Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1376, (11-17 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Unfit to govern?

Wolff’s Fire and Fury marks the heaviest blow Trump has received since taking office, reports Khaled Dawoud


Unfit to govern?
Unfit to govern?

The White House had been hit by a bombshell book that portrayed it as a hive of discord, dysfunction and farce, and the president himself as ignorant, capricious and clinically unfit for high office. 

Michael Wolff, the writer of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, claimed that he depended on over 200 interviews with inside sources close to the US president, topped by his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon. He also claimed that he spoke to Trump for over three hours at the White House, which was denied by Trump in several angry comments made about the book.

The book raises questions on Trump’s mental health, especially that it came out only a few days after Trump bragged about the size of his nuclear button in a bizarre exchange with the leader of North Korea. 

“His stability,” Carl Bernstein, a veteran Washington Post reporter best known for his work on the Watergate scandal, told CNN, “that’s really what this book is about.”

In an interview with NBC on Friday, Wolff said that the key conclusion all the sources he interviewed agreed on that Trump was unfit to fill the post of US president. “They all say, ‘He is like a child,’ and what they mean by that is he has a need for immediate gratification,” the author said. “It’s all about him.”

The book depicts chaos and conflict in the administration, even worse than many suspected. At the centre of the intrigue was Bannon, the hardline nationalist who helped put Trump in the White House.

Bannon spilled the beans to Wolff with stunning candour. He described the decision by Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, to meet a group of Russians at Trump Tower during the 2016 election campaign as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic”. He predicted that the continuing investigation into alleged collusion with Moscow would run and run: “They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.” And he called Trump’s daughter Ivanka “as dumb as brick”.

On the Middle East, Wolff claimed that Trump boasted about engineering a coup in Saudi Arabia, elevating the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman to the post of de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom, considering his father’s ailing health.

In Trump’s first foreign trip abroad in May, he visited Saudi Arabia where he secured a $110 billion arms deal for the US. The Saudis threw a $75 million party in his honour and drove the first family around in gold golf carts, according to the book.

Despite a long-standing relationship between US intelligence agencies and former Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Nayef, the book claims that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, developed a relationship with the 32-year-old Mohamed bin Salman.

Bin Salman was invited to visit the White House in March 2017. The book reported that he “was using this Trump embrace as part of his own power play in the kingdom. And the Trump White House, ever denying this was the case, let him.” Bin Salman allegedly promised Trump the deals that would be announced during his scheduled visit to Saudi Arabia.

As for Trump’s blind bias to Israel, ending up with his decision a month ago to recognise occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal capital”, the book claimed this came under the influence of Bannon’s racist, pro-Zionist views. According to Wolff, Bannon suggested a very old Zionist formula reiterated by late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, to solve the conflict. “Let Jordan take the West Bank, let Egypt take Gaza,” says Bannon in the book. “Let them deal with it. Or sink trying,” he added.

Bannon is quoted as saying that major American-Zionist donor Sheldon Adelson and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were “all in” on the plan, though whether this relates to Jerusalem and the US embassy or portioning out the occupied territories is left unclear. 

The proposed Jordan-Egypt solution highlights the extreme right-wing axis that has dominated Trump’s Middle East policies in his first year in office. It is an alliance that Netanyahu appears to have cultivated with the assistance of Adelson. All three operate under the premise ascribed to Bannon that “the further right you were, the more correct you were on Israel.” 

According to Wolff’s book, Trump came to the conclusion that his predecessors, especially Barack Obama, had gotten the Middle East all wrong. So, he should do the opposite. According to Trump, there are only four Middle East powers that need to be taken into account: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. The latter three could be guided to form an anti-Tehran alliance, and everything else was negligible. 

The barrage of damning revelations caught the White House off-guard. The Washington Post reported: “Trump spent much of the day raging about the book to top aides, officials and advisers said… As he fumed, some aides were still frantically searching for a copy of the book, and even senior aides like [Hope] Hicks had not seen it by the afternoon, officials said.”

Said by the White House spokeswoman to be “disgusted” and “furious”, Trump launched a failed legal attempt to block the book and wasted little time in brutally disavowing Bannon. Usually he is content to hammer foes with a vituperative tweet – not this time. The White House released a bilious 266-word statement that played down Bannon’s role in Trump’s electoral success and declared: “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”

In August 2015, Bannon, a former naval officer, investment banker and film-maker, boasted that he had turned the rightwing Website Breitbart News into “Trump Central” and joked that he was the candidate’s hidden “campaign manager”. He hosted Trump for friendly radio interviews and, in August 2016, took over as chief executive of his long-shot presidential campaign.

However, Bannon repeatedly criticised Ivanka and her husband, Kushner, chronicled by Wolff in lurid detail. After seven months, he was ousted as chief strategist and returned to his perch as executive chairman of Breitbart.

He reportedly continued to speak to Trump by phone. Officials say the last such conversation happened in early December. Around the same time, the Bannon-endorsed Roy Moore – accused of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls – lost a US Senate special election in the Republican stronghold of Alabama, raising serious doubts on Bannon’s status as a so-called “strategic genius”.

In a tweet Friday, Trump said Bannon “cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!”

After facing sharp attacks from Trump’s few remaining loyalists, Bannon sought to take a step back, calling Trump a “great man”. He also denied describing Donald Jr as “unpatriotic”, and claimed that he was referring to other key figures in Trump’s election campaign.

Wolff’s book has revived speculation about the state of Trump’s mental health. Several commentators brought up the possibility of applying the 25th amendment of the US Constitution, which allows a majority of the cabinet and vice-president to remove the president by deeming him “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.

Wolff’s book describes Trump as “post-literate – total television”. In another passage, Wolff recounts how Trump repeats himself with greater frequency. Whereas he used to repeat, “word-for-word and expression-for-expression”, the same three stories every 30 minutes, now it is within 10 minutes.

In another anecdote, Wolff wrote in a column for the Hollywood Reporter: “At Mar-a-Lago, just before the new year, a heavily made-up Trump failed to recognise a succession of old friends.”

Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin, proposed legislation to create a commission that would determine whether the president was mentally fit for office, noting that Trump’s behaviour was “increasingly delusional”. He told CNN: “It’s a very dangerous and unstable situation as a number of Republican senators have themselves observed”.

In comments that are unlikely to have the desired effect of quelling speculation over his mental health, Trump said Sunday: “Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart…I went from VERY successful businessman, to top TV Star… to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius… and a very stable genius at that!”

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