Insider Tell-Alls Are Common. This Timing Isn’t.
Posted January 5, 2018 9:05 p.m. EST
Updated January 5, 2018 9:06 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — In President George W. Bush’s last year in office, his former press secretary, Scott McClellan, wrote a tell-all book concluding that the Iraq War was a “serious strategic blunder” based on the “ambition, certitude and self-deceit” of a White House that was not fully honest with the American people.
The president’s remaining advisers were livid at what they considered the betrayal of an aide who had been with Bush since his Texas days. But when Dana Perino, who then held the same spokesman’s job, expressed her indignation, Bush sighed and told her to find a way to forgive McClellan or risk being consumed by anger.
Forgiveness is not exactly President Donald Trump’s first instinct, as he made clear this week when a new book quoted his former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, offering his own harsh judgments about the White House where he once worked. Every president, it seems, goes through the spin cycle of former aides and revelatory books — some they write themselves, others they are quoted in — and every president has to find a way to grapple with the questions of loyalty and candor that invariably arise. Trump chose blunt force.
What is different about Bannon’s stark assessments in Michael Wolff’s new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” is not that a former aide would speak out, but that it would happen so early in a presidency. Most books of this sort appear later in a president’s tenure, or even after its end, not before the one-year anniversary. But then again, Trump’s White House has burned through staff members so quickly that the usual patterns have accelerated dramatically.
In a way, what is shocking about the book is that its depiction of a capricious, uninformed and erratic president is not really all that shocking. Indeed, while the White House and various others challenge the accuracy of specific episodes in the book, its broader portrayal largely squares with the journalistic coverage of the past year based on the president’s own staff.
Many readers and viewers have become numb to the stories after watching them play out in public day in and day out. Twitter has made it clear that Trump veers wildly from subject to subject, fight to fight. Fact checkers have made it clear that he has a strained relationship with the truth.
Bannon is quoted in the book saying things that other advisers have said confidentially for months — that the president is stunningly undisciplined with no patience or interest in learning and is driven by intemperate, sometimes absurd motivations. At one point, Bannon describes Trump as acting “like a 9-year-old,” an observation that has power not because it was unique to those who worked for the president but because it is now on the record in Bannon’s name.
The phenomenon is so universal that it is a wonder any White House is surprised anymore when someone who sat in the next chair during staff meetings in the Roosevelt Room one day becomes the next day’s featured character in the window of Washington bookstores like Kramerbooks or Politics and Prose.
Indeed, Trump, of all presidents, should know what to expect given his predilection for making employees sign nondisclosure agreements, a practice he brought from the private sector to his 2016 campaign and the subsequent presidential transition.
But other than security reviews that sometimes limit what a former administration official can write in a book, no one has yet figured out a way to muzzle White House aides from telling their stories after departing the West Wing, either in first person or through authors such as Wolff.
Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter, James Fallows, wrote a trenchant piece in The Atlantic Monthly called “The Passionless Presidency,” portraying his former boss as a good man but an ineffective chief executive. Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, wrote a book describing an amiable but inattentive and unsophisticated president whose funny math disguised rising deficits.
Perhaps more vexing for Reagan was the score-settling memoir of Donald T. Regan, his second chief of staff at the White House, who was pushed out during the Iran-Contra scandal. Regan’s revelation that Nancy Reagan had influenced the president’s schedule based on advice from her astrologer infuriated the president. “The media are behaving like kids with a new toy — never mind that there is no truth to it,” Reagan wrote in his diary.
There actually was. Just as there was truth to the sometimes unsettling depiction of Bill Clinton’s White House by his former senior adviser, George Stephanopoulos, whose memoir described his disillusionment with a president who recklessly risked his policy agenda for extramarital sex. When that book was released, Stephanopoulos’ former White House colleagues stayed away from the launch party lest they risk Clinton’s ire. Leon E. Panetta may hold a record of some sort by writing two tell-all memoirs of his time in two presidential administrations 43 years apart. The first was a scathing description of his service as a civil rights official under Richard M. Nixon that ended when Panetta was pushed out. The second was a more respectful but at times unflattering portrayal of his experiences as CIA director and defense secretary for Barack Obama, whom he deemed smart but vacillating and overly cautious.
Other advisers have told their stories to authors, as Bannon did. Paul O’Neill, who served an unhappy tenure as Bush’s first Treasury secretary, gave interviews and documents to author Ron Suskind for a searing account of a White House where tax-cutting, neoconservative ideology pushed aside evidence and contrary views. Bush, O’Neill concluded, was “a blind man in a roomful of deaf people.”
Bob Woodward’s many books have benefited enormously from tales of former aides freed from the shackles of service, usually not attributed directly to them but often clear enough to the presidents who read with seething anger.
As irritated as Trump may be with Bannon’s apostasy and Wolff’s book, he may need to get used to it. Just one year in, Trump faces many years of books to come.
He may not have to worry much about Sean Spicer, his first White House press secretary, who has remained loyal and is now working on a memoir — although to be sure, no one in the Bush White House initially thought they had to worry about the ever-loyal McClellan.
Trump may have more to wonder about with Omarosa Manigault Newman, the veteran of “The Apprentice” who left her White House post noisily last month saying that as the only African-American woman of prominence on Trump’s team, she had seen things “that have upset me.” She added ominously, “It is a profound story that I know the world will want to hear.”
And then there is James Comey, the FBI director fired by Trump last year and trashed by him on Twitter ever since. Comey has a different understanding of the meaning of loyalty than the president does. His book is due out May 1. Its title: “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.”