It is unheard of for a US president to try to suppress a book he dislikes – but his coterie has been working overtime
Trump's fire and fury reaction in trying to block an explosive new book is unprecedented
It's been a long time since any work has shaken Washington as powerfully as Michael Wolff's new bombshell book Fire and Fury.
This disturbing profile of the first six chaotic months of the Donald Trump administration isn't going to be culturally transformative in the manner of Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, which defined the ethos of the American Revolution, or on a par with Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1851 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which made the moral case against slavery and laid the groundwork for the Civil War.
But its immediate impact has already redrawn the American political landscape. The alarming revelations could reverberate through the upcoming midterm elections and potentially haunt the White House well beyond them.
Mr Trump denounced the book as "phony" and "full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don't exist". His tweets are no longer shocking. What is unprecedented, however, is that Mr Trump, through his lawyers, demanded the publisher Henry Holt and Co "cease and desist" from publishing the book or any excerpts or summaries and issue "a full and complete retraction and apology". It is unheard of for a US president to attempt to suppress a book he dislikes.
Clearly Mr Trump is deeply disturbed by its contents. That is understandable.
The book portrays Mr Trump as unfit for office, ignorant and incompetent, deeply neurotic and surrounded by friends and family who all recognise this and unanimously describe him as a "child". According to Mr Wolff, not only did Mr Trump not expect to win the presidency, he didn't really want to. And those around him, especially his wife, were horrified when he did win. As the election results poured in, however, his narcissism kicked in and he became convinced he was the ideal man for the job.
Statements by Mr Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon are particularly damning and relations between them appear irreparable. Indeed, Mr Bannon's viability as a political activist has probably been destroyed, especially since he has also been publicly and bitterly repudiated by his main financial patrons, the Mercer family.
With his political alliance with Mr Trump and bankrolling by the Mercers angrily withdrawn, Mr Bannon appears to be heading back to his former role as a fringe white nationalist agitator. Those traditional conservative Republican leaders such as Mitch McConnell, whom Mr Bannon had vowed to oust, must be cackling. The civil war in the Republican party, which was already being won by the establishment, may well have just ended in crushing defeat for the white nationalists.
A few surviving white nationalist types in the administration like Stephen Miller retain some influence on limited issues, primarily immigration. But the alt-right faction might never fully recover from the downfall of their champion.
Mr Trump seems most enraged that Mr Bannon used the words "treasonous" and "unpatriotic" to describe the infamous June 2016 meeting at which his son Don Junior, son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort attempted to acquire damaging information on Hillary Clinton from Russian operatives.
Mr Bannon suggests that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation will uncover evidence of Russian money laundering involving Mr Trump's closest associates. In the United States, commercial property is often used to launder dirty dollars because of relatively lax disclosure requirements regarding such purchases. Indeed, Mr Manafort and his associate Richard Gates have both already been indicted by the Justice Department for money laundering.
Mr Bannon specifically points to Mr Kushner's "greasy" dealings – especially with Deutsche Bank, from which he borrowed US$285 million to buy a building. According to the Guardian, this notoriously unwise investment was purchased from "a Soviet-born oligarch whose company was named in a high-profile New York money laundering case".
Mr Bannon told Mr Wolff: "They're going to roll those two guys up and say play me or trade me. They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV." The implications of his prediction are unmistakable: that Mr Mueller will use mounting evidence of money laundering and serious criminal charges to "flip" Mr Kushner and Mr Trump's son, just as he has already done with Mr Trump's former national security advisor Michael Flynn.
The only way Mr Bannon's statement makes sense is if Mr Kushner and Mr Trump's son can be implicated in criminal money laundering deals with Russians; that Mr Trump himself is also legally vulnerable to various substantiated charges; and crucially, that his son and son-in-law have information that could lead to the president’s criminal indictment or, at the very least, political downfall.
Mr Trump and his coterie have recently been working overtime to undermine Mr Mueller and his investigation and impugn his motives. Mr Bannon’s statements, which seem to confirm the worst suspicions about Mr Trump and his inner circle, and predict his forthcoming downfall – at the hands of his own son, no less – certainly account for the president’s rage and declaration that his former strategist has “lost his mind”.
Meanwhile, Mr Bannon doesn’t deny anything in the book, yet professes undying loyalty to Mr Trump, calling him “a great man” and insisting that “I support him day in and day out”. It is, after all, necessary to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back.