- - Thursday, January 4, 2018


Washington is a circus with many rings. If you’re bored with Robert Mueller’s pursuit of Donald Trump’s Russian friends, which doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, there’s always a new chapter in the president’s verbal duel with Rocket Man in North Korea.

This week there’s a new book out (there’s always a new book out), which promises tales of fire and fury at the White House and delivers mostly the fevered imagination of a New York columnist determined to shred what was left of his reputation after writing earlier bombshells with wet fuses.

The book, actually called “Fire and Fury,” purports to tell the inside story of the fraternity-house water-pistol fights at the Trump White House, and is rife with lurid tales as if told by idiots, full of sound (not fire) and fury, signifying great entertainment that is important only if true.

A headline in The Washington Post, which is always on the scout for something belittling to say about the president, puts it squarely in the emerging capital consensus: “Michael Wolff tells a juicy tale in his new Trump book. But should we believe it?”

With his tweets and erratic presidential style, the president encourages everyone to believe almost anything, but Michael Wolff has a reputation for making stuff up. Fake news, someone has called it. The author occasionally says so himself. A senior editor at New Republic magazine once said that “even Wolff acknowledges that conventional reporting isn’t his bag. Rather, he absorbs the atmosphere and gossip swirling about him at cocktail parties and [on] the street.”

His prose, the New Republic editor said, “is a whirlwind of flourishes and tangents and asides that often stray so far from the central point that you begin to wonder whether there is a central point.” And this: “If he lived anywhere but in the middle of the New York media world they would say the emperor has no clothes. He can’t write. He doesn’t report.”

His reliability has been challenged before, writes Paul Farhi of The Washington Post, and he cites Wolff on Wolff describing his earlier life as an internet entrepreneur: “How many grievous lies had I told? How many moral lapses had I committed? How many ethical breaches had I fallen into? I was in a short-term mode.”

A writer with a reputation like that might not be taken seriously in Chicago or Cleveland or Sacramento, but for the Washington circus the ringmasters are always searching for material, and Mr. Wolff and his book are likely to survive through the weekend news cycle. He can cry all the way to the bank, because there’s a market for entertaining stories of Trump trivia, authentic or not, and the appetite for fancy in the home bubble of Trump Derangement Syndrome is voracious.

The president’s lawyers sent a cease-and-desist order to Steve Bannon, source of some of the book’s most fantastical tales, and to Mr. Wolff’s publisher on Thursday, demanding an apology and a retraction, neither of which is likely and would accomplish only a spike in sales of the book.

The president should reconsider his urge to strike back, and take the oldest advice that a politician ever got: “When your enemy is killing himself, get out of his way.”

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