day, is the massive influence of Communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China in the interference with our elections here in the United States. The Dominion Voting Systems, the Smartmatic technology software, and the software that goes in the computerized voting systems herein as well, not just Dominion, were created in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chávez, to make sure he never lost an election after one constitutional referendum came out the way he did not want it to come out…
Now, the software itself was created with so many variables and so many back doors that can be hooked up to the internet or a thumb drive stuck in it or whatever, but one of its most characteristics features is its ability flip votes. It can set and run an algorithm that probably ran all over the country to take a certain percentage of votes from President Trump and flip them to President Biden, which we might never have uncovered had the votes for President Trump not been so overwhelming in so many of these states that it broke the algorithm that had been plugged into the system, and that’s what caused them to have to shut down in the states they shut down in. That’s when they came in the back door with all the mail-in ballots, many of which they had actually fabricated, some were on pristine paper with identically matching perfect circle dots for Mr. Biden. Others were shoved in in batches; they’re always put in in a certain number of batches, and people would rerun the same batch. This corresponds to our statistical evidence that shows incredible spikes in the vote counts at particular times and that corresponds to eyewitness testimony of numerous people who have come forward and said they saw the ballots come in the back door at that time.
As Wolff writes, despite being “disturbed, paranoid, hallucinogenic, and ludicrous,” Powell’s “delivery was [so] precise and articulate” as to make it “seem all the more like a put-on.” Yet, many were put over, and convinced. Months later, when faced with a monstrous lawsuit, she explicitly argued that she could not be held liable for defamation because no reasonable person ought to have believed anything she had said.
Some White House aides, in trying to understand how they’d gotten here, would agree that the tale of the frog in the pot of slowly heating water might describe their situation: somehow they did not realize they were being boiled alive. But now they knew, and nearly all marked Rudy’s hair dye press conference as the moment when they could no longer, in any fashion, deny that the Cartesian world had ended.
Wolff’s book, among others written about this period of American history, documents in detail, using a wide array of cross-checked sources – though none of that will pierce the fog of reality-dismissing journalism-disdaining loyalists crying out “fake news” as if those words somehow constituted a valid counter-argument against anything – how Trump “abdicated his proscribed and daily duties and turned from the most crucial issues of the moment” as no sitting president previously has.
But who was running the country?
Even in more normal times this question would not have had a straightforward answer. As a manager, Trump’s own interests superseded almost everything else. Therefore, he was often pursuing a series of personal concerns, vendettas, fancies, most often figments of the moment, while the executive branch itself carried its business. The job of aides was to snatch or negotiate time with him, or decisions from him, on pressing executive functions while he pursued his other concerns – and to do this during his 11m to 6pm schedule in the office.
But now he had given up on any interest or pretense in executive matters. The election challenge, this very issue of his survival, had made everything else meaningless. All daily briefings were canceled, including national security briefings. All efforts to return his attention to pandemic issues, vaccine rollout, or critical intelligence failed. And there was, quiet categorically, no possibility of engaging him in, or even discussing with him, transition matters. What’s more, he had cut off all communication with the Senate leadership.
At this point, it was Meadows effectively assuming all executive functions – or at least those that could be carried on in secret and not generate a headline that might alert the president that some business continued as usual. Virtually on his own, Meadows commenced the formal transition to the Biden administration. This included intelligence briefings, which Trump had stalled, Department of Defense transition meetings, which the president had rejected, opening a daily channel to key Biden aides, and integrating the Biden team into the White House’s daily COVID planning and strategy meetings.
A hobbled government was able to work under the nose of a wholly preoccupied president, but with almost everyone in the government looking into the void of what might happen in the event of a crisis.
Trump barreled unperturbed down the nonsensical and nation-damaging path of attempting to subvert the course of democratic elections, as if he was attempting to force himself into his coveted role of actual authoritarian dictator, overturning elections like his idols Erdogan or Putin; seizing uncontested power like the Kim Jong Un he so admires. What is perhaps unusual in Wolff’s account is his own reading of the situation that Trump never had an actual chance of making this work, and that the media, on both sides of the political spectrum, served to exaggerate the threat and in so doing played a hand in inflating and escalating the tensions leading to the Capitol Riot.
Every effort in state and federal courts and in the legislatures of the contested states, along with efforts to get the support of key state officials, had abjectly failed. Every significant threshold of counting and certification had passed, giving no advantage or hope to the challenge effort. Only days remained before the ultimate, formal certification, a rite that in itself was largely meaningless to the already certain outcome. And yet Trump was steadfast, even optimistic.
And confident about his own powers.
