The biggest of the stories swirling about Donald Trump this week concerns, not a tweet (as is ordinary), but a book.
The president is famously unlettered, professing little time for reading; and others attest that Trump has little interest in any printed matter that does not contain his photograph.
But the interest which many readers, not just the president, have in this book, Fire and Fury, by the scurrilous journalist Michael Wolff, is not surprising. It purports to be an account of the Trump administration written by someone who roamed the White House without supervision and oversight, but with some official co-operation. Wolff wants kudos for seeing the chaos first-hand.
He must take some credit. He has baited the president and his spokespeople into talking continually about the book, and even into trying, and failing to prevent its publication.
This, alongside the release of some scandalous excerpts in major American and world publications, has guaranteed not only hefty sales, but an excessive reaction beyond the media. The book has become a strange cultural touchstone.
Inconsistently evidenced and gossipy in tone, the book makes specific claims about Trump’s handling of the Middle East. None of these claims are ludicrous or entirely unreal. Indeed, almost every detail is predictable. But this does not make Wolff’s every supposition correct.
His overreliance on Steve Bannon, the former CEO of Trump’s presidential campaign and White House chief strategist, now in disgrace and disagreement with the president, means that Wolff’s foreign policy narrative is incomplete.
It is inflected with a nationalist tone provided by Bannon and reflects some of the bitterness of the man who lost his fight against other factions within the administration, factions whose foreign positions could be summarised as ‘business as usual’.
This approach is associated with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law. For Wolff (and Bannon), ‘Jarvanka’ represents moderation; the two are centrist ‘New York Democrats’.
They brought in Dina Powell, formerly of Goldman Sachs, who specialised in corporate philanthropy. Powell and Ivanka, in Wolff’s telling, were essential in prompting the president to react as he did to the sarin attack carried out by the Assad regime on Khan Sheikhun last April.
Trump is callous in the way businessmen liked to see themselves in the 1980s. During the campaign, candidate Trump referred almost positively to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons, including poison gas. But this facade crumbled when he was confronted not with a rally but with a crisis awaiting his response; and also when he was faced with the results of such an outrage in person.
Powell and Ivanka presented Trump with a presentation about the attack, which included photographs from the scene. Pictures Bannon, ever the cold-heart, dismissed as ‘kids foaming at the mouth’.
Trump ‘went through [the presentation] several times. He seemed mesmerised’, Wolff writes. This is not a new revelation. Trump’s emotion was visible when he spoke about the ‘beautiful babies’ who had been murdered when justifying his response.
Trump ordered a Tomahawk strike on the airfield from which the chemical attack had been launched, a move which was met, largely, with domestic US and global support.
A critical chorus soon emerged.
Some of it was sparked by Bannonite frustration at Trump appearing to care enough about the lives of non-Americans to act, to risk entanglement in what nationalists think of as other people’s battles. More critics suggested that Trump’s stance was prompted by a reflexive desire to repudiate the failure of his predecessor, Barack Obama, to deal with the chemical war crimes of Bashar al-Assad.
Yet others took issue with Trump’s expressed emotion. They argued that it was an unconsidered basis upon which to base decisions of gravity.
But this is far from the point. Even in Wolff’s critical telling, Trump’s emotional engagement prompted, not a knee-jerk reaction, but ‘wide-eyed interest in all kinds of other military options’.
But Trump is not all emotion. He has a transactional approach, which is applied to most issues, domestic and international.
Trump believes that his son-in-law is the prefect man to solve the intractable Israel—Palestine conflict because he is a man of business and, like Trump, can make ‘great deals’. This sunny prediction is very unlikely to come true and may make undermine traditional diplomatic efforts.
Trump has taken this transactional approach across the Middle East, notably in assessing the internal politics of Saudi Arabia. He and Kushner are close to the kingdom’s crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman.
This has been extensively documented. Trump applauded new arms deals and appreciated being given a lavish reception at a summit in Riyadh. He also endorsed the Saudi attempt to, in Wolff’s words, ‘bully Qatar’.
Wolff adds little to this picture of Trump, which is widely known and anticipated, except some detail about just how much Trump and Kushner celebrated bin Salman’s rise to the office of crown prince, to the detriment of the previous occupant of that office, Muhammad bin Nayef. ‘We’ve put our man on top!’ Trump is said to have crowed.
Aside from such stand out moments, which one should probably treat with a lot of caution, the book has little new in it. Instead, it further furnishes a view of Trump as unpredictable, led by his immediate appetites and aversions, and hemmed in by a White House in perpetual chaos.
None of this is news. Wolff’s book says the expected; anyone could have come to the same conclusions about Trump’s Middle East policy merely by observing events. The president has few hidden depths, after all – something which needs no chronicler to confirm.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.