Siege: Trump under Fire by Michael Wolff – review

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The Trump presidency began as reality TV, with a cast of loud-mouthed, dim-witted chancers embroiled in histrionic tiffs. Then, capitalising on Trump’s threats to Kim Jong-un, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury prospectively upgraded it to a war movie. But the nuclear fulminations were only bluff, and Trump soon began to exchange endearments with the chubby North Korean despot, having been told that he might qualify for the Nobel peace prize.

The world didn’t end after all, and the anticlimax has forced Wolff, in this new account of later developments, to think again about the Trump show’s genre. Siege reclassifies the hapless administration as a comic opera, calls the president a clown, and makes his rants and tantrums sound absurd not alarming.

To keep us quaking, Wolff gives his gossipy narrative a militarised title: we are asked to imagine Trump holed up in the White House as his enemies, armed with subpoenas, close in. Yet this is not the siege of Mafeking, let alone that of Leningrad. The war of attrition waged by Wolff and his fellow journalists has hardly worn Trump down; he retains the freedom of the air, tweeting out a daily barrage of lies and insults and jetting off to stoke up bigots in midwestern arenas or embarrass foreign heads of state who wince as they welcome him on to their soil.

Mostly Siege retells scandalous stories that are pretty familiar, with few fresh disclosures. Despite the indiscreet tattle dribbled into his ear by the disgruntled Steve Bannon, Wolff has no idea what arcane surgical procedure (or impasse in nuptial negotiations?) kept Melania in hospital for a week last summer, let alone how Putin managed to reduce Trump to the status of a brutalised cur during their confidential colloquy in Helsinki.

The book does have some sharp insights about Trump’s mental deficiencies. Wolff diagnoses narcissism and megalomania, but adds that Trump, despite his keening self-pity, is too imperceptive about people and incurious about their motives to suffer from paranoia. Others rely on incredulous expletives, not clinical jargon, when characterising him. Sean Hannity, the Fox News demagogue who spends hours on the phone with Trump each day, calls him “totally fucking crazy”; Nick Ayers, after briefly rehearsing to replace John Kelly as his chief of staff, flees in horror from a man he allegorises as “Mr Fucking-totally-out-of-his-mind-crazy”.

We knew that Trump was illiterate, and now in a neat symmetry Wolff discloses that he is innumerate as well. “Dysfunctional and inept”, he “can’t walk down steps”, and “doesn’t know how to use a phone”. Insecurity assails this hollow man, who even resents the fact that his adolescent son Barron, elasticised by a sudden vertical spurt, is about to overtake him in height. “How do I stunt his growth?” he often asks as he recoils from the Oedipal beanpole.

Such malevolent blabbing reveals that Trump is all id, “unable to control his own running monologue”. Wolff also suggests that he has “no solely private thoughts”, which is why he is “almost never voluntarily alone, and absolutely never alone and awake without the television on”. His head, it seems, is a reverberantly empty boom box, a woofer surmounted by a teased orange tea cosy.

Trump’s compulsive mendacity is also astutely analysed here. No ordinary political fibber, he’s too intellectually clumsy to dissemble and prevaricate. Untruths, Wolff argues, are his metier and his business strategy, and they insulate him in an alternative reality. The Art of the Deal, in which even Trump’s name on the title page counts as a lie, might have been called The Art of Fiction if Henry James hadn’t got in first. This professional fraudulence makes Trump shameless and in a way blameless: it’s hardly his fault that his followers gobble up the whoppers he feeds them. “He really might,” says Wolff with a shudder, “be a genius.”

At this point the book’s genre switches to sci-fi. What if this “strange organism” with its “uncanny ability to survive every threat” is some kind of unkillable force, like the xenomorph in Alien? Wounded multiple times, Trump has never “bled out”. Even Bannon believes in his “magical properties”, while Trump keeps his guarded distance from the monster he has created by referring to himself in the third person. It’s a relief to learn that, once at least, his coiffed, confected, permatanned persona unravelled and exposed him as nothing more than a senescent baldie: the morning after the Fox pundits ganged up to attack him for reneging on his border wall, he arrived in the Oval Office in such a ferocious tizz that “for a moment, his hair came undone”.

‘Shameless and blameless’: President Trump at a White House reception
‘Shameless and blameless’: President Trump at a White House reception. Photograph: Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images

That’s all the comeuppance Wolff can provide. But he speculates impatiently about how the fiasco will end – with a faked heart attack, or a doleful ultimatum delivered by Ivanka? Perhaps with another bankruptcy, if some possibly dodgy money-laundering loans are uncovered? Bannon predicts that, whatever the scenario, Trump “won’t go out classy”.

Wolff, who admits to a “train-wreck fascination with Trump”, was hoping for a catastrophe to coincide with his book’s publication, and reserved his final chapter to deal with the indictments he expected Mueller to issue. Disaster-movie tropes accordingly menace the last pages: the runaway train is about to derail, the aeroplane’s wings are coming off. However, thanks to Mueller’s legalistic caution, Trump didn’t crash and burn, so a flustered Wolff has to apologise for one more anticlimax.

He concludes with the kind of teaser that entices television viewers to stay tuned, assuring us that Trump’s “escape, such as it was, would be brief”. There is no reason for the verb’s subjunctive mood, which implies that Wolff already knows what will happen next: his self-destructive subject has so far proved indestructible, which is clearly frustrating.

All the same, Wolff can afford to be cheerful. With retribution postponed, he now has an excuse to write a third money-spinning volume.

Siege: Trump Under Fire by Michael Wolff is published by Little, Brown (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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