He was buttressed by the media in this, which, operatically, had bought into the uncharted possibilities of his powers, wiles, machinations, and demagogic evilness – the media believed he might well have the power and will to overturn the election. He followed his own battles closely as they unfolded on television. Even as he lost one, the narrative offered another. This was hardly just the right-wing media, although Fox and the satellite right-wing outlets were on the edge of their seats in anticipation. But the rest of the media were equally on the edge of their seats in horror and astonishment – even if, in a parallel voice, there was a stricter explanation of the really practical impossibility that anything could disrupt what was otherwise destined to happen.
It really was one of those what-if moments. Not: what if the president of the United States were revealed to be an evil despot, moving the nation to the type of fascistic dictatorship hotly anticipated by MSNBC. But, rather: what if, stripping all protection and artifice away, he were revealed to be incapable of separating the fantasy of what he believed possible from the practicalities of accomplishing it? Indeed, aides noted that, on the eve of a consequential legislative battle, the White House would ordinarily have been burning up the phones, but Giuliani, in effect the president’s singular operative, barely had contact information for most people on the Hill.
The good news here is that the irrational president could actually not accomplish anything very much. He was just one man, without a plan, nor with much knowledge of how the government worked, whose staff had almost entirely deserted him. The bad news was the his fantasy, even his self-dramatization and moral authority, as it were, with his base, was soon shared by millions of people.
The fantasy taken up by so many Americans was sufficiently motivating for the small sub-section that genuinely believed a real and justified revolution was in the offing, committing in the process a bona fide insurrection that broke the hearts of so many Americans on January 6th, badly tarnishing the American reputation in the eyes of allies and foes alike who had become dulled to the constant lowering of American prestige throughout the abysmal Trump mis-administration.
Trump made his speeches, said his piece, spread his conspiracies and dishonest statements, never once prepared to actually join those he was inflaming as they began their fateful march on the seat of national government.
‘You said you were going to march with them to the Capitol.’ [said Meadows]
‘Well – ‘
‘How would we do that? We can’t organize that. We can’t.’
‘I didn’t mean it literally,’ Trump said.
Wolff’s account shows Trump denying any intention of remaining beyond the official end date of this term, despite his public statements to his base.
‘The media thinks I’m not going to leave,’ said the president. ‘Do they really think that? That’s crazy.’
Wolff’s account of the second Trump impeachment is an illustrative and useful addition to the historical record, laying out how the Democracts, facing no good choices in how to respond to the egregious acts of January 6th 2021, and Trump’s role in inciting them, failed to make any political headway.
While it did not succeed in bringing around Republicans in the House, the Democrats now proceeded to the Senate trial, with a new team of lawyers to primed to make their passionate case against the president with the carefully curated and highly produced video evidence of his call to arms, and then, obvious to all for whom it was obvious, his clear connection to the conflagration at the Capitol, beginning just minutes later.
It was both a strong case, if you wanted it to be strong, and quite a weak one, if you didn’t. Certainly, there was a direct relationship between a cadre of people storming the Capitol and Donald Trump’s long pattern of encouragement of fringe groups and their cultural and antiestablishment grievances. But at the tame time, this encouragement, this incitement, was also, in its perfect form, just more Trump blah-blah – he opened his mouth and rambled for most of the hours he spoke at any given event, including the precipitating speech at the Ellipse on January 6, just filling space, ever returning to his continuing mental and verbal loop, now and then adding a crowd-pleasing inspiration. Certainly, it was a dramatic leap to credit him with intent. It suggested an ability to join cause and effect, and the logic of a plan, that anyone who knew him or had worked with him certainly understood he did not possess. And yet, at the same time, it was surely true that the locusts would not have descended on the Capitol without him.
There are other accounts of Trump’s final period, though what’s most striking for me about Wolff’s is that sense that he feels Trump was never going to get anywhere in his attempt to push America down an authoritarian path. Historians can debate that, though I remain fearful that in fact Trump was already marching us down that road. Not through any conscious plan to carbon copy Hitler’s gameplan, but more so as a natural extension of Trump’s psychology and modus operandi: the drive to centralize as much power as possible in his own hands; seek personal loyalty from all those around him; attack, vilify, ruin and destroy all those opposed, no matter how sacrosanct or sacred the institution or entity, or how illegal, libelous, unethical, or unfounded the attack may be. Trump literally may be too stupid to understand that those specific characteristics, among others, and among other actions, are precisely what makes him a would-be authoritarian, and many observers, both in and out of his base, may not grasp those concepts either.
Ultimately, Wolff both marvels and laments the staying power of this most awful of all Presidents:
The fact that he survived, without real support, without real assistance, without expertise, without backup, without anybody truly minding the store, and without truly knowing his ass from a hole in the ground, was extraordinary. Magical.
I’ll be interested to read Wolff’s “Siege” soon.