The 45th president is out of office and Michael Wolff has brought his Trump trilogy to a close. First there was Fire and Fury, then there was Siege, now there is Landslide. The third is the best of the three, and that is saying plenty.
Three years ago, Trump derided Fire and Fury as fake news and threatened Wolff with a lawsuit. Now, Trump talks to Wolff on the record about what was and might yet be, while the author takes a long and nuanced view of the post-election debacle. Wolff describes Trump’s wrath-filled final days in power.
Aides and family members have stepped away, leaving the president to simmer, rage and plot with Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and other conspiracy theorists, all eager to stoke the big lie about a stolen election. Giuliani calls Powell “crazy”. Powell holds Giuliani in similar regard. “I didn’t come here to kiss your fucking ring,” she tells the former New York mayor.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is elsewhere, hammering out the “Abraham Accords”, seeking to leave his mark on the world with some sort of step towards Middle East peace. Hope Hicks, a favorite Trump adviser, has gone. Two cabinet secretaries of independent wealth, Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao, say adiós. As with hurricanes and plagues, the rich know when to head for high ground.
Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s fourth and final press secretary, is awol. Even Stephanie Grisham, Melania Trump’s ultra-loyal chief of staff, has resigned rather than bear witness to the president’s implosion in the aftermath of the deadly assault on the US Capitol.
Wolff’s interview with Trump is notable. It is held in the lobby at Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort to which Trump retreated. The club’s “throne room”, in the author’s words, is filled with “blond mothers and blond daughters, infinitely buxom”. Fecundity and lust on parade. A palace built in its creator’s image.
The interview is an exercise in Trumpian score-settling. He brands Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor brutally fired from the transition in 2016, a “very disloyal guy” – apparently as payback for a debate preparation session that stung Trump with its ferocity, laying bare his vulnerabilities as others watched.
Christie told Trump what he didn’t want to hear about his handling of Covid-19. He bandied about expressions such as “blood on your hands” and “failure”. He also reminded Trump that while Hunter Biden, his opponent’s scandal-magnet son, was a one-off, there was a whole bunch of Trump kids to target. Their father was unamused.
Turning to the supreme court, Trump lashes out at Brett Kavanaugh and John Roberts, the chief justice. Trump accuses Kavanaugh of lacking courage and vents his “disappointment” in his most controversial pick for the bench. Under Roberts, the justices refused to overturn the election. So Trump had little use for them. He also takes aim at the Republican leader in the House. Apparently, Kevin McCarthy’s abject prostration still left something to be desired.
Trump calls Andrew Cuomo, now New York’s governor but once, in a way, Trump’s own lawyer, a “thug”. He has kind words for Roy Cohn, another Trump lawyer, before that an aide to Joe McCarthy in the witch-hunts of the 1950s who wore that four-letter word far better. But he’s long dead. Bill Barr, the attorney general who made the Mueller report go away but wouldn’t back the big lie and resigned before the end, fares badly.
Trump laments four years of “absolute scum and treachery and fake witch-hunts”. Introspection was never his strongest suit. “I’ve done a thousand things that nobody has done,” he claims. Landslide homes in on the bond between Trump and his supporters. Wolff sees that the relationship is unconventional and organic. Trump was never just a candidate. He also led a movement: “He knew nothing about government, they knew nothing about government, so the context of government itself became beside the point.” The bond was rooted in charisma. Trump was “the star – never forget that – and the base was his audience”.
Landslide acknowledges that Trump’s efforts to overturn the election were born of his disregard for democratic norms and inability to acknowledge defeat. His legal and political arguments wafted out of the fever swamps of the fringes. As drowning men lunge for lifebelts, so Trump, Giuliani and Powell clung on.
Wolff is open to criticism when he argues that the path between the 6 January insurrection and Trump is less than linear. Those who stormed the Capitol may well have been Trump’s people, Wolff argues, but what happened was not his brainchild. Six months ago, Trump also put distance between himself and the day’s events. Not any more.
Trump has embraced the supposed martyrdom of Ashli Babbitt, the air force veteran who endeavored to storm the House chamber, where members were sheltering in place.
“Boom,” he said on 7 July. “Right through the head. Just, boom. There was no reason for that. And why isn’t that person being opened up, and why isn’t that being studied?”
Beyond that, ProPublica has produced a paper trail that supports the conclusion senior Trump aides knew the rally they staged near the White House on 6 January could turn chaotic. What more we learn will depend on a House select committee.
Wolff also fails to grapple with the trend in red states towards wresting control of elections from the electorate and putting them into the hands of Republican legislatures.
Trump’s false contention that the presidential election was stolen is now an article of faith among Republicans and QAnon novitiates. Ballot “audits” funded by dark money are a new fixture of the political landscape. Democracy looks in danger.
Trump tells Wolff his base “feel cheated – and they are angry”. Populism isn’t about all of the people, just some of them. As for responsibility, Trump washes his hands. On closing Wolff’s third Trump book, it seems possible it will not be his last after all. All the trauma of 2020 may just have been prelude to a Trump-Biden rematch.